The sun beat down on the rocky island, a mottled green and grey outcrop surrounded by a glittering sea that displayed to the solitary figure standing on the island’s cliff edge a complete absence of passing ships. The early afternoon heat was too much for Philippus and, abandoning his fruitless search for flapping sails or the waving oars of galleys, he made his way down from the cliff tops back to the shade of the cave that overlooked their only source of fresh water, a spring that fed a crystal clear pool surrounded by trees and reeds. With any luck, Micon would have caught one of the fish that they briefly glimpsed plucking insects from the surface. But, the fates had not been smiling on them for some time and he doubted it would have changed in the last few hours.
He trudged down the path the two of them had worn into the earth over the past three weeks, glumly trying to ignore the rumbling from his stomach. He was so lost in his own thoughts that he failed to see Micon until he’d practically walked into him. Philippus was about to exclaim his surprise when he realised that his friend was frantically gesturing for him to be quiet. He responded with a silent questioning look – they were shipwrecked alone on an uninhabited island, why on earth should they be silent?
Micon leaned close and said in a whisper, “It’s a swan!”
“What is?” replied Philippus, wondering whether Micon had decided to escape from the island by simply going mad.
“Down at the pool. A bloody great big white swan!”
“Where did it come from?”
“I don’t know! From the sky I suppose. Must have spotted our pool and swooped down for a drink.”
Philippus peered around Micon but couldn’t see anything; they were still a short distance from the cave and the view over the pool. “So why are you here and not keeping an eye on it? Or better still, catching it and sticking it on the fire for some dinner?”
Micon took a step backwards and pointed a finger at him. “Because I knew some great oaf was going to come galumphing down the path any minute and scare the bugger off.”
“Hmmph. Fair enough. So are you going to show me this swan then? That’s if it’s still there of course.”
Micon nodded, put another finger to his lips, turned and took exaggerated tip-toe steps back down the path. Philippus shook his head and ambled after him. As they approached the cave, Micon crouched down behind a bush and signalled Philippus to do likewise. They carefully peered through the leaves and saw the swan, standing on the mud next to the pool, preening its feathers.
“Bloody hell, you’re right!” whispered Philippus. “How are we going to kill it?”
Micon turned to face Philippus with a shocked expression. “Kill it? Why do you want to kill it?”
Now it was his friend’s turn to look shocked, and not a little confused. “Because we’re slowly starving to death, trying to eat bugs, worms and the odd frog. It wouldn’t be so bad if we could only catch some fish. But that,” he said, pointing at the swan, “will keep us going for a week, maybe more. Why the hell don’t you want to kill it? Aren’t you hungry?”
“Of course I’m hungry!” hissed Micon. “But what if…” He paused, not knowing quite how to phrase his thoughts.
“What if what?” said Philippus, trying hard to contain his annoyance.
“Well, what I mean is… what if it isn’t a swan?”
Philippus stared at his friend. He then peered through the bushes at the swan. It looked very much like a large white swan. Orange and black beak. Little black beady eyes. Lots of white feathers. Two wings and two legs that ended in webbed feet. He turned back to Micon. “Well if it’s not a swan it’s a duck with ideas way above its station.”
“No! Not ‘not-a-swan-but-another-bird’. Not a mortal being.”
“I’m sorry, Micon, you’ve lost me. Say that again but slower.”
“What if it’s a god or something?”
“A god?” repeated Philippus, dubiously.
“Yeah, well, it’s a known fact, innit? Big fancy birds like that, often turn out to be gods.”
“Is it? I hadn’t heard that.” The only thing Philippus had heard recently was the gurgling of his stomach.
“Definitely. Swans are Apollo’s go-to- creature of choice. His sky chariot is pulled by them and he turns all sorts of people into swans, whether they like it or not.”
“Does he? Why?”
Micon threw up his hands, “I don’t bloody know! I haven’t been up to Olympus recently so can’t give you the full briefing on his motivation. He’s a god. He does a bit of divine godding about and he likes swans.”
“So you’re saying that this swan in our pool might be one of Apollo’s?”
Philippus stared at the swan. “What if it’s one that pulls his chariot across the sky?”
“Yeah, could be one of them too,” agreed Micon.
“So, a bit magical then?”
“Goes without saying. Very well known for their magical abilities, them chariot-pulling swans.”
“So what in hades is it doing in our pond?”
Micon shifted uncomfortably. “I dunno. Maybe it got lost.”
Philippus rubbed his straggly beard. “Hmmmm.” He flashed a grin at Micon. “We should catch it.”
“What?! Come on, Phil! If that’s one of Apollo’s magical swans we could get in serious trouble. Like, I dunno, sentenced to lick mould off a mushroom for all eternity in Tartarus!”
“Compared to my diet over the last few weeks that sounds like an improvement. Look, if it is Apollo’s swan then we can maybe rescue it and return it to him and he can get us off this island. Or, if it really is magical and capable of pulling a chariot across the sky, perhaps, if we grab a leg each, it will fly us back to the mainland.”
Micon thought hard about this, clearly concerned about interfering in the ways of the immortals. “But what if it’s not one of Apollo’s after all?”
Philippus smiled wolfishly. “Then we get a nice slap up dinner.”
They quickly hatched a basic plan that involved approaching the swan from opposite sides of the muddy shoreline, Micon holding the swan’s attention while Philippus crept up from behind. “I’m not going to sneak up all the way,” he explained, “because it’s likely to spot me before I get really close, so I’m going to have to sprint the last bit. I just need to stop it from taking off and it’ll need a good run up to get airborne. Big fat bird like that.”
Micon thought he saw a glint in his accomplice’s eye but said nothing as his friend began to make his way back up the path and round to his position behind the swan which was still preening itself regally. Once he was sure that Philippus would be in position, Micon began to edge slowly forward. He was ten feet clear of the bushes and thirty away from the swan when the massive bird looked up and saw him. It turned to face him and took a step forwards. A rumbling hiss came out of its open beak.
“Oh, great swan!” he cried, “I beseech you! If you are a beast of the gods, please help me!”
The swan took another step towards him and spread its wings, the feathers catching the glinting sunlight, the effect like a brilliant white cloak billowing out behind a supernatural being. Micon thought that he had never been so terrified in all his life.
And then a sound cut through the fear, straight into his head without feeling the need to bother his ears. It seemed like deep, bass laughter. And it was followed by a deep, bass voice: “Oh, puny little mortal! How pathetic you are! No wonder your women are so unresponsive!”
Micon realised that his earlier terror was some way below this new level of abject dread and his bladder agreed, a pool of urine gathering beneath his quaking knees. He looked up at the swan in awe. “Are… are you one of Apollo’s mighty chariot-movers?”
The swan appeared to shake its head in amusement and the voice joined in with a chuckle. “Apollo? No, not such a lowly position. Let me tell you how I, Zeus, king of the gods of Olympus, assumed this comely form with the softest of feathers to seduce the beautiful Queen Leda. Ha! You should have seen me! I’d had a bet with Poseidon that I could do it in the form of a bird. Alright, yes, I did have to have Ares hold her down a bit, seeing as I don’t have any hands in this form, but…”
It was at this point that Philippus leapt on to the swan’s back and, with a flash of his knife, sliced through the bird’s long neck. The head fell to the ground while the rest of the body collapsed under his weight. Blood oozed from the two pieces of neck. Philippus grinned and wiped his knife on the back of the swan’s head. “That worked really well. I can’t believe it didn’t see me coming. What were you doing to keep it so occupied?”
“Duh-de-duh…” mumbled Micon as he tried to overcome his shock.
“You… you’ve killed Zeus.”
Philippus sighed and shook his head. “No. No I haven’t. Zeus is king of all gods and farts around on Olympus. If he comes down to earth for a bit of shagging he turns into some great hairy beast like a bull or something. I can imagine him as a lion. Or a wolf. But he is not a bloody swan. What kind of stupid form is that? You’re just suffering from too much hot sun and not enough food. Come on, let’s get this plucked and roasted. I’m starving.”
And with that, he dragged the carcass away, leaving Micon kneeling in his own puddle, staring at the head of the swan, its eyes open and a faint look of surprise still cast on its features.