He recognised the woman, although the did not know her name. Her voice sounded younger than her appearance. With matted hair and rheumy eyes, she appeared at least seventy.
“Nor can I stomach him,” said the man.
His broken teeth nibbled the last vestige of meat from a hapless victim’s rib. Contemptuously, he too threw the bone at Dollifer. Turning away, it glanced from his back.
“You never go on a raid,” said the man with opaque eye. “It will all come to an end soon though; after tomorrow.”
“Aye, tomorrow,” said the woman.
Dollifer dreaded the day for years. Tomorrow, he would have another birthday. One that marked his coming of age in the tribe.
The woman smiled through her filthy haphazardly applied bandages. Horrid lesions and bubbled flesh showed through the gaps.
“Let us see if your mother protects you then.”
His name boomed throughout the long room. Celebratory conversations died almost instantly. Dollifer never liked attention. Approximately eighty sets of eyes watched him as he stood.
The king grinned evilly from his throne.
Dollifer stepped through the tribe. Smirks twisted their faces as he passed.
“Aye, my king?” he said meekly, bowing his head.
“You are old enough now. Me and your mother have agreed that you will take part in next eve’s raid.”
Dollifer cast his eyes aside. His mother looked fearful. She may have agreed verbally, but not in her heart.
“One way or another, you will feed the tribe,” warned the king.
Dollifer nodded nervously at first. Then for the first time, a spark of courage prompted him to raise his head. His mother gaped, reading the intent in his eyes.
“Dollifer!” she cried, killing the words before they began.
She got off the throne and took hold of his arm.
“A word please.”
They had only taken a few steps.
“Eat and be merry!” cried the king.
It began the revelry anew, leaving Dollifer and his mother unnoticed. They entered the nearest side tunnel and stopped. She looked both ways.
“My son, I beg of you to never speak out of turn,” she whispered.
“It is wrong, mother to eat the flesh of men.”
“I know it is wrong!” she hissed.
“Then why eat with the others?”
“Because the king distrusts anyone who does not eat.”
Dollifer reluctantly nodded. “What will I do tomorrow, mother?”
He did not ask the question out of a need for advice.
His mother grabbed his cheeks.
“Stay alive,” she said. “Do what you must, as I have. I too have eaten the flesh. Worse still, I have endured the king’s touch and his fetid breath. I have listened to his weak humour, and put up with his every slur against you. All this, I have done with a smile on my face. I have done this so that you might live.”
He swallowed, not wishing to imagine her misery, and years of feigned affection.
She shook his face.
“Please, my son, do not let it all be for nothing. Swear to me that you will never speak against the king.”
His reluctance to agree did not surface in words. A single tear rolled from his eye.
His mother sighed with a pained expression, dropping her hands.
“You know what happened to Cobecca.”
Dollifer lowered his eyes at the memory.
“Well… I must go now,” his mother said awkwardly. “The king will expect me at his side.”
Her footsteps receded in his hearing. Now alone, he decided to go back to his only sanctuary; his private domicile.