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. . .
The God of Wine, the satyr and the centaur trotted down the track to the beach where the fugitives had boarded the Sun Barge several hours earlier. A blanket of grey cloud had crept slowly across the sky like a stalking predator, unnoticed until the golden orb that was its prey was captured and devoured.
“It looks like it’s going to piss it down,” said Sastrios with a pout.
Amykos rolled his eyes. “You have, as ever, such a delightful insight into the ever changing acts of Zephyrus and his fellow gods of the winds.”
Dionysus gave a quiet chuckle. “I doubt Zephyrus has much to do with the weather. It’s mainly delegated down these days.”
“What do you mean?” asked the centaur.
“Well, all the powerful weather, the storms and lightning, was the remit of Zeus. But only when he could be arsed. So he passed a lot of the common storms over to Boreas, Notus and the other gods of the winds. And then they too became bored, constantly having to shepherd the air from one place to another instead of lounging about on Olympus. Even the fun of lightning bolts became dull after a while.”
“Well, who’s looking after it now?”
The young god shrugged. “I think they managed to set it all spinning so that it they barely have to touch it. Last I heard, some immortal in a cave was looking after it all. Lets a gale out from time to time to keep it all in motion.”
“Hmm,” said Amykos, “sounds like Sastrios.”
The satyr raised his eyebrows. “Was that you making a fart joke, Amykos?”
“Yes, my mood is somewhat citric this morning. Now, Dionysus, how do you propose we leave our precious island home on this quest of yours?”
The god was fiddling with the bag that he had retrieved from outside their front door. “We’re going to use my boat.”
The two hooved companions looked up and down the beach, then out to sea.
“It’s in here,” said the god, extracting a small wooden box.
They looked at him, then at the box, then at each other. “Don’t you think,” said Amykos, “that we might find the accommodation a little cramped?”
“No worries,” said Dionysus with a smirk and he walked along the beach looking for the vantage point he’d used the previous evening. The other two followed quietly behind, unsure as to whether to expect a divine miracle or a drunken jape. In the end it was a bit of both.
“Once I start,” said the god, “you can’t look at it.”
Amykos glared at Sastrios to stop the smutty comment he knew he was preparing.
The god pulled a small model boat from the box and placed it on the ground, prow pointing out to sea. Dionysus took a step away and then lay on his front, staring at the boat with the sea in the background. “I need to get the angle just right.” He shuffled slightly to his left and closed his right eye. “That should do it.”
“Clearly,” said Amykos, nodding.
The god sighed. “Alright, come and lie down here. Like me, one either side.”
Sastrios looked at Amykos and shrugged but they did as they were told, as best they could. “Now then,” said Dionysus. “Shut one eye and look at the boat.” He squinted and did the same. “And now close both eyes and don’t open them until I tell you.”
Small… far away… small… far away…
“Alright, you can open your eyes now.”
They looked at the boat. It was still there. But different. A gull landed on the mast and Amykos’s head swam. He staggered to his feet and realised that the boat was now fifty paces away, waves breaking against its hull.
Dionysus walked past him with his baggage. “It’s all about how you perceive things. And I’m good at seeing things in different ways.” He turned and looked over his shoulder at the centaur. “And conjuring up some drunkenness in one eye always helps.”
Amykos strode after him. “Impressive. But now what? They could be anywhere. Do you have any way of knowing which direction we need to take?”
The god closed his eyes once more and reached out for another presence, one that had watched him closely the evening before. “As a matter of fact, I think I do.”
Micon plodded up the hill behind Philippus. There were a few puddles on the faint track they were following but at least it had finally stopped raining. He huffed a sigh at his friend’s back. Philippus spun around and faced him. “What?”
“Eh?” asked Micon, puzzled.
“You’ve been puffing and sighing since we set off. You’ve clearly got something on your mind.”
“I… no…” began Micon but caught sight of the hard stare Philippus had ensconced on his face. “Oh, okay. I just felt that we shouldn’t have left the others.”
“You mean you think we shouldn’t have left Nadina.”
“No. It’s, well…”
“How many more times do I have to convince you? We are the least likely of all of us to arouse any suspicion, so we should be the ones to explore the island. The other three can stay near the Sun Barge and see if they can find any food. If they encounter any trouble they can just hop back in the boat and wish themselves away.”
“But nothing. Nadina’s better off protecting the boat and Galapera. For an old woman Galapera’s pretty spritely but just suppose she was with us and we got chased off some farm – I don’t fancy her chances of out-running some aggrieved peasant. And as for Xanthius,” Philippus shook his head, “he doesn’t exactly blend in, does he?”
“So you think I’m worrying about nothing?”
“Yes. They’re as safe as can be and we’re quite capable of looking after ourselves.” He patted his long bronze knife.
“Yes, you’re right. Sorry. I’m not sure why I’m so paranoid.”
I know why, thought Philippus, but he didn’t say anything. It could be the threat of being discovered by gods, but it’s most likely love sickness.
The continued their trek up the hill and as they reached the summit found themselves thirty paces from a dozen men-at-arms marching towards them. They were so surprised to see a group of normal humans for the first time in several weeks that they almost forgot to run away. They had barely gone ten paces back down the hill when another soldier stepped onto the path, brandishing a large bronze sword and a malicious smile. As they skidded to a halt Micon’s jaw clenched and he gripped his friend’s arm.
“God,” he said.
Philippus squinted and looked beyond the mortal disguise. “Young. Female. Not Hera.”
Eris stopped smiling. This was unheard of. No wonder Hera wanted to investigate these mortals further.
Pounding feet arrived behind the two sailors, hands grabbed them roughly. Shouted voices, hot breath and the clink of bronze and the smell of brown leather. They were oblivious to all this, eyes fixed on the goddess who metamorphosed from a soldier into a starling and flew off towards the inlet where they had disembarked from the Sun Barge.
“So! Pirates!” said an aristocratic voice.
“Where?” asked Micon as he looked around anxiously.
King Silichtypo frowned. “What? No. You. You are the pirates!”
“No we’re not,” said Philippus, “we’re just sailors looking for some food.”
“So, you’ve come by ship to steal from us! Pirates!”
Philippus decided it was probably better to say nothing.
“How many men do you have in your crew, pirates?” asked the king.
“What crew?” said Philippus.
The king nodded at one of his captains, a large man with a broken nose. The soldier punched Philippus hard in the stomach. The sailor doubled up and tried not to be sick.
“This,” said the king, “is Little Upastrapto. If you refuse to answer my questions you will be attended to by Big Upastrapto. He’s the one holding you both.”
Micon looked at the large heavy hand that lay on his shoulder, followed the wrist and arm up to the torso of its owner and carried on up to the head that towered above him. A malevolent smile appeared from within a black bushy beard.
“We’re the only men in the crew,” said Micon, turning away from the disturbing sight of his captor and back to the authority figure.
“Really?” said the king. “What kind of pathetic pirate crew are you?”
Micon was about to deny their sea-raiding credentials once more when Philippus spluttered, “We don’t need anyone else.” He took another breath and slowly pulled himself upright. “We’re the most dangerous pirates you’ll ever encounter.”
Micon’s mouth opened, realised it had nothing cued up for this scenario so shut again.
“You don’t look very dangerous,” said the king, evaluating them again from head to toe in case he’d missed anything.
“Ah, looks, yes.” Philippus leaned his head closer to the king. “I have learned that looks can be very deceptive.”
The king blinked. “How dangerous are you, then?”
“We’ve killed some fearsome monsters.”
“A demon squid from the darkest depths, tentacles longer than a ship’s mast, large enough to pull a vessel down to its inky lair.”
The hairs on the king’s neck stood on end and his lip twitched.
“And,” continued Philippus, “an enormous boar, with tusks that could pierce any armour.”
The king swallowed. “Anything else?”
“A great big swan,” said Micon. Philippus glared at him.
“A… swan?” said the king.
“Well,” said Micon, uncertainly, “it looked like a swan…”
“Except,” said Philippus, “it was the size of a bull, with wings that blocked out the sun and its hiss was the very sound of the fires of the forge of Hephaestus.”
“I see.” The king pondered this new information. “So,” he said with a slow smile, “you would be ideal new recruits to my army. We set sail for Troy in three days. Or four days. Definitely within the week.”
“Possibly,” said Philippus. “But perhaps you have to earn our loyalty.”
“I don’t follow,” said Silichtypo. “You are my prisoners. I don’t need your loyalty.”
“We have allowed ourselves to be captured, to avoid unnecessary deaths among your men.”
The king glanced at his men. All were strong and healthy and armed. He looked Philippus in the eye. “Go on. Explain this earning of loyalty.”
“We challenge your champion against one of us. If we win, we spare the rest of your men and you let us go. If we lose we will swear allegiance to you.” He paused and leant nearer to the king. “Sorry, I assume it’s to you. Are you the ruler here?”
“Yes, yes, King Silichtypo of Psyra. Welcome to my island. Now, as ludicrous as this sounds, I am intrigued by your tale and I would very much like to see you take on Big Upastrapto here. I accept your offer of a duel.”
Philippus bowed. “Thank you, sire.”
“And you’re going to fight as we find you?”
“I think so, sire.”
“Jolly good. Well, this shouldn’t take long. Alright, spread out everyone, let’s give them some room to fight.”
The soldiers, most with expectant smiles on their faces, stepped back to form a loose ring around the two sailors. The mountainous man behind them removed his huge hands from their shoulders and began stretching in preparation for combat. Micon was dazed. He was completely taken aback by this tactic that Philippus had come up with and was curious to know what was coming next. Probably a manic dash for a gap between the soldiers, dive into the sea and swim to safety.
So he was utterly unprepared when Philippus handed him his bronze knife and said, “Here you go. Do your thing.” He patted Micon on the shoulder and turned to take his place in the ring surrounding the two combatants.
Micon grabbed him by the arm and spun him back. “What??!!” he exclaimed.
“Come on, Micon. You’re our only hope of getting out of this. I’ve reduced your odds from ten to just one. Do your fancy fighting dance and we’ll be off.”
“What in Hades are you on about?” hissed Micon, eyes wide with panic.
“Just pretend you’re back on the Sun Barge fighting Poseidon. Easy. You avoided several flailing tentacles and hacked into an actual god. This geezer can’t be harder than that.”
“But I’m not a fighter!”
“Yes you are. You fought and now you’re a fighter.”
“But so did you. You stuck the spear into Poseidon. Why don’t you fight Big Wotsisface?”
“Because you saw the moves coming before they happened. It was you that kept me alive. Now stop messing about and take Big Upastrapto down a peg or two. If you have to kill him, I guess you have to kill him. Otherwise, just do enough to show you’ve beaten him. A bit of mercy might help.” And with that Philippus strode off to the circumference to stand next to the king.
Micon looked down at the knife. It was as long as his forearm, the blade well used but sharp. He gripped the leather-bound handle and tried to feel the connection he’d had in the fight against the giant squid. He looked up at Upastrapto Major who was whirling his much longer sword in a very practised manner. The soldier also carried a large shield made of wood and leather and a bronze central boss. The soldier grinned.
Philippus turned to the king who was perched atop a small rock. “Sire, I do hope you have no plans to go back on your word about setting us free.”
The king looked down at him. “No-one would think of such a thing. I am an honourable man. If your friend,” he shook his head and smiled, “if he somehow defeats Big Upastrapto I will gladly let you go, happy that I have seen something truly extraordinary.”
“Thank you, sire.”
“Alright,” shouted the king from his vantage point, “are the combatants ready?”
Big Upastrapto raised his sword and shouted back, “Aye, sire!”
Micon tried to swallow but his mouth was dry. He glanced at the king and nodded.
“Then begin!” exclaimed the king.
As Big Upastrapto closed the gap between them, Micon tried to feel for the senses that had kept him alive against Poseidon. He took a deep breath and attempted to remember the feeling of fighting a god. But the main thing that popped into his head was that this time he wasn’t fighting a god, he was fighting a man. A mortal man. A very large mortal man who was now only a few paces away. Micon crouched, knife held before him. Big Upastrapto slammed his shield forward into the sailor’s face and Micon’s world went black.