Don’t laugh. Don’t laugh. Do not laugh. Theo kept his head down and checked the tension in his bow, again.
“Well?” Graham asked, pushing aside a low branch. His dirty blonde curls bounced with every step.
“Well what?” his older companion answered, trying to keep a straight face.
“Well what do I do? She’s never going to let me forget this,” Graham said, kicking a rock into the underbrush. Theo finally lost his composure and laughed.
“I might not either.”
“Sorry, Graham,” Theo apologized, catching sight of his friend’s expression. “But don’t worry about it, it happens to everyone. Enjoy it.”
“What do you mean, enjoy it? How do you enjoy that? How do I keep it from happening again?”
Theo stopped and looked at his friend incredulously.
“You know what I mean,” Graham said, continuing on. “How do I hide it?” He swatted at a leaf hanging in front of his face. And what do you mean it happens to everyone… did it happen to you? Did you enjoy it?”
Theo sighed. He loved Graham, but the kid was as persistent as a dog in heat.
“You’re not going to let this go, are you?”
“The first time I went out hunting with Warrick we came back with a buck twice the size of me,” Theo began.
“I remember that! It fed everyone that night. Did it happen in front of Warrick? Did…” Graham looked back at Theo where he had stopped. One raised eyebrow was all it took. “Sorry,” Graham said.
Theo smirked and continued on, “Hannah sent me down to wash up before dinner, and I was so excited from the hunt that I was… you know, already excited, and I walked into the wrong water room, and there was Bryn.” Theo shrugged the string of rabbits further up on his shoulder, and smiled at the memory.
“You saw Bryn naked?” Graham asked, suddenly enjoying the conversation. “And… you were naked?” Theo laughed and nodded. “What did you do?”
“Well I, you know, stood there for a minute. I was pretty proud. I thought I kinda deserv-“ Theo stopped abruptly, holding out his hand to stop his companion. He fitted an arrow to his bow and aimed it into the depths of the forest ahead. One breath, two…
“Shh,” a soft voice whispered into his ear.
“Shit!” Theo loosed his arrow into the trees, turned on one heel and stumbled backwards, tripping on an exposed root.
“How are we supposed to bring anything home if the two of you scare everything off?” the girl chided. She offered a hand and hauled Theo to his feet.
“Who’s scaring whom?” he replied, picking up his bow.
“I thought you were a hunter,” Hestia teased.
“We weren’t exactly quiet but I’d still chalk that up to your unfair advantage.”
Hestia picked the string of rabbits out from the fallen leaves and slipped them back over Theo’s shoulder. “You did good. Storm’s coming, we need to head back.”
Hestia breathed in the crisp fall air, enjoying the smell of the season, and then turned to lead the boys back to the group.
“Hestia?” Graham asked, trotting up beside her.
“How do you do that?”
“By concentrating on what I’m supposed to be doing out here,” she replied, looking down at him.
“Ah,” he paused, trying to decide whether or not to ask the next question. Curiosity was a constant companion, however. “So it doesn’t have anything to do with-”
“Graham…” Hestia broke in.
“It’s his first time out here Hestia, give him a break,” Theo broke in as they skirted a clearing. “Doesn’t matter Theo, this isn’t a Steppe. There are real dangers–” she stopped breathing. Not here… Not this far from the Road… In a blink of an eye her bow was fit with an arrow and aimed into the clearing. Theo and Graham followed suit, shifting into better positions amongst the trees. Hestia dared a breath: the forest was quiet, much too quiet. She waited a moment, nothing, and then the forest was alive with sound. Three young men crashed out of the trees, into the clearing, racing towards the three hunters.
“Stop!” Hestia ordered. The man in the lead slid to a halt in front of Hestia as she stepped out from behind her tree, bow still held high. Clutched to his shoulder was a toddler, his eyes wide with fear. “Who are you?” She demanded. Theo and Graham melted out of the trees behind her, bows at the ready. All around the clearing, six more hunters appeared, armed and suspicious. “Who are you?” she asked again. The man stared at her, fear and panic keeping him immobilized. He stole a glance back into the trees and opened his mouth.
“Get them out of here!” screamed one of the hunters, turning and firing an arrow into the forest. A blood curdling howl erupted from the trees.
“Woags!” another shouted into the night.
“Run!” Hestia ordered the petrified trio. She grabbed the man’s free shoulder and jerked him forward, forcing him to move. “Move!” She dodged through the crowd, urging them to run. When she reached the back of the pack, she took aim into the trees and released her own arrow, sending it straight into the chest of a charging woag. Hestia leapt forward and wrenched her arrow free from the carcass. Still dripping with blood, she reset it and launched the arrow straight into the sky. Theo fired, covering Hestia as she raised the alarm, then rounded on Graham.
“Lead them to the Knuckles!” she ordered.
Graham turned and ran, herding the fleeing newcomers into the forest. Theo set another arrow and fired as a massive woag crashed through the trees into the open, furrowing the ground with its enormous claws. It jerked with the impact, growled, and charged Theo. He stared, petrified. The woag leapt, intent on Theo, but it slammed to the ground and slid, knocking Theo off his feet.