Saer stumbled through the undergrowth, tripping on hidden roots, crunching through the dense leaf litter, snapping every fallen twig in his way. The forest around him was silent and watchful as he pushed through the trees.
He followed his teacher down the path. It was little more than a game trail, a rut of dirt that wound through the trees and ran to the northwest until it reached the river. The teacher said nothing, but let out a soft sigh or gave Saer a sharp look at every crashing footfall.
“Forgive me, Ili,” he said, cringing as the crack of another broken branch echoed through the forest.
The old man stopped in the middle of the trail and pulled himself up to full height. His bow rested naturally at his side, cradled in the curve of his hand. He looked Saer up and down, then spit into the dirt at his feet.
“Now that you have scared all the game away for leagues around, I suppose we should return to the school. What lessons I could teach you have run away to hide in their burrows.” He didn’t attempt to hide his disapproval.
Saer hung his head and gripped his bow in a white-knuckled fist, letting his nails dig into his palms, hoping the pain would stop the tears from flooding his eyes. The old man cleared his throat with a judgmental harumph and pushed past Saer to make his way back to the village. Saer waited until he could no longer hear the Ili’s steps, and let the tears fall down his cheeks. He clenched his jaw against the sobs that threatened to escape.
He became aware of another presence at the same time he noticed the calm quiet return to the forest. Away over head the birds sang and the squirrels chattered.
The silent presence, shrouded in the shadow of the trees, moved closer to the boy.
Saer looked up as it drew near him. His face was blotchy red and streaked with tears, but he was not afraid. The young-looking god stepped onto the trail. The dappled sunlight lit his face, and his skin glowed with ethereal radiance.
“Thaos,” the boy said, his voice catching in his throat. The god opened his arms, and the boy fell into his embrace.
“My boy.” Thaos folded Saer against him, letting him sob into his chest as he stroked his hair. A hush fell around them, as if the animals understood the boy’s anguish. Thaos stood silently comforting him until he felt Saer grow still, his sobs calmed and tears shed.
“The Ili is a skilled huntsman, yet you resist the lessons he has been entrusted to teach you.”
Saer swiped the sleeve of his tunic across his eyes and sniffed.
“You do not want to learn from the Ili.” Saer shook his head no.
“Talk to me, child. Do you take issue with the man, or the lesson?”
“I don’t want to hunt, Thaos. I don’t want to kill. Why is my life more important than the deer or the hare? Why should they have to die so that I can live? Do I deserve life more than they do?” He did not step out of Thaos’s embrace, but looked up at him so adamantly, so passionately, as the words tumbling out of him. Thaos was careful to keep his expression neutral.
“What would you eat instead?”
Saer blew a frustrated sigh and leaned his head on Thaos’s chest. “I don’t know,” came the muffled answer.
Thaos brushed a kiss on the top of the boy’s head. “My dear child. I suspect this has more to do with the war, and less to do with stalking deer or hare. Am I correct?”
Saer did not answer for several minutes, then gave a small nod. Thaos tightened his arms around him and let a single tear slide down his cheek.
“There have always been wars between men. They have always been senseless. Ruthless men greedy for more land, more possessions, more power. Powerless men fighting against tyrants for what little they have, if only their thoughts and ideals.” He gripped the boys arms gently and crouched before him. “If we refuse to fight, the king and those that follow him will destroy the realm. He will burn the villages and the fields and the forest. He will kill every man, woman, and child that opposes him. It is not fair, my child, but you are the only one who can stand against him.”
“Is there no other way, Thaos? Is there any way to avoid this war?”
“I am doing what I can, young one. I continue to look for something, anything that will keep you from the killing fields. Until I find the solution that will keep you safe and sound in your bed, you must prepare. You must be ready. I know you are afraid–”
“I’m not afraid of dying, Thaos. I’m afraid of losing. I’m afraid of failing.”
Thaos didn’t attempt to stop the tears that flooded his eyes. He looked on the boy who had not yet seen his twelfth summer yet carried the responsibility of the entire realm on his shoulders. His heart filled with mournful pride.
“I will do everything in my power to see that does not happen.”
Saer nodded slowly, seeing the honesty and concern in his eyes.
“Come, we must get you back to the school. Cook will not abide it if you are late to supper again.” Thaos stood and held out his hand for Saer to hold. The boy gripped it tightly and together they made their way back to the village.