Filos flew down the hill at the sound of the dinner bell. After an afternoon of play and napping with her favorite immortal, all was right in her world. I often wished for the unburdened freedom of my animal friends. Some of my kind could spend lifetimes with that type of lightness, but I’ve always felt the weight of responsibility on my shoulders. My twin was the only person who took that weight away. I chuckled, thinking about him. Only Apollo could name himself chicken and still come off stylish and masculine. Maybe it was time to pay him a visit. A dose of carefree could do me good. I chuckled again as I imagined showing up on Apollo’s doorstep with a bucket of El Pollo Loco chicken. I suspect I am the only person he would allow to get away with that kind of joke, which was good for him. Perhaps he could use a bit of childish jabbing as well. I had been sensing worry coming from him through our connection lately. All joking aside, it was time to check on him.
The huskie ran ahead of me and was already at the tent, letting her presence be known. I could hear Miss Imani bellowing for her to calm down and wait her turn. I knew her bowls would be set out when the meal started and no sooner. This was not a crowd that tolerated begging during mealtimes, though I had seen a few scraps slipped to Filos at other times. She was a favorite of many here.
I saw Azita walking with a group of friends on their way to dinner. They were chatting quietly. Years of stealth training had them in the habit of containing their movements and sounds even in this, the most secure and trusted place they had. It was a stark contrast to Kalia, who ran past them and threw a handful of flower petals on their heads before running off, giggling.
Her movements were anything but contained. She was a carefree soul and took steps to lighten us all up. Many people had made the mistake of underestimating her because of her whimsical nature, especially when they saw her with other maidens. Her graceful movements, learned from a lifetime of dancing, were the key to one of the most gorgeous fighting styles I had seen. It was also one of the ways she misled those who walked through life making assumptions. I had greatly enjoyed training her. The difference in her style and spirit renewed the joy I took in sparring. It often reminded me of the few times I had seen Aphrodite let loose in a physical fight. I should get a video of that for Kalia to study.
A few of Azita’s friends took up Kalia’s lighthearted invitation for a chase. I waved Azita over. We both took a moment to smile at the sound of Kalia’s taunts from the backside of the tent.
“The new girl was one of the women sent with my replacement desk,” I said as we tracked the sound of the chase.
She looked at me warily. “Yes, Artemis. She was assigned to me for the day, so she was nearby. I wanted the desk replaced quickly.”
I allowed disappointment to be heard in my voice. “You justify putting her in danger so I would not have to wait another minute or because it was more convenient for you?”
“No, Artemis.” Azita paused to think. She knew I would only accept the truth, even if she had not examined her motives yet. “I think she has it in her to make a home with us, so she needs to learn how to handle herself in all situations. Attending you is an important part of our training,” she explained with tension in her voice.
I paused for a moment to make sure my eyes held hers. “Azita, I am a God. Exposing her to me while I am in a temper is one of the last parts of her training. She should not have been in an enclosed space with me at that moment. Had you warned her how to behave, told her what I am capable of when at my worst, trained her for this situation at all?” I asked.
Azita gulped down her first response and simply said, “No.”
“It was dangerous and irresponsible. There is a very good reason the others who saw me arrive angry decided they did not want to be in my presence and convinced you to come in and attend me. You know all of this. What were you doing?”
Azita struggled to hold my gaze. I was adding a bit of power to this conversation. “I…she is overconfident at times. She needs to be shown what her choice to be one of us means. She will be facing things that she is not prepared to deal with and is too closed off to prepare for. She needs to be humbled.”
That she had a reason for her actions reassured me. “Are you worried about her?” I asked.
Azita shook her head and then nodded. “I am not worried about her ability. She is good at what she does and is taking to training nicely. I am worried about her longevity if she finds that she walked into something she doesn’t understand. She says she has accepted that you are a God, but I am unconvinced that she truly knows what that means. Every time something mythological comes up, she has doubts. If she had been on the team facing the minotaur, it would have taken her too long to accept what was in front of her eyes. That is time it could have used to take the advantage and escape or kill one of us.”
“Azita, it takes time for humans to accept the things they have always denied. That is why the team I called for did not include anyone so new to our ranks. You have to be patient and introduce this world strategically. We face nothing that would require her in the field right away,” I instructed.
I thought for a moment. “We can deal with her weakness. I will show her the key, let her feel its full effect, and see how she reacts. You will be responsible for making sure she does not seek it out afterward and to explain how our world works after she faces that kind of power.”
Azitas’s face lightened. “Yes, that will be a good introduction. Thank you, Artemis.”
I nodded and smirked at my next thought. “Once she has dealt with being powerless to magic, you can let the nymphs have a go at her.”
The image of the nymphs teaching a new girl brought forth a belly laugh from Azita. “Now, that is a diverse education.” We both laughed.
“Bring her when Noor arrives. You will need to know what Noor picks up, and you can keep an eye on the new one,” I ordered. “And remember that putting the maidens in needless danger is not a training tool.”
She bowed her head and said, “Yes, Artemis.” Knowing a dismissal, she resumed her walk to dinner.
The tables were full tonight. The aroma of smoked meat, hot broth, and freshly baked bread hit me as I pulled back the tent flap. The smell was heavenly, naturally not as good as immortal food, but close. Once again, Miss Imani seemed to know my mood before I arrived and prepared my comfort food. The number of people I used an honorific with was very few, and she was one of them.
Maidens brought in steaming bowls and baskets to fill the communal tables. A vast array of warriors occupied the benches. All my maidens were women, and they would always be women. It gave the camp a unique feel. Women who entered the camp for the first time were often struck by the lack of aggression in the air. There was plenty of competition, but no aggression. It was a balm for the abused and oppressed, which was most of my team.
Kalia was holding court with the women she had taunted earlier. Her spirit was infectious, and we all marveled at how it lifted us up. Azita was at another table. She was stoic, so it was hard to see if our talk had affected her, but she was not alone.
I walked to the head table I shared with Miss Imani and Commander Siva. Anywhere else, we all ate together, but here we sat apart to emphasize authority. It was good to take a step back and survey my team after a good day. After a bad day, it was beneficial for us all for me to be separated. As I looked out at the camaraderie, I sometimes missed being with them. Behaviors do change with time. I wondered if this was still the custom. Perhaps I could consult the war gods.
Thud. Thud. Thud.
We all looked at the door to the kitchen. Miss Imani stood still until all eyes were on her. A staff in one hand, she walked in front of the head table. “Today, we have had a victory.” Her voice was full and loud enough to reach everyone in the tent. She pointed to the fire where Commander Siva stood, holding up the head I had separated from the minotaur’s body.
Commander Siva’s deep voice rang out, “We have defeated the monster who dared attack innocent children in our woods.” Cheers erupted. The maidens struck their hands on the tables and their feet on the ground in unison with Imani’s staff.
Commander Siva lowered the head, and silence fell. Siva said, “It is not our final victory. Someone or something sent this thing purposely to torment others. We don’t know why. This,” she held up the head again, “tortured randomly and was not smart enough to create the weapons it used against the villagers and us. It was used and guided. Even though we don’t know the reason and we don’t know who the enemy is, we will not allow it to terrorize anyone. We will defend the defenseless. We will protect them, as we all once wished to be protected.” She lifted the head high. “This will not continue!”
Commander Siva threw the head into the fire. Imani struck the ground with her staff again. Cheers arose from the maidens again, but without the jubilance of moments before. I saw the shadows of their personal nightmares cross their eyes. There was rage in their voices. These women would protect anyone who needed protection. They would destroy what could not be reasoned with.
Now, it was up to me to find their target.