Velos spied the black-necked pheasant pecking at grain seeds that dotted the ground of the newly harvested wheat field. As she watched the bird hop to its left and poke its gray beak at a dried-out husk, the huntress slipped an arrow from her hip quiver and placed it in the string of her bow. She held her breath as she aimed at the speckled brown feathers just below the bird’s reddish crown.
A few seconds later, her arrow found its mark.
She placed the bird in her game pouch and whispered words of gratitude to the Goddess. It was going to be a good hunting day.
As Velos strode past the wheat field, she fixed her gaze on the tree line ahead of her. An opening in the green foliage marked the entrance to the mountain trail that she and her neighbors had traversed a few days ago on their journey to the Temple. It was an annual pilgrimage to the summit of Mount Oros that she’d made with her mother and sister for as long as she could remember.
As children, she and her sister Kori joined the other girls in the village to pack baskets of figs, walnuts, and small round honey cakes, while their mothers folded linen tunics and wool capes, some adorned with gold pins or silver brooches, into cloth sacks. On the morning of the summer solstice, the women and girls assembled the village’s gifts for the Goddess, asked for her blessing, and then embarked on their journey to her mountaintop temple.
Kori and Velos’ mother Alexa, a statuesque woman with raven-colored hair, always led the procession. Bearing the ceremonial bow and a quiver filled with newly fletched arrows, she struck an imposing figure at the head of the group. Behind her walked the deer-bearers, two young women carrying the sacrificial hind whose antlers had been painted gold.
Since she was a child, Velos had loved making the annual trek to the Temple, but this year had been different. For the first time, she was making the annual pilgrimage without her mother or sister. Kori was heavy with child and her mother had stayed home to be with her, so another village woman had taken Alexa’s place at the head of the procession. Velos had dutifully followed, walking silently behind the deer-bearers and avoiding looking ahead of them. A lump rose in her throat every time she glanced at the head of the line and saw another woman carrying her mother’s ceremonial bow and quiver.
A few days after the group left their offerings at the Temple and returned to the village, Velos chose to venture back to the mountainside to hunt. As she turned up the familiar path, the afternoon sun cast hazy shadows through the thick branches of the poplar and plane trees that covered this side of the mountain. For close to an hour, she hiked through the woods, accompanied only by the musical chirping of cicadas and the gentle gurgling of the creek that snaked down the mountain to the river below.
When an unusual sound caught her attention, she stopped in her tracks, trying to gauge her distance from its source. Someone was singing. She listened to the alluring voice for several minutes, unable to move toward it but unwilling to walk away from it. The eerily beautiful voice summoned her like a woodland siren. Even the birds fell silent as they listened to the mysterious singer.
Velos recognized the song - a familiar ballad about a maiden mourning the death of her true love at the hands of a vengeful suitor - but she did not recognize the language in which it was being sung.
She kissed his cheek and held him close
As oft she did before.
But in her heart, the sadness rose
When he fastened on his sword.
She crept closer in the direction of the songstress as if she was stalking an unsuspecting deer. Her fingers curled tightly around the leather grip of her hunting bow as the melancholy singing continued. The girl’s voice seemed to linger in the air, each note floating like a sad sigh on the summer breeze.
O stay with me and spend this day
As oft we’ve done before.
But in his eyes, she saw his pain
And knew he’d keep his word.
Velos peered through spindly green branches and held her breath at the sight of a girl sitting on the ground with her arms wrapped around her knees. She wore a plain, thigh-length chiton and dusty leather sandals. The girl seemed to be alone and unaware that she was being watched.
So off he went and left her lone
As na’er he’d done before.
But in his mind, he had to go
And end this ugly quarrel.
Velos studied the girl. She could be bait for a day traveler walking between the villages on either side of the mountain. A sympathetic soul might stop for her, then find themselves at the mercy of a band of robbers.
He thought he’d try and speak with him
Like it was long ago.
But that was when they still were friends
And not each other’s foe.
She tightened her grip on the bow, unsure of what to do next. Should she slip back into the woods the way she had come and leave the girl alone? The thought quickly disappeared from her mind. What if the girl was armed? What if she wasn’t alone? There was only one way to find out.
When Velos stepped from behind the bushes, the girl sprang to her feet, eyeing her unexpected visitor warily. She was a head shorter than Velos with auburn hair braided into a crown of bronze tresses. Her face was streaked with tears and her lips pressed together in a hard line. But the diminutive figure was not a girl. She was a young woman.
As her gaze fixed on Velos’ bow, she raised her hands in a gesture of surrender.
“I didn’t mean to startle you.”
The woman remained silent, but the color of her eyes changed from a light hazel hue to a vivid emerald green. Velos blinked twice and drew a slow breath.
“I’m Velos. What’s your name?”
“Did she send you?”
“No one sent me.”
The woman lowered her hands, letting her slender arms hang loosely at her side. She had such a light complexion that her skin appeared translucent. A red jasper amulet hung from her neck, resting delicately against her breastbone.
“You still haven’t told me your name.”
“Draia,” the woman answered softly.
Velos nodded in the direction of a quiver laying at her feet. “Are you hunting?”
The woman grimaced as knelt beside the leather pouch. Velos clasped the hilt of her hunting knife. In two steps, she could pin this woman to the ground.
“It’s empty. See for yourself.”
“Is this some kind of trick?”
Draia shook her head, then handed the quiver to Velos to examine. The soft, deer-hide pouch bore the elaborate design of a bear’s claw snaking down the outside of its leather casing. She peered inside, looking for arrows, blades, or any kind of weapon, but found nothing.
“Hmmm,” she murmured.
A quiver depleted of its arrows usually signified a miserable hunt in which the animal had been wounded and was now limping through the woods injured. Or it could be the result of a novice hunter, excitedly firing all her arrows without hitting her target.
“Where’s your bow?” asked Velos.
Draia’s eyes dulled from their luminous green hue back to a faint hazel color. She looked past Velos and stared at the dense woods behind her. “She has it.”
Had this woman made the pilgrimage to the mountain temple from another village? Like her mother Alexa, had she offered her ceremonial bow as a tribute to the Goddess?
“Where’s your village?”
Draia caressed the red amulet at the base of her neck. “My village?”
“Yes, where do you live?”
“We usually dwell by the water.”
Velos had heard stories about a northern tribe that traversed the river in small, flat boats as they migrated south for the winter. But right now, it was early summer. Puzzled by this strange woman with color-shifting eyes and annoyed by her half-answers to her questions, she took a deep breath and gathered her thoughts.
“What language was that you were singing in?”
Velos’ mouth dropped open. Only the Naiads spoke Artemisian. Her mother had told her stories about these spirited nymphs who dwelt in the forest. Known for their keen eyesight, they could spot a sparrow from two hundred paces away and tell you the color of its beak. And they were said to have such beautiful voices that they could calm the most ferocious beast simply by singing to it.
“The Goddess taught us her language.”
Velos tried to respond, but her mind was spinning with a million questions. Had she intruded on a sacred rite? Why was Draia singing in the middle of the woods? Why did she have a quiver without arrows? Was she in danger?
Fumbling for words, she uttered the next question that emerged from her jumbled thoughts. “Why were you crying?”
“I was crying for my sister. I need to find her.”
“Your sister?” The image of her own sister flashed through Velos’ mind, but Kori was safe at home with their mother. “Where is she?”
“I don’t know. The Goddess brought her here and then she sent her away. She was very angry.”
“What do you mean? She sent her away?”
“It wasn’t her fault. She was just trying to help the other girls.”
“What other girls? Trying to help them do what?”
“It’s a long story,” Draia sighed.
“I have time,” answered Velos, as she sat down cross-legged on the ground.
A wistful smile and shimmering green eyes transformed the woman’s doleful expression. She stared at the empty quiver in her lap, running her fingertips along its stitched edging.
“My sisters and I were going to celebrate the summer solstice. As Naiads, it’s our sacred time to honor the Goddess.”
Velos leaned forward as Draia began her story. She and Kori had enjoyed many a summer solstice on this mountain, following the deer-bearers up the trail to the Temple. Their mother had explained to them that the deer-bearers represented Artemis’ attendants, who were tasked with carrying the spoils of the hunt to her altar. Now Velos was sitting with a real-life Naiad, an immortal maiden follower of the Goddess.
“During the day, we conceal ourselves in the woods and watch for any travelers who pass through here.”
Draia’s words made the huntress smile. In these woods, she had sometimes felt like she was being watched. The unexpected rustling of leaves, the momentary glint of silvery sunlight, or the flutter of a cool breeze. Nothing out of the ordinary, but to Velos, it always felt like another presence was near. As a child, she had once tried to explain it to her friends, but they had laughed and teased her for being silly. Alexa, on the other hand, had nodded knowingly and assured her daughter that she was sensing the presence of the wood spirits.
“At sunset, we emerge from the forest and gather by the river to welcome our niáta, our little sisters. Then we all wait together for the moonrise.” Draia looked skyward. “When the moon appears in the night sky, we rejoice with song and dance so the Goddess knows where to find us.”
She turned her gaze toward her attentive listener. “You have a sister, don’t you?”
Velos sat upright and glowered at Draia. How did she know about Kori?
“You both make the trip to the Temple every summer. We’ve watched you since you were children.”
Despite the afternoon heat, Velos felt a cold shiver climb up her spine. She thought of herself as the stealthy hunter who surprised her prey, but now realized she had been tracked like the pheasant she’d stalked in the tall grass.
“You watched us every year?” Velos fidgeted with a loose thread at the edge of her hunting tunic.
“Because the Goddess told us to.”
Velos’ eyes widened as her mind shifted to a familiar scene. On the journey to the Temple, her mother would lead the villagers up the mountain trail for several hours until they finally reached a semi-flat plateau where they would camp for the night. There she would lay a small blanket on the ground and instruct the deer-bearers to place the animal on top of it. Alexa would then utter a short prayer, thanking the Goddess for protecting them. Her mother always said the Naiads looked out for them as long as they could see the gold antlers of the deer.
“And we enjoyed your singing,” said Draia with a subtle smile and a flicker of those emerald-green eyes that made Velos groan with embarrassment. On the first night of the pilgrimage to the Temple, the girls and women would gather around the fire after dinner to sing songs for the Goddess and tell stories about the Divine Hunter’s many adventures.
Draia started humming and then began to sing a familiar verse that reminded Velos of those cozy nights around the campfire.
To Artemis, we sing our praise and devotion.
The Goddess of maidens and mothers to be.
As fierce as the wind, as free as the ocean,
The huntress protects my sisters and me.
The nymph sang with exquisite perfection until her voice wavered on the last line and she fell silent. Velos held her breath, waiting to see if Draia would continue singing or start crying again. Instead, she continued her story.
“On the night of the solstice, our eldest sisters revealed which of the niata would travel to the Temple and bring back the offerings. When they chose my little sister Nyx, to make the sacred journey, she was so excited. It was all she had talked about since last summer when she had watched her sisters return from the mountain with the gifts for the Goddess.”
Draia placed her hand over her heart.
“I knew Nyx was up to the task, but I wasn’t so sure about the other niata who’d be joining her on the trip to the Temple. As you know, it’s a daylong hike to the summit, then it takes another full day to descend the mountain with the Goddess’ gifts. And most importantly, they must bring back the deer sacrifice.”
“Every year, when our little sisters return from their journey, we sing songs of gratitude to the Goddess. Then we dress the deer and roast it over the fire in preparation for the great welcoming feast. At some point, we know that Artemis will emerge from the forest and join us for the feast and the presentation of her gifts.”
She rubbed the heel of her palm against her chest and stared into the distance. “But this year was different. The niáta didn’t bring back the deer. They lost it to a pack of wolves on their way back down the mountain.”
Velos gasped. “What happened to Nyx?”
“She and the other five girls ran down the mountain. We were grateful no one was injured when the wolves attacked. But the Goddess was very angry with them. They’d failed to perform their sacred duty.”
Draia’s eyes flickered between shades of silver and gray as she turned toward Velos.
“As punishment, the Goddess turned them into arrows. Then she raised her bow and shot each of the six arrows in a different direction. I could hear the girls’ wails as the arrows launched through the air, flying far beyond our sight and into the wilderness.”
She raised her hands against her cheeks and dropped her chin to her chest. “I lost my sister.”
Velos leapt to her feet and hoisted her bow onto her shoulder. “Then let’s go find her. And the others too.”
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The artistry here is amazing. Taking so many elements and making them your own is impressive.
Thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed it.
Nice job weaving the story with poetry and mythology. I love it when various elements of writing can be brought together, and not have it feel forced or contrived. Well done!
Ah, Artemis. Like the mythology. But I expecially liked the poetry. To Artemis, we sing our praise and devotion. The Goddess of maidens and mothers to be. As fierce as the wind, as free as the ocean, The huntress protects my sisters and me. Great job. Like to see more mythology. Some of the descriptions were cliche. ( I do the same thing.) 'spinning with a million questions' 'cozy nights' But you're a poet! Like to see the whole story as a stream of consciousness - for whatever that's worth, dream like, even hard to understand.
Thank you for your suggestions. I'm glad you liked the mix of mythology and poetry. I had originally written this piece as the opening chapters of a longer story, but tried to condense it into a single story.