The trees tremble, and it is not from the wind. I clench my fists so my fingers don’t follow the trees’ example, and reach behind my back, pulling out an arrow and nocking it in a motion so practiced that I don’t need to take my eyes off the tree line. Sunlight glimmers like a jewel through the shifting leaves. “It’s here,” Meleager says, his voice solid and unafraid. He stands so close beside me that I can hear his steady, unfaltering breaths, and I wonder if the other men are feeling half as brave as he is. Although, I’m not certain it’s bravery to act so calm before a beast. Maybe it’s just stupidity. Either way, I’m not going to let them see me as anything less than predatory. I grit my teeth and stare down the shaft of the arrow, aiming it where the trees shudder the most. The leaves and bushes beneath them writhe, struggling to contain the monster all of Calydon—all of Greece—could know by scent or sound alone. The monster we have been hired to slaughter. He was right about you, I remind myself. I think the words over and over again, until I can force my body to stay still and tall, even as the men of the hunt fan out around and in front of me. Prince Meleager defied everyone around him to let me join this hunt. I will make sure he knows he was right.
I close one eye and bite my tongue until I taste blood. I made it here, didn’t I? Among all these men, these famous warriors and princes and heroes—I made it here. I will show them what my name means. Atalanta, equal in weight. He was right— The forest explodes. Leaves fly, branches shatter, and the men raise a loud yell, something fearsome and almost taunting, even as it blends in with the growls and screams of the terrible beast before us. The Calydonian Boar. My muscles fall weak, and I jerk my bow back into its place, squinting down the arrow, trying hard to stop the desperate heaving of my chest. I’ve never been so glad to be an archer—I stand back, while the men rush forward with their spears and swords at a monster twice the height of Laertes, the tallest among us. I used to think the five of them were a daunting, terrifying thing—a force any beast or army would hesitate to face down.
Now, I finally see that they are just five men. Five men against one daunting, terrifying monster. Meleager and Tydeus grasp their spears, while Laertes and Peleus raise their swords. Hippomenes’s curly hair bounces as he moves to the front of the boar’s wet snout. It bares its teeth, like a wolf. I have no doubt that the goddess Artemis created this beast. If she is truly in charge of the wild, then this is certainly her doing. I want to close my eyes. King Oeneus was a fool not to honor her. The boar rakes its tusks down and around, uprooting a tree and crushing Tydeus with it.
My hands shake. Take your shot, take your shot. My first arrow lands true. It embeds itself into the boar’s left flank, and I exhale, already grabbing the next one. But the boar is undeterred. My arrow sticks out of its side, but it merely snarls once in discomfort. Like the wound is a bee sting. The second arrow hangs loosely between my fingers, and I realize my distance is preventing the beast’s destruction. The whole reason Meleager even accepted me here— my aim and acumen—is for nothing. Not when we’re staring up at divinely created annihilation.
My eyes fall on Meleager, as they too often do. To my surprise, he’s staring right back, his dark eyes wide with something between fear and ferocity. Meleager jerks his head toward the boar once, his message clear. Fight. I let my arms fall to my sides. No. I can run faster and aim truer than any of them, but I know I cannot fight like they do. Meleager has already thrown himself back into the action, his sword cutting closer and closer to the boar, but its massive legs and impossibly sharp tusks prove to be strong barriers. Tydeus still lies forgotten in a red heap in the dirt. The other men crowd around the boar in a semicircle, but they can’t hold their position for more than a few seconds.
None of them get close enough to land a strike. And I’m too far away to hurt the beast. “Atalanta!” Meleager shouts, his voice strained, far from the steadiness of just a minute ago. I watch as beside him, Hippomenes tosses his head back to glare at me. That’s enough to make me straighten. I respect Meleager. He’s earned it. But Hippomenes? I won’t let that bastard see me scared. I draw my bow again, sprinting down into the clearing beside the rest of them. Loose dirt gets caught in between the straps of my deteriorating sandals, but I push forward, squinting sunlight out of my eyes until I find my footing right in between Hippomenes and Meleager.
They’re both a head taller than me, but I square my shoulders as best I can. I look up and try not to vomit. The boar’s stench nearly brings tears to my eyes. “What—” My voice is too small. I let another arrow fly, and this time, the boar staggers backward. “What’s the plan here?” Hippomenes laughs sharply, and Meleager tightens his grip on his sword, his eyes rapidly scanning the carnage before him. “We need to get someone behind it,” Meleager mutters. “I can distract it from the front, but—” “But there aren’t enough of us!” I have to shout to be heard over the boar’s enraged squealing as it shoves its way closer to us. We’re all forced to take a collective step backward, our weapons thrust between us and the boar, as if their steel alone can save us. I hear Laertes curse as he trips over Tydeus’s body.
I swallow back a wave of nausea. The boar scrapes its right hoof through the thick, root-choked dirt. It lowers its head, and its black eyes glint menacingly in the bright sun. Hippomenes takes a breath, but I cut him off. “Split up!” I scream, diving to my right and praying the rest of them hear me. I crash into Hippomenes’s chest, and he stumbles after me as the beast charges through us. The rest of the men are on the other side of it . hopefully. Its body is far too large to see over or around, and Hippomenes and I sprint toward its backside as it swivels around. But it’s not swiveling toward us.
“No,” I growl, scrambling back toward the boar’s front. I notch another bow and ignore Hippomenes’s confused shouting as I plow by him, desperate to get the boar’s attention on me and not— “Meleager!” I scream, because he’s helping Laertes to his feet. His tunic is ripped to shreds, leaving his muscled back exposed. It’s all I see. And then I see the tusks. I run closer, the sound of my own breath becoming deafening. His sweat-slicked skin and the beast’s unforgiving tusks are too close to reconcile. I launch another arrow I hadn’t realized I’d loaded. The shaft only hits the boar’s front right leg, but that’s okay—that’s all I need. Now the monster stares me down, angry, loud huffs of breath close enough to blow strands of hair across my face.
My mind screams for me to grab the next arrow, but my hands aren’t cooperating. The boar’s momentary surprise is the only thing saving me, I’m certain. A snarl resonates deep within its throat, and then my feet suddenly remember how to move. The beast is enormous, but maybe its size will slow it down. Maybe. And I am nothing if I am not fast. With the speed that earned me my spot in this hunt, I sprint to my right, shoving past Hippomenes. I don’t really mind if the boar skewers him. The familiar feeling of motion brings something back to life inside of me, and I load another arrow as I run, each breath and heartbeat chasing the next one, hearing the boar move faster than I’d like behind me. I heave a huge breath and yank myself to a stop, turning around and aiming as quickly as my muscles can move.
The boar lets loose a shrill scream, loud enough to make me falter. My ears ring slightly, and I reel backward until my back collides with the knotty trunk of an olive tree. I clutch my hands tight to my bow as the monster collapses, clouds of loose dirt and dust swirling through the sunlight that fights its way through the forest’s choking shadow. I’ve run farther than I realized. I can hear the men’s shouts and screams, but they sound tinny and distant. My eyes stay locked on the boar, though its cries have grown almost pitiful. I exhale, a small glow of pride expanding in my chest. I slew the Calydonian boar. I laugh into the empty, silent space between me and it, and let my body relax. I lean against the trunk, letting the bow slide from my fingers.
And then my arrow hits the dirt right with it. My arrow, which I didn’t launch. Then what—? The world comes into focus again, and I can hear that Hippomenes and the others are far closer. My blood runs cold, and I quickly fumble with the arrow and bow, shooting the boar again. It releases one last, small whine. It makes a remarkably easy target when it’s lying still on the ground. “Atalanta!” I can’t tell who yells my name. Panic shoots through my veins, and I stumble to the fallen boar frantically. I hadn’t realized how badly I’d wanted—needed—to kill it myself. They would like me then.
They wouldn’t give Meleager those poorly concealed looks, obvious wonder written across their ugly faces, probably believing I was only invited along to be the prince’s whore, or . “No, no, no,” I mumble, following the steady stream of red leaking from the boar. Too much blood for an arrow. I look desperately at the boar’s hide, and it’s not hard to find. A beautiful gold handle sticks out from its side, complete with intricate flowers and letters I was never taught to understand. I wheel around. Someone threw that knife, and it belongs to no one from our hunt. The woods are dark under the trees, but empty as far as I can tell. “Atalanta?” But not for long. I glance one last time behind me, then lean forward and grasp the hilt of the knife.
I yank it out, and more blood pours from the wound. The blade is bright gold, polished and obviously cared for. Even dripping with blood, it’s gorgeous. And now, as far as anyone will know, it has always been mine. I whirl around, and this time, Meleager’s hunt stares back at me. Meleager blinks hard, and Laertes takes a small step backward. My eyes must look feral, and the blood falling from the blade—my blade—must be alarming. “The boar,” Peleus manages. None of their eyes leave me. “It’s .
” “Dead,” I supply. Silence drops down, heavy and thick. I start to feel the aching of my muscles, the sweat sliding down my back. Finally, Meleager manages to ask, somewhat redundantly, “Dead?” “Dead.” I don’t trust myself to say more. I’m met with wide eyes and slackened jaws, and it might have felt good if I deserved their surprise. It takes all my willpower not to turn around and scour the woods for whoever threw that knife. Only Hippomenes, standing just behind Meleager, has his arms crossed. His sea-green eyes are slits, and his lips press together in an almost invisible line. “You slew the Calydonian boar?” he asks.
His voice vibrates with contempt. Meleager glances back at him, eyebrows raised. I swallow hard. “Is that so hard to believe?” Meleager asks him. Hippomenes tilts his head at him, menacingly, and I curse under my breath. Everyone else decides to examine their sandals in great detail. “Stop it,” I snap. “That’s not your knife,” Hippomenes shoots back, taking a step forward. As if he knows whose it is. I grit my teeth and force my shoulders back.
“Yes,” I say. Maybe if I keep my voice firm, I might believe what it’s saying. “It is. Unlike you, I don’t flaunt every blade I own and every muscle I have. Surprises are how monsters get killed.” Hippomenes answers with a thin smile, and he shakes his head. Meleager and the others glance uneasily back at me. “Atalanta,” Meleager starts. His voice always sounds so different when his lips shape my name. I long to hear him say it again.
“Is that your knife?” I stare at his dark, kind eyes. Then at my hands, dripping scarlet and shaking too much. The golden glint of the knife glows painfully with the sun’s light, but I grip the hilt tightly, comfortably, and resolve to pretend it has always been a part of me. “Yes,” I reply, glancing up to Meleager. I must pretend it until it becomes the truth. “This is my knife, given to me by the hunters who raised me.” His eyebrows shoot up at that, and I bite my lip hard. I’d thought an origin would make me sound more believable, but not that one. Meleager is the only one who knows precisely why I ran from them. I clear my throat and thrust a hand behind me, back at the slain monster.
“Let’s deal with this, then, shall we?” The men stare back at me, in an almost perfect line of broad shoulders and skeptical expressions. Meleager wears a slight frown across his brow, but he concedes a shrug and walks forward. Laertes and Peleus begin to follow him, and with a painful blow to my gut, I remember that Tydeus is not among them. If only I had killed the boar sooner. If only I had killed the boar at all. But nobody else needs to know. Nobody else does know, except for whoever threw the knife. I turn the blade over in my hand. Where the blood doesn’t reach, I see my own reflection. My gray eyes are startling, gaunt, and so savage that I can’t quite reconcile the image I see with the idea I have of myself.
Someone slams into my shoulder as they pass. I jerk my head back, meeting Hippomenes’s eyes with as much hatred as I can summon. He has never wanted me here. But now I’ve given him a reason to believe I belong. He will know I belong here, among them, even if it takes a lie. I hold his stare until he turns his gaze to the thin trail of crimson blood that leads to the corpse of the Calydonian boar. That I slew, I tell myself with every step behind Hippomenes. That I slew. By the time we reach the rest of the hunt, I believe it.