“Odysseus is mad.”
Eurylochus leaned in on his bow until only Elpenor could hear him. They hovered near a lighted torch on the furthest side of their beach camp. From where they were, Elpenor saw the great blue eyes of their ship peaking out from the water, which looked oily so deep into the night. On their other side, he only saw dim shadows in the dark wood.
“He misses home,” said Elpenor, himself leaning in, although he kept his back straight. “And he’s kept us alive.”
“By fighting a giant we had no business bothering?” Eurylochus challenged. He looked back at Elpenor from under a headband and dark-brown curls. “Now we’re stranded on this island, and more of us go missing every day. He swears there’s a witch.”
Elpenor’s brows arched downwards, his fine mouth settling into a frown. The woods beyond stayed quiet, and far enough away not to hide listening ears. “You don’t believe him.”
Eurylochus checked behind them to confirm that the men at the bonfire were still distracted. They did. Men sat languidly around the fire, telling tales and cooking meat until their watch. The boat remained quiet, the soft waves rocking it peacefully. “I don’t believe one way or another. I know I took a small group of men into the woods, and we found nothing but vines and wild sows.”
“Well,” Eurylochus began, “As far as I can tell, there’s not a stag, bull, or stud among them.”
“Odysseus came back with a stag not long ago,” Elpenor added.
“But have you seen any? In the wild?”
Elpenor couldn’t be sure. Not really. But all he’d seen were tails curled upright, and wide ears unguarded by antlers. No witches, only flashes of wiry hair and sorrel fur in the underbrush. “They’re blessed by Artemis, then. Or maybe he’s right, and there is a witch.”
“So,” Eurylochus said, voice tight, “either we worry about our king losing himself to grief, or there is a witch, and we must worry about her.”
Emphatically, Elpenor lifted and stuck the end of his spear into the white sand. “Either is better than…” he dropped his voice, “mutiny.”
Teeth grinding, Eurylochus straightened his back. They’d both seen what happened to the last ones who dared defy Odysseus, who had drawn them far off course while he slept. Eurylochus still remembered pulling what was left of them out from under the ship by a long rope.
The sharks trailed them for weeks after that.
Next to him, Elpenor moved to the right, his hand reaching out to Eurylochus. “We won’t be on this island forever. Zeus will favor us with wind soon.”
Tears welled up in Eurylochus’ eyes. “I wish I shared your belief; Odysseus isn’t the only one who longs to see Ithaca again.”
Reaching back, he clasped Elpenor’s hand.
“Odysseus is back!” Someone yelled from over by the fire.
Elpenor looked to the tree line. A group of eight or so men, their light blue uniforms visible only by the torches they carried, emerged from a new trail. When they saw the camp, a couple of them erupted into cheers. Two men in the center bore a heavy weight on a length of branch. Bringing up the rear, wearing a rich dark blue, was Odysseus.
“Looks like there was a boar on the island, your curse was for nothing,” commented Elpenor, gesturing to the heavy weight being born by two men in the middle of the pack. Dense with muscle, course, dark hairs adorned its body. It was tied by its hooves to a length of wood, and easily made the largest game they’d seen on the island. It stared at the group of men, dead eyes upside down as droplets of blood poured from its tusks. Upon approaching the fire, the returning party spun the pig around to show off its enormous snout, and its enormous testicles.
Elpenor broke apart from Eurylochus, his beloved since Troy, and grabbed his spear. Eurylochus watched him. “Just think about what I said.”
Nothing more was said, though Elpenor heard Eurylochus’ sandaled feet sticking in the sand as he walked back for muster.
“I’ve met with the witch again.”
Odysseus’ voice rang out over his assembled men as clear as a singer. Behind him, the meat of the cleaned boar cooked over the fire. The smell wafted across the beach as the wind carried the cooked skin and fat towards the assembled soldiers and sailors. Eurylochus stood at attention two rows ahead of Elpenor.
Odysseus had graying hair and the frame of a soldier-sailor fit to lead a company. The salt near his ears stood out even as his brown hair glistened in the light of the fire. Sparks broke free and made his eyes glitter.
When no one responded, he continued. “She has promised us safe passage, and food to eat.”
Unease twisted into Elpenor’s gut. He looked towards the dark nest of curls at the back of Eurylochus’ head, expecting him to give a meaningful, if non-clandestine, glance backwards. He did not.
“This is wonderful news,” said Eurylochus. “May we meet her? Has she invited us back to her home?”
“She says she will remain in the woods for now. Although, she has vowed we won’t go hungry.” Odysseus waved a hand, to pre-empt further questioning. “I understand your concerns. We’ve had a long journey, with many trials. I’m sure I’ll be able to earn her trust, but I need you all to trust me.”
Elpenor frowned, and something waned a little in his chest. He thought of Eurylochus’ warning from earlier. They relied on the kindness of a host none of them had seen yet?
Elpenor sighed, as the men were dismissed to eat and Odysseus carved the first large piece for himself.
Now, with the ranks split, did Eurylochus stop to make eye contact.
Elpenor held it, working out a silent argument as Eurylochus seemed stronger in his conviction, even if his eyes were wilder than Odysseus’ own. Looking at Eurylochus’ felt like mutiny.
A couple men passed between them, and Elpenor broke away first.
Elpenor took his share of meat from the carcass. It fell off the bone, into his hand. It was dark pink, fatty and sweet. One bite filled his mouth with salt and oil, and the coppery taste of flesh he hadn’t known in months.
After dinner, the men who had the night watch went to guard the torchlit boundary, staring into the shadows reaching out across the sand. Elpenor licked his fingers while some of the others paired off and went to the ship, the woods, or ventured further down the beach. Still more went to sleep on the boat or laid down by the dying embers of the fire to nap.
“Where would you like to go?”
Surprised, Elpenor turned to see Eurylochus standing over him, an arm on his hip. The wildness in his eyes from earlier was gone, and was replaced with a different kind of gleam.
He wiped the last of the grease onto his uniform, and rose to his feet, trying to contain the smile on his face. “Let’s go into the woods.”
Smiling, Eurylochus walked backwards by a few steps, his hand outstretched, encouraging Elpenor to follow him. He had a sort of half-walk, his feet sinking into the sand and dragging him down, making his shoulders lilt. Elpenor took a deep breath of the ocean air. Beyond, the woods sang. Occasional snapping twigs, or night birds. Nothing big, except him and his lover.
Perhaps Eurylochus was back to normal. Maybe all they needed was some time alone. They’d all been at sea, in close quarters, for months. It wore anyone down.
Elpenor followed Eurylochus behind a particularly large tree. It was a good spot, shielded on either side by feral olive branches. Reaching up to grab his neck, still turned away, Elpenor pulled Eurylochus close enough to kiss.
“Didn’t you see?”
Confused, Elpenor fell back to the tree. “See what?”
“He left with nine. He returned with eight.”
“What—Eurylochus, this again?”
Eurylochus pressed Elpenor into the tree, harder. “If the witch exists, why doesn’t she show herself?”
Elpenor, stunned, first took in Eurylochus’ hands wrapped around his shoulders, tightly enough that they ached. He thought of the bark of the tree scraping between his shoulder blades.
He pushed Eurylochus off in frustration. His lover staggered back with a confused expression.
“But no one is missing.” He kept his voice quiet, but the accusation still shone through. He hoped. There. Elpenor hadn’t been sure of it himself, but that was it, the key. He searched his mind, and hadn’t noticed anyone gone. They stood in rows. Even one missing person broke the formation.
Eurylochus opened his mouth to argue, and then shut it.
“See? No one got sacrificed to a witch because no one is missing.”
“…No, I can’t name anyone who is missing.” Eurylochus held his head, face twisted into deep thought. “But if this witch is real, maybe that’s part of her magic—”
“Perhaps it’s true what our king said, and he negotiated peace with her.” Elpenor reached out. “Please, Eurylochus, let us just lay down together.”
Eurylochus looked at his hand, and backed away, arms cooked tightly around his shoulders. “Can’t you see? He’s not well—”
“No, Eurylochus, speaking against our king is madness, and I’ll have no part of it.” Elpenor broke away from the tree. “I…come get me another night, when you’ve stopped this nonsense.”
He stormed back to the boat, and slept elsewhere.
Elpenor awoke on his bed on the ship to the sound of the waves lapping the hull. He smelled oil, and acrid, old sweat. The mixture should have been foul, but instead he found it comforting. Opening his eyes, he reached for Eurylochus’ usual spot next to him, and frowned when his fingers found cold linen instead.
Unease filtered into his waking mind. He’d missed a muster? It must have been called in a hurry.
Steadily, Elpenor rose to his feet, and stretched his arms, as he remembered the argument he and Eurylochus had the previous night.
He pressed a hand to his face. Things got out of hand so quickly. Fighting with Eurylochus was never his goal, and he felt like the island turned them against each other. The sooner they left, the better.
He didn’t agree that Odysseus was compromised, but Eurylochus spoke from a real—if deathly dangerous—place. Even if he didn’t agree, pushing Eurylochus away didn’t make him safer.
Elpenor, still hurting, rose to his feet. He needed to find Eurylochus, talk to him. Hermes would help them settle the debate. Or Aphrodite.
Emerging out into the beach, Elpenor saw a group gathered around Odysseus. His king’s face had a stern countenance, storm-like and ready to explode.
On reflex, Elpenor searched for Eurylochus. He didn’t see him in the assembly.
“Where is Eurylochus?” he asked someone standing near the rim.
Odysseus, eyes grim, turned to Elpenor. “He took a hunting party into the woods. Without orders. He hasn’t been seen since this morning.”
An icy snake coiled into Elpenor’s guts. “What?”
Odysseus dark brows were narrowed in thought. “I must consult with the witch.”
As Odysseus left, Elpenor sank into the beach.
Odysseus returned alone.
“Good news, men. The witch has told us how we may leave, although she says we must do one thing first.”
Elpenor wasn’t in formation this time. He heard the quiet assent from the rest of the men, and through his sorrow felt relief at the thought of soon leaving the island behind.
He sat on the sand with his chest tight. He wrapped his arms around his knees as tears dried in the heat, leaving streaks of salt behind. No one comforted him with Odysseus near, and neither did Odysseus seem to notice his grief pulling him down to the ground, making him ponder walking out into the waves and not returning.
He tapped his knee, attempting to calm himself. Eurylochus didn’t have to be dead. Dread Persephone, please don’t let it be true—
“Where must we go?”
“You’ll see,” said Odysseus, now seeming more boisterous, more normal, than he had in months. “Raise the sail and light the fires.”
Elpenor went to his job on the main sail. Even as his arms untied and unwound ropes, he felt empty.
They sailed immediately into a storm. Rain buffeted Elpenor’s lips, and wind knocked his hair around his head.
A man near the front begged Odysseus to turn back. “Where did the witch say to go? Surely she didn’t mean for us to travel in this storm.”
A violent wave crashed into the side of the ship, throwing Elpenor to the deck hard enough that his wrists ached. Still, he listened in horror as Odysseus went on.
“She says we must go to Hades,” said Odysseus at last, his strong voice getting so lost in the waves and the wind that most of the men didn’t hear him, and kept hauling their ropes and fanning the flame by the wheel. “This is the fastest way.”
A lightning strike revealed rocks—some jagged, some flat, all silvery in the flash from above. It took a Elpenor a heartbeat to see they were all in the ship’s path, and another longer to realize there was no way to stop.
Odysseus stood, his hands coming off the wheel and spreading out to embrace the storm. “We go to Hades!”
He sounded like a hawk or a lion, a final, animal cry into the ocean and to the gods that had only cursed their journey.
Elpenor’s chest thundered and dizzied him. His vision swam, and he thought of Eurylochus. Eurylochus probably dead somewhere, in some hole on the island with the others.
He dropped the rope, and it unwound behind him in the wind.
Others had the same idea, but some of them tangled in the torn mast, or were rowing below, and wouldn’t be able to see where Odysseus guided the ship. Terrified shouts began to sound, only to be drowned out by the thunder.
Elpenor had a foot on the rail.
When the ship impacted, he fell forward. He wasn’t ready, and the water wasn’t ready for him, and he knew by the slap against his face, chest, and legs.
The waves should have thrust him into the rocks, sentenced him to the same death as his fellows.
Instead, the impact of the ship hitting the rocks blew him away. He was thrown upside down, suspended in the crest of the wave as lightning flashed and revealed men underwater, fifty or so, already dead or unconscious. Rowers floated, crushed against each other and torn in halves by their oars. Part of the ship splintered on impact, and the rest sank slowly into the sea, no longer able to hold itself above water.
Elpenor held his breath, drawn under by the current until his lungs felt hot and raw. In another moment, he’d take in water, and he’d die.
With a final burst of will, born from years living by the sea, he thrust upwards, and the ocean let him break free. Those years saved him as he blinked saltwater from his eyes. Only the jagged ruins of Odysseus’ ship greeted him.
Elpenor awoke with waves lapping at his feet. There was no storm, only a quiet, full moon watching overhead.
He blinked, fingers sinking into wet sand. Coughing, he spat sand and water up onto the plank of wood under his chest. Pain lashed through him, and he collapsed back onto his raft.
Struggling to work his mind, he figured he’d been carried to shore by the grace of Athena, or spared by the queen of the dead herself, working through a scrap of wood.
Thinking of the gods made him realize he wasn’t alone.
A woman stood before him, dark haired and silvery by moonlight. Next to her stood four boars. They watched Elpenor through dark eyes, each a solitary shadow next to her bright body.
She had a long, strong frame, with muscles born from a life of living alone on an island. Her eyes shimmered with light, like a glowing, living sheen over an inlet, visible only by night. She wore only the gossamer moon, and she looked—
Elpenor’s eyes fell to the boars at her side. He almost felt like he knew them, would have begged them for help.
She didn’t say anything, nor did she need to. He knew her name without asking—the way he knew the sky gods lived, or that rain was coming.
Elpenor screamed and heard only a long squeal.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Core Walker is a queer, speculative fiction writer from the Pacific Northwest with a particular love for mythology, horror, and twisted little tales. You can find them on Twitter @CWalke81.
The featured image of Odysseus on the hunt is in the public domain and was located via the Wikimedia Commons.