By Jeffery A. Sergent
“… and before the boat’s bottom had reached the rocky shore, Leonides leapt into the waiting warriors, his bright blade slicing armor, shield, flesh, and bone with a single pass.” The storyteller, perched atop a large stone, paused to give the images time to ferment in the imaginations of his audience.
“I heard he’s stronger than Herakles,” someone said.
“I heard his father was a god,” came another.
A red-haired youth whispered, “I heard he was a god.”
“He’s more powerful than any god.” The storyteller smiled. “All of Olympus trembles when the Achaian Lion roars!”
“Foolishness!” The shout came from the back.
Startled into silence, the storyteller half rose from his stage. His audience had turned. Some looked upon the man with obvious awe and fear; others looked away from his eyes. Sun light flashed in his golden mane like a shimmering nimbus.
“Gather your dekania, Patroklos,” he said to the red-haired youth. “Tend the boats.”
“Yes, Hekatontarches.” The red-haired youth snapped the man’s official title out, but his shoulders sagged as he led his unit away. His audience gone, the storyteller slid down from his make-shift stage. He stood with his head bowed like a scolded schoolboy. “I was just —”
“You were just wasting time,” his commander said. “We’re here to fight a war. There will be time for stories later, but now you have duties.”
“I just thought —”
“Don’t think!” The commander barked more harshly than he intended and instantly felt ashamed. He understood that the boy only sought approval. He put his hand on the young warrior’s shoulder. “Listen, Akhillios. You are a fine soldier — that’s why I gave you a command — but you are going to have to start thinking as ‘we’ not ‘I.’ You now have responsibilities to your men, to me, to all of Greece.” He smiled apologetically. “Do you understand?”
“Good. We’ve trouble enough with the Trojans without offending the Olympians. Gather the ranks. We’ve won nothing yet — they’re regrouping on the plain. Go!”
The youth sped away, happy to do his commander’s bidding.
Leonides Homeros sighed. He tried to ignore the weapon strapped to his side, and he longed for the lyre left setting by his hearth. He abhorred the hero worship; he despised the myth men tried to make of him. A name, he thought, that’s all they know. Who spoke of the man who cherished life? Who spoke of the man who treasured thought and art? Who spoke of Leonides the Poet?
He sometimes wondered what kind of man dreamed of having his name linked inexorably with slaughter and destruction, but whenever he looked into Akhillios’ eyes, he knew. He was still young enough to believe the glorious lies embedded in myths and legends.
Sighing once more, his gaze fell upon the city of Ilios. Its famed blue and cloud-white wall reflected the majesty and power of the heavens, and its enormous gold-embellished gates blazed like the sun. Bright buildings and columned temples had been built around a gentle incline inside. He could detect a geometric precision from his position that would be lost within the city itself. Still, even walking among the magnificent colors, architecture and sculptures would be a wondrous experience. Overwhelming all, however, was Priam’s palace, crowning the hill like a celestial abode, august and austere.
How extraordinary, Leonides thought, to have man’s most noble and most savage achievements occupying one space at one time. Here was the epitome of tragedy. And over what? Trade pacts? He wondered if it would have come to this had not King Menelaos’ niece been involved? Could any good be salvaged from it?
A chorus of shouts tore him from his musings. The Trojans were charging.
The deadly storm raged once more. Chariots shook the earth. Javelins fell like black rain. Metal crashed like thunder. Men howled like the wind.
The slaughter sickened Leonides, but his spirit craved it. The sight of spilled blood roused something in him he could not control. The smell of fear excited him, making him capable of killing without thought, without remorse, and without mercy. Already the stirring had begun. He fought the feeling as he had many times before, but as had happened many times before, the urge crawled like a beast into his chest and spread throughout his limbs. Tears welled in his eyes. The muscles in his neck bulged until he could contain it no longer — the roar escaped. To him it was the roar of ultimate frustration and futility. To his allies, it was the roar of victory. To his foes, it was the roar of impending doom — the Achaian Lion stalked the plains of Ilios.
Two men died with a single swipe of his blade. A third’s sword shattered from the blow. Leonides grabbed the soldier by the throat, only releasing him when his life had been choked away.
He didn’t know how long the killing lasted, he never did. He simply killed until no one opposed him. When he’d finished, his thick limbs glistened with sweat, his broad chest heaved, his heart pounded. He lifted his dripping sword toward the beautiful city and roared.
For a timeless moment there was nothing but silence then an eagle screamed overhead. The sky suddenly dimmed. In the distance, swarming soldiers were nothing but shadows. A scream echoed from somewhere but quickly faded behind the metallic ring of combat somewhere in the distance.
Without violence and bloodshed to feed upon, the bellicose spirit gradually relinquished control.
Am I dead? Leonides wondered. Is this Tartarus? His heart surged for his home in distant Alos, for the life he had not been allowed to live, for the words never written. He tried to curse the Fates or the gods, but he — who had never questioned their intentions or deeds — could not. Only then did he notice — then feel — that something was different about his surroundings.
A barren landscape extended in all directions beneath a dusky sky. River, plain, and city were gone. The sun was nowhere in the sky, making it impossible to judge direction or time. The air was cool though no wind blew. Neither bird nor beast stirred. The only sound was the ringing until—
He knew the voice well — but something was not right about it. The hairs on the back of his neck stood as he turned.
It was Akhillios.
Sandy hair fell onto strong shoulders, framing a delicate, almost feminine, face. He wore a blue padded linen tunic and carried his short sword with its rare ivory hilt. Yet it wasn’t him. Like the voice, there was something different, something not him. Something alien. He was watching a shadowy figure — who was also Akhillios — atop an isle of dead soldiers with a wall of spears closing around him. He hacked through three wooden shafts with a single blow then grabbed one and pulled its wielder forward to block the thrust of another. A shadow — Patroklos, leading a group of Achaians, finally broke through to help.
Still, the only sound was that of metal striking metal.
“These are the Ringing Plains,” Akhillios said at last. “Where the gods watch man’s battles, great and small. We have watched you many times from this very spot.” Finally, he turned and approached Leonides. He circled the Achaian as one does when judging the worth of a beast of burden. “People say not even the great War-Maker himself can defeat the Lion.” He stopped with barely a hand’s breadth separating their faces. The wicked smile was not Akhillios’ nor was the fire burning in his eyes. “What do you say?”
“I am no god,” Leonides answered, but wondered if any of this was real. It was like stepping into a poet’s tale. Or could he be lying somewhere wounded on the plains?
“To some, you are. As long as they believe it to be true, what difference does it make what you believe?”
“I offer libation. I make sacrifices. I have fought for king and country at the expense of my own family and happiness. I have done nothing but serve.” It was an argument he had had with himself more than once, and always, he would convince himself that something good would come of it if he waited.
Still, he waited.
Wrath burned in Akhillios’ dark eyes — it was the fire that had fueled innumerable wars throughout the ages. “Come, Lion,” he said, drawing his sword, “I would test your mettle.”
“How may a mortal fight an Immortal?”
“This shell is mortal. It can be killed as easily as yours.”
“That may be true. But if I lose, which surely I must, I will be sent to Tartarus. You can simply return to the Holy Mount.”
“Shrewd as old Odysseus,” he laughed. “Very well. At stake is your immortality. Your name. Nothing more. If you lose, you shall be sent home, only no longer remembered as the greatest of warriors.”
“If I win?”
“Riches? Fame? The love of a woman? All of these you possess already. What more do you want? If you win.”
Without warning Akhillios struck. Leonides barely parried the blow but quickly responded with a counter attack. He was plagued by too many questions to fight effectively. Why did he have to fight? Why couldn’t he just live? Was it real? He wondered what would happen if he didn’t fight, but the warrior in him would not allow him to stop. And more than once, he had to remind himself that it was not actually Akhillios he fought — he guessed his opponent, real or imagined, to be none other than the War-Maker himself.
As the combatants waged back and forth, fatigue slowly crept into Leonides’ mortal limbs, but he refused to think about defeat or victory. As always, he simply fought.
The War-Maker’s blade slipped past Leonides’ defense, slicing tunic and flesh. It wasn’t deep but would certainly hasten his fatigue. Instead of pressing the attack, the Immortal hesitated, as mortal soldiers sometimes do, to revel in the moment before victory. In that very instant — not even the length of a single heartbeat — Leonides’ blade cut across his opponent’s forearm. The War-Maker cursed, his eyes wide with surprise.
Or was it doubt?
Leonides’ limbs and mind numbed as instinct took control. He felt the familiar stirring deep within. Questions no longer mattered. The warlike spirit awakened. He parried a slice aimed at his throat then unleashed a roar so fierce that it forced the Olympian to stumble backwards.
Leonides immediately lunged forward. He slashed and thrust without any regard for his own defense, striking both of War-Maker’s arms and scoring him across the ribs which allowed him to force his foe’s sword aside. He punched the Immortal in the face with his free hand, knocking him down, and moving with feline swiftness, he straddled War-Maker’s chest, pinning his sword hand to the earth with a knee while placing the point of his own sword at the god’s throat.
The War-Maker’s eyes widened, his fear evident, as he awaited Leonides’ final plunge.
“Enough!” The voice boomed from every direction with the power of rolling thunder.
Panting, Leonides looked down on the fallen deity, one thrust away from final victory. The spirit craved his enemy’s blood, but Leonides did not. Sweat dripped from his brow as he fought a second battle within himself. Beads of blood formed around the sword’s point as it sank into the god’s throat. No, he screamed silently, but the word became an incoherent, animalistic noise. It emerged as a mighty roar that shook the earth. Then it was over.
“Enough,” the voice repeated, but this time it sounded tired and worn.
Leonides stood and threw his sword far out onto the dimly lit plain.
Patroklos approached, or rather, a figure that looked like Patroklos. His youthful eyes were black, timeless depths radiating power and danger that forced Leonides to avert his gaze.
Patroklos studied Leonides then War-Maker, who struggled to his feet. “You have defeated one of us only.” His voice reverberated like thunder. “Do not think you can stand against all of us.”
“It was never my intention, All-Father. I was brought here against my will.” Head cast down, Leonides hesitated a moment unsure whether to say more, but decided to do so. He no longer cared what was real. “It was the spirit invested in this body that defeated War-Maker, not me. It is not my will to fight, but you have made it my nature.”
“Do not listen to him,” War-Maker pleaded. “Destroy him now, or he will destroy us all!”
Patroklos pointed at the god of War. “Leave.”
The War-Maker vanished. There was nothing magical as Leonides had heard in stories about the gods: no light, no wisps of smoke, no crash of thunder. He was there one moment and not the next.
Patroklos chortled, his eyes gleaming slyly in acknowledgment that he was whom Leonides suspected. “Let it not be said that the great Achaian Lion is too proud. Too clever perhaps — that you argue the gods have defeated themselves.”
“I say nothing of the sort, All-Father. I am a simple man.”
The god’s sigh seemed weighted with the weariness of ages. “We wanted a hero for the ages,” he said, “one that would be remembered and idolized through time. This war was to be his time. Your time.” He clasped his hands behind his back to watch the battle. “And because the hero would be remembered, so too would the gods. Otherwise, we will not last. As times change — as men change — so too the gods. We will change, be replaced, perhaps ultimately forgotten.” He looked into Leonides’ eyes. “Unless, of course, something happened — something so great that the story would be passed through the ages.”
He stared off into the distance. More to himself, he asked, “What are we to do?”
The ring of combat filled the silence that followed.
Leonides stared at the Immortal, trying to identify the emotion he felt. Was it disgust or pity? In many ways, he was reminded of Akhillios’ longing to be acknowledged. Loved.
“It is too late now,” the god said. “You must return.”
“Wait,” Leonides pleaded. He thought madly for something, anything to keep from going back to the madness.
He went before the god, daring to look into the depths of his eyes. “My Lord, the sword is powerful but the words are more so, for with it a man may not only destroy but also create. A song can outlive the life of its singer. It can inspire others to feel, to think, or even to live. Words are the great immortalizer, All-Father. Let me serve you with words.”
The Immortal clasped Leonides’ shoulder. At first Leonides feared he had gone too far and would pay for his brashness. Instead the immortal said, “Ares grew afraid of you, believing you would overshadow us before the war had ended. But now you speak of life and verse.” He laughed. “We, who schemed for vanity’s sake, were destroying ourselves. We have forgotten from whence we came — we have forgotten the hearts of men.” He smiled and a gleam of light shone briefly in his sky-blue eyes. “Sometimes the simple man can be the wisest of all.”
Then the light faded as grief spread across his countenance. “A generation of men will die in this war,” he said. He turned his back to Leonides, staring blankly at the warring men.
For the first time in his life, Leonides could find no words.
It may have been minutes, hours or ages, before finally the god spoke. “Your passion led us to choose you, Lion. We chose wisely. Though what was given unto you cannot be destroyed, it may be re-forged. Use it.” The god looked across the Ringing Plain. His chest swelled as he took a deep breath. “Use this destruction, Leonides Homeros. Inspire men. We no longer matter.” Thunder filled his voice. “Do not let them stray as did the Olympians.”
The Achaian was about to respond, but his thoughts suddenly left him. At that moment the eagle screamed again. He shielded his eyes with a hand to watch it soar across the clear evening sky then . . .
Then he returned his attention to the battlefield where Akhillios stood upon a stone, roaring at the backs of the Trojans as they fled toward their city, the sun gleaming off his bloody sword. Corpses carpeted the plains of Ilios around him.
“Mark this well.” Menelaos’ voice startled Leonides. “Though this bloody battle was brief, I fear the war will be very long.”
His words triggered something deep within the young poet-scribe, something he knew he must do. Contemplating both the living and the dead, he said, “Aye, my lord, but I am certain some good will come out of it — later, if not now.”
“Let us hope so, Homeros.” The king-general laid a hand on the poet’s shoulder as they turned toward the row of tents being erected. The setting sun bathed the land in crimson. “Let us hope so.”
Jeffery A. Sergent lives in a small town tucked away in the hills of southeastern Kentucky with his wife Kim and daughter Arwen. He has taught at the local high school for twenty-four years now, and has been a fan of science fiction and fantasy since grade school. For the past fifteen years, he have sponsored, edited, and contributed to the school’s SF&F fanzine Fantasm. In the past, he’s had a scattering of stories published, including “The Dragon” for Alienskin. This past September, “The Young God’s Tears” appeared in Swords & Sorcery Magazine. He is also a contributor to Nerdbloggers.com, and Absent, his first novel, was published by Whiskey Creek Press.