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Micon staggered across the rocks towards the entrance of the cave, his arms clutching their beach-combed belongings to his breast. Behind him, the sound of Philippus hauling the fallen tree through the rock pools was just audible over the smacking of the waves and the distant crash of salty breakers. He wondered what Nadina was doing but couldn’t turn his head for fear of losing his balance. She’d directed him towards the cave with the promise of a boat and an escape from their weeks of exile on her island, but as he stepped closer to the dark void in front of him he started to wonder whether this was a good idea. Was she luring them to their deaths? He swallowed and nervously shuffled around on the last rock to check what was happening behind him. The setting sun shone pink light on the craggy cliffs they had picked their way down whilst a lone gull balanced on the last of the day’s thermals. He watched as Philippus wrestled his battered tree across the sea-worn obstacle course, cursing and gasping with the effort. The warmth, brightness and raw power of the scene contrasted with the forbidding cool, dark stillness of the cave. He glanced over at Nadina, still clutching the war spear of Ares like a staff, still gazing out to sea. She didn’t look like she was about to kill them in the cave, but then again he wasn’t sure what to expect from a beautiful, powerful nymph who had been his pet frog at breakfast time. It had been that sort of a day.
Philippus huffed his way up to him. “What’ve you stopped for?”
“You look like you need a rest.”
“I’m fine,” said Philippus, before breaking into a hacking cough. “A bit thirsty though. How much water have we got?”
Micon glanced down at the ramshackle horde in his arms. “Just the one skin. The other one had a hole in it.”
“That’s not going to last very long for three of us out at sea, miles from anywhere. I could drink half of it now.”
“Well it’s all we’ve got and you’ll have to make do with just a sip.”
“Yeah, I know. Come on then, let’s get in the cave and find that boat.”
Micon sighed and glanced first at Nadina and then at the cave. “You don’t think it’s some sort of trap? Getting us down here by promising us a boat and then…”
Philippus looked at him askew. “You were the one who was all in favour of trusting her. You were the one convinced she was warning us of Hera when she was a frog. Why have you gone all wobbly now?”
“You’re scared of the cave aren’t you?”
“It’s not that. Well, not entirely…”
Philippus rolled his eyes. “Oh for Poseidon’s sake.” He grabbed at his tree and pushed past Micon, stepping down in to the shallow waves that lapped and sucked at the base of the cave mouth. He had barely taken two steps towards the cave when a large wave began barrelling in from the sea to the channel leading up to the entrance. The two sailors could only stare slack-jawed as the wave appeared to sprout a large dorsal fin and a gaping mouth full of triangular teeth.
From the corner of his eye, Micon was aware of a flash of sunlight on bronze, a billowing pale cloak and a streak of wood and metal. The War God’s spear smacked into the forward flanks of the shark with such force that the bronze head burst through the other side, carrying with it bloodied grey flesh. The shark’s eyes rolled back in its head and the tightly pulled mouth relaxed. It coasted up to Philippus’s shaking legs, slowly listing to one side, blood beginning to darken the previously clear waters. Philippus staggered backwards, trying to fend off the shark with his tree.
“Wha… what the… How?” he gasped, before settling on the more evocative, “Shit!”
Micon blinked. As much as his legs were in danger of giving way, he was in no mood to get his torso any closer to the water. His entire body seemed to be shaking with the effort of not falling over.
Nadina leapt gracefully on to a nearby rock and stepped down into the water. She took hold of the shaft of the spear, placed a foot on to the floating corpse and slid it free. More blood and entrails dripped from the wound and the weapon, splattering into the waist-deep water and over her arms and cloak. She turned her head, still enclosed in Ares’ war helmet, to stare at the men. “Get. In. The cave.”
They gawped at her.
Their limbs suddenly fired into life and they hopped and splashed into the dark recesses of the cave like the manic marionettes of a palsied puppeteer.
After several splashed strides into the gloom they paused and looked back towards the entrance. Philippus placed his hands on his knees and swore at his feet. “What the four shades of shit was that?”
“It, er, looked like a shark,” croaked Micon.
“I know it looked like a tossing shark,” snapped Philippus, “but sharks don’t just rush up out of the water like that. And it was a huge bastard. Never seen one like that before. What in Hades just happened?”
“It was a trap set by Zeus,” explained Nadina as she entered the cave, dragging the tree behind her. “You dropped this.”
Philippus ignored it. “A trap? So you knew about it and let us walk straight into shark cove without even a word of warning?”
Nadina had the grace to look embarrassed. “I am sorry. I didn’t know for sure. When I have come here in the past I have felt wary, as if danger lurked just out of sight, but I didn’t know what it was, or even if anything would happen. I just needed to be prepared.”
“I felt something too,” said Micon. “I had a bad feeling about going any nearer to the cave. It’s why I stopped on that last rock.” He turned to his crew mate. “Didn’t you get any dodgy vibes?”
Philippus shook his head. “I just wanted to get in the cave and stop hauling that sodding tree.”
Nadina placed a hand on Micon’s shoulder. “It could be that by feasting on the flesh of immortals you have become more sensitive to the works of the gods, as well as their presence. You should pay attention to these feelings – they may save your life.”
“Oh great,” muttered Philippus, “you’ve just given our easily-frightened friend an excuse to jump at every shadow.”
“We’re surrounded by shadows.”
“And how do you feel?”
Micon paused. “I’ve definitely had more relaxing days.”
“Me too, mate, me too.” Philippus took a deep breath and turned to face the inner depths of the cave. Now that their eyes had become more accustomed to the darkness he could make out a rocky tunnel that slowly curved around to the right. “Okay then, warrior nymph, where’s this boat then?”
Nadina stepped forward and leant her head close to Philippus. “I would appreciate it if you would deign to address me by my name and not use sarcastic epithets.”
Philippus nodded slightly. “Right. Noted. Sorry, um, Nadina.”
She held her stare for a second longer and then acknowledged the apology with a dip of her head. “Thank you.” She strode off down the tunnel, her shins splashing through inky water.
Philippus picked up his tree and whispered to Micon, “I wasn’t being sarcastic. She IS a warrior nymph.”
Micon watched her and nodded. “I’m glad she’s going first this time.” A troubling thought struck him. “Nadina!” he called out. She stopped and turned back to them. “What if Zeus set other traps?”
She shook her head. “Zeus was not the sort of god to think deeply about things. Big shark, job done. I doubt we’ll see any other surprises.”
The two sailors looked at each other. “I’m not sure I share her confidence,” said Philippus.
“Me neither,” agreed Micon.
“Let me know if you get spooked. I mean,” he continued, before Micon could say anything, “proper unusual vibes, not just your normal levels of panic.”
“Fine, but I’m not sure how to tell the difference.”
“Well you’re going to have to learn fast. I don’t want to face another supernatural surprise any time soon. Come on, let’s get going before we lose our happy spear maiden.”
They splashed after her into the darkness.
Eris stomped along the faint path that led away from the small copse of slender trees and further still from the freshwater pool and clearing where she had expected to find her father. Or someone. Anyone. She was beginning to feel as if she’d been played for a fool, walking all this way for nothing, surrounded by dusty scrub, bushes and scraggy trees. She may have been the goddess of Discord but she hated being on the receiving end of a prank. Her mother had always told her that if she couldn’t take it, well, perhaps she shouldn’t dish it out. She fumed, blood rushing to her cheeks with just the thought of being tricked. She was in such a bad mood she almost missed the sudden rustling of undergrowth to her left, a faint moaning accompanying the movement in the bushes. The young goddess stopped and held her breath. A head appeared above the foliage, a hand to one temple.
“Mother?” said Eris, not quite believing what she saw.
Hera looked up in shock, eyes wide as she focused on her daughter. “Eris? What are you doing here?”
“Still looking for Father. Did you find him?”
“Ah, no, no I didn’t.” Hera attempted to tidy some unruly locks of hair and regain a little of her normal regal bearing as she extricated herself from the bushes.
Eris pursed her lips and looked at Hera askance. “Are you sure you haven’t seen Zeus recently?”
Hera snapped a harsh glare at Eris. “No. I haven’t seen your father for some days, but that’s not uncommon. We both know what your father is like.”
“I know precisely what my father is like,” agreed Eris, “as likely to strike his queen as seduce someone else’s.”
“Well,” said Hera, pulling herself straight, “I neither know nor care about the latter, but he has not dared cause me physical harm in aeons.”
Eris smiled slyly. “Well if he hasn’t, who has?” With a fluid movement of fingers and wrists she conjured a polished mirror into Hera’s hands. Her mother slowly brought it up to her face and her mouth gaped as she beheld a purple-bruised eye and a mountainous red lump on her left temple.
Hera touched her bruised face with her fingertips and could feel the heat and tender tightness of the wound. Her left eye was also starting to close up.
“So?” asked Eris, impatient as ever, “who hit you?”
“Hmm?” replied Hera, trying desperately to appear nonchalant. “No-one. I… I must have flown into a tree.”
“Flown into a tree?” repeated Eris. “Mother, do you think I was born yesterday?”
“No, dearest daughter, of course not. I, er…” she rapidly reviewed her options for the story she had to tell and decided to stick close to the truth because she was still feeling too groggy to lie with genuine style. “I came here, like you, to look for Zeus. I thought I could cover more of the island with greater discretion if I took the form of a dove. Perhaps I am a little out of practice, but I appear to have collided with this tree.” She finished with a bashful smile and indicated the tree behind her. The one she had been perched on, watching the idiot sailor and his sling when everything went black.
“Hmph. Looks more like a punch in the head to me,” muttered Eris.
“Darling daughter, perhaps I should launch you at a tree trunk and then we can compare wounds?”
Eris folded her arms and pouted at the ground.
“Good. Now,” continued the Olympian Queen, “one of the reasons I may have hit the tree is that I was distracted by the presence of two mortals on this island.”
“Mortals?” repeated Eris with surprise. “Who? And what are they doing here?”
“Shipwrecked sailors, apparently.”
“Weird. The only mortals I can imagine Father allowing here would be to sate his sexual urges.”
Hera pulled a thin smile. “He does like a bit of variety. Although,” she said, remembering the scruffy, smelly state of the scrawny sailors, “even he would draw the line at this pair.”
The young goddess of strife swished around the bushes in thought. “So, have you asked them if they have seen Father?”
“My dear, I can’t simply manifest myself to them! I, Hera, Queen of Olympus? Show myself to shipwrecked sailors? It is beneath my station. And besides, they are likely to believe me to be some form of hallucination, caused by illness or hunger. Perhaps… no, I couldn’t.”
“Couldn’t what?” asked Eris, intrigued.
Hera knew how to play her daughter: simply hint at her being deprived of knowledge. “I was wondering whether to ask Psyche to follow them around the island, see what they get up to, if they mention anything about Zeus, that kind of thing.”
“Psyche?!” spat Eris. “That dippy cow?”
“She’s very curious and gets answers.”
“Ha! Eventually! How long was she sleeping with Eros before she realised who he was. She’s an idiot.”
Hera sighed and nodded. “Perhaps you’re right. We’ll just let the sailors get on with whatever they’re doing.”
“I’ll do it.”
“Do what, dear?”
“Spy on the sailors, find out what they know.”
A benign smile spread across Hera’s battered face. “Bless you, child. But you should pick a form that allows you to get close without being discovered.”
“Like a dove?” asked Eris, pointedly.
“If you like,” replied Hera, refusing to take the bait.
“And I will make sure I keep my eyes open for painful trees.” With a twinkling smirk Eris raised her arms above her head and folded down into a bronzed sparrowhawk. She swept upwards into the blue sky of early evening on the hunt for her mortal prey.
Hera watched her slowly dwindle into the deepening blue. “That’s right, darling daughter. You keep a clumsy eye on our god killers, while I keep an eye on you.” She was deeply concerned about her injuries. That shouldn’t happen to a god. But somehow, while she was a dove, she had been knocked out cold and now she sported a black eye more at home on a drunken mortal. She needed to see what those sailors were doing and whether they might do anything to Eris. Jaw set in determination, she transformed into a gull and set off after her daughter.