I wish I’d brought my horse.
I had gone in looking for a deer. But after encountering that strange woman with her bear companion, I was determined to deliver bear meat for tonight’s dinner. It had taken another three hours, but I’d found one. I managed to get a clean, painless shot. But then I was tasked with hauling a bear carcass back to the camp. And that… that was not fun. By the time I got back, my muscles burned and protested enough that I wished I could just collapse in bed.
I wanted to just bring the bear to Eirene, who was in charge of cooking, meals, and other household chores. Despite how menial her job came off to a lot of people, she actually held a lot of power and authority. Sometimes she had more say than Akantha—though that may be more because they were lovers than because of hierarchy. But Tyche was not smiling upon me today.
“ODESSA!” the familiar loud bellow of Berenike greeted me as I crossed the border into camp.
I braced myself for impact. Berenike was known for being very physically affectionate… which wasn’t always the greatest thing in the world when she was literally the strongest person I knew.
And just like I predicted, Berenike came out of nowhere, throwing her arm around my shoulder to give me a half hug, considering most of my body was covered by the heavy bear corpse. Still, she squeezed me right up next to her.
“Welcome back, Ody! Damn, you got a bear this time?”
I wiggled my way out from under her and carefully set the bear down, leaning it up against the wooden fence. “I’m feeling extra gamey meat tonight, okay?”
“Nice.” Berenike smirked and crossed her arms over her chest. “So you’re horny.”
“I-” I cut myself off, glowering as I felt my entire face burn. “I am not. Look, I just met this girl-”
“-NOT a dryad, for gods’ sake that was three years ago!”
Berenike of Macedon was the strongest huntress in our clan. At thirty years old, she was known for felling the fiercest of wild beasts… and for bedding numerous women. Including a princess of Thessaly. In place of her husband. On her wedding night. I was glad I had been too young to be present during that quest.
Berenike was not a conventional beauty. She was tall, broad shouldered, and the most muscular woman I’d ever seen. She was a hulking warrior, intimidating to most men—but I still saw beauty among all her scars and calluses. She wore her brown hair short, down to her shoulders, unadorned with beads or thread. Her olive skin didn’t tan quite as dark as mine, but it was close. She had thick eyebrows and a strong nose. But there was a kindness in her chestnut brown eyes—this soft, gentle warmth, like the embers of a hearth. Though brash and boisterous as she could be, Berenike was kind. She was the kind of hero I aspired to be.
“Three years ago,” Berenike mused, a playful fire dancing in her eyes. “Still, your first time was with a dryad. I’m still impressed.”
“If you don’t shut up, I’m going to stab you with this arrow.”
It would be hard, but I’d do it.
She wore dark brown leather armor fitted over her short chiton, with a dark red chlamys to keep her warm. She even had arm guards and shin guards on. I believed today she was on guard duty, which was why she was geared up.
She laughed. “Relax, Odessa. So you met this… not-dryad in the woods.”
“You met this girl in the woods.”
I sighed in exasperation. “Yes. She was at Artemis’s spring. She had a bear with her. I thought it was going to attack her, so I shot it in the shoulder. But that pissed her off, and she came after me. I think I almost got skewered today.”
“Huh.” She tilted her head thoughtfully. “That’s not normally how someone falls in love. Nearly getting killed, I mean.”
“I’M NOT IN LOVE! I just—UGH!” I growled in frustration. “Will you stop teasing me? It doesn’t mean anything. I’ll probably never even see her again.”
“Hey now, I wouldn’t say that so soon. Or maybe do say it. Give the Fates some ideas.” Berenike grinned and winked at me. “But let's get this bear to Eirene, yeah? I hear we’re gonna be feasting tonight.”
I huffed, knowing my blush still hadn’t faded away. “I’ve been ready to hand off this bear to Eirene as soon as I saw the consequences of my hubris.”
Berenike snorted. “Wrong word. Horny—OW!”
This was going to be a long night.
I volunteered to help cook for the feast.
I liked cooking. It was enjoyable and a good way to get my mind off of the day’s events. I always snuck Erinys scraps—bits of meat we wouldn’t miss, like intestines and liver. It was messy work, but it required manual labor. And that’s what I needed. I needed to keep my hands busy, longer than any gear maintenance would take.
But even with Eirene giving orders and checking up on us, my mind wandered. My thoughts kept drifting back to the redheaded woman. What made her say that Artemis had forsaken her? What if I had actually invited her back to camp? What if…
I sliced the last piece of rabbit and tossed it into the stew. Why was meeting this one person cutting me up so much? We were complete strangers, yet… I couldn’t get her out of my head.
I heard a chirp—a warning from Erinys that someone was coming.
Tensing, I looked up from the pot. I saw that it was only Akantha approaching, and immediately relaxed. I was a bit surprised that she came all this way to talk to me, but I wouldn’t complain. Akantha was so busy these days, as both the head huntress of our clan and the high priestess back at the temple. We didn’t get to spend much time together. I was happy with whatever chance I got to talk with her.
“Do you have a moment, Odessa?” Akantha inquired, gettting straight to the point as usual.
“Of course,” I said. “Let me just stir this and then I can let it simmer for a bit.”
She nodded. “I only need a moment. We can speak here.”
I frowned as I began to stir the stew with a wooden spoon. “Is something the matter?”
Akantha was perhaps the oldest huntress in our clan. She appeared to be in her mid-forties, but there was an element of wisdom in her eyes that belonged to someone much, much older. Someone who had witnessed the rise and fall of nations… the births and deaths of kings. No one really knew much about her, despite her being our head huntress. We all knew she was a nymph, but what kind, we weren’t sure. The only thing we were sure of was that she had lived a lot longer than she looked.
But, as she was a nymph, Akantha was stunning. She was slightly taller than average, built lean and wiry like most huntresses. She had wildly curly pale blonde hair pulled back into a high ponytail—a stark contrast to her dark olive skin. Her eyes were a beautiful olive green. Today, she was dressed more casually, in a chiton that went down to her ankles, with a soft green peplos and leather girdle over it. Unsurprisingly, she was going barefoot. It wasn’t too unusual for us huntresses; I just hadn’t expected a random stranger I met in the woods to do it.
“No, not quite.” Akantha gave a warm, reassuring smile. “I just had a little chat with Berenike.”
I narrowed my eyes, turning to fully face her once I was done stirring. “Did she say something?”
Akantha clasped her hands together in front of her. “Only that she’s worried about you.”
My eyes widened. “Worried? Why is she worried? I’m… fine.”
“Are you sure, Odessa?” Akantha was always so… gentle… yet direct in her words. She had this quiet authority about her that no one ever questioned. “You haven’t been the same since you came home from your venture outside of the huntresses and the temple.”
“I’m fine,” I repeated, turning away. “It was nothing, Akantha. I just traveled a little. Worked as a hunter for some villages. It was a good experience.”
A little over a year ago, I was given leave from the Huntresses of Artemis to… go see the world, basically. I had grown up among them. I’d been raised by them. To be sure this life was where I’d be the happiest, I was given the opportunity to step out and see what life was like on the outside, with no repercussions if I chose to leave in the end. And so I left home for a year. I traveled Lesbos. I made some friends… and maybe an enemy or two, though I could never know for sure.
The only event that really stood out was that I had a dealing with Aphrodite. Long story short, I became friends with a man who came to view me as a little more than a friend. She tried to help ‘bring us together’ as she called it. Didn’t work. We ended up remaining friends in the end, but Aphrodite was offended with the outcome. Which is how I came to actually meet her. Needless to say, we weren’t on the best of terms. Aphrodite already had a bitter dislike of Artemis and her huntresses. But the goddess was mostly bothered by how her love magic… didn’t work on me. She interrogated me over it, and I didn’t exactly have an answer. She grumbled something disparaging about Artemis and then left.
Mind you, I didn’t hate Aphrodite. I just found her… meddlesome.
Akantha didn’t speak right away. She seemed to be studying my face—reading my expression. “As you say.” She turned away, making me realize she was backing off. “Odessa, remember you can always talk to me.”
My eyes widened. “I’m… fine. Really. There’s nothing wrong. I just… was startled by something I found in the forest today.”
Akantha glanced back at me. “What did you find?”
I hesitated at first. But… I trusted Akantha. She was like a mother to me. Hades, she might as well have been my mother.
“I met a huntress who said she had lost Artemis’s favor,” I said. “It…” I glanced down at the stew, steam pouring out of the pot. “It broke my heart.”
There was a pause. But Akantha nodded. She reached out to take my hands, clasping them in her own.
“I have had similar encounters, in the past,” Akantha told me. “Some were strangers. Others were sisters in the Hunt. Of course, something tells me there is a bit more to this than you are telling me… but I won’t pry if you don’t wish to speak of it.”
She gave my hands a squeeze and then let me go. She turned to leave.
“Wait,” I blurted. “Do you… know of any huntresses who fit that description?”
Akantha paused. She glanced back at me.
“There is… one I can think of. But she was never… officially one of us. She swore a vow to Lady Artemis, but she never joined the Huntresses.” Akantha glanced up at the sky—at the crescent moon where it shone between the trees. “You have heard of Atalanta, yes? The slayer of the Kalydonian Boar?”
My eyes widened. “Of course I’ve heard of her. The stories were all over the place last year. All of the great heroes were there. Meleager, Theseus, Castor and Polydeuces… It was a big deal.”
I’d been invited to that hunt. A messenger sent by Prince Meleager had come to Lesbos. The village I had been working at the time had pointed the messenger in my direction. Unfortunately, I had to decline the invitation. Not only was I not keen on hunting with a group of men, I didn’t want to anger Artemis by helping hunt down the beast she sent to punish Kalydon for forgetting her.
“Well, as far as I know… Lady Artemis was not pleased that Atalanta killed the punishment she set upon Kalydon.” She looked down, returning her gaze to me. “But that is all I know. Lady Artemis has been distant as of late.”
“...I see.” I frowned thoughtfully. “Well, I think I can understand Artemis’s anger in such a situation.”
“Indeed. But it is not something we huntresses should worry about. We did not participate in the Kalydonian Boar Hunt for a reason.”
Akantha excused herself then, leaving me to return to my cooking.
Dinner was always the best part of the day during our visits to the Valley of Artemis. We all gathered around a big bonfire, sitting on logs and tree stumps. There were no tables. We just sat together with plates full of fire-seared meat, bread, fresh fruit, berries, and cheese. Goblets of wine were passed around—wine from the finest vineyards in Arkadia. These gatherings were always loud and boisterous. You could get drunk off both the wine and the atmosphere, almost like Dionysus was among us.
Berenike was currently boasting about her most recent kill—a huge bear that had been terrorizing a farming village last week. She’d wrestled the thing down to the ground before snapping its neck with her bare hands. She was even showing off the puckering pink scar on her shoulder she’d gotten from it. I imagined it was embellished as Berenike tended to exaggerate her accomplishments, but it was a good tale.
I sat quietly on a stump, cross-legged with my plate of food resting on my lap. The cool night air was welcoming after today’s humidity. In fact, it was nice to wear a himation over my chiton. But I was keeping to myself this feast. I never was one to get too involved in such festivities anyway. I was content to eat and drink and watch everyone else have fun. I was happy as long as I was with my family.
A huntress from another clan took over storytime. I picked up a grape and popped it into my mouth. My mind began to wander, as I looked around the campsite. I looked at the trees, where I knew Erinys had gone off to hunt for her own dinner. I was about to look away to see what everyone was laughing about, but something stopped me.
A flicker of white.
I frowned. It was gone as soon as it came.
I glanced back at the other huntresses. They were laughing about some joke Berenike said. I looked over at Akantha, where she sat on a log with Eirene, watching the banter with amusement in her eyes. It was rare to see them both in a peaceful moment like this, with how they were both so busy. I remember, as a little girl, wanting to find someone who I could just… be with, like Akantha and Eirene. Maybe part of me still wished for that kind of love, but there were more important things to wish for.
I knew even less about Eirene than I knew about Akantha. She came from somewhere south of Greece. She was a petite woman—even more petite than me. She had long, silky black hair, deep brown skin, and silvery-blue eyes. She was even quieter than Akantha, but she had a softer air about her. When I was little, she was the one who patched up the cuts and scrapes I earned from exploring the island.
I heard a rustle behind me. I looked back just in time to see another blur of white. I turned back towards the gathering. Everyone was busy laughing and having a good time… I doubted they’d miss me if I slipped into the forest for a little bit. I wanted to know… if the white stag had come back.
I set down my goblet, grabbed one last bunch of grapes to finish on the way, and slipped into the trees behind me.
Erinys noticed the change. I sensed her alter course, heading towards me. I squinted, adjusting to the lack of firelight. Some moonlight seeped through the leaves of the canopy above, but it was still much darker than at the fire. I paused by a tree, looking around for any signs of the white creature that had passed by. Nothing caught my eye, so I crouched to the ground to look for tracks. I stayed near the edge of the forest, trying to find where this animal had walked by.
Deer tracks. It took me a moment to make them out, but I finally found them. They obviously belonged to a stag—and a large one, at that. Was it Artemis’s sacred stag? I would have to find it to see.
I ventured into the forest, watching my step. Erinys circled above me, looping closer and closer, as she kept an eye out for the gleam of white. Though it was true that most birds of prey could not see at night, Erinys could. I always figured it was because she wasn’t a normal hawk. The fuller the moon was, the clearer she could see.
I followed the tracks. They led deeper into the woods, farther and farther from the campsite. I think I walked for about ten minutes, while going slower than usual since I was tracking. Even in the dark, I had a general idea of where we were heading. There was a small clearing not too far into the forest around Artemis’s sacred hunting grounds. There, in the center of the clearing was an apple tree. I wondered if this stag was heading for that tree.
I reached the edge of the trees, where the clearing opened up. In the moonlight, I spotted the apple tree, laden with fruit. Even the leaves seemed to glitter under the moonlight. And there, walking towards the tree… was the very same white stag I had seen seven years ago.
It was a large beast—the largest deer I had ever seen. A pale ghost of a creature, drifting towards the tree without a sound. His fur was as white as I remembered, but seemed to gleam like silver in the moonlight. He had a massive rack of antlers, covered in soft velvet. Even at this distance, I could see muscles rippling under his thick fur. What a magnificent, otherworldly creature… I could barely believe I was seeing this sacred animal a second time.
The stag paused at the base of the tree. He reached up to pluck a plump apple off one of the branches. He moved with such quiet grace. This animal was divine. I could sense it now—the energy I had not understood as a child. And I realized at that moment that nobody could find this stag under normal means. He had to want you to find him.
But why… had he wanted me to find him? Why did he lead me here?
I looked up at the sky. It was dark, save for the half-moon and the countless number of stars. It was beautiful and calm. I caught a glimpse of movement and looked over to see Erinys perch in a nearby tree. I looked back down towards the stag. And nearly jumped out of my skin.
The stag wasn’t alone anymore. There was a woman. Another woman surprised me. Really? I could not mention this to Berenike.
The woman stood beside the stag, gently running her fingers through his thick fur. She was tiny next to him—tinier than even me. Slim and petite, she was a wisp of a girl. But a power radiated from her—a soft silver glow that shimmered around her form, like moonbeams. Even without this… aura, I could tell she was a fierce hunter. I knew what that looked like—wiry muscles, sturdy limbs, graceful movements. She gazed upon that stag with a tender affection, like a mother watching her child.
She had to be around my age—eighteen or nineteen, give or take. She had long, straight black hair that cascaded down to her waist, with a crown braid threaded with silver woven around her head. Smaller braids done with rectangular silver beads adorned the rest of her hair sparingly. Her olive skin was tanned from days of hunting, quite similar to my own complexion. She wore a gray leather strophion visible underneath a loose-fitting white chiton that only reached down to her knees. Black leather archery bracers protected her arms. A black girdle secured her waist, accented with silver thread and an upside down crescent moon as a buckle. Her silver sandals laced all the way up to her knees. Everything she wore was embellished with silver and accents related to the moon.
She looked up, like she felt my gaze. Her eyes landed on me—brilliant silver, gleaming like moonlight. And on her forehead was the mark of a silver crescent moon, upside down. Exactly like mine.
“Odessa.” She spoke, in a smooth, resonant voice that almost echoed through the clearing. The moon shone brighter. The night wasn’t so dark. The forest stirred. And it was all in response to her voice. “We meet at last.”
As soon as I said her name, I knew it was true.
The goddess didn’t take her eyes off me, yet continued to pet the stag beside her. “I have been waiting for this moment—the day I met you in person. I tried to send my messenger to bring you to me years ago, but… Akantha was overly worried about your disappearance.”
My eyes widened. “You know Akantha personally?”
Amusement twinkled in her eyes. “Indeed. Akantha and Eirene are two of my handmaidens. I sent them with you, to take you to Lesbos… far away from Ithaka, where they hunted you like prey, to end your life, despite it only having just begun.”
“Ithaka…” I had never been there, but I knew it was the sister island to Kephallonia. It had once been ruled by the great Odysseus. Now his descendants sat on the throne. “I’m from Ithaka?”
She nodded. “Yes.”
I frowned. “Why were people trying to kill me?”
“Because you are the eldest daughter of Queen Elpis of Ithaka. You are the great great granddaughter of Odysseus and rightful heir to the throne.” Artemis raised her free hand, and I felt my pendant be pulled out from under my chiton. “The blood of gods and heroes runs through your veins, Odessa. My Huntresses have been protecting you as I have asked them to, ever since my brother received a prophecy involving you.”
All right. So this was getting crazier and crazier.
“I’m sorry, let me get this right…” I glanced down at the pendant, the one thing I had left from my past. “You’re saying that not only am I a princess… but I’m descended from one of the greatest heroes of all time… and there’s a prophecy about me!?”
“Of course,” Artemis said very matter-of-factly, as the stag picked another apple from the tree and turned around to watch us. “As all heroes do.”
“I’m-” I was about to argue that I wasn’t a hero. I hadn’t done anything particularly heroic. I was just a huntress. I wasn’t a fighter. I couldn’t save anyone. I’d never been special for any reason, to anything or anyone. I was just… me. I was Odessa. But then I remembered that telling a goddess that she was wrong was probably not the best idea. “I don’t really see myself as the heroic type.”
“Every man who has ever dared to call himself a hero has proven not to be one.” Artemis’s gaze flickered to the stag. “Perseus only wished to save his mother. He did not have any grand dreams. And yet, when he found a stranger in distress, he postponed his journey home to save her. Who do we have today? Jason, who left his wife for another woman. Meleager, who let himself be consumed by lust, his fatal flaw. And now Atalanta…”
Her voice trailed off, as she looked at the stag, sadness reflecting in her silver eyes. She pulled away from the stag, returning her full focus to me.
“But that is not why I sent for you,” Artemis said. “I sent for you… to warn you of the difficult path ahead.”
I hesitated. “Difficult… path?”
“Your fate is intertwined with many others, gods and mortals alike. I cannot reveal the prophecy to you, as my brother insists it is not yet time… but the path ahead of you is bloody, full of twists and turns. Much like the Labyrinth down in Crete. It will not be easy—but you will not be alone. Other powerful maidens will join you, and if you lean on each other, you will succeed.”
“Artemis, I’m… afraid I don’t understand.”
My entire life, I’ve just… been a girl. A girl who loved the woods. A girl who loved to climb trees and play with wild animals. The huntresses gave up on teaching me in the usual setting, instead tying my lessons to read and write in with the nature I loved so much. Akantha always said I was wild at heart—that no man or woman would ever be able to tame me. And I suppose, in a way, that was true. Even Aphrodite had been unable to force her will upon me, though I was not foolish enough to take pride in that.
But I was just a huntress. A damn good huntress, but nothing else. There was nothing… special about me, save for the divine-mark on my forehead. I wasn’t strong like Heracles. I wasn’t fast like Atalanta. And I was nowhere near as clever as Odysseus. I was just a woman who was really good with a bow, who sometimes had some good ideas. I knew many women who were much greater than I.
Akantha… Eirene… Berenike. Hades, Berenike should be a hero in her own right already. She’d done so much for Greece.
But Artemis smiled at me, her eyes holding that same tender expression as when she gazed upon her stag. “Have faith in yourself, Odessa. In your friends. But do not let that faith blind you. Your love for your friends and family is your greatest strength… and your greatest weakness.”
I opened my mouth, ready to ask what in Hades any of this meant. I wanted to know more. I needed to know more.
There was a bright flash of light. I squeezed my eyes shut, turning away as I covered my face with my arm. But when I reopened my eyes and turned to where Artemis and the stag stood in front of the apple tree… they both were gone.
I stood there, completely in shock.
I heard a fluttering of wings and looked over to see Erinys perch on my shoulder. I realized I’d been holding all this tension. I let out a sigh, allowing my body to relax. I closed my eyes, giving myself a moment to breathe.
“Was that… even real?” My voice came out as a whisper as I looked at the hawk on my shoulder. “Or have I gone mad?”
Erinys chirped. The gleam in her eyes told me that it was very much real. I had just met my goddess.
“...We’re still not telling Berenike about this,” I muttered.
I turned around and headed out of the clearing to make my way back to the camp.