The noon sun burned down on the column of staggering, groaning and quietly cursing geriatrics that wound its way into the town. At the head of the shaggy grey rabble two old women conversed with bowed heads, gesturing with bent fingers.
“This had better be the place, Hera. My knees are killing me.” Athena rubbed at her right joint to get the circulation going.
“It’s my left hip that’s causing me problems. How mortals put up with this is beyond me. I can’t believe how weak and decrepit they are.”
“Or how strong?”
Hera fixed her rheumy eyes on the wrinkled face of the Goddess of Wisdom. “This is not strength by any definition.”
“And yet they go on like this for years, decades. We’ve only been in this form for a morning.”
“We are gods, Athena. We are not supposed to suffer. We are perfect.”
“Tell that to your son. The one that’s still alive, with the limp.”
Hera glared at the other goddess, biting her tongue.
Another trio of doddery gods joined them, aches and pains obliterating their usual keen senses. Even Eris was unaware of the bitterness steaming out of Hera. Apollo stretched his back and a winced as it gave an unhealthy crack.
“Right,” said Artemis. “Let’s get this over with. I’ve had enough of this ridiculous farce.”
Athena smiled. “Patience. First we need to locate someone in authority and ask about recent visitors.” Hera muttered something astringent under her breath and set off towards the centre of the town. The other gods shuffled after her.
A short amble later Hera found herself in a main square where a few market stalls had been set up by local traders. A couple of soldiers rested in the shade against a wall. Hera plodded over and prodded one of them in the arm. It was a nice arm, she noted. A firm, bronzed bicep. She stared at the mortal flesh, her brain disengaged from rational thought.
“Yes, mother?” said the soldier. “Do you need some assistance?”
She stared up into dark brown eyes and swallowed. “I… uhh… you’re very handsome.”
The soldier’s companion sniggered.
Athena swept, with a little huffing, to Hera’s side and pulled the queen’s hand off the soldier’s arm. “Sorry, gentlemen, she hasn’t enjoyed male company for some time.”
“I can imagine,” chuckled the second soldier. “I’m sure Diogenes here would be up for a quickie.” This was followed by an explosive “ooof” as he received an elbow in the ribs.
“Can we help you, ladies?” asked the one with the arms and the eyes.
“We were just wondering,” said Athena, “if there had been any unusual visitors to the island, and where they might be right now.”
The soldiers exchanged glances.
“When you say ‘unusual’,” said Diogenes, “do you have any particular definition in mind?”
“A couple of sailors, perhaps?”
“Just a couple of sailors?”
Athena nodded as sweetly and deferentially as possible. She became aware of Hera staring at Diogenes’ legs and reaching a hand out to stroke them. She slapped it down.
“Truth be told,” said Diogenes as he glanced up the road to the palace, “a couple of sailors are not what I would call unusual. Especially today.” He turned his attention back to the two old women. “And what would you want with them anyway?”
“I bet they just need some seamen up their rigging – owww!” The second soldier hopped away in response to a swift stamp on his foot.
“Excuse my colleague.” He smiled and Hera went all warm inside.
“We just need to ask them some questions,” said Athena. “We believe they have some information of use to us.”
“Um, well, to…” Athena faltered, “to… the priests of the temple.”
“Well, perhaps that’s for the priests to decide?”
“Indeed. But we know the questions to ask. If you’d take us to the sailors we’ll gather any useful information and pass it straight on to the priests.”
“Hmm.” Diogenes looked at the pair of crones before him. They were rapidly overtaking the pair of scruffy sailors they picked up yesterday in the ‘unusual’ stakes. Not as unusual as the stories he’d heard of centaurs, satyrs and a wave of illness, but perhaps there was more to them than met the eye. “Alright, I’ll take you up to the king and you can talk to him.”
Athena nodded and gave a thin smile. “Wonderful.”
“Shall we go?” The soldier raised his hand to usher them up the road to the palace.
“Indeed. Lead on, my good man.”
Diogenes set off and the goddesses followed, arm in arm.
“Pull yourself together, Hera,” hissed Athena.
“What? I… I don’t… what’s happening to me?”
“You’ve been in mortal form too long.”
“It’s only been a morning!”
“But thanks to that broken, old body you’re more aware of mortality than ever before. It tells you its pain, its aches and its desires.”
“Mortal desires? I doubt it,” snorted Hera.
“Just get a grip.”
“I’m completely under control, thank you.”
They walked on behind the tall figure of Diogenes. “Although,” continued Hera, “did you actually feel his arms?”
“No,” said Athena with a sigh. “But I definitely wanted to.”
“Is this your island, then?” asked Micon. “We’re heading right for it.”
Galapera, Amykos and Sastrios looked out from the bow at the lump of browns, greens and greys protruding from the sea.
“Well, to be honest,” said Galapera, “I’ve never really seen it from this angle. Last time I arrived I were shipwrecked on some rocks at night.”
“I know what you mean,” agreed Amykos. “We’re not used to looking at it from the sea either.”
“It looks the right one to me,” said Dionysus. “Isn’t that the beach where we went ashore?”
Xanthius nodded. “Looks like it. I spent best part of a day with bugger all else to stare at.”
“It’ll be good to get back home. We’ll have a nice meal and work out where you’ll all be staying.”
“Staying? For a night for good?” said the centaur. “We can barely feed ourselves, never mind five extra mouths.”
“Four,” said Xanthius. “I don’t need anyfink.”
“Three,” added Dionysus. “I won’t be staying long. I’ll keep checking in on you, obviously, but there are places to go, people to visit. Plus, I can get some vines growing for you.”
A thought popped into Micon’s head. “Do you have any fishing nets? If not, I could probably make a small one. I used to do a lot of fishing with my uncle when I was a kid. And with a boat like this we could have fresh fish every day. That’d help, wouldn’t it?”
Nadina took his hand. “It would, Micon. Very much.” Galapera smiled at the couple but Philippus looked away. It was all going to end in tears, he just knew it.
The Sun Barge slowed from its unnatural white-water-wake speed as it approached the beach and gently nudged its bow into the sand. They jumped down and started to hike up to their huts.
“You all go on ahead,” called Galapera as she took the higher path, “I’m going up to my garden. I’ll bring some food over in a little bit. Get a fire going, boys.”
Amykos waved in acknowledgement and bent down to whisper in the satyr’s large ear. “We haven’t tidied up, Sastrios! We left the place in a complete state!”
“Oh, well, I’m sure they won’t mind.”
“You run up and sort it out then.”
“But you’re so much quicker and nimbler than me.”
Sastrios, rolled his eyes. “Fine.” He loped off up the path.
Diogenes rapped on the large wooden door of the king’s palace. Nothing moved inside. He knocked again and presently a scuffling noise was heard and the door swung open, revealing an elderly servant who squinted up at the soldier.
“What is it?”
“Greetings to you, too, Matinus. I bring visitors for the king.”
“He’s not well.”
“Yes, I heard all about it.”
“So goodbye then.” The servant made to close the door but Diogenes placed his foot in the gap and leaned forward.
“These visitors,” he whispered, “might know something about what happened this morning. They are asking to see the two sailors.”
“But they’ve escaped,” Matinus whispered back.
“I know, but these old crones don’t seem to know that.”
“So why bother the king with all this nonsense?”
“I’m just a simple soldier, but I felt it was my duty to inform the king of this and let him decide what to do with them. Or are you making decisions for his majesty now?”
The servant grunted. “The only decisions I get to make around here are which bloody job to do next. Fine. I’ll go and tell him.” He disappeared into the dark interior.
Diogenes glanced down at the stooped figures on the step below him. “Won’t be long, ladies.”
Hera nodded and tried to stop admiring his strong, solid calf muscles. Athena thought that the soldier and servant had whispered conspiratorially about something but her aged ears had failed to pick up what was said.
More shuffling came from within and Diogenes could just make out the pale face of King Silichtypo. He held a damp cloth to his forehead.
“What is it, Diogenes? Matinus said that you had some visitors or something? Can’t it wait until tomorrow? I’ve got a terrible headache.”
“These two fine ladies wanted to speak to the sailors we… ahem… met yesterday.” He raised his eyebrows in a ‘know-what-I-mean?’ gesture.
The king squinted into the daylight and took a step forward. “They do, do they?” He peered over their heads. “And what about them? Who are they and what in Hades do they want?”
Diogenes turned and stared at the shambling mob of decrepit beggars and grey haired itinerants that were queued up behind them.
Hera smiled a gummy grin. “They’re with us.”
“We were wondering,” began Athena, “whether you were sharing your hospitality with a couple of sailors.”
“Smelly, scruffy sailors,” added Hera.
“Because we’d very much like to question them about a few things.”
The king thought about it briefly. It had definitely been an odd couple of days and he didn’t like it. Best put it all behind him and go back to bed. “No. Go away, hags.”
Diogenes winced. Aristocrats were a rule unto themselves. He turned to Hera and Athena opened his arms in an apologetic shrug. A third old woman pushed her way past the first two and, before the soldier could react, gripped the king’s throat in her arthritic claw-like hand.
“Listen, you pathetic mortal…” snarled Artemis. But her Olympian strength was sapped by her disguise and the king flicked her hand away.
“She grabbed me,” spluttered Silichtypo. “Kill her!”
Diogenes reached forward to pull the old woman away but Artemis had had enough. Light swayed around her as she took on her normal form as the Goddess of the Hunt; tall, athletic and quite capable of pulling the king’s head from his shoulders. She shrugged the soldier off her and grabbed the king by the jaw, lifting him off the ground. His feet kicked futilely as he tried to prise her hand away.
“Where are the sailors?” demanded Artemis.
“… glub …,” was all the king could manage, given the grip on his lower jaw.
Athena glanced at the rabble behind her and noticed that they were all giving up on their disguises now that Artemis has broken the dam. She sighed and did the same. Hera was busy helping the stunned Diogenes back to his feet and taking the opportunity to put her hands all over him.
“I think,” said Athena to Artemis, “that if you put him down he may be able to speak more clearly.”
The king was set back on his feet but the goddess kept a loose hold on his neck. She tried again. “Where are the sailors?”
“Gone,” whimpered the king. Now that he wasn’t being held aloft he wasn’t sure his legs were up to the job of keeping him upright. His knees had all the rigidity of rotting calamari.
“Gone where? How?”
“Escaped. There was…” the king tried to articulate the bizarre sequence of events. “A man came, asking questions. Then there was a monster, a hideous undead thing. It attacked us. And there were strange creatures, centaurs and satyrs. And a wave of sickness. And then they were gone. No-one knows where. You can have them, I never want to see them ever again.” He looked up into the eyes of the goddess and felt truly insignificant. “Can I go back to bed?”
Hera had somehow managed to pull herself together and had re-deified. “Was there a female warrior with them? With a war helmet and spear?”
The king shrank back from her glare. “Not that I noticed. But it all happened so quickly, I can’t be sure.”
Artemis shoved the king to the floor and he scrabbled back into the darkness, his hangover forgotten. “We spent all morning traipsing across this desolate shitty island in painful mortal form for this?” She shook her head and glared at Athena. “I’m going back to Olympus.” She folded into herself and disappeared. The assembled Olympian horde began flickering out of Earthly existence.
Hera turned away from the palace and stomped back down the steps to Eris who was, as usual, smirking. Hera leant into her daughter’s face. “This is your mess as much as anyone else’s. Find out what happened here.” She turned and strode back to Diogenes who had backed himself up against the palace wall. “And you,” she said, pointing an accusing finger, “you’re not that special.” She disappeared into thin air.
Eris took a deep breath and flickered away, only to reappear seconds later from around a corner as the herald, Mataki. “Hello again. I’ve been out for an invigorating walk. Have I missed anything?”
Galapera hiked up the hill towards her garden, her hands brushing through the leaves of familiar trees. It was good to be back home and now that it was safe once more she was sure that she’d never want to leave again. She passed through a small clearing filled with ferns and flowers warmed by sunshine blazing high overhead and glittering on the turquoise sea that lay on the other side of the island. She was so consumed with positivity and warmth as she strode back to her hut that she failed to notice the mast of a warship that was beached a short distance below.