The island before sunset was a vision of blue, gold and white; a brilliant sky above an ocean that shone golden, crashing into the rocks standing high out of the water. The sound of the ocean was met with the cries of birds that hovered overhead, hanging in the air as though bound to the earth with an invisible twine. Above the craggy, pale rocks, a young woman travelled alone along a path of crumbled stone, hair swirling in the saline wind. Her tunic was streaked with dust and crisp with salt, and at her hip a small satchel hung from a soft leather strap. As she walked she kept her eyes on the line of trees to her side, as though waiting for the shadows within it to shift suddenly.
Though the island was not large, the temple toward which she walked was on the other side and the journey there would be long. It was getting dark, and straying too far inland could prove dangerous even in the middle of the day. After the sun slipped behind the horizon, not even the moon and stars above could light the tree-thick centre of the island enough for mortal eyes to follow a path. Within the tangle of trees and darkness lived countless creatures, strange and dangerous, the things of terrible dreams and legends told by firelight.
Though the creatures of the island preferred to stay beyond the line of trees, in the danger of darkness, there were times when they strayed from the shadows, drawn into the moonlight by the scent of sweat, the warmth of a pulse, the promise of something to devour. On this night, that promise proved too tempting for one; a beast who stalked through the trees on strong, leonine legs, each paw tipped with ragged claws. Blood, dry and rust-coloured, coated the horns that protruded from its head, and sharp teeth curled over a lip silky with short fur. As the beast stalked through the trees, its nose flared, catching wildflower sweetness, salt and oil; the scent of a traveller.
As the woman walked on the day gave way to night, the sky overhead a blanket of deep blue and constellations. The temple was not far away now and she walked steadily, the sandy path crunching quietly beneath her worn leather sandals, until she heard the faint snapping of twigs underfoot from within the trees and paused. Standing still, she heard nothing more than waves against rock, so she ventured onward. Behind the veil of darkness and trees, the shadow of the beast trailed after her. The sandy path began to weave, and eventually opened into a small clearing. There the temple stood, tall columns reaching toward the moon which filled the space with a soft, ethereal glow. The clearing was bare but for the temple and a single olive tree that leaned toward it, heavy with fruit.
Crossing the clearing, the woman walked up the steps and entered the temple.
In the trees behind, the beast was wary of the soft light of the clearing, but the sweetness of the traveller’s scent made its nostrils twitch and insides ache. It lingered at the edge of the trees for a moment, before stepping into the clearing, paws silent in the sand as it approached the temple. Inside, the creature’s glassy eyes fell upon the woman, who was turned away with her hands held high, palms facing the sky, over a stone altar in the centre of the temple, where her now-empty satchel, a pile of figs, a bundle of pale wheat and a clay jar of blood-red wine were spread across the surface.
As a snort of warm, sour breath ruffled the woman’s hair, she felt a sudden metal solidness in her hands. In a movement too quick for the beast to comprehend, the woman whirled and thrust her arms upward, the hilt of a sword clutched in both hands. As the beast opened its jaws to shriek, the glittering blade sunk into its throat easily and it froze, mouth gaping, and sunk to the dusty floor. Behind the altar a delicately carved statue, smooth arms outreaching, observed the violent scene with empty marble eyes.
The woman bent and wiped the blade clean against the beast’s fur, slid the sword into the leather loop at her hip, then looked back to the altar. Moonlight streamed through a gap in the roof of the temple, illuminating the tabletop where a shallow gilded dish of water now sat, the depiction of a goddess with outstretched arms etched into the gold. The woman dipped her fingers into the dish, closed her eyes, and smoothed the droplets over her face. As the water dried, she opened her eyes and turned to step around the beast’s still body, leaving the moonlit temple.
She crossed the clearing with her head lowered and stopped to lean against the olive tree for a long moment, its twining trunk pressing hard into her spine, before she looked up, eyes falling upon the line of trees. There was no path that led to the heart of the island, no map to show the way, no record of the creatures she would face on her journey. But she could see more clearly now than she ever had before, and she had strength and a sword at her hip. She was ready. Standing upright, she walked toward the shadows, listening to the whisper of the ocean against the rocks behind her.
This piece was originally published in Athena Magazine.