Rex Nemorensis (King of the Woods)
by Peter Burns
Come, curious minds, back to Old Latium, to Diana’s sacred grove on the shores of Lake Nemi. See her priest-king stalking through the gloom, eyes forever restless, hand ever-steady at his sword.
Now you spy the young goat-herder, preparing his charges for sleep. The boy, barely free from childhood, raises his head as the moon clears leafy crowns.
A challenger enters the darkening woods and the boy offers up a silent boon.
Flash of steel, barely seen, between the moon and lake. The priest-king pivots with sword unsheathed, the other’s soul sent Hades-bound.
Two summers this priest-king has survived, and the boy forewarned from straying near the trees. Ancient rite of combat. Kill to be priest-king; priest-king till death.
Two summers past the boy accompanied his mother to Diana’s temple, within the heart of that sacred grove. Women and children need not fear the blade. To our Huntress the mother gave offerings, while the boy searched out the grim priest-king.
Entwined through trees, his arms and legs did echo them. Yet, within the priest-king’s widened eyes the boy saw the stars, the lake and all the heaving shadows between, like the shades of Hades stirring for a fight.
The boy awakes at dawn, kick from his father, sits up and rubs his eyes. Alongside his father the merchant, newly returned from Greece. This year’s festival now stocked well with wine. The father counts the goats. The merchant recounts news from across the sea. Athens has declared rule by the people. The father cries it fakery, as is his wont for foreign ways.
Still the merchant holds true. ‘Citizens deciding their rulers by lot. What would our proud and arrogant king make of it?’
The father looks around, face as red as the sun-streaked lake. ‘We mustn’t speak of the Tarquin.’
All day the boy ponders Athens. It burns on his tongue at zenith of the sun, hammers his head by twilight.
This eve of Diana’s festival, the moon ascends imperfect; marble chipped by a blunted blade.
The priest-king prowls his little rounded kingdom. A challenger creeps silently behind him. The boy wants to yell but knows it’s forbidden. The drama must play out as it has for millennia. The priest-king, attuned to the sounds of his forest, turns at the crack of a branch. But this other is nimble. His sword is out and up.
The goat-herder lifts his horn. For when the wolves come feeding, his father had said, or the priest-king lies bleeding. The boy blows hard, like the wind-god Aquilo himself would in sending him across the sea to Athens. To where the people rule. The villagers follow the sound through the dark and when his father asks of the goats, the boy shakes his head. Onto knees, the villagers fall.
Witness, here, this silhouette framed in Diana’s celestial light, arms held high. One hand holds the head of the old priest-king, the other his sword. The blade of it marrying with the moon, making it complete.
Peter Burns has previously been published in Flashback Fiction and FlashFlood Journal for UK’s National Flash Fiction Day. He is the winner of Flash 500, in autumn 2020, and was placed third in the Sentinel Literary Quarterly short story competition. He holds an MA in Creative Writing with the OU.
Illustration (pencil and water colour) of Lake Nemi by John Robert Cozens, circa 1777, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.