King Coriolanus of Arcadia required a son. An heir. Strong broad shoulders to bear the burden of kingship when his bones were moldering in the grave. Fertile loins to carry his house across generations, so he could be certain that his snow-white standard flew proudly over his city in the eons to come.
He did not require the mewling axe-slash cradled in the arms of the midwife as his weary queen rested. Daughters were bartering tools, war-starters, peace-weavers, and entirely beneath his concern.
"Mark her heel with my sigil, take her to the mountain and leave her for the gods," he declared, his heart nothing but ice.
The untamed nomads of the forest found the nameless child, wide grey eyes staring fearlessly as she scaled young saplings and sucked on honeycomb like a bear cub. The honeybees did not sting her. The hunters gasped, and called her blessed of Artemis.
Helleboros, wifeless and now childless with the loss of his sweet Primula, brought the child into his house and called her daughter. When he saw the king's mark on her heel, he bound her foot in rough linen and kept his own counsel.
She gnawed on the fletching of his arrows as he carried her, strapped to his back, into the hunt.
He called her Katniss, after the water-arrow Sagittaria.
Blessed of Artemis, daughter of Helleboros, charmer of bees, Katniss Epherdonos grew beautiful as the loveliest of women and fearless as the bravest of men. Shunning the responsibilities of her sex, she ran, fleet-footed through the forest, as comfortable with a bow and arrows as her name had destined. And if the Phaesporia, from her perch in Olympus looked down upon her charge with pride, Helleboros, who walked the earth, could hardly carry his heart within his chest, it was so full. And with this full heart, one day his soul crossed the river Styx, leaving his chosen daughter to walk the forest alone.
Upon his death, many men, even some who were, like her, wild as the gales that rose from the fire that we set in the vineyards, attempted to bring the huntress into their beds, but all failed. Word of her beauty and prowess only grew, until they reached the king himself. Still childless, and eager to find a new bride who would bear him sons, he sought to make one so blessed by Artemis his queen.
Cornered in the marketplace, swift-footed Katniss ran to escape his guards, her bare feet faster than the heavily-shod soldiers. But Seneca, swift and clever captain of the guard, caught her foot as it kicked high in her stride, and lifted it high, unknowingly exposing the King's sigil to all who would see.
"This changes much," the king declared, "as you are my daughter, given to the gods, now returned to me. Come, child, embrace your father, who rejoices at your return."
"My father hunts the Elysian Fields," Katniss spat. "He, you are most certainly not."
But she was taken to the king's home in the manner of a princess, and many within the village felt their hearts heavy at the loss of one so free and so bold.
But none so much as Peeta Melarkion.
He, the baker's youngest son, had suffered the fate of many youngest sons without inheritance, bearing the ire of a bitter mother who had longed for daughters. Years of avoiding her blows made him wily, while work carrying the amphorae of oil and grain made him strong. But he had the soul of a poet, and dreamed endlessly of beauty and goodness in the dark world of toil in which he lived.
As a young child in market, he had seen Katniss holding the hand of her father as Hellboros traded the spoils of the forest for the few goods made in the village that those such as him could have need for. She sang that day, and her small voice rang so pure that the old women, chattering like mockingbirds, fell silent to listen. And the baker's son had felt his heart twine itself, as would a vine, around the grey-eyed girl from a forest.
Years later, when she was taken by the king, his heart ached at the loss of her, though he had never spoken to her, not so much as a single word.
The king wished for his daughter to marry, but such a fate was worse than death for one who had lived so long as a scion of Artemis. Grey-eyed Katniss swore that she would take nightlock, ending her life before any man could hold claim over her body, though the king announced that he would bind her for her husband, so that only the most practical matters of a marriage could be attended to. There were men, those to whom he could ally through the treaty of marriage, that would find pleasure in such an arrangement.
Holding a knife to her own throat, brave-hearted Katniss declared that she would only marry such a man as who could best her in a footrace, and the king was appeased. Such Games as would befit this challenge were organized.
For many weeks, strong, cunning, and brave men tried and failed to defeat swift-footed Katniss, while the king gnashed his teeth at having his well-made plans revealed as foolishness.
The tale of swift-footed Katniss' defiance of the king echoed throughout the land, reaching the ears of cunning Peeta. With no riches or glory to his name, he left his house, carrying with him only bread, yet for which he received many blows from the woman who had borne him. He sought the counsel of Aphrodite, bringing her gifts of woven loaves that mirrored his beloved's braided hair. And the fickle Lady of Cyprus took pity on the young man, with his handsome golden curls and earnest eyes, blue as the sea that had birthed her.
She gifted him with three golden apples that would beguile his love so deeply that she would be unable to resist them, but gave no guidance, only counseled that he use them in such a way as his wit commanded.
Cunning Peeta bided his time, observing the manner in which the footrace was won, and saw that even the most swift of foot could not best grey-eyed Katniss, whether through clever attempts to tire her, or through sheer endurance alone. He bided his time until the end of the day, when all other men had come forward, and, though the huntress looked far from weary, her breaths came more quickly and her brow glistened with the dew of her exertion.
"Are there those yet who wish to challenge the Princess?" the heralds called.
"I volunteer," he called softly, stepping forward, and stripping off his garments, as was custom for all Games. Around his shoulders he kept bound the satchel within which rested the gifts from the goddess.
Katniss laughed scornfully, for all the other challengers had been men famous for their speed and stamina. Here was a mere baker's son, yet he dared to step forward. But her heart leapt within her, recalling the gentle blue-eyed gaze that followed her through the market, and unnamed gifts of bread that had appeared outside her tent in the bitter late winter when her father had passed.
She stood next to him at the starting line, tossing her braid so that it fell across her glistening bare shoulders. She was naked as Aphrodite herself, and Peeta silently prayed that he could keep his wits long enough to endure throughout the race.
The herald called out the start, and she was off like a deer, prancing over the uneven terrain as though it were a placid stream, and she a fish. She was several lengths ahead of him when he let fly the first shimmering, golden apple, far to the right of the course.
As the glimmering object appeared, brave Katniss veered after it, diving into the brush to catch it, but never breaking stride. She held it in her hand, running her thumb gently over the smooth, golden skin.
But she was still ahead, though the distance had been split by half.
He let the next apple fly far to the left of the course, into the darkness of the forest. The moment that the object appeared, once again swift-footed Katniss veered after it, seeming to care little for the outcome of the race. She lept over the fallen trees as would a hind, losing little time in grasping the apple and drawing it to her breast.
Once more, the distance between her and her opponent had been reduced by half.
The finish was within her grasp, but cunning Peeta at her heels when the last apple was dropped directly at her feet, still and unmoving. In the moment it took for her to crouch and grasp it, he had reached her side, and they crossed the line together.
The spectators were in an uproar, but the cruel king gloated. Though, through her trickery, he had lost the ability to marry off his daughter to whom he would, she could now be forever bound to a mere peasant, and one who had tricked her so completely. In his estimation, such a man was unlikely to be a kind husband and he relished the thought of showing his daughter the same shame she had so effortlessly brought him.
The servants wrapped the victors, of which they were both since they had finished together, in the trappings of a bride and groom, and crowned them with the wreaths befitting such an occasion. When she sputtered that she had not lost, the king looked at brave Katniss and smiled, declaring that she had not bested her opponent either.
The marriage was swift, and the bride's face reflected naught but bitter disappointment.
It was only when the priest had declared them bonded for life, and the king asked if his new son-in-law had naught to say, that the young man spoke. His voice was strong and clear.
"As her husband, I declare that Katniss Epherdonos do what she will with whom she choses," silver-tongued Peeta called across the crowd. "For it is an ignoble man indeed who takes a wife by force, despite what you might will, my king. I do not wish to tame such a glorious creature, but only to stay by her side, if she herself ever choses to bless me with such a gift."
Nothing but this choice could sway the heart of the huntress. She turned to gentle-eyed Peeta with unexpected but not unwelcome love apparent in her visage.
But the gods were in an uproar at the audacity of the baker's youngest son, especially Aphrodite, who saw her gift as all but scorned. All raged but Artemis herself, who saw the kindness and true love in the young man's selfless gift.
In the guise of a scorned rival, Aphrodite stood, ready to cast a spear through the breasts of the young lovers. It flew through the air, true to it's target, until Artemis herself intervened, and the spear cut through naught but the air over the backs of a chestnut hind and a golden stag.
For Katniss and Peeta had been transformed.
In the chaos that followed, the lovers escaped unscathed.
And they can be found, even now, deep in the forests of Arcadia, the deathless hind and stag, and the space under the trees is filled with their children. It is said that the deer in the forests there are almost impossible to fell, as they are most swift, and entirely more clever than those elsewhere.
Deep within these forests' depths, there is a grove filled with trees.
Their branches are thick with golden apples.