The Survivor’s Curse/Falling Idol
“And so there I was, this bloody great scaly thing bearing down on me, and I bring up the trusty old iron and put a ball right in the bugger’s eye!” He finished, and allowed himself to be momentarily absorbed in the tide of adulation that rose from every corner of the inn.
Six men offered him a drink on the house, two maidens and one woman he knew for sure was married called out for him to sweep them away on his next adventure, a dozen children who shouldn’t have even been there cheered for more. Mouths hung open and eyes stared and hands clapped furiously as he concluded the tale.
Someone he didn’t recognise passed him another tankard and a hand seized his pipe to refill if from some other man’s supply of tobacco. It was every bit the hero’s welcome he’d expected and come to dread as he rode with the three unburdened horses and his own faithful steed from the furious Dragon’s rage.
He could tell them all that part of the tale; eager ears would lap up every word. He could embellish the story with deeds worthy of legend. He could watch them listen with baited breath as he imagined Dragonfire coming down mere yards from him, how he could have heard the roar as the great beast descended from the heavens. It would make a good story, at least.
But he could not tell them how he had lumbered, barely conscious, from the rocky crags, stumbled down the mountainside and slumped over his steed. He could never tell them of the tears that fell by the dozen as he tied together the three riderless horses that would never be mounted again. He could not ever tell anyone of the fear that gripped him at any moment that he too would be taken and devoured and lost to the ages.
He drained the tankard in one gulp, no longer feeling refreshed by the contents, and sighed. All these faces would expect something more from him. Another tale told, perhaps, or even a new one made. Yes, they would expect him to go forth once again to fight some other great evil, and he simply could not do it.
Abruptly, he stood, and forced his way through the crowd, feeling the ripple of disappointment spread as he made for the exit. Through the pike smoke and the press of unwashed bodies he fought, not meeting a single disappointed gaze, nor heeding a single pleading word. He stumbled out onto the wooden walkway and slammed the door shut behind him, bracing it with his weight before eager observers could force it open.
Slowly, he sank to the ground, and cast off his dented and pitted armour. The bracers and helmet he set at his side, and then unclasped the cuirass, letting it fall away at the front before shifting and allowing the rear plate to slide down behind him. He reached round and cast it aside, completing the pile of worn metal.
In the night air, sounds from inside barely seemed to reach him; a few steps had altogether separated him from their world. A honed warrior’s sense told him a scuffle had broken out within the inn, and that it was safe to move away from the door; anyone inside would be too busy not getting battered to pursue him.
He rested his hands on the wooden fencing that stood between him and the black water below, and stared into it, seeing the rippling reflections gaze back. A mirror of the stars above was so far distant from its heavenly origin, and the lights that shone in the water were lesser than those in the air.
His own face, too, was something different; the mirror-him did not have the tears on his cheeks, or old scars on his brow, or a permanent frown etched on his visage. It did not carry the burden of lost comrades on a foolish errand, or the expectation of greater victories born from a single lucky escape. It was another him, and maybe, it was the him he used to be.
Maybe, that was why the followed him, even into the dragon’s lair, that most ancient of terrors. Yes, they followed that younger, stronger, better man. The man not yet a hero. They followed him, and he hated them for it.
The two brothers who had fallen as the others tried to escape, barely more than boys. They could still be brawling in the desert dust if they hadn’t seen something in him that made them follow. That brave shield-maiden from the north that stood by him until the very last, until she too was torn apart could be with her tribe, none the wiser but safe, so safe. The toff’s boy, out for adventure, could still be with his father, pestering him for the coin to travel the land, bored but alive.
But no, they had all followed him blindly, as so many men had before, and now they too were dead. Dead like the band that stood with him at the Grey Pass against the Orcen, or the army he led in retreat at the Fields of Fire. All those men and women and boys that would haunt his dreams, all following that man that stared back from the calm waters.
The reflection was shattered, the mirror cracked by the point of his sword as he hurled it down into the depths of the water. He didn’t even realise he had drawn the blade, and now it was gone, sunk to the depths of that stilling lake, lost.
Next to fall were the gauntlets, cast from his wrists into the dark water, and piece by piece, the rest of the armour was similarly discarded. Piece by piece, he stepped away from that life that had seen so much death, and stared aimlessly into the night for something new. The sounds from behind him subsided, and soon, all was silent, cold and still. The water settled, the dark closed in, and he was left to wonder. What now?
The boy watched from the shadows as this hero of heroes stared, mad-eyed and motionless, into the dark. He was unarmoured now, and there was no sword at his side. For a moment, the boy did not understand; the stories of the bold Dragonslayer and the broken figured before him trying desperately to reconcile themselves in his fevered imagination.
How could this man, so bold and proud and might, be reduced to something so mortal, so fragile? In the moonlight, the boy thought he saw tears on the old warrior’s face, and this too he did not understand. Brave warriors did not cry. Little boys, scared of their schoolmasters, cried. Mothers watching their sons leave for glorious battle cried. But warriors did not.
Seized by a concoction of boyish intrigue and a slight fear, not for himself but for the man before him, he stepped out onto the walkway, out of the shadow of in inn, and stood quite visible in the moonlight. The warrior did not turn. He took another step, and another and another.
Loud, so loud, a plank creaked under his foot, and in a flash the warrior turned, suddenly alert, hands going for a blade that was not as hit side. Then, frozen as if bewitched, he seemed to wither a dozen years, and collapsed to his knees, eyes fixed with horror on the boy.
The boy didn’t step back, or run away, or do any of the cowardly things that the voice in the back of his head commanded, and nor did he heed the imagined warnings of his mother about talking to strangers at night. This was no stranger; this man was a hero, and he knew it. There was nothing else to do, in that childhood mind.
“’Scuse me, Sir. Yer all right, en’t ya?” he asked, taking another tentative step forward. The man made no reply. “I asked if you was all right.” He repeated. Still nothing but the look of terror on the warrior’s face. The boy laughed in the moonlight. “Ha, ‘course yer all right, yer a man, and a hero, and you’s killed dragons, en’t ya? ‘Course yer all right. Just a bit too much o’ the ale, then?”
He turn cheerily to go, leaving the warrior to his silent madness. What more could he do?
Before he could take a step, an icy cold hand closed around his trailing wrist, and the boy turned again, to stare into those incensed eyes that were only inches from his own. He slowly withdrew his arm, and it slipped through suddenly relaxed fingers. He could almost feel the strength of this greatest of men ebbing away.
“Yer all right, Sir?” he asked for the third time, this time unable to hide the tremor in his voice that existed somewhere between fright and awe.
“No, lad, I’m not, and I shan’t imagine I will be.” He replied sullenly, and the boy felt his heart beating faster. The Dragonslayer, the legend himself, was deigning to talk to him. It took him too long to find words, and the warrior spoke again. “Not all right. There’s good men and a good woman dead because of me, and I come back, and they call me a hero.” At this point, the boy had no choice but to interject; he would not be lied to.
“Buy y’are a hero!” he insisted. “Who else’d creep inta a Dragon’s lair and face the beast? Who else’d beat it? You gotta be, sir, ‘cos all them folks in there think y’are. Yer an ‘ero to them, sir. Yer an ‘ero to me.” His voice trailed off.
“A hero to you? Tell me, boy, you ever lifted a sword? Fired a gun? Course you haven’t, and mark my words, you die having done none of them things, you’ll die an old and lucky man.”
“But what about the glory, sir? The adventure? Surely that’s worth it, en’t it?” He gave a hollow bark, shattering the night quiet.
“Glory? What do we know of glory, we warriors? We make our living in other men’s death, and taking what don’t below to us, and we come back and you think us good men for it. There’s no glory in the killing, boy, and even less in the deaths.” He wiped a tear from his unblinking eye, and the boy could tell he was nearly sobbing.
“Ya lost someone, sir?” he asked, and the man nodded, nearly whimpering, so far apart from the bold, brash and confident façade he had worn inside. Without knowing quite why, the boy placed a hand on his shoulder. “Then I’m sorry, sir, for yer loss. But grieving won’t bring ‘em back.”
“You think I don’t know that, boy?” the man shook his hand away, and rose to his full height. He glared down, a shadow against the moon, and almost snarled. “They’re not coming back, boy, and neither am I. You’ve had your hero, you’ve watched him, now you’ve met him. Tell me, boy,” he went on, leaning in closer, “am I what you expected? Eh? EH? Is this the man you think of as a hero?”
The boy stepped back, uncertain, and for the first time realising he had been scared the whole time, but too proud in front of this man he praised so highly to admit it. His breaths became shallower, his hands got clammy. It was all he could do not to run.
“Nnn…no, sir. It en’t.”
“And what was it you did expect? Tell me, boy!”
Just a few more moments. A few more moments, and the guards would come, and they’d take this mad man away. Just a few more moments.
“To tell the truth, sir, I expected something… better.”
“Better, sir.” The boy laughed, and then laughed at the fact he was laughing. It was a brittle, shaking laugh, but it was a laugh. “’Cos all them things ya did; I thought all of ’em was for us, and I thought that ya’d know that, and that that was why ya did them in the first place. But no. No, you did them for yerself, and yer gonna stop doing them now, for yerself.”
“I have that right, boy.” he seethed.
“No, you don’t. ‘Cos when you picked up that sword, and killed them men and orcs and whatnots, we was safe, and we trusted in ya to keep us that way. And now yer walking away and ya don’t get it. You got a duty to us, sir, and if you don’t do it, all of us is gonna die someday.”
There was no answer, and by the time the boy had finished looking around, even the sound of boot steps was fading into the night, leaving him there to cry like he had been wanting to ever since he saw that man, staring into the dark.
He cried for that man he knew he’d never see again, and his friends that he’d never see, and cried for himself for the lie he’d believed. But most of all, he cried for those people, safe and snug in their beds, that had no one now to defend them.
And in that moment, he knew what he would do, and the world seems to fall away to let him.
A boy’s hand plunges into icy midnight water, sending ripples across the surface, smudging reflections out of existence.
Thin fingers fumble in the dark, groping for something they had lost, desperately trying to hold on to nothingness
After an age of wandering they find their prize, seize it, and pull, five fingers on cold metal, and soon they are joined by five more in that struggle to pull from the depths a memory and a ghost and a shadow.
And then it is done, and the hands rise, and a blade pulls free from the silt, soaring upwards and glinting in the moonlight. The metal reflected a smile; it had a purpose again.
- For this piece, I've adopted two rather different and idiosyncratic narrative viewpoints, in an effort to create contrast between young and old, reality and expectation, despair and hope and experience and innocence. Interestingly, though, by the end of the piece the young boy ends up claiming a moral high ground over his former hero, in many ways growing as a character just through his 1000 or so words of involvement. He's certainly not the same at the start as at the end.
- The other thing I inadvertently found myself doing with this one was fulfilling a brief I read months ago in which one character teaches another, but in turn learns something profound through the process. However, in this case, that comes through the presentation of the learner rather than the teacher, so it's left to the imagination to decide what exactly was learned by the elder 'teacher'. It also highlights the fine line between wisdom and naivety; the boy may seem to be idealistic and childish, but above all he's right, which is part of what triggers the reaction.
- The last section is really groundwork for expanding the story rather than this piece itself, but I thought I'd leave it in for the sake of it. Perhaps unfortunately, I now envision a much larger work growing from this, so I shall see where this leads...
As always, thanks for reading, and feel free to leave a comment below.