The chains clamped around my wrists as cold and hard as stones. I stared ahead into the darkness, waiting for the young guard, who was not much more than a year older than I, to open the door to the arena. I had come here not because I had stolen treasure, attacked a servant, or murdered an innocent peasant. I had come for the same reason as the ones before me: because I existed.
I had dreaded this day since I was a young child who finally understood the laws of the land—since that day my mother and father had gone before me. But there was no reason for fear. My parents had taken places of honor at the king’s table, and I visited them on every full moon. Soon I would see them and the king every day.
The metal door creaked open. The guard gestured for me to hurry up and get out the door. As I passed him, he whispered, “Friend, the beast won’t hurt ya if you be quick about it.”
I nodded my thanks and strode forward into the empty arena. My sweaty tuffs of copper hair clung to the nape of my neck as I gazed around. Not only was there no lion, but there was not a human being in sight besides the king in his royal box. The only other beings interested in my Transition seemed the mobs of hornets buzzing about and pecking at me arms every now and then.
I had heard audiences had been small lately, but I hadn’t expected to meet such a crude pair of eyes blinking lazily in my direction and not much else. King Maximus sipped his wine from the glamorous throne decked with gold and sapphire. Good for him, to be in that box with a canopy and attentive servants waving long, feathery fans to keep out the heat and the insects. Would I only end up fanning him as well?
But now the emptiness of the arena glared into my face. Where was Pa? Mum? My brother, Marcus? I had witnessed many Transitions, but most had mobs of blood-thirsty citizens, yearning for a fight. I supposed people had tired of telling their neighbors that all that had happened was the same old surrendering to the king’s will instead of slaying the lion. Not that it was an unpleasant decision to take a seat at the king’s table—by all means, it was the best choice my parents ever made. They didn’t have a clue about killing wild creatures, anyhow. Neither did I, so they didn’t bother coming, I guess, since they knew they would surely be feasting with me tonight.
King Maximus, from high up in the royal box, ushered me forward. “Just say the word, lad, and I won’t even bother bringing the lion out.”
I bowed before the lofty ruler. “Thank you, sir, but I haven’t made the decision yet.”
He narrowed his eyes down upon me. “So… you want to end up with the first of the rebels? Those fools that died—let’s see—about eight years ago?” He scoffed. “I thought my dear citizens had learned their lesson by now.”
I kept my head down in practiced humility. “No, sir, and I truly would be honored to sit at your table and eat with you.”
“Then that settles it.” King Maximus commanded his servants with a wave of his hand.
I glanced at the armor laid out on the dirt that awaited anyone fool enough to try. Dust had gathered on it during those long eight years. I didn’t know why I considered it—maybe for my dignity or my pride—or perhaps because the lion, if killed, would set us free from the “honor” of feasting with the king for the rest of our days. I didn’t want that honor. That was meaningless. Maybe those rash young men all those years ago had died, but they had died knowing that when all were free to live ordinary lives outside the palace, they could use their freedom to care for the poor or the sick or the imprisoned, to pursue righteousness without the king suppressing them with gold and jewels.
The servants unchained me with smiles on their faces and urged me toward a door on the other side of the arena, opposite of the door I had come from. One strolled on ahead and the other followed suit behind me. Their confidence swept me away along with them, until I couldn’t go any further. How could I miss this chance? How could I stand the eternal burden of regret?
I stopped in my tracks, so the servants politely did the same. I gazed back at the armor laying in the dust, as if mocking me for being afraid to put it on. Or did it mock me for even thinking of using it at all? Did it, too, want my family and my friends to be imprisoned forever?
I dashed to the armor and donned on the chain mail. Soon the servants were grasping onto me, and King Maximus was shouting angrily from above. A servant locked chains on my wrists once again. It took every effort within me to stretched out my weighted hands and grab the sword. My heart raced within me. A servant bound a cloth around my mouth so coarse and suffocating I would have spit it out if it wasn’t so tight. All I knew to do was to clench the sword and to never let it go.
“What are you doing, fools?” the king cried out in a hysteric voice.
Suddenly the servants released me and ran.
I stood there, gagged at my mouth, bound at my wrists, and now even weighted by chains at my ankles.
I looked up at the royal box. A servant rushed to King Maximus and bowed before him. “First you said to chain him, and now you say to let him go? What made you change your mind, my lord?”
But I didn’t hear the king’s hasty reply. A metal gate—that looked more like a wall—was raised, creaking steadily. The hair on my back rose, sending shivers through my spine as the lion in all its glory stepped out into the arena. The golden mane shimmered in the sunlight, signifying beauty, but the power of the beast was unquestionable.
Keeping my wrists together in their chains, I bent down and picked up the helmet, slowly transferring it to my head. I knew the helmet was the foundation of all armor—the surest way to stay from fatal hits in the head.
I glanced up at the lion, who was watching me dully, as if I were yet another specimen of his to devour. For yes, not only did those men eight years ago smell the internal organs of such a beast, but so did every dead corpse in the king’s palace that was thrown to him. It was a fact of life that if you died in the king’s palace—of sickness, old age, or child birth—you were for the lion’s supper. No one minded as much as they would have normally, for they were all simply grateful the lion wouldn’t have to devour them sooner—and while they were still alive. Thanks to the king, no one who made the rational decision during the Transition would ever have to endure such a fate.
But I had chosen the irrational.
Perhaps, I smiled to myself, perhaps this fine creature had a fine breakfast this morning and has no reason to have a second one.
But that thought diminished when I set my mind on applying the boots to my feet. These would help me grip the ground as I dashed about trying to slay the beast.
The lion sauntered forward, his dark eyes glowering at me. I put the boots on quick, and then I strapped a belt about my waist to keep my long tunic from hurrying to get in my way. The beast surveyed me quickly, and then began circling in a slow, plodding motion about me. First the king mocks me, then my armor, and now him?
The king himself didn’t mind mocking me some more. He was cackling so loud a chill shriveled through me. I grabbed the breast plate and donned it on me, awkwardly and slowly since my wrists were in shackles. Finally, I picked up shield and sword, bracing myself for the lion’s attack.
King Maximus stopped laughing. The lion glared at me. And I myself stood there holding my sword and shield almost below my hips since the chains weighted me down. Living the life of a scholar hadn’t exactly prepared me for battling a savage beast. Nevertheless, I determined to do just that. I clenched my teeth over the gag, sweating heavily behind my helmet as the noon sun blazed down upon me. Perhaps the lion wouldn’t need a second breakfast, but surely he was in for lunch.
The lion stepped toward me so only inches separated me from his wrath. I could smell his distinct fiery breath. The stench of death. My heart stilled, along with every echo of sound, every piece of sand beneath my boots, and every hornet buzzing about me.
The lion dipped his head in acknowledgement of me, and then he turned away toward his den. Clearly, he wanted me to follow him. I stepped forward. “All right,” I said evenly. “I’ll come with you.” My sword wavered in my hand. How was I going to kill this thing in the dark, let alone with the chains about me?
Still, I followed the lion back into his prison. Behind me the metal door slammed shut, leaving us in the dark, yet with a flicker of light from a lantern on the stone wall. It struck me that a lion should need a lantern at all. A foolish hope raced through me that perhaps this wasn’t the lion everyone thought he was.
But then I saw the bones.
Lying before me were piles and piles of skeletons stripped of their flesh and intestines, left with only their clothes that scarcely covered them anymore.
The lion lay down in a calm, quiet manner before a stone slab where a few bones still remained from his last supper.
My throat went dry. Not because I was about to be eaten, but because there among the skeletons lay my father’s green cloak and my mother’s purple gown, both donned on scrawny bones. Inside, I was tripping over my thoughts. Pa had been strong and healthy, Mum full of life—how could this be? My mind flashed back to the empty arena. King Maximus, all alone but for servants…
At last I understood. All people would end up as the lion’s supper, whether they chose it or not. The king planned it that way for a reason quite unbeknownst to me. Feasting at the table with the king was only the king’s means to fatten his subjects up for the beast.
Tears poured down my cheeks as I stared up in the lion’s hungry eyes. Trembling, I knew if I were to do anything before I died, now was my chance. I could not waste it.
As bound by chains as I was, all I could do was raise the sword and shield in front of my face and with all the strength dwindling within me, I swung the sword at the mighty creature. He leapt back and snarled.
Before I could make another move, the lion lunged at me. I stumbled backward into the pile of bones, screaming so loud I felt I could awaken even the dead around me. Despite my shame in sounding like a helpless little girl, the helmet had protected me from knocking the sense out of my head. Getting my bearings with the spiky soles of my boots, I charged forward just as the lion gave a great, earth-shattering roar. I found myself on my knees, unable to move, and unable to speak even if I had tried. Only my thoughts could run freely, wildly. Why had I tried to defeat him? Why was I such a fool?
Because of freedom, a voice whispered somewhere deep within the quivering beat of my heart. Because of love and of righteousness. And I knew it was right. The king’s palace was full of nothing but prisoners trapped in a world of false hopes, where deceptive pleasure lead to calamity rather than goodness leading to the truest pleasure. These prisoners suffocated in a darkness ruled by a king of cruelty whose only aim was to force all to eat, drink, be merry—and to die at the mouth of a lion.
When the lion’s roar had subsided, I choked out through my gag, “You ruined my father and my mother!” I pulled myself to my feet, slowly raising the sword and shield up, my shoulders trembling. “You ruined everything.”
The lion pounced forward, but, fully trusting in my armor, I raised my weighted hands and struck the beast as hard as I could with the sword. “For the true king, above all kings!” I declared with the last of my strength.
Groaning in terror, the lion sunk in a glorious heap before me. And in that moment, I knew in my heart that I had set my people free, and I could never have done it on my own.
“Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” Eph. 6:13-17 (NIV)