Northwest of the Temple of Gaia was a vast forest of broad-leafed oaks and beeches where jackals and vipers, eagles and boars made the wood their home. These were Artemis' hunting grounds and those who ventured past the eaves of the trees only did so with her leave, held to account for their presence.
The meadow at the edge of the woods was awash in sunlight. Field mice and rabbits scurried through the tall grass, gorging on wild strawberries. Bees droned among the flowers growing along a well-worn path and a golden eagle wheeled above the earth in lazy circles.
A loud crack resounded and the ground trembled, sending all the small creatures, who had been enjoying a peaceful afternoon, racing back to their burrows. The eagle dipped, faltering mid-flight before crying out in a high whine, and diving toward the trees. The air split like a skilled seamstress was cutting through the fabric of reality. Vera and Dar emerged side-by-side. Behind them, the inside of the Passage churned with light and shadow like a bank of storm clouds surging across the ocean. Raising her hand, Vera sealed the breach.
The Guardian turned in a tight circle, taking the measure of their surroundings, dagger drawn.
"Stand down. Caution is okay, but I doubt Lethe will have figured out where we're going," Vera said.
"I don't relish being harangued by your grandmother for eternity because I was careless with your safety."
"She'd be just as angry with me."
"You have no idea." Dar continued to search the immediate vicinity for any sign of threat.
"No. I wish we'd sent someone in advance of our arrival. Coming upon Artemis without any warning is dangerous."
Vera peered into the shadows beyond the forest's edge. "Yeah, she's not fond of uninvited guests under the best of circumstances. Any ideas of how we could announce ourselves?"
"Yes." Dar threw their head back, letting loose a series of high whistles. The eagle that had flown to safety upon their arrival answered their call, rocketing toward them with the surety and speed of an arrow loosed by the Huntress herself. The sun glinted off the dark chocolate and caramel striations on her feathers. They held out an arm and the raptor landed on their leather vambrace. Stretching her wings, she fluttered them as she settled, before tucking them against her body, waiting for them to state the purpose of their summons.
They spoke in quick whips and chirrups. Dar's tribe, the Refsi, were from the Northern Mountains and lived among the cliffs where the eagles built their eyries. The two had been allies since Gaia set them together high above the fields and farms of the lowlands.
As a child, Vera loved accompanying Dar during their visits to the Temple's mews and weathering yards, her small hand held in their wide palm while they spoke with the raptors in their strange language. Hearing it now was heartening and she smiled. They bowed in deference as the conversation concluded. The bird clicked her beak in affirmation before lifting off. She climbed into the sky, skimming the treetops as she flew toward Artemis' encampment.
Dar turned to Vera. "Soon Artemis will know we're on our way.”
They set a brisk pace, following the path past the edge of the forest, and deeper into the woods. It was dim beneath the trees and Vera stopped for a moment. She closed her eyes, counted three breaths, and opened them again. The beauty of Artemis' forest never failed to leave her breathless with wonder. The earth under the dense canopy of leaves was lush with ferns. Asphodels grew in clutches between the trees. Their stalks burst with white blooms, like clusters of stars embroidered on a mantle of green. The bone-white lichen clinging to the fallen logs glowed in the low light.
The path was well kept, the dirt and leaf litter trampled down, and the ground-cover cut back to allow for easy passage. Dar appeared calm, but the Guardian was a warrior who could tumble from peaceful to calculating and deadly in a matter of seconds. The comfort of having them near gave Vera the space to consider the reunion she was walking toward.
Artemis was electrifying. During the time of the Olympians, she had been the Goddess of the hunt, the moon, and chastity - the latter being a fact that Vera never failed to mention when Vera was naked in Artemis' bed. The Huntress was private to a fanatical degree and protective of her attendants. She avoided Olympus and her father, Zeus, preferring the wilds and the company of nymphs and dryads. She aligned herself with the Mound of Gaia after the Olympians' power waned and became the Daemon of the Woodlands.
Vera had been smitten with the Huntress from the moment she had clapped eyes on her when she was thirteen. Her grandmother had bid her serve as Artemis' attendant for a season, and she had grown to love her as a mentor.
After she had reached womanhood, she returned to Artemis, and the Goddess had taken Vera to her bed as a lover. It had been an education of a different sort, plumbing the breadth of her desires. She had brought her to the edge of madness with want and taught her the power that came with submission.
Laying back on a bower of soft grasses and leaves, scented with lavender and cedar, Vera looked up through the branches of the trees, searching for the flicker of stars. The air was cool against her skin, and she nestled into the wool blanket draped over her shoulders.
Artemis had ushered her into the small glade after a simple meal of roasted rabbit and wine. She left Vera alone for a moment, to see to her encampment before retiring. The brief solitude gave the High Votaress a chance to reflect on the day spent in the Goddess' company and relish the excitement of what the night might bring.
Vera banished her musings to the back of her mind when Artemis returned. There was no need for supposition when the one she desired was an arms-length away. The Goddess had stripped off her hunting regalia, opting for a sheer tunic that kissed the tops of her thighs. She moved about lighting torches and stoking the campfire with a quick, natural grace, like a vixen securing her den. The firelight danced over her skin, chasing shadows across the curves of her petite breasts and the gentle swell of her hips.
Despite being a daughter of Zeus, there was no pretense of majesty in her bearing. Nor was there any hint of the cold, untouchable chastity that the artists, writers, and scholars had attributed to her. For all her divinity and power, she was a woman of flesh and passion, Vera grinned. She spoke into the tranquil silence, "The uninitiated artisans always get you wrong."
"Really? How do they see me?"
"They make you taller." Artemis lifted an eyebrow. "Well, they do. They dress you in these absurd gowns with layers upon layers of cloth."
"That sounds more like my brother, Apollo."
"He's usually naked."
Artemis snorted, reclining beside her. "He'd like that."
"I'm sure he would." She ran her hand through Artemis' close-cropped hair. "The sculptors give you these ridiculous piles of curls. Some wind plaited strands around your head until you look like you're wearing a basket. There's one statue that shows you with twenty breasts."
"Mortals are bizarre," Artemis said, trailing her fingers down Vera's cheek, smiling when she shivered. The Goddess' expression turned serious. "Tell me, do your lovers know you're here? It won't go well for either of them if they come to my camp in a jealous huff."
"It wouldn't go well for you if anything happened to them." Vera allowed the core of steel to show in her voice, before she softened. "Of course, they do. Sam was so full of advice that Evander and I had to beg him to stop."
"How to get you into bed."
"Why am I not surprised?" Artemis leaned forward, brushing her lips against Vera's. "So, what foolproof plan did you concoct?"
"Showing up. That was the whole of it, start to finish, and it looks like it's working from where I sit." Vera slid over Artemis' body until she was straddling her lap.
Artemis ran her hands up the length of Vera's legs, pushing her skirt out of the way as they climbed toward her hips. Her palms were rough and warm, and Vera flushed when she used her blunt fingernails to graze her inner thighs. It was a light caress, that left no mark her skin, yet it felt like a brand.
"Tell me what you expect to happen here? What do you want?"
Artemis' tone was light-hearted, teasing, but Vera also heard a challenge. The Goddess lived apart from the world. She didn't despise it, but too many men and women sought her out with the sole intention of fucking the daughter of Zeus. Those foolish enough to pursue her for their own gain met terrible ends. She wanted to reassure her that she was there for Artemis, the woman, not the Goddess.
"I love the men I share my life with. And I care about you. I have since I was a kid. Sam, Evander, and I talked about it. I have room in my heart for all three of you. I want what you are willing to give me, regardless of whether it’s raw or refined, as long as it’s real."
Artemis considered Vera, searching her face for falsehood and finding only the truth. "I have rules. If you agree to be my lover, I expect you to follow them when we are together."
"I'm game as long as you don't ask me to betray the Mound of Gaia or my bond with Sam and Evander."
"That won't happen." Artemis tucked a lock of hair behind Vera's ear. "Nothing I ask will come between you and your duty or your lovers. I demand three things. One, if you want to stop, regardless of what's going on, you say so, without fear. I swear that you won't make me angry with honesty. You'll pick a word to use and if you say it, whatever is happening ends. Can you do that?"
"I know how a safeword works."
Artemis' hand shot out and she grabbed Vera's chin between her thumb and forefinger like she was scolding a child. "Sass will buy you a punishment, pretty. Now pick."
She blushed, "Lute. I hate that instrument, it sounds like a drunken guitar."
"Maybe that's just the way you play it?"
Donning a theatrical scowl, she swatted at Artemis' shoulder. The Goddess caught her hand and nipped at her wrist. Vera swallowed, her playfulness shifting to lust as a sweet pressure began to build in her core.
"What are the other rules?"
"Two, you leave your mantle of High Votaress at the edge of the wilds, inside my encampment you are mine to care for and I am yours to serve."
"Agreed. Though, you're going to have to be patient with me at first."
"Don't worry, I know you're a bossy little shit," Artemis said, dodging another mock blow.
"When you put it that way, how can a woman say no?"
"I think you'd be shocked by how many have done just that."
Vera's brow furrowed, "They were all idiots."
A flush of rose shined on Artemis' cheeks and she cleared her throat. "Three, if you disobey an order without using your word, there will be punishment. You will acquiesce to it without complaint. I'll never hurt you, any more than you ask," she winked, "and I'll always tell you what I'm going to do, before I do it."
"Do you want to think about it?"
"I don't need to, when can we start?"
"Now." Artemis licked into her mouth, holding Vera against her, one hand slipping down to palm her ass. The other cupped her breast, stroking her nipple through her gown. Desire left Vera panting, pressed against her new lover. Artemis tore herself away to speak."You're an amazing woman. Do you want to hear what I've got planned for tonight?"
"May I touch you while we talk? See how wet you are for me?"
"Tsk. I need you to say it out loud."
"Anything for you, pretty." Her hand slid up Vera's thigh. They both groaned when Artemis moved her panties aside and parted the delicate folds of her womanhood. Hips moving of their own volition, Vera gasped. The mouth of her sex fluttered, trying to draw the Goddess' fingers deeper.
Artemis' voice was a tantalizing whisper, "I'm going to bind you with ropes of spun gold and kiss your breasts and your thighs until you are dripping for me. I'm going to make you come with my hands and my tongue, as many times as I like, until you're weeping with pleasure. Will you allow me to worship you?"
"Undress for me."
Vera stripped with haste. Artemis watched, an amused smirk playing on her lips. The Goddess circled her once, trailing her hand across Vera's bare breasts, stopping to pluck at her nipples with fingers calloused from millennia of life in the forest. The scent of jasmine and musk on the Goddess' skin was intoxicating, like downing several tankards of the Temple of Gaia's best mead. Her head spun, and she whimpered.
Artemis searched her face for any signs of discomfort. "What is it, pretty? What do you need?"
"A kiss. Please, may I have one kiss?"
"I'll give you whatever you want, as long as you ask like me like that.” Their lips crashed together. The swirling in Vera's mind settled and she relaxed, letting the Goddess take her weight. "Better?"
"Yes. Thank you."
"You're welcome. Do you remember your word?"
Artemis smiled. "Good. Now hush. Unless you're using your safeword, I want you to be silent and let me work." She dropped a chaste kiss on Vera's forehead. The Goddess snapped her long fingers. A coiled length of golden rope appeared in her hands, glimmering in the torchlight.
"Are you ready?"
"Kneel." Vera lowered herself to the ground, surprised to find a pillow beneath her to protect her knees. The concession to her comfort made her heart brim with fondness. Artemis dragged a length of rope across her shoulders. It was warm against her skin where she had expected the coolness. She hummed, her body alive with sensation.
"Quiet," Artemis flicked Vera's ear, "means quiet, pet."
Biting her lip, Vera held in a nervous laugh and nodded. The Goddess beamed at her, delighted by her obedience. Pride unfurled in her chest like a morning glory waking to the dawn.
Artemis worked in silence guiding Vera's body into new shapes, arching her back, lifting her arms, spreading her legs. The ropes caressed her, binding without pinching or pulling, holding her fast. Each knot and wrap were accompanied by thoughtful, assessing touches.
Safe, her body alight with simmering arousal, Vera's mind fell into silence, her surrender complete.
Years had passed since she first knelt at Artemis' feet. They came together as they were able, always with the blessing of her lovers. There had been little time in the past year for them to indulge in play. The Goddess received the gift of the High Votaress' submission with grace and never sought to exploit the connection. She had never come to her lover with a request of this gravity and she was unsure how she would respond.
"She'll be glad to help you," Dar said. Vera stopped walking, staring at their back in shock. The Guardian shrugged, "You mutter when you're nervous."
The ferns rustled as small animals scoured the ground for food and birdsong threaded through the trees. She huffed and caught up to Dar. "We need her help, but I don't..."
"You're not taking advantage of her. Do you trust her?"
"And she trusts you?"
"Then she'll know that you're not manipulating her. If she says no, we'll search for another way to get to Lethe."
"What if there isn't another way?"
"My little woodlark, there is always another way." They clasped Vera's hand in theirs and pulled her forward into a comforting embrace. "We'll find one."
She relaxed into Dar's arms, giving over to the need for reassurance. The branches above their heads creaked, followed by a whump on the path beside Dar and Vera.
A bright, smiling voice disrupted the quiet. "Find what, pretty?"