Under the Hunting God
by Hannah Bruders
Her body had finally gone numb and her bleeding had slowed, but when Lamia tried to move her leg the world went out. When she blinked the sun burned into her eyes and painted the trees gold, like the eyes of The Hunt Lord on his temple walls. She flinched at the thought and screamed when pain, hot as fire, ripped through her shoulders and chest. Squawks and caws echoed above her as birds took to the air. Her robe felt like it was sticking to her and she had to keep blinking to clear her eyes of the blood that had run into them.
She lay on the grass for a moment longer, then she levered herself up with her unbroken arm and stared down at the twisted wreck that her legs had been reduced to. She keened in her throat as she slowly shifted her waist and tears burned as the trickled into the wounds of her face. Inch by inch, trying to ignore the blaze of fire that erupted in her limbs, face, and chest with each twitch of her body, she pushed on. As she dragged herself towards the nearest tree she noticed that the blood on her robe had soaked through the mud and filth that her brothers had helped her cake on that morning. She bit back a sob as she remembered how giddy she had felt only a few short hours age.
The day had dawned bright and clear on her eleventh birthday. The air had been cool and crisp and the grass had sparkled with the morning dew. The leaves and grass had rustled in the slight breeze that cooled her face and ruffled her short dark hair. White clouds had raced across the deep blue sky. The smell of flowers and uncut grass filled the air and she could just make out the sound of the river at the bottom of her family's well. She took a deep breath as she hauled on the well's rope, enjoying the sunlight against her head and back.
"Lamia, love. Could you hurry up? I need that water to finish breakfast," Mother called from the doorway of her family's tiny house.
"Coming, Mother," she called over her shoulder as she pulled faster.
From inside the hut, she heard the sounds of a couple of her brothers yelling as well as the sounds of grunts and thumps that usually came from an impromptu tussling match. As she heaved the full water bucket out of the well she heard a bellow of "You stop that," and the distinctive whack sound of Mother's spoon hitting a head. The resulting yowl made her cover her mouth to stifle a laugh.
Mother's round shape emerged from the dark doorway of their tiny sod hut frowning and wiping her rough hands on a strip of old faded cloth. Mother sighed and the wrinkles around her dark eyes deepened.
"I'm sorry, love, but it seems that we are going to have to eat on the road," she said.
"But why? I thought we were going to celebrate my birthday."
"We were, my love, but your father just received a temple pigeon. The Hunt Lord has called for a festival in his honor and everyone is to attend." Lamia shivered then and felt Mother run a trembling hand through her cropped hair. "It'll be alright, I'm sure. It's probably just to celebrate his latest hunt, that's all." Mother straightened briskly, "now your brothers are already outside getting filthy. You can dump the water out there if you want. A mud bath might be just the thing to keep The Hunt Lord from noticing any of you."
The Hunt Lord hadn't called the festival in celebration though and when Lamia and her family hurried past the dingy village gates, covered in dried muck. the huge god was stalking around the village square with a sneer on his alien face. The villagers and all their rural members had stood in a ring around the god, still as statues and with eyes staring at the ground. Mother's hands were shaking as she clutched Lamia to her side and Father's lips were pressed together so hard that they turned white. Her brothers had clustered around her and Mother, silent for the first time that day, and pressed together like birds in a storm. Lamia felt a chill run down her back. She had been too young to remember to the last festival, but she had overheard the whispers among her brothers about the last time The Hunt Lord had graced their village with his presence.
The god moved closer to Lamia, moving like a cat among caged birds as he stared from face to empty face. She blinked when she realized that his spotted clothing was actually a fur pelt and that his huge hands ended in talons instead of fingers. As the god drew closer, Lamia quickly dropped her gaze and froze, staring at his clawed feet. She felt the sweat start to gather at her shoulders and Mother's tightening fingers as The Hunt Lord stopped before her.
"I think I will choose you, human," the god said and Mother squeezed till Lamia thought her arm would break from the pressure. Lamia's eyes flew up to see The Hunt Lord staring at Mother. She heard Father gasp and saw Mother's face crumple like burning paper. Her heart stopped.
"I'm faster, my Lord," she heard her own voice say.
The Hunt Lord's eyes snapped down to where she stood and she realized, as though her mind had been filled with fog, that, although The Hunt Lord's face looked human, he had the yellow eyes of an eagle.
"Really now, little urchin?" The Lord drawled with a smile that reminded her of a starving wolf with teeth like knives. "You think you can entertain me better than this woman."
She had to swallow past the lump in her throat. "I can give you a better hunt. I'm faster. I know the forest better."
"So you say." The god grabbed her face and she needed to swallow again when she felt the barest of prickles against her throat. He stared at her face and her eyes and Lamia found she couldn't look away or move.
He sniffed deeply like she had seen dogs do and then licked his lips. "A little girl," he murmured, almost too low for her to hear, and smiled at her again. This look was different though, hungrier somehow.
"Well, my brave little rabbit. I accept your offer," he purred. "Run."
She turned, catching a glimpse of her family's broken eyes and wet faces. She captured this image of them, whole and hale, and stored it away as she flew out of the village gates and into the black underbrush of the forest.
Lamia screamed as she felt a heavy body land on her broken leg and the bird that had decided to try its luck squawked as it leaped off her limb. Around her furry bodies scattered and birds fled from their perches. She sobbed through her teeth as the pain hit her again and stifled a second scream as her tears burned against the gaping gashes in her face. She blinked through her tears as she tried to calm her breathing and stay still. The stabbing pain between her legs drew her attention and she made her mind go blank. She refused to think about The Hunt God had done to her when he had finally caught her.
She felt brittle and hollow, like an old gourd left out to dry, and her eyelids felt heavy, and it was so quiet and cold. No sounds broke through the usual melody of rustling trees. There were no human voices. No footsteps or torches to give light in the darkening forest. And why should there be, no other person had ever survived The Hunt Lord's celebration.
She felt her lips twitch ever so slightly as she thought of Mother's face, of Father's strong hugs, and her brother's affectionate punches as they gathered for dinner. Of their joy when she brought them a small morsel to add to the pot. Of the way her brothers would yell to her as they herded the temple offerings.
Her family was safe. There would be no consequences for them or her village. She had led The Lord on a good hunt. And she was so tired.
She closed her eyes. And then everything stopped hurting.