Mornings in Artemis’s sacred valley were slow. Everyone stumbled awake at their own pace. Some huntresses—such as Berenike and whoever she shared her bedroll with that night—staggered out of their tents closer to noon. Some were still hungover from the night before, nursing their migraines with more alcohol. A few huntresses would slip out into the forest to go hunting for the day’s rations, while Eirene saw to breakfast being made of the previous night’s leftovers.
As for me, I woke up at my usual hour. Our tents were all sectioned off in our own private areas throughout the camping grounds. My little corner was near the edge of the woods. My tent was supported by a young birch tree, where Erinys had built herself a nest for our stay here. Inside, it was pretty simple—a bedroll with some cushions, some furs in case the nights got too chilly, a short foldable table to set dishes and goblets on, and a pack full of clothes and other items. I didn’t have many personal belongings; as huntresses, we kept our loads light. We had to be ready to go at a moment’s notice.
Outside of my tent, I had more of a sitting area—a fur rug spread out over the ground and another small table. On that table sat a platter of breakfast foods. It was mostly fruits and cheeses, with some cold meat leftover from last night. I sat cross legged next to the table, picking apart bits of cheese and meat. Some of the meat got tossed to Erinys, who was sitting on the fur rug, a couple feet away from me.
But I was content, sitting here with only my hawk for company, eating my fill. I was still only in my night chiton, since I wasn’t in a hurry to do anything today. Because it was relatively early still, the camp was mostly quiet. Most of the older huntresses were awake. Every now and then, someone would pass by us. No one really paid me any attention, which was fine by me.
I tossed another sliver of meat to Erinys. She snapped it up faster than I could blink. I picked up the peach I’d been saving for last and took a bite. Sweet juice followed the fruit’s flesh, nearly dribbling down my chin. Damn, I’d picked a ripe one.
I heard footsteps as I took another bite. I looked up to see Akantha approaching. I finished chewing and swallowed right as she came to a halt at the edge of the fur rug. Judging by the serious expression on her face, this wasn’t a casual visit.
“Odessa, may I have a word?”
I nodded, setting down the peach and wiping my mouth and hands off on my linen napkin. I stood up. “Is something wrong?”
“Not quite,” the head huntress said, her green eyes uncharacteristically steely. “I received a vision last night.”
My eyes widened. “A vision?”
There was no one else around. Either it was by chance or Akantha had ordered the other huntresses to give us privacy. Erinys unfurled her wings and took to the air, perching on a branch of the young birch tree.
“Indeed,” Akantha said. “The slayer of the Kalydonian Boar is in grave danger.”
“Atalanta?” I frowned. This seemed almost random, if not for the fact that we had discussed her just yesterday… but Apollo liked to think he was clever. This was probably part of some scheme. “How?”
Akantha closed her eyes. “I saw a temple… the temple to Kybele on the road to Onchestus. Young Atalanta was there, along with a young man whom I could not recognize. They seemed to be passing through, seeking refuge on a long journey… but Aphrodite was angry at them.”
Having the goddess of love angry with you was never a good thing. “What... happened?”
Akantha let out an exhausted sigh, reopening her eyes. “Aphrodite made them go mad with lust. You can probably imagine what happened next.”
I made a face. “I can’t imagine Kybele was happy with that.”
“No,” Akantha said. “She was not. She was quite offended. Before they could even… finish, she turned them into lions. In the most agonizing way possible. I…” She grimaced, reaching up to run a hand through her hair. “I can still hear their screams.”
Hades… Why did the gods have to be so spiteful? A mortal so much as breathed in their direction and they would find that offensive. That was a horrible way to go, even for their standards. I didn’t even know how to respond.
Akantha dropped her hand. “Apollo has shown me this for a reason. I’m not sure what game he’s playing, but… perhaps he is aware that Lady Artemis still concerns herself with Atalanta, despite her broken vow.” She looked down at me. “Odessa, I would like you to go to Lykosoura and observe what is going on there. And if Atalanta needs your aid, please lend it to her. I cannot condemn anyone to such a horrible fate.”
“Wait… me?” My eyes widened. “Why me? Why not Berenike or…”
“Odessa.” Akantha placed her hand on my shoulder. “Have some faith in yourself. You are the only huntress in our clan who has yet to take upon her own quest. It is long overdue. Besides, I believe you are more qualified to handle this task. Berenike is very skilled, but… she lets her base desires get in the way of her duty.”
I winced. “Well, that’s one to way to put it… but how could I possibly be more qualified? I’m no warrior, Akantha. I’m no hero.”
“There is much more to being a hero than physical strength, my dear.” She reached out to touch my forehead, brushing her thumb over the divine-mark. “You have a brilliant mind.” She dropped her hand to take mine and place it over my heart. “And a heart filled with love to show the world.” She let go of my hand, but I was so stunned I couldn’t move. “You are the one meant for this quest and no one can tell me otherwise.”
I glanced down at my hand, where it still rested over my heart. If Akantha believed in me that much, how could I refuse to accept the quest?
I lowered my hand. “All right. I’ll do it.”
She gave one of her rare warm smiles. “I am pleased to hear that. But I will leave you to prepare.”
“But…” I hesitated, as she began to turn to leave. The one thing that had been bothering me since last night had come to mind. “How long were you going to wait to tell me that I’m a princess?”
Akantha paused. She glanced back at me, her expression now unreadable.
“It was never relevant. But I see that Lady Artemis has determined otherwise.”
So she did know… I was still so confused about my past and why it was hidden from me. What did it matter? I couldn’t inherit any throne.
“Do not worry yourself over Ithaka, Odessa,” Akantha said, her tone shifting to gentle. “But do be careful in Lykosoura. There is a forest near the palace—a forest whose depths have been corrupted into a swamp by a vile hydra. This hydra has been plaguing Lykosoura for weeks now, but they are waiting for Heracles to come slay it.” She turned her back to me, about to leave. “Do not let delusions of grandeur convince you to attempt to slay it yourself. We don’t need to lose you.”
With that, she walked away. I watched her until she disappeared out of view, leaving me standing there in silence. I looked up at Erinys, where she was still perched in the tree. I sighed, forcing myself to release the tension from my body. I hadn’t realized I’d stiffened up during that conversation.
“Well, Erinys, looks like we’re going on a quest,” I said, though I really did not sound thrilled. “I better start packing up.”
I glanced down at where my last bit of breakfast remained. My barely touched peach sat on the platter, with a single bite just showing the edges of the pit inside. There was no way I could not finish that.
“...But after breakfast.”
I plopped back down in front of the table and retrieved my peach.
It took a couple hours to finish my breakfast and prepare to leave. After getting dressed, I retrieved my horse from the makeshift corral and brought her over to start packing saddle bags. I had to leave the furniture, as that belonged specifically to the clan and there was no way I could carry it on the back of a horse.
I was doing one final check. Everything was packed and secured onto the saddle. I slung my quiver over my back. I did the same with my bow. I was about to look for Erinys when a familiar boisterous woman stopped by.
“Hey, Ody!” Berenike greeted me cheerfully, holding up a waterskin. “Akantha told me you’re finally going on your first quest!”
“That I am,” I said, continuing to look for Erinys anyway. I sensed her nearby, but she wasn’t coming. Gods, was she making me talk to Berenike?
“You get to meet the famous Atalanta, huh?” she mused, before taking a sip from her waterskin. “Heard she was raised by bears. Do you think she could wrestle one?”
“I—I don’t really care if she can wrestle bears.”
Berenike raised an eyebrow. “What about wrestling you?”
“I’m not into that sport and you know that.”
She grinned. “Never said I was talking about the sport, Ody.”
“You—UGH!” My face burned out of embarrassment and frustration alike. “Not everything is about sex.”
Berenike crossed her arms over her chest. “Now that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”
I groaned. “I am not going on this quest for pleasure. I’m going on this quest to stop a hero from being turned into a lion because of overindulging in pleasure. I have a serious job to do, Berenike.”
She shook her head. “You are such a stick in the mud.”
I sighed in exasperation, pressing a hand to my temple. “What do you want, Berenike? You didn’t come all this way to harass me about my love life, did you?”
“More like lack of love life.” When I gave her a sour look, she laughed and threw her arm around my shoulder and pulled me close. “C’mon, Odessa! Relax. I just came to see you off. You’re like my little sister, you know.”
“Oh, I’m well aware,” I sighed, before wiggling out of her grip. “But thanks. I think.”
“But in all seriousness,” she continued, “how are you feeling? It’s not everyday you get to meet an actual real hero.”
I winced. “I won’t lie, I’m a bit nervous… Atalanta’s tale is inspiring, if you ignore the fact that she went against our goddess.”
Berenike grimaced at that. “Fair enough. You think you’ll be able to work with her?”
“I have to.”
She nodded. “True, that… Well, Ody, you’ll be in my prayers. I’m sure Akantha and Eirene and everyone else will be praying for you too. We have faith in you. You’ll be fine.”
I wished I could have the same confidence for myself.
But I managed a smile. “Thanks, Berenike. But I should be off.”
I couldn’t help it. I gave her a hug. As much as she frustrated me with her relentless teasing, Berenike was very much an older sister to me. No matter what, she always looked out for me. She always wanted the best for me. Unfortunately, that often manifested in her teasing me about my love life and other things. But I wouldn’t trade anyone else in the world for her. We were sisters in the Hunt.
Berenike froze for a moment, probably surprised by the display of affection. But she returned the hug, giving me a tight squeeze. When we pulled back and took steps back, Berenike smiled down at me with warm pride.
“Go get ‘em, Odessa. Show them what you’re made of.”
I nodded. I would do just that.
After saying goodbye to Berenike, Erinys returned to my side and we could finally head off. It would take a day or so to ride to Lykosoura, if nothing got in the way. But knowing my luck, there was always something. There was always something slowing me down. Whether it was wild animal trouble or some idiot getting attacked by bandits, there was always some problem that my conscience wouldn’t let me ignore.
Today, it was wild animal trouble.
It was about noon. Since I was halfway to my destination, I decided to stop to rest my horse and eat lunch. Erinys had flown off to keep an eye out for danger, while I set up for a small picnic. Eirene had sent some leftovers with me. I had just sat down and opened up the basket when I heard barking.
I looked up to see a horse come bucking down the road, chased by a pack of wolves. The man riding the poor thing was screaming. He yanked back on the reins, which only made the horse whinny in protest and rear up.
I fought the urge to sigh. Instead, I grabbed my bow, nocked an arrow, and shot the wolf that was about to nip at the horse’s ankles. The arrow went right through its eye and it dropped dead. The other wolves yelped in surprise and scattered. That gave me time to nock three more arrows—one for each of the remaining wolves. But then they noticed me. I aimed and fired right as they began to charge at me. All of them fell, each shot a clean kill.
I stood up. This was a shame.
The horse threw its rider. The man hit the ground with a loud thud. I fought the urge to sigh. So much for a smooth trip to Lykosoura, right? I grabbed my quiver and threw my bow over my shoulder, just in case, and then walked over to where the man now sat in the dirt road.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
I backed up, giving him space as he heaved himself up onto his feet. He brushed off his clothes, wincing a bit. He couldn’t have been much older than me, maybe nineteen or twenty. He wasn’t very tall and was kind of scrawny. Honestly, he was kind of effeminate, with smooth sandy blond hair that reached down to his shoulders, fair skin, and light blue eyes. A man as pretty as this was definitely out of place in the middle of nowhere in Arkadia. Someone like him should have guards.
“Now I am,” he said sheepishly, rubbing the back of his head. “You saved my life! I was sure we were going to be wolf chow.”
“Well, I’m glad I could help,” I said. “You’re not used to traveling, are you?”
His eyes widened and then he winced. “It was that obvious?”
I nodded. Whoever he was, he wasn’t a threat.
He let out a nervous laugh. “Chaire, I’m Hippomenes, from Onchestos. I’m on my way to Lykosoura.”
“Nice to meet you. I’m Odessa.” I gave a polite nod. “Coincidentally, I’m also on my way to Lykosoura.”
“Oh! That’s wonderful, actually!” Hippomenes’s entire face lit up. “Perhaps we should travel together. It would be a lot safer. The wolves in these parts seem particularly, uh… vicious. And you seem like quite the capable hunter.”
“Well, I am a Huntress of Artemis.” I said dryly. “But I wouldn’t mind. The animals in Arkadia are much wilder, yes. The less that needs to be killed the better.”
“Oh, thank you! Thank you so much!” Hippomenes smiled. “I would be honored to be accompanied by a Huntress of Artemis. You are too kind, Odessa.”
...Well, that was a first. I decided that Hippomenes of Onchestos was not that bad after all.
“All right, well, I was in the middle of lunch,” I said. “We can leave as soon as I’m done.”
“Of course, of course!” Hippomenes nodded. “Not a problem!”
This… would be interesting.
It was late in the afternoon by the time we rode into Lykosoura. Erinys soared above us, scouting out the area.
I had never been to Lykosoura before. It was the largest city in Arkadia and was the capital. To the west of the city was the forest that Akantha warned me that that hydra lived. But as we entered the city, I could see that it was no different from anywhere else in Greece. The only aspect of Lykosoura that was unique was that Arkadia’s lush vegetation remained. The grass was greener. The trees were laden with fruit. Birds darted to and fro, singing happily. It was a lovely city.
“Where are you headed, Odessa?” Hippomenes asked as we slowed our horses to a walk.
“The palace,” I answered. “I seek an audience with the king and queen.”
His eyes widened. “You’re here for the footrace too? I suppose even Artemis would want an emissary.”
“...Footrace?” I repeated in confusion.
“You… don’t know?”
“No, I don’t,” I said with a frown. “What’s this footrace?”
“It’s for Princess Atalanta’s hand in marriage,” he answered. “Men are coming from miles around for the chance to race her. If you can beat her, you get to marry her. If you lose, you…” He grimaced. “She gets to kill you.”
I pulled my horse to a stop. “You’re serious.”
Hippomenes quickly halted his horse, glancing back at me. “I am? I’m here to enter the race.”
Of course he was. But he didn’t look like much of an athlete. This was going to end poorly. I fought the urge to sigh. How many men would I have to watch run to their deaths? Was this race her problem? Did this have to do with why she lost Artemis’s favor? I had no idea what was going on. I supposed I’d have to wait to meet Atalanta herself. And that was a daunting prospect.
“You want to marry Atalanta,” I said, just to clarify.
He nodded, urging his horse forward and we began to ride again. “She’s amazing. Beautiful and strong. The story of how she took down that boar… Awe inspiring.”
“...Have you ever met her?” I asked.
I fought the urge to sigh in exasperation. This happened all the time. A man hears of a beautiful woman and he wants to marry her immediately. Nothing else matters. Hades, that was how the Trojan War started. Sure, the goddesses didn’t help in that situation. But the cause of most problems was as simple as a man wanting a woman he couldn’t have. Even the gods weren’t immune to this.
I felt like I was stepping into the pages of a new myth.
“Right,” I said. “How can you love someone you’ve never met?”
Hippomenes laughed. “Eros struck me with his arrow, I suppose. Though what do you know of love, Huntress of Artemis? Aren’t you sworn off it?”
“Only love with men.”
I urged my horse into a trot. I didn’t really want this conversation to continue. Hippomenes still wasn’t nearly as bad as some people I’d met, but his cliche attitude about love kind of shifted my opinion of him. I didn’t think he was a bad person. Just… incredibly, incredibly naive.
There were different kinds of love anyway. Not everything was about romance.
The palace was at the center of the city, as they usually tended to be. A set of stairs led up to a column of pillars that guarded the entrance, along with actual guards. We rode up to the bottom of the stairs, where two more guards were stationed. We dismounted. I wondered what to do with the horses.
“Excuse me, I’m here to register for the race,” Hippomenes said to the guards. “And this huntress is here as the emissary for Artemis.”
“I never-” I cut myself off and sighed. “Yes, I’m here to represent Artemis.”
One of the guards glanced towards the other, who gave a shrug. He lowered his weapon and turned to us.
He didn’t have to tell us twice. He headed up the stairs and we followed suit. The guard stationed at the double doors opened them to let us inside. As we stepped into the palace, I realized this was the first time I had been in such a fancy place. Other than when I was a baby, anyway.
I preferred nature by far, but there was something beautiful about architecture. The walls were painted, depicting heroic deeds of ancient kings. Statues lined the hallway—marble busts, probably of the royal family’s bloodline. I couldn’t help but wonder where the current family was in the lineup.
The guard led us into what could only be the throne room. A large room opened up before us. White marble paved the floors. Woven tapestries hung on the walls—including one that depicted a redheaded woman stabbing a giant boar with a spear. Potted plants sat in each corner of the room. A couple of the plants were being tended to. A pleasant flowery aroma wafted through.
Guards were stationed at the door and at the sides of the two thrones at the far end. And on those thrones sat the king and queen.
King Iasus sat on his throne, leaning his weight onto the arm, looking mildly annoyed as a servant spoke to him in a hushed voice. It was obvious the man was tall; I could tell just from how he sat, his legs reaching out far even while bent. He was probably built in his youth. What had once been muscle had softened and gone to his belly. But he wasn’t obese. No, he was a middle-aged man who once had been a warrior and was far out of his prime.
He had bright red hair, probably once as fiery as the sun, now shot with silver at his temples and a few strands elsewhere. He wore it on the longer side, almost reaching his shoulders. His olive skin was weathered, confirming he had once been a warrior and spent a fair amount of time under the sun. He also wore a neatly trimmed beard, streaked with even more silver. His eyes were a cold, calculating blue. He was dressed in a long green chiton, with a vivid violet himation draped over him. A bronze circlet sat on his brow. He wore rather simple leather sandals.
The woman beside him, sitting properly but comfortably on the other throne, was clearly around the same age as her husband, but was still incredibly beautiful. I guessed Queen Klymene was about average height, but plump in the motherly sort of way. She smiled reassuringly at the servant and nodded, speaking to them in a quiet tone. The servant then hurried on their way.
She had pale blonde hair, curled in elegant ringlets. Her locks were pulled into an updo, with braids woven in around. Her curls framed her face, coordinating well with her bronze circlet. Her fair skin had aged well, with barely any blemish, which told me that she hadn’t experienced a single hardship in her life. She had kind brown eyes that reminded me vaguely of a hearth—warm and comforting. She was dressed similarly to her husband in a long white chiton and a brilliant violet himation. Her sandals were clearly made of supple leather, the bands reaching up underneath her chiton.
“Your Majesty,” the guard greeted, as the servant hurried past us. “I have brought another suitor and the emissary for Artemis.”
King Iasus waved him off. The guard went on his way.
“Another suitor?” the king sighed, as if it pained him. “How many is it now, Klymene?”
The queen paused thoughtfully for a moment. “...Twenty-five, my dear.”
“What a bother.”
“It was your idea, darling.”
Iasus let out a tired sigh, leaning back on the throne. “Present yourself, boy.”
“I am Hippomenes, second son of King Megaereus of Onchestos.” Hippomenes gave a hasty bow. “I trained under Chiron himself. There is no one else more suited than me to marry your daughter.”
...Wait. Hippomenes was a prince?!
“Ah, Megaereus’s younger boy.” Iasus nodded. “Well, boy, if you’re willing to stake your life on it. Those are the terms, after all.”
Klymene sighed. “You should have let her marry at her own pace.”
“Of course,” Hippomenes said. “My love for your daughter is so strong, it will aid me in overcoming any obstacle thrown in my path.”
I held my tongue. I wanted so badly to say, “You haven’t even met her.”
“Very well.” Iasus turned to one of the guards. “Take Prince Hippomenes to Philon so he can register and then be bunked with the rest of the challengers.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
Right before following after the guard, Hippomenes turned towards me with a stupid grin on his face before mouthing good luck. I stood there, still very much flabbergasted by his blind love, and watched him head off. Hippomenes was completely harmless. I really did not want to see him die for this supposed love he had for a woman he never had even seen before.
But finally… the king and queen’s attention landed on me.
“Welcome, Huntress,” King Iasus greeted me, his demeanor immediately shifting to more serious. “I have to say, I’m surprised Artemis would wish to send a representative to this marital affair.”
I highly doubted she actually would, but this was my cover. I had to make this work.
“Your daughter was an unofficial Huntress of Artemis,” I said. “It’s only natural for Lady Artemis to watch over her as she makes her first steps into a new area of her life. Of course, I can’t say my lady approves, but we are here nonetheless.”
“And we are happy to have you,” Klymene said, giving a warm smile.
“My name is Odessa,” I said, giving a short bow. “It’s a pleasure to meet you both.”
“You’re probably dying to meet Atalanta, yes?” Klymene asked, still smiling. “It’s true, she doesn’t have many friends, much less female friends. Having you around will do her some good, I think.”
“She doesn’t have any friends,” Iasus muttered. “Her only ‘friend’ is that bear of hers.”
“He has a name, dear. Argus.” Klymene shook her head and looked back up at me. “Atalanta should be out in the training field. It’s about the time of the day that she trains. Why don’t you go introduce yourself?”
I opened my mouth to speak, but never got the chance. Because someone came walking into the throne room.
“Pater, I bring news-”
A young man strode all the way up to the thrones. He wasn’t stopped by anyone. In fact, he only stopped because he noticed me. He hesitated, looking over at me with confusion in his eyes. And then back at Iasus and Klymene.
“Pater? Mater? Who is this?”
“Ah, son.” Iasus nodded to him. “This is our son, Diokles. He is adopted, however, to be our heir. But then Atalanta returned to us.”
Diokles was handsome, in a rugged sort of way. Even I could see that. Though tall and broad shouldered, he was clearly more lean than beefy—like a hunter would be. He had short dark brown hair that was growing out of a haircut. His olive skin was bronzed with tan, supporting that he spent a lot of time outdoors. His eyes were a sharp green. He wore a short brown chiton, with a violet chlamys over it, and worn leather sandals. He must have just come back from a hunt.
But something flashed in those eyes of his. At the mention of Atalanta returning. It was gone as soon as it came.
“This is Odessa,” Iasus introduced, gesturing to me. “She is here as an emissary to Artemis for the footrace.”
Diokles took full notice of me then. I was very aware of how he looked me up and down. His appraisal was not to assess my prowess in battle, but rather my feminine curves. It was true that my chiton was short, not even reaching my knees, but that was no excuse for him to so obviously check me out.
“I see.” Diokles flashed a brilliant smile. “Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Odessa. A shame we have to meet under such circumstances.”
“A shame? I don’t see it as such,” I said, ignoring his attempts to be charming. “I’m simply here to observe the footrace.”
Iasus cleared his throat, drawing our attention back to him. “You said you brought news.”
“Ah, yes, Pater,” Diokles said, immediately returning to business. “I ventured into the forest like you asked, to check on the hydra. And it’s not good.”
Iasus narrowed his eyes. “How bad?”
“The hydra has turned a good portion of the forest into swampland,” he answered. “At this rate, the entire woods may be swamp by the end of next month. We can’t afford to keep waiting.”
Iasus rubbed his face. “What choice do we have? Only Heracles has been able to kill a hydra.”
“Let me do it, Pater.” Diokles’s hand clenched into a fist. “You know me. I’m a capable hunter. I can slay it. I’m sure of it.”
Klymene paled. “Dear, I’m not so sure that’s a good idea.”
Iasus shook his head. “No. Absolutely not. If I were to send anyone, it would be Atalanta. She slayed the Kalydonian Boar. She’s a hero.”
Again, Diokles’s eyes flashed—this time I recognized it as anger. “Atalanta is going to be too busy with the footrace, Pater.”
“And then the hydra can wait until after,” Iasus stated. “If what you say is true, then we still have some time. I don’t want to risk you, son.”
Diokles squeezed his eyes shut, pressing his lips into a hard line. “...As you wish, Pater.”
With that, he turned around and strode right out of the room.
I… didn’t think I was supposed to see any of that.
“...I’m going to look for Atalanta,” I told them.
I said goodbye and was led out of the palace.
I was relieved to be outdoors again. I glanced up at the sky, spotting Erinys swooping down closer. It was late afternoon now, so the sun had begun its slow descent. Apollo was busy once again.
The guard had given me directions to the training field. Not wasting another moment, I made my way there.
The palace grounds were more vast than I expected. It was perfectly cultivated, with sculpted bushes, flowerbeds, and marble statues. There was even a fountain in the courtyard behind the palace. I spotted a stable in the distance. And in the other direction was the training field. Even from here, I could see that it was busy there. There was… a crowd? Were the challengers watching her train?
I made my way over and when I got closer, I saw that I was right.
The training field was typical for what it was. An open field, the grass worn away to dirt, paths carved into the ground from hundreds of people pounding into it over the years. There were training dummies spread out along one side of the field, with more closer to a small shack. I assumed that’s where they kept the training gear. There were also some targets for archery practice.
The challengers had gathered around the edges of the field. Some had dragged over benches, where they sat to watch. Others stood bunched together in groups, talking amongst themselves as they observed the woman training. They all steered clear of the very familiar bear that lounged in front of the shack, off to the side of a group of training dummies that had been dragged to the center of the field.
And there she was… Atalanta.
There was no way.
It couldn’t be.
A young woman was in the middle of an extensive workout. Her bright, fiery red hair was braided back, almost glowing in the afternoon sunlight. She must have been training for a while because the braid was messy, loose curls dangling around her face. Her bangs were plastered to her forehead with sweat, nearly getting into her warm brown eyes. In fact, her lightly tanned skin glistened with sweat.
She wore nothing but a strophion and a perizoma as she hacked at a training dummy with a xiphos. The lack of clothing gave view to rippling muscles as she swung her sword. She struck the dummy so hard it carved right into the wood, sending a sliver flying. The chunk of wood flung over the bear’s head and impaled itself on the door of the shack.
It was her. Atalanta was the woman I met in the woods.
I couldn’t help but stare. Atalanta moved gracefully, spinning around to slash at the dummy. Her sword struck it with a loud thunk. And got stuck. She let out an annoyed growl and yanked it out with such force, the dummy snapped in half. There were gasps and whispers around me.
It occurred to me that she was probably showing off. Whether to look impressive or intimidating, I wasn’t sure. But I knew one thing—I was certain she could snap me in half just as easily as she had that dummy.
I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to say. The woman I had been tasked with to save was the same person who I met in the forest. The same person who I hadn’t been able to get out of my mind.
Artemis help me.
Atalanta dropped her xiphos. She reached up to brush her bangs away from her eyes. I noticed then that there were healing cuts on her face—most likely from Erinys. She rolled her shoulders and glanced back towards the crowd. And then her gaze landed on me. She immediately tensed.
“You!” She abruptly turned around. “What are you doing here?”
I almost jumped. I wanted to panic at the sudden aggression, but I couldn’t look weak in front of Atalanta or any of these men. So I swallowed the urge to flee. I had a cover. There was no need for her to know why I was really here.
“I was sent here as the emissary for Artemis,” I said. “Your mother suggested I come find you and introduce myself.”
Atalanta narrowed her eyes, studying me almost suspiciously. But then she let out an exasperated sigh, her shoulders drooping as she forced herself to relax.
“Of course she did. Let me guess—something about me needing friends?”
I managed a small smile, albeit an apologetic one. “Something along those lines.”
Atalanta rolled her eyes, before walking over to where a simple white chiton lay draped over the side of a fence. She retrieved it and threw it on. The bear, who I recalled was named Argus, stood up and lumbered over to her. She reached up and ruffled the thick fur on the back of his head.
She walked on over, wiping some excess sweat off her brow. “Ugh. Need a bath.” She looked down at me when I didn’t say anything. “...Well? What am I supposed to call you?”
...Right. “Odessa,” I said. “My name is Odessa.”
“Odessa. Got it.” She glanced back at the palace. “Well, I didn’t really expect to see you again.”
I winced. “How is… Argus, right?”
“His shoulder’s fine,” she said, glancing over at the bear who had plopped down next to her. “Healing already. More than I can say for these malakas.” She scowled as she gestured towards the men that surrounded the training field. “Can’t train in peace. And when they insist on sparring with me? Pathetic.”
“Well, I can’t imagine anyone can keep up with you,” I said.
She laughed, cracking a smile. “You can say that again. Come on, I want to grab a snack before I bathe. I’ll show you the kitchens. We have a few hours before dinner and I’m starving. You’re probably hungry after your long trip, yeah?”
As if on cue, my stomach growled. My cheeks flushed in embarrassment.
Atalanta laughed again. “Well, that settles it. Come on, Odessa.”
I decided not to protest. I could use a snack to tide me over, now that I thought about it. Atalanta put her hand on the back of my shoulder and steered me forward with her until we were walking together. Argus lumbered after us. I sensed Erinys swoop down to perch on a tree.
I was still uncertain about what I was supposed to do here. But all things considered, I wasn’t panicked anymore.