Sorry for the delay in getting updates to the story posted, I’ve been busy with my normal work (no respite during lockdown) and our writers’ group is pulling together a collection of Gothic short stories (I’ve written four so far). But anyway, back to The Ophagy!
To see all other parts of the story of two simple sailors who happen to have accidentally killed and eaten Zeus, please click here.
. . .
The sun was low in the Olympian sky, turning everything just a little more golden than it already was in the home of the gods. Hera was the very definition of statuesque as she stared out at the view from her throne room, face impassive as marble, eyes equally unseeing. But inside her head there was turmoil.
There was still no sign of Eris, no indication that Hades was looking for the undead creature that protected the mortal sailors who had dispatched her husband, her son and probably her brother, Poseidon. Patience is a virtue but she felt that she was in danger of losing the initiative. Perhaps it was time to act, to take the throne as hers before she was outmanouevered by Apollo and Artemis. Maybe she needed to focus the attention of the other Olympians on the fleeing mortals, spin a tale that would paint herself in a favourable light as the resolute, faithful wife hunting down the clues of what had befallen Zeus.
It might just work.
“Still no news, Hera?”
The queen almost jumped in surprise at the voice behind her and she span round to see who had spoken.
“Athena! I didn’t hear you enter.” Hera instantly regretted not taking more of a pause before speaking, noticing her high pitch and almost breathless delivery.
Athena smiled. “That’s because I didn’t want to disturb your thoughts.”
“And yet, ultimately, you did. A subtle cough at the door would have been polite.”
“Apologies, my queen.”
Hera was wary of Athena and, although they didn’t actually dislike each other, they had little in common. Or perhaps it was that they had too much in common, both being shrewd players of politics. Unlike Artemis, the headstrong huntress, Athena was cool-headed and possessed a formidable talent for strategic thinking. She wasn’t surprised that it had taken so long for Athena to visit and no doubt she would have been doing some investigation of her own. Nevertheless, Hera smiled a welcome. “So. What brings you here?”
“I think we all know, don’t we? We appear to be missing a king. Tall fellow, beard, throws lightning bolts and has a prediliction for seducing mortal women.”
Hera smiled thinly. “Sounds familiar. You have spoken to others about this?”
“One or two.”
The queen nodded. “Please,” she indicated a pair of stools on the white marbled balcony, “sit. And perhaps I could take your helmet and spear?”
“Thank you.” The goddess sat, removed her helmet but retained it and her spear. “I’ll hold on to them as I doubt I will keep you long.”
“As you wish.” Hera sat on the opposite stool and decided to get her questions in first. “Have you heard anything about where Zeus may be?”
“A little. Not enough to make sense. Not yet. Something about an island.” Athena’s eyes were locked on to Hera and the queen became aware of a high-pitched whistle in her left ear. It was the same sound she used to experience when Zeus drove her to jealous, despairing – but mostly suppressed – anger. She tilted her head and hoped it would go away.
“I’m also aware of my half-sister, Eris, being…” Athena turned her head to look outside while she selected the right phrasing, “unusually busy. She’s either cooking up another scheme of mischief or she’s running errands. Or both.”
The queen smiled. “She’s certainly a wilful character.”
“You’ve not spoken to her recently?”
“Not that springs to mind, no.”
Athena nodded almost imperceptibly.
Hera might not have been as tactically sharp as the Goddess of Wisdom, but she knew a lot about body language and she could sense a change. “Apart from a brief conversation by the falls a day or so ago.” A slight tightening of Athena’s lips told her that she’d been right to divulge the information.
“What did you discuss?”
“I believe it was the same topic you came to talk with me about. You’re not the only one who has been making enquiries.”
“Hmm.” Athena’s eyes flicked back to the throne room behind them. “Do you miss him?”
“Do I…? Well, I’m not sure I’ve quite considered it. One gets so used to his ways, disappearing for days on end before turning up like a well fed dog that’s uncovered a freshly buried corpse. He’s Zeus.” She shrugged. “I’m sure he’ll come crashing in at some point.”
“But you’re not missing him?”
“He’s my husband and my brother. His place is here with me.”
“That is your head talking. Places, roles. Duty. What about your heart, Hera?”
Hera stared at the younger goddess. The whistling in her ear was louder. Suddenly she sighed, her shoulders slumped and she looked down at her hands in her lap. “I’m sorry, Athena. I try to put on a brave face, expecting him to roll in on a thundercloud any moment, but it’s always so hard. I never know where he is,” she swallowed, “who he’s with, what he’s doing. And I never know if I want to find out. And it’s the same now. Do I want to find him? Should I just wait for him to come back whenever it pleases him or should I go looking?”
Athena rested a hand on Hera’s knee. “And have you been looking?”
“Yes, of course,” she snapped, pulling herself together. She figured that she’d exposed enough anxious fragility to keep Athena at bay for the time being. “I went to his island. No sign of him. So,” she shrugged again, “I’m currently trying to keep some order here while I wait for him to return.”
“So you expect him back?”
Hera raised her eyebrows. “Why wouldn’t I? If the king of Olympian gods can’t look after himself, who can?” She allowed the corner of her mouth the merest suggestion of a smirk and her heart thumped hard at the prospect of seeing this through to the end. But to her annoyance the high-pitched whistle in her ear showed no sign of abating.
The Sun Barge lay with its prow nestled on a small pebbly beach between two large rocks, the remaining crew searching for food ashore. As far as Xanthius could see there were slim pickings. Not that he was particularly bothered, being released from the shackles of corporeal hunger. Still at heart a lazy sailor and not knowing much about foraging, he’d sat on the rock where Nadina had rested her spear and helmet, saying that he would keep watch. He gradually puddled down into his rags.
Nadina and Galapera, on the other hand, were scouring bushes, pulling up roots and investigating a couple of rock pools. “Are we going to light a fire for cooking?” asked Galapera, “Only some of this is going to be right tough raw.”
“We’ll decide when Philippus and Micon return. They may have found some people living nearby and might not want to attract attention.”
“Well I hope they get a move on. It’ll take a while for the water to heat up… oh, bugger!”
Nadina looked around and saw Galapera standing with her hands on her hips and mouth drawn into a tight line. “What’s the matter?”
“I’ve been so used to having all my bits and bobs over the past however many years that I’ve only just realised I haven’t got any of it with me. Nowt. I can’t cook owt, can’t even prepare owt. What were I thinking, gallivanting off with you lot? I could’ve been tending my garden, having a nice brew and instead here I am,” she waved a handful of earthy roots at Nadina, “picking up barely edible scraps for people I hardly know.” She threw them onto the floor. “And the one fella I do know happens to be dead and isn’t bloody hungry.”
Nadina stepped over to Galapera and gave her a hug. “I’m hungry and I’m sure you’re more than a little peckish. And no doubt our friends will return soon, probably empty handed, so we’ve just got to see what we can do. Perhaps we can improvise.”
The elderly woman looked around for things that could be used for cooking and her eyes fell on the bronze war helm, once the possession of Ares but now requisitioned by the nymph. “How about using that helmet as a cooking pot?”
Nadina grimaced. “It’s got a leather lining. And Ares wore it a lot, from what I can tell from the sweat stains and the smell. And there’s dried blood in some nooks and crannies. I even pulled a bit of bone from the lining near the cheek guard.”
Galapera sniffed dismissively. “Well that’d take care of the seasoning, then.”
“Come on,” said the nymph as she guided Galapera towards some spindly trees, “let’s collect some kindling in hope that we can get a fire lit and cook some of those little crabs we spotted.”
A starling dropped lightly onto the uppermost branch of the tallest tree and watched them approach. Nadina glanced up at the bird and narrowed her eyes. Galapera followed her gaze and said flatly, “Well, there’s not much eating on one of them.”
“Not much, but some,” replied the nymph. “Pass me a small stone.”
Galapera bent down, selected a smooth, pale stone and handed it to Nadina who hadn’t taken her eyes off the bird.
“Thank you. Now, walk over to your right. I need you to attract its attention a little.”
“How do I do that?”
“I’m sure you’ll think of something.”
Tutting and rolling her eyes, Galapera stomped off up a gentle slope until she reached some small shrubs. She got onto her knees and dug around the roots, flicking earth, plant debris and a small worm in the direction of the bird in its tree.
The starling, Nadina noted, didn’t move its head once, focusing purely on Nadina.
“You ‘aving any luck, girls?” Xanthius’s voice rang out and suddenly the bird’s head snapped around to find the source. Nadina whipped her forearm forward, releasing the stone in a perfect trajectory. The bird reacted a fraction too late to avoid the stone, but moved just enough to receive a only a glancing blow. It fell to the ground in a flurry of feathers and the nymph raced forwards to retrieve her prey.
A shrieking wail of rage crashed against her, the sound stopping her as abruptly as if she’d run into solid rock. Dust swirled and electricity crackled in the air.
Eris was furious. And her ribs hurt, so much so that her roar only got worse as it moved from anger into pain and back again. She drew herself up, in her own form once more and held her side as she took a breath.
“Who,” she gasped, “dares assault a god of Olympus? Dares to strike a daughter of Zeus himself?” Her eyes locked onto Nadina who was slowly backing away from the enraged goddess. Eris took a step towards her. “I will push my arm down your throat, slashing your insides with my nails and then I will pull your bones out of you, removing each one from your gaping, jawless mouth. I will shred your heart and lungs. I will…”
A rain of earth and pebbles struck the left side of her face and she halted.
“Give over,” said Galapera. “All she did were knock you out of your tree. Not much of a god if you can’t take a bit of rough and tumble.”
Eris turned her head to stare at the old woman on her left, lips curled in a silent snarl. “I will bury you where you stand and keep you alive while soil clogs your nose and mouth and eyes for all time.”
There was a rustling, pattering noise. Eris hadn’t picked up on it sooner due to being preoccupied by her own ranting. It was coming from her right. She snapped her head around to see what looked like a war helmet and spear charging at her amidst a flurry of rags and bones. She planted her feet and raised her hands to send the force of an Olympian god at this new threat when suddenly the spear held in what appeared to be the creature’s right arm detached and flew laterally towards Nadina. Eris followed its flight in confusion and so barely saw the helmeted skull launch itself straight at her head with a bloodcurdling cry of its own.
Eris saw stars and staggered backwards, bringing a hand up to her right temple where the bronze helmet had cannoned into her head.
“Gotcha!” said the skull of Xanthius, grinning up from the ground.
Another whack across the head came from Nadina, wielding the spear like a staff. A swift poke of the butt end into the midriff put Eris on her backside in the dirt, too stunned to think. The sharp tip of the spearhead was pressed against her neck.
“Hello,” said Nadina. “I think we need to have a talk.”