Stories and Lies
“Plenty wholesome Titan blood in his veins. Need a tube? To siphon it off? Lady says you needs a tube. Plenty tubes inside that brass-arse man.”
Pythia the Oracle had meant to stay aloof – not to get involved. Now she shoved her way towards Xyno with a view to slapping him. She who had made a lifelong study of human failings but had never met the equal of Xyno. “What have they ever done to you for you to hate them so much?”
Xyno sniffed his mittens which still carried the delectable scent of hippocrene. “Xyno just likes to please,” he said whiningly, and chafed his body against Typhon’s leg. A stray dog on the streets of the world, Xyno had always attached himself to the passer-by most likely to keep him in bones. There was nothing to be got from gentle Talos, from impaled Prometheus; and so he had thrown in his lot with the Prince of Darkness, gambling on the biggest, most powerful person around.
Panacea was appalled. Her efforts to save Talos had simply set the pack baying for Prometheus’ blood instead, as well as the destruction of Talos. Her cheeks paled. Her cunning faltered. Monstro swarmed over Talos looking now for a seam that would open, a way into the intricacies of his insides, so as to rip out his metal guts.
The Prince of Darkness picked up Xyno and held him absently in the crook of one arm. Seeing this, it occurred to Hylas that the Prince had a new favourite: Hylas was no longer Typhon’s lucky mascot.
“Do something, Hylas!” said Thoősa.
“I don’t know. What would Heracles do?”
“Kill everybody in sight. Why don’t you think of something? You with all your stories.”
So Thoősa did just that. She looked to her stockpile of stories, and finding nothing there, she spun a new one. What’s one more story, in a world with so many?
“The Herb of Immortality,” she said as if announcing the title of a story. Ears twitched, heads cocked. “On the day Zeus stole power from the Titans and banished the sun from the sky…”
The noise of banging on brass tailed away. “Herb? Did she say Herb?” queried the giants, slow on the uptake.
“… and banished the sun from the sky, the world was covered in darkness, and the Herb of Immortality withered for lack of sunlight. Without it, the mighty race of Giants grew one day older, two days older… Their hopes withered, just like the Herb. Their immortality was gone. Their deathless days were done.”
It was not a story to the giants enjoyed hearing: they knew it all too well. They eased the clubs in their hands. Thoősa was sweating so much with fear that her feet slid and slithered on Talos’ chest. She took a deep breath before plunging onwards into the Lie.
“But there was one place – of course there was! – where Zeus could not banish sunlight – where the blossom still blossomed, the bees still danced, the honey trickled in the hive and the Magic Herb still grew. And shall I tell you why?”
Like trees in a high wind, Monstro listed towards the girl on her platform of brass.
“Because Zeus was too afraid!”
The cyclopses, still tinkering with rivets in the side of the Bass Man were kicked into a silence by their comrades.
“There stood Hera, shrieking at him, gabbledy-gee, gabbledy-gah – fit to slice open his head. Zeus pretended to ignore her, secretly trembling in his shoes, because wives? …well, aren’t wives the scariest thing in the whole Greek alphabet?”
The Echidna gave a grey raucous belch of laughter, and all Monstro joined in, because there is no joke funnier than a hen-pecked husband.
“Gabbledy-gee, gabbledy-gah! You play your little game of hide-the-sun, if you want to. But you spoil my garden - you let my flowers die – and so help me, Zeus, when I’m done with you, you’ll think Titan Kronos got off light!
The giants were cheering now, cracking their knuckles and hoping the story would end with Zeus and Hera coming to blows.
“So when the Sunless Days came, Zeus did not dare to let the plants die, up there in Hera’s garden at the World’s End: he was too afraid of what Hera would do to him! So. He fetched a basket of used sunbeams and took them up to the Garden of the Hesperides. He pegged them up in a row, like washing, on a tree. They shone bright as day. So, although the Sun was hidden, the melons in the Garden still sweated, the lilies still trumpeted, even the Apples of Knowledge ripened a little. So there it was, and there it is now: a place with butterflies and birdsong. A place with a herb garden. All gone-to-seed now, it’s true. (Hera never sticks at anything for long: she hardly goes there these days.) The orchids and the sea squill run rampant, just like weeds. And so does the Herb.”
Ladon reared up his head, outraged, incredulous, blustering denial: “No! What? No! I would know! I would have seen…” But how could he say for sure? he who had no clue what the Herb of Immortality looked like; he who had never thought of looking.
“That is what you are guarding, Ladon,” Thoősa explained “Hera told you it was the golden apples of the Hesperides, but it is really the Herb. You don’t believe me? Let’s go there. Let ‘s go now. All of us. Not just the giants. Plenty there for everyone. No open veins, no poisoning, no painful metal rods. No murdering your friend or defiling a Titan god! Just a herb salad to nibble on. What’s a year? What’s a few months? Won’t it be worth it if, once you get there, none of you grow one day older?”
Two hundred giants who had wandered the woods and heaths of three continents searching for the Herb, watching their skin wrinkle and their eyesight dim, closed their lids now and pictured a Garden – a Paradise – overrun with acres of Magic Herb….
Ladon the Dragon had set off already: without so much as a farewell. He had to know! He just had to begin the tedious return journey to his patch of boredom and hayfever at the World’s End. He had to find out if it was true: whether all these years he had been guarding the Herb of Immortality.
Typhon saw half his army lose their resolve then and there, pondering the possibility.
“I am the pyre of Zeus!” he bawled, as the cyclopses discussed the Herb between themselves and the Furies huddled together like a leathery skin tent, whispering.
Within the crook of Typhon’s arm, Xyno gurgled scorn, murmured reassuring words – “Lies. Nothing but lies” - as his cunning brain searched for a way to regain the advantage. Then he sat up. “If she’s telling it true like it is…,” he crooned to Typhon, pausing to lick wax out of a nearby ear, “why don’t mighty Typhon send the speedy woofer Laelaps to fetch some of this Herb? Runs like the wind, that dog. Be back in a blinking. Then we’ll know, quick sharp.”
Thoősa froze with terror. To be found out in a lie a year from now – to be torn to shreds a year from now - that she was ready for. By then at least her lie would have achieved something! But send the Laelaps, and the dog would be back within the hour, empty-mouthed.
An hour is a useless little rag of time.
Over the heads of the crowd, Panacea studied Thoősa’s frightened face, and saw that the story had been a lie. It occurred to her what a fine job Prometheus had made of modelling mortal Humankind. To have science and knowledge in your head is useful, but to have courage enough to risk your life for the sake of your friends – that is truly astonishing.
“No need to send the Laelaps,” said Panacea loudly. Again that matter-of-fact, scientific tone of voice. “I know Thoősa is speaking the truth. Lately I sent my snakes for mandragora, and they came back with the Herb.”
In one bound Xyno pounced on to a low-hanging Titan skull and bobbed there, just above the heads of Monstro. “She found it but she kept it from you!” he yapped, foaming at the mouth with triumph. “Get it off her!”
The stampede was instant. The leopards were faster than any one, and although Panacea swung her wallet across her body, they bowled her off her feet in their eagerness to have the contents. Both halves of Blob were trampled underfoot and shattered into dozens of white bubbles.
But if Xyno expected to see the Doctor’s daughter torn limb from limb, he was thwarted by the big black shape of Xanthus. The horse’s inexpressible devotion to the Panacea saw him pulling the mob off his with long teeth and kicking them in the head. Panacea climbed up on to Xanthus’ back – her bare feet on its broad rump.
“True! True! And how does Xyno know that?” she shouted above the noise of the mob. “When my snakes brought it to me, I did not know what it was - I had never seen the like. That is why I showed it to Xyno there. He must have known, or why else did he eat it out of my fingers – umphf – just like that? What does it taste of, dog-face? What did the Herb taste like? Tell everybody, won’t you?”
“Liar! Liar!” barked Xyno.
Typhon shook himself, whip-cracked his flexible necks, so that Xyno was flung to the ground.
Stheno the Gorgon stalked closer; her snaky hair cast a wriggling shadow over him where he lay winded and gasping. “Easssy to tell if it wassss the Herb,” she hissed. “Immortality would make him proof againsssst poison!”
Curiosity brought all manner of monsters shambling over. They badly wanted to know if the Herb was truly still growing. But more than that they liked to see things die. Typhon’s heads hovered over Xyno.
Xyno rolled on to his back and stretched himself out, head arched backwards, jaws open wide enough to showed the ribbed roof of his big mouth. All his teeth were very sharp and yellow. They thought he was going to scream for help, but he simply gave a long, noisy yawn. He always thought faster when there was a lot at stake.
“ ’Fore you test out my allergicity to poison,” he said to the nearest of Typhon’s skulls; “ ’Fore your so-called army wanders off looking for weeds, or dies of decrepityudinity… what say you do what we come for? Get the job done. - Oh, you’ll get no help from the kettle man. Nor the gutless one on the wall. You can leave them outa this. But us rest - us who know what we want and take it… What say we finish Zeus first? Easy done. Nuffin to it.” The heads blinked and bobbed. Embers glimmered in the working nostrils. Xyno yawned again. “What Xyno says is this: Send the Laelaps. Can’t fail. Send the Laelaps to fetch us down a part of Zeus. His throat, for a for instance. Or the heart out of his chest.”