Night drew her mantle over Artemis' forest. The darkness was as opaque as the fog that frosted Olympus' peaks during the winter months. Artemis led Vera and Dar forward without the aid of a lantern or torch. Resisting the urge to conjure a small flame as a guide, Vera opted to trust in the safety of having the Huntress in front of her and Dar at her back.
"Your Guardian's skills are shameful, pretty. I could have swept you away before Dar blinked."
"Doubtful,” Dar said, “You move through the trees like a sound of wild boars."
"You Refsi are a prideful bunch. Lady Petra was warned about binding herself to one of the mountain-folk, but she refused to listen."
"You do know your precious woodland is perched on the side of a mountain?"
The good-natured bickering continued, unchecked. Vera allowed their voices to blend into the unseen symphony of the forest, underscored by the susurration of ferns brushing against their calves. Nearby, a fawn bleated for its mother and the doe grunted her response.
The air was chilled despite how warm it had been throughout the day. Vera drew her traveling cloak tighter. As they neared the camp, the scent of roasting meat and the murmur of music drifted through the black. Glimpses of light flickered through the trees like a will-o-the-wisp. But, instead of being lured to their death in a bog, they emerged into a circular clearing of grass, alive with activity.
“I need to speak with Dar for a moment, pet,” Artemis said, voice raised over the music and laughter. The Huntress slung an arm around Dar’s shoulder and guided them away. Vera searched the crowd of revelers for familiar faces and was pleased to receive hearty greetings and raised cups from many of those in attendance.
Nothing in this forest changes, Vera thought. It’s like stepping back in time.
It had been over a year since she had returned to Artemis’ encampment. She had not realized how much she missed the exuberance that flowed through this powerfully feminine space. The constant threats to the Mound of Gaia and her responsibilities had kept her away. What few moments of peace she was glad to give to Sam and Evander.
My loves. Vera reached out with her mind. She brushed against their consciousness with her own, projecting love and warmth and receiving the same in return. Knowing that they were well gave her peace to relax and soak in the joy that surrounded her.
The scene was orchestrated chaos. A centauride woman played a full-throated melody on a pair of pipes. It reverberated in Vera's bones. Nude from the waist up, the ease of the piper’s bearing and her unrestrained sensuality were stunning. Her skin, dark as rosewood, shone in the firelight. Where the grooves of her Adonis belt began, human flesh changed to horse-hide covered with a tawny golden coat.
Three dryads danced around the musician, singing in the language of the forest. These ageless creatures were slight as saplings with skin like tree bark, and flowering branches adorned with catkins crowned their heads. Their song was as old as the earth, as were they. It sounded like the rustle of the wind through autumn leaves and stirred a primal wonderment in Vera. She lost herself in their dance.
When the tune ended the centauride lowered her pipes, laughing when one of the dancers threw herself into her arms. The two kissed, a passionate embrace that brought a flush of arousal to Vera’s cheeks. She shook her head. You haven’t got time to be ogling, she chided herself and made a quick search for Dar and Artemis.
She spotted them hovering on the periphery of the merriment, talking with a dryad Vera did not recognize. The addition to Artemis’ band was a beauty, with the tilted eyes and prim mouth of a cat. Vera wondered if the Goddess had made love to her. Wouldn't that be something to see, she thought, picturing the two nude and curled together like twisting vines.
"Your flush tells me either you're jealous or picturing them together.”
Vera recognized the voice in her ear. "Niva, since when have I envied anyone she fucked?"
"The latter, then? Balanis is a force to be reckoned with, but she's got no interest in Artemis' bed."
"Too busy in yours?"
"Am I that transparent?"
"When it comes to powerful women, yes. It’s good to see you.” Vera had hoped Niva might be in camp. The dryad had been pledged to serve Artemis at the same time Vera’s grandmother had sent her to the Goddess as an attendant. An instant and passionate friendship had matured into an easy camaraderie, one that never suffered from distance or time.
"We've heard of your recent troubles.”
“It’s been a shit time.”
“I figured. Artemis sent for Balanis,” Niva tipped her head toward the dryad speaking with Dar and Artemis and then to the centauride, “And Hylon when Dar’s message arrived.”
“Yeah? That’s good to hear, I was worried she’d eviscerate us for showing up unannounced.”
“Are you kidding? She lit out of here like her ass was on fire.”
“Well, we’ll see how welcoming she is after we have a chance to talk.”
A maiden, no older than thirteen, approached with cups of mead. The girl kept her eyes down, hand shaking as she offered a welcoming drink.
The girl risked an upward glance, blushing when their eyes met. Vera recognized her as one of the Mound of Gaia’s acolytes.
“I’m not a gorgon, I promise one glance won't turn you to stone.”
"Forgive me, my lady."
"How can I when you’ve done nothing wrong? Please, call me Vera. My lady has me looking around for my grandmother. Or Sister Vera, if you must. Now, am I right in saying that you joined our Order just this past spring?”
“Yes, my lady, Sister Vera."
Niva chuckled and the girl blanched, looking from the Queen of her Order to the dryad with an owlish expression of fear.
"Ignore my ill-mannered companion. She's been living in the woods for centuries and has forgotten how to behave. Remind me of your name, little sister.”
“Mya, tell me, are you enjoying your time in service?"
"I like it very much."
"Did you know your Mistress also served as an attendant here?" Niva said.
Artemis bound into their small group, pressing a smacking kiss below Vera’s ear, “Who’s served me?”
“Me,” Vera said, and offered her lips up for the taking. The Huntress accepted, her tongue tracing the seam of her mouth. Vera sighed as she opened to her lover. The power of Artemis’ kiss was all-encompassing, her love and unfettered desire clear. They fell into each other, oblivious of the others standing around them until Niva began a chorus of cheers.
Vera pulled away and smiled, dazed.
Artemis tangled their fingers together. Her voice was rough when she spoke, “What do you say we go talk in private, pretty?”
They walked, hand-in-hand, to the small glade where the Huntress slept. It was far enough from the main encampment that the music and revelry had faded to an indistinct rumble when they arrived. The walk had given Vera time to mull over the gravity of her request. She worried over the myriad of potential responses. It was not that she doubted Artemis’ regard for her. There had never been a question that there was a place in the Goddess’ heart reserved for Vera, and Vera alone.
Her worry was that the journey to the Underworld was arduous for anyone, alive or dead. Even the Olympians were not guaranteed passage in the shadowed lands without Hades' blessing.
The thought of him made her shudder. The God of the Underworld was ill-humored and held a pitiless attitude toward those who wandered into his realm.
Lethe will be the least of our worries if Hades decides he wants to bargain, she thought.
The creak and clang of leather and bronze dragged Vera’s attention away from her worries. Artemis was stripping out of her armor. It had not struck Vera until that moment that the Goddess had come to greet them dressed for battle. Greaves, bracers, and a breastplate. It was odd adornment for a hunt, let alone a quick trip to collect two visitors at the border of her forest. Unless she knew why we came and expected a fight from someone. Niva had mentioned that the people in the Huntress’ encampment had heard of the Mound of Gaia’s troubles.
“Has anyone ever pointed out that you mutter when you're brooding?”
"Would you believe you aren't the first person today to say that?"
"Seeing as you’re traveling with Dar, whose eyes capture everything, yes.”
Vera snorted, “They’re rude.”
“I wouldn’t be too critical, your granny’s influence fostered that irritating trait of theirs.”
“True. Anyway, I’ve plenty to brood about these days. I’m here…” Vera paused, preparing herself to launch into a plea for help. Artemis’ expression turned stern and the words stuck in her throat.
“Tell me, what are you supposed to leave at the border of my forest?"
Vera had expected this argument, although not as early in their engagement. She dug her heals in, ready for a lengthy debate.
”I wish it were that simple -"
Artemis held up a finger and Vera stopped. Her desire to submit overpowered her need to offer an explanation for her behavior.
"I'm sorry,” Vera began again, “I understand I'm to leave my life as High Votaress at the borders of the wilds, but I can't this time."
"Are you here as the High Votaress?" The Goddess’ tone was cautious.
That would make all of this much easier. “No, I’m not. I’m here as your lover and your friend. I need your help.”
“Then all you need to do is ask and I swear it’ll be yours.”
“You may want to watch what you promise me. I won’t hold you to it until after you’ve heard what I’ve come to say.”
“Are you doubting me?” Artemis crowded into Vera’s space, threading her fingers in Vera's hair, and tightening her fist, “You’re an insolent little creature tonight, aren’t you, pretty?”
The playfulness in Artemis’ voice relieved some of Vera’s tension. The Goddess’ promises were eternal. She studied Vera, her expression a neutral mask that gave no hint as to her mood. The longer she stared at her, the harder it was for Vera to be still and return the gaze. A nervous laugh began to bubble in her chest, tickling her throat, and she struggled to keep her wits and not devolve into manic laughter.
The Goddess saw the internal battle being waged in Vera’s mind and smirked. “Would it put you out of your misery if I told you that Balanis is on her way to fetch your bond-mates, and, though I'll regret his company, Zephyr, too. Mind you, if he looks cross-eyed at one of my attendants, I'll have his head on a pike."
The Goddess laughed at Vera’s perplexed expression as she tried to figure out how the knowledge of their need had reached Artemis before Vera. Then she remembered Dar’s, Artemis’, and Balanis’ heads bent together when they first arrived.
”Dar told you when we got here, didn't they?"
"Of course, they did. They're worried, but it's unnecessary. If I'm with you, Lethe is about as threatening as an acorn."
“Does that mean you’ll be our guide?"
"I'll do you one better. I'll not only be your guide, I’ll also fight beside you. Lethe must answer to me for her plot against you and the Mound of Gaia." Thunder rolled over her brow and Vera quivered at the ferocity in her eyes.
"Will Hades give us safe passage?"
"I imagine. His Queen is wandering around on this side of the Veil for the summer. He’ll be looking for a distraction; I reckon that this will give him one, and he hates his minor Daemons getting out of line. But you need to let me do the talking. I am the High Votaress is about as useful as tits on a boar in the Underworld. They play by different rules down there. Do you understand?”
“Yes, of course,” Vera sagged with relief. "When do we leave?"
"Balanis will be back with your bound-mates before dawn. We set out at sun up. The Gate is less than a morning's ride from here."
"Thank you." She lifted Artemis' free hand to her mouth and dusted her knuckles with kisses.
Artemis had not let up on the hand that was clutching her hair. The ache in her scalp was grounding and delicious. The Goddess' warm breath ghosted across her face, “Now that we’ve got that settled, you owe me a debt, pretty.”
Releasing her hair, Artemis took a step backward. Vera swayed toward her, eyes trained on her lips, like an adder hunting a rabbit.
“Yes. What made it so hard for you to ask me for help? Did you doubt I would care for you? Haven’t I done enough in the years that we’ve shared a bed to prove that I’d shoulder your worries as my own?” The tinge of hurt in Artemis' voice was crushing.
Vera’s face heated. It was embarrassing to hear the truth, unvarnished. “You have. I didn’t doubt you at all.”
"Then why toss my rules to the side like they were nothing, pet?"
“Because I’m supposed to leave this shit outside your forest. But I need your help, and I don’t want you to feel obligated as my lover to risk your life,” Vera felt the anxiety that had been percolating beneath the surface of her skin for the past year bubble over.
The pitch of her voice rose as she continued, “Because I came within a breath of losing each of my bond-mates over this past year. This is treacherous work and the Underworld is dangerous, even for you.”
“Shouldn’t I get to choose what danger I’m willing to face for myself? Why wouldn’t I help you, regardless of the outcome? What’s the use of all this power, if I can’t help those that I love? ”
“But nothing. I decide my own fate.”
“Great Goddess, you’re a stubborn idiot."
"Look in a mirror, and don't think I'm going to let your disregard for my rules slide."
Vera sighed, part relief, part grateful frustration that Artemis possessed a bull-headed nature.
“May I plead extenuating circumstances?"
"You'll be pleading for something when I'm done with you, pretty. What do you say? Will you allow me to punish you for your transgressions?"
Vera took a moment to look around the small glade. Details that had escaped her when she had first arrived sprung to the forefront. Jugs of water and mead rested beside plates piled high with roasted meat, olives, and bread. A fire had been built up to curb the chill and wool blankets were folded by the bed.
She would wager the punishment Artemis planned was also designed to give Vera some respite. The Goddess had created a haven for her and offered her the opportunity to set her burden aside, should she choose.
“Well, pretty? What’s your answer?”
"What word will you use if you want me to stop?"
“Good. Now, take off your clothes."
Artemis stripped as well. Vera admired how the curve of her hips and her thick thighs complemented the corded muscle of her arms and her small breasts. The Goddess reclined on her bed, propping herself up on an elbow, one leg swinging off the edge. Vera's mouth watered, remembering the sweet musk scenting the folds of skin at her center.
Excitement thrilled through Vera as she discarded her own clothes. Artemis opened herself, fingers teasing her engorged clit. The pearl of its head swollen, peeking out from its hood. She imagined tugging at that sensitive bud with her lips, sucking and lapping at it while Artemis held her head in place, painting her chin until it shined.
"You’re looking a little dazed. Are you already wet for me, pretty?"
Vera's hand slipped toward the juncture of her thighs without thinking.
Artemis snapped, "Did I tell you could touch yourself?"
The Huntress rose, circling her like a wolf stalking its prey. She stopped to press herself against Vera's back. "Should I tell you what I've planned?"
"Words, pet.” She punctuated her command with a stinging smack to Vera's thigh.
"Please tell me what you’ve planned for me.”
"Better. I'm going to keep those wandering hands bound and your legs spread. Consider it punishment for your stubborn pride. What do you think of that?”
“I want it.”
“Say it, pretty. What do you want?”
“I want you to tie me up. Show me what punishment my pride buys.” Vera’s breath quickened. She was dripping, the slick cooling in the air where it glazed her thighs.
“I should force you to watch as I pleasure myself, but I'm far too greedy. I want to see you desperate to come and unable to move.”
“If you’re patient for me, then I’ll give you what you crave,” Vera’s eyelids fluttered, “and temper all that pleasure with a bit of a bite. I think a spanking would do the trick. Does ten sound like a fair number?"
"Yes." Heat seeped outward from her gut, a delightful flush of arousal that made her vision swim.
"Will you have a switch or my hand?"
"Whatever you think I need."
"Now, pet, you were asked to pick. Which will you have?"
Artemis teased her nipples with one hand while the other toyed with the tender flesh at her center.
"Your-" She gasped as two of Artemis' fingers dipped inside her, "Your hand. Please."
"Of course, anything you want."
She circled Vera until they were face-to-face, regarding her like a painter studying an unfinished masterpiece. Two sharp claps and Artemis had summoned a coil of braided rope. A single cord of shimmering gold was twisted with two strands colored the luscious red of black cherries. Looping a length over Vera's shoulders, she whispered a chant. Words of power encircled them, crackling like the air after a lightning strike.
Vera quaked with anticipation, growing lighter as Artemis sang, the Goddess’ magic severing gravity's tether. Her body was alive, and her mind quiet as her feet left the ground. She focused on her breath and gave herself over to her lover.
Floating on her back, she caught glimpses of stars through the branches overhead while currents of air rocked her like a leaf floating on a lake. The rope slithered over her skin, silken and effortless while Artemis directed its movements.
The Huntress rewarded Vera’s patience with a kiss after each completed tie. Caressing the skin above and below the knots, she ensured that the bindings were strong and safe. They fell into a rhythm and their breathing synchronized. The questions Artemis asked were answered with thoughtful respect.
It was thrilling to be the subject of Artemis’ undivided attention, but for a Queen in her own right, the helplessness of her predicament was humiliating. The ties were done so that any movement was weighted with an immediate consequence. The ropes tightened over her breasts or spread her legs wider, exposing her weeping sex.
When the Huntress was finished, Vera was bound in a glimmering web. Her body bound and suspended, she was just another ornamentation for Artemis’ indulgence. She laid flat, back parallel to the ground. Her legs were spread open, the left bent and the right straight. Intervals of rope finished with knot-work rosettes bound her arms to her side and supported her from her hips to her neck.
Satisfied that the ties would cause no harm, Artemis' arms rose, her hands outstretched. The ends of the rope climbed upwards and wrapped themselves around a stout branch. The color on her cheeks was high and she regarded Vera with pure hunger. One final word and the magic keeping Vera suspended was gone, allowing the ropes to take her weight. Lust and longing eclipsed every other emotion as Vera was transformed into a being of pure sensation.
Artemis admired her work, combing a hand through Vera's hair. "You're quite a sight.”
"You’ve been so good for me. May I give you what you need now, spank you until you’re senseless with want?”
“Will you come for me when I ask and only when I ask?"
"You'll have you ten and you’ll count each one. Forget or lose your place and we start again. Do you understand?”
She leaned down, licking a strip over Vera's pussy. Vera squirmed, and Artemis reeled back, her finger tips landing on Vera’s clit. The sound was loud, and the stinging jolt was followed by a tingling warmth.
"One," she panted.
"Good girl." Artemis breached Vera's body with two fingers. Palm upward, she caressed her inner walls while Vera groaned, straining to grind on the Goddess’ hand. The bindings were secure, leaving her no way to generate momentum and she whined.
The Huntress pulled her fingers out of Vera’s body and administered two more strikes in quick succession. The prickling hurt that followed pushed the breath out of her lungs in a loud whoosh.
By five her legs shook. By seven she wept. Artemis lavished Vera's cunt and breasts with attention, edging her toward her release before yanking it away. The ropes, soft as they were, created an additional layer of burning sensation. After the ninth slap, Vera teetered, unsure if she could hold back any longer.
Every touch threatened to send her tumbling over the precipice, whether it be from the pull of the rope against her skin or her lover's hand. There was no longer a distinction between pain and gratification, only the demand of her throbbing womanhood.
Her words rushed out in a jumble. ”Please. Please let me come. I have to, I can't, please, I promise you, I won't be able to stop myself-"
"You're drenched." Artemis collected some of Vera’s slick on her fingers and held them to her lips. "Taste yourself."
Licking the Goddess' fingers, she tasted the salt and tang of her own slick and whimpered.
"You want to come, don't you?"
Artemis gave her a chaste peck on the forehead, "I can't deny you anything."
The Huntress ducked between her legs, stroking her thighs. The last blow was swift, but instead of taking her hand away, she plunged two fingers into the well of Vera’s sex, caressing Vera’s clit from within and without.
The pressure combined with the burn beneath her skin touched off her orgasm. She sobbed, her entire body seizing. Tears fell, and the edges of her vision greyed. Closing her eyes, she pulled in great, juddering breaths and rode the storm surge until her mind and body were emptied.
“You are amazing, pretty. Look at how beautiful you are, thank you.”
A single clap of Artemis' hands and the ropes disappeared. The Goddess was gentle, leaving her suspended on a current of warm air while she bathed her in water scented with bergamot and lavender.
Boneless, Vera was free from any and all demands for the moment, allowing her lover to care for her. When Artemis parted her legs and smoothed a cool salve over her pussy, she experienced a twinge of overstimulation followed by a wave of cool relief. She sighed, contented.
Next, she was swaddled in soft wool and carried to bed. The Goddess gave her water to drink and fed her wild strawberries before curling around her. A quick word in ancient Greek extinguished the torches. The fire had burned low and the shadows raced into Artemis’ bower.
The screech of an owl echoed through the trees and Vera stirred, attempting to sit upright.
“What’s the time?” she asked, thoughts of the upcoming journey beginning to pick at the rampart of calm that Artemis had created.
“Quiet, pretty. Morning’s a ways off, you’ve plenty of time to rest.”
The Huntress stroked Vera’s hair and sang her songs that had been forgotten by all but the oldest of the Goddesses and Gods, keeping watch until the sky began to lighten.