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Micon’s hands quivered as he took another sip of water from the goatskin. His heart was still hammering away like a demented blacksmith despite it being several minutes since the grinning skull of Xanthius had thrust itself into his face.
“I really did try to stop him,” repeated Philippus.
Micon stared vacantly at the ground in front of him and wiped his lips. Even in the dim bioluminescence of the cavern Philippus could make out the beads of sweat on his friend’s face. Being cooped up on this freaky island with its supernatural quirks for the best part of a month was bad enough but being surprised by the reanimated corpse of an old crew-mate in a dark cave was particularly unnerving. Micon hadn’t taken it well. Philippus tried again. “He was only being friendly.”
“Friendly?” spat Micon, finally turning to focus on Philippus. “He’s always hated me. Thinks I’m useless and no good on a ship. He knew what he was doing and he wasn’t being friendly.”
“Look, he’s basically a harmless bugger and you should rise above his stupid jokes. Don’t lose sleep over it.”
“Don’t lose…?” spluttered Micon, “I doubt I’ll ever sleep again after that vindictive bastard decided to wake me up with a face from a nightmare. Why couldn’t you have cut his head off as soon as he moved? I thought it was your main solution to things these days. And that old goat certainly deserves it.”
There wasn’t much Philippus could say to that, knowing that it was the truth. Xanthius was a typical old sea dog, with a lazy backside and an over-employed mouth. He’d been born on a ship and he’d died at sea, as he’d always wanted, although perhaps a little earlier than anticipated. His favourite pastime was to rib the younger members of the crew about anything and everything and Micon, keen and clumsy as well as naive and bashful, was his favourite target.
Of all the people to shrug off the usually terminal problem of death, thought Philippus, why in gods’ names did it have to be bloody Xanthius?
He turned and looked at the shambling skeleton as it tried to make small talk with the island’s nymph. Nadina stood, torn pale cloak wrapped tight around her with her spear held upright in the crook of her crossed arms. Her eyes never left Xanthius as he regaled her with tales of the open seas and how green Philippus and Micon had been when they first joined the crew. Philippus watched Xanthius place a bony elbow on the gunwale of the replenished Sun Barge and casually adjust his raggedy tunic. A smile tickled his lips as he realised what the old goat was up to. He nudged Micon.
“You’re not going to believe this, but I think Xanthius is trying to chat up Nadina.”
Micon glanced over at them. “I hope she pulls his fingers off and shoves them in his eye sockets.”
Eris had flown over the island for hours, her sharp sparrow-hawk eyes searching for a couple of shipwrecked mortals. There were traces that someone had been living on the island and she had even found what appeared to be their main camp where they had lit fires and evidently eaten some of the island’s natural fauna, although she wasn’t sure what kind of creature would have possessed a lot of white feathers and two fearsome tusks. With light fading she stepped back into her true form and returned to her quarters on Olympus. The search would begin again at dawn.
Hera shook her head at her daughter’s sloppy attempts to locate Micon and Philippus, but at least the pause in the search enabled her to shrug off the form of the gull she had adopted whilst keeping an eye on Eris. She wasn’t sure if it was the bang on the head from earlier in the day or inhabiting the body of a scavenging bird for hours on end, but towards dusk she had begun to crave a meal of regurgitated fish guts. She shuddered at the thought and slipped sideways through the aether to Olympus and a refreshing cup of nectar before a slap-up supper of ambrosia. Topped with a couple of anchovies.
The peculiar rustling and soft clattering of an approaching skeletal sailor pushed Micon to his feet. Without looking at his deceased tormentor he walked away and around the bow of the gently creaking Sun Barge. Xanthius toddled over to where Philippus sat on the ground and proceeded to enact a pantomime of thigh slapping, shoulder punching and a rather odd kind of head bobbing. It eventually dawned on Philippus that this was an attempt at lascivious winking but the lack of eyelids, and indeed eyeballs, made it look like Xanthius had some kind of nervous tic.
“Ey? Ey? Knoworramean? Ey?” he cackled.
“You know. Course you do. Phwoar! Ey?” Xanthius punched Philippus on the shoulder again and slowly collapsed into a pile next to him.
Philippus raised an eyebrow, looked at Nadina and then back at Xanthius. He decided to say nothing. Xanthius grinned manically back at him, although as this was his default expression it was probably wrong to read too much into it.
“Are you and wotserface…”
“Right, yeah, course, Nadina, right. So are you and her like a fing or somefin’?”
For a brief moment Philippus considered stringing Xanthius along but the nagging worry of nymphal disapproval kept him from spinning a sordid tale. The old bugger would want all the lurid details and he didn’t think he was up to the task. Micon was the one with the imagination and love of stories.
“A thing? No.”
“No? Ah, no, course not. Not your type, eh? Not really my type to be fair,” sniffed Xanthius, wiping what was left of his nose on what was left of his arm. “A bit butch, ain’t she? All spears and helmets and muscles. Smooth, powerful muscles. And breasts…”
Philippus looked up at Xanthius who had gone quiet and was gazing into thin air.
“So, not your type either, then?”
“Eh? Oh, no. No. Not at all. But like they say, ‘beggars can’t be choosers. And if the old Xanthius charm works its magic, who am I to say no?”
Philippus stifled a smirk. “So you think she’s taken a shine to you?”
A bony finger tapped him in the chest. “Philippus my lad, let me tell you that I am totally ‘in’ there, knoworramean?”
“I thought you didn’t fancy her.”
Xanthius shrugged. “I can’t help my natural appeal. It’s a difficult job but someone’s got to do it.”
“And you’re the man to do it, are you?”
“Oh yeah. I’d do it. Yeah.”
Philippus clapped him on the scapula (or possibly the clavicle, it was difficult to tell which bony lump was which under the raggedy cloak and tunic). “Xanthius, you have to be the most optimistic man I have ever known. Good luck to you. But before you jump in, you might just want to check whether Nadina has a thing with someone else.”
The old salt’s skull slowly rotated to stare at Nadina as she placed a caring hand on Micon’s shoulder. The two of them were engaged in a close conversation of murmurs and touches. Xanthius’s lower jaw, still held in place by a few remaining ligaments, slowly swung open.
“Micon? That sap?” he eventually spluttered. “I don’t believe it.”
“Oh, you should. Those two have been inseparable for days.” Philippus thought it wise not to mention that for most of that time Nadina had been a frog. Micon had enough to put up with from Xanthius without comments about pond life.
“He makes me feel so small and wretched,” Micon mumbled.
Nadina placed a hand on his shoulder. “I do not like him, he has defied death somehow and this is wrong. And you should not care what this man says or thinks. He is as shallow as Zeus, while you are an ocean.”
Micon managed a brief, tight smile. “Thanks. But I just want to go, get away from all of this.”
Nadina looked up at the cavern ceiling and closed her eyes. “Dawn’s rosy fingers begin their caress of the east cliffs.”
She opened her eyes and stared at him. “The sun rises. It is time to go.”
Micon look around in surprise. “Is it? What about the boat? Is it ready?”
She stepped closer to the Sun Barge of Ra and brushed the reedwork with her fingers. The power of her island had been channelled into the decaying husk of the Egyptian god’s ship and she could feel the vessel come alive. She turned back to Micon. “It is ready.”
For the first time in several hours a proper, wide smile graced Micon’s face. He began to pack up their paltry belongings and stow them away into the barge’s interior. Philippus noticed the activity and came over to help.
“Is it ready?”
“So she says. I just want to get out of here. Grab your cloak and let’s get this thing out to sea.”
Philippus stared at the boat. In his eyes it had shimmered between a golden sky boat of the gods and a broken collection of bound grasses. But a new picture joined the previous two: an organic force of nature, a mutated melding of tree, water and reed.
It looked magnificent, scary, brutal and dangerous.
It also looked bloody heavy.
“Erm. Nadina?” he called, trying to estimate the weight of the vessel and how they could ever drag it through the tunnel to the sea. The small trickle of water that led out to the cove would barely float a stick, never mind a craft of this size.
The nymph appeared at his side. “You are wondering how we are going to get the barge to the sea.”
He gazed at her, head on one side and nodded. “Nothing much gets past you, does it?”
“Having had Zeus to contend with, I found that preparation is everything.”
“So you have prepared for this? Some kind of rope and pulley system?”
She smiled and shook her head. “No. We just ask it to move.”
“You know, that doesn’t surprise me. But do we have to ask in Egyptian or will it understand Greek?”
Nadina raised her voice so that Micon could also hear the instructions. “We need to place our hands on the barge and ask it, within our heads, and with as much politeness and kindness as possible, to move towards the sea.”
“Sort of like praying?” asked Micon.
“If you like. Except in this instance you are touching the entity that you are praying to. And physical contact is important. It provides a direct connection between your will and the boat’s actions.”
The two sailors exchanged glances and shrugged. Micon took up position on the starboard stern while Nadina held on further up towards the bow. Philippus was on the port side close to the stern.
“Now,” said Nadina, “ask this royal Sun Barge of Ra to move towards the sea.”
Micon closed his eyes and wished with all of his might. Please, please move to the sea. For a few moments nothing happened and then there was the faintest of creaks. And another and another. Then a scrape and a groan and the whole vessel began to slide across the floor towards the tunnel to the sea.
There wasn’t much room to spare at points but the barge continued its progress towards the cove until they were up to their knees in salty water and squinting in the early morning sunlight. Philippus stood back to examine the state of their ship now that it was in the water. It wasn’t completely off the bottom of the cove yet but it was bobbing up and down in an encouraging manner and there didn’t appear to be any leaks.
A rattly voice behind him interrupted his checking. “Are we off somewhere or sumfin’ then?”
Micon came striding down to meet Xanthius, a furious look in his eyes and cheeks flushed with emotion and adrenaline. “WE are off, yes. But YOU are staying here.”
The skeleton stared at him and rubbed his bony fingertips together. “Oh. I just thought…”
“Thought what? That you could carry on bullying me even though you’re supposed to be dead?”
Philippus had never seen a skeleton look contrite before. But he’d never seen one standing up having a conversation either.
“Bullying? Micon, mate, I didn’t mean to bully you. I just thought we was having a laff. You shoulda said somefin’. You’re a great lad and dint mean you any disrespect or nuffin’. I promise won’t say another word against you. Specially now that you’ve got a hot bit of totty keeping you warm.”
Micon blinked. The last bit about totty completely threw him off his anger-fuelled rant. “Eh? What?”
Philippus stepped in before Micon could get back on track. “Xanthius, why do you want to come with us? I thought you were at peace in the cavern, waiting for Charon.”
“Well, yeah, I was. But then you showed up and you’re all I’ve got left of me old life. You’re me crew-mates. I can’t leave you. We’re like brothers or somefin’. We’ve gotta stick together. I promise, I’ll do my share and I won’t say a word against any of yous. And seeing as I’m dead I won’t need no rations or nuffink neither. And finally,” he continued, counting points off on his fingers, “you’re nicking Charon’s boat.”
“It’s not Charon’s. It belongs to Ra,” said Philippus.
“Who the bloody chuff is Ra?”
“Never mind,” said Micon, rubbing the back of his neck. He stared at Xanthius with a tight expression before turning to look at Philipppus, then the Sun Barge and finally at the dark mouth of the cave. He let out a sigh and let his shoulders drop. “I’ll probably regret this, but alright, you can come with us.”
“Are you sure about this?” asked Philippus.
“Not entirely. I think I just needed to get a few things off my chest. And he did once save me from being washed away in my first storm at sea.”
“Cor, fanks Micon!” said Xanthius. “You are a true sailor and it’s an honour to be your crew-mate.”
“And if he misbehaves,” continued Micon, “Philippus, you can cut his head off and we’ll dump him overboard.”
Xanthius stared at him, his fixed grin perfectly capturing his baffled thoughts. “Eh? Blimey, Micon, I almost believed you then.”
Micon took at step closer to the dead sailor and looked him right in the sockets. “Oh you better believe it. We’ve decapitated two creatures more powerful than you in the last week. We’ll barely notice one more, will we Philippus?”
“No we won’t. It might take a bit longer though,” said Philippus, “because all that hacking has made my knife a bit blunt. I might have to do some sawing and pulling to get through.”
Xanthius visibly wobbled as he nervously patted at his neck. “Point taken lads, point taken. You need anyfin’ just ask. You won’t get no complaints from me.”
Nadina splashed down from near the bow having hauled Zeus’s dead guard shark out of the way and prodded it gently towards the open sea. She glared at them pointedly. “Are you all done? Can we leave now before…” She stopped herself from mentioning Hera in the presence of Xanthius.
With a mumbled chorus of affirmation and apology the three sailors climbed aboard Ra’s Sun Barge.
Xanthius looked around the interior. There was no real mast and there didn’t appear to be any oars. “How are we s’posed to sail this fing?” he grumbled.
Nadina looked at him. “We just ask it to go and it goes.”
“Alright, but where are we going?”
Micon stood on the bow and stared at the horizon. “Away.”