Ants and Teeth
The closer they came to Olympus the more care Monstro took to camouflage itself.
“Bury the Tin Man,” said Typhon, and his lesser heads nodded and agreed. “Bury him.” “Put him in the ground.”
Talos’ face was not well suited to expressing surprise, but the breath whistled faster in his nostrils. The cyclopses looked at one another and wondered who exactly was meant to attempt it.
“Too shiny.” “Too shiny!” complained Typhon’s various mouths. “Catches the sun.” “Too see-able.” “Give us all away.” “Shiny like that.”
“Who?” said the Giants, hand behind their elderly ears. “Who we talking ‘bout?”
There was more to it than simply the sunlight flaring off brass. Typhon’s command was intended to prove something – everyone knew that: something about Typhon being in control. Something about Talos having to do as he was told. But Talos said nothing. Nothing at all.
Each morning they buried him – in leaf litter or sandy soil, under branches or stones, depending on where they found themselves, and did not dig him up again until dark. It was a nightmarish ordeal for one who has already lain on his back feeling the life leak from his body drop by drop, losing the power of movement. Pegasus, who was claustrophobic, twitched and cribbed to see it. But Talos said nothing. Nothing at all. When it was done, all that showed of him were his nostrils and, between the curled lashes of delicate gold foil, his wide open eyes.
It was in burying Talos one morning that the Giants unearthed the Myrmidons. Ants are a constant nuisance to anyone sleeping on (or in) the ground, but the Myrmidons took nuisance to new heights. The Giants’ axes disturbed a nest between the spreading roots of a cedar tree, and out spilled a swarm of bulbous-headed ants with pincered jaws and fat tail-sacs of formic acid. As the diggers hopped about getting stung, and the Echidna knelt to lick up ants with her sticky tongue, a few – a very few of the largest ants began to swell. Their bodies tilted backwards, their hind legs lengthened, their thoraxes spread, and their growing heads took on the silvery sheen of metal. The pincers were not jaws at all, but forearms, armoured in two-prong gauntlets. Their tiny hips and massive upper bodies gave them a mincing, knock-kneed walk, and fully grown they were only as tall as Hylas. But since they had hatched for the express purpose of fighting, not an inch of them was wasted on thought or finesse. They were all brute strength and violence.
Caught unawares, Monstro scattered like picnickers who disturb a nest of hornets. The centaurs and lapiths pulled their bows over their shoulders and laid their new-made arrows to the string, but they were already hock-deep in insects. The giants gripped tight their axes, but retired to a distance to stand in a stream: it eased their stung feet. They peered short-sightedly at the hundreds upon thousands of ants still funnelling out of the nest.
“Hold your ground!” bellowed Typhon. And somehow a circle formed around an ever-growing host of soldiers.
“What are they?” asked Hylas, his bow at full stretch.
“Myrmidons,” said Balius. “The gods planted ‘em all over, aeons ago, ready for war. Wars various. Set them there like all weapons stores - to give Heroes the edge.”
In the time it took Monstro to sound off with its customary fanfare at the mention of Heroes, another ten ants grew into stocky little killers.
“War climbed out of Pandora’s box – didn’t it Blob. And the Olymps have loved watching it ever since. Their favourite game: watching wars.”
“Watching’s the sport of cowards,” said Balius, and a white sweat creamed out of his flanks and curdled around his battle scars: Balius had been a warhorse once. Xanthus, too, was sweating: his rider had once led a legion of Myrmidons into war.
Another detachment of newborns teetered about on their skinny legs. With the side of his gigantic feet, Talos dragged the earth back into place in the hole, and the flow of insects was finally stopped. Those already unearthed scattered and began a life-long career of biting holes in blades of grass. But those grown into Myrmidons began to snip the air with their pincered gauntlets, rattle their armoured bodies, violently shake their heads. They were working themselves into a fighting frenzy.
“Here’s killing practice for you, Monstro!” snarled Typhon’s princely head, while the lesser ones chanted or yelped or spat fire or swore at the Myrmidon army.
“Or comwades,” said the Brass Man quietly. “They might be comwades.”
The archers hesitated. The harpies, who had lifted one Myrmidon into the air, dropped him again.
“We are few in number for an army,” said Talos. “The more the mewwier, surely.”
Like a kettle of water, the Myrmidons were coming to the boil. A few of them pelted forwards and grabbed the Teumessian Fox by the tail. The lapiths loosed their bows …and found that the new, green-wood arrows were bent and flew in a curve.
“They’re god squad,” sneered the panther. “And stupid. They won’t fight for us.”
“They are nercenaries,” said Talos. “They will vight for who veeds them.”
“Needs ‘em? Typhon the Titan needs no one!”
“Feeds them,” said Thoősa, “Talos says they will fight for whoever feeds them.”
Another fit of frenzy. Hylas’ arrows, sure and true, left a Myrmidon sprawling at the feet of the centaurs who finished it with their hooves.
But the Echidna - cook, mother, ant-eater and seasoned survivor of the Titan wars - reared up on her coiled tail and emerged head-and-shoulders higher than the army. “Talos is right. Myrmidons behind us are a danger. Myrmidons at our side are allies. Riddle for you, riddle for you. What do ants drink? What do ants eat?”
Accustomed to the Echidna answering her own riddles, no one spoke until the Echidna threw her straw hat on the ground and stamped on it in anger. When a Myrmidon with a suicidal need to brawl gave an insane shriek and ran at her, she grabbed it by the throat and held it at arm’s length where its pincers were powerless to reach her. “For Gaea’s sweet sake, will someone tell me what an ant eats!”
Arachne the Spider looked to the Sibyl. The Sibyl looked to Tithonus, (who ought to have known, being as close to an ant as anyone there). But the cricket had too short a memory to recall what ants eat.
“Sweetness,” said Talos deliberately. “Honeydew. Nectar.”
Typhon began to smoke with frustration, his mouths puckering, gurning, swearing, spitting out ash. He gave the order for his army to exterminate the ant-soldiers. But the Echidna simply pressed the Myrmidon trooper to her breast like an oversized baby, and suckled it, exuding sugar as easily as she could milk or paraffin or snake oil. The trooper’s two tiny vestigial legs curled with pleasure.
The rest of the swarm smelled sucrose, too, and their battle fury faltered. By the time they had scampered up and drunk from the pool of sugar-water at the Echidna’s feet, their loyalty was bought. These Myrmidons would not spend their lives in the service of some questing Hero. These ones would fight in the battle for Olympus, on the side of Monstro.
(Not that any Heroes would be left wanting, in years to come. Ants – like wars – swarm afresh every year. There is no stopping them.)
The increase in his army pleased Typhon greatly. But the fact that Talos and his own wife had defied his orders irritated Typhon worse than the insect stings on his splayed feet. His heads could be heard muttering among themselves, griping and egging each other on. He stretched his stride, and the speed of the route-march rose almost to a gallop. Aged giants fell behind. This burst of speed was plainly meant to prove something, as well – Typhon’s superior stamina, tireless energy: the fact that he could outpace the Brass Man.
Unfortunately, within ten leagues, some of his throats began to wheeze, some to cough. Lungs caked by years of cursing-at-high-temperature heaved and swelled inside him, making his ribcage rattle. Talos, meanwhile, showed no distress. Under his breath, he was absent-mindedly experimenting with words and rhymes, alliteration and onomatopoeia. He even mastered the letter M. His mechanical heart made no noise to all.
Typhon came to a halt, breathless. When the Echidna wrapped a sympathetic tail around her husband, he butted her away with several of his malformed heads, and kept on butting until tears of arnica rolled down her face to salve the bruises.
The sight of this stirred such anger in the Brass Man that at last the volcanic stew within him began to simmer. So did his poetry.
“Had Life but given me a mate,
My heart would vind no space for hate;
‘Cos love deserves a loving kiss,
And not a surly, bwutal fist….”
The column of Myrmidons trotted onwards, a picture of military order. The rest of the army came to a bumping, jostling halt. The straggling giants, who had almost lost touch with the army in the dark, saw a distant glow of fire and hurried gladly towards it. They scented testosterone, a smell as sweet to them as sugar was to ants. It was the smell of a fight brewing.
Typhon reeked of it. His thin necks were lashing to and fro – a flogger‘s many-corded whip, each cord ending in a knotty little head. Every throat left streaks of red in the sky: Typhon was breathing fire, and not to light his night path, but to rid himself of a rival. He threw himself at the Brass Man.
Typhon’s bulk barging into him sent Talos staggering backwards, but he did not lose his footing. Out of the corner of his slit-eyes, he saw the snakey hair rise on Stheno’s skull. The panther arched her back. The cyclopses looked at one another. Even with only one eye a piece, they had seen this coming for a long time.
“The Olymps’s are the enemy,” said the Oracle, clear and strong.
The Myrmidons, suddenly noticing a lack of army behind them, turned back at the double.
The Echidna patted Talos’ leg affectionately, as if to say, Thank you for your chivalry, dear, but back down now. Feeling the heat, she snatched her paw away.
Typhon, with his instant, insane temper, barely felt pain as he grappled the Brass man in both arms and tried to pitch him to the ground. “Call that heat? When Zeus took me down, he lashed me with lightning for a thousand years!” There was a smell of scorching fur, and Typhon’s leather arm-brace actually began to burn. The Brass Man stood no higher than the Prince’s waist – an awkward slippery foe to grapple – so Typhon lifted him until their eyes were level. To his ferocious, grinning delight, the heat began to die in, the metal body to cool, the joints to slacken. Typhon’s multitude of mouths took snapping bites at Talos’ razor-sharp hair.
Talos simply looked Typhon in his princely eyes - eyes shivering and unfocussed with frenzy. “You poor creature,” he said softly.
Typhon flung him on the ground. He vomited flame over Talos. Clasping a nearby tree, much as he had the Brass Man, Typhon heaved and rocked it out of the ground. Soiled dripped from the roots as Typhon, raising the tree high like a club, spread his feet for the blow that would crush and buckle brass.
In the dark, one heel overstepped the edge of the hole left by the uprooted tree. Typhon lurched backwards, dropped the tree, and one large bough caught Ladon the Dragon across his flat crocodilian nose. There was a noise like eggs breaking and, when Ladon opened his mouth to protest, an icefall of teeth cascaded to the ground.
Within moments, a hundred delinquent dragon-tooth soldiers were wielding their enamelled axes, running, knees up, in angular zigzags, attacking anything and anyone.
The Myrmidons, seeing their fief lords under attack, pitched in. Their rudimentary brains had no sense of danger. Their small size put them on a level with the tooth warriors. Made by the same kind of careless Olympian magic, Teeth and Ants were evenly matched.
All of Monstro watched the battle from the sidelines, giants chanting, cyclopses stamping: it was fine sport. The females, though, being of a more practical turn of mind, leaned on their knees and screamed at the ruck of brawling soldiers, “Stop it, you fools! The Olymps are the enemy! The O’s are the enemy!”
Neither army felt fear of injury or death. They had no souls, no afterlife. All they had was fighting. Like candles they burned themselves down to the wick, then died. Within the hour, not one was left living. The spectators’ stamping stopped. The chanting fell silent.
“Where are my soldiers?” demanded Typhon, flinging the dead bodies hither and yon.
The army of Monstro had, within an hour, doubled its ranks and shrunk back to its original size.
“See what you done!” snarled Typhon turning his random anger on Ladon the Dragon. Resentment and blood gargled in the back of the dragon’s throat.
“The O’s-s-s are the enemy,” said Stheno the Gorgon. “Let us not fight among ourselves. It is our Fate to defeat the Olymps’s, with or without reinforsssementssss.”
A chorus of quacking, blarting, farting, snorting and neighing agreement soothed Typhon. It was a balm to his scorched ribs, his ruined plans. He glared at Talos triumphantly.
“Is it?” enquired Talos mildly. “Is it our Fate to win? Please tell. I thirst to know.”