After retrieving her spear from the corpse of the soldier, Nadina joined Galapera and Xanthius on the path leading back down to the beach. She could hear Xanthius checking that his beloved really was alright.
“I’m fine, Xanthius, stop mithering me. Let’s just get back on that daft boat of yours.” They hustled down the path as quietly as they could, wary of stumbling into more soldiers. Eventually they turned a final corner and found the rest of the Sun Barge crew peering through the foliage at the beach. Sastrios, who had been watching for them, put a finger to his lips.
“Soldiers,” he whispered. “There were some up at our hut and there are eight of them looking at our boat, but we don’t know how many there are altogether.”
“There’s three less than they started with,” muttered Galapera.
A distant shout sounded through the trees above them. More cries of alarm followed and Nadina looked back up the track. “I think they have discovered that they are not alone on this island. We need to get onto the Sun Barge, now.”
Philippus turned to her, eyes wide. “Are you mad? There are eight heavily armed soldiers out there and all we’ve got is one spear and a knife.” Galapera waved her bloodied dagger at him. “Oh, one spear and two knives. That makes all the difference, doesn’t it?”
The God of Wine reached into his bag and pulled out a tiny chest made of dark wood with bronze hinges and intricate inlays. “I think this might help,” he said, setting the miniature chest on the ground. “Keep your eyes on the beach, I just need to do some spatial adjustments.” He lay on his stomach and squinted. After a few breaths he stood up and opened the lid of the large wooden chest that sat on the path.
“Cor!” exclaimed Xanthias, as his empty sockets appraised the gleaming weaponry lying within the chest, some beautiful, others far more functional. He reached forward and caressed one of the bronze swords, encased in a decorated scabbard with jewelled pommel and leather grip. The dead sailor lifted the sword and eased the weapon out of its protective covering, the blade gleaming with a promise of happy violence.
“Only swords, axes and some small buckler shields, I’m afraid,” said Dionysus, “no spears or war shields. But this should give us the edge we need to get back on the boat.”
Micon gazed down at the weapons with a frown. “But you’re a god, can’t you just, I dunno, magic them away? Or give them a hangover, like the last lot?”
Dionysus patted the mortal on the shoulder. “Ah, Micon, it’s gratifying that you have such faith in me, but gods can’t just do anything we like; we have limitations. I can do great things with grapes, but I can’t turn blood into wine. And even if I do try the hangover trick again, they’re still between us and the boat, and when we attack them I think their warrior training will still kick in. Now stop whinging and grab a bit of pointy metal.”
More shouts came from the path behind them causing the soldiers on the beach to begin walking towards their hiding place. The three sailors and the god quickly armed themselves with swords and shields the size of large dinner plates. Galapera gripped one of the bucklers in her left hand but wrinkled her nose at the heavy bronze swords. “I’ll stick with this,” she said, waving her murderously long, thin dagger once more. The satyr and centaur favoured long-handled axes.
Crashing footsteps could be heard getting closer and closer down the path. “We need to guard our rear,” said Sastrios to Amykos.
“Indeed, Sastrios. This is our island, our trees, our path. Let’s haunt the invaders with our true woodland spirits.”
“I think I can help wiv a bit of haunting, too,” grinned Xanthius, and the three of them melted into the undergrowth to ambush the first foolhardy soldiers to come down the path.
“Time to go,” said Nadina and she strode out onto the beach.
“Hang on,” said Dionysus, “I haven’t had chance to… ” He closed his eyes, waved a hand and hoped for the best before following the warrior nymph. Micon and Philippus tentatively stepped onto the sand after them with Galapera bringing up the rear.
“Leave this place,” commanded Nadina to the soldiers who were already preparing their weapons for battle, spears and shields held facing the crew. One of the soldiers barked out a short laugh and told them to drop their weapons.
“Come on, guys,” said Dionysus. “Just bugger off and we won’t have to kill you.”
More laughter came from the eight soldiers, cut short by a scream from the woodland.
“That’s one of your blokes being killed by one of our blokes,” explained the god. Another cry of pain. “And another one. We’re serious. Get out of the way or die.” He waved his hand again but either his hangover power had deserted him or these soldiers were too focused to notice.
With just twenty paces between the two sides the soldiers attacked. Nadina swept her spear like a staff, hard and low, breaking the legs of one soldier and flooring another. A third was knocked out by a swift pounding into the face by the spear’s butt. Dionysus parried a spear thrust from a fourth soldier with his buckler and deftly decapitated his assailant with a swish of his sword.
Micon and Philippus, meanwhile, were being pushed back by soldiers five and six, the sailors’ inexperience showing. They gritted their teeth as they were driven along the beach, further away from the Sun Barge.
Dionysus and Nadina swiftly despatched their remaining opponents with synchronised thrusts to the stomach and turned to see Micon pushed to the ground, his attacker about to end his life. Galapera launched herself at the soldier and drove her dagger into his shoulder, causing him to drop his spear and flail a fist at the old woman’s head. That was all the time Micon needed to recover and skewer the soldier’s groin with his sword. The soldier screamed in pain and fell to the blood-splattered sand.
Galapera, stung by the punch, had staggered close behind the soldier engaging Philippus. She stooped low and kicked hard at the back of the soldier’s right knee. He crashed down to the sand in surprise and Philippus hacked his sword deep into the exposed neck.
The god and the nymph hurried over to the mortals and helped them to their feet, checking for injuries. Satisfied that they were unharmed, Nadina began to usher them towards the Sun Barge but at that moment more soldiers began to spill onto the beach from the woods, clearly terrified of something behind them. The lead warriors paused when they caught sight of the carnage that had just occurred on the sand. They drew up in a cautious defensive line that grew into a solid square mass of troops as their remaining comrades assembled with their spears pointed to the rear to protect against whatever murderous force had attacked them.
Micon looked at the Sun Barge, situated halfway between the would-be escapees and the phalanx of soldiers. “Can we get on board before they reach us?”
“I don’t think so,” said Philippus. “They’d reach the ship at the same time and we can’t fight them all off.”
“What about your vessel, Dionysus? The one you shrank?” asked Nadina.
The god patted his bag. “I still have it, but it takes time and careful positioning. And if anyone looks at it from the wrong angle , it won’t work. I’m not sure we can ask that lot,” he pointed at the soldiers, “to look away while I try.”
“And what about Xanthius and the others?” said Galapera, “We can’t go anywhere until they’re back.”
“Here they come,” said Nadina, tipping her head to indicate a break in the gorse bushes and trees further to their left. The centaur, the satyr and the walking nightmare that was Xanthius strode onto the beach, causing uneasy fidgeting in the mass of soldiers. The zombie sailor had discarded his rags and was, if anything, even more terrifying as a sword-wielding naked skeleton.
“I get the feeling that those soldiers are scared stiff. Perhaps we can negotiate with them,” suggested Micon.
“I don’t think we have much to offer them other than becoming their slaves, which isn’t exactly going to help us escape,” replied Philippus.
“We can tell ‘em we won’t slaughter them all,” said Galapera, grimly.
Dionysus sheathed his sword. “Let me see what I can do.” He stepped forward and waved a hand. “Hi! How’re you doing? Look, awkward situation and everything, but we’re just trying to get back on our boat.” He glanced down at the corpses at his feet. “There was a little misunderstanding and these men attacked us. I don’t suppose they’re anything to do with you? If so, very sorry, won’t happen again.” He stopped walking and talking and tried to gauge how he was doing.
“He’s a bit of an idiot, isn’t he?” whispered Galapera.
“He’s either an idiot or inspired,” replied Philippus.
Two of the soldiers broke rank and walked towards the god. One was young, sword still gripped in his hand while his slightly older comrade carried a spear. It was the younger soldier who spoke. “You admit to doing this? And those creatures,” he pointed his sword at the trio that had joined the rest of the crew, “are with you?”
“Well, yes, we did and yes they are. But they’re a great bunch once you get to know them. Maybe we could… you know… have a drink together. I’ve got some superb wine you can have, you’d love it. What do you say?”
The older soldier peered at him. “Who in all of Hellas are you?”
The god straightened his shoulders and told him.
There was a pause and then the soldiers looked at each other. Their mouths twitched and then they laughed. “Dionysus? The son of Zeus?”
“Umm, yep. Have we met before?”
The soldiers turned and shouted the news back to their troops. More laughter rang out over the sand.
The younger soldier brought his eyes back to Dionysus, his face once more serious. “I do not know who you really are and I do not care.”
“Okay, but if we crack open a few wineskins…”
“And you have slain our brothers and for that there must be vengeance.”
“Honestly, it’s amazing stuff. I really think you ought to try it.”
The older soldier raised his hand and gestured for the soldiers to form up for attack.
Dionysus sighed. “Oh, bollocks.” He turned back to the rest of the crew and gave an exaggerated shrug. “Sorry!” he shouted. “It looks like we’re going to have to kill this lot as well.”
“Kill them as well?” gasped Micon. “There’s got to be forty of them!”
“Oh, no,” said Amykos with a soft chuckle, “barely thirty-odd. We’ve despatched almost twenty of them between us already.”
“But that wasn’t a pitched battle! We can’t go one-on-one and… and… oh, shit, here they come!”
Nadina strode into a central position next to Dionysus, spear held ready. Xanthius stepped up beside her with Amykos to his side on their left flank. Sastrios took the right flank next to Dionysus who patted the satyr on the head with affection. “You’ll be fine with me, bud.”
Micon and Philippus edged their way forward to form a tentative second line with Galapera in the middle, behind Nadina. “Remember,” said the old woman, “you don’t have to be fancy or wild, just stab the bastards as accurately as you can.”
The line of soldiers had been advancing at walking pace until they were ready to charge, their black and brown leather contrasting with ominously sharp shiny bronze; silver and gold decorative inlays glinted in the sun. The sun that suddenly seemed, to Philippus, so much brighter. Micon’s hairs stood up on the back of his neck and he knew it wasn’t because of the imminent threat of death by spear or sword.
“Fall back!” he shouted, looking wildly around. “There’s something coming!” Philippus stared at his friend and then pulled Galapera backwards. The front line of the Sun Barge crew took a step back and glanced at each other in confusion.
A soft rippling, popping noise could be heard over the swish of the waves breaking on the shore and the jingling rattle of the soldiers’ advance. An advance that stumbled into an abrupt halt as everyone on the beach stared at the new arrivals that had appeared between the two opposing forces.
“Gods,” said Philippus.
Dionysus sighed. “Yep. All of them.”