Προειδοποίηση - Forewarning
Warm light bathed the green leaves and clay-red dirt slopes of the olive grove. Faint summer shadows spread beneath their twisted, gnarled bows, and flashes of Apollo’s bright light flickered through the fluttering leaves.
‘Adrastos!’ The call tore through the grove. ‘Brother!’
Doves scattered from the branches, flapping away into the sun-drenched green beyond the old olives trees and the scatter of pink-flowering cacti.
Zotikos. Adrastos closed his eyes. Why have you come to bother me?
Loud steps thundered through the dirt, dust sprinkled Adrastos’s face, and a shadow fell upon him.
‘There you are, brother.’ Zotikos’s voice rang loud through the quiet groves. ‘Why are you lying out here? Have you forgotten? Father intended for you to speak to the oracle today.’
Adrastos dragged his eyes open and released a long sigh. Father is getting desperate.
Zotikos’s toe nudged at his leg, leaving a faint brown smudge upon the blue tunic. ‘Adrastos. Come.’
He hauled himself up on the tree. ‘Commanding me, little brother?’
Zotikos winced and turned his brown eyes to the floor. ‘Not me, brother. Father commands.’ He turned a rock over with the toe of his sandal and drew lines in the dust. ‘He hopes the oracle will provide a solution for the curse of Zeus.’
‘The curse of Zeus…’ Adrastos touched his fingertips to the twisted pattern of scar tissue covering the left side of his face. With the eye of his mind, he traced the red lines down his body to his toes. ‘All I remember is a flash of light, and that it hurt. Lots.’
‘Your mother’s boast offended him,’ Zotikos murmured. ‘Unfair that you have to pay the price too.’
‘My recovery was called a miracle.’ Adrastos strode down the slope toward the low wooden wall. Beyond it, the walls of Delphi’s oracle rose above the low buildings surrounding the temple. ‘Mother died on that hilltop.’
‘Your mother proclaimed you would be greater than any of Zeus’s mortal sons.’ Zotikos scrambled after him. ‘Adrastos… Brother… Whatever the oracle says, you’ll be a good king.’ A faint smile curved his lips. ‘A better one than I would be.’
‘A cursed king.’ Adrastos clambered over the wall and followed the worn line in the hill. ‘One that no woman would look twice at, even wearing a crown. One that cannot even have children.’
Zotikos’s eyes fell to the floor. ‘My sons can rule after you,’ he murmured. ‘A bastard I may be, but my sons would be trueborn and royal. You don’t need to have an heir, you just have to marry and wait for father to die so you can legitimise me.’
‘As our father waited for our uncle to die?’ Adrastos paused upon the road and plucked the bronze blade from his brother’s waist. ‘He used this very blade and took the throne. Would you have me do the same? Our cousin died as a babe. Of sickness.’
Father poisoned him. He hurried through the walls, cradling the hot bronze of the sword against his chest. Then he married mother before little Chryses was even buried. A year later, I was born. Sixteen after that and here I am.
The marble columns rose bright and high into the sun. The bronze scales lining his father’s cuirass gleamed from the steps before them and his men clustered there in the colonnade’s shade.
‘Adrastos!’ His father stepped forward and spread his arms. ‘My son! The oracle awaits. Zeus’s curse will be lifted. Long will you reign when I walk the fields of Elysium.’
Zotikos’s hand rested upon Adrastos’ shoulder. ‘You have to go in alone, brother.’
‘Zotikos.’ Their father’s expression darkened. ‘Ride back to our lands. You need not remain here.’
‘I do not mind if he remains.’ Adrastos passed the blade back to his brother. ‘The oracle’s words will be no secret in the end. They never are.’
Zotikos smiled and sheathed the blade. ‘I can wait—’
‘No.’ Their father thrust an arm at the horses. ‘Ride home, Zotikos. I have no use for you here. Adrastos, my firstborn, my trueborn, will have his curse lifted in the coming days. He will marry, provide me with grandsons to carry on our line, and all will proceed as I have hoped.’
Zotikos’s jaw tightened. ‘As you wish, my lord.’ He turned on his heel and strode away, his blue tunic fluttering about his thighs and his fist clenched about the hilt of his blade.
All the silver in Boeotia couldn’t buy father my brother’s love. Adrastos strode past his father and into the cool shadows of the temple. Or the love of anyone else in our kingdom. Accursed is a kinslayer.
White-robed priests flitted back and forth between the columns and rooms and a girl sat upon a white marble throne at the end of a dark hall, kicking her feet an arm’s length above the ground.
She stared up at the ceiling with a dazed smile upon her lips. ‘Storm-stricken son of white sand and dark seas, you come hoping for the wisdom of Apollo.’
‘My father hopes for it.’ Adrastos stared into the wide eyes of the girl and shivered. ‘I will listen to the words of the gods.’
Or the words of a little girl.
‘Zeus’s curse cannot be undone by any power of man,’ the girl whispered. ‘But Apollo grants me vision regardless. A chance for love. A chance to win the favour of a maiden both loyal and kind.’
A wife. That might be enough to placate our father for now. Zotikos is right. He wrestled with a swell of pity for the maiden. If I win her heart and she loves me, she won’t hate having to be my queen.
‘And how do I gain this chance? Silver for the temple?’ A wry smile passed across his face. ‘A feast for the priests?’
‘A hunt.’ The girl swayed on her throne. ‘A great white stag comes to your lands, straying from the wild into the shade of olive groves and the warmth of hot springs. It is your chance.’ She slumped back in her seat and her eyes slipped closed.
A great white stag. Adrastos swivelled on his heel and strode out. A sacred beast. Was the curse of one god not enough?
‘Adrastos!’ His father seized his arm. ‘What did the oracle say?’
‘A white stag. To the north of our lands, where the warm springs are.’ He tugged his arm free and strode through the temple. ‘If I hunt it, then there’s a chance I will find a woman who will love me.’
His father’s face lit up. ‘A queen. My dynasty will continue.’
‘The words of Apollo come through a little girl.’ Adrastos paused beneath the shade of the columns. ‘And greater kings than you have been led astray by them.’
The smile faded from his father’s face. ‘Kings are kings. The only free man in a land is the king of it.’ He snapped his fingers at his retainers. ‘You will go after this beast, Adrastos. You will find it. You will slay it. You will not return until you do.’
The king is the least free man in the land. Adrastos bit his tongue. And the bars that cages his sons are only a little less stern.
His retainer stumbled to his side, carrying the great, curved bow of his father. ‘My lord.’
His father waved him away, then leant in close, tickling Adrastos’s cheek with his beard. ‘I loved your mother long before she married my elder brother. The things we did for love, no man should be forced to do. But they’re done now. Zeus’s wrath was just, perhaps, but it was ours to bear, not yours. He owes you mercy.’ His father thrust the bow and quiver into his hands. ‘A Scythian bow, capable of putting an arrow through the heart of a man three hundred paces away if you’ve the skill, no matter the armour he wears. There is no finer bow in all the world made by the hands of men.’
‘If I don’t return, you’ll be short your favourite spoil of war.’
His father sighed. A tiredness loomed in the lines of his face as he rubbed at his grey-shot, neat-clipped beard. ‘The gods have set you a challenge, my son. If you pass their test, you will return and become a greater king than I.’ He shook his head and led Adrastos to their horses. ‘Think ill of me if you wish, I may have earnt it in my younger days, but I would die a happy man tomorrow if I were certain of your success.’
A thick knot of emotion tightened around Adrastos’s throat. ‘Then I will return successful or not at all.’ He swallowed the lump of feeling down and patted Katharós’s flank until the mare snorted and shook her mane. ‘But, if I do not return, father, don’t waste your other son. His mother might not have been your queen, but he would make a better-loved king than this scarred, cursed man.’
‘You are my trueborn son.’ His father’s face hardened. ‘You will be king.’
Adrastos hoisted the bow and the quiver onto his shoulder, then swung himself into the saddle. ‘He is your son, too. More so than me, some say.’
‘You are your mother’s son.’ His father’s brown eyes traced the line of scars down Adrastos’s face and softened, then tugged the knot of Katharós’s tether loose. ‘I curse Zeus every day for what he has done to you for your parents’ sins.’ He drew himself up. ‘Now go, my son. When you return, the other kings and princes of Greece will have naught but envy for you.’
Adrastos gave him a stiff nod and dug his heels into his mare’s flanks. ‘North, Katharós,’ he murmured. ‘A little girl has told us to go kill something so someone falls in love with us.’
And if I come back uncursed, I’ll be a king the people won’t feel ashamed of. He let himself feel the weight of the bow upon his back, as heavy as Atlas’s burden, and felt the throb of his heart against his ribs. And if I don’t, they’ve always loved Zotikos more anyway.
Σθένος - Fortitude
A tangle of briars coiled beneath moss-draped oaks and quiet birdsong. Tufts of white fur fluttered upon the thorns where the deer path wound through the thicket, bright in the gloom of the cloud-shrouded forest.
There we go. Found you again. Adrastos swung himself out of the saddle and into the mud, leading Katharós after him along the line of narrow, slotted footprints. Faint frost lingered within the prints. At least half a day ahead if they still have the morning frost lingering in them. He followed the foot marks, studying the gap between each pair and ignoring the sting of his raw blisters. This stag’s nearly big enough to ride.
Katharós snorted, sending a gush of hot air against the back of his neck.
‘You’re right, girl.’ Adrastos chuckled and picked at the swathe of scabbed grazes on his forearm. ‘Almost big enough for me to hit with an arrow.’
He breathed in the soft scent of the forest. This simple life isn’t so bad. Nobody to stare at the scars on my face. No woman to disappoint in the marriage bed. Just Katharós and the wild.
A flash of brown flickered through the swathe of green ahead. A lone doe picked its way through the thicket, pausing to nibble at the bright green leaves upon the branches of a sapling. Adrastos slid the bow from Katharós’s saddle, forcing the arms to bend and slipping the waxed string over the tips.
Practice makes perfect. I may only get one chance at this great white stag.
He drew a grey-feathered arrow from the quiver and nocked it, drawing it back past his ear as he settled his feet in the mud. The blisters on his hands twinged and stung as the wood rubbed his skin and the bow string bit into his fingers. A faint breeze disturbed the leaves and the doe wandered a few steps past the sapling.
A little to the right. He drew in his breath. Artemis. Huntress. Goddess of the Wild. Bless my hunt.
The barbed bronze head flashed away through the green. The shaft buried itself in the doe’s flank up to the fletching and his prey collapsed into the brambles, thrashing its legs.
A rush of satisfaction filled Adrastos. Finally, nearly a clean kill. I’m getting better. He rested the bow on Katharós’s back and tugged the short bronze knife from his waist, striding forward through the thicket. I was only about a finger’s length from hitting its heart this time.
The doe’s thrashing increased as he approached; its eyes darted all about and its ribs rose and fell in trembling gasps.
Poor thing. He patted its neck, smoothing its fur until the kicking ceased and its breathing slowed. But all beasts need to eat. Adrastos forced the knife deep through the doe’s throat and stepped back to let the blood pool beneath the briars.
He watched life fade from the deer’s eyes, then cut the arrow loose and cleaned it. ‘Thank you, Immortal Huntress, for allowing my success.’
I’m probably going to be saying that a lot at this rate. Adrastos peered through the trees and down over the rolling valleys toward Thessalian lands. It’s been weeks and I’ve still only found tracks and signs.
A flash of white flickered through the forest, thunder crashed overhead, and the patter of the first drops of rain echoed through the trees.
A faint prickle crawled up his spine. Zeus’s wrath.
Katharós whinnied and tossed her head.
‘Yeah, yeah.’ Adrastos wiped his knife clean, sheathed it, then unstrung his bow, wrapping it and its string back up in the wax-lined leather cover. ‘We’ll find some shelter. I don’t need the other side of my body to be cursed, too.’ He chuckled and dragged the doe’s carcass over Katharós’s back. ‘Who knows, though, maybe being struck again will undo the curse.’
Or maybe it will just kill me.
Adrastos led Katharós through the thicket with his bow upon his shoulder, following the prints of the white stag. ‘The storm will wash these clean.’ He growled under his breath and stomped out of the trees across the hilltop. ‘It will take me all day to find the trail again tomorrow.’
The hairs on his arms rose and the back of his neck tingled.
Adrastos froze. Surely not—
White flashed before his eyes and the thunder crashed above his head. Katharós’s tether slipped through his fingers as the echo of the thunder rang in his ears and his head span. Adrastos staggered around, blinking green spots from his vision, then twisted about.
Katharós lay in the grass, still as stone, and the rain turned heavy, hammering down so hard it stung his skin.
Adrastos ignored the prickle of his hair and knelt, pressing a hand to Katharós’s neck.
A white flash struck the hill across the valley and the thunder boomed so loud his ears rang.
She’s dead. He balled his fists and dragged the doe from the grass onto his shoulder, staggering down the valley toward the cover of a ruined farmstead as the rain drummed down on him. Zeus clearly disagrees, father. Mercy isn’t owed to me. Adrastos bit back a dark chuckle. I don’t know why he’s bothering, I’m about as likely to outdo his sons as I am to find this stag.
A chain of lightning crackled across the heavens and struck the hill he’d left Katharós upon.
Adrastos watched little kicks of orange and yellow flame rise on the trunk of an oak and then die beneath the torrential downpour. Artemis. Goddess of the Wild. I ask for your favour here in your domain. He staggered on and into the shelter of the crumbling goatherd’s shack, dropping the doe carcass to the ground and slumping to the ground. Although really, given the stag is sacred to you and my aim is to find a wife, I’d understand if you send a horde of bears instead.
Rainwater stung the blisters on his fingers and trickled down the nape of his neck. Adrastos groaned and dragged himself up on the wall with both hands. His drenched tunic gave off a thick, wet-wool reek that clung to his nose and its rough weave chafed at his neck and nipples as he peered around the dilapidated hut.
Goats skulls stared down at him, yellow-boned horns and teeth gleaming in the flashes of lightning, and rattling on their wooden pegs with each crash of thunder.
‘Poor Katharós,’ he murmured. ‘She didn’t deserve your wrath, Zeus. I hope she finds her way to sunlit green pastures in the next world.’
Adrastos shivered and hunched his limbs in, grimacing with each fluttering chill of the breeze that slipped through the gaps in the crumbling walls. ‘Where is the damn sun?’ He balled his fists and blew on them to try and work some life back into his fingers.
Apollo’s glory hid behind swollen purple clouds as the storm’s veil of rain drifted down the valley toward Thessaly. Water dripped and pooled within the ruined old shack as the drumming of the downpour faded.
He dragged off his tunic and wrung it out, then hung it from the tip of a goat’s horn and hauled the doe carcass away from the water and onto the dry hearthstones.
I’ll need fire. Adrastos cast an eye over the damp stones and dirt floor. And there’s probably no dry wood within a day’s ride of here. He groaned and slumped his head back against the wall, letting a long sigh escape him. If I’m going to be cursed or killed, can we do it now?
He tugged his tunic back on and stuck his head out. The after-scent of the storm drifted to his nose and the birdsong rose back up beneath the fading rumble of the thunder. A lush, green dampness stretched back up the hill to the forest and a charred, smoking trunk.
Katharós. A soft pang twisted in his heart as trudged through the grass and a bitter weight settled on him. I shouldn’t have brought you, girl.
He inhaled a deep lungful of storm-fresh air. ‘Artemis, Goddess of the Hunt, Lady of Chastity, favour my hunt.’ Adrastos released a long sigh and came to halt, letting the cold seep into his skin from the wet grass. ‘Or kill me. Whichever works out best for everyone, I suppose.’
Αποτυχία - Failure
Slim, whip-like branches caught on the ragged hems of his tunic as he prowled through the bushes. A pale shape drifted between the short, twisted pines a spear’s throw away.
Adrastos’s breath caught and the bottom dropped out of his stomach. That’s the stag.
He crushed the roiling cauldron of emotion churning in his gut and pulled the bow from his back, nocking an arrow. The barbed bronze head trembled and his knuckles shook in the corner of his eye.
It’s right there. Just like every other beast you’ve hunted. Two dozen clean kills in a row. He took a deep breath and held it until the tremors ceased. Artemis, Goddess of the Wild, bless my hunt.
Gleaming white antlers rose above the briars, a bright, shining crown above the pure, pale hide of the stag’s flanks.
Adrastos adjusted his aim.
The stag ducked its head, then bolted away through the trees.
He swore and crept after it, following the line of bent branches, scattered prints, and broken twigs. The pale shape stilled beneath the faint shade of a slim rowan, trotting through bright maroon spears of amaranth flowers.
Adrastos shifted his footing and drew the bowstring back to his ear in one smooth motion. Artemis, Lady of the Hunt. Forgive me.
The bronze-tipped arrow hissed free.
A flash of silver split it in the air a hand’s length from the stag’s hide and the grey feathers and bronze head dropped into the grass.
A slim figure leapt down amidst the amaranth, shrouded in a bright veil of shimmering light. ‘Forgive you?’
A fist of ice clamped around Adrastos’s heart. Artemis… His heart hammered against his ribs. If she has intercepted my hunt herself, I’m dead.
‘This is what I get for listening to Apollo’s wisdom and that little girl,’ he muttered.
At least Zotikos will make a good king.
A peal of laughter echoed through the woods. ‘Noble Adrastos. Hunter of my white stag. Why are you asking for my forgiveness?’
‘I — I thought you might not approve.’
I can’t imagine you approve at all. And you’re not always merciful.
‘I am the Huntress. The Mistress of the Wild. A hunt doesn’t displease me.’ She stepped forward and the silver light dimmed to a faint aura.
A girl no older than he rested a bronzed-hand upon the points of the stag’s antlers. A slender bow hung upon her back, the pale, glowing string shining over her pure white chiton.
She ran her fingertips over the tines of the stag’s crown. ‘Nor does false mercy become me.’
‘Then…’ He swallowed and bowed his head. ‘I apologise. I shouldn’t question gods.’
‘But I have come to question you, Adrastos,’ she said. ‘Why are you here hunting my stag?’
He glanced up and met irises as red as amaranth through a veil of ebony hair. ‘The oracle told me to hunt the stag.’
‘A chance to win the favour of a maiden both loyal and kind.’ She let the stag nuzzle its nose into her palm. ‘Is that why you came? To find a girl to drag to your bed and cage as your queen?’
She knows. Adrastos caught the flicker of knowledge in her red eyes. She already knows my shame.
‘I am cursed,’ he said. ‘Maiden or not, wife or not, queen or not, I will have no children. I am… unable.’ Adrastos struggled with the burning heat of the shame. ‘My brother will make a better king regardless. The people love him more than I.’
‘Your face and body were marred by my father’s fury.’ Artemis stepped closer. ‘They fear your misfortune is contagious. A good thing they don’t know your manhood was crippled by it.’
Adrastos squirmed and edged back a step. ‘Could you just kill me? This is a very awkward topic to discuss with you of all deities.’
A flicker of amusement passed through her eyes. ‘I do not intend to kill you, even if you half-hope for it.’ She studied the twisted tissue on the left half of his face. ‘‘You throw yourself into this hunt as an escape, that I understand, but why do you enjoy it?’
‘Enjoy it?’ Adrastos frowned and recalled how the warmth of the sun and peace of the forest, so far from the whispers haunting his steps in his father’s palace, lifted his heart. ‘I suppose it’s because it’s just me out here.’
‘Freedom,’ Artemis breathed. ‘That, too, I understand.’ She held out a hand and his arrow appeared upon it, whole as the day it was made, gleaming in the faint silver glow of her aura. ‘A choice for you, then. I always give a choice to those who deserve it.’
What sort of choice? He held his breath. What would a goddess offer me?
‘My brother’s oracle tells no lies.’ She bounced the arrow on her palm, then held out her other hand beside it in a fist. ‘You can chase that loyal, kind maiden if you wish. I will not curse you for it.’
‘You won’t?’ Adrastos blurted. ‘But—’
‘What will you do when you find her?’ Artemis demanded. ‘Bed her?’
He met her maroon eyes, then heat flooded his face and he turned his gaze to the floor. ‘You know I cannot.’
‘But you will love her, treasure her, treat her well, and make her happy,’ she murmured. ‘That is love, Adrastos. Real love. No selfish lust taints your pure heart.’
‘I can’t give her children.’ Adrastos swallowed a bitter heat. ‘No woman would be happy with that. Not even a queen.’
Artemis rolled her eyes. ‘You would be happy without bedding her. She would be happy without children. There are many childless women in the world.’
A touch of hope warmed his heart. ‘Is that what I would find? Do you know it?’
Her lips curved into a small smile and she proffered him the arrow. ‘Prophecy is my brother’s domain, not mine. If you pursue the stag, you may find this woman, make her your queen, and return to your lands to be king of them. The Moirae have granted you a chance of happiness in the domain of Aphrodite and Hera. Or…’ She thrust out her fist. ‘You can turn your back on it.’
Adrastos eyed her closed fist, swallowing a flutter of apprehension. ‘And do what?’
‘Give up the chance to possess a wife. Preserve the innocence my father’s curse has so far guarded.’ The maroon in Artemis’s eyes brightened to crimson and her smile sharpened. ‘Abandon your quest for the oracle and swear yourself to me instead.’
A queen and a crown. Or the freedom of the wild. Adrastos closed his eyes and pictured the great hall of his father. Zotikos grinned upon the throne, catching the eye of the giggling, blushing serving girls who shrank from Adrastos’s presence. I don’t know. He wrestled with the ball of razors in his chest. Which is best for everyone? Zotikos’s grin hovered in his thoughts and a sigh slipped from his lips. There’s only one choice. Sorry, brother…
He dropped to one knee. ‘I choose freedom.’
‘Say it.’ The crimson in her irises shone bright as the sun. ‘Give me your oath.’
‘I abandon my quest.’ He groped for words. ‘I swear myself to Artemis, Lady of the Wild.’
Her smile softened. ‘Then you’re free. You need only keep your word.’
Adrastos felt the weight lift from his heart and released a long quiet sigh, breathing in the sweet, sharp scent of the amaranth flowers and soft smells of the forest. ‘What would you have me do, my lady?’
Artemis dropped the arrow to the ground before him. ‘I want you to hunt the great white stag, noble Adrastos.’ She faded away with a soft peal of laughter and a flicker of silver light.
The great white stag bolted away into the woods and the breeze rustled through the swaying grove of amaranth flowers.
A cruel jest? He swallowed hard and picked the arrow up from the floor. Did she trick me out of my happiness just to save whichever poor girl I would’ve been inflicted upon? Adrastos tried to feel some slight, but no hurt welled up, just soft resignation. I made my choice. There’s no going back.
Πίστη - Faith
The sun set behind Thessaly’s rolling hills, long shadows sprawled from the base of trees and the crows’ raucous cacophony faded beneath the buzzing of the cicadas.
Adrastos stalked the glade, picking through briars and bracken beneath boughs of beach and cypress. Pale fur flitted ahead of him between the twisted bark of chestnut trees and slim saplings. A crown of white antlers spread wide as Adrastos’s arm span, shining in the ray of Apollo’s light bursting through the green from above.
Found you. He pulled the arrow Artemis had returned to him from his quiver. Finally, we’re halfway to Thessaloniki.
Adrastos slid the Scythian bow from his back and strung it, nocking a grey-feathered arrow to it. ‘Sorry, stag. A little girl told me to kill you so I would be free.’
He drew back the string and sucked in his breath, angling the arrow through the saplings. But I’m already free… All I’d gain from slaying it is a chance at something I’ve already turned my back on. Adrastos lowered the bow and let the string slacken, staring at the arrow’s barbed bronze head. Why kill something without good reason? That’s just murder. He slipped the arrow back into the quiver and unstrung his bow. I’m not a murderer. Artemis may do as she wishes.
‘And I shall.’ Artemis’s voice drifted through the green. ‘Your faith in your heart pleases me, Adrastos.’
He glanced up and saw her standing beside her stag, her slim fingers resting on its head. ‘A test.’
‘Mortals are fickle.’ She bent and whispered in the stag’s ear, watching it dart away through the trees with soft crimson eyes. ‘They say and think one thing, then their hearts change, and they do another.’
‘Not me.’ Adrastos wrapped his bow back up and hung it over his back. ‘I made my choice.’
Artemis strode toward him through the forest, breezing through the briars, bending round branches and swaying round saplings. Adrastos’s heart hammered against his ribs and he edged away until his back thudded into warm, rough bark.
‘I do not intend to harm you,’ she murmured, pausing a spear’s length from him.
He mustered his courage. ‘Then what do you intend?’ Adrastos held her gaze. ‘You’ve saved the girl I might’ve married, what will you do with me?’
Artemis’s maroon eyes sharpened, piercing through him. ‘I’ve saved you.’ She held out her palm and pale light swirled into a long shaft of dark wood with a broad, gleaming silver head. ‘I did not take your oath just to let you starve in the trees.’ Artemis thrust the spear into his arms and strode through the trees. ‘Come.’
He weighed the smooth wood and stared at the twisted red scar upon his face in the shining silver spearhead.
‘Adrastos.’ Artemis whirled ‘round and crooked her finger. ‘Come.’
He stumbled through the briars, struggling to keep pace as she ghosted through the forest. ‘Where’re you taking me?’
The bottom dropped out of his stomach. ‘To hunt… what?’
A soft laugh drifted back to him through the green. ‘Boar.’ She reached back and touched a finger to the tip of the spear. ‘Your gift is a spear for a reason.’
Adrastos grimaced. ‘I can’t eat an entire boar and I like my guts where they are. I have enough scars, too.’
‘Scars are a mark of strength.’ Artemis paused and studied the ground, curling her fingers ‘round the spear haft. ‘They show what you’ve survived.’
He touched his hand to the ropy-twisted scars on his face. That’s why I’ve got all the scars and you’ve got all the strength.
Her grip tightened on the spear and Adrastos found himself dangling in the air. ‘Be careful of your thoughts, Adrastos.’ She set him back down and twisted ‘round, her bronze skin melting back off her forearm to show great, silver lines hacked through her flesh. ‘Appearances are just skin deep.’
‘You were strong before the scars,’ he said.
‘It’s a different kind of strength.’ Artemis released the spear. ‘Your brother is stronger, taller, faster, and greater than you, but he would not have survived my father’s curse. A lifetime of knowing you will never be a man requires a different sort of resilience to endure.’
Adrastos’s face burnt with shame. ‘I bet I’m the ugliest maiden you’ve saved,’ he muttered.
A peal of laughter burst from her lips and rippled through the trees. Artemis ran up the twisted bark of a beech trunk and crouched upon the lowest branch. ‘But you also have the purest heart of any man I’ve saved.’
He stumbled into a sapling, his head spinning. ‘That can’t be true.’
She stared down at him with soft red eyes. ‘I am not lying to you, noble Adrastos. My father’s curse has robbed you of many things, but it has left you with one blessing.’ Artemis pointed a finger into the rustling bracken. ‘You might want to focus on the hunt, though.’
Adrastos twisted ‘round and snatched up the spear. A thunderous squeal echoed through the forest and hooves pounded beneath the briars. He caught flashes of bristling dark fur as it charged, tossing its head, and thick, curved tusks gleamed amidst the green leaves.
I do not know how to do this. Fear clamped ‘round his throat, his limbs froze, and Artemis’s gaze burnt on the back of his neck. I’ve never done this before.
He clutched the spear tight and levelled its broad head at the boar.
The beast hurled itself onto the spear with a burst of bright red, driving itself up to Adrastos’s hands with a furious snort. Pain flashed up his arm as the boar’s left tusk tore a searing crimson line through his wrist. It champed its teeth and bucked, breathing hot, reeking air over his face, then grew still.
‘Immortal gods,’ he muttered, heaving the speared boar away and pressing his fingers to the gushing wound.
Artemis dropped from the branch into the briars without a sound. ‘Another scar, Adrastos.’
He shot her flat glare, then flinched. ‘My apologies—’
‘You did well.’ She laughed. ‘Hunting is not just tracking, shooting, and watching things die. You must endure the wilderness. You need courage. Instinct.’
‘Another test.’ He held up his wrist as the blood poured down his arm, watching it drip from his elbow into the dirt. ‘I don’t suppose?’
‘No.’ Artemis shook her head. ‘Not like that. It’s not how it works.’ She ripped a vine of ivy from the beech behind her and lashed it round his arm. ‘You will survive.’
Adrastos slumped onto a root and tried to ignore the dull throb in his arm. ‘So you can curse me, but not help me?’
‘I cannot alter the consequences of mortal choice, only enact them.’ Her lips quirked. ‘But I can summon another boar, if you wish?’
‘No, I think one was enough.’ He glanced at the mound of hair and the pool of blood beneath. ‘Possibly more than enough.’
Artemis perched upon a tree root and crossed her legs. ‘It was a test of your spirit, not a meal. If you do not eat it, there are many beasts that will. The wilderness wastes nothing.’
‘It’s going to be a meal, too.’ Adrastos tugged the short knife from its sheath at his waist and stepped over to the boar. ‘Otherwise, it was just murder.’
A small smile curved Artemis’s lips and her red eyes softened. ‘This is why I saved you, noble Adrastos. Your heart is pure.’
‘Really?’ He thrust the knife into the boar’s belly and forced it up, reaching into the hot, wet carcass and cutting the heart free. ‘Clearly you can’t read my thoughts that well.’
She laughed. ‘In time, I will know everything you are, Adrastos. You swore yourself to me.’
I did. Adrastos tugged the heart out and shook the worst of the blood off the slippered fist-sized organ. And I should act like it. Otherwise I will probably get cursed after all.
He offered it up to her on his palms. ‘My lady.’
‘An offering?’ Artemis jumped down from the root and plucked the heart from his hands, holding it up until the blood dripped off her hands.‘So you do know how to respect gods, even ones you think are little girls.’
He felt the blood drain from his face and his gut flashed cold. ‘I meant no offence, it was just—’
‘Fear not, I’m not going to curse you when I know you meant no slight. It was amusing.’ She leant forward and tore a bite out of the heart with small, white teeth.
‘Raw?’ Adrastos grimaced. ‘That cannot taste nice.’
‘It’s an offering.’ Artemis watched the heart crumble to red dust, letting it shower through her fingers. ‘It tastes sweet as nectar, for a single bite.’
He tugged the offal out and set it aside, setting to work skinning the boar with short, deft cuts. ‘When you said you will know everything I am…?’
‘I will know everything you are.’ Artemis wiped blood from her lips with her thumb. ‘As I said.’
‘Well, yes, but how? Adrastos peeled the hide off bit by bit. ‘Do you just… know?’
‘My explanation would make no sense to you,’ she said. ‘Suffice to say, I know all that falls within my demesne.’
‘I suppose not.’ He stabbed the knife into the dirt and wrapped the offal in the raw hide. ‘If we could understand you, you wouldn’t be gods.’
‘Just so.’ Artemis watched him work with a softness in her red eyes. ‘You need not fear my intentions, noble Adrastos. I am not going to curse you or place you in another cage. I merely wanted to set you free.’
‘Mostly.’ Her smile sharpened. ‘Marriage and love are sweet shackles, if you had found this woman my brother’s oracle promises, your fates would’ve been bound together forever. No choice would’ve been solely yours again. Choice is the most precious thing mortals have, to see so many of you squander it and thoughtlessly cast your innocence aside saddens me.’
‘Well, I made mine.’ He tugged the knife from the dirt and wiped it clean on the dead boar’s bristles. ‘Zotikos will be a great king and I will be free from my father’s command and my people’s whispers.’
It’s more than I hoped for. A rush of gratitude washed through him, seizing his breath. Much more.
‘You will only ever be free, Adrastos,’ Artemis murmured. ‘Unless you choose otherwise. That’s what it means to be mortal, you may flit between the domains of the world.’
‘So if I’d killed the stag, I could’ve still gone back, married, and been king?’
Her crimson irises held his gaze. ‘Choices have consequences, Adrastos.’
‘You would’ve cursed me.’
‘You promised me to preserve your purity and abandon your quest.’ Artemis’ silver aura brightened until Adrastos had to shield his eyes. ‘I am not kind to those who break their oaths to me.’
No. You are not.
‘The wilderness is unforgiving, Adrastos,’ she murmured. ‘Remember that as you enjoy your freedom.’ Artemis vanished in a flicker of silver light.
But you’re fair. You let us be free. You give us choice. If we betray your faith, you punish us. Adrastos wiped the spear clean from tip to butt and leant it in the fork of a sapling. Fairer than Zeus, who cursed my life for my mother’s words, fairer than my father, who punishes Zotikos for my failings, and fairer than my people, who fear and hate me just because of my scars.
Εύνοια - Favour
Thunder crashed above the pines, rippling away down the valley toward the distant cluster of squares Adrastos knew to be Thessaloniki.
Zeus’s wrath. Adrastos stifled a prickle of fear and leant against the gnarled trunk of a pine. I ought to get to shelter.
He bent and snatched his hunting knife from the loam, wiping it clean on the long, grey hair of the wolf sprawled at his feet. ‘But first, I have to sacrifice your heart to a little girl, to show I met her challenge.’ Adrastos ripped the blade through the veins and tugged the organ free. ‘For Artemis,’ he murmured. ‘Who set me free.’
Thunder boomed above him and he flinched. The heart slipped through his hands.
Slim, bronze fingers plucked it from the air. ‘You fear the storm?’ Artemis murmured, holding the heart up into the flash of the lightning. ‘My father will not strike you down without good reason. He may punish you for your choices, but he cannot take them away.’
‘Perhaps he thinks he has good reason,’ Adrastos muttered.
She took a bite out of the heart and let it crumble, brushing red dust from her fingers as the thunder cracked over their heads. ‘You swore yourself to me, Adrastos. You are my companion. And my father gave his word to allow that. He can offer you a choice to get you to break your oath to me, to lure you into consequences, but he cannot strike you down for naught. While you are mine, you are safe.’
‘I don’t think I will ever be fond of storms.’ Adrastos stepped away and cleaned the knife and spear in the stream, dipping his throbbing forearm in the cool rush. A faint sting tingled in his arm and little twists of red washed downstream.
Artemis’s soft footsteps drifted to his side, her bare toes curling over the stones at the brook’s edge. ‘You reopened it,’ she chided.
‘The wolf reopened it with its teeth,’ he replied. ‘And added some new bits.’
She bent and took hold of his wrist, lifting it from the water and studying the open wounds with soft crimson eyes. ‘You must be faster, Adrastos.’ Artemis released his arm. ‘Your skill with a bow has grown admirable, but not all beasts can be hunted with a bow.’
‘The spear’s heavy,’ he said. ‘I can’t swing it fast enough to keep up with something nimble as a wolf.’
‘It is heavy.’ She watched clear sparkling drops of water fall from her fingers. ‘And you won’t be able to swing it that fast no matter how practiced you get.’
‘I should’ve used the knife.’ Adrastos sighed and nodded. ‘I ended up using the knife anyway, I guess.’
‘You should have. You needed to be faster. Wolves are nimble and like to take the limbs of their prey,’ Artemis said. ‘They cripple before they kill. Each creature of the wild is different. You must hunt them as such.’
‘Another scar.’ He patted his arm dry on his chiton and tugged off his sandals. ‘I’m not getting any prettier.’
‘That sort of beauty is only skin deep.’ She perched on the rocks over the stream. ‘It’s your heart I freed you for, not your face.’
‘Are you going to eat it?’
Artemis laughed. ‘Not unless you offer it to me, Adrastos.’
‘Would you really eat it if I did?’ he muttered, stifling a shudder. ‘That’s awful.’
She jumped down off her rock and plucked leaves from amongst the nearby bracken and briars. ‘No, Adrastos. I wouldn’t eat it. I prefer your heart where it is.’ Artemis crushed the leaves in her hand into a paste and crooked her finger. ‘Arm.’
He extended his injured forearm. ‘What will that do?’
She dipped a finger into the paste and dabbed it along his wound. ‘It will prevent it going bad and help it heal faster.’ Artemis scraped the last of the paste off and washed her hand clean in the stream. ‘It would be wise to learn this art. There are many plants you can find in the wild that are of use.’
‘Learn from who?’ Adrastos asked.
She caught his gaze with a glimmer of humour in her maroon eyes. ‘From me.’
His breath caught. ‘You would really teach me?’
Why? Why waste time on me? Why treat my wounds?
Artemis cocked her head. ‘You are my companion, Adrastos, not my plaything.’ She reached out and touched a damp fingertip to his forehead. ‘Your thoughts betray you.’
Adrastos scrambled to think of something else, staring down at his right sandal and picking at the fraying leather frond. The strip gave with a soft snap and he tossed the ruined pair of sandals away into the trees.
‘Whenever doubt starts to creep in, remember, I chose you for a reason.’ Artemis stepped past him and touched a finger to the wolf’s corpse, turning it into a towering spire of Amaranth. ‘You have my favour.’ She plucked the topmost part of the flower off and dropped it into his cupped hands.
A gift. He tucked it into the leather pouch at his waist. From a goddess.
‘From me,’ Artemis said. ‘Your companion. The little girl.’
‘Thank you,’ he murmured through a faint grin.
‘You earnt it.’ She gave him a small smile. ‘You endured my father’s curse without letting it poison your heart. You chose to become my companion, to preserve your purity and be free.’
‘Which you like.’
‘I do.’ Artemis sat down beside him and dangled her feet in the stream, letting the small fish flit about her toes. ‘What do you think the difference is between companionship and marriage, Adrastos?’
He considered it. ‘Freedom, I suppose.’ He glanced up and caught a flash of her scarlet irises behind her dark hair. ‘You can be loyal to your companion, but if their nature changes, you can leave them.’
‘Choice,’ she whispered. ‘But tell me, if you’d hunted my stag and found the woman my brother’s oracle foresaw, could you allow her the freedom to leave you? Or would you be unable to resist the chance to bind her to your side?’
Adrastos stared down into the shimmering ripples of the stream. ‘If I loved someone, I would not want them to leave me, even though I have left my own brother behind to be free.’ He raised his head and met her crimson eyes. ‘But I’ve been caged all my life. I wouldn’t want to do it to another, and certainly not someone I loved.’
‘Even we gods cannot resist the temptation to guard against losing what we love,’ Artemis murmured. ‘But a chalice poisoned by good intentions is still lethal.’
‘It’s a bit late for that, anyway,’ he said. ‘I swore a promise to a little girl…’
A peal of laughter burst from her lips. ‘Yes, you are my companion now.’ She stood and lifted him to his feet with one hand. ‘Come, noble Adrastos, let’s hunt together.’
Ελευθερία - Freedom
The straits of the Hellespont rose like the Gates of Olympus over a shining ribbon of glimmering sea. Tiny ships drifted on the shimmering waves like leaves upon the surface of a river.
Beautiful. Adrastos let the warmth of Apollo soak into him. And to think father refused to let me leave our lands.
‘You’re going to lose.’ Artemis’s voice drifted from over his shoulder and the spear’s weight vanished from his back.
‘I always lose.’ He laughed and turned back toward the trees. ‘In fact, if you’re here, then I’ve probably already lost.’
She sat upon a beech bough, a broad grin on her face and a stag’s body slung over the branch beside her, bouncing the spear she’d gifted him upon her palms and swinging her feet. ‘You’ll have to get better.’
‘That’s what you say every time I lose.’ Adrastos reached out and took his spear back.
‘Stop losing, then.’ She dropped to the ground and lifted the stag from the branch with one hand. ‘It’s the only way.’
‘Ah,’ Adrastos murmured. ‘The fairness of gods.’
Laugher rang from Artemis’s lips. ‘Would you like me to handicap myself again?’
‘No.’ He fought his smile and lost. ‘It was even more embarrassing to lose when you weren’t allowed to use your hands.’
A bright gleam of humour shone in her maroon eyes. ‘You really thought you’d be able to win, too.’
‘I couldn’t see how you’d hunt without using your hands.’ Adrastos leant on his spear and grinned back. ‘For a moment, I forgot you weren’t just a little girl.’
‘Did the great eagle scare you, noble Adrastos?’
‘It stole my dinner,’ he replied. ‘Although, it was also kind enough to share some of it later, though I did have to cook it myself.’
Artemis laughed. ‘Well, you are defeated once more, my companion. Which means…’
‘I have to cook again.’ Adrastos sighed. ‘I know.’
‘If I lose, I’ll cook,’ she said. ‘Imagine the stories they will tell, a mortal man having the patron of maidens cook for him.’
‘If you lose…’ He shot her a wry smile. ‘I’m starting to think the whole reason you tricked me into this agreement was to make sure I don’t realise you can’t cook.’
‘Didn’t anyone ever tell you not to question the gods?’ Artemis tossed the deer at him.
Adrastos ducked as it sailed over his head. ‘Ha!’ He grinned. ‘I dodged a missile from the Goddess of the Hunt. Now they really will tell stories about me.’
‘But now you have to go get it,’ she said.
He twisted ‘round and watched the stag carcass slide down the grass to the bottom of the hill. ‘Immortal gods,’ he muttered, trudging down the slope. ‘Where’s a giant, deer-thieving eagle when you need one?’
Artemis’s laughter drifted down after him and a warm glow rose within his chest.
Adrastos hauled the stag over his shoulder with a grin. ‘And she had to pick the largest stag, didn’t she?’ He shook his head. ‘Always such a show off.’
I wonder if Zotikos is doing as well as I am? He dragged the deer up the slope, pausing to swipe the sweat away from his eyes. With my disappearance, he’ll be heir instead.
Adrastos hefted the deer back up to the beech tree Artemis sat in and dropped it into the grass, slumping down beside it.
‘Your brother is already king,’ she said.
He jolted upright. ‘King? How?’
‘After the first moon passed, he grew anxious and set out to find you, ignoring your father’s order to remain.’ She leapt down from the tree to crouch beside him. ‘He eventually found your dead horse amidst the debris of the storm and believed my father had struck you down. Your father, the king, was displeased to hear this, flew into a drunken rage, and attempted to kill your brother, accusing him of murdering you to take your place as his heir.’
‘Zotikos beat him.’
Artemis nodded. ‘Zotikos cut off your father’s hand and imprisoned him in the far south of your realm to live out the rest of his days in peaceful exile. The people crowned him king, though he insisted it was only right for him to abdicate should you return after all.’
‘Is he happy?’ Adrastos asked.
‘Married with a child on the way, though none yet know it save the two of us,’ she replied.
A small smile crept onto his face. ‘So it worked out well. I had a feeling it would be better if I never came back.’
Artemis crooked a finger at him. ‘Leg.’
Damn. Adrastos stared into the grass and tried to think about how green it was instead of the scratch on the back of his calf.
‘Leg?’ He frowned. ‘What leg?’
‘Your leg.’ She narrowed her crimson eyes at him. ‘Did you think you could hide it from me?’
Adrastos flushed. ‘I didn’t want you wasting time on me.’
‘Do you recall what I said about how valuable choice is?’ Artemis’ red eyes fixed him in place like a hawk’s stare pinned a rabbit.
‘And yet you’d try to take away my choice of whether to help you or not?’
He winced. ‘I’m sorry, my lady.’
She touched a fingertip to his forehead. ‘Remember, Adrastos. Companion, not plaything.’ Artemis plucked the leather pouch from his waist. ‘Now. Leg.’
Adrastos stuck out his leg and glanced at the swollen red line on his calf. ‘It’s just a scratch.’
Artemis prodded it. Pain seared through him to the bone and a gasp tore from his lips.
‘Is there anything else your pride demands you say?’ she asked.
He bit his lip until the pain faded. Like you’re one to talk about pride.
Artemis’s eyebrows climbed up into her dark fringe.
‘I didn’t mean it,’ Adrastos blurted. ‘I’m sorry, my lady—’
‘Yes you did,’ she replied. ‘And you are right, my companion. Or, you would be, were my pride not warranted by the fact there is none better than I.’ Artemis studied the inflamed part of his calf. ‘You, however, are not Asclepius, Adrastos, and your pride is useless to you.’
‘It’s still just a scratch,’ he muttered. ‘It only hurts if you poke it.’
‘It was just a scratch, you fool.’ A slim, silver blade appeared in her hand and the breath vanished from his lungs. ‘Now, it’s gone foul. Which is why it hurts when you poke it.’
‘You’re not going to cut it off, are you?’ he asked, mustering a weak smile. ‘I don’t have much chance of ever beating you with both legs, I don’t fancy my chances with only one.’
Artemis pushed him back against the tree with one hand and plucked his spear from the ground. ‘Bite on the haft. I need to reopen this.’
Adrastos grimaced and did as she said, clenching his teeth into the dark wood and holding his breath. She slashed the cut open with the knife’s tip. Pain tore through him and he groaned into the spear’s haft, clenching his teeth until his jaw ached.
‘Done.’ She vanished the knife in a flash of silver light and studied the yellow corruption mixed in with the blood trickling down his leg. ‘Fortunately for you, I noticed your injury yesterday, so I took the time to collect a few things while you were blundering about trying to find the stag.’
‘You knew the whole time.’ Adrastos sighed. ‘I wasn’t even limping.’
‘There is no point trying to hide anything from me, Adrastos.’ Artemis sprinkled crushed, dried herbs into the cut and pressed them down with a cool fingertip. ‘That will prevent it from going rotten more seriously, at which point, I may well have had to remove it.’
‘Thank you,’ he murmured.
‘Why did you try to hide it?’ she demanded, wiping his blood off her fingertip into the grass.
‘You said I had to endure the wilderness and it was just a scratch.’
‘Fool.’ She shoved his leg away. ‘If you let it go bad, a scratch will still kill you. Pride is all very well when it’s earnt, but if it’s misplaced, it will kill you.’
‘I am sorry, my lady,’ he whispered.
‘Stop saying that.’ Artemis sat back in the grass and crossed her legs. ‘Once was enough, Adrastos. I know you meant it and I harbour no wrath toward you.’
He fell quiet. You set me free and chose me as your companion, my lady. I will always be more grateful than I can express.
‘Well, at least you’ve finally learnt I can read your thoughts.’ She sighed and gave him a small smile. ‘I know how much freedom means to you, Adrastos. That is why I freed you in the first place.’ Artemis pointed a finger at the deer. ‘However, my noble companion, you have yet to pay the price for your defeat.’
‘It’s going to be the exact same thing I always make,’ Adrastos said.
‘It’s not always the exact same.’ A broad grin flashed her across her face. ‘Sometimes it’s not completely burnt, or inedibly tough.’
‘You only eat one bite…’ He pulled his knife out and thrust it into the deer’s belly. ‘And it’s an offering, so it doesn’t even taste like venison.’
‘I’ll eat more of it when you stop burning it.’
Adrastos laughed. ‘I suppose that’s fair, my lady.’ He drove the knife up to stag’s sternum, then tugged it free. ‘Where next?’
‘A challenge.’ She watched him work with a soft gleam in her maroon eyes. ‘A great bear terrorises a village not too far from here. It has killed three of their strongest men. They pray for my aid.’
‘And instead they’ll only get me.’ He wiped his knife and hands clean in the grass. ‘That’s going to be a bitter disappointment for them. I’m not a beautiful goddess. I’m not a beautiful anything.’
Artemis laughed. ‘Head south-west along the coast until you reach a rock shaped like a fist beside a river estuary. The village is just upstream of it.’ Her eyes flicked up to the sky. ‘Slay the beast and offer its hide to me. I will come find you once I can.’
‘You have to leave again?’ A quiet cold crept in.
‘I’m afraid so.’ She stretched out in the grass and closed her eyes. ‘I will return, Adrastos, I promise I always will.’
Οργή - Fury
Deep, broad prints marked the fresh dirt, tracking back and forth along the boundary ditch beneath the faint shade of olive groves.
Adrastos measured the span of its feet with both hands. That’s a damn big bear. He measured again and felt a little chill slide down his spine. A really damn big bear.
He straightened up and weighed his spear. ‘And I only tossed the dirt out here a little after dawn, so it’s probably still close.’ Adrastos tracked the prints through the olive grove, skirting ‘round the edge of the village.
A huge dark figure thrust its nose into a scattered pile of amphora with a low rumble, scratching around amidst pools of olive oil and clay fragments.
It’s not as fast as a wolf, but it is a lot stronger. He flexed his fingers on the spear and crept closer, curling his bare toes into the soil beneath the olive trees. I should cripple it, then go for the kill.
‘Artemis, grant me your blessing,’ Adrastos whispered. ‘If it eats me, you’ll have to find someone else to cook badly for you.’
The bear snorted and whirled ‘round, rising up onto its hind legs to tower almost twice Adrastos’s height.
I am about to get eaten. He sucked in a deep breath and lunged, driving the spear into the beast’s hind leg and twisting the blade.
The bear’s roar rang in his ears like thunder.
Adrastos tugged the spear’s blade free and back-stepped out of the range of its swipe. The bear bounded forward on three legs, dripping blood through the dust, and reared up, hurling itself at him.
He set the butt of the spear in the ground and braced it as the bear fell upon the tip. The silver spear-blade burst through its neck, spraying red across the olive leaves, and a loud crack echoed through the grove as the haft snapped. The bear thundered straight for him, gushing blood with every step.
Not good. He smothered a wrench of pain at the loss of Artemis’s gift and snatched the knife from his waist, weaving back around the trees, watching the thick trail of blood splatter into the dirt. Come on. Just die.
The bear ripped gashes into the olive trees, whirling in circles, its low growl dulled to a soft gurgle, then it stumbled and fell. Adrastos watched from a safe distance until its chest stilled and the blood began to congeal in the sun.
He strode ‘round the edge and plucked the broken half of the spear from the dirt with a heavy heart, guilt chewing at his gut. I broke her gift. Adrastos weighed it in his hands, then tucked it under his arm. Maybe there’s some way of fixing it. Maybe Artemis can fix it.
The silver spear tip gleamed in Apollo’s light, sticking a hand’s length from the back of the bear’s neck. He tugged it through and wiped it clean on a tuft of grass, then set to working cutting its hide free.
Distant clamour rose in the village and dust swirled above the path winding down through the groves to a cluster of stone houses. Adrastos cut the rest of the hide free and rolled it up, cleaning his knife on the grass tuft and tucking it back away as a handful of grey-bearded, weathered, tanned men with farm tools huddled on the path beneath the olive grove.
The foremost man held a battered, bronze xiphos out in both hands. ‘Who are you?’
‘I’m Adrastos.’ He raised his palms. ‘I came to kill a bear.’
A low murmur rang through them and they peered past his feet at the skinned carcass.
‘You slew the beast…’ The old man lowered the xiphos. ‘I’m Elias, great hunter Adrastos. We are honoured to host you here, you have freed us from that terror.’
Freed. Adrastos let a small smile spread over his lips.
‘Do you have a shrine to Artemis?’ he asked. ‘I promised her I would offer the hide to her.’
‘We do, back in the village.’ Elias waved his hand at the crowd. ‘It’s no grand temple, but we do our best to honour her there.’
He smiled. ‘I don’t think she cares too much how grand it is.’
‘Come with me, great hunter,’ Elias said. ‘I will take you there.’
Adrastos trailed Elias to a small circle of columns scattered with honey cakes and small offerings. ‘Here?’
‘Here, great hunter.’ Elias stuffed the xiphos through his belt. ‘We’ve been praying to the goddess for weeks, but the bear would not let us be. It slew the three of us who tried to drive it off or kill it.’
The crowd clustered around the outskirts, muttering away.
Are they talking about me and the bear, or just my scars? He lifted the rolled up hide from his shoulder and placed it down within the columns. For you, Lady of the Hunt.
‘Are you staying?’ Elias asked. ‘We have no protection. The bear slew our best hunters and the leader of our village…’
‘I don’t think so.’ Adrastos glanced up at Apollo’s light. ‘I go where Artemis wills me to go.’
‘The call of the wild,’ Elias muttered. ‘Good fortune, then, great hunter.’
‘Thank you.’ Adrastos threw a glance at the huddle beyond the shrine, then squeezed back through the middle of the crowd and headed for the edge of the village.
She will find me. He wandered back toward the groves, leaving the weight of the villagers’ stares behind. She said she would return.
‘They say you killed the bear single-handedly.’ A soft murmur drifted from beneath the olive trees. ‘A beast sent by the gods to punish the village, yet you slew it alone.’
Adrastos glanced through the trees. ‘It was a large bear, but just a bear.’
A girl stepped out from beneath the branches, golden hair swaying in the breeze, skin pale as milk, and eyes bright as gemstones. ‘It was a mighty deed, great hunter.’ She drifted closer through the trees, their shade dappled her short white chiton and the purple cloak wrapped about her waist. ‘None here can question your skill or strength.’
‘Did you want something?’ he asked, edging back from her.
‘This little village is a weary place. I feel old, thin as the honey drizzled over cakes, I want to leave, to find someone bright and fierce and strong to make me feel alive.’
Adrastos shook his head and touched his fingertips to his scarred face. ‘That’s not me.’
‘Beauty is just skin deep,’ she murmured, slipping closer through the shadows of the olive groves on bare feet. The gleam in her eyes shone bright as flame. ‘The love we all crave burns fiercer and deeper than that.’
He swallowed. ‘I have nothing to offer you.’
The girl unwound her purple cloak and pressed it into his hands. ‘If you return, bring this back to me, great hunter.’
Adrastos nodded. ‘I may not return.’
She smiled. ‘That’s your choice, noble Adrastos.’
Adrastos threw the cloak over his shoulder and strode on. What kind of girl would want me? His feet dragged to a halt. Was she the one the oracle foretold?
He twisted ‘round and stared back into the groves.
Olive leaves rustled in the breeze and dust swirled around gnarled roots. White wings flashed in the corner of his eye and a pale bird fluttered away into the sky.
Just a dove. Adrastos let out a long breath and carried on up the hill toward the forest. She’s gone. It’s for the best. I made my choice. I want to be free.
The shade of the trees and the scent of the forest washed over and the unease faded.
A flash of silver light tore through the trees, searing at his eyes, and the shadows of the forest turned dark and sharp. A fierce, cold wind ripped through the branches, throwing leaves and twigs into his face, flattening the briars and bracken.
‘Adrastos.’ Artemis’s voice cut through him like a knife through a stag’s belly, laden with such power his ears rang and his head spun. ‘I thought better of you.’
She’s angry? He struggled for words. But I made my choice. I chose freedom.
‘You made your choice?’ She strode forward, stopping an arm’s length from him. Her crimson eyes burnt like the searing winds of Tartarus, so hot with fury all the hairs stood up on the back of his neck. ‘I heard your offering, then I found you speaking with her.’
‘I turned her down,’ he blurted. ‘You must have seen that.’
‘Yet you carry her cloak,’ Artemis snapped. ‘I can smell her perfume on it, apples and pomegranates.’
Panic clamped its fist around his lungs, tight as bronze shackles, and his heart dashed itself against his ribcage. Adrastos swept the cloak off his shoulder and dropped to one knee. ‘Then, I offer it to you, my lady.’
The fury faded from her expression and a strange gleam flickered through her maroon eyes, faint colour blossoming upon her cheeks. Artemis lifted the cloak from his hands and wrapped it about her shoulders.
‘Am I forgiven?’ he whispered. ‘I don’t know what I did, it was just a gift, but I made my choice, my lady. I chose freedom. I won’t break my oath.’
She cupped his cheek with soft, warm fingers. ‘You are forgiven, my companion.’
The spear tucked under his arm sprang free with a flash of silver, standing whole and tall. The amaranth flower in his pouch floated up in between them, suspended on a thread of pale light that spun itself into a slim chain of beaten silver.
‘There, so all the gods and men can see the choice you’ve made.’ Artemis clasped the amaranth pendant ‘round his neck. ‘It will never wilt so long as you keep your oath to me.’ She pulled him to his feet and embraced him, a soft, little gleam in her eyes. ‘Goodbye, my companion.’
A flash of silver washed through the trees and silence settled over him like the dark of night.
Φόβος - Fear
The boar dashed through dappled shadows, thundering through the brush. Adrastos stepped to meet it and drove the spear deep into its ribs, letting the creature drive itself up the haft.
‘Hello there.’ He patted it on the head as it tossed its head, yellowed-tusks a finger’s width from his gut. ‘You nearly got me.’ Adrastos heaved it aside and watched its kicking fade, running his eye over the web of scratches and cuts on his arms. ‘But no new scars this time.’
He thrust his knife into its belly, cutting to its ribs and reaching an arm in to rip out its heart. For Artemis. Adrastos placed it high in a branch and imagined her grin as she swung her feet from it. Whatever I did to offend you, I am sorry. I’ll pay any price, my lady. Please return.
The quiet breeze rustled through the branches.
‘But you never do.’ He sighed and lifted the dear boar onto his shoulder, picking his way back through the trees onto the weathered road. ‘Turns out freedom loses its charm with nobody to share it with, who would’ve guessed.’
Adrastos strode through the dust of the road, skirting around a girl leading a donkey and leaving her behind as he hurried through the dwindling trees to the coast.
The temple rose over flat marshlands and scattered shrubs like a mountain peak of shining white stone, and the sparkling sea stretched away beyond into the sunset. Rows of marble columns held a bright-painted edifice adorned with running hinds and maidens.
A soft pain twisted in his heart as he neared the steps. It’s ten times the size father’s palace was, but he deserved less than a shepherd’s shack compared to her.
‘Any offerings for Artemis can be left within.’ A veiled priestess folded her arms at the steps’ summit in the shade of a cypress tree. ‘What have you come to pray for, hunter?’
‘If you have offended our great goddess, you will face the consequences of your folly,’ she said. ‘You cannot buy her favour with gifts.’
Adrastos cupped the amaranth flower beneath his chiton. ‘She said she forgave me, but she’s not returned. She always came back to hunt with me before.’
The priestess snatched her veil from her face and narrowed her dark eyes at him. ‘You claim to have hunted with the goddess herself?’
She won’t believe me. He swallowed a soft bitterness and a low ache in his breast. Of course she won’t. I didn’t believe it for weeks, and that was while Artemis was there beside me.
‘Not Artemis,’ he lied. ‘A noble maiden dedicated to her. We hunted together. I swore an oath to remain pure, to be her companion.’
The priestess nodded. ‘And you broke it. Did you attempt to court this maiden you swore an oath to?’
‘No.’ Adrastos stifled a wry laugh. ‘Another girl offered me her cloak in a small village after I slew a bear.’
‘You kept it?’ The priestess shook her head. ‘No wonder she is displeased. You cannot preserve your purity for her and also accept a proposal of marriage from another girl.’
‘An offer of marriage, the kind a noble girl makes to the one she chooses from amongst her suitors.’ The priestess’s brow creased. ‘This is not a custom in your lands?’
Ice flashed through his veins. And I offered the cloak to Artemis. His heart sank. No wonder she has not returned. I’m fortunate she forgave me for my ignorance and didn’t strike me down on the spot.
The priestess drew him aside. ‘What did you do with the cloak? You’re not carrying one with you.’
‘My noble companion was upset.’ Adrastos grimaced. ‘I knew it was to do with the other girl and her cloak, so I offered the cloak to her instead…’
‘Ah.’ The priestess replaced her veil. ‘And you hope for Artemis’s favour in repairing your friendship with this maiden after you unknowingly broke your oath. Well, you may make your offering, but I fear it is too late.’
‘So do I,’ he murmured.
And if she will not speak to me here, then she may not speak to me at all.
He drifted into the shade of the marble columns gripped by a gentle sorrow, admiring the pale, smooth statues of Artemis’s likeness on his way through, and placed the boar among the other offerings. ‘I am sorry, my lady.’
Adrastos took a deep breath and wandered back out through the columns and down into the cypress trees growing at the base of the steps overlooking the sea. He sat on the warm marble and watched Apollo’s light slip below the horizon and the bright, soft pale full-moon rise up among the stars.
The cool of night wind rustled through the cypress leaves, tugging at his chiton, the cold, damp dew settled around him, and the moon drifted across the sky until the first rays of dawn burst over the marble temple.
What do I do now? He watched the moon fade away into the sunrise and despair curled its sharp claws about his heart. Stay and hope? Or try and find a way? Adrastos stretched his stiff limbs and dragged himself to his feet. Who would even know? The oracle?
‘My brother’s oracle knows many things.’ Gentle silver light flickered in the corner of his eye.
His heart lurched. ‘Artemis.’ Hot tears sprang to his eyes and he threw himself to his knees on the cold marble steps. ‘I did not know. I swear it.’
She crouched, lifting his face and putting her finger to his lips. ‘Hush, noble Adrastos. I have not been absent because you have displeased me.’
Relief swooped through him, lifting his heart back up into his breast. ‘You said goodbye.’
‘I had to think and speak with my brother, but my twin can be difficult about certain matters.’ Artemis cupped his cheek. ‘You must return to Delphi and speak with the oracle. I know no more than that.’
He nodded. ‘I will run all the way back.’
‘No you won’t.’ She shook her head, tracing her fingertips over the new, pink scars and fresh scabs on his arms, her scarlet eyes narrowing. ‘You have been foolish and reckless enough as it is while I’ve been absent.’
Adrastos winced. ‘Forgive me, my lady,’ he whispered. ‘I — I missed your company.’
‘Stop begging for forgiveness, Adrastos.’ Artemis sprang to her feet and dragged him up with one finger under his chin. ‘I have heard it every day and night for the last moon. You are forgiven. I said so, did I not?’
He bowed his head. ‘I am sorry for that, too.’
Artemis’ maroon eyes softened. ‘Go to Delphi, all will become clear.’ She vanished in a soft flash of silver light.
Μοίρα - Fate
The little girl stared at the ceiling, draped in translucent white silk, swinging her feet from her throne. ‘Adrastos, great hunter and free soul, you’ve returned for the wisdom of Apollo?’
‘I was bade to return here.’ He peered through the marble columns and watched the flickering flames dance in their braziers. ‘Everything was supposed to become clear.’
The girl closed her eyes. ‘As it should. You embarked on your hunt and took your chance for love as Apollo showed me, winning the favour of a kind, loyal maiden.’
No I didn’t. Adrastos stared at her, watching her heels bounce off the marble chair. I abandoned my hunt. I chose freedom. I gave up on my chance for love and the favour of a kind, loyal maiden.
‘I don’t understand,’ he said. ‘My hunt wasn’t successful.’
‘Apollo didn’t speak of success.’ She opened her eyes. ‘You have your answer, great hunter. You will see its promise fulfilled. Fare you well.’
Adrastos stumbled out into the heat of the sun, wandering away through the olive groves into the shade of the forest beyond.
I made my choice. He sucked in a deep breath and leant against the nearest trunk. And it was the right choice. I don’t need to know anything more than that.
‘Is all now clear?’ Artemis appeared with a flicker of silver brightness.
‘Not in the slightest.’ Adrastos grinned at her. ‘But there’s only one little girl I’m going to listen to.’
‘What did the oracle say?’ She drifted closer, ghosting through the tangled briars.
He shrugged. ‘Apparently, my quest was a success.’
Artemis’s expression darkened. ‘I feared as much,’ she whispered.
Arastos shook his head. ‘I think it was the girl I met, but even though I won her heart, I turned her down, so it’s all done with.’
She held out her hand and with a gentle flash of silver, a great bow appeared in her hand, its string a thread of pale light. ‘Do you know the story of my oath, noble Adrastos?’’
‘Not well enough to think it’s the full truth.’
A small smile curved Artemis’s lips. ‘You’re growing wise, my companion.’ She tested the string of the bow, then let it vanish. ‘I swore I would remain pure and a maiden until I was married, so long as my father did not force me to marry.’
‘Like my oath to you.’
‘Choice is a precious thing.’ A quiet sigh escaped her lips. ‘Back then, I wanted only to ensure I avoided my mother’s fate. Since then, I have watched gods and mortals alike tangle themselves in romance and I’ve learnt one thing. In the end, one half of a shared heart is stronger than the other.’
Adrastos frowned. ‘I don’t understand.’
‘Love becomes a cage unless the two are perfectly equal,’ Artemis said. ‘And in the case of your maiden, there’s no hope for that at all.’
‘That’s ok,’ he said. ‘I’m not going back to the girl in the village anyway. I abandoned my chance for love.’
‘It’s not her favour you’ve won, noble Adrastos.’ She stepped closer, a strange, bright, little gleam in her eye and lifted the amaranth flower up between them. ‘Does this help you understand?’
The bottom dropped out of his stomach. ‘This is a trick.’ He swallowed hard. ‘Another test.’
Artemis shook her head. ‘You have my oath that it is not.’
The air slipped from his lungs and he stared into her maroon eyes until the world swam and his head turned light as air.
‘Breathe,’ she murmured, taking another step toward him through the bracken.
‘What do I have to do?’ he asked. ‘What am I meant to do?’
‘I do not know.’ Artemis bit her lip. ‘I will not send you back to the cage I freed you from to live in misery, but if you stay, I will ruin everything about you I consider beautiful.’
‘Are you sure?’
The bright little gleam shone in her eye. ‘I can feel it now, the faintest temptation to bind you to me. If my brother’s vision is to be trusted, it will only grow stronger.’
But maybe, maybe there’s a way out. Adrastos buried the thought before it betrayed him.
‘Choice is precious, right?’ He drew himself up.
‘Yes, it is.’
‘If I stay, you will hate yourself for what you will do to me.’ He drew in a deep breath and cupped the amaranth flower in his palm, fixing its colour in his mind. ‘If I go, you will hate yourself for letting me go back to the cage you freed me from.’
Artemis closed her eyes and a single, shining tear trickled down her cheek. ‘Yes.’
‘Then if it’s the same to you, let me choose,’ he suggested. ‘But give me your word that you will abide by my choice.’
A second tear slipped after the first. ‘You are trying to spare me from blame.’ Artemis shook her head. ‘Your heart is beautiful, Adrastos, and it makes this all the worse. I wanted to set you free and instead I am fated to be your cage.’
He closed the distance between them and reached out with shaking fingers to brush her tears away. ‘Do you give me your word?’
She opened her eyes and held his gaze with soft, mournful maroon irises. ‘You have my oath. On all that I hold dear.’
‘Then I choose freedom,’ he whispered. ‘For both of us.’
Artemis froze. ‘No. You cannot do that.’
‘You gave me your word,’ he murmured. ‘I’ve made my choice.’
Fresh tears sparkled in her eyes. ‘You tricked me.’
‘You cannot alter the consequences of mortal choice.’ Adrastos offered her a small smile. ‘You said so yourself.’
She took the spear from his hands and thrust it into the dirt. A ripple of silver light washed through the forest and the spear burst into silver sparks. The briars crumbled away like dead leaves before a storm and Artemis’s tears fell in clear, glistening drops to the bare loam. Amaranth flowers rose up from where her tears met the ground, blossoming beneath the bright sun in crimson spires.
‘They will never wilt, not while I have even the faintest trace of power.’ Artemis drew him close and pressed her lips to his cheek. ‘Admire the flowers, noble Adrastos.’
He closed his eyes at the cold sting of the blade sliding between his ribs. ‘I would rather think of you, my lady.’
‘Amaranth,’ she whispered, cradling his head against her heart as the world turned dark. ‘Unfading.’