By Tevis Shkodra
The nights were bitter and cold. The boy huddled in a grotto’s darkness, only a thin cloth garb and some meager red embers of a once-crackling fire to warm his tired bones. Scavengers and predators lurked outside, creeping in the shadows, howling at the moon, drawn to his campfire’s flicking light. At night, the boy was forced to sit and shiver in darkness, dousing his flames in fear of an attack. The first raindrops fell early, pattering down on the grotto’s steps in front of him. His breath escaped his body in little white wisps of fleeting warmth. His belly grumbled, begging for a meal, clawing at his insides. It promised to be a long night, and when the rains would give way to daylight, he would be forced to hunt again.
He would hunt or he would die.
Stupid tradition, thought the boy wrapping his arms around his knees. I’m no butcher’s son, no smith’s boy. My father’s not lowborn like them. Why then does he reduce me to their barbaric traditions?
The world was brimming with talented hunters and skilled warriors, and God knows his father, the king, had coffers spilling with gold. Why then this ritual, this stupid trial of strength?
A prince should not be forced to hunt when he can pay a lowborn hunter a few silvers for a stag.
The first two nights, when the hunger seemed to rip his gut open, and the fatigue seeped into his bones, the boy blamed his father. He snuffed his campfire and muttered treasonous insults to the king’s health.
With the third night, his head pounded, his muscles weakened, his bones felt brittle, and the boy came to understand. Perhaps it had never been his father’s wish. It was the law of the land, of the gods. Even kings were powerless to gods, and gods were powerless to the small folk’s rebellious pitchforks.
The entire town knew the prince to be a poor hunter. They saw his stout, chubby frame, padded in layers of fat, his sausage fingers wrapped around his hunting spear. They saw his rosy cheeks and curly red hair, and smiled with a curt bow when he spoke of his upcoming trial.
This stupid trial is the first law I’m going to change when I become king.
The next morning when he woke, the ground was moist and tender. The dew was fresh in the air, and the boy emerged from the grotto’s mouth with a thirst. He made out to the thick jungles, nimble-footed, silent, and deadly. His spear was heavy to the touch, but its razor-sharp iron tip hungered for flesh.
“A man must provide for his family, just as a king must provide for his people,” the boy’s father had said. “To the lowborn boys it may be a game, a ritual trial of little value. But you are my son and heir, and our people will soon seek your guidance. How then will they trust you if you have never taken life, never provided for them? You’ve seen thirteen summers now, and the time has come.” His father’s tone was like ice. “So leave and return victorious or be banished from our realm forever.” The king rested his arms on his son’s meaty shoulders and whispering, “I believe in you, son. The gods walk with you.”
The prince’s farewell was met with silence, with hollow stares. The townsfolk gazed with their dead glances, judged with unsmiling faces, not once curling their lips in a smile or a cheer. The prince had not yet worn the crown and already its weight crippled him. One way or the other, the innocent boy within him would die, from starvation or from duty.
They must think me dead by now. The four days since his trial began seemed an eternity. Other boys returned within hours, overnight at most. The lackwitted and sluggish took a little longer. But they were the sons of blacksmiths and hunters, of tailors and fletchers, lowborn peasant boys with wild spirits and savage blood. Four days may as well have been forty. The prince knew nobody would care to look for him. No patrols would comb the woods. No tears would be shed.
Is Father restless at night, worrying where I am? Does he believe me dead? Has he shed tears for me, or has his disappointment not granted him the courtesy? These questions haunted the young prince’s sleepless nights in the cold, and his long days in the heat. There could be strength in love, he knew, but never love in strength.
His bony hands seemed foreign to him. His fingertips had turned wrinkled and white from the rains. Small rodents skittered by, seeking shelter from the raindrops. Birds perched themselves on treetop branches, peering down on the fat boy-hunter lurking beneath, snapping twigs with his every step.
The animals can sense me a mile away. They can smell my fear and hear my steps.
He stared at those plump birds, wanting nothing more than to hurl his spear through the air and watch his dinner plummet down before him. But that was folly. There was no honor in it, no respect for tradition. No, he was not hunting squirrels or rats, birds or even rabbits. It would be unbefitting of a king’s son. He was hunting bears, wolves, ferocious jungle beasts that could claw him dead with a single swipe. Had he returned home with anything short of a jaguar pelt around his shoulders, he would have brought shame on his family.
Would Father remove my banishment if I appear at the city gates holding a plucked goose as my prize? The thought made him smile. Perhaps, after four days he will take pity . . . But the boy knew that was folly as well. In the king’s eyes, death and starvation came second only to honor and tradition. Returning with a small bounty was as good as not returning at all.
Half the morning these fearsome thoughts clouded his muddled mind. The air was silent save for his gut’s starving groans. Then came a sharp snap from nearby. Something lurked around the corner—a snarling hungry wolf on the prowl, or perhaps a great black grizzly bear?
Probably just a squirrel, the young prince assured himself as his hands turned to ice, as his limbs tensed with fear. Armed only with his spear, he crept through the dense trees.
I am the hunter. The animals should fear me. Not the other way around.
Then he saw it.
Where the ground depressed into a shallow ravine, at the foot of a thin-flowing stream its pelt seemed to shimmer a rich, hazelnut auburn. How peaceful it looked from afar, a fragile young thing meandering mindlessly in the forest, sipping at the river, perhaps even seeking a small meal of its own. A deer was big game—much bigger than rabbits and squirrels—and peaceful as it was, the boy was famished.
He prowled forward, his eyes fixed on his unsuspecting prey, his bony knees rustling through the tall strands of grass. The deer perked up its ears at the faintest peep, and, after shooting a startled glance left and right, it went right back to sipping from the stream and nibbling at the grass.
You’re a king’s son. His father’s words echoed in his mind, their weight falling heavy on the boy’s shoulders. You’re a hunter and this is your kill. You’re a predator and this is your prey. You’re starving and this is your meal. You’re cold, and this is your warmth.
His blood boiled, his heart raced, his mouth watered and his cold hands tingled. The warrior’s spirits flowed through him as he prepared to leap for the kill. All the jungle’s sounds fell silent, save for his own thumping heartbeat. The boy in him wanted to sit and savor the moment, to approach the gentle beast, run his fingers through its lush pelt. But the other part of him knew the animal must die, if not by his hands today, by another’s tomorrow.
In time, everything beautiful met terrible ends, and there was beauty to be found in most everything terrible. The fabric of time was interwoven in such naturally occurring cycles, of life and death, love and loss, happiness and despair; cycles that had appeared long before the boy’s birth and would continue long after his death. It seemed to be a truth hard learned by boys becoming men, a bitter-tasting reality of life widely accepted.
In one fluid motion, the boy leapt up and hurled his spear forward. It whooshed through the air, slicing the gentle breeze and piercing the beast’s hind. The deer let out a loud, painful groan, followed by a powerful jerk and a whimper. It staggered a few short steps, staining the summer grass behind it with a trail of pooling blood, before finally giving a deep grunt, a soft wail, and collapsing, thudding to the ground.
I’ve killed it, thought the boy, feeling more nauseous than proud, his craven little heart sinking with fear.
He approached with slow, careful steps, noticing the fear in the animal’s wide, black eyes. Its body was still warm to the touch. Its heart still pounded softly, chest puffing up and down as it drew out slow, hot breaths. The deer jerked and moaned when the boy ran his fingers through its pelt, its eyes widening with fear.
Half of the boy rejoiced for the meal he was about to enjoy, while the other half wept for the life he was about to take. He had once thought a prince should never be privy to the world’s injustices. Yet, stroking the dying animal’s pelt, the boy realized the good and the evil would always be twined together, one white and the other black, mingling to form the endless gray expanse they inhabited.
Is this what Father means to teach me? Does he want his son a killer, to bear the burden of my actions? Is savagery necessary to manhood? If so, I’ll have no part in it.But his hunger scraped his insides. The animal was far too heavy to carry back into town. Its blood was almost black as it pooled around the boy’s knees. In one fluid motion, the boy jerked the spear from the animal’s hind and brought it down on its chest. The soft white underside of its belly stained with blood as the beast’s eyes widened.
The boy made camp at the thin stream’s basin, under an oak’s shade. He stripped from the dear what he needed, a tender cutlet to cook over the campfire, and a stained fur pelt to warm his night.
The butchers had told him when he was younger that an animal’s fear spoils its meat. It was true. The cutlets tasted of ash. The foul stench of blood and death swirled in the boy’s nostrils as he wrapped the still-hot, fleshy pelt around his shoulders. The flies and the scavengers soon gathered, attracted by death and fire, to consume the carcass the boy had left behind. The flames glistened in the deer’s hollow black eyes, which stared blankly at the young prince.
On that fourth night, he ate like a king, almost gnawing off his fingers in the meal’s frenzy. Then he slept better than he had in days, with a soft pelt around his shoulders, a bellyful of meat, and a crackling fire at his feet. Waking up the next morning, it seemed like a dream.
When the sun had risen, the dead beast still lay there mangled and skinned, an odorous stench hovering in the air. A few of the braver scavengers, vultures and rodents, pecked at the raw, fleshy bounty. Others lurked in trees and in bushes, their yellow eyes poking though the shade, waiting. The boy’s conscious began to torment him that morning, but only when his hunger was sated, after the deed was done.
His trial was over, his banishment lifted. He sought nothing more than to leave this savage jungle running, and return home a man.
It was Father’s will, and Father’s will is law. Do all boys feel this way their first time—strange and tingling all over, ashamed and dirty, but also oddly satisfied?
Specks of deer’s blood had dried black on his shoulders and face, forming a thin mud-like layer of filth. His white garb was smudged with streaks of crimson. The animal’s pelt itched the boy’s neck, resting askew and uncomfortable on his shoulders. But he wore it proudly upon his return home, perking his meaty shoulders up to keep the thick pelt from slipping off.
What will the townsfolk think—to see their prince returning spear in hand, bloodstained, and wearing the skin of his prey? Will they greet me a warrior, or some lowborn brute? Will they smile and clap or will they shy away, repulsed? Will they see me still the same frightened boy, or a man worthy of their respect?
The questions kept his mind racing.
Approaching familiar lands, his chest tightened from an anxious fear, his insides churned, his hands became clammy with sweat, and his jaw clenched.
Thin fingers of black smoke rose in the distance, above the tree line and over the small ridges of land.
There it is. There’s home.
The delicious and familiar smells seemed to already waft to his nose. Perhaps the king would throw a banquet feast to celebrate his son’s triumphant return, perhaps a celebration for the small folk.
With the ridge behind him, and the town approaching, the boy caught a glimpse of the road ahead, lonely and abandoned.
Where’s the town guard? Where are the villagers plowing the fields?
The thin fingers of black smoke, he soon after realized, rose from burning homes, laid to siege from tall red flames. His heart sank at the sight. The town’s stonewalls had crumbled to ruin, the homes they had once protected were plundered and scorched to the ground, the citizens slaughtered by the hundreds. The survivors, few as they were, must have sought shelter into the woods, or perhaps were made prisoners.
Dead bodies surrounded the young prince as he walked down familiar neighborhood paths. Strangers’ hollow faces frozen in the terror of the moment, their cheeks sunken, and their eyes red and tearstained with grief. The faces of his friends and neighbors looked up at him with their haunting dead eyes. Only the vultures rejoiced, feeding aplenty on the mounds of human fodder. Flies buzzed about, and with them, the stench of death.
Only a few survivors remained in the black rubble, none caring to see the prince’s return. They did not so much as glance in his direction. Once, perhaps, there may have been kings and princes ruling over their domain, but when the city had fallen so had their loyalties and homes. The handful yet living were frail and skinny, waifs with bare goose fleshed legs, blackened from the charred remains of their homes, donned in nothing but torn rags, wandering aimlessly, scavenging alongside the vultures.
The young prince stood over the rubble that was once his kingdom, and wept. He wept for his father, for the man’s legacy, for his friends and kin, for his home, for his past and future. He wept for his trial, his banishment, for having been forsaken to a hunter’s life, a bandit’s life, a savage life in the company of beasts. He wept for his childhood buried under the rubble of those buildings, and for the countless perils life would soon spring upon him.
About the Author
Tevis Shkodra is a recent university graduate and short story writer living in Toronto, Ontario. He always seems to have one-too-many projects on his plate, whether that is an edgy new short story, or an idea-turned-novel in the works. When he’s not writing, he’s carving out time for painting or curling up in bed with the classics.