Huntress – Angel Lawson, LJ Swallow

THE DAY THE SUN ECLİPSED, a shadow crossed my soul. As I stood with the younger girls and watched the sky darken, the birds stopped their song. The heat of the day vanished as the ring of fire enveloped the moon. Many have never seen an eclipse, and we reassured them the world wasn’t ending. The older women whispered that the gods were angry. I don’t believe in their old tales, but something felt wrong, unnatural, with the way the moon blocked out the sun. I can’t explain why, but even after the sun reappeared, it no longer held the same warmth as before. A chill settled in my bones. Since that day a week ago, I’ve dreamed about my brother Apollo again, and when I wake in the night I see his face in the moon’s surface. The forest is warm this time of year, even after the sun dips behind the trees. My skin is salty with sweat, my hands stained from a day on the hunt. I killed a deer and two rabbits—all three with my bow. Iris took the bodies into the shed, where she’ll skin and prep them for winter. Victoria walks next to me, eyes ever-alert on our way to the falls. My bow hangs on my back, still dirty from today’s hunt.

“A few more days like this and we’ll be set for harsh weather, don’t you think?” I nod in agreement, stepping over the roots and rocky path with my bare feet. “Iris will cure the meat. Hestia has grown enough herbs and spices to keep us in stock.” It always seems too early to prepare for winter—for the lean days ahead—but two decades of living in the forests have taught me it’s never enough. “Thank Zeus we do not have to worry about feeding males. Dione told me she watched them eat in the village. Barbaric, shoving handfuls in their mouth like swine.” She jabs me in the rib. “Sort of like you.” I frown, as much at her for invoking Zeus’s name as making fun of me.

“I’m not that bad.” She raises her eyebrows and a teasing grin lifts her lips. It’s not the first time I’ve noticed the difference between us. Her skin tans and turns a golden brown. Her eyes are bright blue like the sky. She has dainty fingers and her feet are never black with grime like my own. But she works in the settlement, not out in the woods like I do. Her calling isn’t with a bow and arrow but with keeping order for all the females. There’s still a last bit of sunlight when we reach the edge of the falls and I peer into the clear pool, getting a look at myself. Red, wild hair falls halfway down my back.

My eyes are dark green. My cheek has a smear of dirt—or maybe blood—across my pale skin. Even though I ruffled at Victoria’s comment, barbaric may not be the wrong description. I’ve always had a desire for freedom, an urge to climb trees and hunt in the depths of the forest. Which is fortunate, because I have no other choice. Setting my bow on a large rock, I peel off the leather tunic and pants and leave them on the grass. The water is cool against my hot skin, providing relief from a weary day. Victoria also strips, leaving her smock and skirt next to mine. I divert my eyes as she enters the water. We’re close, like sisters, except she’s curvy and short and her hair is never knotted like a wren’s nest, unlike my own.

Hers is sleek and combed—braided neatly down her back. “Here,” she says, offering me something from her satchel. It’s a small lump of soap. “Aceso made it yesterday.” I hold it up to my nose. “Smells like lavender.” “She found a patch growing near the back fields.” We lather and scrub, sharing the soap. Victoria takes a moment to remove a stubborn patch of dirt from my back. “Oh, your necklace is caught in your hair.

” I feel her fingers gently pull my hair away from the chain. I touch the charm hanging from the front. It’s a half of a golden sun, the rays blazing like fiery hair. It’s my most-prized possession—other than my bow. Since the eclipse, it has felt like a heavy stone and not the delicate forged gold. “Thank you.” “What do you think they’re like?” she asks, swimming away. We continue to wash in private. It’s not safe to venture away from the camp alone. We have a rule about going in pairs, even if it is to just wash the grime and stink off our bodies.

“Who?” I know who she’s asking about. We’ve discussed it over and over. “Men or even just a man.” “How would I know? I’ve never seen one.” This isn’t exactly true, but not a lie, either. I’ve seen one in my dreams. My brother. He’s a man now just as I am a woman. “Aceso says they smell. And they have wide noses.

Their arms are big.” She flexes her tiny bicep. I make one and it’s not much bigger, but at least a small mountain of muscle appears. We laugh. “I think they’re not worth thinking about. You know they don’t consider us.” “What if they do?” she asks quietly. “Your father sent you here. He created this place for you to be safe. He must think about you.

” “Or he wanted me out of the way so he can continue his patriarchy over the world without the embarrassment of a daughter.” I swim toward the shore and climb out of the water with dripping wet hair. Once we’re both dressed again and lying on the grass to dry our hair, I roll toward her and wince from the pain that shoots through me. “What happened?” “I fell. Chasing the buck. I’m sure the bruise will be worse tomorrow.” “There’s salve in the pantry.” She looks up at the stars. “I didn’t mean to bring him up. Zeus.

I know talking about your father is painful.” I nod and say nothing. What is there to say? He tore me from my mother. My brother —a twin. He sent me to this place to be raised in freedom away from the dark, seedy politics of the world outside. It seems like a kind thing to do—except the hole it left in my soul hurts like hell. It’s almost dark when we dress and head back to the hidden encampment. We cross the wards that keep our home safe from outsiders and find the rest of the group sitting by the fire, eating dinner. I grab my bowl and take a large scoop from the pot. The venison smells delicious.

I offer Iris a smile as I take my usual seat. A throat clears a few feet away and I brace myself. I’d hoped maybe we’d lingered long enough at the falls to miss Empanada’s nightly blessing. Not so lucky, it seems, and Victoria smiles sympathetically at me from across the fire. Empanada takes a deep breath and begins. “We take a moment to thank our creator and protector, Zeus, for providing us with a safe home, dense woods, and capable women in our community. We’re lucky to have this safe haven from the politics and war of the outside world, where the goddesses are treated as inferior and the gods dictate our moves. Here we are free to roam, live, and survive as equals.” The firelight flickers, crackling and snapping with roaring heat. Empanada’s eyes skim over me and my skin blisters.

She, like everyone else, is aware of my lineage and the myths that swirl around my inclusion in this community. Even if Zeus was trying to protect me, it still hurts to be pushed aside while my brother was accepted. Each woman is my sworn protector, dictated to keep me safe—even if I am the strongest and do not need their protection. They need me. That thought becomes truth when a twig snaps in the woods beyond the clearing. I hear the break, followed by a heavy footstep. Human, not beast. I count the faces around the fire. Everyone is here, which means whoever is out there isn’t one of us. I’m up and standing on my seat in a heartbeat, bow out and arrow nocked.

Most of the women around me scatter, although a few warriors move into position. I stretch my elbow back just as a shadow moves in the distance. I release the arrow, aimed true at the heart of the trespasser. Thwick I relax, knowing the point met its mark when I hear the sound of impact. Stepping forward, I move to the edge of the clearing to see who got past the wards and dared approach our encampment. I expect a body. I find a man, upright and walking toward me with the arrow tight in his fist. “I’m looking for Artemis, daughter of Zeus and Leto.” Without thinking, I nock another arrow and say, “You’ve found her.” His face comes into the firelight and I freeze, fully aware that this is no mortal.

I’m spinning this over in my head when he declares, “Then I regret to inform you that your brother, Apollo, is dead.” 2 ARTEMIS MY BOW DOESN’T WAVER. It’s still trained on the man’s throat, but his words echo in my ears. “What did you say?” “Apollo is dead.” His eyes soften. “I’m sorry.” I become aware of the others behind me, the warriors and fellow encampment dwellers alike. I lower my bow and say to him, “You can’t be here. It’s forbidden.” Then I tilt my head in question.

“How did you pass through the wards?” “I came here as a messenger of Zeus.” Ah, my father could crash through any magic he wished. He looks at the weapons still aimed at him. “I mean no harm, but I do have to speak to you further. Privately.” Curiosity, along with the numbness of hearing the news about Apollo, makes me careless. “I’ll meet you near the willow tree east of the ridge.” He nods and vanishes back into the woods. Two of my fellow hunters silently follow him. I let them go.

There could be more. This may not be as it seems. I glance at Victoria, who looks pale in the firelight. I offer her a tight smile while knowing our world has been irrevocably changed. I secure my bow on my back, the quiver in a leather sheath. “I’ll be back,” I say to my friend. “You can’t go alone. Take Danielle. She’s our second-best shot.” I’m the first.

I know I have to do this alone. That world, the one of gods and society and my father and brother, is separate from this one. I won’t allow them to cross. I felt it in the eclipse that day. A light was snuffed. I have no doubt what this man says is true. “Danielle,” I call, and the curvy woman appears by my side. She carries a blade as well as her bow. “Arm everyone. Get the children inside.

You’re in charge.” She nods. “I’ll protect them.” “I know you will.” Victoria gives me a nasty look for subverting her idea. It doesn’t stop her from saying, “Be careful.” “You too.” I disappear into the dark. The woods are a sanctuary. I’ve spent countless hours combing the forest each day.

It’s how I learned to hunt. To kill. I’m happier with my hands dirty, climbing trees or chasing animals, but something has always told me that my survival skills come as a gift from my father. The moon lights my path, and just before I reach the willow tree, I pause and assess the messenger. The male. It’s not a fabrication that I’ve never seen one. I’ve never had the interest. I have my friends and companions, my activities and role in the encampment. Men are nothing more than a myth—something girls like Victoria dream about or a cautionary tale in Empanada’s weekly blessings. Beings obsessed with power and politics.

But now, there’s one before me. Two heads taller than I am. Hair the color of straw. It’s too dark to see the shade of his eyes but they look light, like Victoria’s. Gray, perhaps. Maybe blue. His jaw is a fine, sharp line and his nose slants evenly across his face. Lithe muscles line his arms and bulk up his shoulders. He carries a blade at his hip. A leather cuff wraps around his wrist.

His clothing is not made of leather—or at least, not all of it. It looks finely made, as if on a machine. The stitches are even and close together. The fabric has vibrant colors, vivid blues and greens, the darkest black. His eyes skim the forest and pause when they reach me. He’s aware, not a fool, although it’s unlikely my father would send someone illprepared to find me. I step under the long, wispy branches of the tree and approach him. “How do I know this isn’t some kind of ruse? Men have tried to find us before. Taking a member of my encampment would be quite a feat. Are you sure this isn’t why you’re really here?” “I’m not interested in the women you live with, Artemis.

” “Why not? “Two reasons. First, I was sent here by your father and the last thing I want to do is have the ruling god of society breathing down my neck for disobeying his orders.” He grimaces. “And second, although I’m sure you and all your forest nymphs are lovely, charming people in your own woodsy way, none of you is exactly my type.” I consider both of these. He’s right about my father. Crossing him would be lifeending. And the women? “None of them are my type, either.” He laughs at my blunt honesty, and a touch of the darkness in his eyes retreats. “What is your name?” I ask.

Directness has never been a problem for me. “Hati.” “You aren’t Greek.” “I’m from Odin’s realm.” “Norse, then.” I’ve heard tales of the Norsemen. Epic gods of war and battle. I find it curious my father would send someone from outside to seek me out—to tell me this news. But nothing Zeus does ever makes sense to me. “Tell me, how did my brother die?” “He’s been at the Academy, training for the Trials.

” I watch the man closely as he speaks. The way his lips move. The lines of his face. They’re hard—not soft like the women in the encampment. Everything about him seems angular, from his shoulders to the tapering of his waist. His voice is deep, so much I can almost feel it in my chest. I move closer and take a discrete whiff. He smells different, too. Musky, like the scent of bears downstream in the fall. “What Trials?” I ask, then add, “What Academy?” He tilts his head.

“You do not know about these things?” I shake my head. “I live in a world of hunting and gathering. We’re an isolated community. My father didn’t tell you?” “He said to be discreet.” A smile lifts the corners of his lips. I don’t trust it. “And to watch my back. I believe his exact words were, ’The women of Artemis’s village are deadly. Tread carefully.’” He looks at my bow.

Assesses my muscles. “The Academy is the premiere school for training and educating the most elite gods of the three realms. Greek, Roman, and Norse. Applicants begin when they are twenty-one and typically spend the next three years learning politics, bureaucracy, and climbing the social ladder. Once attained, they will begin a lifelong career in ruling the masses.” “You still haven’t told me how my brother met his fate or explained these Trials.” “Apollo’s death was shrouded in mystery, but I do know it took place at the Trials, which,” he adds, knowing I’m only going to ask again, “are a standard challenge for each graduating class, but three weeks ago it was announced that things would be different this year.” “Different how?”

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