I raced ahead of the others on horseback. In comparison to me, they were all too slow. I was the fastest rider in the land. I just saw the white tail of a full-grown deer, so I whipped my horse for speed. As my stallion gained on the doe, I reached at the bow carrier that was strapped to my back. Suddenly, my brother appeared beside me. His younger horse was the spawn of mine, so it had inherited my stallion’s skills. Yet my brother, Ulrich, wasn’t as equal to me. Even though he was older and stronger, I was quicker and more graceful. We were always competing with one another. Together, we made our father proud. But I wouldn’t share my glory with him today. This deer was my prize to take back to the village.
I kicked my horse and grinned to myself as we flew through the forest, leaving my brother in the dust. We jumped over logs and around the many trees on my loyal steed. My horse, Jack, and I made a great team. I told him what to do and he obliged.
Finally after some chase, I got the doe cornered against a cliff wall. She had no where to go. She looked so scared, but I did not care. I loved the hunt too much, especially the race. Whoever lasted the longest won. There were no second chances in nature. In this world you must fight to survive. Killing the deer wasn’t anything personal. It was just necessary. I couldn’t reassure the doe that dying wouldn’t hurt, for having never experienced it myself, that could have been a lie. I was not supposed to lie. If I had and it was found out, I would be severally punished. So I simply took my arrow, aimed, and shot the doe straight through the skull. If I weren’t so excited, I would have looked around before I got off my horse to retrieve my kill. But instead, all I was concerned about was another triumph over my brother. In this particular case, my rashness meant big trouble.
As I crouched down to pick up the carcass, I noticed a gigantic shadow loom over me. I was too slow to realize Jack seemed agitated. I was too preoccupied to comprehend what the growl from behind me meant. In the second I understood, but by then it was already too late.
The large paw came toward me with such velocity, it was just a blur. I had heard how people claim their life flashes before their eyes during a near death experience, but not I. I felt a shiver of fear followed by a shock of adrenaline. Then I was face first in the dirt, with extreme pain flaring up my right cheek.
I heard some commotion behind me. Perhaps Jack was putting up a fight before the beast could finish me off, I thought. At the time, I honestly didn’t care. I would be dead soon enough anyway. All I could feel was pain. But suddenly arms curled around me and lifted me up. I felt this, then drifted slowly into the darkness of the oblivion.
When my mind finally regained consciousness, I found myself in a darkened room. There was moisture on my forehead, coming from a cool cloth soaked with water. I took it off and sat up from my blankets to see if anyone was around, but I only learned that I had a terrible headache. Trying to keeping my body still to fight the nausea, my eyes searched the room.
I was in a wooden hut. The only things in the large room were many beds and blankets, including those that I had been laid on. There was also a wooden chair in the corner and at small table with several bottles full of what seemed similar to spices. I recognized my surroundings immediately. I was in the chirurgeon’s home. He lived here and worked as our doctor. In my life, I had been here many times for every sickness and injury of my childhood. Leofrick was his name, yet the village people simply referred to him as Chirurgeon. He was the only surgeon in our kingdom, so he was also in charge of many other medical procedures, when needed. Though we lived outdoors, our people were rarely ill. Our water was fresh and clear, as our food was filling and plentiful. We had grown attuned to our living habits and our bodies did not often complain.
I stood up. My head spun and my vision blurred. I held back my bile as I struggled to regain my balance. When I finally did there was still a sharp pounding in my skull. I ignored it and walked out my door. I did not know why I was in Chirurgeon’s, but it meant I had been hurt. The last thing I remember was getting ready for a hunt. I hoped I hadn’t missed it. I didn’t feel like anything was broken. Other than my brain, I felt fine. I couldn’t be absent at the hunt. I wouldn’t let my brother beat me at my own game. I would not allow myself to fail to do the only thing I truly took pleasure in, as well being extremely superior at it, so I would not show pain and risk my chance.
The sun pierced my eyes as I left the safety of the big hut. Our village was a large cluster of similar huts and wood cabins that surround a bonfire. I meandered around the buildings trying to find the hunting party. I didn’t need to wander very far before my father spotted me.
My father was not a man one would ever like to cross, even if he was in the best of moods. King Harold looked like the rest of his people: tan skin, dark eyes, and a large build. He had thick, long, curly, dark hair. I inherited his features.
No one knew how our community came to originate, but legend said that mythical creatures had transformed into people, evolving into who we were today. The story continued, saying that we were born from the dragon, which stood for strength, speed, boldness, fearlessness, honesty, leadership, courage, and honor.
Another society lived just west of us on the other side of a canyon. Folklore told of a people that came from the unicorn, which represented beauty, gracefulness, gentleness, tranquility, cooperation, patience, and obedience. In my kingdom, we preferred to say their qualities were pettiness, uselessness, selfishness, and insensibility. Their kingdom said we were dirty, uncivilized, violent, and impulsive. Our civilizations never interacted with each other if we could help it. We had too much bad blood running between us. Hence named, the Blood River laid in the middle of the two lands. It was a line that our treaty refused to let anyone cross. If nyone dared to, war would engulf both nations.
This treaty had been in effect for the last hundred and fifty-two years. For one hundred and fifty-two years, we had not once met, nor even seen, anyone from the West Clan. For one hundred and fifty-two years, they had not once met, nor even seen, anyone from the East Tribe.
If we ever needed to send messages over the river, we sent out a messenger hawk. They did their job well, flying to and from the kingdoms. Our hawks had red ribbons tied to their messages; the West Clan used blue ones. It wasn’t the most reliable system, but it was all we were willing to do.
Once my father spotted me, he came over. His face looked concerned, which was a rare sight to see. King Harold was very negligent of other people’s feelings. Perhaps that was why he was such a great ruler. Instead of becoming empathetic to a villager’s thoughts, he simply thought of the kingdom as a whole. Now, when I saw his forehead crease with worry, a shiver coursed through my body. Very few things bothered my father: only deaths, plagues, and wars. Never have I seen my father even show concern for anything less.
When Father reached about a foot from me, he stopped and stared at me with such intensity that I had to look away after a second. He made me feel like I was under examination and he was judging every pore. Only he could make me feel so vulnerable.
Then, my father did something so unexpected; I was so surprised that I didn’t fully understand what happened until afterward. My father walked forward and wrapped his arms over my shoulders and around my back. It was such an odd embrace that I had no idea how to respond. After a moment, he let me go and stepped back to his former position a foot back.
He spoke, “Chirurgeon said ye was badly injured. He said ye mightn’t have survived.” His voice turned uncharacteristically tender, “I didn’t know what I would do if I lost ye. Especially after Maerwynn.” He abruptly stopped. I could feel my mouth gapped open and shut it quickly. That was the first time I heard anyone mention my mother’s name since her death three years ago.
I was still in shock from my father’s queer behavior when Bishop Rupert appeared over his shoulder.
“It was a close call, it was. If your brother hadn’t been there to fight off the beast, you would have perished. The great bear fears no man. Even the Lord himself would have trouble fighting him off, He would.”
Slowly, what had occurred began dawning on me. I remembered the hunt, the chase, and the shadow. My hand reached up to my right cheek, and I felt the gashes that were already stitched back together. The thin line ran from my jaw to my scalp. My palm traced the bumps and bruises across my face. My body sagged and I felt an overwhelming exhaustion. My bones were brittle and my muscles raw. My heart turned cold.
“Mightn’t have survived.”
Bishop Rupert steadied me with his arm. I could see myself pale in the reflections of my father’s eyes.
“Would have perished.”
Never had I been so vulnerable, so fragile. The fact that my brother had saved me from a mess I unintentionally walked into. Worse than the physical pain, I felt embarrassed. I knew my brother would not let me forget this the rest of my days. Ulrich would forever hold this over me. I would never hear the end of his bragging.