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. . .
“Hones’ly, though, I couldn’t believe me luck,” said Xanthius with his customary skeletal grin, “I coulda bin in all kinds of trouble for fallin’ off that wall into some rich geezer’s garden but I ended up bein’ ravished by a vision of beauty.” He leant forward towards the centre of the table in a conspiratorial manner. “She was a right go-er. I was absolutely knackered by the time I got back to me ship.”
Galapera nudged Xanthius with her elbow, a good-natured smile on a face that was normally home to frowns and pursed lips. “Ooh, he were a good ‘un to pick for my first time, a fine young sailor. Solid as an oak mast and capable of running up and down my rigging several times that afternoon.”
The rest of the room’s inhabitants tittered uneasily, still trying to come to terms with the idea of Xanthius and Galapera as a pair of nubile, sex-crazed teenagers rather than the animated corpse and elderly gardener that sat before them. Micon’s toes were hurting from the unconscious but vicious curling they had been doing since the geriatric duo started talking about how they met and he knew he was only one more crudely described fondle from full-on cramp. He wondered if Amykos and Sastrios had any cheese he could stuff in his ears to prevent him from hearing any more sordid details.
Their hosts had the shocked expressions of those suddenly confronted by two horrific realisations: firstly, that they’ve accidentally walked in on their parents’ enthusiastic love-making and, secondly, that they can’t excuse themselves and leave because they’re in their own house.
Micon thought that Philippus was surprisingly relaxed about the whole thing, partly because he’d been fed and no-one was trying to kill him, but mostly because he found Micon’s embarrassment amusing.
Only Nadina seemed genuinely fascinated by the stories of youthful, passionate sex. Micon knew that as the plaything of Zeus she had had no say in how she was used and this insight into a young woman taking the initiative was probably a revelation. But the main thing he knew was that he really didn’t want to know any more.
“But what I would like to know,” continued Galapera gesturing at Xanthius’s skeletal appearance, “is how you’ve ended up in this state. I remember that you had impressive recuperative abilities but this seems to be taking it a bit far.”
“Ah, well… yeah…” mumbled Xanthius. “I s’pose I oughta say that, technic’ly speakin’, I’m dead.”
“No! Get away,” said Galapera, feigning shock.
“’S true. I got drowned in a storm. And then I woke up dead in a cave that glowed, next to an old boat. I thought it was Charon’s but nobody came for me so I just stayed where I was until these three showed up.”
“And you didn’t think to look for an entrance to the Underworld?”
The zombie sailor shrugged with a soft rattle. “Nah. Seemed like a lotta effort.”
“That’s our Xanthius,” said Philippus. “If anyone was going to die and be too lazy to see it through properly, it’s him.”
Laughter flowed through the yellow-lit room, more in relief that the elderly couple had stopped talking about sex and had moved on to the more age-appropriate topic of death.
“Fanks a lot, Phil,” said Xanthius with shades of grump, “I find your comment a little bit insulting seein’ as I slogged all the way up here to tell you about the boat I saw.”
The laughter and smiling stopped. “What boat?” asked Philippus with a frown.
“The one I was…” Xanthius began, before interrupting himself. “Oh, hang on.” He thought for a few seconds more before starting again. “So, lads, there’s a boat on its way to shore.”
Before anyone could say anything else Micon stiffened and looked at the door. “There’s something here.” Everyone turned and stared at the solid wooden door of the house. Three loud knocks rapped on the exterior. Xanthius lifted his hood back onto his skull and sat further back into the shadows while Nadina glanced at her helmet and spear, ensuring that they were close at hand.
Amykos looked at Sastrios. “I suppose it’s incumbent on us to answer the request for attendance at the threshold to our abode.”
“Yes, Amykos, I think you’re right.”
“Off you go then.”
“Well, I’m not expecting anyone so it must be for you.”
With a lot of sighing and tutting the satyr stood up and stepped over to the door. He cleared his throat before asking, “Who is it?”
A muffled voice came back from the outside. “A traveller seeking shelter.”
“Damn and blast,” said Amykos. “They’ve got us there.”
“You could tell them to piss off,” said Philippus. He was met with a frosty stare from the centaur.
“One does not tell travellers seeking shelter to ‘piss off’. Do you know nothing about the gracious art of hospitality?”
“Not really, “ said Philippus. “If it helps, I can be the one to tell them to piss off. It’s no bother.”
“He really is quite good at that sort of thing,” concurred Micon.
“No,” said Amykos with the emphasis of someone beholden to a higher authority. “They have knocked on our door, we must let them in and entertain them with food and good company.” He turned back to Sastrios. “Open the door.”
The satyr duly unlatched the door and it swung inward to reveal a young man in a tunic. He bowed with as much grace as he could muster whilst holding a traveller’s bag and three goatskins full to bursting with wine. Micon glanced at Philippus who nodded and mouthed the word ‘god’.
The young man took in the details of the room by the light of four gently shimmering oil lamps: the hairy satyr to his left, a centaur stood before him and then two scruffy men, a beautiful young woman, an older woman and a hooded figure all crammed around a small square table. “My name is Nopon and I have brought wine!”
“No wine! No wine!” said Sastrios, wringing his hands. “We don’t drink wine in this house.”
“Bugger,” said Philippus under his breath, “I’d love a drink right now.”
“Perhaps,” said Amykos carefully, “we can allow our other guests to partake a small goblet of wine?”
“I’m not sure if that’s wise, Amykos,” replied the satyr.
But Nopon was already stepping into the room, swinging one of the goatskins down from his shoulder. He opened the skin and poured dark red wine into the assorted cups that sat on the table. Micon reached for one and concentrated as he held it to his lips, eventually shrugging and taking a sip. “That’s good stuff.”
Philippus picked up a cup and sniffed the contents. He too was satisfied and swigged it down, finishing it off with appreciative sigh. “This tastes amazing. I don’t know whether it’s because I haven’t had any wine in a few months or if it really is the best wine in the world.”
Galapera and Nadina looked at each other and then selected a cup each. A third hand also reached into the centre of the table to pick up a drink.
“Amykos,” said Sastrios sternly, “you shouldn’t. You know you shouldn’t.”
“I am perfectly capable of limiting myself to just a taste, Sastrios. I am intellectually intrigued by the information forthcoming from our guests that this is wine not to be missed.”
“Oh, it is an excellent wine, I assure you,” said the young man, refilling the empty cups that were landing back on the table.
“Where did you get it from?” asked Philippus
“Oh, a variety of places.”
“You’re a wine merchant then?”
“Of a sort.”
A cup was slammed down on to the table top. “Amazing stuff. Truly the most perfect drink ever created,” said Amykos. “I don’t suppose I can trouble you for another?”
Sastrios looked on with increasing anxiety. “Amykos, no, you know what always happens.”
“Pish and tosh. Thank you my fine friend,” he said to Nopon as his cup was refreshed.
Nopon turned to Nadina with a gleaming smile. “More delightful wine for this delightful creature?”
Micon was irritated to see her smile back at the young man and accept another drink, but said nothing. He looked down at his own replenished cup and realised what the god’s plan was. He slowly placed the cup of delight back on the table and indicated to Philippus that he should do the same.
The young man, still on his feet serving, addressed the silent figure in the hooded cape. “You, sir. Won’t you try my delicious wine?”
“Nah, be a bit of a waste. It’d go straight through me and I don’t really have the palette for it these days. Or the throat.”
There was glugging noise from the other end of the small room and everyone turned to see Sastrios rapidly emptying the second wineskin. He noticed them staring and let the spout fall from his lips. “What?” he asked.
“Oh, Sastrios!” wailed Amykos. “How could you? After all these years. Is our pledge not worth honouring?”
“You started it, you silly mare. I told you not to drink any.”
“It is nought but a taste.”
“It’s your third cup.”
“No it isn’t. Is it?” Amykos looked thoughtful. “I don’t care. It’s delightful. More please.”
“Sod you, then,” said Sastrios and went back to swigging straight from the skin.
“I think,” said Philippus with as much diplomacy as he could muster, “that it’s been a lovely evening and we really should be going.”
“I don’t want to leave the island right now,” said Nadina, “could we go back to Galapera’s hut?”
“It’s a bit small for all of us, lass, but maybe we can cope for an hour or so.”
“You see what you’ve done, Sashtriosh?” said Amykos, “Our guests are leaving! Oh, the shame! I don’t know why I put up with your grubby little ways. I’ve half a mind to sail off to another island and find some more refined company.”
“Oh, is that how it is, eh? Five years and three cups of wine later and we’ve finally arrived at another round of – hic – insults and threats.”
“Blimey”, whispered Micon to Philippus, “this wine is potent stuff. Sober to drunken arguments in the blink of an eye. We need to get out.” He stood up and the rest of the guests followed suit. As they began to edge past Nopon they were aware of his piercing gaze evaluating each one in turn. Nadina pulled her cloak tighter around her shoulders and collected her spear and helmet.
Nopon’s eyes narrowed. “Those look familiar. I’m sure I’ve seen them somewhere before.”
“You’ve seen one spear, you’ve seen ‘em all, mate,” said Xanthius as he slid past, “just a pointy stick, innit?”
Nopon grabbed his bony wrist and whipped the hood from his head. “And now I’ve seen a creature that belongs to Hades. You’re coming with me.”
A very sharp pointy stick pressed into the young man’s neck.
“Let him go,” said Nadina.
The young man slowly turned to look at her. “You don’t know who you’re dealing with, young lady.”
“Yes we do,” said Micon, “you’re Dionysus. And you clearly don’t know who you’re dealing with.”
Dionysus shrugged and, grabbing the shaft of Nadina’s spear, thrust the weapon up and away from him at incredible speed. The nymph just about managed to retain her grip and hung on to the spear.
“Now look, Shastriosh!” wailed Amykos. “Our guestsh are fighting! What should we do?”
“Give that new bloke a thump and – hic – then… then we can drink all his wine.”
“Tha’sh brilliant. Ah, I love you, you horny li’l billy goat.”
“I love you to Amykosh. But we need to clobber the wine guy firsht.”
They moved unsteadily over to where Nadina and Dionysus were still grappling for possession of the spear with Micon trying to prise the god away from behind. Dionysus didn’t appear to notice the man clinging to his back but a swiftly moving elbow caught the sailor in the midriff and he slid to the floor, gasping. Philippus, Xanthius and Galapera had reached the door. “We need to get back to the boat!” shouted Philippus above the commotion.
“I can’t!” said Galapera. “This is my home now.”
“Bugger that. I’m not leaving you again,” said Xanthius.
“Stay with me,” she replied.
“You can’t stay on this island, Xanthius,” interrupted Philippus, “because he’ll find you and drag you off to Hades.”
They looked back at Dionysus just as Sastrios delivered a powerful reverse kick with his cloven hoofs to the god’s groin. His hold on the spear weakened, one hand dropping away and allowing Amykos to swing a piledriver square into his face. Dionysus gently toppled backwards, hips and knees giving way to gravity.
Amykos helped Micon off the floor. “My friendsh, I am shooo shorry. My humbobliest apologeries for the sudden decline in the eveningsh fortunesh.”
“I think,” said Sastrios pointing carefully at the remaining guests, “that – hic – you all ought to bugger off before he wakes up.”
Galapera stepped towards them. “Thank you, Sastrios, Amykos. I’m leaving with Xanthius so I probably won’t see you again. Look after me garden, won’t you.” She hugged a very surprised Sastrios and did the same to Amykos. “I’m going to miss you daft buggers.”
“Do you need anything for your journey?” asked the centaur.
“Perhaps some water skins if you have any?” said Philippus.
“Oh yeah, there’sh two hangin’ up over there,” said Sastrios. “Take ‘em. We’ve got wine to drink.”
The crew of the Sun Barge led Galapera down the path to the beach. Philippus walked alongside Xanthius at the front. “Are you sure about this, Xanthius?” he asked.
“Yeah, I fink so.”
“I’m not sure it’s a good idea to just skip back into her life and expect everything to be rosy. I mean, you are dead these days. And she can’t be far behind.”
“You know what, Phil? You need to be more bleedin’ optimistic.”
“That’s not my natural state, never mind the extra addition of gods trying to track us down to kill or kidnap us.”
“Yeah, talkin’ of which, why din’t you chop his head off?”
Philippus sighed. “It’s hard enough when they’re in animal form. I couldn’t bear to saw through a neck that looked human.”
“Ah, yer just a softy at heart, aintcha? But still, it woulda bin interestin’.”
“Eatin’ Dionysus. With all that wine marinating through his system I bet he tastes bloody divine.”