“Morning goddess.” I stretched and opened my eyes, inhaling the smells of the forest. Actaeon was up and had made breakfast. Soft figs, quinces and bread and honey. Actaeon talked all through the meal, although I didn't listen. I was lost in the sweetness of the food.
“Where do you get all your food from? I can't imagine honey is easy to come by in the middle of a forest?”
“There's a town a few miles or so away, I trade my kills for food.”
“Have you lived here your whole life then?” I was curious, was this what mortal life was like? Living all your life around the same people, never wandering into the unknown? Maybe the lives of the Gods were more exciting than I'd given credit to.
“Not entirely, I lived in Crete as a child, and moved here when my mother died. My sister and I could have coped fine, but for my father, there were too many memories, too many places where he could only think of her. He didn't want to neglect us, so he moved away from everything he loved and set up a new life for us in the town near here. I built this house when...when Athaea, my sister, died.” It took me a while to process all he was telling me.
“And your father? Where's he now?”
“I don't know. He went missing twelve moons past. He went mad without my mother and sister, and I was always a disappointment to him.” Actaeon's face drooped slightly at the sides. I reached out and held his hand. He looked at our hands together for a moment, then moved his hand away and stood up. When he looked at me again, he was smiling. “Come on goddess, let's see if you are as good with a bow as you are famed to be!”
Once we had finished clearing away our breakfast, he showed me his hunting dogs,but we decided not to take them, I convinced him we would better alone. He lent me his finest bow. It was magnificent, with a swooping curve that was as smooth as marble when you ran your fingers along it's side. We set off into the forest side by side, adrenaline coursing through our veins.
“What shall we hunt, o' huntress?” he threw me one of his lovely smiles, where his eyes sparkled and his teeth flashed.
“Hmm, I have a taste for Venison I think! Let's catch a stag! A big one! But they are quite hard to catch, so I don't think we've got a good chance, not with you tagging along!” He laughed.
“Catch me if you can Artemis!” He leapt off into the trees, agile as a deer himself. I followed swiftly. There is a certain beauty to the hunt. A dreamy quality that can last forever. Many times since that day, I have hunted for days on Mount Citharion, reliving the magical afternoon we spent together. We spotted a Stag early on. He had a beautiful dark brown coat and antlers so crooked he surely had trouble seeing. Actaeon was a skilled hunter. He moved as quiet as the wind on a summers day, crouched slightly, like a cat, ready to spring at any moment. I couldn't help but stare at the way he moved, how his strong legs moved so swiftly, whilst making as little noise as possible, how he still had the concentration to throw me his grins. I loved the way I could see his shoulder blades moving underneath his thin woven shirt. They were like an angels beating wings. And they mesmerised me. I wasn't really concentrating on the hunt, I was too busy inspecting his every move, watching how the sunlight caught his brown skin and made dark freckles appear on his cheek and neck. At one point I stepped on a particularly large twig and it snapped loudly, causing the Stag to start. He pulled me behind a tree and shushed me with his finger. “Goddess, you must be more careful! Although, I am doubting you are any kind of goddess, let alone the goddess of hunting after that dreadful scene!” he whispered, holding me tight to him so we wouldn't be seen. I stuck my tongue out at him and he raised his eyebrows disapprovingly.
“You are forgetting to whom you speak. Carry on that way and I shall have my father come and destroy you, little hunter. What's your name again?” He let out a deep sigh and pushed me away from him. Then, in one quick and lucid movement, he drew an arrow from his quiver, strung it to his bow, turned out from behind the tree and fired the arrow. It hit the startled Stag right between the eyes and it reared and fell. He threw me a smug smile.
“My name is Actaeon, and I'm pretty sure I just made a fool of the goddess of the hunt!” At this I growled and grabbed him by the ankles and pulled, and we tumbled into a heap, pushing each other and rolling over and over, full of a boyish playfulness. We finally came to a halt at the bottom of a huge tree, his dirty, leafy body lying on top of mine.
“That was uncalled for!” he panted, and we both laughed. He lifted himself up slightly and his hair fell into his face as he cocked his head to one side and studied me. The colours in his eyes danced and I stared deep into their movements, glimpsing the soul behind them. “What?” I wondered aloud, so intent was his gaze. He smiled and his face moved a little closer to mine. His hands were either side of my head, palm down on the leaves, but he lifted up one of his hands and brushed a strand of my hair out of my face. It was such a simple thing to do, but just the feel of him on my skin made my face turn electric, and the tingle spread all over my body. I think he sensed it too and he closed his eyes and his dark eyelashes drew a line along his eyelids, a perfect, soft black line. He looked peaceful, with his eyes closed, and even though it was so simple, I knew then. I knew. He put his hand back on the leaves and, still with eyes closed, he slowly leaned down until our noses were touching. I closed my eyes too, and found that the darkness there wasn't black at all. It was full of reds and purples and greens that danced under my eyelids like a thousand shooting stars. I waited. His lips were dry and shaking slightly. They touched mine over a heartbeat, then I felt him sigh, roll off me and get up. I laid there, eyes still closed, spreadeagled like a dead animal.
“Just don't Artemis.” He spoke, and his voice was rough, like he was reprimanding me. I opened my eyes and propped myself up on my elbows.
“Just don't...never mind. Come on goddess, hunts over, time to go home.” He held his hand out but I got up myself and swept past him. Why was he acting like this? What had I done? “What!” he shouted at my retreating figure. I spun round and glared at him.
“What do you think?” He walked up to me, and I saw he looked uncomfortable.
“I don't know, that's why I'm asking.”
“Really...why did you try and kiss me and then decide against it? What, I am I not good enough for you?” I was hurting, and my stomach was twisting in knots.
“I can't Artemis. I can't. I'm not...a god. I'm not supposed to talk to you, let alone kiss you. Can we just forget it please?” At his words the knotted rope in my stomach twisted round and round and it was all I could do not to cry. But I nodded and, still smarting, we walked back to the stag and his home in silence.
But this was Actaeon. He wasn't easy to be mad at. It wasn't long before he was apologising and praising me.
“Oh goddess, you are the best huntress in the world, even if I did kill the stag and you just cracked a twig, I heartily surrender myself to your sheer might.”
“Shush you silly little mortal!” We had reached his house by now, and Actaeon placed the mighty creature just outside his door. We both stood and stared at it.
“Now, I bet you've never cooked in all your life, hmm?” He was giving me his sideways smile and I laughed and shook my head.
“ No, as a goddess, we tend to just get served, rather then do the serving!”
“Well, that ends here. I'm not going to let you leave Earth without learning to cook! I guess we should start by skinning mighty Stag here...I think it may be a two man job, your not squeamish are you?” I shook my head. “Well we'd better get started then!” We spent around an hour skinning the huge beast, cutting the fat from it, removing all the organs. By the end we were both covered in blood but very pleased with our handiwork.
“Well, that was fun. Nothing like a bit of dismemberment to give you an appetite. Come on then you, teach me how to become a proper woman!”