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. . .
Galapera sat on a piece of wood. She wasn’t entirely sure what it was, it seemed part bench, part branch, but she didn’t like to ask. So she sat primly, hands in her lap as the crew of this bizarre vessel busied themselves with looking agitated and purposeful without actually seeming to do very much. But within a minute of boarding the Sun Barge they were moving out to sea, the moon showering the waves with silver twinkles.
She still couldn’t believe she had left her island. After all these years. And for a man she had known for less than a day decades before. She had a stern word with herself for being such a flighty flibberty-gibbet and then snapped right back for being such an old stuck-in-her-ways fuddy-duddy. She sighed. Her life had become a little stale over the last twenty years, enlivened by the arrival of Sastrios and Amykos but even then she had failed to grasp the opportunity of close friendship. No. It was time to do things, see more of life while she was still able. It was this sudden chance to live her life, as much as curiosity and interest in Xanthios, that had bustled her along with the crew. And she felt a strong maternal feeling towards Nadina. The nymph had clearly had a hard time as prisoner and plaything of Zeus and Galapera wanted to help in anyway she could.
The other two were also intriguing. At first sight they were scrawny, unkempt and smelly, but she could detect a determination to look after each other and the rest of the crew. Nadina had told her how they had escaped their island and how she couldn’t have done it without them. Galapera also felt that there was more to the story that wasn’t being told, for instance she wasn’t sure how the two sailors had known that the visitor was Dionysus, but she would bloody well uncover everything before long. She didn’t like not knowing things.
What was clear, and potentially problematic, was the fact that Micon was besotted by Nadina. And they nymph had strong feelings in return. This was unlikely to end well, with Nadina capable of outliving the mortal several times over. But who was she to judge? She had loved a nymph herself. Galapera was so lost in her thoughts that she jumped when Xanthius sat his skeletal frame down beside her and asked if she was alright.
“Aye, lad. I think so.”
“Smashin’.” The old sailor nodded, slapped his bony thighs with his ivory hands and looked around. Now that he’d got the old love of his young life back he wasn’t sure what to do with her. “Erm, sorry that there isn’t much in the way of comfort on this fing. I feel like you should have yer own cabin or somefin’.”
“I’m alright. I don’t want any fuss.”
“Right, yeah, smashin’,” said Xanthius, nodding.
“Although a blanket would be nice.”
“A blanket, yeah, o’course.” He looked around, vainly hoping a blanket would suddenly present itself to him. A hand appeared holding a pale cloak.
“Here,” said Nadina, “take this cloak. I was only wearing it to be less conspicuous and since you have given me this dress I no longer need it.”
Galapera took the cloak. “Thank you. As I said, best that you were dressed properly. But I didn’t think that I’d be glad to see that shabby cloak again.”
Micon coughed. “Actually, that was my best cloak. Admittedly it has seen better days, and the storm that shipwrecked us added a few extra rips.”
“Wear and tear happen to us all in the end, Micon,” said Galapera with a smile.
Philippus joined the rest of them and explained that they were heading east, as best as he could make out.
“So where are we going now?” asked Micon.
“Good question,” said Philippus. “So far we’ve just been escaping from one situation to another. Perhaps we should focus on trying to get somewhere we want to be?”
“I don’t know anywhere,” said Nadina.
“I just want to avoid trouble,” said Micon.
“I’ll go wherever Galapera wants,” said Xanthius.
All eyes turned to the elderly woman. She looked back at their shadowy faces. “Well, there is one place I’d like to go. I sometimes dreamed of it over these past years.”
“And…” prompted Philippus.
“I’d like to go home. Not to stay, I don’t think. I’d just like to see it again. The last time I were there I were just seventeen.” The moonlight glinted in her eyes. “Yes, I’d like to go back to Crete.”
Galapera detected a sudden shift in the ship as it altered course to head due south. She looked at the sailors with narrowed eyes. “How did you do that? And where’s the sail? And if there isn’t a sail, who the chuff is rowing?”
“Iss magic, innit,” stated Xanthius on her right.
Nadina sat down on her left and explained in more detail about Ra’s Sun Barge and how Zeus had hidden it for centuries.
“And why does it listen to you?”
“We repaired it with wood and water from my island, my mother, and freed it from the darkness. And I think it likes to be useful.”
“That’s as maybe, but there’s all these weird branches and tendrils everywhere. It’s like something out of a shipbuilder’s nightmare and it gives me the willies.”
“You should see it how I see it,” said Philippus.
“Aye? And what does it look like to you?”
“It shimmers, green and gold and red. It looks alive.”
The old woman stared at him. “Have you been eating some funny mushrooms, lad?”
“Nah,” said Xanthius, butting in, “They’ve bin eating gods. Gave ‘em special powers, like Heracles or sumfin.”
Philippus kicked the salty old zombie.
“Tell the world, why don’t you?”
“Well, you were the one that brought it up, wiv all yer shimmering gold an’ wotnot.”
Galapera’s eyes narrowed again. “What do you mean, ‘eating gods’?”
She looked at Micon who pointed a finger back at his friend. “He started it.” Philippus shrugged.
“It is true,” said Nadina, “although they didn’t know it for sure the first time.”
“Is this how they helped you escape?”
The nymph nodded.
“So does that mean that they ate…?” She left the quesion hanging.
“Zeus? Yes. And Ares after that.”
“An’ then they killed Poseidon and tucked into ‘im too,” added Xanthius.
She stared at them as if they were mad. “I don’t know if I were hearing you correctly, but it sounded like you said these scruffy urchins killed three of the most powerful, aggressive gods and then ate them.”
Nadina nodded. Xanthius looked at them in awe. Micon looked uncomfortable. Philippus decided to try to look vaguely heroic but gave up because he felt embarrassed.
Galapera looked dubious. “The question that springs to mind, and please don’t take offence because I don’t mean to be rude, is how in Hades did you pair manage that?”
Micon shuffled and looked at his feet but muttered, “Just lucky, I suppose.”
“’Lucky’ is a bloody understatement, lad,”said Galapera shaking her head.
“We killed them when they were in animal form,” added Philippus to clarify things. “Zeus was a swan, Ares a boar and Poseidon a squid.”
“A giant squid!” exclaimed Xanthius with glee. “It woz ginormous!”
“Technically,” said Philippus, ”it was Nadina that delivered the killing blow that time.”
The old woman turned her attention to the nymph and raised an eyebrow.
It was Nadina’s turn to shrug. “The King of the Sea came to claim me. Micon, Philippus and Xanthius – and the Sun Barge – stopped him. I merely ensured that he couldn’t ever try again.”
Galapera exhaled slowly. “Bugger me.” She shook her head again, eyebrows raised. “You kill Zeus and Ares on Nadina’s island and you kill Poseidon when he comes after her. But Dionysus, if you’re sure it was him, he wasn’t after Nadina. He wanted Xanthius. How did he know to come to my island, to Amykos and Sastrios? Who told him about my Xanthius?”
The two sailors looked at Nadina and the three of them said as one, “Hera.”
Hera wasn’t having a happy time. She’d despatched Eris to Hades in an attempt to goad him into contact with the god-killers but she’d had no news since her conversation at the falls at the edge of Olympus. Instead she had been visited by a triumvirate of powerful gods enquiring about Zeus. She shuddered as she remembered how Apollo and his twin sister Artemis, had entered the throne room. The former, relaxed and calm but with a shrewd brain, the latter, a headstrong hunter, an argument on muscular legs. Sidling along behind them was Aphrodite, ostensibly kind but opportunistic; Hera had known that it would be the twins taking the lead in this confrontation and so it turned out.
They wanted to know where Zeus was. They wanted to know when he would be back. They wanted to know why Hera was sat on his throne. Hera had lied in answer to the first two questions but answered truthfully to the third. She knew her husband, her brother, was dead and she knew he would never return. He would never come back to embarrass her with illicit trysts with other women, whether god, nymph or mortal. She was embarrassed by his faithlessness but also by the way he forced himself on his victims. A King of gods should have the highest levels of behaviour, not the lowest. She answered truthfully that, as Queen of Olympus, it was her right to sit on the throne when Zeus was away. These three before her were offspring of Zeus and were concerned for their father. However, they were not her children and she knew they were suspicious of her motives and actions. She needed to keep them mollified, avoid any cause for alarm and she had tried her best. Perhaps she had overdone it. Perhaps she had given too much hope for Zeus’s swift return, been too concerned for his welfare. Perhaps she should have said that she didn’t care where he’d gone and hoped he choked on whatever whore’s wine he supped from.
But perhaps that would have offended the twins’ sensibilities too. They knew that Hera had been furious when she discovered that Leto, their mother, was pregnant by Zeus and she banned her from giving birth on Olympus. She may have used some choice words about Leto back then and it was probably best that she didn’t dredge up old memories. She suspected that Aphrodite was the daughter of Zeus and Dione, but he’d denied it, saying that any such story about her birth was ‘a load of old bollocks’.
So she had smiled and welcomed them and displayed concern and tried her utmost to keep them from making a scene. But fingers had been pointed and lips pouted and at one point Artemis had stood no more than a pace from her and stared her right in the eye. She took it all with good grace and then fumed once they had left.
What had really got her angry was the suggestion of a great council of the gods to decide what should be done about Zeus’s absence. There was a glint in Apollo’s eye when he suggested this. She had to act before such an idea gathered momentum.
Hera needed to find out if Hades had taken the bait. With the three brothers out of the way she, as the most prominent and capable surviving child of Cronos, could claim the throne and usher in a new era. It would still be a challenge, given the problematic relationships within the Olympian family, but it was achievable. She needed to know if Eris had been successful. Where had that daughter of hers got to?
A ripple burst through the surface of the midnight sea which deepened into a furrowed wake split by a triangular fin. Eris liked being a shark; she identified with the sleek lines, the inquisitiveness, the grace, speed and power. And the bite. She had adopted a few different forms over the last few hours. Initially she had been a black rat that sat motionless in a dark corner of Hades’s throne room, watching Dionysus accept the task of finding the undead creature until Hades had summoned the mists to close the magical gates that looked out to sea. She had quickly scampered, unseen, through the gates and plopped into the water next to Dionysus’s boat, whereupon she had assumed the form of a limpet and attached herself to the hull. She hadn’t liked that so much, it was a very dull journey with very limited sensory information to occupy herself. When they landed on the shore of another island she slipped away and returned to rat form, watching Dionysus walk inland, and then onto an owl, making use of improved night vision as darkness fell.
There had been quite a kerfuffle in the small wooden house that he had entered and she was just considering burrowing through the roof as a beetle when five figures emerged in an alarmed state and headed off down the track back to the beach. She was fairly sure none of the figures were Dionysus so flapped down to the ground, assumed her normal shape and slowly opened the door to peek inside. A centaur and a satyr were busy drinking from wineskins and the satyr was perched atop an unconscious, chubby young god. She closed the door and flew back to the beach, watching the shadowy figures climb aboard an old magic boat and head out to sea.
The crew were a strange assortment of characters; an old woman, two men and two others she couldn’t identify at a distance in the dark. One had an almost masculine build but moved like a woman – Eris was reminded of Artemis, or perhaps Athena, an image reinforced by the war helmet and spear. But it was the shambling bundle of cloth and limbs that caught her attention. Could this be the undead creature her mother had described?
So she had walked down to the beach and into the black water that lapped onto the sand. As she dived forwards a long shark tail burst upwards and propelled her after the magic vessel. She wasn’t sure who they were and why they seemed to be important but she wasn’t going to let them out of her sight.