Men who enter Camilla’s forest pay a price. Touch her, and she’ll turn you into a living statue. Anger her, and she’ll make you believe you’re a hunted stag. Threaten her, and you’ll feel the bite of her arrow. Try to love her, and see what you get.
The dogs go sniffing through the underbrush. Cho climbs down. She touches my arm. I untangle a sprig of fir from her hair. She brushes my face with her fingers. A noise behind us pulls her gaze from mine. She says, “Company.”
I half expect to see Grace, with her hands on her hips and her trim body in an outfit too young for a woman her age, ready to lecture me on the proper way to accept cunnilingus.
Two young women stand on the outcrop. Their fingers trail down for Orion and Chiron to lick. Their faces are partially covered by their stringy hair. They’re too thin. They aren’t dressed for the forest. I think I’ve seen them before.
Cho reaches for her bow. I wave her off. If the dogs aren’t alarmed, we shouldn’t be.
I ask, “How did you find us?”
They look at each other.
I say, “Come closer.”
They look at our bows.
I say, “We won’t hurt you.”
They pick their way from the ledge and stop a few feet from Cho and me. The dogs stand at their sides like escorts.
I ask, “Who are you?” They look at each other. The stringy blonde dips her head. She says, “Jess.”
The dark-haired one pipes in after her. “Holly.”
For undernourished waifs they’re well dressed. Jess has on a sky-blue spaghetti-strap cutout dress, patterned black tights, and ankle boots. Holly wears a short print smock and a thin denim vest. Her feet wobble in platform sandals.
I doubt they paid for these outfits. I could use a couple of talented shoplifters.
I ask, “What do you want?”
They look at each other. Jess dips her head and says, “Bit of kip, maybe?”
I don’t understand the British slang. Cho translates, “A place to sleep.”
I say, “And food?”
Jess and Holly nod. Holly wraps herself in her arms. She’s shivering. I take off my boots and my pants and offer them to her. She recoils. She’s staring at the tiger stripes on my legs.
Jess says, “Knock me dead if she ain’t real.”
Holly says, “Fancy that.”
They were my attendants in the dream Eros sent when I used the stone to stop the deerstalker from raping me. In the dream their naked bodies were flawless.
Holly slips her feet out of the platform sandals and pulls on the tights. On her they look baggy. She holds my boots to her chest.
I take off my top and hand it to Jess. She draws it over her head. The arms are too long.
The cold air braces my skin. My nipples tighten. For the first time since the deerstalker tackled me, I feel clean.
Jess mutters, “Ace.”
Holly purses her lips, raises her eyebrows, and says, “Fit.”
I don’t understand the slang, but I take the tone to mean they’re impressed. Whether it’s by my tiger stripes, my body, my bow and arrows, my willingness to go naked in the cold for their sakes, or the whole package, I can’t tell.
I tell Jess, “You are called Nephele.” Holly’s eyes widen. I tell her, “And you will be Hayle.” They share a glance. I say, “Cho will show you the way.”
Cho smiles. I touch my lips to hers. I say, “Orion, Chiron, stay.” I shoulder my bow and quiver. I cross the hilltop at a sprint. By the time I reach the downward slope, I’m out of their sight. I send them a hunting eagle’s cry. The dogs raise a chorus.
The strap of the quiver crosses between my breasts. With each stride the feathers of the arrows brush the back of my neck. My bare feet know the spirit of the woods. I think of nothing but the stretch of my legs.