2 - I Eat Breakfast and Shoot Evil BirdsRowena poked me awake with the end of her bow.
'Mia, get up! The hike will be starting in a few minutes, and I don't want to get stuck on camp duty again.'
Every morning, the Hunters hike to a new campground. Some leave on new Hunts or return from old ones, and then we are divided up either by Artemis, if she's at camp, or First Lieutenant Thalia, if she's not. Usually there are two or three hunting groups and a few pairs of scouts, and everyone else stays at camp and cooks, or practices shooting, or keeps the campfire going. The younger Hunters - by which I mean the ones who joined in the last fifty years - are convinced that camp duty is a form of punishment, but it's usually considered more like being "subbed off" in a game of sport: it means that you probably haven't done well, but at least it gives you a chance to rest.
I wriggled out of my sleeping bag and called my bow, because it only appears when I want it to and Artemis always says that you need to be prepared. Rowena followed me out the tent, then pressed the "collapse" button - it folded up and shrank into a tiny grey box, which she stuffed in her pocket.
The two of us moved over to the bonfire, where Artemis was sitting with some of the other Hunters. Avery, a pretty nymph who's one of the oldest Hunters, was passing bowls of soup to everyone. She's one of the nicest girls, but it's easy to get a little freaked out by the ivy that grows in her hair, or the fact that her eyelashes are tiny flower petals.
Rowena sat with Lexi, a mortal girl who probably joined the Hunters at age ten or eleven by the look of her - but I think that she's around my age now. Lexi isn't particularly close to me, but sometimes we spend time together, and it's somewhat of a relief to talk to someone young enough to know what an Xbox is. She has light-brown hair and big green eyes.
Second Lieutenant Lina sat with the small group of Hunters who joined centuries ago, and Artemis herself was next to First Lieutenant Thalia, who is not only my aunt, she shares her name with my OTHER aunt, Thalia the Muse of Comedy. She was being circled by some of our wolves, including my favourite, Ivory, who has one brown and one blue eye.
When the last pair of Hunters collapsed their tent and joins us around the fire, Artemis stood up.
'I was planning a training session today, but that's out of the question now. A flock of Stymphalian birds were spotted south-east of here by one of our guard-hawks, and it is best if we get rid of them as soon as possible.'
The other Hunters all summoned their bows and knives.
Artemis smiled. 'I am glad that you are ready for battle. Second Lieutenant Lina, you will defend the camp with Avery, Claire and Jamie.'
Claire, a French girl who joined in the 1930s, and Jamie, a daughter of Athena who specialises in traps, bowed and stood next to Avery and Lina. They looked rather disappointed.
'Thalia and Erasmia will lead the charge.'
I frowned. Did I hear that right?
'Everyone else can form a line behind them. At the back we'll have... Eliana. Is everyone okay with that formation?'
The Hunters nodded vigorously, even Eliana. Maybe she likes being at the back. Some of the quieter girls do. Or maybe she doesn't want to disappoint Artemis.
Without warning, Artemis stood up, pulled me and Thalia to our feet and walked away from the campfire. The Hunters - apart from Avery, Lina, Jamie and Claire - followed us into the forest.
'Why did you put me at the front?' I whispered.
'It'll stop you from worrying,' Artemis said. 'You need to stay focused on what is real and what is in the present, not some possible future.'
Oh. The prophecy and all that.
One of the trees we passed was split down the middle. I winced, because it reminded me of... that day.
'Because you're right,' she had said, the blade of her axe almost touching my throat. 'None of us like you. I'm just the only person who's going to get the chance to admit it.'
No. I didn't want to think about it, about her.
The hunting group was picking up the pace now. It was like a cross between a hike and a jog. But it was cut off suddenly by a ping and a horrid, crow-like squark.
Next to me, Thalia plucked a feather from where it was embedded in her jacket. It was hard and sharp, like a knife. I pulled my bow back, ready to shoot the incoming Stymphalian birds.
The flock came all at once. They shot feathers like darts and divebombed us. One of them flew past my arm, leaving a deep gash from where its beak struck me. The pain was dreadful, but it brought me back to myself. All bad memories and worries about then prophecy forgotten, I began to shoot the birds down.
'Sniper formation B!' called Artemis, and I stood back-to-back with Thalia, the other Hunters standing back-to-back as well. The birds were easy after that. They were just more targets to hit, more problems to solve. They made sense to me. I've always been told by Thalia and the other hunters that I think too much, wait too often, going way past patience and vigilance into something unhealthy. Hesitation - my fatal flaw.
I didn't hesitate then. I shot every single bird I saw. Sometimes another arrow struck it at the same time, but I didn't worry. I barely noticed my quiver running low. Then my legs started to buckle.
Was it blood loss? I didn't think so. I'd sustained few wounds aside from the one on my arm and... a small cut on my side, I'd just realised. But it didn't feel that bad.
No, this was one of my stupid visions. Not now! Not in battle!
This time, I saw Amelia and Kyle. Amelia is my stepmother, and she's actually pretty nice. Dad met her thirty years ago when they were working on a TV show together: he was the scriptwriter, and she was a costume designer. Dad gave her a small role in one of his plays, but Amelia was actually a pretty good actress, and so he gave her better roles. They became good friends, but they didn't fall in love for years. Not until after Clio.
My stepbrother Kyle was... less friendly. He and his friends bullied me constantly in school, but unfortunately he was three years younger than me - "too young to know any better." Rubbish. I lived in fear of him.
Amelia and Kyle were sitting next to each other on a child-sized bed. Kyle looked around six.
'Erasmia isn't much like you,' Amelia said. 'She's a girl, she likes books, she doesn't like trains...'
Amelia laughed. 'But I want you to try and get on. Because I love Damien, and so it would help if you are nice to your new sister. Promise you will at least try to be friendly.'
'Even if she's smelly?'
'Yes, even if she's smelly.'
I smiled. But then I remembered that he didn't keep that promise.