The morning air above the beach shimmered and – with a soft, rippling, popping noise – the Olympians burst into earthly existence. Eris strode into the middle of the beach, noting the tree she had sat in when in avian form, the bank of sandy ground she had threatened to bury the old mortal in and the spot where she had been floored by a flying skull. The spot where she had subsequently been threatened at spear-point by a warrior nymph. Annoyingly, the bizarre trio and their peculiar boat were nowhere to be seen.
Hera walked over to her daughter. “Is this where you last saw them?”
Eris nodded, lips tight, jaw clenched. Although it was perfectly possible that they had decided to leave after she slipped back to Olympus, she hadn’t really expected them to have shown such initiative. Mortals were supposed to just dumbly potter about their silly little lives without considering anything more important than finding the next meal or rutting opportunity. It all left her feeling uncomfortably embarrassed, especially with all of the other gods looking on.
Artemis strode across the damp sand wearing a face that displayed just how unimpressed she was. “There’s no-one here, Eris. Have you got the right place?”
“Yes, it’s the right place.” Eris barely held back the snap and sneer she felt brewing within.
“So they’ve left. And we don’t know where they’ve gone.” The Goddess of the Hunt narrowed her eyes . “That’s if they ever even existed.”
“I may not know where the nymph and the undead creature have gone, but I know where the two mortal sailors are. And those are the ones that killed and ate my family. They are prisoners of the king of this island.”
“So why are we here?” asked Artemis.
“Two reasons,” said Eris, enjoying the chance to assert her greater tactical thinking over the more senior goddess. “Firstly, capturing the three with the boat would have ensured that we could control the mortals by threatening their friends, as well as depriving them of their enchanted vessel. The second reason is that the king is assembling an army and the sudden appearance of dozens of Olympians in their midst could have caused some upset and injuries. Normally, I would have been all in favour of such things but Athena has suggested a more boring approach.”
“Not boring, Eris, cautious and responsible,” said Athena, joining the other three goddesses. “So, we need to follow that path to the town, I assume.” She pointed over Hera’s shoulder at a faint track that led up a hill away from the bay.
Athena turned to address the other deities. “My friends, the mortals we seek are held captive in the main town of this island. To avoid alarming the local population,” and to avoid any more unexpected Olympian casualties, she thought, “we must be inconspicuous and not draw attention to ourselves. We will adopt our usual disguises and walk to the town.”
There was a distinct lack of activity. Hera raised an eyebrow at the collection of gods. “What are you waiting for?” She changed shape into something more humble.
There was a rustling of mumbles and sighs as the immortals morphed into their chosen forms. Once she was satisfied that everyone was in disguise, Hera led a small army of bent, aged beggars up the track away from the beach.
Nadina and Galapera had edged further along the track that wound from the hillside down to the cove where the Sun Barge gently bobbed up and down. It was a short distance from the island’s main port, away from prying eyes of fishermen but close enough for a rapid escape from the town. The women had initially sat in the Sun Barge but time and nerves had pushed them over a hundred paces from the water’s edge.
“They should have been back by now,” said Nadina.
Galapera shrugged. “Who can say how long it should take to rescue a couple of dozy sailors?”
“They are not dozy.”
The older woman smiled to herself and said nothing.
Nadina contnued to stare up the track. “I should have gone with them.”
“We’ve got a centaur, a satyr, a…” she stumbled, trying to think of how to describe Xanthius, “a bloke so stubborn he refuses to die and an actual god on the job. If they can’t bring them back I don’t know what good you’d be. Besides, we’re supposed to be watching the boat and I’d rather not do it alone. It gives me the heebie-jeebies.”
“I might just go up to the top of the hill to see what-” The nymph stopped abruptly and listened. Rapid footsteps and low voices could be heard heading their way. A few seconds later six figures appeared at the trot, Philippus riding on the back of Amykos.
“See,” said Galapera, “everything went perfectly fine.” She headed back to the boat and after a moment’s hesitation Nadina joined her. If the men were being pursued they needed to be able to put to sea immediately.
Once she’d helped Galapera into the Sun Barge, she commanded it to turn and point its bow to the open sea. It had just finished the manoeuvre as her panting crewmates arrived. Her eyes fell on Micon’s swollen nose and bruised eyes. She hugged him in a tight embrace, one so severe that Dionysus had cause to intervene to save Micon from being crushed to death.
“I’m so glad you’re alive!” she said, holding Micon’s face between her hands before kissing him gently on the lips. “What happened? Are you badly hurt?”
“I’m fine, honshly,” said Micon through clenched teeth. The grip the nymph had on his jaw made talking difficult. “Philippush got the worsht of it.”
Nadina finally let go of Micon and looked at the other sailor as Sastrios helped him off the centaur’s back. She gasped as she took in the swollen eyes, the bruising and the blood. She carefully embraced him. “It’s good to have you back, Philippus.” He hugged her back, too tired and wracked with pain to say anything.
Micon felt a pang of jealousy at the embrace, one that he knew was unwarranted, stupid and selfish. This was also the case for the happiness he felt when he got a kiss and his friend didn’t. No-one had told him that emotions in relation to the opposite sex were so confusing and bizarre.
Dionysus, who had spent the last few moments checking for pursuing soldiers, shepherded them onto the Sun Barge. With a command from Nadina they sped away from Psyra, a frothy, churned sea in their wake. No-one gave the island a second glance.
Athena and Hera shuffled along, bent over matching gnarled walking sticks. Hera gave a heavy sigh and stopped. She straightened up as much as she could in her current mortal guise and rubbed the small of her back.
“This is taking a lot longer than I thought, Athena.”
“Yes. I’m surprised that mortals don’t just kill themselves once walking gets too difficult. I’ve never experienced such tedium. And parts of me ache. I don’t like it.”
Hera smiled to herself. She’d never heard the Goddess of Wisdom sound so grumpy. She turned to the old woman behind her and noticed the smirk on Eris’s face. “How much further is it, child?”
“Oh, we’re not even halfway yet, mother.”
Groans came from the nearest gods who had heard the unpleasant news.
“Why don’t we, as Olympians, just step over to the top of that hill,” said Artemis pointing into the distance, “and transform back to our doddery mortal disguises once we’re there?”
“Oh, but we would lose the authenticity and forever feel cheated of achieving our victory through real hardship.”
“Shut up, Eris. I know you’re enjoying all this.”
Eris sniffed and studied the opposite horizon.
Athena nodded. “Yes, this is definitely harder than I thought it would be, and much further too. We will assume our normal forms and gather under the tree on the large hill over there.”
There followed a discussion about which tree on which hill, with gods looking down the pointing arms of other gods, until Hermes zipped over to one of the possible destinations and waved at them.
“I meant the one to his left,” grumbled Artemis as the deities flipped out existence and reappeared next to the Messenger God. After even more pointing and discussion they transformed back into their arthritic, grey-haired personas and continued their slow advance.
Micon and Nadina stood at the bow, their arms linked and salt spray flicking into their faces as they willed the Sun Barge to increase the distance from the island. Galapera tended to Philippus as best she could, using some fresh water that Dionysus had earlier plucked from his bag and enlarged using his godly powers. She glanced over at him, wondering what his plans were now that the sailors had been rescued.
Dionysus carefully picked up his tiny boat from the nook where he’d stowed it and placed it back into its storage box. The box went back into his bag and he patted it happily.
“Well, that’s a job well done and now it’s time to take this awesome fella,” he said, pointing at Xanthius, “down to Hades. No offence, mate.”
“None taken,” said the skeleton. “It would’a bin nice to hang about wiv the crew a bit longer… especially, Galapera.” He looked down at her and shrugged. “But it looks like it’s time to go.”
Galapera bit her lip and swallowed.
“Can I just say something?” said Sastrios.
“Absolutely,” said Amykos, “some fine last words to our noble friend.”
“No, it’s more of a proposition. I’ve had an idea and it might just appeal to our favourite deity.” He pointed at Dionysus to ensure everyone understood.
“Go on,” said the god, “I’m listening.”
“Well, you need to take Xanthius to Hades in order to get your mother back from the Underworld?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Can I ask how long you’re expected to take fulfilling this task?”
“I don’t think any time period was discussed.” He shrugged. “Whenever.”
“And how long has your mother been in the Underworld?”
Dionysus puffed out his cheeks and blew air from his lips as he did some rough calculations. “A fair few centuries, I’d say.”
Sastrios smiled. “Would it be fair to say, then, that time is not exactly of the essence?”
“Go on.” The god’s eyes had narrowed.
“Well, would it hurt if you allowed Xanthius and Galapera a little more time together before you take him down to Hades?”
“How much time?”
“Ooh, how about a year?”
Dionysus opened his mouth but Galapera got their first. “Let’s face facts, I’m no spring chicken. It won’t be much longer before I’ll be crossing the Styx meself. I probably won’t last a year.”
There was a chorus of ‘no’, ‘surely not’, and ‘you’re fitter than me’ from the rest of the crew. She fixed her eyes on the God of Wine. “You’ve been waiting for centuries, surely hanging on until I pop off isn’t too much to ask?”
The god scratched his chin and thought about it. And broke into a smile and then laughed. “Oh my days, that it brilliant. I get my mother back, as an immortal, and I don’t actually have to do anything except wait a little bit. You’ve got a deal.” He held his hand out to the satyr. “That is a spectacular plan, Sastrios, you cunning little bugger.”
There were handshakes and hugs all round as they took in the new situation of having one less thing to worry about. They settled down against the hull, feeling the warm sun on their faces.
After a few moments Philippus broke the contented silence. “So, where are we going now, then? We were heading for Crete but that was only to get away from Dionysus.”
“I’ve always wanted to see Crete,” said Sastrios.
“We’re not going to Crete,” said Amykos sternly. “They torment bulls and I don’t think they’d take kindly to us.”
“How about we just go home?” said Galapera. “Back to our island. The only reason we left was because Dionysus showed up. I’ve got some veg to water.”
“Yes, that’s probably the best idea,” agreed the centaur, “and we can have a nice meal and enjoy being back home where we belong.”
The boat shifted direction under them, the sun swivelling through the sky.
“Well, it looks like that’s where we’re headed then,” said Micon. “Fingers crossed that we’ve given Hera the slip for good.”
Nadina and Philippus exchanged glances and said nothing.