Conn’s sixteenth birthday came too soon for his liking. The entire village had gathered to celebrate his coming of age. They encircled him now; the men in front of him wearing ceremonial pelts and headdresses representative of the animals they could become at will, their wives beside them chosen for them based on their stature, the rest of the women and children forming a circle around him. He stood in the center of people he had known his whole life and felt none of the excitement his friends before him had felt. Andro had been thrilled before his quest, and he had turned into a mighty cheetah. Of course, that made sense. He had always been the fastest boy in the camp. And upon his return, he had been betrothed to Ree, which suited him just fine. Nofu had become a massive bear, but Nofu was also the biggest of the three of them. Nofu was the biggest of all of the boys in the tribe. That was a great source of embarrassment to Conn’s father, as Conn was the son of the Chieftain and should have been biggest, or fastest. But he was neither. And Nofu was now promised to Shae. Conn knew his father worried, and that made him worry.
No, Conn was not the biggest or the fastest, but he was the son of the Chieftain. That counted for something. His father had transformed into a massive wolf. The tribe expected the same from him. If he managed that, or anything even remotely as respectable, he would become the next Chieftain, and he would be able to claim Khandari as his bride. He prayed to the stars that he didn’t change into something lame, like a mouse or a lemur. He didn’t care about leading the tribe, but he loved Khandari and couldn’t bear to see her with someone else. Of course, if he became a warthog, they would likely ostracize him and he would never see her again. He willed his legs not to give out and his stomach not to void itself. Vomiting and collapsing in front of the entire village was not the way to start his journey.
His father stood and everyone fell silent.
“Conn. Today you turn sixteen and it is time to take your quest. Do you go willingly to the Circle of Destiny?”
“I do, sir.”
“You go forth alone, with no weapon but your transformation for protection. Know that whatever enemy you face; you must be able to defeat it on your own. Whatever you become is what you are in your heart, and that is how you shall be forever known by your village. Do you accept these terms?”
As if he had a choice. To deny the Circle of Destiny meant leaving the village. And, as the Chieftain’s son, it meant humiliation for his father and the end of his father’s rule; possibly the end of his life.
“I do, sir.”
“Then be on your way. Your village wishes you a safe and swift journey, and eagerly awaits your triumphant return.”
The men all stood and thumped their right fists to their hearts. The women rose and applauded. Conn looked around and caught the eyes of just a few people before he left the circle. Andro and Nofu stood together at the end of the male line. They had huge smiles on their faces and excitement gleamed in their eyes. They had been forbidden to tell Conn anything about what he was going to face, but they did say it was a rush. That wasn’t helpful. Conn’s mother had tears in her eyes, but she too was smiling. It wasn’t an excited smile, but it was full of love. His father’s face could have been carved of stone, but his eyes looked worried. Conn wasn’t sure if he was worried about his position or worried about his son, but neither gave Conn much confidence. Conn stopped and bowed before him, and could have sworn he heard him whisper.
“I love you.”
He only thought so for a moment, because when he looked up, his father wasn’t even making eye contact, and that was nothing his father would say in front of people. He almost never said it in the privacy of our home. Conn was sure he was mistaken. He continued scanning the crowd, needing to see one last face before he left, needing one last look in case he didn’t return.
There she was.
And it was as if everyone else had disappeared. As he broke the circle to leave on his journey, she grabbed his hand and squeezed it.
“Come back to me. Come back soon.”
Conn only smiled. Something was stuck in his throat and he had no words to answer her.
The path to the Circle of Destiny wasn’t long. Conn wished it was a two month hike. His thoughts were on overdrive. He had been trying to transform into something, anything, for weeks, but he had had no luck. His friends had laughed at him.
“You know no one’s ever been able to transform before sixteen. Quit trying,” Nofu said.
That didn’t stop him from closing his eyes, scrunching his face, squatting down, tightening all his muscles, holding his breath, and squeezing his body from the inside out.
Andro nearly fell over. “I don’t know what you’re doing, but that isn’t how it works.”
“Then how does it work?”
Andro thought for a second and said, “I don’t know. It just happens. I mean…” He took off at a jog and then he was a sprinting cheetah. Then he was Andro again, loping back to them. “I just think ‘run’ and I run. And somewhere along the way when I want a lot of speed, I get the cat.”
“That’s like me. I can be wrestling around and all of a sudden… bear.” Nofu stood there shifting back and forth between him and his bear shape until he got confused and ended up a weird mix of Nofu upper body on bear lower body.
Andro laughed and said, “I think you better concentrate a little harder, buddy. You don’t want to go home like that.”
Nofu grinned and glanced down. “Some people might like me this way.”
“Some people might like you better the other way around,” Andro answered. That way we wouldn’t have to listen to you!”
Nofu fixed himself and they continued the banter, but Conn had stayed quiet the rest of that afternoon. His friends had shifted so easily because they had always had those innate qualities in them. As Conn continued walking toward the Circle of Destiny, he couldn’t help wonder what internal qualities he had. He couldn’t think of any.
He wasn’t incredibly fast like Andro. He wasn’t ridiculously brawny like Nofu. His father was born to protect and teach – much like the wolf – but Conn didn’t feel that in him. He didn’t feel anything in him. He burned to feel something, anything, which was second nature to him. But he didn’t.
God help him, but all he felt, when he let himself feel things, was love. He loved his family, he loved his friends, he loved his tribe, and he loved, he loved, Khandari. He didn’t have any animalistic traits because he wasn’t interested in war and violence. He didn’t want to fight. He was going to fail this test because he cared too much for others.
If his tribe ever came under attack, he would fight to the death for anyone of them, because he loved them all, but he wasn’t a fighter. And because he was no warrior, he had no spirit animal to transform into. He would die in the Circle of Destiny, forever labeled a coward, a disgrace to his family.
He had walked as slowly as he could; a dying man didn’t often rush to his demise. But even small and sluggish steps make progress. He was at the Circle of Destiny. He had no supplies to unload, no weapons to get ready; as tradition mandated, he had made the journey with only the clothes on his back. He rubbed his palm where Khandari had squeezed it and thought about her last words to him. It broke his heart to know he wouldn’t be returning to her. His heart burned with love for her. His body stung with the knowledge that he’d lost his family and friends, that he was leaving his village behind.
The ground shook and the brush parted. The largest bear Conn had ever seen came into the clearing, snorting and pawing at the ground. It was followed by a lithe cheetah and a massive wolf. They were foaming at the mouth, rabid.
“Father? Nofu? Andro? It’s me. Conn.”
The bear continued pawing the ground, while the cheetah started circling to Conn’s left. The wolf shifted to Conn’s right. Conn couldn’t be sure if these were his loved ones, or if this was a trick that was part of his test, but if it was his father and his friends, he wanted to help them.
“You need to switch back now. You’ve been hurt. You need medicine. We have to get you home.”
The wolf turned into his father, still foaming at his mouth. “If you go home, you fail. Stay and finish this.”
The other two animals had flanked him now, and they were pouncing, readying for attack.
“Father, you can’t mean that. You need help. You all do.”
“Stay or lose, Conn,” his father said.
“But you’ll die!”
The animals were snarling.
Conn felt feverish. He took a step toward his father. “Let me help you.”
The cheetah crouched.
The bear raised a forearm.
The Chieftain shifted back into the wolf.
And in the center of the three animals, Conn transformed.
Where Conn once stood as a sixteen year old boy then stood a wall of fire. Flames shot toward each of the animals, beating each of them back away from where Conn had been standing. Then the cheetah, the bear, and the wolf disappeared, and Conn became his human self again.
“What have I done?” he cried. He dropped to his knees and hung his head.
“You have won,” a voice said.
“What?” He looked up and saw an old man in the center of the Circle of Destiny. It was the man from the cave drawings. “Are you the Elder Murdo?”
“I am a representation of him, yes. I am here to congratulate you, Warrior of Fire. You are the first.”
“The first what?”
He chuckled. “For someone so wise, you aren’t very smart. The first Warrior of Fire.”
“I’m sorry sir. I don’t understand.”
Elder Murdo pulled Conn to his feet and put his arm around him. “This place tests body, mind, and soul. The body becomes what the soul is and fights how the mind reacts. Most men here think like animals, react like animals… but that’s not to say they aren’t good people, wise people. That’s just how they are. You, however, are different. You are the Warrior of Fire. We’ve been waiting for you.”
“What’s different about me?”
“You are wise enough to know that you don’t always have to fight. Sometimes it’s best to have compassion.”
“But I still had to fight.”
“You didn’t strike to kill. You only protected, formed a barrier, pushed back. You are the first one to do that. You are the first one to become fire in the first place. You are the Warrior of Fire. Use your power well. Go in peace, my son.”
And he disappeared.
Conn hoped his father wasn’t going to be angry.
When he returned to the village, the whole tribe was still assembled and waiting for him. He walked immediately to the center of the circle and waited for the Chieftain to address him.
“So you return safely from your journey. I trust it was a success.”
“I completed my mission.”
That was not the typical response. It raised a few eyebrows, but the Chieftain didn’t question him.
“And what animal are you. Please demonstrate.”
“Permission to speak to you privately, sir?”
The Chieftain’s brows furrowed. “Nothing you have to say regarding this matter should be kept from the village. Either speak, or transform.”
Conn sighed. He knew saying that he didn’t transform into an animal would cause chaos and likely not give him a chance to explain before he was thrown out of the village. The people were starting to murmur. He shrugged and said, “Okay.”
He became fire.
Shrieks and gasps filled the circle. Everyone was on their feet applauding. Then, one by one, the men dropped to their knees and clasped their fists to their hearts. When even his father did so, Conn switched back to human and approached him.
“Father, what’s going on?”
“Warrior of Fire,” he said, standing and grasping Conn by the shoulders. “I’m so proud.”
“I didn’t know this was such a big deal.”
“You should read your lessons more. I didn’t think I’d live to see it.” He kissed Conn on the forehead. “I’ve always loved you, but I’ve never loved you more, my son.”
To the tribe, he said, “A tribute to my son. Instead of my choosing his bride, he gets his choice of any girl he wishes.” He pulled Conn aside and said, “I had planned on giving you Nimbala. She’ll make you an excellent bride.”
“Forget that, Dad,” Conn told him. To the tribe, Conn announced, “I choose Khandari!”
And they ran to each other and kissed, sealing their betrothal pact.
Written by Staci Troila for the Teen Fantasy Fiction Writing Contest. You can also find her on Facebook. Staci has two short stories being published in an anthology, and a book with an editor that she is hopeful will be published.
About Staci from her blog:
"I’m Staci Troilo, and I’ve been writing stories ever since I can remember. Granted, the ones I wrote in grade school aren't really of publishing quality, but I enjoyed writing them at the time nonetheless. I have a Master’s Degree in writing from Carnegie Mellon University, and I’ve been working as a writer and/or an English professor since 1994. Now that my two wonderful children are older (and presumably self-sufficient), I’ve decided to take the time for myself and write a book. Notice I didn’t say try to write a book. My husband always tells our kids not to try to do something but to actually do it, so that’s what I’m doing. It’s great having a supporting and loving family. Now if I can just get the puppies to leave me alone long enough to string two coherent sentences together, I’ll be in good shape. But they’re so darn cute!"
Congratulations Staci for winning the Teen Fantasy Fiction Writing Contest! Thank you for contributing such a wonderful story!