The youth sniffed: the stink of the beast musked the still air. He breathed deeply, trying to push his fear out of his shoulderblades, gripping the broad-bladed boar-spear tightly in his hands, the crosspiece recently repaired, the last loving gesture a father could make for his eldest child. He touched the lashings that bound the wood together and summoned his father’s image for reassurance and recrimination. Slightly heartened he tottered forward, eyes darting around rather as prey than predator, until his eyes fell upon the beast.
Peter Owenson sat at his desk in Whitehall, the latest draft of a resolution skulking in front of him. He’d used all of his wiles to persuade the appropriate people that the measure was necessary; he’d had the statisticians knock together some fake numbers that sounded sufficiently scientific. He’d bought the right journalists to address it as if it were a countryside issue that townies couldn’t understand, he’d thrown mud, figuratively speaking, at his opponents, and stood his ground against the nay-sayers and those that clawed at his back and bayed for his blood.
The youth, transfixed, could only admire the sleek grace of the beast in front of him: not quite as large as a bear, but as wily and strong; smaller than the boar that his father had bested in fireside tales, but no less ferocious when its blood was up. Brock, guardian and mother, keeper of forest wisdom, whose misfortune it was to be the youth’s trial, although at this stage, it was not clear whose misfortune was greater. There would be no easy headlong rush, the beast impaling herself on a well-set spear, this would be a battle of wits.
Peter leaned back on his chair, and rocked slightly, his legs flexing to bear the weight. It was a job well done and he should go home.
The tip of the spear juddered in the cold air, the glint of the polished edge mesmerising. With a jolt, the youth shook sense back into his head, planted his foot more firmly at the base and tried to relax the clench of his terrified fingers. The clatter of brush, the trickle of sweat, the prickle of hair, all tried to distract him, but some mutual resolution was perceived as the eyes of the unwilling opponents met.
Peter headed out of the main entrance. The media circus was there, waiting for answers. Peter only smiled at the microphone jabbed at his face.
They circled, or rather the youth was the earth and the beast the sun that orbited him. A lunge, the spear nicked the thick muscles of the shoulder, someone shouted and snarled. The orbit reversed, another lunge, the spear batted away. A leap. A roll. Breath harsh condensed. The butt flying free, bludgeoning nostrils. A spin, a twitch, the mass off-balance, plunging around the point, stuck between shoulder and neck. Clinging to life and the haft, dying unless quick, the cross-piece bearing the weight, keeping distance from the maw, claw clubbing forward, raking flesh and cracking bone. More screams, knife drawn, ducking under, first stabs grazing astray, footprints in blood, red flecks on white stripes and rolling eyes. A desperate plunge and another and another, strength fading, breath ragged, falling in each others arms as blackness obscured sight, ears straining at the last for some whisper of wisdom.
Peter dodged the first few questions, impatiently batting them away with a gesture. From the right came a question more to his liking, he locked his eyes on the inhuman lens and unleashed the full force of his cunning.
Relief flooded in with the light, the lumpen mass making a sigh impossible, but wriggling and squirming allowed the young man to emerge anew from the tussle. He followed the ritual forms of thanks and dedication with tears on his cheeks, before skinning the pelt from the creature. This would form the robe that he would wear henceforward, marking him as a man and leader of men, second only to his father within the tribe, for the time being.
Peter walked away from the interview, the power of life and death reinforced within him, he’d struggled in the mud, got his hands dirty with policies, pulled their own wool over the eyes of the sheep and he’d emerged the victor, signing away the lives of two thousand creatures. Truly he had proven himself a leader of men.