25 years ago
My father led the way through the thickness of the trees towards the darkest parts of the forest. Dense shrubbery at my feet made it hard to keep up with him and his guard, but I kept my pace slow so my younger brother, Zasrus, could keep up.
Hunting with my father always meant that both I and my brother would end up with countless Nak bites all over our body, but it was worth it, to spend uninterrupted time together.
As the King of the Five Kingdoms, our father seldom had the time to spend with us, but as part of our training, we had to learn to stalk and kill.
The creature we hunted, an El’dar buck, had run off into the forbidden and dangerous part of the sprawling forest hundreds of miles from home.
“Father,” I called in a loud whisper as he fell out of sight ahead of us.
I felt my brother’s hand grab me on the belt and I stopped to reassure him. “It’s alright, Zasrus. Father will not leave us. I will keep you safe.”
He gave me an uncertain smile and I turned back to where I saw my father last. A rustle in the trees ahead of us made Zasrus jump and I felt it echo through his hand on the back of my belt.
As we stood still, watching the trees, I caught sight of the buck darting past us. It disappeared deeper into the shade of the twisting branches.
Hearing our father call out to us, I pulled my brother along towards the sound of his voice. As we cleared a dense grouping of bushes, the Nak’s fluttering around us and their bites already itching, I saw him ready his weapon as he crouched down.
I went to him. “May I father? Please?” I asked, holding my hand out for the weapon. He looked at me with a smile and nodded.
As he handed me the long energy pulse weapon, I dropped to my knee next to him and took aim.
The buck stood under a tree, its hind end towards us, peacefully eating the blue half moon shaped berries on the bush at its feet.
“Take your time, Raylon,” my father whispered, “Make sure you have your aim. Fire only when you are sure you will kill it. There is no need for the animal to suffer.”
I nodded and as I took my aim again, I noticed Zasrus next to me. He stood with his eyes glued on me. As a child several years younger than me, he was not strong enough to hold the weapon, but he needed to learn all the same.
I took my aim, calmed my breathing, and when I was sure I had a clear shot at the animal’s heart, I fired.
The buck fell to the ground with a loud whimpering sound as my father gave me a pat on the back, “Well done, boy.”
Zasrus shouted from next to us, “I will go get it,” and ran forward towards the animal.
The howl of a Hinrax beast screaming from the trees above us hurt my ears as it echoed.
I looked up at my father and at his panicked eyes, I tried to reload the weapon.
“It’s no good, Raylon. That will not get through its thick skin. Zasrus run!”
“What is it?” I asked as I turned back to see my brother standing motionless and petrified next to my kill.
“Your brother has gone into its nest. It will kill him.”
I couldn’t leave my only brother, and the prince, to die out here. Before my father could react, I dropped the weapon and ran forward. As I got close, I saw the scaled and moss-covered beast leap off the tree behind me and block the path to my brother.
I skidded to a stop as the creatures long lizard-like tail swung from side to side. Its nose letting off a hissing sound and its tongue flicking out only a short distance from my face.
If this beast is to have its kill today, it will not be my brother or my father!
I stood my ground, my eyes locked onto the beast’s, my back straight, and my hands rolled into fists. Zasrus took the moment to run around the trees and bushes to get back to my father.
“Raylon, do not move! I am coming, my boy!” My father said but I stuck my hand up to him, “No father. It will kill you as well. It is best it kills only one of us here today.”
“Don’t be a fool, Raylon. I will distract it. You and Zasrus run!”
I tore my eyes off the beast’s bright yellow ones for only a moment and as I did, the thing lunged forward, its long claws extended. I jerked back but my attempts were in vain.
I felt the searing pain of the three sharp claws cut into the skin on my face, and as the agony of what felt like my face being torn off took hold, I remember my father firing the weapon at the beast to no avail. It swiped again, this time catching me on the chest.
I don’t remember much after that moment. I know I collapsed. I know my father carried me back to our shuttle. And I remember my mother crying by my bedside.
Days passed where I thought death would be easier than the pain I felt as the venom coursed through my body. I felt fire and glass in every breath, in every muscle. I wanted to die. I was ready to die.
When I heard the healers tell my mother there was nothing they could do, I made my peace, and let the darkness take me.
Weeks later, when I was finally strong enough to stand and walk, my brother came to me. My eyes were still bandaged closed and as he led me through the palace, I knew my kingdom could not have a blind king.
When we got to the garden, my father began to unwrap the bandages and as I saw light, and then trees around me, hope grew in me for the first time.
I’m not blind. I can see!
But when I heard the gasps from my family and saw the horrified looks on their faces at the sight of me, I needed to see for myself.
I stood to run inside, but my father stopped me, “No my son. Don’t. Not yet. Let me find a way to fix you,” he said but didn’t look at me.
Fix me? What kind of monster must I be?
Months passed with the healers as they tried everything they could to heal the scars on my face. With every passing day, and with every failed attempt, I knew that this monster, this hideous thing, is what I would be for the rest of my life.
People turned their eyes away from me as I walked. Children cried at the sight of me. The kingdom prided itself on its perfect people. Our masters of form were true artists, but there was nothing they could do for me. Despite their ability and knowledge in making others beautiful, my scars were too deep and too ragged to fix. They did what they could, and made them less prominent, but I would forever be marked.
I cannot be a king. Not if my people look at me with disgust.
My father came to me one night, almost a year after I was attacked, and brought with him an engineer from the best scholars in the Kingdom.
They planned to make me a mask. A mask to hide the torn and broken face of the would be king.
When the fitting and measurements were taken and the scholars left, I pulled my father to the side, “I cannot be the King, father. Not like this. Not a man in a mask. I know you have been training Zasrus and I think it’s best you nominate him to be your successor.”
My father sat down on the seats by the window, “Raylon, you are the first born son and the true heir of the Vara king. It is your birthright to be the next king.”
“I don’t want to be king!” I shouted at him as the scar pulled on my lip, “Have you not seen how the people look at me? They see a monster, not a King!”
“Raylon, please-” my father started but I turned away from him and caught sight of myself in the mirror on my wall. Three long, ragged, deep scars running from the top of my left eyebrow, down the front of my face, over my nose, my cheek and onto my neck. The sight of it made my eyes tear up and as my one green eye and one dull grey one faded away behind a watery haze, I knew my mind was made.
“I will not be king,” I said in a decided voice, “Tomorrow when the other families come to the Palace, I will announce that I abdicate to my brother. This is my decision, and there is nothing you can do to change it.”
With that, I left the room and went to one of the many balconies in the Palace. I sat down in the corner and let the tears fall from my eyes.
I heard gentle footsteps approach and looked up to see Zasrus coming.
I wiped my face and as my brother sat down in front of me, I tried to give him a smile.
“I heard what you said, Raylon.”
“When?” I asked as I tried to keep my face hidden behind my hands.
“To father. That you will not be the king. That you will give your throne to me.”
“It’s for the best, Zas. You know that.”
I saw his eyes fill with tears and as a sob wrenched his body, I held out my hand to him.
“I am so sorry, brother. I wish there was something I could do.”
“It’s alright Zas. I would do it a hundred times over to make sure you live.”
“But it’s my fault,” he sobbed.
I shuffled over to him and pulled him into my arms, “Do not blame yourself. I hold no blame towards you, or to father. Not even towards the beast that attacked me. It was only doing what it was born to do.”
“You were born to be the king.” He said as he met my eyes.
“I know. But now that responsibility falls to you. Just promise me that you will keep me at your side. You will still need someone older and wiser to guide you,” I said with a smile.
He laughed at that and as I swallowed down the lump in my throat, I looked out at the view of what could have been mine.