My name is Artemis. I am tall, and strong, and ugly as a sow in heat, they tell me.
When I was born to my mother Hera, I’m told she took one look at me and said “Take her out and put her in the barn with the brutes.” I wouldn’t have minded, I’ve always had an affinity with animals. For what are we but animals, some of us with a little more wit and most of us with a lot more greed?
I was big even then for a goddess, and I didn’t stay a baby for long. I crawled amongst the horses and cows, and got up on their backs and nestled my face into their warm harsh fur. I clambered out into the fields and woods and stuck my head down burrows, sniffing at their occupants. And they sniffed right back at me, and sometimes snarled and clawed at my face. I didn’t mind, I was immortal and couldn’t be harmed by such as they. So I poked and prodded and snarled back, and eventually they accepted me as just another animal, a cub who didn’t know what she was doing but was harmless enough.
I was happy in the woods, and would have been happy in the barn, but even a child goddess must go home sometime. When I came back to my mother’s palace, my hair matted with the sweat of the day, my face caked in dirt and my body covered with scratches, my mother hissed at me with disgust and told my nursemaid to take me away and feed me in the servants quarters, for I was not fit for a god’s table.
Much I cared – for even then I did not like my mother. She was a woman who cared for nothing but power, and since my father Zeus, as Lord of the gods, possessed most of it, she was perpetually unhappy. She would order the servants, setting them difficult and wearying tasks, insisting that everything be done in a particular manner and in a particular time. Every day she would inspect the household minutely to see that all had been done as she commanded. Inevitably, she would find that it had not, and then she would rage and shout and insist that it be done all over again, secretly pleased by their mistakes. She would redecorate the palace two or three times a week, dissatisfied with the placement of mirrors or the colour of a ceiling – she would do it on a whim, having only to think of what she desired, and then prowl about looking for anything that did not fit. In short, she was chronically frustrated.
It was easy to be ugly; I did not mind. An ugly girl is spared the trouble of arranging her hair in cumbersome curls or fussing over her dress or trotting about in uncomfortable shoes. As I grew, I chose my weapons, as all the gods do – but not the goddesses. I have never seen why it should be so. Except that the goddesses, for the most part, prefer to play games amongst themselves, to rival each other in love, raise their godlings, and – of course – bully mortals. For an immortal strength is not an accident of birth, as it is for a mortal; it is an attribute of power and of mind. Any goddess could choose to have muscles like my own, iron banded legs, sinews of steel, a chest as broad as a bear and a skull as thick. But she wants to be admired, generally speaking, and so does not. Males, even among the gods, do not take their rivals to mate.
Womanhood came to me, as it does to the gods, quickly and without the blood and mess, spots and stormy tempers that accompany it in mortals. I simply woke one morning, and turned to my shield (for I had no mirror) to see that I had grown breasts and hips and hair in places where it was not before. I examined myself closely, decided that it would do, and threw on a tunic to go out to the hunt.
I should explain that by this time I was not a friend to all animals as I had been before. The gods do not need to eat meat – they do not need to eat at all – but long ago they caught the habit from mortals and got the taste for blood and burnt flesh. They also caught the habit of hunting, and that was not so foreign to them, for we have always enjoyed hunting and killing, even if it is just each other. What would you? Eternity is a tedious thing, and we must needs enliven it somehow. Since the great War, particularly, gods have turned to hunting (both humans and other animals) and to sports and games of all kinds. Including, as you know, the Game.
On this morning, I went out to hunt in the forest of Arcadia, a wild place on earth where one might still sometimes find strange beasts such as unicorns and centaurs, although for the most part I hunted wild boar or deer. I took with me my great iron spear, my bow and a quiver of arrows, and a brace of wolf pups I had trained to help track and hold.
Soon enough the wolves picked up a trail, and we went running together through the pathless forest, the dogs in a flurry with their noses to the ground, I picking my way behind over the bracken and bog. It is hard to explain what a joy it is to have your feet meet the earth, bare and unprotected, so that you can feel all the textures of it – boggy, gravelled, warm leaf litter, cold stone, even prickles and thorns – meet your bare skin at each falling step. I admit, there is something about the human world that I love, beautiful as Asgard is. I love that you cannot easily change it. Anything in Asgard is as you please; my mother changes her rooms as often as she wants, with just a thought and a wish. Our world is woven from thought, and I think that if we all died, it would die with us.
Not the mortal world. If all humans were to perish tomorrow, the world would survive, and be glad of it. Humans are a pestilence, that is the truth of it, like a swarm of mites on a peach tree. But nature, in the mortal world, meets you as an equal. When you run, the sweat runs off you, whether you will or no. At night, the air is cold on your skin. When you leap into a lake, you sink or you swim, but you cannot walk across it. Unless you are a God, of course, and then you can do many things. But I choose not to; it is much more fun that way.
So, we were running through the forest, the leaves and twigs scratching my arms as I brushed past them, when the wolves began to bay. The boar was close; they smelled its run. I came up behind them, panting, and signalled to them that they should circle around behind the beast and drive it towards me. They were well trained animals, and understood me almost as well as if we could speak; indeed, we did speak, mind to mind.
The wolves obeyed. Three went one way, three another, and I waited. Soon there was a great noise of crashing branches and undergrowth trampled underfoot, and the boar came rushing out, red eyed and furious. I did not blame it; I would have been furious too, in its situation. I readied my spear, its haft resting against the ground between my feet, and the boar came charging at me, its head lowered. I was not in the least afraid, of course. I could have incinerated the animal with a glance, but that would have been no sport. I braced myself, and smelled its rank smell – no ranker than my own, if the truth be told.
I felt the animal surge onto my spear, its flesh ramming up into the steel. Still on it came. I could not help but admire its courage. Its blood spurted out at me, covering me in gouts of thick scarlet. I looked into its tiny eyes, and saw there such a determination to live and conquer that I found myself in sympathy with the animal. If it had been born with power such as mine, who knows where it would be – probably in Ares’ seat at the high table in Asgard. And I would rather see the boar sitting there than Ares, the fat bearded prick.
The boar had collapsed to the ground in its last agonies, its legs still kicking at the dirt and its mouth champing. I braced my foot against it and pulled out the spear, releasing yet more blood. The grass was slippery with it, the gore squelching up between my bare toes. I knelt down and scratched the animal behind its ears, as if it could still feel my affection. I thought, perhaps I will resurrect you. Let you live to fight again, to breed and live. You and I are alike – we are both strong and fierce, and we are both called pigs.
But I was hot and filthy. There was a stream nearby, that fell into a pool, deep and bordered by large rocks. It was a still and lovely place, and I had often dived in on other occasions and felt the cold water envelop my limbs and shock my tired muscles into renewed vitality.
I bid the wolves guard the carcass, and then I walked the short distance to my bathing pool. I was standing at the part of the stream that ran just above the pool, over which a small waterfall glittered and bounced, and had a good view of what was below me. And there I stopped, in shock and rage. There was a man on the rocks below, and he was washing his hands and his face – in my pool!.
I reached for the bow that hung on my back. My immediate thought was to rid me of this human nuisance –when I had a second thought, and paused. The forest of Arden was forbidden to mortals; my priests had told them so, in no uncertain terms. Whoever was wandering in the forest, then, was either ignorant, or insolent. He was unaware of the law, or he was aware of it, and had breached it for some reason that seemed good to him. If unaware – well, it so happened that I was in a merciful mood, and might allow him to escape with nothing more than a fright. I was an apparition to frighten anyone. I was covered in blood and sweat, my eyes glowed white as molten steel and I stood over eight feet tall, which is tall for a goddess, never mind a mortal woman.
But if he had reason… then what could it be? Did he think to beard the goddess in her lair and ask a gift or offer up some pathetic prayer for personal favour? I watched him as he shook droplets of water from his curly dark hair, and looked up – not to the top of the fall, where I was, but blankly into the middle distance, as if he did not quite know what to do next.
It is not the first time that one of my kind has fallen in love with a mortal, or in lust. But since I was old enough to understand it, I have always despised such things as beneath me. It was all very well for Ishtar to go sniffing about on earth for men to toy with, for Naina to bat her eyes at mortals and expect fatuous poetry in return – but not for me. Now, suddenly, I understood them. This boy was beautiful. His eyes were the deep cloudy green of the pool itself, his lips were fringed by the barest hint of a moustache, less than my own. He was bare to the waist, his chest was adorned with a light fuzz, and his shoulders were smooth and shapely.
Ah, but beauty is not the point, I reminded myself, thinking of Naina and her witless loveliness. He is still a trespasser, and his life is forfeit, as soon as I discover what brought him here. I was about to make myself known to him – and doubtless frighten the life out of him – when evidently something funny must have crossed his mind, for he smiled. And that was the arrow that felled me. I had never seen such an artless, sunny and mischievous smile. We gods are not known for our sense of humour, and when we laugh, it is usually out of malice. But this boy – you could see the laughter in the creases beneath his river green eyes and in the deep dimples at the corners of his mouth. I was enraptured at once. And then his face fell, and became blank once more. He stood up, as if to go.
I was charmed. So instead of bellowing out in my most fearsome roar, I opened my mouth to speak to him softly – and then I caught sight of my reflection in the stream and thought better of it. If the poor boy saw me like this, he’d probably have a heart attack, even if I whispered in the most dulcet of tones.
In a moment I was light and lithe, with honey gold hair and eyes of soft brown and skin smooth as milk, and stepping down towards him like a gazelle to a waterhole. You may wonder, if you are mortal, why I was not always like this, if I could change my appearance with just a thought. Wouldn’t every woman choose to be pretty instead of ugly, if she only could? But you see, an individual is a whole thing, mind and body together, and even a goddess must be what she is.
Finally he looked up at me, when my white feet rustled in the fallen leaves, and his ripe mouth fell open to show teeth perfect as a child’s.
“Why do you enter the forest of the goddess?” I said softly, so as not to alarm him.
He cleared his throat, a discreet, adorable sound.
“Forgive me, goddess. I did not come here of my own will. I would never, that is, never willingly, disturb your sanctuary, but I…”
“Do not be afraid, mortal.” This is the way I imagined then that goddesses should speak to mortals – measured, condescending. “Then if not your will, whose?”
His long eyelids drooped. “My brother cast me out from our father’s house, and hunted me with men and dogs. There was nowhere to go but the forest – but once I came among the trees, I could not get out again. It was as if – as if the trees had a purpose, to lead me astray and confine me, otherwise I would not have dared to go further in. I know it is forbidden.”
I was curious, even more now. It sometimes seems to me that mortals and gods are very alike in some ways. We goddesses do not bear our siblings much affection either. “Why did your brother cast you out? Was it some act of impiety, some fault of your own?”
I could imagine this boy taking part in some mischief, but not a serious crime, murder or incest or anything like that.
“He was jealous,” the boy said simply, his eyes sliding away awkwardly. “My father preferred me. I never asked for it. But he is away on business, and so my brother took the opportunity to be rid of me. He will say that I ran away, or got myself killed on some escapade.”
Again, it was not so very different from Asgard. Mortals are always conspiring against one another; it passes the time. Still, I found myself becoming angry with this brother of his. Perhaps I might stop by his house one day and with a flick of my finger have him dead of the plague, or a stone fall upon his head.
“How wicked!” I said gently, and glided to his side. I put my hand on his shoulder. “Let me comfort you.”
Now, you will probably think this very forward for a newly fledged goddess, her womanly breasts not a day old on her chest, and her loins unblooded. But with my breasts and my body hair had come urges; I had not been aware of them until this moment, but now they heated within me like a clay pot in a kiln. I remembered the gossip I’d heard from Ishtar and Naina and the fertility goddesses sitting about with their weaving, about mortal sex, and men’s needs, and how to entice a man’s body before you bind his soul in bands of iron. So I shrugged off my tunic and stood before him, watching to see his reaction.
It was surprise. He stepped back, putting his hands behind him as if he was afraid to touch me, and his eyes widened. Didn’t he want me? I was embarrassed now, and felt myself blushing.
“But you’re – so far above me, most blessed Artemis. I should not be seeing…”
Are you kidding? I looked back at him, and my first thought, I admit, was to stretch out my hand, push him down onto the mossy rock and have my way with him, virgin goddess or no. But his look of genuine bewilderment gave me pause.
“Do you not… find me attractive?” I fluttered my eyelashes as Naina would have. It felt distasteful. Still, the mortal seemed to like it, despite himself; his eyes kept flickering to my breasts and my hips, and then, guiltily, back up to my divine face. I came closer, and put my arms about his neck, my body brushing against his.
He was a man, as the fertility goddesses had said. He rose against my bare belly, tenting his drawstring trousers. I was sick of playing modest. I reached for the drawstring and the trousers fell to the earth. “Come then,” I said, trying to keep the peremptory tone out of my voice, “make love to me, mortal, for I desire you.”
We went to a soft place under the trees, where the autumn leaves fell deep, and he fucked me. It was wonderful. Immortals have many ways to fuck, and mortals only one, but it is a good one. The thing that gave me the most pleasure, though, was to look down at his face afterwards, and see that warm, lazy, mischievous mortal smile spreading across his sweet face, as he drew me down and kissed me on the lips.
“I am not sorry, now, that my brother hunted me into the forest.” His face clouded. “Unless you meet to kill me now, goddess – now that you have taken what you wanted.”
“What do you take me for?” I said, and then thought, he is right. There are plenty of gods, and goddesses, who would take a mortal for lust and then put an end to him, on a whim. My sister Ishtar would do it.
But as we lay there, I wondered what I was going to do with him. By the sounds of it, his life was forfeit to his brother if he went home. But the forest was not a place designed for a mortal to live, and besides, I still did not like the idea of someone – even someone as handsome as this boy – roaming my personal hunting grounds.
“Are you fond of your brother?” I asked, fondling his hair, so glossy and chestnut dark.
He turned his face towards me, serious. “No. I hate him. It was not my fault that my father preferred me, and yet he would have murdered me for it.”
“So if something were to happen to your brother, you would not be distressed?”
“No, goddess, I would not be distressed. But – ”
“Go home,” I said, “when you arrive, you will find that your brother has met with an unfortunate accident. Bury him with honour, and say nothing of this meeting. All I demand is that once a week, on this day, you return to the forest and meet me here, at sunset. Agreed?”
I have come to the conclusion, since, that perhaps my brisk instructions were not overly romantic. I should have talked of love, and my desire for him, and pleaded for him to visit me rather than commanded it. But I was never good at manipulating the emotions of humans or gods; I knew what I wanted, I said what I wanted, and they could agree or refuse, as they wished. I am not a subtle goddess.
He looked at me with a wary softness, and smiled again so that it almost melted my heart.
“I will live only for that day that we meet, goddess,” he said, and got up, and drew on his trousers once more.
We said farewell, and when he arrived home his brother had indeed died – an ox had kicked him in the skull as he passed behind its stall, and stove in his brain. My boy – whose name was Actaeon – became the heir and in a few months inherited his father’s lands and riches. His father had died in a shipwreck, it was none of my doing – just so you know.
Each week we met and made love, and I grew more and more enthralled. It was not just his smile, or his full, curving lips like the prow of a boat; there was a charm about him that made you want to draw close and warm your hands, made even me – a goddess – long for his interest and approval. In Asgard, no one had approved of me. I was too ugly and boisterous for my mother, my half brother Set found me boring and the other goddesses said that I stank. So I suppose I was ripe for some mortal to make me feel as if I mattered for a moment.
Still, after we had known each other for a few months, there was something that niggled at me. Each time we met, as with the first time, I transformed myself into a shape that I despised, for Actaeon’s benefit. I dressed myself in soft curves, made my face round and regular, my body hairless, weak and smooth. I lowered my voice and pretended – as far as I was able – to be shy and maidenly. They said – those wily goddesses who knew – that that was what men liked, and who was I to disagree.
But to me, it felt wrong. When Actaeon looked on me, as we were making love, he wasn’t seeing me, he was seeing some simpering goddess who was nothing like me. I found myself wondering, more and more often, what he would say if he saw the real Artemis. Would he shrink back in disgust? Would he blink, and pretend to feel just the same, but I would see in his eyes and in his cock that he no longer had desire for me?
Well, it ate at me, and so one day, when we were reclining by the pool that we had made our own, I stroked his cheek and whispered,
“Actaeon, my darling, most handsome of men – is your love for my beauty alone, or would you still desire me if I were tall and plain and strong, like a butchers wench?”
You will say it was a stupid question – for one should never ask questions of a man unless one wishes to know the true answer – and you would be right. But Actaeon looked startled and thoughtful. Then he kissed me, and said,
“Sweetheart, my goddess, beauty captivates a man, but character keeps him. Were you to change into the Medusa herself, you could not be less than beautiful to me.”
And this, to be honest, was a very stupid thing for a mortal to say. For I was a goddess, and for all he knew might change myself into the Medusa in a fraction of second, and turned him to stone where he lay.
“Then I will be honest with you, my love. My true being is not as you see me now, nor is it like to the Medusa. Would you like to see me as I really am?”
He looked a little frightened, at that, and well he might. But he put a brave face on it, having committed himself already, and said, “Of course I would. I long for it. As long,” he added, “as you do not intend to appear as the sun and scorch me into a smear of charcoal where I lie.”
I laughed at this – it was a joke – and he laughed too. “No, nothing like that,” I reassured him, and then I stood up, feeling naked and shy, and I let him see me.
After I had changed, I was afraid to look at him, for fear of his response. I lowered my eyes – not something I am in the habit of doing, for I am not naturally modest – and turned away, waiting for his comment. In a moment of the rustle of the leaves, and felt his hand reaching up to my shoulder, gently resting there. I looked down at him, for I was now much taller, and wider too.
“You are more beautiful even than you were before,” he said, and the hand that had been on my shoulder dropped to cup my breast. He kissed it, and I rested my chin in his curls. I was filled with relieved happiness. He lifted his face to mine and I could not find in it any trace of revulsion, but he did look serious for once, and thoughtful. “To tell the truth, I have been wondering for a while whether you have been hiding something from me. When I look into your face, it is like looking into a mist, lovely as it is. Now your… outside seeming and your soul match. I prefer it.”
Now, there is something that mortals do not know about gods. We do not have souls. But I let it pass, because I understood what he was trying to say. We sat for a long time by the pool, just holding hands, his lean and small boned, mine larger, brown and strong as a vice. For the first time with him, I felt completely at peace.
The next day, as I was prancing about my mother’s palace grounds, filled with unreasoning happiness, my half sister Naina crossed my path. As usual, she was dressed in some clinging silken thing, with her golden hair rippling down her back and her arms hung about with jangling bracelets of silver and gold. If Naina ever attempted to hunt, the beasts would hear her coming a mile away, and the birds see her flashing like a cat’s collar.
“What are you so pleased about, Artemis?” she trilled, looking me up and down as if I was a cow that had got out of the pen. “Have your eyebrows grown another inch thicker – or is it your moustache?”
“I am in love, with a man that loves me,” I boasted, wanting to share my pleasure. Naina could prink and primp and act the idiot (not that she had to act, for she truly was an idiot) to ensnare the men, but I had no need. For I had a man who loved me just as I was, warts and all, and wasn’t that better than all her silly artifice?
“Oh! Is that so? Are you talking of one of Zeus’s bulls, perhaps, or perhaps some peasant too blind with age to see what he is sticking his dick into?”
Her words rolled off me like pebbles from a glacier. I was too full of self-love to care what she said. But a few days later I was attending – perforce – one of the feasts my father Zeus throws periodically for the greater glory of Asgard and himself, and Naina came to me at table. She was Zeus’s favourite child, and wherever she went eyes followed her beauty; well she knew it and made the most of it.
“Sister Artemis,” she said in her high, whiny voice, “I was so pleased to hear that you had finally got yourself a lover, that I just had to go and see him for myself. I was ever so impressed – such a fine, handsome boy, who would have thought it!”
I stared at her. She went to see Actaeon? Her eyes glittered with mischief, but I was frozen in my seat. My mother Hera looked down at us.
“What are you talking to Artemis about, Naina? Some gossip that we all should hear? Do tell!”
“Oh, it’s nothing, but Artemis has found herself a man. A sweet young thing, well shaped and well mannered. We had quite the conversation, actually.”
“And what did you talk about?” I forced myself to say. I was sure, looking at the spite in her baby blue eyes, that she had tried to seduce him. And I was not at all sure that she had failed. I thought, I will catch her one night when she is alone, and I will tear that golden hair out by the roots and wrench those blue eyes from their sockets. I will take my axe and chop the bitch into a million pieces, and then I will throw those pieces into a midden and send the pigs to feed on them…
“About you, of course. Would you like to see?”
“Perhaps we would all like to see,” said my mother, leaning down from her high seat with icy curiosity.
Naina took out her mirror and held it up. “Look, then.”
I saw her by the pool, seated, and Actaeon beside her. He had quite a different expression on his face then the one he had when he was talking to me – it was bashful, coy. She was holding his hand and stroking it like a little mouse.
“Tell me, Actaeon, are you really in love with my half sister Artemis?”
“I have told her so,” he said evasively.
Naina pouted and widened her eyes. “I see. Well, it is good for a man to show loyalty, but tell me truthfully, would you not prefer me, if you had the choice?”
Actaeon looked wary; I saw that he was beginning to sweat. “I would not presume to choose between goddesses,” he said, sounding like a diplomat walking a dangerous line in some royal court.
“Lucky Artemis,” cooed Naina. “Alas, her fortune is my sorrow. For I fell in love with you as soon as she described to you. Alas, what delights I could offer you if only you were not already… taken.” And she accompanied this with such a look of sweet yearning, twisting a tendril of her golden hair around her rosy finger, that no man could have resisted.
He looked at her, and his mouth fell open a little. “As to that…” he said slowly, “to be honest, Artemis is the first goddess I ever met in the flesh, and I was so overawed that perhaps I was a little hasty in my affections. And then, at first she disguised herself. When she appeared in her true form I admit that it was a shock, but one has to be polite, especially to a goddess.”
“So perhaps there is hope for me after all?” whispered Naina with a tremulous smile.
He knelt at her feet – he had never knelt at mine like that. “Goddess, there is no comparison between you. If you truly wish to bestow your love on me, humble mortal that I am, it would be far more than I deserve.”
She smirked. “Indeed it would.”
I saw his face turn ashen. I think he knew then the mistake that he had made. He clutched at her knee as she got up (or rather floated), and would have said more, but found himself grasping empty air.
Naina turned to me with a raised eyebrow and pretty pout. “You see sister, what would you do without me to sort the wheat from the chaff, the glass from the diamonds? Men – they are such beasts, are they not?”
I looked at her, and felt myself turning red and mottled. There were titters of amusement. Ishtar, who does not like Naina as a rule, laid her hand on my shoulder.
“Pay her no attention, she just hates to think that there is a man in the world who does not pine for her. Poor thing, she has little else to trouble her empty head about.”
I pushed her off with a curse, and ran to my own rooms, hearing the laughter behind me. As it happened, the next day was the day that Actaeon and I usually met in the forest. I was tempted not to go. I would die rather than give him the idea that two goddesses were fighting over him. He was only a mortal, and not worth it. I was afraid, too, that he would see the shame under my anger when I confronted him. But then I thought to myself, I am a goddess, and he is nothing but a mortal boy. Why should I be afraid of him?
So I went to the forest, and there he was, as always sitting by the pool, eating something he had brought with him – a package of cheese and bread, or the like. He looked up when he saw me, and I couldn’t believe my eyes – he looked me brazenly in the face, with the delight he showed always on first seeing me, and sprang up.
“Artemis! The week has seemed long to me since I saw you last – I have missed you…”
“I am sure you have,” I said, with all the cold fury I could pull together. He looked at me, and his face fell.
“Is something wrong? Are you upset – have they done something to hurt you, up there?”
The insolence of it, that he thought himself fit to console an immortal! I nearly lopped off his head where he stood, but that would been too good for him. “I will give you half an hours start,” I said. “And then I will set my hounds after you. Let us see how fast you can run, Actaeon. It had better be swift.”
He stared at me, stupefied, as if he could not believe what I was saying. But I scowled back steadily, and put into my stare the full force of my divinity. An angry goddess is not a pretty sight – well, I was not a pretty sight even in a good mood. My eyes flashed like sheet lightning, and my body was outlined in an unearthly glare. He opened his mouth to say something, and then he ran.
I gave him half an hour, and then I set the wolf pups after him, and followed them myself, my bow at the ready. He was a fast runner, and he ran back in the direction of his own home – I guess he thought that if he could reach the edge of the forest he might escape me. But no one can escape a God. At length the wolves had him, bailed up with his back against a tree, their teeth ripping at his tunic and his hands as he tried to fend them off. He was screaming to me, pleading for mercy, but I ignored him and drew an arrow from my quiver. I pulled the string of the bow back as far as it would go – although the distance between us was short – and loosed it. It pinned him to the tree, straight through the heart. Even so, he still lived and struggled to breathe.
I could not resist. I strode up to him, and grabbed a handful of his hair at either side of his face, pushing his head back against the tree.
“This is your reward for being faithless to a goddess. Are you sure that you prefer my sister Naina now?”
You will forgive me. I was young, and stupid, and could not keep my mouth shut.
He looked at me blankly with his beautiful river green eyes. “I never met your sister Naina.”
“Liar!” Overcome with fury, with a pain in my heart that must have worse than his, I grasped the arrow that stood in his chest and ripped it out of his flesh. He fell to the ground, offering blood, face down in those very leaves that we had lain in so often kissing and cooing.
I went back to my mother’s Palace, and for a long time I came not again to the forest of Arden. I could not bear it. After a while the whispers died down and it seemed that everybody had forgotten the incident, except me. But I never went to sleep at night without seeing those wide green eyes, fixed on my face in horror and… hurt?
Some time later, in the morning, Ishtar came to me, her long red hair loose over her shoulders, and bent over my bed. She had a heavy face, sultry and secretive, but now I could see that it was full of pity and regret.
“Naina lied to you. She’s been telling us all for weeks what a good joke it was that she played on you, for she never saw the boy – Actaeon, did you say his name was? She went to the forest but he was not there, so she made up a tale, just to spite you.”
“But I saw his face, I heard him speak –”
“She had one of her friends – Nereia, I think it was – take on his part, to trick you.”
I stared at her, aghast. And then I realised that of course Actaeon would not have been in the forest on that day, the day that she said she came to him. For he went there only one day in each week, and that was to meet me. All the other days he spent on his estate, doing whatever business mortals do. I thought of his expression when I changed my form, the hesitation, the thoughtfulness. There had been no shock or disgust – he had spoken the truth when he told me that he liked me just as I was.
I said nothing to Naina, that foul bitch. I had been shamed enough; I didn’t want to relive my humiliation. But after Actaeon, I never had a man again. And I never transformed again myself for a man’s benefit. I was myself, broad and brawny and plain, and from now on, the world could like it or lump it.