Aphelion Issue 219, Volume 21
July 2017
 
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No More Heroes

by Mark Ward


As the sun fled west and the shadows rose, the camp followers began to leave, abandoning the soldiers gathered on the plain to let them prepare for the coming battle.

On the hillside above the encampment, Kounelis watched them as he laid out a bedroll. The other seers had made space for him near the fire but he picked his own spot at the edge of the light cast by the blaze. Since the augury had revealed him as the caller of Telikos, the greatest hero of the Enchros, everyone had wished him well, even those that looked skeptical that a boy could manage the feat. His back was stiff from being slapped so often and his hand felt tight from being shaken so much.

He lay, cloak rolled beneath his head as a pillow, and watched the followers leave. At first it was just one or two, sutlers bent under bulging sacks or traders in bullock carts. Then came merchants in creaking horse-drawn wagons, liquor sellers with their clanking ladles, whores and, last of all, wives and children. Some wept, some laughed, a few were drunk but most stayed silent as they trod the path over the hill and into the twilight beyond -- the first steps on the long journey to Pelemos and home.

Sleep was scarce that night. Through the moonless hours Kounelis felt every step pressed into the dusty path. The passing crowd tramped through his fitful dreams and when the footfalls outpaced his pulse he struggled awake, unsure whether his heart would go on or just stop. More than once he reached out for his water bottle only to remember that it had been lost during the last retreat, the rout when the Chamenos had fled the field when magic had failed, again, to bring their heroes back. And now here they were, awaiting the last battle, the last chance to call forth the greatest hero.

He abandoned sleep when the rosy fingers of dawn started to reach over the mountains that lay slumped at the far side of the plain like a vast, black carcass. The rough blanket tickled his chin as he watched the rising light dim the glittering constellations that had wheeled above him throughout the long night. The first stars to be lost to the blooming day formed the Archer's legs. Next would be the Ox, the Cooking Pot then the Lost Children. He obscured each one with a thumb as he counted them off. Giatros said the constellations were always there, during the day, the brightness of the sun outshone them. Since then, more so when his conscience bent his back like a yoke, he wondered if a great power watched him...

He cried out as a dark figure loomed over him.

"Save your screams, boy, they'll be need of them when you're in the line."

"Chrismos?"

"Aye. Up with you. I've work for you on this great day."

Kounelis stood then skipped back as warm liquid pattered on his toes.

"What is...?"

Chrismos hoisted a rabbit by its ears, skull socketed in his palm. Its long back legs trembled, its nimble tongue flickered around its whiskers and its eyes rolled white and black. It stunk of sweat and fear.

"I need something from soldiers, officers, horses, all of them, if the augury is to work. Away with you, now. Be quick about it."

Kounelis jogged down the hill, stretching to shed the weariness within, rubbing his face as a cavernous yawn broke free. He turned back as the rabbit's shriek cut through the night. The lip of the sun cleared the mountains and light kissed the bloody blade which dazzled Kounelis for a moment before Chrismos brought it down again. The day rushed in as if the stroke had cut the last cable holding back the night. Kounelis turned and for a moment outpaced the light. Then it overtook him, surged down the hill and through the Chamenos camp making the small fires dotted here and there stutter. He stopped as the Enchros camp was revealed -- far bigger than the Chamenos'. The light skated over the patchwork of tents letting the night finish its business with the soldiers bivouacked there. The enemy camp fires burned strong in the brightening day.

A soldier wearing loin cloth and sandals, shirt flung over a shoulder, strode past as he gaped.

"Good day for it, son."

"Aye, none better," said Kounelis.

The old soldier stopped, eyebrows raised, head cocked.

"Sir. None better, sir."

"Good." He smiled, ruffled Kounelis' hair and headed toward the latrines. Kounelis stretched again and looked about the encampment that straddled the road. This side it had only a few guards spaced along the low dirt walls. He stepped up on the earthwork and shaded his eyes. Bustle rattled all around. Wherever he looked men stretched, pissed, joked and scratched -- sometimes all at once. Blankets were rolled and stowed, bowls and spoons rooted out and fires coaxed to life.

He stepped down and followed his nose towards where Archimageiras shouted at his lackeys as they prepared food. "Big day today, boys, don't want any of these heroes headed to Heaven or Hades on an empty stomach!" Kounelis snagged a hunk of bread from a heap on a table, then a wooden bowl from a pile nearby and headed to a cauldron where a sweating boy stirred the barley porridge.

He held out the bowl but the boy ignored him, shoulders bunched like a galley slave as he forced the big spoon through the thick porridge.

"Not ready yet," he said, not looking up.

"Just give me some," said Kounelis.

"No, I...ow!"

Archimageiras plucked the spoon before it sank in the pot as the stirrer stood aside rubbing his crimson ear.

"Fool, idiot boy. Sorry, Kounelis. Pay him no mind. Here..." He lifted a heavy dollop into Kounelis' bowl.

"Thanks."

"No matter. Take this too. The last bit I could scrape up." He pulled a scruffy twist of wax paper from his apron pocket. Kounelis sniffed it and grinned. "Honey!"

"Not even our good leader Xifos is getting honey today. Do us proud, lad." Archimageiras smiled as Kounelis walked away. Near Xifos' tent Kounelis perched on a broken barrel and ate. While he sat many who passed by raised a hand, shouted greetings or asked to be remembered to Telikos. Kounelis nodded, waved with the spoon and smiled around mouthfuls.

A small, neat man with a linen towel over one shoulder and carrying a brass bowl left the tent. Kounelis stood, swallowed the last hunk of porridge and said: "Rafi, wait. A word."

"You'll want more than that, my lad. Chrismos sent you has he?"

Kounelis nodded. "For the..."

"Augury, yes. No doubt."

Rafi squatted and put down the brass bowl. On the dirty water within sailed a flotilla of foam. He plucked a razor from his belt and scraped soap and whiskers from the towel.

"How do you feel?" Rafi asked.

"Weary, didn't sleep much."

"Hmph, no-one did I'll bet. Xifos certainly didn't. But really, how do you feel?"

"Do you mean will I get through to Telikos? And will he save us? Of course." Kounelis snorted. "We're outnumbered by an enemy that has beaten us twice already, and if we don't hold them here the road to Pelemos lies open. The odds he likes best."

"Good." Rafi nodded then sloshed dirty water over the razor to swill the crust of soap and whiskers that clung to it into Kounelis' bowl. "Now, go".

Kounelis went to Giatros next who dropped a bloody sponge in the bowl, fresh from the operating table. He got twists of leather and a smile from Stratiotis as he re-worked the binding on the hilt of his sword. Lonchi plucked a hair from his plume and his horse's mane and dropped them in. Toxotis gave him a chunk of the rosin he used to wax his bow string and ruffled his hair as he left. As he walked soldiers hailed him, wished him well, called out Telikos' name or hurried over. The bowl filled with their spit, fetishes, charms, trophies, rings, and plucked hairs. As he headed uphill toward Chrismos and the other seers the camp rang with the name -- Telikos, Telikos, Telikos. It felt like the hero was raised from his rest and set at the head of the army ready for the battle.

Halfway up the hill he stumbled, almost fell, stood stock still as the sludgy liquid sloshed around the bowl seeking the lip of it. It was that easy for it to go wrong. Perhaps he was too tired. Perhaps, no, there was no perhaps. Today was the day. The last chance.

Kounelis placed each foot with care as he continued up the hill. Only looking up when he pushed through the seers gathered around Chrismos.

"You took your time," growled the old man as he took the bowl and put it in the fire pit. Bowing, Kounelis joined the circle of seers and added his voice to the chant. The embers flared at each line. Chrismos dropped the rabbit's innards in the bowl. The chanting fell to a whisper and flames darted up the bowl's side as if to glance inside. The broth roiled and shuddered. Chrismos held a hand over it, crooning. The liquid calmed and turned milky as a cataract. A black island bloomed within, then was overwhelmed. Again and again.

Trumpets sounded on the plain. The Enchros forces broke and wheeled, getting into formation.

"It has begun," Chrismos said. "To your men, make the calls loud and clear. We need heroes today. As ever the signs are with us."

####

Kounelis paced in the gap between the archers and the foot soldiers. Magic bloomed all around and made walking an effort. It made the hairs on his forearms crackle inside his gauntlets.

The power bucked. He looked across the plain. The Enchros shields parted and cavalry trotted through. With the horsemen clear the shields closed up. They're well drilled, thought Kounelis. An Enchros officer rode out and drew his sword which flared brassy in the sun. He pointed to dress the line as his horse pranced, snorted and pawed the ground.

Trumpets sounded up and down the Chamenos lines. "We know," muttered Kounelis.

As he stamped past Toxotis the archer whispered: "Stop it. Stop your pacing."

"What?"

Toxotis' tone was urgent. "You're making people nervous. See?"

Kounelis glanced at the archers. Some looked away, others touched their noses or busied themselves checking strings and arrows.

"It's not as if this if your first time. How many times has it been now?"

"Too many."

"All the times we've been through this together. I'm surprised at you," said Toxotis, frowning.

Kounelis looked at the archer, someone he had never had to call back, who had always been there and who had taught him to survive on the battlefield. Then he said: "This is the bit I hate. You know that. The waiting."

"The waiting I can stand," said Toxotis. "I'm in no hurry to get this started. I'm not sure you are either. Make sure you're ready for it, for calling Telikos."

"I'm ready. I just hope he is," said Kounelis.

"Now, none of that," said Toxotis. He leaned on his bow and pointed with his chin at the phalanx off to the left. "Look over there."

"What am I...?"

"See how the spears wave, like wheat in the wind? Nerves, 'cos they're new to this. Same the other side. Look at them twitch. Cundis has called to settle them plenty of times."

"But they're not novices, they've..."

"Aye, but they're next to Xifos and his honour guard. They don't want to look bad next to the general now do they? And us, look, what're we doing?"

Kounelis looked over the ranks of infantry, the spaces in the ranks for fallen comrades he was charged with calling back to fight again, but the soldiers moved little except to re-assure themselves about their sword, the binding on their shield arm or space to swing their blade.

"We're just waiting," said Kounelis. "Hitching our belts and waiting."

"We are, but more of your fidgeting, more of that talk about failure and we'll doing the same. Hush now. It won't be long," said Toxotis, then louder: "Listen, lads. We'll be using the heavy points, so pull harder to make them reach. Hit the horses, take them and when they fall they'll do the rest. Make sure of your mark. Come on now, follow me."

The archers jogged forward and the infantry swung shields aside to let them pass. Once in front they jabbed their arrows in the turf as the Enchros cavalry moved to canter.

Dizzy, Kounelis squatted and took his weight on his hands as a whiplash of magic thrummed through him. He grunted, took hold of it and dredged up memories of the dead. When he looked up the holes in the ranks were filled. The returned soldiers gaped, laughed, hugged comrades as quick as they could and took up their place again.

The hooves became a rumble Kounelis felt through his boots.

"Steady lads. Set yourselves," said Toxotis, his voice calm. The archers plucked their arrows from the earth and notched them.

Another gust of magic blew through. Kounelis gritted his teeth, tasting copper, as he tried to seize it by force of mind. It danced away. Perhaps it was too soon. Bowstrings hummed as archers notched their arrows.

The riders leaned low, pointing their swords. The horizon was all horse, coming on, and on, relentless. Hooves booming.

"Pick your mark."

The magic kicked him in the gut. So strong it staggered him.

"Fire!"

The arrows shattered the line. Chargers rolled and stumbled, their tumble taking riders and other horses under in a thundering fall. Shrieks, throaty screams, whinnying. Horses panicked, struggled and stamped down to right themselves. Bloody hooves marked the earth. Kounelis felt the power leak away.

One rider, helmet gone and his face a mask of blood staggered forward and fell at Spathi's feet. The slim infantryman reached over and stabbed him where he lay.

Further back, behind the mounds of fallen chargers one horse nuzzled its rider who lay, as if sleeping, on the turf. It lifted its head as the archers moved back and the infantry closed the shield wall. Its ears flicked forward as swords were drawn, then it galloped back toward the Enchros lines.

"Come on!" shouted Spathi, bloody sword held high. He took a step forward, then another and started to run, screaming defiance at the Enchros. "Come onnnnnnn! Come onnnnnn!"

In a moment the phalanx was with him, screaming, sprinting across the grass. Then another, and another and then the whole army rushed across the plain, whooping and laughing. The surge caught the Enchros cavalry preparing to charge. The Chamenos got in among them, pulling riders down, slapping horses, panicking them to ride into the Enchros lines. Kounelis ran, feeling invincible as he sprinted, clothed in power, the magic ready and waiting. He used it to shatter the buckles on his gauntlets and cuirass. They fell away leaving him with trews, shield and blade. Bare-chested, brazen, he ran toward the sun and the ranks of the enemy.

He dodged a sword slash and cannoned into the man behind the blade, bowling him over. Kounelis stood on his chest and brought his blade down. The impact rattled his teeth. He levered the blade free of the man's jaw as another soldier came at him. He stepped inside the man's guard and thrust up. The sword point punched through soft skin and lodged beneath the man's jaw. As he fall gurgling the sword went too, hilt rattling on his breastplate. Kounelis dragged the sword from the man's quivering hand and plunged on.

Away to the right the air crackled and pulsed. A booming laugh broke out. Men shouted, shrieked and then: "Gelios! Gelios is with us!"

The laughing axeman? So soon? Someone had done well to call him back.

He turned to face a new recruit judging by the wide eyes peeping over the shield and the wavering point of his sword. Kounelis made sure of his grip like Spathi had told him and advanced. The boy held his ground, for a moment, then took a half step back. Kounelis bore in, kicked the boy's shield to startle him then with a ringing blow struck the sword away and on the return stroke let the weight of the blade cleave his throat to the bone.

A troop of Chamenos soldiers jogged past lead by Spathi. He beckoned to Kounelis and said: "Let's go lad, no time to dally here."

Kounelis joined the troop as it tackled a knot of Enchros soldiers. The fight was furious, sparks from clashing blades stung Kounelis' arm as he fought back to back with Spathi. He felt a bump against his side and turned to see blood trickling from a narrow gash, the blade that made the cut jutting from Spathi's back. Spathi jerked, the blade withdrew, blood welled like a sob and Spathi crashed in the dust. Kounelis cried out, whirled and struck Spathi's attacker with such force that his blade was torn from his hand as the man fell.

He knelt, lifted Spathi on to his knees and comforted the man as he cried out. Kounelis wept, praying Spathi would die so he could call him back, wishing the old soldier an easy passage. Spathi gripped Kounelis' shoulder like he wanted to stand, tensed then fell back. A final gout of blood washed across Kounelis' knees then sizzled as a gust of power blew past.

Kounelis stood and reached for the magic but it blew out too fast to grasp. He looked at the press of soldiers all around. The Enchros had gathered themselves now the momentum of the Chamenos' rush across the plain was spent. The dark blue of the Enchros forces were merging into solid lines, officers bawled as phalanxes reformed and every Chamenos soldier faced two or three foes.

He looked down at Spathi and saw nothing but a dead man in the dust. No glory, no honour, just an old man leaking the last of his life out upon the dirt. If he could call him back now he might, but for what, to die again...

Kounelis reared back as a spear point flashed past his eyes. He hoisted his shield to turn the next thrust but the spear came in flat, slapping the wood, leaving his arm hanging numb. It took an age to raise his blade, as the spear pulled back, steadied and bore in again. Kounelis fell left and slashed right shearing the spear behind the point. The jagged shaft came on and tore into his shoulder, pushing him back to fall in the dust.

He lay helpless, feeling the blood spill from his shoulder and watching as the spearman drew a short blade and stepped forward, looming over him a black outline against the sun. The power stirred beneath Kounelis like water and he plunged into it as the shining sword shattered him with its light.

####

The darkness cleared and Kounelis felt warm sand beneath him. He pushed up, winced, and glanced at his shoulder. Splinters jutted from the ragged wound but he felt no pain. Reaching round he grasped the largest splinter, drew breath to stifle a scream, then stopped and frowned. He held up a hand and blew on it but felt no breath.

He sat at the centre of a vast plain encircled by high mountains. At one end of the plain hung a weak wintry sun, at the other skulked a full moon.

"Welcome, traveler," said a man sitting cross-legged by a campfire.

Kounelis took in the noble bearing and simple linen tunic then gasped and fell to his knees.

"Telikos, great Telikos. I come to you in our most pressing hour. Help us great Telikos, come back to the mortal realm and aid us in our turmoil. With your great strength we can send our enemies running before us like dogs and taste sweet victory again."

"No."

"We implore you great Telikos, arm yourself with spear and sword, return with me. Our last great battle is begun and we fight for our very survival. We have taken the fight to the enemy, the Enchros, and many heroes will be made today. But we need you, I ask you, come now and lend us your strength that we might..."

"No."

"But every other time you have aided us, you have come clothed in glory to lead us on to great heights of victory, this could be our greatest day we face such numbers that..."

"No, and stop this begging. No man should spend so long on his knees. Get up. I am sick of war and will not return solely to die again."

"Sick? But that is all, every time you have..."

"No, I tell you. No. Too many times has my destiny lain within another man's gift. Too many times have I been called to ruin, to make widows and orphans and kill men for another man's reasons. Enough. I have seen the standard raised and fall, have marched to it and the trumpet's call, died all the ways a man can in combat, poured my blood on battlefields across the land, sowed it as widely as any farmer but with less care and I have no stomach for that anymore. I refuse. Enough."

Kounelis scrambled over and sat hugging his knees watching Telikos as he added wood to the fire and drove the flames high.

"Then we are lost," said Kounelis. "Without you we cannot hope to defeat the Enchros, they face us in too great a number. Our cause, our nation is lost."

"Aye, and good riddance to it. I have watched its rise with horror as a father would his sons as they abused the lessons they learned at his knee. If I fought for anything it was to create a nation of heroes, wise warriors, and I see that it has raised nothing but slaughtermen. Enough. You talk of greater causes and I have one, the nation of myself -- a thousand times perhaps I have died, and my people call to me in their pain for this to cease and that at least I can grant."

"But the gods, our destiny, the seers show the prophecies, how this is what we are called to do..."

"Gods? I have seen none and have lived here far longer than any man would wish to, trapped, but no scent or sight of a god have I ever seen. If they do exist then I suspect we are tiny to them, beyond notice. I remember a night spent in Lemnos, in a house high up the cliff above the city. The first day of peace, of home from war but something would not let me sleep. The room was warm, the window open to the soft night and I leant on the sill to look out at the sleeping city. There in the curtain, trapped, was a moth, rattling against the cotton. I cupped it in my hands and freed it, set it loose in the night. I think, if there are gods, we are to them like that moth. And nothing to be cherished or saved just a mote to catch their attention and then be turned loose."

"So you would leave us to die, to perish, unmourned?"

"Plenty will mourn you, plenty have. Do you not see that victory is a curse? The defeated can change, must, to learn the lesson they have been dealt. But victory? Victory teaches nothing but arrogance, it confirms the braggart in his strength and leaves him no sense of what he has taken on or what he must do to truly deserve the honour."

Kounelis stood. "Then I will go back and help, pit my strength where I can to aid our fight. There might still be heroes, even if we all perish in the task."

"Have you learned nothing? Here, the greatest hour of your need and you can think of nothing more than fighting?"

"That is all I know, all we know." Tears spilled down his face. "My first memories are of flight, war, and my parents died to save me from the siege at Lepida. I have been raised by the army, it has been my father, my mother and everything I know. That is why I am here. My friends have died today, perhaps all of them. I call on you again to..."

"With or without me the Chamenos are finished, but that does not mean it ends. It will take courage to return and lay down your arms, more courage than I can muster to be beaten and go on after. History forgets the details but every hero started as just a man. The tragedy is that there is no destiny, there is just us and we must make the difference. Given the time and the place."

The flames roared high and Telikos shouted to make himself heard. "If the gods cannot help us, who can? Ask yourself that, who will make the difference?"

He raised a hand in farewell as the blaze roared higher. Kounelis lifted a hand as the fire dried his tears and clothed him in its radiance. He looked down at his hands, then up at the stars and then stepped forward into the flames.

####

Kounelis woke among the dead, the power leaching into the soil with his blood. Bodies lay heaped all around. Bent limbs stirred like grass before a breeze, the life of others slipped away and a few moaned, cursed or called for death. His first breath was thick with the meaty stench of the dead. He felt disgusted to be whole among the piled bodies. A massacre, almost none spared.

"There's one!"

"How did we miss him? Steady now, he looks lively."

"Flank him. Off to the right now, I'll go left."

"Finish him, finish him off."

The two men who approached Kounelis were covered head to foot in gore. As they neared, long knives waving, they licked their lips and the blood ran from their chins and pattered in the dust.

One feinted and the other sprang as Kounelis grasped for the failing magic and held it for a moment seeking Telikos. He faded away and the heavy blade passed through him. The attacker fell, shrieked and scrambled away across corpses which groaned as he got clear.

"Juda's tits, a seer!"

"Don't stab him again..."

"I didn't stab him once, bastard magicked out on me as I..."

"Get your rope, Basilias said he wanted this lot brought to him."

Kounelis was bound, dragged through the piled corpses to the Enchros camp then thrown down next to the ragged survivors shackled near Basilias' tent.

A strong hand grabbed his jaw and he looked up into the sneering face of Basilias.

"Where are your heroes now? None but that madman Gelios came to your aid today. See, now, what we have done. Beaten you for good and all. The Chamenos are finished." He gestured to the captives. "This is all the remains of your great army, that was a thorn in the side of this land for decades, now done. This campaign has left me sick of death but I am minded to kill you all, spare none and spare us the trouble of it starting again."

"Spare us, let us live as we are, broken," said Kounelis.

"What? Why? For what good reason should I suffer any of you to draw one more breath? I have lost too many sons, friends and allies to be merciful."

"Because though history is a poor judge, it is better to be remembered as a just man than a tyrant."

"Do you speak for the Chamenos now? As the fittest member of your nation, do you lead them?"

"I will lead them were none have taken them before, to defeat, to peace and home. Spare us and we will never fight again."

"And why should they listen, will you use magic? Or do you bid to be a hero again?"

"No, I will do it. Were any other seers spared? More that know the craft of calling?"

"Some few."

"Bring them and I will decide their fate so our magic cannot be used again."

Orders were shouted and soon a gaoler arrived leading a line of men with their hands bound tight and leather straps wound around their mouths. Kounelis nodded to them all, and when their heads were bowed, he said in a soft voice: "Kill them, kill them all. Spare us from the past."

Basilias gestured and the gaoler drew a broad knife and passed along the line cutting throats. He wiped the blade clean before every stroke.

"And you?" said Basilias, "you have emerged from this almost whole..."

"No, I have suffered, ahh!"

Basilias rolled a bloody splinter from Kounelis' shoulder between thumb and forefinger. "But not enough. What would you have me do to you to render you harmless? Hey? To show you are in earnest? Answer me or I will burn the survivors on a pyre and let the wind carry their ashes back."

"Strike off my right hand and put out an eye. I am the last seer and so maimed would be unable to teach any other the ways of magic."

"Very well." Basilias gestured and two guards grabbed Kounelis and dragged him to where a smith worked forging shackles and pinions.

One soldier held his head upon the anvil, the warm iron against his cheek, his skull socketed into the man's palm, hair in sweaty clumps beneath the strong grip. Kounelis' legs kicked as the bellows were pumped and his tongue flickered around his lips as his right arm was stretched along the anvil and held ready. The gaoler grasped his wrist and lifted his blade. He shrieked as the iron neared his eye, seared his flesh and dug deep within. He screamed again as the knife came down and took his hand. Agony drowned him as the bloody stump was thrust into bubbling pitch.

Then they flung him moaning on a bullock cart at the head of the bloody and battered rabble that trudged across the battlefield and went up over the hill, following the fleeing sun towards Pelemos and home.

THE END


© 2009 Mark Ward

Bio: .Mark Ward is a resident of Surrey, England. His stories have appeared in a number of venues, including Everyday Fiction, Futurismic, RevolutionSF, and Aoife's Kiss. His story Wood, Mud, Blood appeared in the July 2009 edition of Aphelion.

E-mail: Mark Ward

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