The Greatest Blessing
Leguna looked at the boy. Young as he was, he was bold. Even after being surrounded by two wolves, he didn't show any fear or ask anyone for help.
It wasn't that he believed he could actually defeat his opponents. He just knew he could only rely on himself. He was far smaller than most barbarians, but it afforded him greater speed and agility.
The barbarian boy swung his scimitar as he ducked under one of the wolves. He already knew it was the beast's weak spot.
The blade pierced through the belly and he felt the squelch as it sunk into its stomach.
Thanks ma! You did great sharpening the blade! I'm not so bad myself!
The wolf showed little reaction to its new wound. The kid rolled away as quickly as he'd ducked in, pulling the blade with him to do as much damage on the way out as possible. The wolf did not stand for it, however, and sunk its teeth into the kid's shoulder.
The other aimed a bite for the throat, but changed direction halfway when it noticed the kid's blade in the way, but still sunk its teeth into the kid's other shoulder. It yanked back and ripped flesh and bone alike with it.
The kid's voice echoed in the wolves' ears and he slammed his tiny fist into the second wolf's stomach, driving it back. He'd lost more than half his left shoulder in the exchange, however, immobilising his left arm -- without quick treatment, he would lose all use of it -- and the other wolf still had its teeth in his right shoulder.
"He's about to die," Leguna said to no one in particular, and took out several shadow blades.
Leg's hand clasped his wrist just as he was about to take action, however.
"I said, not yet," Legg repeated, his eyes motioning towards the boy.
"Damnit, Legg! He's about to die!"
"Every barbarian must pass through the gates of death and come back. If they can't do that reliably, they will never survive. If he can't do this, then you saving him will only delay his death for a while and there was no point. If he can, then there's no need for you to save him in the first place."
Leguna stared at the barbarian's malaligned eyeballs, and saw absolute serenity in them.
"It's an insult to prevent a barbarian from going through his trial."
Leguna glared at him, but sighed in the end, his muscles losing their strength.
"He's your tribesman, so I suppose you have the final say where his life is concerned. I thought of saving him on a whim only, anyway."
"Thank you," Legg smiled.
Leguna's eyes rolled involuntarily, then he focused on the boy. If he could not save him, he could at least bear witness to his success, or death.
The boy was oblivious to the considerations of the adults and semi-adults around him. His sole focus was the two beasts threatening to end him. Both sides had been hurt and were standing off at a safe distance while they planned their next moves.
Even blind, deaf, mute could tell the boy was the worse for wear. His left hand was of no use to him anymore, a hindrance more than anything, and, while his right arm had been spared, it was much weaker than it had been. And without both hands, wielding his inordinately sized weapon would prove very difficult. If nothing incredible happened, the kid was going to die with the next exchange.
He breathed heavily, fighting back the pain that clawed at his mind and caused his vision to tear at the edges.
His last two years flashed by him in this moment, taking both an eternity and no time at all to pass. He was the only son. His father had died several years earlier and his mother was his only family. The two were like root and stem. His life was hard, harder than most barbarian children had it. The man in the house earned his family's right to stay with it through his labour. Without a man, they were dead weight to the tribe. Custom dictated the widow had to find another man to earn her keep, or she had to leave the tribe. King's tribesman or not, without a man, she, and her son, would be kicked out.
Those without something to contribute had no right to live.
If he wanted to stay with the tribe, then, he had to earn his mother's keep. So he joined the hunting party to ears earlier than was tradition. Two years younger or not, he received no special treatment. It was hell, but he learned quickly.
He'd pushed himself to his limit every time they went out to hunt, and his efforts had pushed him into the 4th stratum, two strata above the other kids in his tribe. He'd also grown to be a whole hid taller than his peers. He was far from the strongest among him, his experience and agility had earned him their respect. He'd remembered the words his mother had told him when she'd praised him for the first time.
"Don't cry, child," she'd told him when his eyes had started to redden, stroking his head as lovingly as only a mother could, "You know what the second greatest blessing is a woman can have?"
"No." he'd said, drying his eyes.
"To find a man that can make her proud. And do you know what's the greatest blessing a woman can have?"
"That's--" She wiped his tears with her sleeve. "--to have a son that can make her proud."
He had yet to forget the smile she had that day, and he doubted he ever would, even in death. That smile, that burning sun in his mother's face, that blinding light that streamed at him out of her eyes, that pushed him ever day, pushed him to work even harder than the day before, harder than the moment before. He'd driven himself to the point of collapse every day since then, and beyond it more times than his mother would have liked.
He had to protect his son, no matter what. He had to make her proud. She deserved no less than to be the most blessed woman in the world. He, Ja'il, would make her proud even if it was only in how he went to his grave!
It hadn't taken him long to do it, either. Just a year after he'd started going on the hunting expeditions, he'd become one of less than a handful of under 13-year-olds to be named full hunters. He'd finally earned the right to earn his mother's keep.
He always searched for his mother when he got back from his hunts. She was always in the very front of the crowd that always gathered to welcome the hunters back. Every time, without fail, she'd always call out to him, stab whoever was unlucky enough to be standing next to her at the time, and yell in their ear, "That's my Ja'il! Oh, he's just twelve and he's already such a reliable man!"
He lived for those moments.
Now, as he stared at the wolves who wanted to stop him from going home this time, he knew he could not let them win. He had to go home. Because if he didn't, he wouldn't just not get to see his mother's smile ever again, she herself would never smile again.
"Aaaagh!" Ja'il bellowed again.
Leguna watched as the boy's skin turned red.
"He's going berserk?!" Leguna half-shouted.
He remembered one notebook mentioned this. It was a state barbarians could enter in dire situations where they'd lose all sense of pain and most of their rationality as well. They became little more than the wolves the group was fighting right now.
"So he managed to go berserk at just twelve? He'll be quite the warrior if he makes it out of this alive," Legg said, as detached and serene as ever.
"Can I help him now?"
"No, his trial only ends when either he is dead, or the wolves are. The ancestors have forbidden anyone from interfering in the trial."
"It's just a hunt, you know…" Leguna frowned, on the edge of taking action anyway.
The boy leapt at the wolves with complete abandoned. His scimitar glinted in the sky and cleft the air on its way to the injured wolves stomach. It slid out of the way, losing several hundred mor hairs. It's one foot sank into the snow a little too far from the sudden kick, and the kid struck again.
This time he didn't miss. He grabbed the wolf's tail and yanked it closer, so hard the tail nearly came on its own. The wolf was not inexperienced itself, however. It spun around using that same yank's momentum and brought its teeth to bear at the boy again. The boy met his challenge, grabbing his jaws with bare hands.
The boy groaned, and the wolf's jaw cracked, beginning to separate from the rest of its head.
"Watch out!" Leguna shouted, unable to contain himself.
The shout was in a almost no barbarian but Legg could understand, but it worked. The boy finally noticed the second wolf already halfway through its leap towards him. One hand let go of the already destroyed jaw of the first wolf and stabbed his scimitar into the second's mouth.
"Beautiful!" Leguna cried, revealing more excitement than was polite.
Both wolves stopped moving moments later, and the red in the boy's skin faded.
He stared at the carcasses for a moment, then bellowed a victorious cry. His cry was cut halfway through, however, as a white flash ripped out his throat, and his cry turned into a crimson gurgle.
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