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We all sit under the laurel trees sometimes. Persephone, Arethusa, Oenone, Pitys, Sinope, Moria. Me, Daphne. Chelone, before Zeus turned her into a tortoise. I think she meant to come to his wedding; she was just the forgetful type, and slow-moving, too. Some of the mothers and nymphs whisper that Hera disliked her and wanted her gone, but if we whisper it, even in front of the gossipers, we are scolded, so we stay away from such topics of conversation. Lampetia used to run with us, too, but she was Helios' younger daughter, and had to leave our Tomea Hlioftis (the Hlioftis Fields, as we call them) to tend his flocks in Thrinakie. We have just the right number now, and it's a good thing, because the Tomea Hlioftis, where the laurel trees are, are gorgeous. The laurel trees are the best.
The laurel trees are big enough for us all to sit under, and the leaves let in the warmth, but not too much light. The grass underneath is soft, and carpeted with flowers -- once we brought a pomegranate to eat, and some of the seeds spilled; since everything grows in the Hlioftises, but fruit needs Demeter's approval to grow, the seeds resulted in small, soft, crimson pomegranate flowers. Persephone loves them. She usually tucks one behind her ear, where it adds even more red to her lengthy auburn hair. We've told her her she does not need flowers to add to her beauty, but she laughs and waves us off. She says, "I need flowers."
And it's true; what are any of us without the nature around us? Dark-eyed Aegina used to love one of the streams that run through the Fields, but Zeus took her away one day when she went up to Lower Olympus to meet Hermes -- our code for saying that she had him arrange a wind to take her to Hades, just for fun. The older flower nymphs, Margarita and Violeta and Ilotropia and Louloudi, often dare us to; they've been hundreds of times, and say it's marvelous, but there's always Aegina's risk. The danger is not in Hades but in Lower Olympus, the land where the minor gods - the Elassones - and the Pantheonic Gods - the Megalyteri - mix, where there are few rules and they can do what they please, where the opinions of a nymph hold no sway. Lower Olympus is where the horror stories about Io and Callisto told by our mothers and our grown-up friends Galatea and Acantha are set. It is where we are vulnerable, where Zeus stole Aegina away during the brief duration of time that her trip stopped in Lower Olympus. Now she cries on some island somewhere, trying to create her rushing brook again, but to no avail. And of course, there's the other risk too, the risk that a godly parent will catch us breaking the rules and choose to punish us. That's why we don't go up to Lower Olympus often. Most of us, anyway; Sinope just laughs, flips her long black tail of hair over her shoulder, and says that she can outwit or outthink any god stupid enough to try to carry her off.
Sinope is like that, intelligent but rash. For instance, yesterday she, like Aegina, went to Lower Olympus to meet Hermes. I don't know when I'll go -- even if I'll go. I'm not as brave as Sinope, but I'm smart too, and my intelligence says that going to Lower Olympus would be the stupidest thing I could do. It's not like I'm a scaredy-cat. I go hunting out of Olympus Source all of the time. You just can't shoot anything here -- not just in the Hlioftises, where the arrows will actually bounce back, but in the woodsy parts too, where it's just adorable little bunny rabbits and the sun shines brightly through the trees. Real hunters hunt in forests, and so I go to the World to hunt, where tiny bits of light, as if reflected from a shattered mirror, make their way through the branches and leaves, dappling the forest floor and the hunters in alternating mirrors and empty shadows. We all choose our risks. Mine are for the quiet joy I find in the woods and forests. If Sinope wants to go to Hades, that's her risk, and likewise with Pitys and her trips to mountain cliffs to stare into the wind.
Oenone is one of us - not a friend - who took stupid risks. She visited Paris, a boy who we all thought was just a common swineherd but her mother told her twas truly a prince of Troy. She often snuck away to eat pomegranates with him, and took his gifts of ostentatious gold bracelets, and she mostly came back with nothing for us, not even Persephone, who, upon seeing Oenone's red-stained mouth, couldn't help but want a single pomegranate seed more than anything else. Call it a hunch, but I suspect that Persephone's risks are for more pomegranates. Then, because of Aphrodite and her spite of regal Hera and grey-eyed Athena, the friend and protector of my idol Artemis, Paris deserted Oenone - and they were married too, for she still calls herself Paris Oenone - for the beautiful, willful mortal Helen of Sparta. I cannot help but feel bad for her, but if not for her stupidity she would still be carefree like the rest of us.
But today we are all here, at least those of us who are left in Olympus Source; none of us off on daredevil schemes. We are braiding the laurel leaves into crowns, because Moria knows how to braid them into our hair. I'm relaxing as Sinope tells her tale -- of the smoky dead darting forward, trying to get into Charon's boat; of the evil ones who stick to the edges, wanting to postpone judgement; of the ones who just can't wait.
"There's one," she laughs, "who tries to swim across the Styx, right? And so of course all of the wisps of smoke which made him up flew in all different directions, and all of the ghosts on shore are beginning to panic that he's never going to come back, when the smoke congeals over the water. And so Charon, he waves his oar oh-so-threateningly and the ghost flies back to wait!"
We all laugh, and I stretch back against the warm grass and hold the laurel crown above my head, covering the bright sun so I can look over at the edge of the Dasos tis Pigis - the Source Forests. They seem darker than usual today. At least, that's what I think until I see the man stepping out of them.
I've never seen him before. I'd know if I had. His hair is the brightest gold I've ever seen, and his skin is a golden tan. His eyes flash silvery blue, and his fine black tunic hugs slim but muscular shoulders. My jaw drops open. All our jaws drop open. We have never seen anything like him before. Never.
He comes over at a slow jog and pushes his shoulder-length hair out of his face, smiling as he leans on a laurel.
"Hello, girls," he says. His voice has a slight drawl, a bright ring.
"Godly voice," I whisper to Persephone. She raises an eyebrow. "No," I hiss, "literally. He's a god." She nods assent; though many of us have godly parents, we've found that I can tell better than the rest who is a god and who a mere mortal.
"... so I was wondering," the hunter continues, "whether any of you knew the way back to Olympus?"
Sinope, so bold, tips her head jauntily and asks him, "What part of Olympus? This right here is Olympus Source. There's the Olympus Valley Region... unless you were thinking of Lower Olympus itself."
The stranger smiles back, and tells her, "The way to Lower Olympus would be fine. I'm actually on my way to Upper Olympus, but I can always arrange to get Up from there."
This causes a flurry of whispers, for we don't know of anyone, besides the Megalyteri, who can just go to Upper Olympus without a guide. Which means...
"Excuse me, sir," I say, sitting up from my reclining position and pushing myself up off the ground, "but are you Helios Apollo?"
"Indeed," he replies, looking me up and down. "I am. And who are you?"
Without a title, I respond with my godly mother's name: "Gaia Daphne." And then the others chime in:
"Paris Oenone." He flinches at this; he had sided with the Trojans in that ill-fated war.
"Demeter Persephone," Persephone says softly from the ground at my feet, and I help her up. Apollo looks sharply at her, but then his gaze, softened, turns back to me.
"Well, then, Gaia Daphne," he says, "would you show me to Lower Olympus?"
Sinope pokes me in the back -- a reminder of my contempt for the stupidity of going up to Lower Olympus -- but I'm not paying any attention, because I've just noticed the bow slung over his back.
The wood is a darker shade of the beautiful golden oak, capped with beaten gold with tiny carvings of trees, and it's not the too-powerful recurve that so many have been using lately, but a simple bow with an elegant curve and a white quiver, trimmed with the same gold leaf trees, of oaken arrows fletched with swan and crow feathers -- the two birds that are sacred to Apollo. I can only stare at its majesty and power, can already feel the smooth resistance to the archer as she pulls back the string, can already hear the clear tenor of its twang when the arrow is released. I ache to handle this bow, to shoot it even once. Then I remember the people around me -- my friends, watching me with amusement, and Apollo, confused until he follows my gaze and smile when his eyes meet his bow.
"Do you like my Kyraxona?" he asks. Sunshaft. What a beautiful name for a beautiful bow.
"Indeed," I reply, shaking my head to get rid of my focus only on the bow. "Anyway, Helios Apollo, I would be happy to show you to Lower Olympus."
Persephone looks worried as I set off, but I smile at her and whisper, "What could go wrong?" Of couse, we both know it's rather a lot, but I choose to ignore that, and set off with the sun god and his beautiful weapon.
We've only been walking for five minutes or so, and are barely even out of sight of the laurels, when Apollo turns to me and says, "You said your name was Gaia Daphne, right? You're Gaia's daughter?" I nod in assent. "That makes you my great-aunt. I think."
"But I'm nowhere near as old as you!" I protest, and he laughs. It's a glorious sound, his laugh, warm and melodious like the -- well, like the sun.
"I like you," he says, and there's a hint of respect in his tone. "You're funny."
I find that he makes statements like this a lot, in a tone of wonderment and surprise that somehow manages not to be offensive. After twenty more minutes of this, we approach the end of the Hlioftis Fields, and are in the Makra Pediades, the Long Plains. There are only a few trees scattered about here, and never clusters, only one at a time, and I've always raced to the first, a slim birch, as soon as I see it. Forgetting who I travel with, I suddenly take off.
I love running. Running exhilarates my heart and lungs, my heart and soul. It lights up my cheeks with glowing roses and brings a sense of flying happiness to my entire being. I always wear a short legwrap under my flowing green skirt so that I can take off at any minute, and I'm always likely to. My long legs cover greater and greater lengths of ground, and my lungs have learned to keep up, or else. When I reach the birch, not a quarter mile away, I sit down at its foot, breathing hard, and then remember my lost companion.
He looks lost at first, staring at where I had been and then at where I am, but he suddenly grins, and begin to run over himself. He has an extremely powerful stride, and seems to leap up towards the sky with every step. It seems as though he might burst into flight any moment, and though I've never put any credence into the tales of the Megalyteri having the power to fly, I find myself wondering if he might just take off.
And then Apollo is leaning on the birch, barely breathing hard, and smiling. "Wow," he says, "you run fast. And without warning." There's a question in his eyes.
I laugh. "I always run to this birch. Actually, I usually run all of the Makra Pediades. The trees make good stopping places."
"Okay," he says, and he is speeding off already to the next tree, a weeping willow. The trees in the Long Plains grow randomly, without respect to the type of environment a particular tree needs outside Olympus Source. I have to run very fast to catch up with him, and he puts on a burst of speed as I begin to match his stride. When we get to the willow, we are both panting, and I cling to a branch to stay upright. Apollo is nowhere near so prideful; he sinks down on the ground, alternately laughing and gasping for breath. "You're fun," he says, again with that tone of happy surprise.
"The next tree is my favorite," I tell him, and without waiting for him to rise, I begin to run again. When we reach the tall, glorious beech with wide branches, I begin to climb it, aching muscles protesting as I pull myself to my seat, well-polished from years of my using it as a throne.
Apollo sees me unconsciously relaxing into the comforting tree, and he asks softly, "Does it have a name?"
Startled, I sit upright. "A name?"
"Yes, a name. I always name my favorite trees."
I do, too, but I've never told anyone. "Yes. It has a name. I call it Oreivoxia."
"Oreivoxia," he says softly. "Beautiful." He steps closer to me, brushing his callused hand gently over the tree's bark. I imagine he is brushing it over my cheek. He reaches out as if to touch my face, and instead grins and pats my hair down. "Your hair is unruly," he says cheerfully.
I let out the breath I've been holding in. "Yes. It is, often. After running."
He smiles and moves as though to lean closer, but I don't know how I feel about this so instead I duck behind the branch and set off for the next tree, shouting back over my shoulder, "Race you to the next!"
I hear his soft chuckle, and then he sprints to catch up to me, running alongside me until I feel like we're both flying, and we end up bypassing the maple and ending up under the old oak. We sit down next to each other.
"So," I say, purely to avoid more awkwardness, not at all because I am just dying to see it, "can I look at your bow?"
"Of course," Apollo says, and unhooks it from his back, placing the Kyraxona and his quiver in my lap.
I run my fingers over its smooth gold wood, feeling really, really good woodwork slide under my fingers with only the tiniest hint of varnish. Next, I inspect the tight string and pluck it, gasping when its sound is not a twang but a beautiful pure note that echoes through my ears. Of course, Apollow is also the god of music, but it must have slipped my mind. Slowly, I go over every inch of the beautiful weapon, feeling the pine trees carved into the end caps and the supersharp tips of the arrows.
Apollo smiles when he sees my awe, and leans over to put his fingers over my own searching ones. He picks up my hand, looking at its calluses. "You shoot, don't you." He is very close, so I nod vigorously. I don't think I could speak at the moment. He tucks another stray strand of my hair behind my ear. "Beautiful," he says again, and this time he's not talking about my tree. He waits.
I'm not really sure how to respond, so I pick up the bow again. I turn to him and ask, "Can I shoot it?"
It is clearly not the question he has been wanting to hear, but a surprised smile darts across his face before it is replaced with one of smug gaiety. "You can try," he says. "I never met anyone who wasn't a Megalyteri who could."
I smile just as smugly before standing, fitting an arrow to the gorgeous bow's curve, and pulling it back smoothly to behind my ear. It is tough, but smooth in its make, well oiled and well used. I've never drawn so beautiful a bow before. Its spirit sings to me, raucous and intensifying, and I understand why others can't use it.
But I can.
I let go. The arrow soars through the air like the most incredible goldenhawk, and lands in the small knot in the laurel tree that I had aimed for. I turn around.
Helios Apollo gapes at me. I flash him a quick smile and say, "Well, let's not take all day!" I set off for the laurel tree.
When we arrive, Apollo runs his fingers around the base of the arrow before he yanks it from the tree. "That was incredible," he says, arrow trailing from his fingers. "That was truly incredible." There is wonder in his eyes, and his earlier flirtatious bubbliness is gone, replaced with true admiration.
He runs his fingers down the shaft of the arrow. "Would you like it?" he murmurs. My eyes catch his, and I am breathless. Mutely, I nod.
He takes a step towards me and lifts the arrow, but instead of handing it to me he reaches closer, tucking it behind my ear with one hand and catching me around the waist with the other. The hand that held the arrow traces my cheek.
"Yes?" he asks quietly.
"Yes," I say back, just as softly.
He lowers his head and presses his lips to mine. We have barely brushed against each other when -
It is my mother, Gaia, and at first I think I am in trouble, and then I realize that she thinks Apollo has caught me, though we're not yet out of Olympus Source.
"Oh, Gaia, no, he -"
But my mother mistakes my tone of voice. Believing that she cannot save me, she casts the only magic she can: earth magic.
A heavy numbness seizes my limbs, thin bark closes over my breasts, my hair turns into leaves, my arms into branches, my feet so swift a moment ago stuck fast in slow-growing roots, my face is lost in the canopy. Only the shining arrow from behind my ear is left, stuck into my bark.
I am a laurel.
Helios Apollo staggers back, his fast aghast, and turns to Gaia. He begins to weep.
Her face is confused; she begins to talk to him, he to answer; I think I see tears drip down my mother's face; but I don't know. I become the tree, and I cannot see, cannot move, cannot run over the Long Plains or the Hlioftis Fields. I can only reach up to the sky with leaf-crowned branches. Before I slip away completely, one last realization finds its way to my dwindling mind.
I am the only tree to stand together with a second tree. The only tree standing this tall. The only tree through which tiny bits of light, as if reflected from a shattered mirror, make their way through the branches and leaves, dappling the flat ground and the hunting nymphs in alternating mirrors and empty shadows.