The night of his sixteenth birthday, Mani Remus found himself crawling through the underbrush of Reliqua’s northern forest. His chest pressed into the mud, staining the front of his white tunic, and he shivered each time the intermittent breeze stirred the foliage that concealed him. At his side, a squat man in well-worn pelts offered silent encouragement, gesturing ahead as if to indicate that they were nearing their objective.
Mani parted the lower branches of a dense fir tree. There, rutting in a shallow depression at the bottom of a rocky gully, a large boar belched and sniffed, nosing at small piles of barley scattered on either side of his tusked snout. At first, the beast seemed pacified by an easy dinner, but as Mani drew up his ceremonial spear, he noted the large silver ring linking the boar’s nostrils and heard the faint, but recognizable chiming of a chain that coincided with movements of its broad head.
“Excellent work, Highness,” the king’s huntsman smiled as he spoke. “Do it now. Before he knows we’re here.”
Mani raised an eyebrow at his companion, who nodded insistently in the direction of the boar. Mani rolled his green eyes, crawled out from under his cover, and drew himself up to full height. He gripped his spear and slid down the side of the gully and into the depression where the boar was grunting and chomping.
The boar stopped nuzzling the ground and seemed to offer up a smile of welcome as Mani circled him; more out of formality than caution. When the beast bowed his head and continued eating. Mani stepped nearer—his spear in his right hand—and extended the flat of his left palm toward the boar’s flank. Coolly, he stroked the dark wiry coat.
When the boar failed to respond to his touch, Mani knew that this beast had been raised for this, the dowry hunt. This is when a crown prince of Reliqua demonstrates bravery and skill by stalking and dispatching formidable prey to impress his betrothed. By presenting the kill to his bride, or in this case the bride’s representative, the noble groom offers concrete proof that his house will never go hungry, that he has strength enough to protect his bride, and courage to never shy from a challenge. Perhaps this was always how it had been done and the hunt had always involved more theatrics than skill. Or perhaps just this way because he was the last remaining heir to the house of Remus; the titles, the land, the throne of Reliqua.
“How pathetic do they think I am?” Mani whispered as his shoulders slumped.
He looked back toward the fir tree, where his guide, the embarrassed huntsman, peered out from under the lowest branch, his face buried in his right palm. The man waved in a gesture that seemed to say “just get it over with.”
This boar was not prey, but a sacrifice to be offered up to protect the skin of a weak and useless prince. The hair bristled between his fingers and Mani wondered how young this creature was when it had been taken from its mother. How many people had stroked him over the months or years, as he did now, to acclimate him to touch so completely as to eliminate any danger to him, guaranteeing a successful hunt?
In that moment, Mani paused to consider his bride—the imperial princess from the Tepsian Isles—and came again to realize that there was more riding on a successful dowry hunt than his honor. For King Ulrich, this marriage was the best way of gaining territory. For Emperor Tyce, this marriage was the best way to preserve his position while defusing a 300 year-long war that had bred discontent amongst the minor nobles and magistrates of his court, threatening to fracture his fragile empire.
Mani combed his fingers through the boar’s wiry coat, thinking. He was the crown prince, of course. He had options. He could walk away from this kill and return to the keep empty handed and risk angering two of the most powerful sovereigns in the region. He could embark on a true hunt. He was confident enough in his skills, but this could take days,even weeks, and they had neither the provisions nor the time.
With that final realization, Mani knew what needed to be done. King Ulrich and Emperor Tyce may have the stomach to play games with the lives of their people, but he hadn’t the will for it.
“I’m sorry,” Mani said to the boar, still chomping contently at the piles of grain. “I wish this could be different. But on my honor, after this moment, I shall only ever be a defender of the defenseless. Upon your blood, I swear it.”
Mani offered a final pat of consolation, then he gripped the shaft of his spear with both hands and knelt beside the boar. With a single upward thrust, he plunged the spear through the lung and heart of the beast, offering up a clean kill.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Atticus Benight is a self-described "undercover writer of words." His short prose has most recently been featured in BioStories, Foliate Oak, The MacGuffin, and Sediments Literary-Arts Journal. A native of western Pennsylvania, he currently resides near St. Paul, Minnesota, where he teaches writing under an assumed identity. For more information, visit https://atticusbenight.com/.