Gwyet was a poor hunter, but he dreamed of being a prince.
In the kingdom of Emrys, eternal king of the Valley People and high priest of Nud, god of winter, Emrys favored only one prince at a time.
Unlike most kingdoms, principality in Emrys’ domain came not by birth or acclaim, but through survival of the Ordeal of Drums and Five Torches. In this ordeal, a challenger had to fight and kill the current prince with no weapons but his hands. The prince killed the challengers who failed to kill the prince. Only two could enter the Dungeon of Drums and Torches; only one could leave, and he would be Emrys’ prince and favorite.
Few elected to take on the ordeal, so many princes lived well past their rosy youths. The current prince, Trestyn, had seen just over thirteen-times-two winters. He had slain Exeos, the former prince, six winters past.
In Gwyet’s mind, it was his turn to be Emrys’ prince and cupbearer. He was thirteen-and-six.
Nobody knew the age of the everlasting Emrys, but the legend was he had favored some thirteen-times-thirteen-times-thirteen royal princes, which the elders took to represent the age of the natural world.
One day—and (need I say it?) long, long ago—Gwyet presented himself at the palace of Emrys in the capital city. He announced his intentions to the royal eunuchs, who tested his resolve and sincerity. They administered the Test of Three Golden Caskets, the Test of Three Porridges, and the Test of Quicksand, Boulder, and Cavern. Then, once Gwyet had sufficiently proved himself to them, the eunuchs dressed him in a white tunic and brought him before Emrys.
Gwyet had never seen such luxury as he saw in Emrys’ royal chamber. Nine giant tortoises, carapaces bearing maps of the nine known kingdoms of the world, encrusted with metals and precious stones, wandered the room freely, though lugubriously. Ornate stone columns propped up the high ceiling, carved with the images of youth with fine faces and physiques—princes or perhaps even gods. Carpets piled thick on top of carpets. And the king’s throne—gigantic—as big as some peasants’ huts—glittered gold.
The king himself, Emrys the eternal, was a giant of a man. Most men’s heads would reach only his chest. He wore a woolen peplum, heavy with beautifully wrought metal ornaments. His arms were big as tree trunks, tattooed with astronomical signs and animal emblems. His hairy chest and belly, round with muscles solid as stones, swelled like ox bladders. Thirteen-and-three precious metals pierced his ears, nose, and lower lip.
Next to Emrys’ throne stood a handsome man. Gwyet guessed he must be Trestyn the wild. Red haired and vulpine eyed, the youth wore an embroidered blue-green robe that covered him from shoulders to feet. Only his head and neck and hard but delicate hands were visible. His skin shone bright with oil and musk. Only the king could view his body—or a challenger in the Dungeon of Drums and Torches.
“Who are you?” demanded the king.
“I am Gwyet, a hunter in the forest.”
“Who are your people?”
“I have no people but my king, at his eternal pleasure.”
“What brings you here?”
“The desire to be your prince, my lord.”
Emrys and Trestyn exchanged glances. Gwyet averted his gaze, looking down at his toes.
“Are you prepared to face the Ordeal of Drums and Five Torches, lad?”
“And you will fight Prince Trestyn to the death?”
“I will, my lord, and I will kill him as a sacrifice to you and your god Nud.”
“You are sure of yourself, young Gwyet the hunter?”
“As sure as gods will allow, my lord.”
“So be it.”
The king clapped his hands, and the eunuchs returned and stood on either side of Gwyet.
The king stood and pointed his finger at Gwyet. “Kill this boy if he tries to escape. And bring him prepared to the Dungeon of Drums and Torches when the moon is highest in the sky.”
Trestyn stepped down from the throne and approached Gwyet. The two were of even height. As far as could be told, each young man weighed the equivalent of four sacks of barley malt. Gwyet thought the prince smelled of mint and vanilla. Trestyn said nothing but looked at the hunter disdainfully, before politely bowing his head. Gwyet bowed back, also without speaking.
The eunuchs escorted Gwyet out of the throne room and back to the great hall.
In the evening, the eunuchs took Gwyet to the bathhouse. There they fed him roasted meat and honey dripping from a pale wax comb. They gave him mead to drink.
They stripped away the white tunic and washed his fine body in a warm cauldron, then toweled it dry before anointing it with oil, speckled with crushed herbs. The oil made Gwyet’s skin tingle and blush. The eunuchs scraped the oil, dirt, and dead skin from the young man’s body with a small curved tool made of iron. They dabbed the boy’s dark hair with musk oil.
Gwyet lay naked on thirteen cushions. The eunuchs hummed and played music to help him relax. Gwyet had a handsome face, some of them remarked, fit for a prince. They also complimented the curves of his body, noting their firmness and elegance.
Gwyet’s eyebrows, they sang, were dark as the woods at night. His unblemished skin was the color of conch shells. His nose was straight with flaring nostrils. His oiled hair was the color of waxed ebony. He was strong and fast as a stag, but he had a wolf’s heart for the hunt and the kill. They sang of his beauty and his manly virtues. He would please the king, they predicted. He had a huge cock and an ass that smelled like ripe apples. He would kill handsome Trestyn the wild with his bare hands.
When the time was right, they forced the boy to purge his bowels and void his bladder. They tied a white loincloth round Gwyet’s slender hips. It cut deep between his firm round buttocks, hung loose, yet secure, over his cock and balls. They led him to the Dungeon of Drums and Torches.
Outside the freestanding chamber and circling around it, thirteen-times-thirteen musicians in loincloths just like Gwyet’s stood over tall stretched-hide drums. As soon as Gwyet appeared, they began to beat the drums, slowly and solemnly, in a cadence that predicted and controlled Gwyet’s stride and pace.
Off to one side, elevated high above the heads of everyone, was Emrys’ throne, moved from the royal chamber for this occasion. Emrys sat on the throne, naked, except for gold bands wrapped around his biceps and calves, and a wreath of mistletoe around his head. His cock was relaxed, yet massive, resting on his muscular thigh.
The eunuchs opened the portal, and Gwyet stepped through the passageway, into the dungeon. High over his head, five torches attached to the walls popped, hissed, and fluttered. The eunuchs closed the portal behind him. He heard them secure it shut, possibly with a brace. Suddenly the drumming stopped. He was alone in the dungeon that stretched ten body-lengths in every direction.
The far corners of the room were stacked with blackened skulls and bones, contestants who had entered and fought but never left the room. The red-orange walls were painted with flat cartoons of naked young men, each one peering down indifferently at Gwyet. The flickering torches gave the drawings the illusion of movement.
The drumming resumed, the pace the same as what it had been before. At the opposite end of the room, a portal opened, and the prince Trestyn stepped through. He wore a dark purple loincloth. His well-oiled body glimmered in the torchlight. His skin was pale. He had the body of a warrior, a hero of the old legends.
His orange hair had been oiled and pulled back behind his ears. His lower back, just above the white buttocks, was tattooed with a design of mistletoe garlands. The graceful and alluring furrows that narrowed from the prince’s hipbones to his groin bracketed another tattoo, the sleek silhouette of a fox. The gold-yellow hair of the prince’s crotch crested just over his loincloth.
The prince looked steadily into Gwyet’s eyes and spoke: “I am Trestyn, here to sacrifice you to the glory of our king and his god.”
Gwyet’s whole body grew tense. He looked steadily back into the prince’s pale eyes. “I am Gwyet. My body is strong, and my wits are keen. I will kill you, my prince. Forgive me, but what now belongs to you is soon my destiny. I will give you a good fight first, my prince, out of respect.”
Trestyn smiled: “This should be fun, young Gwyet. I have never had to fight a hunter.”
The two young men bowed courteously to one another.
Trestyn spoke: “Hunter, to honor you and Nud, god of winter, I will take pleasure in your body as you die.”
Gwyet spoke: “Prince, to honor you and Nud, god of the eternal king Emrys, I will take pleasure in your body as you die.”
The two young men circled each other. Their bare feet on the cold stone floor.
Outside the drummers increased the pace of the drumming, to stir the fighters and encourage a quick, decisive finish. Even so, these ordeals could last for hours. Maybe even days.
The prince lurched forward and grabbed Gwyet around the chest. Gwyet wrapped his arms around the back of Trestyn’s neck and head. The two pushed and twisted, trying to unbalance the opponent. Their bodies were slippery with oil, heated by the crackling flames over their heads.
The bodies lurched into sudden spins in either direction, as each man tried to overpower the other. Their feet slapped against the floor, arhythmically.
Gwyet tried to kink his opponent’s neck. Meanwhile, in tiny and gradual increments, Trestyn tightened his grip on Gwyet’s ribs.
The two fighters’ bellies rubbed on each other. The two young men drove their knees into each other’s thighs with ruthless fury.
Gwyet gained a footing and pushed hard. Trestyn stumbled backwards but managed to twist so that both men fell equally hard on the stone. On the ground it was harder for Trestyn to hug Gwyet’s chest. He tightened his grip and jabbed the knotted hands repeatedly to the small of Gwyet’s back.
Gwyet pressed Trestyn’s skull to the stone floor and pounded it with the heel of his hand. Trestyn loosened his hold, and Gwyet gained leverage, straddled Trestyn’s belly, and shoved the back of the prince’s head viciously to the floor.
The two shining bodies smacked into each other as Trestyn wriggled to free himself of Gwyet. He slammed his right forearm up to Gwyet’s nostrils and rolled. Gwyet rolled with him, and the two bodies separated.
The fighters scrambled to their hands and knees, and then sprang up to their feet. Drums beating faster and faster. Trestyn leapt at Gwyet’s head with a clenched fist. Gwyet’s knee thudded into Trestyn’s chest, pushing him back a body length.
The two men crashed into each other at the center of the chamber. Trestyn grabbed a fistful of Gwyet’s dark hair and tugged, flipping his opponent’s body over his hip. Gwyet bounced on the hard stone. Trestyn drove his foot to Gwyet’s ribcage, again and again.
Gwyet grasped at Trestyn’s leg but came back with only air. Trestyn leapt high in the air and landed on the points of his knees on Gwyet’s stomach. Gwyet spat blood and rolled to his side. Trestyn continued to beat Gwyet’s ribs with his fists.
Gwyet fought valiantly and furiously. He grabbed the prince’s red hair and pulled the back of Trestyn’s head to his chest. He gripped Trestyn’s ribs and kicked the prince’s feet out from under him, then flipped the man over his body and onto the stone. Trestyn cried out, and the drumbeats intensified, louder, faster.
In great pain, Trestyn rose to his feet. Gwyet stood, too, and glared at the prince’s face. He slapped the prince across the face three times. Then slapped again in exactly the same spot. Trestyn swung his fist at Gwyet and slammed it to his heart. Gwyet fell back, landed on his back, and tumbled over, then sprang back to his feet.
Trestyn bent back his head and yelled—a warrior’s howl that echoed along the dungeon’s stone walls. Gwyet was seized with fear, but responded courageously. He gripped the prince’s lower jaw and tried to wrench it free. His fingers clawed at his opponent’s lips and teeth. Trestyn scratched his nails across Gwyet’s eyes. Gwyet thrust his fist into the prince’s mouth and grabbed the man’s tongue in his fingers.
Trestyn raked his nails again across his opponent’s eyes. In pain, Gwyet released the tongue and instead smashed his fist into Trestyn’s rage-contorted face.
Terrified by their own sudden brutality, the two fighters fled each other, running to opposite ends of the dungeon. Trestyn hid his face in his hands. Gwyet trembled and wept. But there was no stopping the ordeal, once begun.
How long did the drumming throb along the dungeon walls with neither fighter moving? Who knows?
Gwyet’s stomach rumbled, and the young hunter began to move. Trestyn pushed up his body from the cold stone, stood straight and handsome as the prince he was. His red hair fell in wet clumps against his forehead and neck.
Gwyet spoke: “What is the beginning of the Ordeal of Drums and Five Torches?”
Trestyn answered: “It is hidden in a cloud of nothingness.”
Gwyet spoke: “Does our savagery have a purpose? Here or in a life to come?”
Trestyn answered: “In truth, its purpose is only the purpose we see in it, and the thing it makes us become.”
Gwyet spoke: “It will be fun to kill you, my prince.”
Trestyn spoke: “It will be fun to kill you. And it will please the king and his god.”
The two fighters approached each other, hunched their shoulders like apes, and breathed in hisses through their teeth. They wagged their fists at each other. Their cocks stretched the fronts of their loincloths. The muscles of their hard lean bodies rippled.
Trestyn lunged low and brought Gwyet down to the floor. Gwyet locked his legs around Trestyn’s hips, his ankles crossed at the lowest rung of the spine. The prince grabbed Gwyet’s head between his chest and forearm and tried to wrench the neck. Gwyet punched Trestyn in the ribs and swerved his hips. Trestyn’s hold loosened, and Gwyet pulled free of the choke. His leg lock slipped up Trestyn’s trunk to crush the belly.
Gwyet was on his back on the floor, his knees pinching into Trestyn’s ribs. Trestyn stretched his ivory-white torso up—the ribs quivering like fish gills under the skin. The fox tattoo pressing on the base of Gwyet’s cock. Trestyn’s navel stretching between Gwyet’s thighs. Trestyn thrust his fists down to Gwyet’s face, but his reach fell short of the mark.
Trestyn writhed, struggling to escape Gwyet’s powerful grip. Gwyet crushed the air from Trestyn’s body. The slick skin of both men, bodies in one knot on the cold stone floor, flashed with the sputtering torchlight overhead. Trestyn gasped for air. He felt faint. His skin turned clammy.
Outside the drumming was furious, demonic, roaring.
Gwyet flexed his thigh muscles. Trestyn whimpered. He collapsed on Gwyet in a near swoon. Gwyet clamped Trestyn’s neck between his sinewy forearms. Trestyn’s whole body convulsed and shivered. His face reddened, tears welled up in his eyes, his lips thickened and their color darkened. The eyes especially seemed to recognize his weakened position and his imminent death.
Trestyn’s body was loose as a man made of straw. Gwyet thrust his forearm hard against the prince’s throat. Constricted his thighs on the prince’s waist. Thrust his legs downward to traumatize the body more. Trestyn shuddered. His cock was painfully engorged, pinched into the crack of Gwyet’s ass. Gwyet felt his stiff cock press into the white flesh of Trestyn’s belly. Trestyn’s eyes rolled up, just a breath away from Gwyet’s face.
Gwyet tossed his opponent aside. Trestyn’s lips were blue and still, but his body still throbbed with animal life.
Gwyet loosened the dark purple loincloth from Trestyn’s hips. Naked, Trestyn folded into himself. Gwyet shed his white loincloth and tossed it aside. He grabbed Trestyn by the legs, pulled, and flipped the prince to his stomach. Trestyn mouthed an unheard prayer against the stone floor. Gwyet slid into Trestyn, into his dirt, taking the prince’s manhood as well as his estate. Trestyn groaned, barely conscious, in terror and rapture all at once.
The young hunter ground his hips into the dark inner flesh of the dying prince. In the end he grabbed Trestyn’s chin in both hands and snapped the head back to his collarbone. The sharp sound echoed along the dungeon walls. He felt the human flesh turn to moist clay under his touch.
Gwyet stood. He felt Trestyn’s ghost enter him. The blood throbbed in his veins. The ghost told him that he had won the battle fair and square. The ghost told him it was happy to be free of the world and its cares—even princely cares could be heavy, it explained. The ghost admitted that Gwyet was the better, more deserving warrior.
Gwyet tied the purple loincloth to his hips, symbol of his new estate. The ordeal had proved his destiny. Gwyet dragged Trestyn’s body to the black, papery bones in the corner. He leapt high and snatched one of the torches from its sconce. The oil of Trestyn’s body ignited in a blinding flash.
Gwyet went to the portal and banged on the door. The drumming stopped.
Trestyn’s bones and ashes remain in the Dungeon of Drums and Torches.
Outside Gwyet falls into the arms of the eunuchs. They carry him back to the bathhouse, wash his wounds, anoint his body with fresh spices, and dress him in an embroidered robe to enter the royal chamber.
They lead him to the throne room. Gwyet kneels at Emrys’ feet and offers Trestyn’s ghost as a sacrifice to Nud, and Emrys raises Gwyet up a prince.
He stands at the side of Emrys’ throne. He receives the king’s favors. He is the chief among all men under Emrys the eternal.
Next to Emrys, he is the closest to Nud of all the Valley People.
Nobody will ever see his nakedness again, except the king, until the day a new challenger arises, and Gwyet must face the Ordeal of Drums and Five Torches again.