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The early morning sun began to hoist itself into the sky and was perhaps surprised to see its namesake vessel bobbing up and down in the aquamarine water a few centuries after it had been stolen. The Sun Barge made steady progress across the undulating sea, Nadina’s island very gradually shrinking behind it.
Philippus and Micon stood at the stern, staring back at their former unwanted home. “I can’t believe we’ve actually escaped,” whispered Micon.
Philippus gave a cynical harrumph but said nothing. Micon turned to his friend and studied him with a frown. “What? We have actually escaped. Haven’t we?”
With a sigh and shrug, Philippus tapped nervously at the tree-encrusted reed boat with his grimy fingertips. “I don’t know, Micon, I really don’t. I won’t feel like we’ve definitely got away until my feet are back on home soil. We’re trying to escape from gods, remember. We could run into them anywhere.”
“True. But then again we never met any before we ended up on that island. I think meeting three of them there should mean we’ve had more than our fair share. We’ll probably never meet any more.”
“We’ll certainly not be meeting two of them again, that’s for sure.”
Micon wrinkled his face. “It’s the third one I’m most worried about.”
“Yes,” agreed Philippus, lowering his voice and glancing around to see if Xanthius was nearby. The deck appeared clear of skeletal sailors and Philippus presumed he had got bored of looking out to see and settled down into a heap somewhere. At the bow he could see Nadina staring back at them. No, not at them, at her island, slowly receding into the distance. “My other worry is that we’re escaping in a magical boat that used to belong to some Egyptian god, with a fiercesome nymph and a talking skeleton as crew-mates.”
“I’m not sure what your problem is,” said Micon with a shrug. “The boat isn’t sinking, we don’t have to work the rigging because there isn’t any and we don’t have to row. Plus, if we are bothered by anything or anyone, Nadina and her spear should keep us safe.”
“What about Xanthius? Does he have a role in your happy little scenario?”
Micon stared back at the island. “He’s a lazy arse who only cares about himself. But,” he continued with a smile, “he’s the most terrifying thing I have ever seen. You never know when that might come in handy.”
“Do you think he’s enough to scare Hera away?” said Philippus with a raised eyebrow.
“I doubt it. She’s had to put up with Zeus and she doesn’t strike me as the kind of woman who runs away from dead bodies.”
“No. She’s the kind of woman who makes them.”
The arrhythmic slapping of the hull pushing through the water filled the silence between them as they both watched the island shrink into their wake. Micon bit his lip. Philippus resumed the tapping of his fingernails on the boat before slapping a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Of course,” he said, “we do have your unique god-given power of feeling imminent danger, so that should help.”
“Oh. Great. I suppose we should also add your unique god-given power of seeing supernatural stuff.”
“Indeed we could.”
They stared out across the water. “Feel anything dangerous?”
“Nope. See anything weird?”
They both let out tentative sighs.
“Well that’s alright then,” said Micon.
A sparrow-hawk climbed high into the sky above the island, hung for a moment on an updraught and then dropped a wing and fell like a stone. It eased into a controlled swoop, levelling out just above the tree tops before barrel-rolling into the clearing by the freshwater pool and landing, fully reformed as a teenage goddess, on the ground. Eris pouted. She’d been up since just after dawn, criss-crossing this stupid island looking for any sign of the two mortal sailors her mother had asked her to find. She’d found absolutely nothing and was beginning to think she’d been sent on a wild goose chase. It wasn’t normally the kind of thing her mother would do, but perhaps it was in every Olympian, deep down. Of course, for some Olympians tricks and mischief were clearly visible on the surface and she conceded that in that respect she was her father’s daughter.
She slowly walked around the clearing and investigated the small caves worn into the rock. There had definitely been some activity here recently but nothing had changed since she checked the previous evening. If these two mortal existed, they hadn’t returned to the clearing. She folded her arms and resisted the temptation to stamp her foot. Her patience had run out and she had better things to do. She wasn’t entirely sure yet what those things were, but they were clearly better than fluttering around a deserted island looking for a couple of smelly sailors.
She stomped back to the water’s edge and gazed down at her reflection. An angry young woman glared back. “Right!” she announced to the world. “I’ve had enough. I’m off to start a war. It’ll be my war and Ares, if he ever shows up, can piss off with those stupid sailors, wherever they are.” And with the gentle sound of breaking crockery she shimmered out of earthly reality.
Hera had been watching her daughter from afar, again disguised as a gull. The slight downward curve of her yellow beak was entirely natural and completely fixed but it was an expression that perfectly suited her mood. Eris was a flighty, fickle creature with no stamina for serious work. If anything, Hera realised she should be grateful for the hours that Eris had put in, even if was a fruitless exercise. She glided back out towards the cliffs, trying to decide what to do next. It seemed inconceivable that the mortals could have simply vanished. That would have required the actions of another god and few knew of this island, and those that did were busy with their own lives and unlikely to just drop in for a little visit. The only god she hadn’t checked up with recently was her son, Ares. But he was such an unpredictable character that it would be pointless trying to find him. Eventually a war would break out somewhere and if he hadn’t started it he would soon find it. Perhaps she should encourage Eris’s plan to start a war; it would be the quickest way of finding Ares.
She drifted lazily over the cliffs, riding the thermals and trying to think if there was anywhere else on the island that the accursed mortals might be hiding. There were some caves dotted around the island but she doubted whether they were particularly deep. Besides, even if they were in a cave, they would have to come out at some point.
A sudden bump on the back of her head brought her out of her musings and she whirled around to face another gull holding position on the breeze, wings outstretched and a glint in its beady little eye. A male gull. A male gull looking for a mate.
“Shoo!” she screeched. Her wings flapped across its head, knocking it off balance. “Can’t you think of something other than sex?” she yelled as she dived down after it. “You’re all the bloody same! Come here and let me rip your head off.”
The male gull was in a rapid dive, hurtling down to the surface of the water. He pulled up and skimmed at speed across the tops of the waves, heading out to sea. Hera levelled out around a hundred feet higher and watched him flee with a satisfied grin that completely failed to translate onto her beak. But her beak did open in surprise when she spotted the carcase of a very large and very dead shark in a cove beneath her. She scanned the horizon and saw, some way further out, a boat heading away from the island. She dropped down to sea level and set off after it. If she’d had lips, she would have pursed them in grim determination.
Micon rummaged through the remains of their provisions and handed the water skin to Philippus. “Go easy with it. We don’t know how long that’s got to last.”
“I know, I know.” Philippus took a small sip to moisten his lips and then another to wet his tongue. He considered a third to drench his throat but decided against it. “What about food?”
Micon shrugged. “We finished the remains of the boar last night, which is a shame because I quite liked it. Better than swan anyway.”
“So we’re out of food.” Philippus peered over the side of the boat. “I wonder if we could construct a net or a line. It’d be nice to have a bit of fish.”
Micon didn’t reply. He’d spotted a bird coming towards them from the island. It looked like a gull and it suddenly seemed really important that he stopped it from getting any closer. He quickly removed his belt and wrapped one end around his wrist, grasping the loose end in his hand. Selecting a stone from his bag he began to wind up the sling for a shot at the bird. It was barely thirty paces away and getting closer by the second.
Alerted by the vibrating hum of the rotating sling, Philippus turned to stare at Micon and then at the intended target. He saw a gull. He saw an almighty goddess about to descend in fury. He saw Hera. He opened his mouth but the stone had already left the sling. It hurtled through the air and struck a glancing blow on the bird’s leg. It let out a piercing cry and dropped towards them. Philippus hauled Micon away from the stern and they threw themselves down on to the low deck of the barge. With a clap of thunder the gull transformed into Hera, red faced with exertion, anger and pain.
“Will you stop doing that!” she yelled. She balanced herself against the stern and adjusted her robe to examine her right leg. A large red mark was already showing against her pale skin. She winced and dropped the fabric back into place. She glared at them. After taking a deep breath she jabbed a finger at the two sailors. “What did I tell you about trying to leave the island?”
The sailors said nothing.
“Four rules, I said. Four simple rules. Don’t try to leave the island was quite a specific one. And I spotted a dead shark that you’re probably responsible for. That’s two down. You were probably going to try and eat me as well, weren’t you?”
The sailors looked at each other but still said nothing. There was nothing they could think of saying that would make things better.
Hera rubbed at her shin distractedly and remembered that the last time she had appeared to the scruffy pair she had said her name was Hyperia. “How am I, as nymph of the island, supposed to protect you from the forces that may be arranged against you?”
Philippus raised his head and looked her in the eye. “And how are you, as a ‘nymph’, able to transform yourself into another creature?”
Hera stared at him. “What would you know about nymphs?”
“Only what we’ve been told,” said Micon, “by an orange frog.”
Hera nodded. “I might have known. Tell a mortal not to do something and they immediately do the opposite. Four rules, all broken. You couldn’t even obey ‘don’t talk to orange frogs’. Well, what have you done with her? Did you kill and eat her too?”
“No,” said a voice from the front of the vessel. “She’s still alive. Still surviving. Still bitter. But now I’m free.” Nadina stood up and began to walk towards Hera.
“Who do you think you are?” demanded Hera.
“I am Nadina, daughter of Zeus, pupil of Hera, rescuer of men. And I will be a slave no more.”
Hera glared at her, pupils almost alight with intensity. “Look at you. Wrapped in a rag with a preposterous helmet on your head…” She raised a hand to her mouth as she recognised the War Helmet of Ares, and his large bronze-headed spear held in the nymph’s hands. A garbled cry escaped her lips as she finally realised why Ares had been missing for so long. “You’ve killed my son as well as my husband?”
“It was an accident!” Philippus shouted.
“I suppose you ate him by accident as well, didn’t you?” she snapped.
“Well, it seemed a shame to waste him,” mumbled Micon.
Hera was almost incandescent. “You will all pay for your actions! You will be tortured in the darkest pits of Hades for all eternity!”
Nadina strode forward, spear levelled at Hera’s chest. “None of this was intended by any of us. The events that led to the deaths of Zeus and Ares were started by the Olympians. We just want to be left in peace.”
“Peace?” sneered Hera. “You will never find peace!” She spread her hands wide and Nadina felt a powerful force pushing her back to the bow. The sailors began to slide backwards along the deck, scrabbling for hand holds, grabbing at the tendrils of tree that enveloped the barge. Hera climbed on to the edge of the stern, lightning arcing off her. “You will be tormented by the denizens of Tartarus until you are nothing but a ragged scrap of flesh and bone. And then you will be cast into everlasting fire!”
A skeletal hand unfolded itself from a pile of rags beneath her, followed by an arm, shoulder and skull. With almost balletic grace the collection of bones swivelled and pushed Hera overboard. There was a splash and then silence. Nadina, Micon and Philippus stared at Xanthius. He grinned back.
“Cor, she didn’t half go on, din’t she? So, we’re on the run from the gods or somefin?”
Philippus gave a small nod.
“Right ho. In which case, can we go a bit quicker, lads? I don’t fink it’s gonna be a good idea to hang around here.”
The mere thought of Hera coming after them again initiated a sudden burst of speed from the barge that would have toppled the mortals had they not already been lying in an untidy heap. Ra’s vessel ripped through the water like a blade across a throat, leaving a foaming wake that spread and bled back into the sea.