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. . .
The small wooden house was dim and still and quiet – apart from three sets of deep snores. The sun sliced in through cracks in the shutters and a groan was added. Like an orchestra warming up, new sounds began to appear: a cough, more groaning, a mumbled curse and the trumpeting of a long, strident fart. The snoring was replaced by scuffling and muttering and then a hand appeared on the edge of the overturned table, hauling the rest of its owner upright.
Dionysus blinked with his left eye and gingerly prodded at the right side of his face which felt unusually hot and tight; he wondered why he couldn’t open that eye. Another head, in possession of pointy ears, stubby nose, bleary eyes and small goat horns, raised itself next to the young god. They looked at each other but said nothing, mutually understanding that neither were ready for complicated conversation. Best to stay quiet and wait for brains and mouths to catch up later.
More staccato scuffling on the wooden floor made them turn to watch the difficult task a centaur has in controlling six limbs, four of which are not accustomed to being chaotically folded under a stool, a collection of wine skins and a drunken owner. After some skidding and crashing into more furniture, Amykos was finally on his hooves. Even with a leg at each corner he wobbled unsteadily and needed a hand braced against one of the wooden columns that supported the roof. The other hand held his head which was vibrating with every pump of his heart.
After unsticking his tongue from the roof of his mouth and experimenting with the possibility of making a vocal sound, Amykos gasped out a single hoarse word. “Ouch.”
Sastrios had wrestled with the difficulty of utilising language with a befuddled brain and uncooperative facial muscles but finally managed to force a word out of his mouth. “Water?”
Dionysus and the centaur nodded dumbly. The satyr staggered to his cloven feet, pointed at an earthenware jug and with a furrowed brow looked around for three cups. He found some on the floor and began pouring water into them.
“Um,” said Amykos to the young god, “Ah… Hit you. Sorry.”
Dionysus nodded and shrugged.
“And, er, drank all your wine.”
The god shrugged again. “There’s more.”
Amykos winced. “Excellent. But perhaps not right now.”
Sastrios shuffled over with the drinks and all three drank gratefully, the centaur and the satyr more so than the god who dabbed an edge of his tunic in the remains of his water and then gently pressed it to his swollen eye. “Thanks for your, erm, hospitality…”
Amykos looked down in embarrassment.
“…but I need to be off.” He stood up and began to retrieve his wine skins.
“Are you going after them again?” asked Sastrios.
“The monster and your other guests? ‘Fraid so. I’ve got to return the dead one back to Hades.”
“I’m sorry,” said Amykos, “but I don’t think you should do that.”
“I’ve promised to take the creature to the Underworld.”
Sastrios pointed a finger at Dionysus. “His name’s Xanthius. He’s not a monster and he’s just met up with an old lover. What right do you have to send him to Hades?”
“Well, he is dead, isn’t he?” asked the god.
The centaur and satyr looked at each other. Amykos nodded. “Alright, yes, yes, he’s technically dead.”
“But he isn’t harming anyone,” added Sastrios.
“Apart from the odd scare,” acknowledged Amykos, “but that was because we hadn’t been properly introduced.”
“Anyway,” said Sastrios, “why you? You’re the god Dionysus, aren’t you?”
“So what do you get out of it?”
“My mother,” replied Dionysus. “She was mortal and beautiful and so, as is his way, Zeus seduced her. And then she was tricked by Hera,” his good eye narrowed to match the other, “the jealous cow. She said that Zeus should show my mother his lightning bolt.” Sastrios smirked at this but Amykos thumped him and asked Dionysus to continue. “The bolt killed her and Zeus retrieved me from her body and kept me alive. Hades took my mother’s soul to the Underworld. If I take the creature – Xanthius – to Hades he will return my mother to me as an immortal.”
An awkward silence fell on the trio as they brooded on the situation and the general unfairness of life and death. Amykos slowly nodded. “That is a fair and noble quest, young sir.”
“So you won’t try and stop me?”
Amykos shook his head. Sastrios, however, raised an eyebrow. “We could come with you.”
The centaur looked at Sastrios as if he’d offered to carry Dionysus all the way. “Have you gone quite mad, Sastrios? It’s one thing to acknowledge and even applaud a difficult task that will endanger a friend, quite another to assist in its execution.”
“I just think we could help. We can talk to Xanthius about Dionysus and his mum. It might save a lot of trouble and, y’know… violence. Nadina’s got that enormous spear, don’t forget.”
Amykos sighed and looked at Dionysus. “Would you have us as companions in your quest?”
The god grinned. “A pair of wine-loving stallions aboard my ship? How could I say no? Grab your things and let’s get going.”
A concerned expression jumped onto the centaur’s face. “What? Now? To be honest,” he fanned his face, “I’m feeling a little delicate at the moment.”
Dionysus waved his hand at his new companions with a magical flourish. “How’s that?”
The pounding in their heads had stopped, the nausea in their guts gone, hangovers eradicated. Sastrios and Amykos looked at each other with twinkling eyes and beaming smiles. “That,” said Sastrios, “is the best party trick ever.”
Eris was getting bored, even though she was a shark. She’d been following the supernatural boat all night and most of the day and had twice caught herself chasing prey instead of concentrating on the job in hand. The sharkness of her shape was starting to impose itself on her brain and she needed to get back to her own reality. She slowed and surfaced, grey dorsal fin barely visible in the gently undulating waves of the sea. She wished herself into a gull and sat bobbing atop the water. Her head ached as she explored her new avian limbs, paddling a little and then stretching white feathered wings wide in the gentle breeze. She now noticed that a light rain fell from an overcast sky. All the better for covert surveillance, she thought. Much harder to spot a white bird against light grey cloud than against a vibrant blue. She thrust herself into the air and gained altitude, keeping the strange craft in sight.
She considered her options: either head back to Olympus to tell Hera about Hades, Dionysus and the escaping crew, or stay with the boat and see what was so important about them. As Goddess of Mischief she was naturally inquisitive so in the end there was only one option she was ever going to take. She drifted lower and closer to the boat, attempting to understand the occupants in more detail.
Eris was within shouting distance when she noticed one of the mortal sailors stiffen and look around, peering into the water and up into the sky. She instinctively knew he was looking for her. She wheeled around and headed away from them, wondering how a mortal could possibly sense a god. She remembered that Hera had wanted her to find a couple of mortals on Zeus’s island – perhaps it was because they were special in some way. Her curiosity truly aroused, Eris banked back around and cautiously tracked the Sun Barge once more.
“I definitely felt something,” said Micon.
Philippus scratched his beard. “Well, I can’t see anything. Did you get a sense of where it was coming from?”
“Not really. It was a fleeting sensation, not enough to focus on. And then it was gone.”
Philippus didn’t like it. Perhaps they ought to change direction again. And maybe find somewhere to stock up on some food. What was left of Squid-Poseidon had been chucked into the sea a few hours ago as it was smelling a bit rank and they didn’t have anything else on board to stave off the growing hunger pangs. A dim shadow on the horizon ahead indicated the presence of an island that they would be passing some time later. But if a prowling deity was nearby, that may be the first place they looked. Or would it? He supposed it depended on whether they had been spotted, and whether that particular god was even looking for them. It could all have been a coincidence. Or Micon’s imagination.
He sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. The rest of the crew were quietly sheltering as best they could from the drizzle and seemed content enough, but he knew that they would need food soon and his stomach growled its agreement. Perhaps they could shelter in a secluded cove and forage for some olives, nuts and whatever. Maybe they’d find a goat. He wrapped his battered cloak around his arms and went to discuss it with the others. After a short conversation the Sun Barge subtly shifted direction so that it was heading directly for the island.
Eris watched the boat approach the island and, once she was sure they were going ashore, she thought through what would be the best course of action. A creature of the Underworld, some kind of Amazonian warrior, mortals with unknown abilities. She didn’t want to confront them herself, but she needed to separate them out somehow.
She swooped over the island and saw various small hamlets and farms. And there, perched on a hill overlooking the southern tip of the island, was a large white house. It would have been unremarkable in other locations, such as Sparta, Mycenae or Knossos, but here it could only belong to the local Mister Big. She hatched a plan and arrowed down to the ground.
King Silichtypo sat in his palace waiting for his slaves to bring him some food. He’d spent the day walking his estate and throwing javelins until it started to rain and now needed a hearty meal. His wife was probably in her room with their two children so he’d most likely have a nice peaceful bite on his own. He heard footsteps approaching and rubbed his hands together in anticipation.
“Right, come on then, put it down, put it down,” he commanded. The figure at his side shuffled and coughed. The king looked up and saw not his elderly manservant with a tray of food but a young man holding a herald’s staff. The king swung his feet from his lounger and glared at the intruder. “Who the blazes are you? And how did you get past my guards?”
The young man glanced about with a puzzled look on his face. “Guards?”
Silichtypo opened his mouth and then frowned. He only had a couple of men that functioned as palace guards and one of them had taken the day off to go fishing while the other was probably still cleaning and racking the javelins. “Never mind the guards, who are you?”
The young man snapped to attention, eyes straight ahead, and began his speech. “I am Mataki, herald of the court of Menelaus of Sparta.”
The king’s eyes widened. Menelaus! Brother of Agamemnon, the most powerful king in all of Greece. His mouth went dry and his heart tripped over its normal rhythm. The herald looked down at the king and raised an eyebrow. The king stared blankly back.
Inwardly, Eris sighed. She wondered if real heralds had this much trouble, but she doubted it. This man was an idiot. Still, that same idiocy would come in useful so she ploughed on. “Forgive me my lord, there was no-one to announce me nor to inform me of the ruler of this fine land.”
“What?” The king blinked until understanding finally registered on his aristocratic features. “Oh, well, yes. That would be me, of course.”
“Of course, my lord.”
The herald raised his eyebrow again which seemed to finally elicit the required response. “King Silichtypo of Psyra.”
The herald bowed low and long. “Your majesty. Thank you for receiving me in person, I am most honoured.”
“Oh, well, you know, anyone from the court of Sparta is always welcome here.”
“Thank you, my lord. And it is in reference to the great king Menelaus that I visit your fine…” Eris hesitated fractionally before ploughing on, “…palace.” She’d seen more impressive merchant houses in Knossos but puff and flannel were guaranteed to work with this yokel chief. “The king of Sparta requests your help.”
Silichtypo’s lips wobbled. “M-m-m-my help?”
“To be clear, the help of all of the kings and chieftains of the Achaean race.” Eris didn’t want the poor sap fainting with the pressure and responsibility. “He has been wronged,” she continued, “and revenge is on its way. Queen Helen has been taken by Prince Paris of Troy and an expedition is being mounted to retrieve what is rightfully his.”
The king gulped.
The herald decided that enough eyebrow semaphore had taken place so this time simply asked the question. “Will you take part in this expedition, King Silichtypo of Psyra?”
“I-I-I-I… well, of course, absolutely, yes.” He stared at the herald. “Now?”
“Fleets are being assembled. You must gather your men, your captains and warriors at arms, your sailors and smiths.”
The king nodded, lost in thought. He didn’t have that many resources to draw on, to be perfectly frank. And they’d need to be paid to leave their farms and fisheries. “Would there be much chance of booty in this expedition?”
Eris stared at him. “Sire, the kings of Greece are gathering to crush the great city of Troy, one of the richest kingdoms on Earth.”
He nodded again. “I need to gather my men.”
Finally, thought Eris. “And don’t forget that as king of this land you can co-opt any man in your kingdom to your forces. Apart from myself, of course, ha-hah-ha.”
“Yes, well, we don’t have too many visitors or traders. A little off the main seaways, you see.”
“Would you be interested to know that as I was on my way here I spied a ship beached in a cove in the far north west of your island?”
“A ship? Landed up on the northern coast? But there’s nothing up there.”
“Perhaps they are pirates?”
The king looked affronted. “No pirate uses my land for his dirty deeds. I’ll alert my captains immediately.”
“If I may be so bold, as the provider of this information, could I ask for the pick of any slaves, after you have captured the pirates?”
“Of course, my dear fellow. Now, come with me. We have to find my men.”
Eris smiled. She had successfully initiated a raiding party, but that particular achievement meant nothing if the king and his men couldn’t separate the mortal sailors from the rest of the crew. Divide and conquer, as always. She followed Silichtypo and hoped his men were more capable than their king.