My name is Crethon and those who listen to the tales of wandering poets or spend the night in the guesthouse of King Peritas will know who I am. But I want to tell you a tale unlike those you might have already heard, one unencumbered by poetic excess, or coloured by attempts to save or build reputations.
It begins when King Keos gathered one hundred charioteers, one hundred horsemen, and five hundred footmen and went east across the river Garness to settle scores with King Koragos. Koragos met him with a greater force and, as the barest honour demanded, the two kings decided that a contest would be conducted.
Keos had in his retinue a great duellist named Rizon. This was the burden that Rizon carried out into the field between the two armies: should he win, then a portion of Koragos’s force would wait aside in the battle so that honour would be honoured and the two forces would be equal. Should he lose, it would be the fate of Keos’s seven hundred to face Koragos’s nine hundred.
There are poets who specialize in the retelling of duels, and I have heard from them and others who knew him that Rizon had a great iron-rimmed shield and a helm of iron. He would hold this shield’s rim just above his brow and between its edge and his helm would take the fury out of any blow. It was a hard way to fight, but given enough time he could take the strength out of the arm dealing the blows, then he would burst upon his exhausted foe.
I am not one of those poets who can recount the minute details of duels so I will be brief. The throwing of javelins from chariots settled nothing. Nor did the throwing of spears from foot, and so sword to sword the two duellists finally met. Rizon made good use of his strategy, and soon Koragos’s man was sweaty and weary and cut by a dozen small wounds. Noon came and there was a break to let the men rest and give the kings another chance to negotiate. Kings, of course, rarely negotiate, especially ones so mule-stubborn as Keos and Koragos.
So Rizon walked back out into the field, into the haze of dust and grass and the howling of the two armies. But Koragos’s man also returned and he had given up his sword for a club: that like the meanest slave pressed into an army would use. The poets could tell of each blow, of the sword striking snake-tongue quick and the club swinging like a fallen tree, but I will tell of the duel’s end simply as is my way. Rizon was struck such a powerful blow on the top of the helm that he fell senseless to the field.
Koragos’s man stepped away and rode his victory circuit while Rizon was collected and brought back to King Keos. Keos had within his retinue a notable surgeon, Menalcas, and the surgeon worked a great feat of skill and magic. He cut the taut skin away from an egg-sized knot on Rizon’s skull. With a bronze awl he drilled through the bone and in a copper bowl collected the blood. The feat being done, he pointed to the thin colourless fluid that dripped out of Rizon’s nose.
“If that is mucus, then Rizon will stand and fight again,” Menalcas said, “but if it is not, if it tastes of fat instead of salt, he will die by the end of the day.” And so he dipped a finger into the fluid and put it to his tongue and shook his head.
But King Keos had other affairs to deal with, and he commanded a fight against Koragos’s greater forces, and after sufficient losses, he beat a retreat back across the River Garness. But Rizon had, in spite of Menalcas’s prophecy, not died. Keos put him in his own chariot and so did that battle end.
But Rizon did not die that night, or the day after, or even after they returned to the citadel Eniopa. He did not die, nor could any within Keos’s retinue ever wake him. No noise, no pain—even the touch of a hot iron—nor anything else. He slept like a giant of legend.
New duellists were found and my story does not concern them. King Keos kept Rizon at his great house in Eniopa, as a courtesy to an old comrade. Kings amass many odd things in their lifetime, and Rizon-Unawakened was one of the many things that visitors and travellers marvelled at.
At first Rizon was treated much as he had been in wakefulness. His servant still tended him, his favoured meats were made into stews and soups and fed to him, his arms and armour still sat beside him. He was unmarried, but in time it occurred to Keos and his advisors that perhaps their comrade would enjoy the pleasures of women and a favoured concubine was summoned.
And that is how Rizon’s story becomes my own.
In spite of the details of my conception, my life among the household of King Keos was not unlike any of the other children of concubines. I was one of a great number of the extended family of the higher quality men of the citadel, sometimes treated worse than their own sons, sometimes better. I was the companion and servant of the sons of nobles and chieftains and learned, as all such boys do, the hundred things that boys of more quality do not have to bother with.
Sometimes my mother and I would visit my sire. There are those who think me a cruel son, but I have only called him my father a few times. Why should I, when the bare hour of conversation I ever had from King Keos was more than I would ever get from Rizon? I was raised, like all sons of concubines, by the men of the citadel, by the weaver when it was time to learn weaving, by the carpenter when it was time to learn carpentry, by the blacksmith when it was time to learn the upkeep of the weapons of our lords and chieftains. Mostly I was raised by Spertias the Tanner, with whom my mother spent most of her time when the higher men developed new eyes for younger women.
Spertias was good to me, and the life of a tanner, outside of the smell, is not a bad one.
For a time it was thought that perhaps some of Rizon’s fierceness might have passed to me. There was great hope in the spring of my eleventh year when the boys were taken to the great green field west of the citadel to begin training in arms. I admit that those spring hopes were dashed by summer. I was in the great middle of the boys in every way: in skill and fierceness, and all else.
I admit also that I greatly disliked accompanying my mother to a small chamber off the main building of Keos’s house for the twice-weekly visits to my sire. She had duties, to sing to him, and wash his hands and feet, and comb his hair and beard. I helped; I had a decent singing voice, but what child does not? I fetched water and held the bowl and pulled the snarls of hair from the comb.
I knew full well Rizon’s violent history, that list of sixteen duels; one cannot live in the citadel of the king and not learn such tales. But I could scarcely imagine it, that those thin arms could ever strike men down in single combat, that those stick legs could carry him through the chaos of battle.
I shall tell you of an event that changed much in my thinking.
Learchos, a son of strong farmers to the east, while practising throwing javelins from his chariot, was chased by a great smoke-grey hound—one of the prized hunting hounds of Chryses, a young chieftain from the rolling hills to the south. As often happens when a hound catches a chariot, the dog was caught beneath a wheel and its back broken.
I was there when it happened and Learchos, upon seeing the struggling creature, did not hesitate to draw his axe from his belt and strike it such a blow in the head as to end its life in one stroke.
Only after the deed did he stop to consider that he was but a farmer, and Chryses was a chieftain. There are those, and I admit that I was one of them, who urged Learchos to ride as far and fast as he could, to give a good chase worth a story.
But he was not the kind of man to be influenced by the chattering of boys and announced: “If anybody wants me, I’ll be under the leaning willow by Hesst Creek.”
Ours are a people where law and tradition meld and overlap. If a man commits a crime there are two options: to do as Learchos did and announce where you can be found, should anyone wish to take vengeance for what you’ve done. A man who waits, alone by a tree, must be met by another man alone. Chryses, for all his wealth, could not bring any retainers with him, save to watch. In this way, if he chose, Chryses could regain honour for the loss of his hound and there would be no accusations of unfairness one way or cowardice the next.
What Learchos had resisted doing was the second option: to run rabbit-wild through the lands, forcing Chryses or the king’s men to pursue. This is the more poetic option, but also the more dangerous, for the man who runs from his crime and does so weakly or foolishly is always dealt with harshly.
Chryses was angered about his hound, but other young nobles talked him out of doing anything rash; it was the nature of dogs to chase chariots, and it was for mercy that Learchos had used his axe. So Chryses let Learchos go unmolested, although he did beat his servants for not keeping closer watch on his property.
I asked Spertias the tanner to kill Rizon on a cold winter’s day when he and I were stretching out hides to dry. I did not speak as crudely as that, but that is the truth of it. If a hound could be shown such mercy, surely a man could as well.
And I knew they could, for you cannot live in the citadel of a king and not hear of men injured so badly in war that the surgeon’s art was a quick cut, or that more brutal but equally merciful methods were used by the comrades of the wounded.
Chryses’ hound had been struggling in pain, Spertias reminded me. That this was the way of things on the battlefield, but that had not been the way of things when Rizon had been struck. He was in no pain, he was merely asleep.
“And I am not Rizon’s brother or even a comrade in war,” he explained. “It is not my place to do such a thing.”
We tended to the tanning pits for a time and he continued. “And even if you could find one of his old companions to do this thing, how would it be done? It is one thing to strike a blow in the heat of the field with spear or sword or club, but to a sleeping man? To stab a sleeping man is murder. To hang him, that is the punishment for criminals, and to drown him is the method of killing men of quality, which, for all his fame, Rizon is not.”
It is not the kind of conversation one wishes to have with one’s father, but like many unpleasant things it is necessary.
My mother told me some tales of Rizon’s life. No doubt Spertias had told her of my morbid questions and she felt compelled to. It was true that I knew almost nothing of the man besides his sixteen duels and twenty-one battles. Perhaps I was too young to hear such tales, but she told me of the fiery-tempered stranger who came from the lowlands to the north in the company of one of the interchangeable chieftains of that land.
It was that rare summer where the threats of battle and raiding turn real and King Keos went out east to the edge of the great plains of Yiss to cross spears with the nomads found there. By the time those battles were over, Rizon had left the retinue of his chief and joined with the bodyguard of Keos.
After the nomads of Yiss, Keos had to return to Eniopa for a brief moment before hurrying south to fight off the raiding parties of King Koragos, and it was in that campaign that Rizon became the chosen duellist of the king.
My mother’s stories, the majority of them, are about those late summer weeks, when the citadel was in the midst of harvest and worry. Rizon relished the life he had found, and the women and the servants. He told outrageous tales, not the exacting stories of poets, but the rambling rough yarns of farmers one month ahead of starvation. My mother was, if not his favourite, among his favourites. He broke the nose of a chieftain’s son and waited beneath the willow at Hesst Creek, and when the chieftain came he broke his arm. Keos sentenced him to ten lashes, which is easily one-third the traditional fee charged a commoner who damages the person of a man of quality.
What kinds of stories would you expect of a concubine? Rizon had stamina and hunger and curiosity about carnality. He gave her gifts, small things—bits of shell polished while on the campaign—to mark her as one of his favourites. Even a little copper and, once, a silver ring. He made up awful poetry in imitation of the nobles.
She once asked him what he would do when his career as duellist came to an end. It was, she told me, one of the few times they fought. He seemed to have never given thought to the idea of his new career ending. Ask! my mother said to me, ask the poets and the kings, after they’ve had their wine and before they have their concubines, and you’ll discover that men who duel rarely plan for the future.
She told me such tales often on our weekly visits to Rizon. Her voice held notes of great concern and passion. I was no longer a child; her voice said one thing, but her eyes… They held pity and a great weariness.
I learned I had an uncle in the drizzly spring of my thirteenth year. Travellers from the north came, a group of traders and chieftains bearing the annual tribute to King Keos. My uncle Syragos was in the company of one of the chieftains (or perhaps he was a chieftain, it is hard to tell about the people of the north).
Syragos had been here once before, when I was still in the womb. These yearly visits by his own countrymen had once been one of the occasions when my sire was again thrust into the centre of attention. That attention had diminished for years. Other northerners had taken prominence in deed and rumour, and like everyone else, in spite of what their tongues may have said, they wished that Rizon would finally die. Much like a sick old man, at a certain point one yearns for the inevitable.
But with Rizon’s own brother in the citadel there was renewed interest. Rizon was bathed and moved from the small room back to one of the larger rooms of the household. His knife was at his belt, and his spear at his side, although his sword had long ago gone missing.
Syragos drank to the generosity of the king, and to the sleeping spirit of his brother. It was an awkward, rather blunt, toast. To the hopes that the fire would rekindle the limbs from the ember of the spirit. A typically northern string of high-sounding words with little behind them.
He looked very much like my sire. A square chin, a pointed nose, the same grey-on-black hair.
I was introduced to him the night he made that fumbling toast. In all the business of visitors at the citadel it took me two more days to finally get a chance to talk to him and ask him to show the rough mercy his brother deserved.
“I won’t do this thing,” he said simply. “The fury, the ease of fighting and of killing, that was Rizon’s gift, not mine.”
I explained that, as brother, he would not be in trouble for doing it, and even if he were, if he just went to the willow by Hesst Creek, the trouble would not be much.
“You make it sound easy, to kill a man. I have heard that little of Rizon’s fierceness passed to you. I have heard that little of his temper has passed to you, but to speak of such matters so plainly… That must mean that you’ve inherited something of him. Perhaps the worst of him.”
I did not inherit my sire’s temper, that is true. Such words would have filled me with rage if I had. But how could Syragos think I meant anything but kindness by my request? To free Rizon’s spirit from the ruined shell that his body had become? To free my mother and the unlucky servants from the cruel tedium of tending to that shell?
But he would not hear it, he would not listen to my arguments.
I did not speak to him the rest of the time he was at Eniopa. I worked at my various tasks, always away from him, and always away from the room where Rizon lay with all the glory afforded him.
He sought me out the day he returned to the north. He had asked a boon of King Keos and it had been granted. I could come north and spend the summer with him, and thus he could honour his brother by fulfilling the requirement of fosterage. It was no small gift, and I knew it, but I did not accept it.
In truth, I knew that war with King Koragos would begin anew that summer, and not the threats and sporadic raids, but a full campaign. One does not live in the citadel of a king and not learn how to tell certain rumours from fact.
In my naiveté I thought that perhaps I could accompany Prince Peritas or perhaps the son of some chieftain, and by proving myself in the campaign earn my way out of that odd strata of life that sons of concubines have, neither slave, nor servant, but not quite freeman. I had no idea what I would do with freedom, but I wanted it and was willing to risk war to get it.
I was on the far end of my thirteenth year, and although I knew how to yoke horses to a chariot and how to mend clothes and armour and many of the dozens of other things that a retainer of a fighting man need know, my mediocrity in the mock battles and in wrestling ensured that none of the warriors of quality needed me.
Thirteen is the year of fosterage, and as the summer came and went along with it came and went my possibility of staying with my uncle. Pride, I suppose, kept me at Eniopa. And curiosity about the war.
News was grim. It was in this campaign that King Keos received the wound that killed him in the fall. There were victories, which were costly, and defeats, which were humiliating, and one duellist was killed in battle, and his replacement on the field of challenge.
Truly I can say that, by that winter, I was happy enough that I neither accompanied King Keos, nor went north to my uncle.
King Peritas was not quite the man his father was. There was a kind of tension in the citadel. His advisors argued with him; even his fighting men treated him differently than they had his father. Peritas had, I had heard, proved himself in three battles against King Koragos—and I heard it not from the poets (whose job it is to make the king sound competent), but from the various men and boys who were there.
It was also obvious that, where keeping Rizon clean and fed had been seen as a courtesy by Keos, it was a burden to Peritas. It was on one of the few snowy days of that long winter that I helped build the small shed out by the stables into which Rizon was moved. It was more work for those of us who took care of him. Being away from the main house meant that more wood had to be chopped and a fire constantly tended to ward away the cold.
I will say that I had not been totally idle during the long summer of that unfortunate war. With so few of us among the pool of concubines’ sons skilled in so many tasks, my simple competence did gain me the favour of Keos’s steward, Scylax.
I will not lie and say I was one of his favourites, or that I had his ear or anything as remarkable as that, merely that I could do most of the one hundred and one things that a working citadel required, and that made me somewhat more valuable than my station would normally grant.
We are a people for whom tradition and law often overlap. We have many traditions regarding the indivisible years of a youth’s life. The first year, when the soul enters the body, the second year when the soul seeks an animal to represent itself, the third when the temple of the mind is built atop the citadel of the body, and so on until seventeen, when one is truly an adult.
Those traditions are based on the indivisible years, but there is a law based on the fifteenth year. In that year, in the first half of that year, should need arise, a youth can sue to undergo the rite of the long hours and, if successful, claim the rights of adulthood.
Two years after I met my uncle I turned fifteen. Three months into my fifteenth year, in the spring, when so much of planting and birthing and repairs take place at Eniopa, I talked with Scylax and he took my case to Peritas. King Peritas was busy with the usual affairs and rituals that spring demands, as well as the constant planning for defence and offence against Old King Koragos, and I cannot say that he thought much about my request. Perhaps he saw it as a mere diversion in the crowded tedium of his days? But he granted it.
So I presented myself to him at noon, announcing myself as Rizon’s son and ready to undergo the rite of the long hours.
It is a simple enough ritual. You hold your hands out, first your left, then your right, and the king places a coal from the fire into each palm. The coals are to be at least as big as your thumbnail, but not any bigger than the end of your thumb. Such legal minutiae are crucial when it is into your palms that the coals go. You don’t have to grip, simply hold them, for an hour.
I did exercise the option of having Spertias the tanner and Scylax the steward hold my arms tight around the elbows so I couldn’t draw back without thinking. Such a thing is like a war wound, or giving birth; there is a pain so great that the mind erases it afterwards. I remember crying and not being ashamed, and, after the pain of the coals faded, how the act of holding my arms out for an hour became itself a slowly growing agony. But I did it! It was the first time in the memory of anyone living that a petitioner had done so.
A week later my hands were still too swollen and useless for me to go to the field and train with spear and shield with the other boys—but as a man I didn’t have to! I did have to tell old Damasos the trainer that he shouldn’t expect me. He smiled his broken-tooth grin and then did something odd. He put his shield up against the brow of his helmet and struck himself at the junction with his spear-butt several times.
“Have some of old Rizon in you yet!”
I was not prepared for all the responsibilities of adulthood, I will confess. Scylax leaned on me more than usual with my newfound status. Most, if not all tasks, are more difficult when one’s hands are swollen and sore.
It took three weeks for my hands to truly heal, and I waited one week more.
Spring had not yet turned into summer and the weather was still cold when I got up and I quietly put on my old worn cloak and slipped out of the tanner’s house. Rizon’s sad shed was alone and forlorn in the near-dark. I let myself in, scaring away the cats that had liked to sleep on his thin stomach. The fire was a dull mass of coals, barely heating the small room and giving almost no light.
Rizon’s breathing was, as always, the same calm rhythm. There was the ever-present smell of incontinence in the small cramped space. I tried to see him, in the dim light, as perhaps struggling against the bonds of his body, but that illusion I could not bring to my mind. He was one of the greatest duellists of living memory, he was my father, and he was pitiable.
His sword was long gone, and his dagger even. His spear still lay at his side, and a shield so old and rusted as to be useless. I had brought a knife, but I knew the moment I walked in that I couldn’t use it.
I took off my cloak and in the chill carefully folded it across his mouth then pressed down upon it, then with my other hand I pinched his nose closed. I endured the rite of the long hour, but those minutes, those long minutes…
There are horrible things that people must do. Learchos killing the poor dog, the surgeon who decides who lives and who does not, the mother who leaves an imperfect child in the forest. Rizon did not wake, he did not struggle, his body was a tomb, as it had been my whole life.
I put my cloak back on my shoulders, took the old rusted spear in my hands and left that oppressive building. Dawn was breaking and people were beginning to be about their business. Nobody paid me much mind.
I intended to tell the first person I found that, if anybody wanted me, I’d be under the leaning willow by Hesst Creek, for what I had done was still murder. I gambled that my punishment, if any, would be slight. Truly, I was more worried that I might spend all day beneath that tree before anyone noticed anything amiss with Rizon. Or worse, that they might notice but not care to pursue me at all.
We are a people of tradition, one of which is that the spirits of the dead can return to the lands of the living, usually as birds, usually three times. There were birds about in the morning. But do not believe the poets. They paid me as little mind as anyone else.
It was, of all people, Prince Orestes, whom I found first. “If anybody wants to find me—”
“Get my chariot assembled, with the swiftest horses. It is a perfect morning to hunt grouse from the wheel.”
What he asked was not so unusual—that wasn’t it. It was the way he asked it; it was that he was one of those who, for all the advantages of his birth, was sullenly resentful of my newfound status as adult, and his rank enabled him to order me about like a child, and his nature ensured he would do so.
But one does not live in a citadel and not get to know the king and his family. Orestes was as thoroughly uninspiring in wrestling and spear and shield as I was. But he was not an adult, and three times a week he got to make a fool out of himself on the practice field.
I often wish the poets were right—that there was a great croaking crow atop the stable that put some of the fury of my father into me, but there was no crow. There did not need to be.
I dropped that old spear to the ground and before Prince Orestes could say another word I struck him a blow to his face. As his hands came up to clutch at his broken nose I landed a second punch square in his well-fed stomach and he folded over my arm and fell to the grass.
I took the two horses and with practised motions yoked them to King Peritas’s best chariot and by the time Orestes’ yowling cry sounded I was already rumbling out of the gate. The best horses and the best chariot and a youth who knew a hundred and one things. I did not wait at the leaning willow at Hesst Creek.
But the poets have probably told you those tales.
Story copyright © 2017 by Adrian Simmons
Artwork copyright © 2017 by Michelle MB
Adrian Simmons lives in Norman, Oklahoma. He has hoofed the Ouachita and Ozark Highlands trails, the England coast to coast trail, and the Camino de Santiago in Spain. His nonfiction has appeared in Black Gate and Strange Horizons. His fiction has been in Lackington’s, Outposts of Beyond, Strange Constellations, and the anthologies Apotheosis and No Sh!t There I Was. In 2009 he founded the webzine Heroicfantasyquarterly.com and currently serves as 1/3 of its editorial staff.
Michelle MB is an aspiring digital artist who strives to summon characters, scenes, and stories from other worlds into this one. She has been known to haunt locations all over Europe and North America, but is currently based in Germany, where she is studying how to better mix fantasy with reality.