The Hunter’s Spring
by Sydney Sackett
In my awareness, old, wealthy fathers never easily relinquish their power toward the end of their lives. They’re prone to setting challenges for the heirs. As the runtish third son, I had prepared fervently for this. In case of a flattery demand, I’d memorized five pages of filial doggerel and could wax on it until he stopped me. I was half-convinced it would be a scavenger hunt, ‘whosoever first finds my scarlet arrow in yon grim wood,’ and knew neither of my brothers had already mapped that wood by grid, marking undergrowth trails to avoid time-consuming blundering.
It was a purely physical trial that worried me. I cursed my too-early birth. Against frail limbs and constitution, how much could study compensate?
Father’s fateful birthday came during the brutal midwinter, and nerves churned in my stomach, not helped by the greasy boar flank. I picked at my greens and waited for the revelry’s din to subside.
“A toast to Father’s eightieth year!” shouted Alfred, my eldest brother, hardly straining to heft the huge keg of mead aloft.
“And many years to come!” Raleigh, my second brother, deftly vaulted the table to skewer the keg with his shortsword. Men crowded to catch the foaming drink in their goblets.
“To his health,” I sighed, righting myself on my crutch. “Which he would maintain longer on more water than alcohol.”
Oh, how they laughed.
Father merrily slammed me on the shoulder, buckling my knees as he rose. “My sons, always keeping my watch! And long have I waited to reward them justly. After one last indulgence of mine.” His eyes twinkled in the firelight. “Remember, you three: only to the worthiest offspring will I bestow my clan.”
Of course the trial was a hunt. The howling dead of winter, and my brothers and I were sent on the trail of a vicious winged griffin. The first step from the longhouse struck me like a frigid maul despite my furs, while Alfred and Raleigh strode unbothered, taunting me with their calls to follow before they faded from sight. No matter. I knew what I was looking for. My problem would be the kill, but what other choice did I have?
Within minutes, my limping faltered. Employing my weapon against the griffin seemed improbable when I lacked the energy to wipe my eyes of frost. Then, sight blurred, I stumbled and trapped my foot in a foxhole. No amount of shivering struggle dislodged the ice. Was this already the end of my trial? Of me?
Yet it was worse. The footfalls of my brothers intruded, making them witness to this indignity.
“There you are!” Alfred yanked me free with one hand. “Spirits, Thorne, why didn’t you just follow? Are you injured?”
“Leave me!” I shrieked, hating how the tears cracked my voice. “Am I so pitiful Father must send you to mind me on my own quest?”
“Father didn’t send us,” said Raleigh, briskly shaking the snow from my hood. “We knew you’d be too stubborn to turn back even if your fingers dropped off. And what sort of idea is that, your own quest?”
I truly hadn’t felt my fingers for some time, but my weariness cut more bitterly than any wind. “I suppose you think I shouldn’t have bothered. That I’d just as well give up my only chance at inheritance.”
“No, how could you know what it’s like? You’ve always been competent. Worthy. Even if you lost the trial, your skills wouldn’t be doubted. I have no other chance to prove myself. And you still mean to c-coddle me as an invalid? C-c-can I never be respected by my house?”
It was the deepest I’d ever bared my heart to them, undercut by my chattering teeth. My brothers traded a consternated look.
“If you think that’s what we’re after, you offer us even greater disrespect.” Raleigh crossed his arms. “We looked for you because we’re lost.”
Alfred coughed. “Had to backtrack twice.”
“Did you think Father meant to divide us? Of course you can’t take the beast on your own. None of us could. Does a hunting party lose its glory by forming together? Maybe you can’t fight like us, but I’ve seen the kinds of maps and plans you make. I barely understand a page. Father won’t stop bragging about that machine-bow of yours.”
I struggled to regather my wits and my dampened rage. Did my family actually speak of me with pride? Desire my help? “But the c-clan is only for his worthiest son. You heard him.”
Raleigh grinned. “You should listen better, brother. He said offspring.”
“That’s any number,” Alfred said, and hoisted me up to ride his shoulders as we did when we were young, easing my legs. The tears felt hot this time, thawing something shriveled and wintry inside me. “So how do we track this bloody griffin?”
“Track it?” Rubbing my flowing nose, I pointed to the highest copse of trees beyond us. Their tangled crowns were the only ones still black and free of ice. “I already know where it is. It cleared itself a nest.”
“Well, fuck me,” Raleigh said, and both roared with laughter. I flinched to the sound at first, knowing I was its usual target, but the manner seemed different here. As though I were a part of it—invited to join in. Alfred squeezed my unhurt ankle. Raleigh’s reddened face shone. “That saves no end of trouble. You wouldn’t have an idea how to scare it out of there too, would you?”
The corners of my mouth twitched reluctantly. I unhooked the arm-length device from beneath my cloak, its metal-strapped wood providing an unmatched tension. “If we trust Father is right about my machine-bow.”
“Better watch out, Raleigh,” said Alfred off our brother’s open mouth. “Father’s expecting co-chieftains, and we’ve still got to come into this trial somewhere.”
Co-chieftains. A hunting party together. It was starting to grow on me.
About the Author:
Sydney Sackett (she/her) is a queer speculative fiction author and poet pursuing her English major in Frostburg State University, Maryland. Some of her work appears in Short Circuit, Menacing Hedge, Blue Marble Review, MONO., and Not One of Us. She prefers rabbits to cats or dogs, and boba tea over coffee. The writer can be tracked down to https://sydneybsackett.wixsite.com/website, where she’s hoping to nab someone’s story for editing.