Cowards. So they will want to call us in time, if anyone is still living to hear these stories.
They will want to say that we could have done better, that we should have done more. That we still had swords and good, strong folk to hold them. They will look at maps of a kingdom we knew better than anyone and they will see all of the possibilities. History will distill us to that single moment–the moment we ran–and call us cowards.
But know this: we did not go lightly. And when we left, we paid a price, as all folk must who choose to run instead of fight.
“Two more dead,” Panos says, and there is bitter acid in his voice. And I know his words are true, because I have seen them in the ditch down by the river: their bodies still warm with the fever that burned through them, their bellies slashed open where the Thanes caught them with their axes. My mouth is still sour with the taste of bile, no matter how much water I drink.
“It would have been worse if we’d stayed. We all would have died,” Sotiros says, comforting.
“I know.” Panos climbs down into the swale where we’ve made our hideout, beneath the roots of a great oak tree. We mighty men brought low–driven from a castle into a ditch where we lay in wait for the sound of footsteps from above, for the Thanes who have come for us. But they never do. The wind slips by and overhead the branches whisper secrets to one another, scattering a few dry leaves, red and gold and dead. The noise is enough to make us sink further into our swale, as if the mud might keep us safe.
There are thirty of us, now, including the children–including the king. And we fight to keep close for warmth as much as comfort, teeth chattering, skin pricked with gooseflesh, pale and cold as death. A skin of wine is being passed from person to person. We three alone sit apart, whispering amongst ourselves.
“Agapios, did you make a sketch of the tree?” Panos asks. It isn’t the first time he’s asked, I can tell, but it’s the first time I heard him. I shake myself awake–aware.
I have seen that tree enough in my nightmares that I will never need to see a sketching to remember it. Long after the charcoal has faded, after the pages have crumpled, I will still remember. The pages flip, flip, flip, until the face is staring out at me and I stare back, captive to her eyes, to her gaping mouth.
Panos snatches the book out of my hand. The spell is broken. I am empty inside, hollowed out.
“What are you thinking?” Sotiros asks.
“There’s an old god from before the fall, called Val.” Panos’ fingers track the pages and I try to grab the book back as he smears mud and charcoal over them. He keeps me back. “Quiet,” he hisses, whispers, words for just us. “This might be her. She was the goddess of the druids back before the burnings, and they say they worshiped her in the shape of the trees.”
That is no goddess. That is the face of a nightmare. The face of the end of the world.
“The gods are cruel things,” Panos says, and the two of them look at me for a time. “Only you poets make them beautiful with your pretty words.” The book falls into my lap when he drops it. From a little leather pouch he finds an apple, half rotten, and he takes a bite from the fresh side.
“You really think the gods are coming back?” Sotiros asks. As if by some sign, lightning arcs across the sky, sending ripples of light between heavy clouds. He keeps his hand upon his sword now, always, but it makes none of us feel any safer.
“I think the Thanes are bringing them back.” Another bite, to the core. Panos spits the seeds out into the mud. “I think every raid has been a martyrdom. Every man we killed was a sacrifice to their work. They gave their bodies to their gods and we sent their souls in payment. The world is changing.”
Thunder cracks and the echo rumbles through the valley, shaking the earth. Someone screams, and then a hand is clamped over the young boy’s mouth.
“Maybe we should go back,” someone says.
“There’s no one out here,” another adds. “We could still make a stand back in Tira.”
“We aren’t going back,” Panos snaps.
But he doesn’t say what we all know: We can’t go back. Not even if we want to.
We’re going south, to the Minotaur. South through the plague land of Tamaris, through ruins and madness, to the end of the world. To find answers.
“To find a way to stop the Thanes. To keep the gods at bay,” Sotiros says to me. He holds up his hand and a moment later a man tosses the skin of wine to him. He drinks, and the apple of his throat bobs up and down, up and down, with each swallow. And when he finishes, he puts the skin into my hand. “Write that in your book. Honor above all.”
Honor above all.
If the king has any opinion on this, he says nothing. He has gone so pale since we’ve left Tira, as if the home sickness that folk speak of has stricken him to the bone. As if as we leave Tira, he may fade, and fade, and soon be nothing but a ghost we’ve carried with us.
“We’re leaving,” Sotiros calls as he stands up. He has a voice people listen to. One that makes them stand, even when they long to sit, even when they grumble. “Get your things. Everything you’ve brought. We’re going south. There used to be a little town south of here, no more than a day’s walk. We’ll get there and find shelter.”
“If there’s any shelter left,” one man says.
“Agapios.” Panos, there again. He holds a spear in his hand, now. It’s made of a long piece of ashwood, smoothed down so it gleams like gold, topped with its silver point. He grabs me by the arm and hauls me to my feet, sticking the spear into my hand. “You know how to use this?”
No. Yes. Not for what he means. For boars, for pigs, as all men know.
“You’ll learn quick enough,” he says.
I think of the bodies by the river: cold, now, I’m sure. Have the animals come out to feast upon what’s left of them? Or have the gods come to claim their bodies in some payment, like Panos says?
Are we going to the Minotaur because we need answers, or because we’ve all gone mad?
I cannot answer these questions, I can only write what happens. This is my duty. Honor above all. We, last vestiges of humanity, shamble ever onward, towards what we believe to be the light, and as we leave the swale the clouds part and at first the sun shines through, gold upon the green land. And then the deluge begins in full, and we are walking in the storm.
The land outside of our constant kingdom is rocky and hard. The land slopes down into little rocky valleys and rolling hills covered in thick grass. It has been at least a full year since anyone has left those walls behind us. The land does not remember us, and we don’t remember it. As long as I’ve spent in the castle, looking out from windows on this land and wondering, it’s a stranger to me now.
Sotiros leads the way, and we follow at his shadow. I use my spear as a walking stick, picking my way across the rocky path.
“Do you think there’s anyone left out there, Agapios?” Selene comes to walk beside me. She uses my arm for support. The hood of her cloak is drawn up against the rain, but a few strands of her dark, curling hair spill out all the same, and her blue eyes shine brighter for all the gloom.
No. Yes. The Thanes, at least. And gods, perhaps, if Panos is right.
But I’ve lost her attention somewhere. She’s looking at something, and then she’s walking ahead. Then she’s running up, up, to a tree that stands on a hillside, its leaves still impossibly green. She makes a circle around it. The group keeps marching on, but I go after Selene, a light in all the gloom, a flame that I’m drawn towards.
“I can’t believe it’s still here,” she says. She makes another circle around it, running, heels slipping in the wet grass. Her fingers trace the patterns in the trunk of the tree. She reaches up and touches the branches one by one, and then she’s laughing. Her eyes are bright with tears and happiness both. She runs back to me.
A tree. A tree. My heart is hammering inside of me. But there’s no face in it, as hard as I look. I see nothing.
“When I was just a little girl, my sister Alexis and I would come out here to play. Mother would go to town to buy food from the market and we would stay up on this hill and climb, and climb…” She wraps her arms around my arm. Her cloak is drenched and she doesn’t care, she’s staring up into the branches of that tall tree and wondering. And I am wondering with her. “We would make a game of seeing who could get to the top. Neither of us ever did.”
It is a big tree.
Selene laughs. At me or some memory, I don’t know.
“Isn’t it incredible? This tree is still here. I thought everything would be gone.” The branches rattle in the wind and rain water drips onto her upturned face. She puts her palm against its trunk once more, like she’s feeling for a heartbeat. “Some things are still alive after all.”
I want to say something, but what? It feels rude to intrude on the memory. She looks back at me, she smiles, as if I had said something all along. She ducks her head and, pink cheeked, hurries back off the hill. Back towards the group, turning already to shadows, hunched and walking into the wind.
I look back to where we came from, to Tira, to home.
The first grey wisp of smoke is curling up from beyond those great stone walls.
Tira is burning and no one has noticed. But I won’t tell them. History will know in time.
For us, we must move forward. Into what, I do not know.
Life, I hope.
I hurry on to join the group.