Published: Aphotic Realm (Nov. 2017)
Full text (updated for tevisshkodra.com):
The Trials of Man
By: Tevis Shkodra
The nights were bitter and cold. The boy huddled in a grotto’s darkness, only a thin cloth garb and some meagre red embers of a once-crackling fire to warm his tired bones. Scavengers and predators lurked in the shadows of the forest, howling to the moon, drawn to his campfire’s flickering light. By night, the boy was sat in darkness and shivered in the cold, dousing his flames in fear of an attack. The first raindrops fell early, pattering down on the foot of the grotto’s steps. His breaths 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 night gave 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 ways?
The world was brimming with talented hunters and skilled warriors, and God knew his father — the king —had coffers overflowing with gold. Why then this ritual, this stupid trial of strength?
A prince should not be forced to hunt when he can pay a few silvers for a stag.
The first two nights, when the hunger tore through him, when the fatigue seeped into his bones, he blamed his father. He snuffed his campfire and muttered treason against the king. After the third night, when his muscles weakened, when his body felt on the brink of shattering, his anger cooled to hatred, then to understanding. Perhaps this trial had never been his father’s wish. The Trial was the law of the land, the way of the gods — gods that rendered kings powerless, gods that were defeated only by the pitchfork-carrying small folk that worshipped them.
They all knew he was a poor hunter. All princes were. They saw his stout, chubby frame, padded with layers of fat, and grinned with a curt bow. At the sight of his curly red hair, his freckles, his fat sausage-fingers wrapped around the hunting spear, even the farmers struggled to suppress their laughter.
This stupid trial is the first law I’m going to change when I become king.
. . . If I become king.
“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 this may be a game, a ritual of little value. But you are my son and my 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 ice. “So leave and return victorious or be banished 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 all think me dead by now.
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.
The four days since his trial began seemed an eternity. Other boys returned within hours, overnight at the longest. The sluggish took a little longer, two days, three at the most. 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. Nobody would care look for him. No patrols would be mobilized. No tears would be shed. Love, like respect, was an emotion his father reserved for the strong.
The boy’s hands —chubby as the were—seemed bony. His fingertips wrinkled and white from the rain. Rodents skittered around him, birds perched on treetops, peering down on the boy-hunter passing, twigs snapping at his every step.
The animals can sense me a mile away. This is pointless.
The boy stared at the plump birds in anger. He wanted to hurl a spear in the air and watch his dinner plummet to his feet. If there was honour in that, his trial might have been successful, but he was not hunting birds and rabbits. Not a king’s son. He was hunting bears, wolves, jungle beasts that could claw him dead with a single blow. Had he returned with anything short of a jaguar pelt around his shoulders would have brought shame on his people. On his father.
Perhaps Father will take pity . . . after four days.
The air around the boy was silent. Too silent. Then it came—the sharp snap from nearby.
Probably just a squirrel, the young prince assured himself as his hands turned to ice, as his limbs tensed with fear. Spear in hand, he crept through the foliage.
I am the hunter, he assured himself. 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 savour 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 interwoven in 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 pool 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 lingered, 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. And 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.
Only then, when the sun had risen did he feel guilty, when 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. Only when his hunger was sated, when 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 it 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 rise 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 neighbourhood 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 neighbours 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 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 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 his 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.