Silver strands of moonlight illuminated the forest, bathing it in radiance. Near the edge of the forest the thick foliage of trees thinned, opening up to reveal a stream of water gurgling softly, flowing smoothly over rocks. It was the perfect place for deer to come out. I knew from hunting several times that deer often appeared early at nightfall to find food and water.
But I wasn't hunting an ordinary deer. The prey I was hunting was a silver stag crowned with eight antlers, worthy to be hunted by Artemis herself. My muscles tensed, and I shifted my weight, my legs taut and anxious to spring into a run. The leaves of the shrub I was crouched behind rustled softly. Absently, I ran my hand over the amulet I wore with Artemis' image emblazoned onto it, silently praying for good fortune.
The eerie silence of the forest was broken by the crunching of dead leaves and pine needles and the soft beating of hooves. My breath caught in my throat as I watched the stag approach the brook. I thanked Artemis. Gracefully, it arched its neck to drink, and I noticed how its hide shimmered in the moonlight. My lips parted into a smile as I imagined bringing the animal back to my village. Even the best hunters would admire and respect me.
Eagerly, I stood, reaching for the bow that lay at my feet. Pulling an arrow out of my quiver, I strung my bow and aimed it at the stag. Tilting my head slightly, I focused my vision on the deer's chest. I relaxed my fingers, about to release the arrow, but my fingers remained frozen. It was almost a shame to kill such a beautiful animal. As if in a trance, I admired the grace and the dignity of the deer's movements. But the sound of footsteps broke the spell. Startled, I dropped my bow. I retrieved the weapon, cursing as I realized another hunter was trying to steal my prey.
The deer pricked its ears, looking in my direction. As quietly as possible, I knelt behind the bush and hurriedly restrung my bow. The leaves swished softly, and for a moment, I worried the stag heard. It pivoted its head, looking around the forest with wary vigilance, cocking its ears.
The whizzing of an arrow penetrated the air and an animal panted in pain as the arrow found its mark with deadly precision. As I peered over the bush, I saw a flash of silver as the stag ran with an uneven gait, its eyes dilated with terror. As the deer ran closer in my direction, the hammering of its hooves beat against the earth filled my ears, like Zeus' thunder.
Leaping to my feet, I put on a burst of speed. The stag's silhouette faded into the trees, and without a moment's hesitation, I followed it into the leaves of vegetation. Branches and thorns raked my skin, tearing through the thin fabric of my tunic, but I kept going. I felt like Atalanta as I raced through the forest. The wind whipped at my face and hair, and my adrenaline surged. My lips broke into a wide, unrestrained grin; this was the best part of the hunt. The adrenaline soon wore off, and I reluctantly slowed, trying to ignore the ache forming in my side. I only stopped when my chest constricted so painfully, it felt like it would burst. I panted for air, my breaths coming out in short gasps.
When I recovered, I took in my surroundings. To my dismay, I stood in the heart of the forest, where the vegetation was thickest. Weak shafts of moonlight streamed through the tangle of tree limbs, casting shadows across the forest floor. I sighed, knowing that I would not be able to find my way back until dawn. The other hunter would probably reach the stag before I did. Though I could hardly see anything in the darkness, my eyes swept over my surroundings.
A small glimmer of hope returned when I saw a faint trail of blood leading to the undergrowth. As I came closer to the verdure, I noticed a flash of movement. A pair of large gray eyes stared at me fearfully, and the deer slowly retreated deeper into the vegetation. Forcing my way through the thick foliage, I took a closer look at the deer.
An arrow protruded from its neck, and a ring of crimson blossomed around the arrow wound. A shiver of thrill rippled down my spine as I stared at the arrow. A faint silver glow encompassed the arrow, and I realized whom the arrow belonged to. Artemis. I lowered my bow in dismay, feeling a surge of disappointment. One of her nymphs must have been following the deer. To kill it would be sacrilegious to the goddess and her followers. A cold wave of fear coursed through me as I thought of what happened to Niobe and her fourteen children when she invoked Artemis' wrath. Sighing, I watched the deer limp past me as it faded into the trees.
Resigned, I stepped out of the shrubbery and sat down, feeling the dead leaves and pine needles crunch underneath the thin fabric of my tunic. Frustration and dissatisfaction welled up inside of me. My heart sank with the realization that this had been a rare opportunity presented by the gods. O Artemis, I thought, why can't I be your huntress? A wistful smile crept on my face as I imagined what it would be like to freely follow Artemis in a life of roaming the wild and hunting opposed to the life expected of a Greek girl-to settle down and raise a family.
"If I were your hunter, Artemis, I would bring this stag down with my own bow and arrow and lay the carcass at your feet," I whispered, almost afraid that Artemis would strike me with one of her arrows for my impudence.
"Then why don't you, Karin?" a high, clear voice replied from behind me.
Whirling around, I found myself face to face a tall woman. She loomed above me by several inches, and her large silver eyes stared at me solemnly. Though she regarded me seriously, a smile tugged at her lips. Her long auburn hair was piled on top of her head in a twist with a braid coiled around it, and nestled in her hair was a diadem, the jewels glimmering like stars. Slung across her back was the most beautiful bow I had ever seen, curved like a crescent moon with intricate carvings. When I saw her quiver full of silver arrows, I immediately recognized her, and my heart almost stopped.
"Lady Artemis," I replied, kneeling with my eyes downcast.
"Rise, Karin," she commanded with a hint of amusement in her voice.
I stood, my legs shaking. When I was brave enough to meet her gaze, she inclined her head and studied me enigmatically, reminding me of the way a hunter observes its prey.
"You are wondering why I am here," Artemis simply stated.
Not sure how to respond, I nodded.
"I am here to help you fulfill your destiny. Do you think it was a coincidence that while you were pursuing the stag, it led you here?" the goddess questioned, smiling wryly. "It was I who guided you here so we could meet. Do you wish to follow me, Karin?"
A flicker of hope burned bright in my heart and I stared up at her expectantly. "More than anything!" I answered earnestly.
Her face softened, and her lips curled into a gentle smile. But in an instant, the kind look was gone, replaced with a distant, aloof expression. "Then I shall grant your wish, but first you most prove yourself. I only choose the strong."
The spark of hope dimmed as her ominous words set in. Of course! I told myself. I should have known it would not be that easy! "What must I do?"
"First," she answered, "you must catch the stag. I will guide you to where it is now, but after that, I can do no more. You must hurry if you want to get to it before my lead huntress does."
A flash of white surrounded Artemis' figure and the light was so brilliant, I averted my eyes. When I opened them, she was gone, leaving me standing alone in the middle of the forest. As I gazed at the ancient trees looming above me, I began to feel discouraged. I had no idea which way to go. For a moment I considered giving up, but Artemis' words echoed in my head. First you must prove yourself. I only choose the strong.
Praying to Artemis for stealth and to Athena for wisdom, I flexed my legs and took off running faster than I had ever ran in my life. As I raced through the woods, the image of the deer flashed through my mind, propelling me forward. I was barely aware of the trees rolling behind as I whizzed past them or how the scenery always shifted. Though it was my first time in the forest, and I felt like I was navigating the Labyrinth, I knew which direction to turn or which beaten path to follow. With every step, I was closer to my goal.
The landscape changed again, and the thick patch of trees thinned. When I heard the quiet bubbling of a stream, I knew I was on the outskirts of the forest. But I was already here. A pang of uncertainty stabbed at my heart. Why would the stag be here? It was already here… I thought of turning back, but I stopped when I heard the thud of footsteps. At that moment, I knew the stag was there-but so was Artemis' lead huntress.
Quietly, I approached the brook, trying to stay close to shadows the plants in the undergrowth cast. I saw the stag near the water, its neck arched gracefully to drink and I wanted to rush forward and seize my opportunity. Without realizing it, I slowly crept forward. I only stopped when I noticed a girl my age creeping towards the stag. For a moment I mistook her for Artemis until I saw her bronze bow. My heart sank as she silently and effortlessly strung a silver arrow.
Knowing it was my only opportunity, I nocked an arrow. I raised my bow and aimed it at the stag, but I lowered it in dismay as I realized I would have to get closer to have any chance of an accurate shot. When I saw the girl leisurely raise her bow, I hastily lifted it again, and said a quick prayer to Apollo for a lucky shot. I relaxed my tense fingers and exhaling sharply, I let the arrow fly.
The hissing of the arrow pierced the air. The girl spun around to face me, her eyes wide in horrified shock. Swiftly, she released her arrow, but to my delight, she was so distracted, the arrow veered off course, missing its target by a hairsbreadth. We both watched, mesmerized, as my arrow hit the stag in the center of its chest. The deer collapsed, lying on its side, as rivulets of blood flowed freely from the wound. I watched in anticipation as the life faded out of the animal's hazel pair of eyes. My lips quirked into a proud smile.
"Impossible," she muttered. "I never miss."
My joy was short lived, and my smiled vanished when the huntress turned to me, her dark eyes blazing with anger and hatred. She closed in the distance between us in three strides. Involuntarily, I took a step backward, making her edge forward.
"I hope you enjoyed your conquest, because it will be the last thing you experience before you share the same fate as that stag." Her voice came out low and threatening, like the harsh growl of a predator cornering its prey before the final kill.
Fear weighed down my heart, and I felt like a piece of ice was lodged inside my chest, sending waves of frigidity throughout my body. My eyes drifted to the lifeless body of the stag, and for a second I imagined my motionless body lying on the bed of dead leaves next to the deer. My heart skipped several beats, and I had difficulty remembering how to breathe properly.
"You don't understand," I replied desperately as she pointed the weapon at my chest.
"What is there to understand?" she answered in a dangerously serene voice. "I understand you stole my victory, and now you will pay the price-your life. But be grateful Artemis is not here, or your death would be slow and painful."
"But Artemis appeared to me-" I protested, in a last attempt to save my life.
Her face contorted with fury as her hands tightened around her weapon. "How dare you claim to have seen Artemis? It's almost a shame to slay you. I almost admire your audacity."
"Lower your bow, Solona," a familiar voice said. We both turned in the direction the voice came. My heart almost stopped with relief when I saw Artemis. Swiftly, she placed herself between me and Solona.
"Lady Artemis!" Solona gasped and quickly bowed her head. "Do you wish to deal with this insolent mortal yourself?"
"There is no need for that, Solona," the goddess replied severely. "I brought her here deliberately. She only did what I ordered her to. It was a test, and she passed."
"As you wish," Solona replied stiffly while she silently seethed.
As she retreated, she glowered at me. If Artemis had not been looking, I would have returned Solona's nasty look. Instead, I lifted my chin, gazing at her coolly as her silhouette melded into the trees.
"You did well," Artemis said at last, facing me. Her eyes shimmered with amusement as if she knew how difficult Solana was to deal with.
Hearing those words made my knees buckle. My hands tightened around my bow until my knuckles were bone-white. I suppressed the huge grinning forcing its way onto my face. Instead, I nodded and bowed my head. An uncomfortable silence fell over us, heavy and unbreakable.
"Does this mean I can become one of your hunters?" I ventured when the silence became unbearable.
Artemis smiled at me kindly. "Not yet. This was the first trial. Though there is still more to come."
My face fell, and suddenly my victory turned sour. "Yes, Lady Artemis," I managed to say, making her favor me with an amused grin.
"Have faith, Karin. I have leave, but we will meet again soon."
Before I could question her further, a veil of light shrouded her figure. I turned my head away, averting my eyes. When the light faded, the spot she had been standing on was deserted. I felt my body lurch, and my head spun dizzyingly. Squeezing my eyes shut again, I waited for the vertigo to subside.
When my eyes fluttered open, I was enveloped in darkness, and it took a few minutes for my eyes to adjust to my surroundings. I felt my back pressed against a soft surface, I realized I was lying in bed, I was convinced that it had all been a dream, but my fingers were curled around something damp and metallic. When I stared at my hand, I saw my fingers were wrapped around a silver arrow, and the arrowhead and shaft were stained with fresh blood.