Once upon a time, in a green land not very far away, there was a small kingdom of rolling hills hemmed in by mountains. A king, his queen, and their son, the Prince, watched over their land and its people with kindness and benevolence.
The land’s resource was sheep. Fat, woolly sheep speckled the green hills as snow did in the winter. Though the shepherds were the ones who tended these priceless livestock, they were not thought very highly of by the warriors and soldiers who watched the towns and protected the borders.
But one day, the sheep began to disappear. The shepherds would shut the sheep in their folds at night, only to discover a dozen gone in the morning. Townsfolk murmured in the markets about how they heard strange growlings in the night, and children cried to their mothers about the howls that echoed in their dreams.
The Prince’s huntsmen and soldiers wandered into the woods, armed with bows and arrows, searching for the nameless Fear. They always returned home empty handed, but told strange tails of massive pawprints in the mud, uprooted trees with deep gashes in their bark, and places where the birds were silent. One man found the skeleton of a wolf in a gully. Another heard a growl unlike any beastly growl he’d ever heard.
The Prince determined that the reign of terror would end. It was his duty as prince to protect his people and their sheep. The Prince sallied into the woods, armed to the teeth, promising the people he would find whatever haunted the forest and bring back its head.
The people watched the edge of the forest, peering worriedly into its dark shadows. At the end of one long day and one long night, the watchmen saw the Prince plunge from the undergrowth, his face as white a sheet. His bow was broken and his sword was bent in half.
The following morning, he went out into the towns and addressed his people.
“I have found the monster of the forest,” he announced, his strong frame visibly trembling in uncharacteristic fear. “It is the foulest creature history has ever recorded. It has the face of a lion, the hide of a dragon, the claws of a raptor, the teeth of a wild boar. It stands as tall as a cathedral and has the strength of a hundred men. Though I have been trained in all the disciplines of both hunter and soldier, I could not defeat this monster.” He bowed his head in shame. “I have wounded the Beast, but I could not slay it. To the man who braves the darkness of the woods and kills this creature, I promise a great reward and a position of governorship in the land.”
The Prince’s speech was the talk of the towns for months. Winter approached, and fireside conversations buzzed with horror stories of the Beast. A few brave men wandered into the woods, only to return hours later with white faces and chattering teeth, unable to speak of the horror they had witnessed in the mountains. The Prince increased the amount of reward gold nearly every day, but fewer and fewer men wished to venture in to the forest after the Creature.
There lived in one of the poorer villages a shepherd named Eli. Eli lived with his mother and father on a tiny farm near the outskirts of town, where the grass was scant and their sheep were always hungry. More and more of their sheep disappeared, until only one remained. The little family was now destitute, and only had enough money to feed themselves, and then only barely.
One morning at breakfast (where the family was eating warmed-over cabbage soup from the night before), Eli announced he would go into the forest to hunt the Beast.
His mother looked at him, startled, her face ashen. “No, dearest!” she cried. “How will your father and I fare without you, should the creature devour you?”
“Without that reward, we will starve,” Eli said with a resigned shrug. “We have but one sheep left, mother, and he is so thin we cannot sell him or his wool for more than a few farthings. If I can kill this Beast, then we will lack nothing. Besides, the Prince said he wounded it. Perhaps it’s weaker now, and I will have a better chance of killing it.”
“If we should lose you, Eli,” his father said, tears starting in his eyes, “we would have no more reason to live.”
Eli looked at his parents, his heart shattered by the love and fear mingled in their eyes. But go he must, or he would have to watch them starve before his eyes.
That very day he packed provisions, a knife, and his bow and arrows, and trudged into the woods.