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Micon wiped his mouth with the back of his arm and grunted appreciatively. “Yum. That was delicious, thank you.”
The satyr and centaur both beamed happily. “I’m so glad you enjoyed our humble fare,” said Amykos.
“I had no idea some of those roots could be so delicious,” added Philippus, “and it’s been too long since I had figs, nuts and olives. Our previous island was a little barren in that respect.”
“You’re not kidding,” said Micon. “We would have starved to death if it hadn’t been for Zeus.”
Philippus choked on a nut and exploded into a coughing fit. Amykos patted him on the back and raised his eyebrows at Micon. “If it hadn’t been for Zeus?”
Micon swallowed and glanced warily at his spluttering friend. “Zeus. Yes. Him. He, ahhh, he provided us with food, um, after we had prayed to him.”
Sastrios looked dubious. “He gave you food, just because you prayed?”
Amykos wagged a finger at the satyr. “Now, now, Sastrios, let’s not have any of your militant talk in front of our guests.”
“Sorry. But the old bugger is usually only out for himself, so I just find it surprising that he was so easily swayed.”
Micon remembered how he found himself before Zeus, enormous swan wings outstretched and radiating brilliant white light. He had never been so terrified in all his life. “I, um, was on my knees when I prayed.”
Understanding flowed across the satyr’s face like an incoming tide. “Oh, right. That explains everything.” He winked at Micon. “I bet that was a mouthful.”
“I… what?” said Micon, floundering in the shallows of confusion. Philippus managed to regain control of his voice and pulled him back to the shore of appropriate conversation.
“Yes, we were both very grateful. Anyway, I must say,” he quickly added, “I think that your house is wonderful. Did you build it yourselves?”
Amykos patted a solid wooden pillar. “Thank you, yes, we did. I know that many humans regard centaurs and satyrs as barbaric savages but one thing about living in forests is that we really know how to work wood. Sastrios has a real gift for construction while my forte is presentation. Do you like the carving on the beams?”
Philippus nodded. He had tried to avoid looking at the multiple phalluses that decorated the upright posts of the dwelling. “They’re very nice.”
So do you both live here?” Micon asked.
“Indeed we do,” replied the centaur. “A most agreeable arrangement, isn’t it, Sastrios?”
“It’s not bad,” said the satyr, “although we’re always struggling for storage space. I did say back when we built it that we should allow more room for cupboards.”
Philippus smiled. “I never expected satyrs and centaurs to be so… how can I put it…?”
“Domesticated?” suggested Micon.
The two woodland creatures visibly bristled and the smile dropped off Philippus’s face. “I think ‘homely’ is the term I was looking for, Micon.”
“Thank you,” said Amykos. “We may have animalistic physiques but we are very definitely not animals. Just because I have four hooves does not mean that I sleep in a field or a stable.”
“Ah, I was going to ask about that,” Micon chipped in. “I can’t help noticing that there’s only one bed.”
Philippus downed the last of his water and slapped his thighs. “Well, I suppose we’d better head back to the boat, see how Xanthius is getting on.”
Micon stared at him. “Why? He’s not going anywhere; the boat’s not going anywhere and I need to find out what’s happening with Nadina and your not-a-nymph.”
Philippus glared back at Micon.
Sastrios looked at Amykos. Amykos forced a smile and clasped his hands together. “Indeed. As to your question about our sleeping arrangements, well, as I said earlier, Sastrios is my companion.”
Micon nodded. “Like me and Phil?”
Philippus put his head in his hands. “No Micon, not like us. We don’t sleep together.”
“Oh.” Realisation slowly crawled across Micon’s face. “So does that make Sastrios…”
“We prefer,” explained Amykos, “not to engage in sordid discussions of allotted roles. Such binary distinctions do not apply to us. We are companions and that is the end of the matter.”
Micon shrugged. “Fair enough.”
Philippus raised his head and stared at his friend. “You’re handling this information with a surprising amount of nonchalance. Usually, any mention of sex throws you into an embarrassed heap of blushing stutters.”
“Let’s just say,” replied Micon, “that I’m reassured that our hosts are unlikely to try to force themselves on Nadina.”
“Ugh, no,” said Sastrios. “Not my type at all. Not hairy enough and far too many pink wiggly toes.”
“Quite,” agreed Amykos. “A lovely long head of hair but no tail. Where’s the cheeky sex appeal in that scenario?”
“When you say ‘tail’…” said Philippus.
“Yes, on either side,” replied Amykos, with a wry grin.
They were interrupted by a strange scuttling noise coming from above their heads and they all looked up at the dark mass of branches, earth and grass that made up the roof.
“Rats or birds?” asked Philippus.
There was a faint clicking that made its way across the ceiling towards the doorway. Amykos glanced down at Sastrios who shrugged a reply. “Doesn’t sound quite like either.”
“I’ll take a look,” said the centaur and he stepped warily towards the open door, peering up at the ceiling. Suddenly, a shape swung down from above the lintel and hung there, silhouetted against the late afternoon sunlight. Amykos staggered backwards in surprise before raising his fists to the dark suspended lump and lashing out with a powerful punch. The shape was sent crashing to the ground just outside the hut and it rolled along the dusty ground. It appeared to be something spherical, wrapped in a tatty cloak.
Micon was sure he’d heard a muffled noise just as Amykos delivered his blow. He thought it sounded quite a lot like ”bugger”.
Amykos stepped warily outside towards the ragged cloth. More skittering noises came from the roof and the centaur turned to see what looked like a headless corpse drop onto his back and throw its decaying arms around his waist. Amykos shrieked and began bucking around the small clearing in front of the hut.
“Get it off! Get it off!” he cried in horror.
Sastrios was reaching for a spear but Philippus held his arm; Micon dashed outside, lifted the round object off the earth and unwrapped the hood and cloak that surrounded it. The head of Xanthius grinned up at him.
“Awright, Micon? I’ve come to check you weren’t being eaten by the natives.”
Micon found the prospect of talking to a decapitated skull in his hands just a bit too unnerving so placed the head on a nearby rock. “We’re fine. Just had a very nice meal, actually, and we’re in no danger at all.”
Amykos skittered past him, still trying to dislodge his horrific rider and making a low sobbing noise. Micon noticed that he had gone very pale. “Amykos, it’s fine, he’s with us. Just calm down and we’ll get him off you.”
“Ah, right. No bother,” said the head of Xanthius, “I can get off meself. I’ve bin practisin’.” And with a staccato shuffle and leap his body dismounted the centaur and slammed into the wall of the small house before collapsing into a pile of rotting bodyparts.
Micon looked at the skull.
“Weeell, I din’t say how much practice, did I? Hang on, I can do this.” Micon got the impression that the head was concentrating hard although he conceded that this may have only been because Xanthius had shut up.
The pile of bones, cloth and gristle began to tremble and then jerkily reassemble themselves into a nightmarish headless corpse. It turned and wobbled over towards the skull which, once within a few paces, floated off the rock and attached itself back into its natural place. “There. Good as new,” said Xanthius.
“I’m not sure your mother would agree,” said Philippus from the doorway of the hut. Sastrios was peering from behind his back at the undead apparition while Amykos had dropped onto his knees and looked like he was going to throw up. “I thought you were supposed to be guarding the boat?”
“Yeah, well, I was sat on deck looking at me toes…” Xanthius began, but before he could get any further a voice called out from the path beyond the trees surrounding the small clearing.
“Amykos? Are you alright?”
Sastrios stepped past Philippus and, keeping well away from the zombie sailor, strode over to Amykos. “It’s the women. Come on, let’s get you up. You’re better with her than I am.” He self-consciously glanced down at his prominent rod.
“I’m terribly sorry, Sastrios,” gasped the centaur, struggling to his hooves, “I had rather a funny turn.”
“Nah, not your fault, mate,” shrugged Xanthius, “if I fell on me I’d’ve done me nut too. Mind you, if you hadn’a bopped me noggin in the first place I wouldn’t’ve fell off yer roof.”
“Amykos?” came the voice again.
Micon grabbed the hooded cloak from the rock and threw it over Xanthius. “Come on, let’s get you out of sight. You’ve already given these poor chaps a fright, we don’t want to upset anyone else.” He shoved the undead mariner back into the house just as Galapera and Nadina came into view.
“Amykos? What’s the matter with you, lad? We were on our way here when I heard a right commotion. I were calling you and you didn’t say owt. What in Hades is up with you, you look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
The centaur took a deep breath and creaked out a smile. “My dear ladies, good afternoon. I do beg your pardon for not responding, I’m afraid I felt a little unwell after something fell on me from the ceiling.”
“Were it another one of those spiders you don’t like?”
“Oh, it was so much worse.”
“Hmmm.” She glared at Sastrios. “Looks like you need to do some cleaning of your rafters. Don’t want another of whatever it was falling in your lap.”
Sastrios rolled his eyes. “Bugger cleaning. If we have another one of those fall from the ceiling I’m burning the place down.”
Galapera turned and appraised the two scruffy humans loitering next to the house. “Right, which one of you is Micon? I’m guessing it’s you,” she said, pointing at Micon.
“Um. Yes,” he acknowledged warily, already overcome by her personality. He glanced at Nadina and smiled; she smiled back and he was shocked to realise that he hadn’t ever really seen her smile like that before. It was as if she had finally been able to relax and be normal. He wondered how long it would last.
“Now then,” continued the old woman, “I have heard all about you and y’sound like a right idiot at times, but with a good heart. And you,” she said, eyes boring into Philippus, “by all accounts are a self-interested bitter cynic – so we should get along just right.” She grinned and the whole clearing relaxed.
Nadina greeted the two sailors with a brief hug. “I have learnt so much and feel like I am free for the first time in my life. This may not be my island, my mother, but it feels like I belong here.”
Micon’s heart swapped places with his stomach. “Does…” he began and then swallowed, “does that mean you want to stay here?”
“It is so beautiful and calm here,” she said, fizzing with excitement, “we could all stay and be safe and happy forever.”
Amykos coughed politely and eased his way over to them. “My dear friends, as much as we would be delighted to have you all stay on our island for as long as you want, I fear that our natural resources are somewhat limited.”
“What do you mean?” asked Nadina.
“Merely that we do not have enough pasture to increase the size of the herd.”
Micon glanced at Philippus with raised eyebrows. His friend whispered back, “I think it’s okay if he puts it that way, probably not if you do.”
Nadina glanced rapidly between the group, looking for further comments. “You mean, we can’t stay here?”
Galapera put her hand on Nadina’s shoulder. “I could look after you, and perhaps Amykos and Sastrios can take one other, but we’d struggle to feed three extra mouths.”
Nadina’s broad shoulders sagged and Galapera dropped her hand. “So, you’re saying I have to choose between my rescuers and my mentor? Why is life so complicated? I want to be with Micon as well as Galapera.”
A clattering noise came from inside the house and they all turned to look at the doorway. Galapera glanced at Amykos. “Is the thing that fell on you still in there?”
“Unfortunately, it is.”
“But he’s with us. He was minding the boat and came up to check we were alright,” explained Philippus.
“So that would be four mouths to feed,” said Galapera.
“Um, not exactly,” muttered Micon.
A figure stood in the doorway, hood pulled down over his face, arms hidden within the folds of his cloak.
“You’ve got to be bleedin’ jokin’,” said Xanthius. He took another step towards them. “Galapera?”
“Aye, what of it?”
“Is that really you? I can’t believe it. All these years of sailin’ and I find you here of places.”
“Who…?” she squinted at the cloaked figure.
“It’s Xanthius. You prob’ly don’t remember me. I fell off yer wall in Crete and, well, you sort of… kissed me better.”
Micon could feel Xanthius blushing but was glad he didn’t have the full visuals.
“Xanthius?” said Galapera, briefly taken aback. “Bugger me. You’re the reason I ended up here. I saw you at the docks and tried to get on your boat. Got the wrong one. I never were much good with boats, they all look the bloody same. Come on, let’s have a look at you, lad.”
“Ah, see, I’ve not been well.”
“I don’t mind. I just want to see you properly again.”
“Nah, I don’t fink you do.”
“Take off that bloody hood or I’ll come over there and do it meself.”
A bony hand came out from the cloak and pulled the fabric back to reveal a skull, neck bowed in apprehension.
Galapera barely blinked. “I see you’ve lost your puppy fat, then.”