Warning: If you’re really, REALLY not OK with cannibalism or any kind of gore, don’t read.
Shifa thrusts her spear at Namaki, who deflects it with his targe. He counterattacks with his longsword. Both wield their weapons with skill befitting the tribe’s best young warriors. Akela, their trainer, clad in armor, is watching from the edge of the arena.
They are practicing for their coming-of-age ceremonial battle, held once a year for teenagers who have reached fifteen at the time of the battle. It is a matter of life and death, because at the end of the ceremony, the winner eats the flesh of their opponent, as people can gain an animal—or a person’s—strength by eating the other. Therefore, Warrior Caste children are required to eat tiger meat from the day they could eat hard food.
Namaki takes an opportunity and swings his sword at Shifa’s gut, but stops as the tip of her spear touches his neck. Akela claps, a satisfied smile growing on her scarred face.
“Excellent match! As expected of my best students. Namaki wins this time, and you both have 75 wins. Shifa, guard your torso with your spear more, would you?”
“Got it, Master,” Shifa nods. Akela harrumphs. “Alright, I’ll see you at the ceremony tomorrow then.”
As she walks away, Shifa and Namaki fall on their backs. Their chests puff, their lungs desperately drawing in the summer air.
“Finally,” Namaki breathes. “I thought I was going to die from exhaustion.” Shifa laughs. “I think she sometimes forgets we’re not superhuman, unlike her.”
Namaki chuckles. He rolls to his side, facing his childhood friend. His expression turns solemn. “I really hope we won’t fight tomorrow,” he says. Shifa sits, her gaze averted.
“I don’t know, Namaki. There are only eight fifteen-year-olds in the Warrior Caste this year. The chances of me being matched with you…”
“It’s okay,” Namaki says, his fingers tracing her cheekbones. He tucks a strand of stray hair behind her ear. “If I lose, make sure the village chef makes me into the most delicious steak my opponent’s ever eaten.” Shifa looks into his eyes and frowns.
“You won’t lose,” she shakes her head. Her cheeks blush as she takes his hands and squeezes.
The training field is filled with people of all ages and castes. The village elder stands in the middle of the arena, holding a bag of four stones engraved with half of the contenders’ names. The contenders line up in two with their weapons, facing each other. The elder addresses the tribe, thanking them for their attendance, then proceeds to address the contenders.
“When I call your name, take one stone from this bag. Remember, you are not allowed to read the name of your opponent before I tell you to.”
“Yes, sir!” the contenders shout in acknowledgment. The elder nods.
He calls Shifa last. She walks with her head held high and draws the last stone. Her heart beats wildly with anticipation. She holds the stone to her chest, praying to the gods to make Namaki face someone else. The elder clears his throat and bellows.
“See your opponents, Young Warriors!”
Hesitant, Shifa opens her hand.
The stone reads: Namaki Tarja.
Her heart screams, blood draining from her face. Her eyes lock with Namaki’s, who looks completely serene—like he knew this would happen.
The elder’s tap on her shoulder jolts her back to reality.
“You have the first match. Good luck.”
“Thank you, Elder,” she replies, her voice shaking. She walks to the middle of the arena, her eyes fixed on the ground. Namaki puts his sword and shield down and walks to her, giving her a hug.
“Don’t worry,” he whispers, then walks to his position.
The sun says it’s noon. Shouts of encouragement come from all around them. There are no scratches on their bodies, but their labored breathing shows exhaustion. Shifa wipes her sweat with her sleeves, spear pointed at her best friend. Namaki changes his stance to a defensive one.
“Let’s put yesterday’s training to good use,” Namaki calls. “Come at me!”
“You better deflect it!” Shifa yells.
He smiles. She charges.
He doesn’t lift his targe like they practiced.
Her spear cuts deep into his neck. He falls to the ground, and the tangy smell of blood fills the air. She throws her spear away, rushing to kneel beside him. She cradles his head and presses her hand to his wound. The arena falls silent.
“Why?” she sobs. Her tears fall onto his heaving chest. He smiles like he always does.
“I love you, Shifa,” he says. “Since the day we first met.” She squeezes his hand. “I want you to live a long life.”
“You coward, confessing only when you’re about to die,” she cried. He chuckles.
“Idiot.” She kisses his lips. When she pulls away, he smiles and squeezes her hand weakly.
“Remember our promise yesterday, okay?”
The boy’s hand falls with a soft thud, and the warrior maiden’s cry breaks the silence.
The young warriors’ boisterous appetite disgusts her. She eats her steak slowly, cherishing every bite. It—he—is delicious, despite her nonexistent appetite. She looks around the hall. On her right, proudly laughing parents; on her left, quiet and solemn ones. Despite her win, her parents chose to sit on her left to console the Tarjas. Shifa’s chest tightens. No more.
She gets up, bringing her plate with her, and tells her parents she is going to eat at the training grounds. She bows to Namaki’s parents.
“I’m so sorry,” she says.
“It’s okay,” Namaki’s father says. “He died because he loved you. That’s worthy of the highest respect.” She thanks him and hurries outside. Her hands clench when a sorrowful cry reaches her ears as she leaves the banquet hall.
She walks to the training grounds and sits below the tree where she first met Namaki. She lingers in the cool shade, her jaws clenching every time a loud cheer comes from the hall.
“I want to change this awful tradition,” she mutters. “I can do it. His strength is a part of me.”
The sight of the Tarjas’ tears flashes in front of her eyes.
“I want to prevent all this pain.”
She stands, a new determination burning in her heart. She sees Namaki’s spirit hovering in front of her, offering his hand. She looks into his eyes and smiles, taking his translucent hands into hers.
“I will end this,” she declares. “For you.”
I asked my cousin for a writing prompt. She said, “Boy meets girl, girl eats boy.” (She gives the weirdest prompts.) I remarked that the prompt was basically the zombie story she wrote a while ago, and she said, “Well, do a different take.” The first idea that popped into my head was about a cannibalistic tribe. It’s out of my usual theme range, but I hope you enjoyed it!