Micon slowly dragged his eyes away from the severed head of the dead swan and followed the trail of blood back to the cave where Philippus was already yanking clumps of gleaming white feathers out of the decapitated carcass.
He staggered to his feet and walked warily towards his friend. “It really did talk to me.”
Philippus glanced up at him and raised his eyebrows.
“It did,” Micon insisted, “it said it was Zeus and he’d just been, um, having sex with some queen”.
“Sure it did, Micon. We’ll believe you.”
“Yeah, me and my invisible friend here. He’s called Outis. He thinks you’re a nice bloke but suffer from an over-active imagination.”
Micon looked around nervously.
Philippus smirked. “And he says you’re too gullible.”
“Oh, ha ha.” Micon raised a foot and prodded the swan’s body with his bare toe. “So, it’s really dead then?”
Philippus nodded. “Yeah, they don’t make immortals like they used to, do they?”
“Piss off. I know what I heard. That’s not a normal swan.”
“Whatever, it is, it’ll soon be a roasted swan. And talking of piss…” Philippus indicated the wet patch on Micon’s tunic.
He looked down and became aware of the fact that his bladder had emptied at some point in the confusion and terror. It was probably the point when the bird had reared up above him and revealed that it was actually Zeus, king of the gods of Olympus. He sighed and decided he’d better rinse his tunic before Philippus made any more wisecracks.
While his friend returned to enthusiastically ripping the corpse of Zeus into clouds of down and pimpled pale flesh, Micon made his way down towards the fresh water pool that had sustained them through the weeks after their shipwreck.
As he walked shakily down to the water Philippus called out, “If you’re going for a walk we could do with some more wood for the fire; this is going to take an age to cook.”
Micon muttered a curse under his breath and stomped off, following the slowly flowing stream that trickled from their pool across the small island to the sea. This was not how he had envisaged spending the summer. And until the great swan had appeared, he had started to think that they would never leave the island alive. A storm three weeks ago had dashed their small trading vessel on the rocks off the far end of the island and they were the only survivors. No other ships had been seen since and they were surviving on a diet of roots and insects.
He daydreamed about where he should have been: sailing the Aegean with cargoes of olives and wine, perhaps some precious gems and prized bronze; seeing the glories of Mycenae, Knossos and Troy; and hopefully a few ladies of negotiable virtue in some of the ports. Generally, all the adventure a young man could want. Instead, he was slowly starving to death on a deserted island in the middle of nowhere with his smart-arse friend who had somehow managed to slice off the head of Zeus and was currently planning to feast on an Olympic-sized drumstick.
A thought struck him. Surely, gods didn’t tend to let themselves be killed and eaten. He thought about Philippus vigorously pulling feathers out of the swan and decided that if it turned into a reanimated angry deity he didn’t want to be around when it happened. Then decided that it would be worth it just to see the look on his friend’s face. He shook his head in disbelief at recent events, undid his leather belt and chucked his tunic into the water to wash away his embarrassment and trauma.
Philippus had finally finished plucking and stretched his arms and back. It had been incredibly tedious and his initial enthusiasm had quickly given way to bloody-minded determination to get it finished and start the roasting. As he rubbed his aching hands he decided that there were too many feathers on a swan. He glanced at the soft, white debris lying around him and wondered if they could be used instead of the rudimentary leaves, grass and moss they had laid down in the cave as bedding. After all that effort he didn’t want them to go to waste.
He picked up the swan carcass and carried it into a small cave a short distance from the one they used as shelter. The natural spring that fed the pool seemed to have its source towards the rear and the cave was always cool and dark; an ideal place to leave the swan while he built up the fire. He covered it with some fresh leaves to keep insects off and headed into the trees to find firewood and sticks that could serve as spit and frame. He paused briefly, gazing in the direction he had last saw Micon heading and wondered what was keeping him.
Micon stood naked next to his linen tunic as it dried on a tree branch, twirling his belt in his hand. It was a gift from an uncle when he was fifteen and although it looked like a long leather thong it actually doubled as a sling. With one end tied around his wrist, a stone placed in the wider section that served as a pouch when in belt mode, and the loose end held in his fingers, Micon had become reasonably proficient in scaring the wildlife in the countryside around his home. He had actually scored some hits over the years but more by luck than skill. He would have tried to make more use of it on the island, if only there had been some game he could hunt. Instead, small sparrows, frogs and the odd glimpse of a mouse were all they had seen. Still, he mused, perhaps now was a good time to practice. He selected a smooth stone from the stream, placed it in the pouch and looked for a test target. Having decided on a small bush about thirty paces away he gave the sling a couple of over-arm twirls and released the end. The stone thumped into the ground just five paces in front of him. He definitely needed more practice.
The wood pile was looking reasonably healthy as Philippus dumped his latest armful and brushed his hands.
“You! Come here!”
Philippus jumped in alarm as the voice rang out. He looked around wildly and spotted an old man in a raggedy hooded robe gesturing at him with a withered finger. Several confused thoughts ran around his head as he cautiously stepped nearer to the stranger. Finally, he managed to articulate one of them. “Who the blazes are you?” It was followed rapidly by a few others. “Where have you sprung from? Are you living on this island? Why haven’t we seen you before?” His face brightened. “Have you got a boat?”
“Silence!” The old man surveyed the scene, apparently looking for something. “My name… is not important. Who are you and what are you doing on this island?”
Philippus was just a little put out by his first contact with a new person for almost a month. He seemed to be a very tetchy old man. But then again, in his experience most of them were. “I’m Philippus, a merchant sailor. We… I was shipwrecked a few weeks ago.” He wasn’t sure whether keeping Micon’s presence a secret was a good thing, but he had a bad feeling about all this.
The old man cocked his head. “Shipwrecked, eh? Hmm. Have you seen anything… unusual in the last few hours?”
He was making Philippus feel very uncomfortable and he folded his arms to stop himself fidgeting. “No, no, not really. Did you, a-ha… have, um, anything… specific in mind?”
The stranger snorted. “Who can tell?” he muttered to himself. He placed his hands on his hips and looked around at the pool as it rippled gently in the late afternoon breeze. “Alright, so specifically, either a very large man, probably naked, with a big beard…”
Philippus pursed his lips and shook his head.
“… or a swan.”
Oh crap. “A, er, ahh, a swan, you say?” Philippus began making exaggerated shrugging movements. “We don’t really see much wildlife here. Definitely not swans.” He shook his head to reinforce the point.
“Where in Hades has he got to now?” grumbled the old man.
“Sorry?” said Philippus, “is there a problem?”
“Oh, just that I was supposed to meet someone here.”
“Meet someone… here?” he asked incredulously.
“Oh sod it!” said the old man impatiently, raising his arms in exasperation. “I can’t do all this skulking about in disguise nonsense. I know the others get a big laugh out of fooling the mortals but I really can’t see the point.” He shimmered and rippled and before Philippus could do more than gape the old man had been replaced by a huge bronzed warrior complete with helmet and spear.
Philippus swallowed. “You’re Ares!”
The god of war turned back to the wobbling mortal and smiled. “Yes. Yes I am.” And he flexed his muscular body so that the sun glinted off all available angles. “I was supposed to meet Zeus here a short while ago but I was delayed by a bit of burning and pillaging that cropped up at the last minute. You’re sure you haven’t seen a great big white swan? He was a swan when I saw him last. Stupid idea but Poseidon had bet that he couldn’t do it. And he wouldn’t have, if I hadn’t helped a bit. What are all those white feathers?” he asked, pointing at the cave entrance.
Philippus very nearly passed out with fright but somehow recovered enough to reply. “Oh, those feathers? Well, they are… for my… bed.”
“Where’d you get ‘em?”
“Gulls? Sea birds?”
“Er, yes. From their nests. And stuff.”
“Can’t abide ‘em. Bloody noisy buggers.”
“Quite.” Philippus’s mind was racing. Ares was not the sharpest sword in the scabbard but surely he would figure it out eventually. But he was also surprisingly vain. A plan began to form to keep the god from thinking about Zeus. “Can I just say,” he began, “that I found your transformation very impressive.”
“Did you?” said the god, gruffly.
“Yes, it was amazing. Going from a wrinkly old man to the one and only awesome Ares, with all your armour too.”
Ares affected a nonchalant shrug, but Philippus could tell he was making progress.
“I bet the other gods aren’t anywhere near as impressive as you.”
The Olympian began to visibly shine with a reddish glow. Philippus was fairly sure it was a deliberate display and not some kind of god blush.
“Can you do any other transformations?” he asked.
Before he had time to blink he was confronted by an enormous brown bear, all claws and teeth, muzzle held high and dripping saliva. It gave a short, throaty roar. A small part of Philippus’s brain noted that he shouldn’t make any more comments to Micon about bladder control because his own had quite clearly deserted him. “That… that’s really good. Absolutely terrifying. Very ‘you’. Erm… I don’t suppose you do anything smaller?”
Micon was ambling back through the wood, the still-damp tunic over one shoulder, sling around his neck and a small pile of sticks in his arms. The sound of a roar rushed through the trees and made him freeze in mid stride. What in Elysium was that? Surely there were no large animals on the island. Perhaps Zeus had come back to life and was seeking retribution. Or maybe it was just Philippus dicking about. He quietly put the sticks on the ground, placed his tunic on top of the pile and crept forward.
“This is actually my favourite,” said the god, strutting around in the form of a huge wild boar with its head held high. “Do you like the tusks?”
“They’re amazing,” replied Philippus, wondering how long he could keep this up. He had hoped the god would get bored and bugger off back to Olympus but he seemed to be enjoying himself. Perhaps he should rein in the compliments, but a happy, distracted, vicious god of war seemed preferable to the alternatives.
As he crept nearer to the clearing by the pool, Micon thought he could hear voices. It didn’t sound like Philippus was talking to himself and if it was Zeus back from the dead… well, he seemed quite cheery about it. He caught glimpses of movement and slowly pulled a branch out of the way. He goggled at the large black boar trotting around the clearing, vicious tusks pointing aggressively skywards. He spotted Philippus several paces nearer the cave, apparently rooted to the spot in urine-soaked fear. Micon didn’t know where this beast had come from but if he didn’t act soon his friend would be impaled on porcine ivory. He glanced down and saw a smooth oval stone, just the right size for his sling.
Ares cantered across the open ground and came to a halt in the shade of some trees. As Zeus obviously had better things to do than meet up here, Ares thought he really should be getting back to Olympus instead of showing off to a single smelly mortal. He toyed with the idea of killing the human while still in boar form but the man had been very complimentary and attentive, so perhaps he’d spare him. Something white on the ground caught his eye and he strolled over to get a better look. It was the head of a startled white swan. Just then, movement in the trees caused him to look up and see a naked, bearded man waving his arm.
“Zeus?” he asked, just before a perfectly aimed stone shot from Micon’s sling and smashed into his skull. The boar sank back on to its haunches and toppled over.
Philippus stared at the sight of the magnificent god of war, crumpled up like a slaughtered sow. He glanced back at the swan feathers and came to a decision. Running forwards he reached the boar and checked for signs of life. A rustling noise came out of the trees and he whipped out his knife. Micon appeared with a big smile on his face. “Saved your life!” he said.
“What, you did this?”
“Yep. Best sling shot I’ve ever made. Where did this monster come from?”
“Hang on,” replied Philippus as he began sawing his knife into the pig’s neck, “I just need to get this head off in case he wakes up.”
“Who wakes up? It’s dead. Nothing could come back from a blow like that.”
“I’d feel happier if he didn’t have a head on,” said Philippus as he continued hacking away at flesh and muscle. Blood was pooling around his knees as he worked. “Help me roll him over.”
“What is it with you and decapitation today?”
With a final slice of the blade through vertebrae the boar’s head lolled across the ground. Philippus looked up at Micon. “I’m sorry I didn’t believe you earlier about the swan and Zeus.”
Micon shrugged. “To be honest, I’m not sure I know what happened. It was all over so quick.” He looked down at the dead boar. “So what made you change your mind? The sudden appearance of a big pig?”
Philippus stood up and gestured to the boar. “Allow me to introduce the magnificent Ares of Olympus.”
Micon stared at him. “I’ve just killed a god?” The colour drained from his face.
“Not just a god, the God of War. He’s got a really big spear. I think he dropped it over there.”
“What are we going to do?” whimpered Micon.
“Well I’m going to get cleaned up and then we’ll address the main question for the evening.”
“Which is?” asked Micon.
“Pork or poultry? Get that fire started, I’m bloody ravenous.”