by Stars Above
Continuation of the story; this chapter introduces the character Calliope, or Calli.
|I am Calliope Ianthe, and this is my account of the Crazed King incident for the Library of the Blessed Few.
It all started with a mission. Well, really it had begun years before, but back then no one noticed that anything was even wrong; so I suppose I should begin with the part where I enter the story myself.
The roads were long, and wide, and dusty. Every time I stepped, a cloud of dust flew up into the air. I coughed and covered my face with my sleeve, glancing around at my squad. There were fifteen Guards in that squad, and I was their leader. I suppose they could have called me Sergeant, but I never did present myself as much of a commander, and I hated the title.
The Royal Guard. We were the backbone of our nation, Terra. Whenever there was a threat, we acted quickly to obliterate it. We moved where our king, the Fist of Achilles, sent us. We were the military, defense, and scouts. To become a Guard, one had to train for many years; and once accepted into the ranks, several more years of training were required. It was not easy; but without us, Terra could not have become the most powerful militant nation. Perhaps the only land that we could not conquer with relative ease would have been Bolide, despite its small size; and that was only because Bolide allowed monsters to coexist with humans, which created a stronger force than an ordinary human military.
My chainmail was heavy, but I welcomed the sense. We were there on a mission from the King himself, and it went without saying that there would be some trouble.
We approached our destination, sixty-four of the Royal Guards.
“This town is a miserable place,” I muttered.
“You can say that again,” responded Elias, falling into step beside me. “And I don’t think I’ll ever get these boots clean again.” I smiled, looking down at the dusty, uneven stone roads. Elias was one of my closest friends, a member of my squad. He and I, along with the rest of our platoon, were operating under the command of Lieutenant Brandyn Legatus. “It could be worse, though,” he mused. “They could have sent us to fight monsters.”
I shuddered. Monsters... destructive beings, with no sense of humanity, and incapable of feeling love or joy. They often attacked our civilizations, and then the Guard would be sent to protect the people of Terra from those forces of evil. The minor monsters were not as terrible; they were more of nuisances, bothering the people but not causing as much harm. The major monsters, however – those were much more powerful.
“Mind what you say, Elias,” I said, only half joking. “The last thing we want is for a dragon or hydra to swoop down out of the sky.”
“At least it would add a touch of color. Or sound,” he responded with a grin.
The setting here truly was bleak, though; indeed, it was overcast and gloomy, and the roads were made of broken, uneven stone. The buildings were a bit run-down, and with the clouds hanging heavily over the town, some of the houses gave off the impression that their roofs were caving in. No one was outside.
Head up, eyes open, Calli, whispered my father’s voice. Pay attention. In this town at least, didn’t seem like there was much to see, but when I was younger, my father taught me that not everything is what it first seems to be.
“You five,” I called, gesturing to a small group of guards nearby. “Scout ahead, check that everything’s clear.” The men glanced at each other, and then saluted me, placing their fists over their hearts. I watched them disappear into the dark streets, and then I turned back to face the town once more. It was unnervingly silent; no sound of horses or carts in the street, no children playing outside, no sounds of metal on metal in the blacksmith’s forge. Something was wrong here, my instincts warned me, but I didn’t know what.
“I need to go speak with Aleissa, okay, Calli? I’ll be right back,” Elias said quietly, observing the town much as I was.
“Of course,” I said. As he left, I looked up to the sky, watching the thick, gray clouds that obscured the sun, and wondering at the odd odor of the town. It smelled as if something was… burning.
A hand touched my shoulder and I spun, automatically reaching back with my left hand to draw my facon. “Nervous, are you?” said my would-be attacker with a laugh. His black hair reached his shoulders, much like mine, and it was pulled back with a tie; his green eyes watched me carefully.
I immediately sheathed the blade and saluted him. “Lieutenant, I apologize, sir. I was lost in thought.”
“Don’t apologize, girl. Just remember -- if I can get that close without your noticing, then so could an enemy. You must have constant vigilance if you’re to advance in the Royal Guard!”
I nodded, resisting the urge to hang my head in shame. “Yes, Lieutenant Legatus, sir.”
“Good. Now – tell me, Guard Ianthe, what do you see when you look at this town?”
I looked up in surprise. It wasn’t often that a senior Guard – especially one in command, like the Lieutenant – asked a younger soldier for their opinion. And this particular senior Guard was not known for his democratic behavior or his gentle personality; he was reputed to be cold, fierce, and extremely intelligent.
“It’s unusually quiet, sir. There are no townspeople out in the streets or the market, which is a bit strange. I can smell smoke, sir, but it seems to be coming from a bit further on, since I see neither the smoke nor its source. I would say that there are no people here. We could search the buildings, but I do not think we will find anyone,” I told him, hands clasped behind my back. “If I were them, I’d have evacuated and left town a long—“ I stopped mid sentence. Something was bothering me; not all of the pieces were there. I was missing something important, I knew it. My brain worked furiously, and I began to pace back and forth. “No… sir, if I were a rebel, I would….”
And then I realized the question that had been troubling me: Why would there be smoke if there were no people?
I stopped and looked up at Legatus urgently. “I’d have set a trap!”
And as the words came out of my mouth, we heard the sounds of people screaming and of swords clashing. I drew my facon; the handle settled into my grip comfortably. Legatus drew his own sword from its sheathe and nodded to me. “Indeed. Fight well, Sergeant Calliope Ianthe,” he said, and then ran to the battle.
I shuddered, thinking, How I detest that title. And for just a second longer I stood there, searching for my squad; but when I realized they were out of my sight, I darted towards the fight myself.
I noticed a couple of townspeople, rebels, nocking arrows to bows. Another man lit the projectiles, and the archers shot their flaming arrows into the air, aiming at some of my fellow Royal Guards. Luckily, none of the townspeople seemed to be able to shoot very accurately, and the arrows flew right past the soldiers.
A tall, strong-looking man charged at me while I was distracted. He was already bleeding from a gash on his leg, but his arms appeared to be strong, with well-defined muscles. The man wore a long leather apron over his clothing – the blacksmith, I presumed. He wielded a long metal rod in his right hand, which he promptly swung at my head. I dodged out of the way and raised my weapon.
“Surrender now and you may live!” I shouted at the man. “The King might pardon you yet; but if you continue to fight, he will have no patience with a rebel and a traitor!”
The blacksmith sneered scornfully. “Surrender to the King and his lowly guard dogs? He is no king to me – only a spoiled, cruel boy on a fancy chair!” He attacked again, and this time, instead of dodging away, I darted forwards and slashed at his defenseless right arm. He cried out in pain, swinging his weapon at my waist; I dropped and rolled back, jumping back to my feet and kicking up at the man’s face. I felt bones crack as my foot connected to the blacksmith’s nose.
I stabbed my dagger into his good arm, and scooped up his makeshift weapon as it fell from the man’s hand. “If you want to live, stay here. Stop fighting. I expect they’ll be rounding up the prisoners soon,” I told him, turning to walk away. He let out a low, guttural roar and threw a punch at my face. I turned at the last second; his blow glanced off my cheek. I used his forward momentum to throw him over my hip, and held my facon above his head. “That was not a good idea,” I said harshly. “Don’t do it again.” I released my hold on him and he dropped to the ground. He nodded once and remained sitting, looking slightly dazed.
Good, I thought. That’s one more person to join our King, and one less to die for the insanity of these rebellions. I smiled to myself and fought onwards, through the ever-thinning throngs.
I disarmed another man, and was forced to cut another’s throat when he would not surrender. By then, I had been fighting almost automatically, attacking, defending, dodging. It was natural, something I had been doing for as long as I could remember.
Of course the Guard was winning the battle, even if our platoon had only consisted of sixty-four men; even if we had been outnumbered by nearly three to one. How could we not? Battles such as this were what we had trained for our entire lives. And now there were only a handful of the rebels left uncaptured. Several lay dead.
As I stood there, my heart racing and my breathing heavy, I didn’t notice the woman sneaking up behind me until she had twisted my arm and snatched my facon out of the air. She lunged at me and stabbed where I had been standing – but I was no longer there. I delivered a kick to her back and sent her sprawling forwards. “Give me my facon,” I said coldly. She stared at me mutely, her green eyes panicked. “I said, give me my facon.”
“Please,” she whispered. “I just wanted…”
“You wanted what?” I snarled.
“I just wanted to – to protect my son.” As she answered, she began crying. “Please, just let me save my son!”
I looked up from the ground where the woman lay, and saw the Lieutenant watching with dark eyes. By this time, the battle had ended; and the Guards had emerged with nothing more than a couple scratches. Legatus stalked over. “Where is he? Your son?”
The woman gasped and looked up with hope in her eyes. “He – over there, my lord. I sent him to hide in the marketplace. T-thank you, sir,” she said, pointing.
Lieutenant Legatus turned to a nearby guardsman. “Go. Find the boy.”
The guardsman nodded with no small amount of dread, and set off in the direction of the market. The three of us, Legatus, myself, and the townswoman, remained quiet as we awaited his return.
Soon the guardsman returned, carrying a small child of perhaps two or three years. The boy’s features were not much like his mother’s, but they shared the same green eyes and blonde hair. “Mama!” he cried, holding out one small hand to her. She stood and began to go to him, but the Lieutenant stopped her.
“Just as you have attacked, disarmed, and attempted to steal from this Royal Guard, you must be punished. Just as the Sergeant has allowed you to attack, disarm, and steal from her, she must also be punished,” he said in a cold, quiet voice. I felt a sense of dread and fear begin to grow as I realized what he was going to have me do.
Please, Goddess Clementia, anything but that. Save me from this torture and I’ll start bringing gifts and offerings to your temple, I prayed desperately.
“Give the Guard her facon,” the Lieutenant ordered the woman.
She still did not seem to understand what was happening, but she did as he ordered and placed the weapon into my hand.
“Sergeant Ianthe. Kill the child.”
It was not the thought of ending a person’s life that stunned me. I had killed before, many times; and I knew that I would kill more throughout the rest of my life. It was the thought of murdering this young child, one who was innocent of wrongdoing, that gave me pause.
I closed my eyes so that Legatus would not see my reluctance or unwillingness to follow his command. I settled my facon more comfortably in my hand, gripping the handle tightly. I opened my eyes again, looking at the boy’s mother. Finally she seemed to realize that this was not her imagination, and she began to scream and cry. “No! You can’t! Not my son, don’t kill my son! Please!”
I heard the Lieutenant order a guardsman to restrain the woman. I heard how she continued to scream until she ran out of air. I heard her choke on her sobs.
And then, I heard her high-pitched wail as I struck.
I stood over the child’s dead body, and met the other Guard’s gazes coldly and evenly. Most glanced away before I did; a couple even refused to meet my eyes. But when I turned to the Lieutenant, he met my gaze.
And he smiled.
“You did what you had to do, Calli,” Elias told me. He put his arm around my shoulders as we stared at the fire, and I nodded, welcoming the warmth from both. Another girl, our friend Aleissa, sat on my other side; she had a slim figure and was probably four inches shorter than me. She was not to be underestimated, though; her skill with a bow was unmatched, and she also enjoyed throwing knives and daggers.
“I know,” I said quietly. “And I want to do anything for my king and my commanders, of course. But – he was just a child, Elias.”
Aleissa put a comforting hand on my knee. “I get it. But you didn’t have a choice. You’re not a bad person for killing him.”
“Okay,” I said quietly. After a pause, I told them, “I’m going to bed now.” I shrugged off Elias’ arm, stood up, and headed towards my tent, moving quietly so as not to wake anyone else. I was conscious of my friends’ eyes on my back as I slipped inside, but I forced myself not to look back at their concerned gazes.
I’d been given the option to sleep in a house, in one of beds of the captured or the killed. I had refused. It would have felt wrong, laying in a dead or imprisoned person’s bed, knowing that I might have been the one to bring about their demise. So I had refused, saying that my tent was more comfortable anyways; I told them that I’d become so accustomed to sleeping in a pallet that I could no longer sleep well anywhere else.
And it was not a complete lie; though my tent was a bit cramped, it was cozy. I unrolled my pallet in the corner, and looked around at the thin walls. They flickered just like the fire outside, which made the small space seem to glow with firelight.
Before I could go to bed, I made myself clean and polish my facon. It didn’t deserve to sit there bathed in dark blood all night. I pulled a rag and my leather canteen from my bag, and scrubbed at the weapon, even after it appeared to be spotless, determined to remove any evidence of the day. Once the facon was clean, I polished it until it shone with a mirror-like reflectiveness. I cleaned the sheath as well, and then put my facon away. I sat on my pallet on the ground, and stretched my arms. When I did so, I noticed a couple scratches – a short one, located on my forearm, and another that began closer to my shoulder and reached to my elbow. Neither seemed deep, nor were they actively bleeding, but they were a bit of an annoyance. I’d also accumulated a few bruises on my arms and legs.
I sighed and closed my eyes, reaching inside of myself to find my blessing. I activated it, and when I opened my eyes once more, I found that I had a faint, glowing aura surrounding my body. I watched as the scratches slowly mended themselves and the bruises faded back to the pale color of my skin, and then deactivated the blessing – the Blessing of Calypso. It allowed me to speed up the healing process of myself and others, and was very useful after a battle.
Now well and whole again, I lay down and went to sleep.
All night, I was plagued by bad dreams. When I woke the next morning, I could not think of what I had dreamed; but I had kicked off my blanket and I was sweating. I lay in my bed a moment longer and attempted to calm myself. Once my heart was beating normally again, I stood up and dressed myself in comfortable clothing. We would be going back to the capital of Terra that day, as our mission was now complete. Since I was likely going to walk the entire way, and be guarding a few prisoners besides, I wore a pair of trousers that were looser and flowed, and a tunic that had the insignia of the Royal Guard right above my heart.
As I dressed, I forced myself to reflect upon the previous day. Every time I pictured that boy’s face, how innocent and trusting he had appeared, I had to fight the urge to scream; whether it was from frustration, or anger, or grief, I was not sure. I clenched my fists and said to myself quietly, “Get tough or get crushed, Calli. You can’t afford to get crushed – so get those thoughts out of your head and get tough.”
I looped a belt around my waist and stuck my facon through so that it would sit comfortably at my side. My self-motivational speech now concluded, I grabbed my small bag of belongings and strode out of the tent. The sun shone in my eyes, and though I wore no coat, I felt myself begin to sweat. A few wispy clouds drifted past, but none of them were large or dark enough to provide much shade.
I spotted the Lieutenant immediately. He was a conspicuous man; he wore his official Royal Guard uniform every day, and wore every badge he had ever received on the jacket. His boots were polished so that they shone, and his sword also appeared to have been treated. Though Legatus smiled and laughed often, I noticed that no matter what the rest of his expression conveyed, his eyes always remained cool and calculating. He observed everything without appearing to do so.
I began walking towards the Lieutenant. He soon noticed me, and I saluted him. I watched as he excused himself from a conversation with another Guard, and steeled myself as he came leisurely to my side. “Sergeant Ianthe,” he said by way of greeting.
“Lieutenant Legatus,” I said cordially.
“How did you sleep last night? I know you had a bit of a stressful time yesterday.”
“Oh, no sir. I slept fine, thank you,” I answered calmly.
His eyes flickered for a moment with some vague emotion, but it was gone as soon as it had appeared. “I’m glad to hear that, then,” he told me, the corners of his mouth turning up slightly. “You’ll be escorting ten of these townspeople back to their hometown of Medi with the aid of your squad. I don’t expect that you’ll have any trouble with them – so long as they don’t get their hands on your weapons.”
“Yes, sir. I understand, sir.” I nodded and turned to walk away.
“And Sergeant Ianthe?” Legatus called after me.
I looked at him over my shoulder.
“I do not want to see you hesitate at my commands again,” he said. His voice sounded friendly, yet his eyes seemed to be made of steel.
“No, sir.” I waited until his attention turned elsewhere, and walked away quickly, burning with anger and frustration. I wanted to prove myself to the Guard, and my king as well; but it was an arduous task when my commanders were so harsh and demanding.
Soon I found the members of my squad; when I approached, they faced me and saluted. I returned the gesture, and then waved my hand dismissively. “Stand down,” I told them.
There were four other women within my squad, and ten men. I’d known them for as long as I’d been in the Guard myself, and it was only recently that I had been placed in the position of sergeant. I knew these were brave, strong fighters, though we did not always agree on everything.
Elias raised his eyebrow slightly, a look that I knew meant Are you alright? I nodded at him, and though he looked unconvinced, he did not press the matter. I knew that would not last; he, and perhaps Aleissa as well, would be cornering me again that night. I appreciated his concern, but he must have known that I would not speak of the past night’s events again.
“Where are the prisoners?” I asked.
“Inside the temple,” said one of the youngest men there, Miles Ludus. Most Royal Guards became closed off or cold during their training and work – I was a perfect example of that – but not Miles; he loved to tell stories and jokes, and I loved to listen. We became close, though I never spoke much around him; he generally talked enough for the both of us.
“The temple. Right. They’re probably praying for Marbh to cast down a curse upon us,” I mumbled, shaking my head.
Miles looked at me suspiciously. “Did you just tell a joke?” he demanded.
“It wasn’t a very good one,” Elias said, grinning. “It was – really bad, actually.”
“Silence, you peasants,” I told the boys teasingly. “Come one, we have a job to do.”
“Peasants? Did she just call us peasants? We’re Royal Guards, woman! Royal!”
I laughed quietly, and began moving towards what I thought was the direction of the temple. The others grabbed their things and followed just a few paces behind me, laughing and talking amongst themselves. Just a few minutes later, we stood on the steps of the temple. I pulled the door open and strode inside.
I waited just a moment for my eyes to adjust to the darkness; and just seconds after I entered, I registered an unpleasant odor. The prisoners must have been driven into the temple right after the battle, and then left there all night, with no way to relieve themselves. They likely had not been fed or given water, either. I felt some compassion for them, but pushed it down quickly. These people would overthrow your king. They would kill you if given the chance.
There were perhaps forty or fifty of the townspeople that I could see, which meant that over half of the population had been killed during the battle. Most of the survivors were women or children. When we returned to the capital, the females would find work as maids and servants, while the children could take positions as servants or apprentices. The few men in the temple stared at me defiantly; I was not sure what their futures would hold. Perhaps, if they could remain loyal to the Fist of Achilles, they would be given jobs; but if not, they would be used as servants, or even killed.
“Pick ten,” I said quietly to my fellow Guards. They spread out quickly, grabbing ten of the townspeople and prodding them over to where I stood. I opened my bag and searched through my possessions until I found a length of rope. I tied the first man’s hands together; he stared forwards into empty space as I worked. When I was satisfied with the knot I’d made, I passed the rope to Julienne, a member of the Guard over twice my age, and watched as she tethered a young girl. And so it went, until all ten of our prisoners were bound, one behind the other, so that they could neither free their hands nor run.
I retrieved my bag and slung it over my shoulder. “Let’s go.”
Three of my Guards stood on each side of the line of captives. Three more walked in front, watching and leading the prisoners, and three followed behind. The remaining Guards in our squad – myself, Elias, and a gruff man named Kellen – slung packs over our shoulders. I glanced around to make sure we had everything, and then called, “Move out!”
My Guards began to walk forward, prodding the captives so that they would move. We guided them out of the temple and into the midst of the platoon, where we were instantly surrounded by the kind of organized chaos you always find around soldiers. It took a short while for everyone to get situated, but once all squad members were together and in formation, the Lieutenant swung himself up on his horse.
“Move out, platoon!” he commanded.
“Let’s go home.”