I do not remember the name of this town. No one does.
It’s less than a day’s ride from Tira, our home, and I have never been here before. It must have been a pretty town once, on the hillside where little golden irises grow among the weeds and when the sun rises it crosses the land just so, turning the nearby stream all to shining silver.
From up here, the world is beautiful.
The thatching has fallen on all of the houses, but the walls are beautiful, dark wood. The wall around the city has crumbled, its round stones scattered in the grass. But still, it had a wall once. Something to keep people safe. It was a home, once.
And yet we do not know its name.
“Did it ever have a name?” Panos asks when I wonder about this aloud. He shrugs. He is squinting at some bit of armor he’s found in the field–a helmet, or a piece of one. All the folk are picking over things, turning stones, looking at what might be left. Someone has found a little gold ring, but I think they would rather have found food. “Sometimes little places like this don’t.”
“Elias would have known,” Selene says, but the king’s cartographer is long since dead. And any maps or books he left are back in Tira, finishing their lives as kindling.
There are no answers.
A man screams and drops a stone on the ground.
There are dead children in the well. They have been covered over with heavy rocks and when Mihail and his men heave the stones out to see if there’s water, the sour scent of death escapes. Someone is crying. Maggots wriggle among sagging flesh, fat and yellow.
“Plague,” Mihail says and turns away, face white. His eyes are bright with tears.
Strange, that after so much death, we all still feel the prick of the needle.
There are no answers.
We put the stones back, one by one, and when I reach in to help, my hand brushes one of the children’s hands and for a moment I think his fingers move. I run away to be sick behind a house, in the crabgrass, where no one will see me.
It’s out behind this house that I first notice that we aren’t here alone. The sound is a quiet one: a breath, held, the first mewl of a sob stifled. It comes from the window above me, set high upon the wall so that I must stand on the very tips of my toes to look in.
The light slants in through the window, casting a swathe of gold across the dirty rushes. There is nothing, at first, and more nothing, and then: a shadow huddled in the corner. Two shadows. One small, tucked against the larger, who holds what looks to be a knife. A child, crying.
My heart clenches. I leave, quick and quiet, as my feet are skilled at being.
Four words, spoken quietly: We are not alone.
This is enough to bring Panos to attention. He has been helping the men stack wood for a fire at the center of town and his skin smells of sweat and dirt. The small bodies in the well: too fresh yet to be long dead; the scraps of metal in the yard: a sign of fighting, not of plague. These things my mind puts together too late, too slow.
He says nothing. I say nothing–could say nothing. My throat is closed with panic.
Step, step, I lead the way across the hillside, to the little house, home no more. I have found my spear, dropped in my haste to be away, and clutch it to keep my hands from shaking. With its tip I point at the door and make a sign with my fingers: two, and hold my hand low at the knee: one, a child.
Panos does not wait. Ax in hand, he kicks and the door splits open. Crack. Like thunder.
But the man inside is prepared. The child cries, I don’t see what happens to him. The Thane comes out, face greased and covered in soot. A clay pot hits Panos across the head and the shards go flying; he falls. I have a breath to wonder: where are the others?
Fighting, all across the hillside, other Thanes who have come to collect their dead children, their tithe. They are greased and soot covered, they are wild.
And then I have no time to wonder. The Thane is on me, his sour breath in my face, making the bile rise. I kick my heels and break his grip, fumbling my spear. He is startled and I know I could do it. I could move my shoulders: one quick strike, drive the spear into his belly. Done.
But I am a coward, too sick with fear to move.
And in that instant he acts, lunging. He has his little dagger, covered in blood, and he isn’t afraid. It hisses for my gut, but I twist away, I run. We dance across the hillside, he advancing, me retreating.
Once, I stick the spear down between his feet, but he stumbles and turns it to his advantage. His blade scores my ribs and blood splatters the stones. I fall forward into him. His skin is hot, his muscles tense. I will die like this, I know.
But not without a fight. I twist, I howl, I break away. He grabs my wrists, I wrench back and hit a tree. No where to run. He lunges, again and his heel slips upon a stone. Back, back, he falls. His head cracks upon the stone. There is blood–so much blood upon the stone, but still his body moves, twitching, his chest heaving with ragged breaths.
I put the spear tip to his chest. To kill him now would be a mercy, an end to his suffering. It would be easy. The anger flares in me and I so want to do it, but my hand shakes. There is no strength in me. I cry out, but I cannot do it.
I am about to turn around, about to leave, when Panos approaches, soaked in sweat and red up to his elbows. He has lost his ax somewhere, in someone. I think he wants to do me harm for leading him into the trap, but he grabs my hand, he keeps me still.
He drives my hand and the spear down. The bone cracks, the flesh splits, the heart gives way.
“Forward, Agapios,” he says, and spits. The spit is orange and red with blood. “We can’t be the men we were, once. None of us can.”
What happens after? I don’t know. I stand numb for a long time–long enough that the sun bleeds down into the horizon, that my legs ache, but still I cannot move. The fighting is over. Sotiros and his men have dealt with it. And still I can do nothing but stare down into those eyes below me, that had once been filled with such a fire, that burned to see me dead. And yet it makes me want to weep.
There are no answers.
“Agapios, come over here,” Panos says, and it breaks me from stupor. He calls from the doorway of a squat building. “You’ll want this for your book.”
I move without will, without effort. I drift, a ghost, into the room.
Where a man sits tied upon a chair. A Thane, bloodied around the head, the tips of two fingers missing, pared down to the second knuckle.
“Why are you here?” Panos asks. No answer. He turns to the shadows. “My lord?”
I see then: the king is there. He looks younger now than even before, the way he stares at the man in the chair, wide eyed. I don’t know why he should be there, or why Panos should ask of him. He has never been a kingly man.
“Yes,” the king says, and Panos cuts another finger. The Thanes howls.
“My lord,” Sotiros says. “This isn’t right.”
“These were my people, weren’t they?” the king asks, and it isn’t indignant. It is truly wondering, as if he has forgotten even that. As if nothing makes sense. It doesn’t. Sotiros nods, grudging. “I didn’t protect them,” he says, sad. “I’ll make it right.”
Another finger. Why are you here. How long have you been here.
“A season. A full season full of sacrifice.” The words come out, forced, in Thannish, that thick pig-tongue. Blood dribbles out of his mouth as he speaks the words. “The children will go down into the earth and wake the behemoths. The giants will come back as the heralds of the gods. Weep! They wake, even now!”
Panos’ hand cracks hard across his face. A tooth, its root still attached, skitters across the floor.
“What do you mean?” Panos asks. “What have you seen?”
There is more, but I cannot hear it. The scent of blood is rising. It is sticking to my skin, like sap, and I fear if I stay I will never be rid of it. I run, because I am good at it, out into the open air. I gulp for breath I will not ever fully catch.
On the hill, I sit and look out towards Tira. It’s too dark to see the kingdom, but I remember well enough. Back in the town people are gathering by the fire, bone tired from a long day. Selene is there, I can see her dark hair, her soft, tan face warmed by the fire… I want to call for her, but I don’t. Something like pain squeezes my heart.
Mihail brings me a plate of food–roasted hare and a bit of hard bread, but it turns sour in my stomach. I should go and record what happens, but I cannot think beyond myself.
“I remember the first time I had to kill a man.” Sotiros takes a spot on the hill. He looks older tonight, somehow, as if bearing witness to the torture in that room brought out the lines in his face. The cup of ale he holds smells sweet, and he drinks from it eagerly. “How old are you, Agapios?”
Ten and seven. Ten and eight. Ten and nine. Who knows? I was born during the plague days, and we didn’t keep time, then. Days slipped into months slipped into years.
“Well, never mind that,” Sotiros says. “I wasn’t much younger than you when I had to make my first kill. I never want to kill a man if I can help it, Agapios. All men deserve life. But sometimes, they give us no choice. To let others be good, peaceful men, we must make ourselves into foul things. Do you understand?”
Yes. No. Maybe.
“That’s the way things were in Tira, back before the plague, before your time. We soldiers were revered, but in truth, we were horrible things. Tira is about truth, honor, and dignity. You grow up believing in that. But when you become a soldier, there’s no room for it. You must stab a man in the back. You must kill him, even knowing he has a family. You must do horrible things for the sake of the honor of Tira, even if it means you have no honor yourself. You make a monster of yourself so that the scholars can go on learning, the artists can go on painting, because… Without us, they would have to fight. And without them, there would be no reason to fight.”
There is quiet for a time. I did not choose this life. But then, who did? Who would? We watch the moonlight ripple on the river, slipping by below. Sotiros reaches out and touches my shoulder, gentler than I’d think. He does not smile, but his voice is kind. “It won’t get better,” he says. “But it will get easier.”
And is that good? I do not know.
Sotiros stands to go. The moon is heavy behind him, casting silver all around him and making his face dark. Please, I want to call, don’t go, and he lingers as if he’s heard me, looking first at me and then out across the ruins of the little town.
“Panos asked the Thane what the name of this place was,” he says. “It was called Tiravida, once.”
Tiravida. I lay back on the hillside and watch the stars.
For a long time, Sotiros stays there with me, sharing his silence.
There are no answers, but sometimes there are people to share the burden with. And that is something.