Fri Dec 28, 2012 6:36 am
This is a short story I'm planning to submit to a short story contest in a few days. Thoughts and opinions are welcome!
The silver blade danced downward – graceful, powerful, and beautiful right up until the moment where it hit unprotected skin and was covered in a burst of blood almost too red to be believed.
Rieve moved backwards out of the spray as his foe gave up his life, grasping at a sputtering throat wound in a fall that was anticlimactic. He turned, searching for further enemies, though he knew none were nearby. His attention had been on this last foe, but his senses had been telling him for some time that there were no more opponents nearby to fight.
He was surrounded by dead and dying. Enemies, mostly. Rieve fought alone. Always.
In the distance he saw some of his own people and they, upon catching sight of him, let out a ragged cheer. Rieve lifted his sword in a salute to his allies, then turned away, looking for any pocket of resistance that might still be left.
There were no sounds of battle. No klaxon call of trumpet, no clash of metal, no screams from enemies or allies. Rieve had been too focused on this last fight to notice as the general sounds of battle had died away, but their absence hit him now.
It cannot be over, he thought to himself desperately, walking quicker in hopes of one last holdout and one last chance to fight.
And yet it was.
As Rieve walked it became clear that this, the long-awaited final battle between the Tallen and the Kanneshi, was over. The last of the Tallen army had retreated or finally surrendered. The threat of invasion, of destruction, quelled so thoroughly that it seemed unlikely that the Tallen would attempt to invade Kannesh for generations.
Rieve’s hand went down to the medallion that hung from his neck. The Shattengriss - the legendary mark of his people’s hero and savior, carried by only the best since the beginning of Kanneshi history. People like Ceryn the Strong, Alant the Brave, and Kavin the Clever. Given to him.
Rieve’s hand lingered upon it a moment more, then he let it fall.
He looked back once more to his allies, the Kanneshi warriors who had fought so valiantly and sacrificed so much for the good of their country. The medallion didn’t belong to him but to these allies who had sacrificed everything for that which they wished for. That he carried it in their place seemed sacrilegious.
Rieve’s story, plain enough in its own right, had only been embellished with each telling. Listening, half-hidden in the shadows – for he was more comfortable in the shadows than among his fellow men, Rieve had heard all of the stories of his supposed past. The few truths the storytellers knew about him were stretched so far that he wondered if any of his true self would survive their retelling in years to come.
A hero’s guise Rieve did not have. His hair was a middling shade of brown, shorn short. His face did not inspire courage, nor did his body inspire envy. Rieve was neither handsome nor commanding, but truly and simply average in almost every way. He seldom spoke and when he did his voice was apt to falter if too many people were listening. As of late too many people were always listening so Rieve kept silent and let them assume as they would.
Stories had it that Rieve was a noble in disguise, or was a **** child of noble blood. Or one of those brave, foolish volunteers who had first begged to fight in this war before almost everyone had been required to join.
The stories had it wrong.
Rieve had been conscripted and was painfully, boringly average through all of his training. He was told that he was too cautious, too wary and too defensive to ever be anything but another soldier in the field. He’d be competent enough in a group but he had no head to lead, only to follow instructions.
The first battle had changed everything.
Rieve dismissed those thoughts – they changed nothing. He had accepted the Shattengriss when it was offered. He had known what was at stake, had known even before he read it in the High Commander's eyes. Even an uneducated commoner like himself could see that they were on the verge of losing everything to the Tallen armies. Knowing that a living hero of legend walked amongst them had heartened the Kanneshi forces – had given men hope when all had seemed lost. The surge of morale had given them the strength they'd needed to turn the tides and to beat the Tallen.
His discomfort with the title had been pointless then, and it was less than pointless now. He had chosen his path and, for better or worse, he would face the consequences of it.
In the distance he saw a figure on a white horse, followed by an entourage. A second horse followed the first. The figures were too distant for Rieve to see clearly, but by the spotlessness of the first horse he knew the first rider was high-ranking command. The riders spotted him at near the same time he spotted them and altered their course accordingly.
Rieve spared a moment to consider his appearance – mud and blood covered worn armor and clothing that had been none-too-clean before the battle – then he sighed and started towards the riders.
At least his armor was respectable. Even dirty as it was, it was easy to see that he wore only the best. The leather hide he'd used for armor during the first battle had long-since been replaced, as had the rusted scythe he'd started with.
Though Rieve knew he was no true hero, he had no fear of this particular meeting. The High Commander had given him his title and had committed to this farce. If Rieve's secret had been public, he would never have been named Shatten. Yet his secret had hidden itself well within each battle. Now that the fighting was over, it seemed likely that no one would ever know.
As he came closer to the riders, he saw the distinctive helmet that was the High Commander's trademark. It was designed, he was told, to mimic the style of the legendary helmet of Alant the Brave. The helmet was gaudily decorated and entirely impractical for battle. For a high-ranking figure who never saw the front lines, it was suitable enough. For a warrior reputed to have led forces in the Great Tallen Invasion of centuries past, it was utterly ridiculous. Alant would have indeed needed his legendary bravery to charge into battle with so poor a helmet.
“You fought well, Shatten.” The Commander said proudly as he swung off his horse. The term, one reserved for the bearer of the Shattengriss made Rieve dearly want to protest the title he knew to be a mistake, but such was not his role. He kept silent as he was meant to, bowing his head in a proper measure of respect. He heard the second figure dismount, walking to him.
Silence. The raw, expectant kind.
Rieve risked a glance upwards to gauge exactly how many people were now here and froze.
The king stood before him.
Dropping to his knees was more of a reflex than anything else. The realization that the king was there was too much. Rieve tucked one knee beneath him, and bowed his head.
“Rise Shatten.” The king’s voice, powerful and commanding, brought him back to his feet. Rieve dared a second look at the face of his ruler.
King Toren was tall enough that Rieve had to lift his head considerably in order to meet the king’s gaze. He carried himself with the air of one born to rule. Competence, ease, and courage were and made his powerful figure. Rather than command and shout orders from the back as the Tallen King had, King Toren had chosen to ride out into battle with his men in order to best lead his people. He had always been in favor of leading by action rather than dictation, and his battle scars and slightly crooked nose bore testament to this.
This was what a proper hero looked like.
There were words Rieve wanted, perhaps needed to say -- that he was not a hero; that he was far from worthy of the title that had been thrust upon him; that he hadn't intended for the farce to carry on this long. In the chaos of war he'd had little time to think of the future – he hadn't expected to survive past the final battle. Certainly, he hadn't been prepared for this.
If any of Rieve's thoughts showed upon his face, the king chose to ignore them.
“I have received word from my commander that the Tallmeshi have finally admitted defeat. They are withdrawing. In two days all will be made official. This war is over.”
Rieve knew he should have felt relief. Instead, he felt nothing. Here though, it was easy to know how he was expected to act.
“That is good, my king.” He said, allowing false relief to cross his face as if he was truly happy that this war was finally over.
King Oren laughed, a deep booming sound that seemed out of place amongst so many dead.
“Fear not warrior, I have something special in mind for you. I name you a hero of the Kanneshi. You will accompany me back to my Castle, where you shall be honored before all of the people.”
The king's voice was merry, but there was steel in that demand. Intelligence too. Rieve suspected that the king would find a way to keep him from slipping away to a quieter fate anytime soon.
Coldness replaced the numbness he had felt, settling heavily about him in a mantle much more fitting than any false accolades. Of course, it would not be as easy to slip away from notice as he'd hoped. A Shatten was a hero to the Kanneshi, but also a risk to the king. Shatten were to serve their country, and sometimes their ideas of what it was that the country needed were quite different from what the king himself would want.
Dread and despair settled heavily about him once more and Rieve bowed his head, finding it far too heavy to continue to bear.
“As you wish, my king.”
Rieve retreated from the festivities as soon as he dared. Word of his upcoming honor spread far and fast, and he’d found himself in the middle of an impromptu party.
Someone had found and brought ale to the celebration and all those able-bodied were getting as much of it as they could into themselves as fast as possible, or so it seemed. Everyone, that was, except for him.
Rieve watched the party form around him and carried his mug possessively with him. In the dark, with only the lights of the campfires to illuminate, no one could tell that the liquid he drank was clear water. Rieve grimaced as he drank it, aching to join the others but knowing better. Ale was known for its ability to loosen one’s tongue and he feared what he might confess to under its influence.
Rieve’s tent -- a worn, patchwork tent that had served him well enough through all his battles -- had been replaced during the day. As he stepped into the wagon Rieve deeply missed the change already, though not for lack of luxury. His new home was painted in deep blues and violets, with fine hangings and silks that likely cost more than he’d seen in his lifetime.
His own things, hastily re-arranged in this monstrosity seemed disorderly and out of place, as if he was imposing upon someone, and dirtying their home with his very presence.
Rieve removed his armor arranged his things, stripping down to smallclothes. His clothes, he noted, had not been replaced. Yet. He slid between the silken sheets and attempted to feel like something other than an intruder as he doused the lights.
His attempts failed and Rieve found himself up and moving again, lighting a candle as he paced around the room and attempted to sort out his thoughts. It flickered cheerily, making what could only be gold threading glimmer in the darkness. In the dim lighting, the golden bars reminded Rieve distinctly of a cage, and he froze with understanding and dread.
He had trapped himself in a gilded cage. His feelings of unease grew even sharper as Rieve realized precisely what he’d agreed to. The lie, it would continue, all of this would continue and they will go on believing him to be a hero, despite the truth. And there was nothing that Rieve could do that would stop it.
Rieve bit his lip hard to prevent any sound from betraying him. The idea of being adored as a hero was enough to make his hands shake. Heartsick and now wanting only to stop thinking and to go to sleep, Rieve climbed back into bed, back into all of the things that he had no rights to and tried once more to sleep. At this point anything would be better than the crushing despair that was overcoming him.
Heroes are strong. Heroes never mourn, never weep, Rieve reminded himself sternly, checking the emotions that threatened to overwhelm. A fake he was, but locked into the position as he was, it seemed that he had little choice but to perform.
Heroes are brave, selfless, fearless, his memory went on, and Rieve tried to squirm away from the onslaught of thoughts, and the next line which he knew was coming.
Heroes sacrifice themselves for the good of the kingdom, and they only seek death when there is no other option.
His clothes covered the scars that crisscrossed his arms and legs, and the wide scars on his side and across his stomach that he’d acquired in the frenzied charge which he had somehow survived, despite all odds. The first scars had earned him the title of Shatten. The ones that had followed had served to make the title of Shatten seem all the more appropriate to everyone around him.
Yet it was not bravery that motivated Rieve, but cowardice. His willingness to throw himself into hopeless battles wasn't because he was a hero. It was because he had hoped to die and to escape the role he'd been forced into.
Suicide is not heroism.