Keona Gingras is a high school student studying in Ontario, Canada. She will go on to study Classics. In the future, she wants to become a professor and author.
As far as anyone knows, she has always been writing, from little picture books to short stories to poetry to novellas. Creative writing always has been and always will be a large part of her life.
The Oracle of Aredios
A child was born to a farmer’s wife under the cover of a cloudy sky. The birth was violent, loud, disruptive, as was the baby when he arrived. The farmer sneered as he held him, staring between the baby’s tear-streaked face and his sleeping mother’s. He thought of radishes, when he looked at the shape of the new-born’s head, or beets: it was red enough, flushed enough, spotted enough for that comparison.
The farmer considered himself a reverent man, and had faith in the gods’ mercy, and so took the pouring rain as an invitation to do what many had done before: trudge out in the mud, go to the ever-paternal and ever-divine Cliffs of Dios, and leave the baby, nameless and [birthdate-less], on the cold ground next to the rock which had been carved as an altar to some god or titan, whose language of worship could no longer be understood.
Nothing more could be said of the baby’s parents, but of a short-lived quarrel ending with a broken wrist, unrelenting maternal grief, and dying crops that could only really be explained as punishment by the gods.
Alas; the baby. The baby was not taken for a demigod, or some chosen boy meant for the heavens as a god, or chief, or war hero, but was taken into a cozy haven by a woman with a wicker basket and long skirts, in the undefined borders of town where the ancient architecture dwindled into uneven bricked walls, thick forests behind, and thin thread from which hung undergarments and hand towels and veils of modesty. It was a community of its own, do not fret for the sociality of the child; if anything, fret for his fortune. Its inhabitants had been known, for some time, as the scapegoats for the gods; their low ground often led the rain to run down into the cracks under their walls, their doors, their windows. Animals often populated and congregated there for food, for dominance, for the smell of human fear; and sure, there were birds and squirrels and butterflies. There were sunsets, of course, the best view accessed from this village, this hamlet; they would never tell the others, though. They hid their sunset like they did their meals from bears. It was theirs, and theirs alone.
The woman who had taken the baby was young, and kind, and warm. Her name was Euanthe. She lived with her aunt and uncle, who’d wanted grandchildren once upon a time, and who knew now not to push her to be wed, one of these days. She often was visited by the Goddess of Motherhood, Childbirth, Family, in her dreams, and felt Her often during her daily chores: a faint touch of the shoulder, the fullness of her breath, the melody of her lullabies, the warmth of the sun on her face. She was five-and-twenty, and had known nothing in her life but kindness and love.
She frequented the Cliffs of Dios, and on occasion brought home a baby which had been abandoned by some godless parent. A handful of years ago, this pattern had begun. Four babies had been introduced to the village, one by one, each welcomed after some time of adjustment. The first one, though, had been a surprise to all: “It’s not mine,” she’d said; of course, it was hers. But not in the way they’d assumed.
There was Androkles; Lykos; Melite; then, there was Akakios. The farmer’s son.
The new baby, and a difficult one; Akakios brought trouble for Euanthe, more so than the others; in any case, it was the youngest baby to be left on the Cliffs, to her knowledge. The Mother Goddess was present while she sang to him, while she cooed, but the farmer’s boy was turbulent and unpredictable, like crackling storms. Like wars, especially those endorsed by the fates.
She stopped visiting the Cliff of Dios, soon after Akakios; she could not handle more children. Four was enough. Akakios was enough.
Not to say she had no more love to give; no, quite the contrary, she was almost always bursting at the seams with love and nurture and comfort. But she had no more time of day, no more attention to give. The three other children, considerably less dependent, could be found chasing each other around the village, greeting their neighbours, Lykos picking up others’ chores, Melite talking to animals, Androkles finding scrawny branches of fig trees to spar with the other children in the fields of grass. They were anywhere from three to ten years old, but each harboured the same maturity, showed the same enthusiasm for life, as the next. They loved their mother and their aunt and their uncle and the village, and their love was reciprocated. They cooed at Akakios, helping their mother to get a moment’s time alone, and they loved him all the same. But they surrendered soon enough, and could not deny that he was a difficult infant to raise.
Akakios loved to see the birds perched on the clothing lines hung by their roofs, and to hear them chirping. He often tried to mimic their songs, their calls of warning and beckoning and desperation. He stretched his stubby arms up at them, as if he could reach them, as if he could reach the sky; in these moments, he was peaceful. Full of laughter. Reciprocating the love his mother had given him, in his own little ways.
The Mother Goddess sent him a dove. It perched on his finger as he perched on the kitchen counter, and he giggled with delight, bringing a smile to Euanthe’s face.
She juggled her exhaustion and joy and love as Akakios grew, and in tandem, he found his own sort of balance in life. Balance in motion, in crawling and walking and running, and his understanding of the world around him; Akakios seemed to always be in contemplation, to always be furrowing his brows and looking off into the distance.
He was too young, it came to be, to integrate himself into his trio of siblings, so he spent time with his mother and his teachers and his aunt and uncle. They were all together, eventually, at some point; meals, chores, bedtime stories of lands above and below and across the seas, but he never could seem to get a word in. Of course, when he was five, his siblings were eight, twelve, fifteen; he hadn’t known life like them, when his mother went on daily walks and had brighter eyes and more energy to simply be, to simply exist. And they didn’t know life like him, when his mother let him linger around the house in fear of something, and when he was to blame for the coarse grey hairs on her head.
Euanthe was nine-and-twenty, now, had just turned. The village, of course, expressed their gratitude to her through stocks of herbal medicines and seeds to coax into growth and wind chimes of all shapes, sizes, and materials. Her children made birdhouses of sticks, adhered with some sort of concoction, and flower bundles to hang from the window frame.
Akakios gave her a drawing of the Cliffs of Dios, its altar of stone, and his decipherings of the pictographs depicted; of course, they were incorrect. But she loved it anyway.
The village, through the years of Akakios’ childhood, was peaceful. News of war drifted toward the outskirts of Aredios, finding its way toward them in a few weeks’ time through family friends or colleagues or word-of-mouth, and for the most part, they were never asked to participate. Their poor luck, the sacrifice of their comfort, was quite enough.
Androkles– the oldest of Akakios’ siblings– took an interest in him, through the years. Took him on walks, in addition to the ones Akakios would make with his mother to the Cliffs of Dios, picking up sticks and prodding at his sides to find some sort of fire, some sort of fight, in him. Akakios would pick up a stick, though unwillingly, and engage in another battle.
“Got you again!” Androkles would tease. “Here, let’s switch swords. Maybe you’ll be better next time.”
Akakios smiled placidly, and took the sword from his brother.
“Mum, why do people fight?” he asked, around eight or nine, at the time. “What is it for?”
“For power, Aki,” Euanthe replied, smiling, cutting something into slices for her children to eat. “For power over the person they’re fighting; for land, sometimes; for honour.” She paused– restructured her thoughts. “Honour, pride, ego, glory– that is the individual’s goal. For the collective, it is power.”
“Honour,” Akakios repeated, tasting the word in his mouth. “Honour.”
It was, more often than not, bittersweet.
Androkles was nineteen, and so wanted to pursue bigger things; wanted, frankly, to stumble into the jaws of destiny and war and triumph. Of course, it was a town-wide event, his departure; people crowded around the forum, which had not been used for some time except for children to spar, while Androkles addressed his neighbours. “Friends, brothers, sisters!–” Akakios did not listen. Only watched in silence, mind racing, wondering why anyone would leave the outskirts of town and go to war. Honour, Aki. Honour, honour, honour. What was it good for?
“Aki,” his mother whispered, nudging at his side.
Androkles was pointing a branch at Akakios, another hanging by his waist. He wanted to fight, as a sort of gift for his departure; Akakios sneered, for a moment, then stood, if only begrudgingly. The audience cheered, knowing full well who the victor would turn out to be, knowing full well that the fight was skewed.
Oh, but it mattered none; it was a gift, that was all.
It was public victory, and public humiliation, respectively.
They began, Akakios’ heart racing. The audience watched with amusement as Androkles prodded at Akakios, finding strong reactions in the gaps between his ribs and the pits underneath his shoulders. He tried to block, but his brother was too fast, too agile, so he backed up. Held his sword out in front of him. Repeated this until his brother held the wooden blade up to his neck.
He surrendered. As always.
That night, they had a final feast with Androkles, and saw him off in a rickety chariot that could only belong to the outskirts of the city. He looked beyond them as he waved, a final look at the sunset that would no longer be his.
Akakios and his mother walked to the Cliffs of Dios.
His mother, after a time, unsheathed a bow and arrow from her skirts, nocked it, and released it into the forests below. She handed it to Akakios. To learn to fight, he guessed; to learn to value honour, in his own way. In light of Androkles leaving, she might have realised he was missing something. Hope, drive, passion. That sort of thing.
He took it from her hands, and looked at her strangely. “What do I do with this?” he asked. “There’s no target.”
“Oh, but there is,” she said, voice unwavering, reminiscent. “There are so many targets you can choose from. You’ve just got to zero in on it. Decide for yourself where the arrow’s going to land.”
He looked at the sun, pulled the bowstring behind his shoulder, and released.
“Where were you aiming?”
“See, that’s your problem.” She gave him another arrow. “You’ve got to look ahead of you, or you won’t land.” The arrow– as opposed to hers, wedged into the bark of a tree– had landed limply into the dirt.
He tried again, this time looking at the closest tree he could find.
It got stuck in a tangle of oak branches, waving in the breeze as the leaves did.
“You’re getting better.” She took the bow from him.
The Cliffs of Dios, as of late, had become a sort of haven for them. It was a teaching moment, more often than not, for Euanthe; a time for peace and quiet and contemplation, for the both of them. No more infants were abandoned to the gods, or none that they had seen; Akakios had been the end of it.
An emaciated, geriatric man had been praying there, one day; he seemed a farmer, from the looks of his clothing. Akakios gave him his lunch. The man thanked him profusely, bowed his head toward his abandoned son, and had not returned since.
Doves frequented the Cliffs, chirping their greetings for Akakios, bringing guidance to his mother.
Androkles returned, for a few hours of a sunny day, between his training and departure for another war. It would be short, he assured them, but then again, all wars would be. It would be short, but even then, there would be more wars to fight.
He seemed invigorated by this; after all, fighting meant honour meant power.
When Akakios was eleven, Lykos left to explore the oceans. “My seafaring son,” his mother had said, kissing the top of his head. “Survive the storms for me.”
He ducked his head, more emotional than his elder brother when he had left, once upon a time.
Melite often sparred with Akakios, only three years his elder and more matched to his skillset. She triumphed each time, of course, but it wasn’t so terrible; she didn’t spar with him for the village, or defeat him for humiliation. She just wanted to practice, and so she did.
“I’m leaving for town,” she said, finally, at twenty; the last of them.
“Have you found a husband, then?”
“No, Aki. I’m going to war.” She was wearing her fighting boots, and had her hair tied tight on the crown of her head, after all; he should have known. “There is a new female faction training.”
A dove landed on his index finger.
“What, is that an omen?” she asked him. “What does it mean?”
“You’re going to be a mother.”
She laughed. “Sure I am. Maybe not soon, Aki, but I will be.”
“Be strong for me, my dear,” his mother said. “Be strong for the women in Aredios, and its outskirts.”
Melite stood tall, a portrait of pride and glory and honour. “I will.”
Letters came in, of soldiers who had contributed to the war, or wars, more accurately; three or four had begun and ended since the departure of Androkles. He was on that list, grouped with the others that had fallen in battle; according to the letter, he had been a brave warrior, and had fought in the front lines for months on end. He had been killed in the battle of Geraios, in the trudges of a muddy river of a valley between two stubborn mountains, and it could not be determined whether he was drowned, or trampled, or stabbed.
“Why did this happen?” Akakios asked, knowing no answer could fully satisfy.
“Honour, Aki,” his mother replied, through her veil of tears.
A letter was sent to his brother and sister, and one replied; she returned, beaten and bruised from battle, having witnessed her brother’s death.
“I wasn’t on the front lines; that is reserved for men.” She paused, swallowing her tears. “But they recognized me as his relative, and brought his body to camp for a proper burial.”
His mother sat in the middle of them, at the village forum, squeezing their hands and letting her tears flow freely. The others in the village spoke of Androkles, his contributions to the village, his enthusiasm. They affirmed his honour. They respected Euanthe and her childrens’ silence. Akakios was squawked at by a crow, on his way home.
Despite the fear and strife and mortality of it all, Melite returned to war.
Lykos’ letter came in from a far-off sea, on a tenacious wooden ship named The Ferion that harboured ten crew members and a few hundred pounds of product and equipment, give or take. He had a beard coming in, and no way to shave it, he noted; his mother laughed at this, and made sure to address it in her reply. While reading the letter, Akakios tried to imagine him with a beard. He'd always been on the scrawnier side, though of course with more meat on his bones than Akakios. Lykos, at least to Akakios, could never fit the rugged, stubbly fisherman archetype.
Akakios and his mother went up to the Cliffs with her bow and arrow, once again. He closed one eye, nocked the arrow with precision, and aimed at a great fir tree that stood in its lonesome.
The arrow went through its dry and barren trunk.
His mother gushed at him, shaking at his shoulders. “Akakios, you did it!” she exclaimed. “I’m so proud of you.”
A bird– too far for him to identify– perched upon the arrow, and nibbed at its fletchings of leather and snow. He pressed his lips into a firm line, and felt a pit in his stomach.
Soon his mother was in her mid-forties, and her aunt and uncle were grey and worn. They lived in Euanthe’s cozy haven, of course, in their creaky rocking chairs by the windows of the cottage, and could get up and walk when needed. But they were silent and distant. Lost in the past.
Akakios’ great uncle died.
Of course there was a burial in honour of him. He’d been a soldier in an old war, some accounted to Akakios, in their condolences. He was a warrior and a fighter and a survivor. Then he’d seen his wife in the outskirts of his hometown, and watched the sunsets with her, and had fallen in love.
His aunt was too unwell to attend the funeral. She was bedridden, soon after.
His siblings didn’t return for the funeral; their exploits were too important, to grand, to return to the small hamlet in which they’d grown up. Akakios was angry at them. Melite, three-and-twenty, making the same mistakes as Androkles. Valuing honour over her life. Lykos, seven-and-twenty, lost to the tides and to the glimmer of the horizon. Androkles himself, who would have been thirty, who traded his future for glory. For legacy.
And Akakios, twenty, who didn’t understand the world, and didn’t understand what it was to desire.
He made his own bow and arrow, one day, when he was out for a walk in the forest. It was always bustling, children weaving through trees, sparring, shouting; animals camouflaging themselves, lurking in the branches, crawling through the shrubbery. In the midst of this chaos, Akakios had stumbled upon a smooth stick, the approximate length of a cow’s limb, the colouring of a stag’s antler.
He took it home and fashioned a string onto it; the arrows, he borrowed from his mother.
He went out to the Cliffs of Dios alone. He shot some arrows, then ran out, and so found a way down to the gorge below. Arms full of arrows, and more; his mother, it would seem, had been practicing for quite some time.
He stopped at the arrow he’d shot into the evergreen, and saw where the bird had nibbled away at the leather. He kept it there, a mark of his first success.
His mother, then, introduced him to spears and shields and hand-to-hand combat. It was a mystery, where she’d been taught, but nevertheless she was a diligent student of battle. She fashioned him armour of clothing scraps and blankets, more to mark his vulnerable points than for protection. He got hurt; that was part of the process. There were always salves, and teas, and rest.
Akakios then came to understand the rhythms of battle, the tides of power, the hum of shields revertebrating against their adversaries, and the melody of arrogance. But war, he could never understand. War was too abstract; too focused on the state, too unconcerned with the individual. Much like the pictographs of the old gods, it was difficult to decipher.
Despite all this, he went to war.
Or, alternatively: because of it.
Most, Akakios hypothesized, were not familiar with the intricacies of war and power and dominion. They only craved the battle coursing through their veins, the victory humming through their breath. Perhaps, even, they strove to comprehend; like Akakios, they were unequipped for strongholds, but had curiosity and precision enough to enlist.
Besides: he was two-and-twenty. He had been home long enough.
“Be true, Akakios,” his mother said, handing him his bow. “Return home soon. Do not fixate on honour.”
“I never have, mom,” Akakios replied. “I’ve learned from my siblings’ mistakes.”
There was no training for Akakios. He was plunged into battle, albeit a minor one, to survive the stench of blood and dead skin and rotting bones on his own. As he trudged through the field of those departed– the battle had been going on for three days, at least– a ringing in his ears tuned out the war cries of either side. He blinked languidly, blurring the lines between life and death and exhaustion, then was shoved to the side by a soldier, and recalibrated into sharp focus.
He carried two spears in his left hand, and had slung his bow behind his back. It would not be of use, as close-range as this. Knowing this, he’d left his arrows at camp.
Akakios felt the head of his spear plunge between the ribs of another man. He had not been keeping track of sides; he may well have just slaughtered his comrade. But what would it matter to him? The division between sides was always blurred, just as his vision. It didn’t matter to him whether Aredios or or Tethrios ended up on the peak of the mountain.
He gripped the shaft of his weapon harder, gritting his teeth against the beating of this man’s heart. He wondered why he could feel it, if there was an artery running up his spear, or if he’d gained heightened senses, at least temporarily, with the slaughter.
His hands were covered with blood. The man grasped at his spear and begged for his life.
“Coward,” a warrior beside Akakios spat. “Dying is the highest honour.”
Akakios ripped the metal from his wound, and let him die.
The battle wore down on Akakios’ spine and eyelids and feet, giving him scars he’d never thought he’d have. He was spotted by a high-ranking soldier and taken under his wing, for a time.
“Alexios,” he said, pulling his spear out of a man’s heart. “Stick beside me. Back me up.”
Akakios did not introduce himself; only nodded, the ringing in his ears returning, and mustered up the energy he’d lose soon enough.
Alexios was skilled, more so than Akakios, of course, but had been impressed by his refined fighting skills. “Predictable–” cleaning blood off his spearhead– “but clean, and sharp enough.” He encouraged Akakios to look in front of him, not behind. “You’re hesitant. Understandable for a new recruit, but if you want to move up the ranks, you’ll have to move away from that.”
Akakios stayed on his left side, losing awareness in his legs and arms.
They returned for the night to camp. Akakios was allowed a small ration of bread and meat and water. “More for higher-ranking soldiers,” Alexios explained, with almost triple the food on his plate. He poured a bit of his wine into Akakios’ cup.
“Thanks,” he mumbled.
“Honestly, you look terrible. You needed that.” While they ate under the blanket of a heavy silence, Akakios became aware of the dirt, grime, blood, caking his skin. He’d taken his armour off, just to reveal more debris from the battle.
“What happened to the female faction?” Akakios asked. “Where are they stationed?”
“Oh, it dissolved a few weeks ago; their training was… unsuccessful. They were stripped of their uniform and titles.” He wiped a crumb off of his chin.
Akakios was bursting with questions, and rage, and curiosity, but he kept his mouth shut.
“Your name?” Alexios asked.
“Akakios,” he repeated. “Not a warrior’s name; but never mind that. You have a fighter’s spirit.” He pulled Akakios’ bow from his back, and studied it.
“It’s– homemade,” he scrambled to say. “I probably won’t get much use out of it here.”
“No, not in battle,” Alexios agreed. “But for funeral rites, when an honourable hero dies, it will be much of use to you.” He readjusted his seating, and gestured behind him. “Shoot the tree behind my shoulder.”
Akakios followed his directions. A straight shot.
Alexios shared more of his rations.
They trudged onto the blood-caked grass the next day, Alexios shaking Akakios up at dawn having replaced his spearhead. “Yes, yes, it’s reserved for experienced warriors. But… there are exceptions.” He’d also taken it upon himself to restring Akakios’ bow, and to polish his shield.
Akakios gained enough confidence, mid-day, to separate from his mentor; he spotted a man fumbling with his spear, and so raced after him, identifying his weak points and calculating for any sudden moves.
As he struck him in the chest, another man slashed him across the knee.
He sucked in a breath, warded off his assailant, and walked back to the healers’ tent.
“Dying is an honour,” the healer told him, healing him anyway. Akakios just grit his teeth and thanked the healer; ever polite, ever passive. As he walked away, another soldier– high-ranking, if his armour told him anything– and nodded at Akakios. “Another one of Alexios’... apprentices, huh?”
Akakios must have looked confused, because the man nodded vaguely and answered: “The spearhead. He always pampers them with equipment; he knows it’ll return to him soon enough, I guess.”
Akakios returned to battle, limp and bandages and all.
He found Alexios in a gritty battle with another man, clearly worn down; armour dented, its shine hidden under layers of grime. On the defensive end of the match, evidently, eyes dark and wavering.
They seemed to be in conversation with each other, if only with their parries and blows.
Both high-ranking, Akakios guessed, trying to out-perform each other, trying to glorify their violence through triumph. Akakios was only a support soldier, a pawn, another letter to be sent home; Alexios and his allies and enemies were warriors, heroes. Honour set on their shoulders like sacks of grain to be carried to the other side of the mountain, again and again and again, a Sisyphean task. To be won, and then lost, and then won again. A weight to bear as each war came to a close, making way for another to begin.
Akakios was tripped by a soldier’s spear onto his back, faced with a blade at his throat. Alexios recognized this and saved Akakios from his assailant.
He fell, eyes wide, a spear through his chest.
Akakios jumped to his feet and warded off Alexios’ enemy. Tried to, at least. All he succeeded in doing was to keep himself alive.
“Word to the wise,” the man sneered, pulling the spear out of Alexios’ corpse. “Heroes can be disappointing.” He walked away, leaving Akakios alive with his guilt.
“Alexios?” Akakios flipped him over clumsily, trying to shake him alive. “Alexios?”
Alexios gripped his arm, eyelids fluttering, teeth clenched.
Akakios paused to listen.
“Win the funeral rites, will you?”
His head slumped back.
A few men helped Akakios drag Alexios’ body back to camp. A burial took place that night, exclusive to high-ranking warriors– honourable men, the pride of their front lines. Akakios, because of this, wondered why he was there. He was sure everyone else was wondering the same.
Alexios had been in the front lines for eight wars, accumulating his own sacks of grain throughout; killed hundreds of men, took a dozen (not unlike Akakios) under his wing; invigorated his fellow soldiers in the quicksand of battle; turned the tide of an operation when faced with stalemate and idleness. He climbed up the ranks until he was standing in the armour of a general, head high and eyes bright, at five-and-twenty.
The same age, Akakios thought, as Melite now– that is, if she was alive.
He took part in no funeral games but one of archery; there had been chariot racing, wrestling, footracing, javelin, each awarding its winners the armour, weaponry, wealth of Alexios; Akakios did not care for this, just wanted to uphold his last wish, his last coarse whisper, and so participated, but begrudgingly so.
They tied a string to a bird’s foot, and a branch to weigh it down. Each had their own bow and their own single arrow, and one man shot after another, each missing the mark by no more than a decimetre. The man before Akakios shot through the cord, and so won some prize or another; Akakios stepped forward, and shot clean through the bird’s body. The other men cheered, and it was bestowed upon him a large shield etched with a sigil of three spirals conjoining in its middle. It was too big. It could be tightened, but that was not his grievance– it was too big for him to use. It was marked by honour, by glory, by slaughter; he had not the experience to wield it, to handle the blows that would be dealt to Alexios’ image.
He held it in his hand anyway, and walked toward the bird to retrieve his arrow.
It was a dove, still fluttering its wings in desperation.
Akakios stumbled backward, if only slightly, and paled. “We’re going to lose,” he said, breath shallow and rough. “We’re going to lose, we’re going to lose, we’re going to lose.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The battle,” he mustered, eyes fixated on the fallen bird. “We’re going to lose.”
The others looked between each other, a mix of anger, confusion, concern. “Listen, son, this isn’t the right time.”
“No, listen, I– we’re going to lose. Without Alexios– we’re going to be defeated. We have to retreat, or we’ll be pinned by Tethrios. We have to leave.”
Akakios could not explain it; it was this feeling he had, this invasion of his mind, this violation. He was not supposed to know this. He backed away further, shaking, holding his bow at his side, gripping it. His knuckles were white. The bird’s wings were still fluttering, or maybe that was his double vision.
We’re going to lose.
“Right, son, we’ll… talk about this soon. But in the honour of Alexios, we will postpone this.”
Akakios nodded, and took a gasp of air into his lungs.
They burnt the pyre.
Akakios found himself on a chariot home, with his new spearhead and tremendous shield and tightened bow, but home nonetheless. He hadn’t pushed his vision– his newfound knowledge, the voice in his head warning him of defeat. They’d looked at him with pity, with fear of his madness. They’d patted him on the back, and told him to go home.
The road was rough, and thin; at times, Akakios was afraid they’d ordered his death. Mountainsides with ridges that just fit the width of the chariot, tree roots that threatened to overturn its wheels, cliffs overhead that could very well lead to avalanches. He looked blandly up at his peril, feeling like a dead weight, without the hum of the battle of his veins. It had filled him with a strange sort of passion; rage, yes, but passion.
And to think he’d only begun to understand war.
His mother embraced him tightly, and he shook as he wrapped his arms around her. The village took this as a sign of victory, but they came to realise that it was only a victory for Euanthe; her war was over, or, at least, one of four of them was. Theirs– the village, over the years, had become more involved in the politics of Aredios– had yet to be finished. And politics never end, whether they realised it or not; wars were being fought in forums, city buildings, streets, every day, gritty battles and casualties or not.
The first thing they did was walk to the Cliffs of Dios. They no longer fought with each other; with her withering age and his spearhead of flint, the tides had changed.
Akakios studied her under the orange sky, grey hairs on her head, wrinkles around her smile. It had been months, since his departure; not much time had passed. But, then again, it had been thirteen years since Androkles’ departure, and ten years since his passing.
Melite, after she was discharged, had returned, the same as Akakios. She had been furious, his mother said, and he was sure it was true; she had fire in her veins, through and through. She had what he had not, or rather, what he would come to have, in time. But, on the other hand, he had what she had wanted for so long: the privilege of boyhood. Growing up as a warrior, standing tall as one into adulthood, and growing into the title with a spear and shield in hand. (Really, he had done none of that. But it was a birthright for him. For her, it was nothing of the sort.)
“Where is she now?” he asked.
His mother looked into the horizon, smiling to no one but herself. “She has settled down, in the heart of the city. She is a mother. Not unlike the mother I was, a bit ago.”
“You’re still a mother.”
“Oh, of course, but I am old and grey and weathered. She is resilient, and kind, and green. She will blossom with time.”
Akakios stopped to wonder what that meant, but trusted that Melite was happy. She’d sent him a letter, his mother said, which she showed him later: telling him he was right. The omen, his prediction– it had been correct. She was proud of him, or at least she’d written that down on the rough parchment with some ink or another in small loopy letters.
Yes, she was happy; he could feel her smile radiating through the pages.
His brother had sent home a letter as well, declaring himself a captain of The Ferion. He would not rename it, despite his predecessor’s suggestion to do so; he wanted to honour its tradition. He felt as if anything of the boat were changed, it would fall apart under his feet.
Euanthe still had her own bow and arrows, worn down to its wooden core, its knots sharp against her fingers. She challenged Akakios to an archery competition, and the writhing bird was at his feet once again, flittering in the dirt, his deadly arrow through its heart.
He told her of his claircognizance, and her lips pressed into a firm line.
He shot an arrow into the tree below, careful to miss his first bullseye. She pulled back her own bowstring, and shot her arrow clean through his.
“Was that why you were discharged?” she asked him, returning her arrow to her skirts. “The vision– the omen?” They were walking from the Cliffs, her hands clasped together, his harbouring his equipment.
He nodded. “I must have seemed a madman.”
“Well, I’m sure of that.” Before he could reply, she added– “and you were being one, to be clear. But that doesn’t mean the vision wasn’t real, or that they won’t lose the battle. The orators of Aredios are losing hopes of triumph in the mountains, as well. Do not dismiss your knowledge, your intuition.”
“I was discharged, mum, you are disregarding that.”
His mother smiled. “But if you are right, they will regret their decision.”
She asked him of his comrades, the warriors he fought beside, and he could only think of Alexios, raising his hand to save Akakios’ life, risking his own all the same. He told short snippets of the story, shielding her from the horrors of war; of course, she could tell, and would pry the rest out of him later. But for now they sat just outside of the cozy haven with a wicker basket full of laundry at her side, and watched the stars.
They lost the battle.
A chariot sent for Akakios after some long days of anxious pacing. He called his farewells to his mother, and she merely smiled, handkerchief at her side, bow leant up against the brick wall.
This time, he would not go to the mountains; Aredios, the heart of the city, was the destination.
They lost the battle, but had won five prior; Tethrios had not an advantage over them, nor vigor, nor the sheer number of soldiers. But they did have the arrogance of a successful battle, the ego of a victory. They would be re-energized. Aredios would calculate for this, as well.
Akakios stepped into the meeting chambers, meant for oligarchical procedures and meetings too high of importance for the jurisdiction of commoners. The men he’d met at the funeral– the high-ranking soldier, observant, sharp; the supreme commander, rough edges, wrinkled brow; others adorned with armour as high caliber as Alexios had been dressed with, on the pyre– stood around a diagram in the centre of the room. Akakios found his place, if awkwardly, in this circle of men; they hadn’t stopped to welcome him in, or to pause the conversation of strategy and maneuvers. He didn’t mind; he was not interested in that. Only in returning to battle, and being told he had been correct, all along.
The meeting dragged along. The room was stuffy and window-less, and had been shut closed for privacy, for the concentration of those participating in the meeting. It was only stifling, for Akakios, and besides he had not been participating. Not really.
They addressed him after a silence.
“You were right, son,” the commander admitted. “We lost the battle; without Alexios,” he bowed his head, “we would never have won. But we have fresh maps on fresh parchments, and we’re ready to listen.”
He hesitated; nodded, after some confusion. “What do you want from me?’
“Your visions, your connection to the Gods.” The commander gave a flourish with his right hand, the one holding the inky pen; Akakios followed its path above the table, near the ceiling, back down again. “You’ll be our… advisor, of sorts.”
“Will I fight?”
A hesitation, then a laughter broke out in the men beside him. “Of course not, of course not!” and “Him? Fight?” rattled throughout the room. He didn’t know what to do with himself; the warm air had cut off his circulation, his executive functions, his sense of self.
“No, son,” the commander said, finally. “You won’t be fighting; you’ll be stowed away in a tent or outside with the birds or wherever need be for you to decipher the omens of the Gods. We will ensure that no harm will come onto you; that no tragedy will befall the Oracle of Aredios.”
It wasn’t much of a question; no, it wasn’t a choice at all, and yet there they were staring, waiting for his confirmation.
Akakios accepted. What else could he have done?
Akakios, when the meeting had adjourned, thought of Melite, with her family in the heart of Aredios. An arm’s reach away; yet he hadn’t asked for her whereabouts, didn’t know, even, where to ask. He traversed the city streets, its fountains adorned with shells of the sea; winding streets bricked at his feet, and leading him down hills and mountains and plains; its ceramic balconies that seemed to him like eggshells, or otherwise like porcelain figurines. He had not a destination, or a map, but had seen nothing of the world but the outskirts of town and a bloody battlefield and the view from the vantagepoint of the side of a mountain.
Guards were stationed around various points of Aredios, in diligent pairs, ensuring the safety of important men; orators, war heroes, the politically inclined. A woman stood in position at the facade of a yellowed building, and wore the armour of her male counterparts.
Surely she knew Melite.
Surely, she knew Akakios’ sister, could have fought with her in the war: she had the same tall and proud stance, determined expression, raised chin. But her face was like stone, and her dark brows fell under the shadow of a tree, darkening her face so that she seemed to command respect and power. So he turned away, stood a little taller, and let her be.
The geography of Aredios was certainly enough to keep him occupied. The elevation of the heart of the city– being placed on the peak of the hill– fascinated Akakios, and many tourists who had come before him. It made for slanted dwellings, overworked horses, uneven flooring. When he’d entered the apothecary of some herbalis, he hadn’t expected it to be a balancing act on his part. But the herbalist had adapted, his low windows aiming at his neediest plants, shop-counter at the topmost point of the shop. Akakios was sure all shopkeepers did this, as did its residents; only few had the privilege of living on the top of the hill.
The guards, after a time, rotated; Melite was not stationed anywhere.
Akakios returned to his temporary chambers for the night. Sleep was difficult, being as he was on a slight angle, and in a wealthier bed than he had ever been in. No windows, and no sunset to look at in stunned silence, different every evening in the little village that had once been his home.
He was woken up by a servant with bread and meat and eggs.
He dressed, and picked up his spear, and stood tall like the soldier he would never become.
They traveled by chariots (three of them, for all high-ranking soldiers, plus Akakios) to the plains between Tethrios and Aredios; green, soon to be red, tarnished by the scythe of Death, the anvil of War, the ever-turning hand of Power. They were silent, for the most part, the supreme commander reviewing his parchments of maps and numbers and finances, the general polishing his weapon, eyeing Akakios’ spear with distaste, and his shield with pity. Another man, one Akakios had not spotted in the meeting prior, rested with his head back and arms crossed. Akakios himself looked up at the sky, and down at the ravine below, and grounded himself with the butt of his spear driven into the chariot floor. He could still smell the metals of blood on the shaft, and the stench of flesh in its bruises. The new spearhead had been used reservedly, and so was sharp, and smooth. He ran the calloused skin of his fingers on its edges, careful not to draw blood, yet harbouring a strange fascination toward it– toward the damage a spear could deal, the mortality in a blade’s edge.
It came nightfall, when they’d arrived at the plains, meeting their remaining army who had trudged through the valleys and ravines as their own transportation.
Akakios recognized some of them, but only vaguely.
They showed Akakios to his tent, and displayed his weapons, and gave him a serving of meat, and bread, and butter, and wine.
He wanted to abandon it, to throw it out onto the grass, to throw the wine onto some soldier’s shiny metal chestplate; he had remembered Alexios, his rations, which were (Akakios guessed) even smaller than Akakios’, as the Oracle of Aredios. He wanted to take a vow of obstinacy, of loyalty to his departed comrade, but had been traveling for a half-day in a stuffy chariot under the unclouded sun. Besides, he was weak. He had not the resolve to stand his ground, or to refuse an escape from the position he’d gotten himself into.
Akakios shovelled food into his mouth in large spoonfuls, ending his meal with a throatful of wine, and a figurative oblivion. He dug his hands into the earth and tore out tufts of grass, acting as though they were his reflection. He stumbled out of the tent with his bow and arrows and shot at an empty plate in front of him, shattering it into microscopic pieces. He dragged his feet into his tent when the friend of Alexios– the general called Philokrates, Akakios was later informed– weaved his right arm under his shoulders and around his back, and guided him into his bed to sleep and recover from this drunken fervour.
He awoke the next day with a blustering headache. There was a meal waiting at the side of his sleeping mat, and the supreme commander tapping his foot in the far corner. Akakios did not jump, at this, only shivered slightly. He picked up his meal, sliding his feet onto the dirt, awaiting the commander’s word.
“Listen, son,” he said. “I took a risk by recruiting you. The others think it’s a fluke. Even ones at the funeral, they thought you’d gone mad back there.” He shifted his position, illuminating the dark circles under his eyes. “Don’t disappoint me. Train yourself. Be more reverent. Study the Gods. Do everything in your power to get the messages you need, and to win us the war.”
Akakios sat in stunned silence, for a moment. He nodded with wide eyes.
The captain stood up and left the tent.
They rode up with their chariots toward the far-end of the plains. It had not been ravaged by war, yet; they were to advance, slowly as they could, to the north end of the field, filling its south end with more soldiers each day. The plains were a neutral zone, another mediator turned into a battleground. Tethrios would not arrive for a few days, likely; they would wait it out in their own mountains, and hope for high ground. But Aredios’ soldiers would remain, waiting to be met on even ground, sending more soldiers in by the hundred.
Akakios stayed behind, sitting with his spear stuck in the ground at his left, watching the birds and the trees and the sky. A pigeon flew by, and landed on the tree.
“They’ll arrive soon,” Akakios told the messenger, who darted across the field, weaving through soldiers’ tents and campfires and stray weapons. He ate his dinner, wine and bread and meat as always. The cup had significantly less wine in it; they knew, he guessed, that he could not hold his alcohol.
The next day, the soldiers with their markedly dull armour and blue-and-yellow flag of Tethrios could be seen from the mountains beyond.
Aredios’ own flag, mounted atop tents and staked into the ground, portrayed the God of War’s head in the centre, thin blue circles outlining. It was windy, that day, and so the flags blustered about the sky, refusing to tear from their poles. They created a horrendous sound, all together, the wind against the fabric, the fabric against metal, and the metal against the wind; Akakios could barely stand it. Still, the Tethrians marched on, only pausing to rest when they were out of the Aredians’ view.
They arrived some day after, worn with travel as were the Aredians, but less trained to disguise their exhaustion. Akakios was informed, after some confusion, that Aredios would wait a day, for the Tethrians to become acclimated; a strange tactic. Another thing Akakios did not understand.
He was invited to the meeting with the generals and commander. He sat next to Philokrates, across from the supreme commander, in the circle around the fire, straining to hear their hushed voices, straining to see their facial expressions. They talked of maneuvers, of spies, of stalemate.
Akakios sipped his wine, and looked at the birds perched on branches nearby.
“We have the resources, the power in numbers,” the captain said. “We have the advantage of experience, and of our citizens’ devotion to the Gods. And now Akakios.”
They nodded, and glanced over expectantly at their Oracle of Aredios.
He looked up at the night sky and stayed silent.
The battle began the next day. Akakios’ ears reverberated with the clashing of metal and blowing of flags adorned with the gods’ golden curls and abyssal energies. It was awfully hot, and Akakios could only imagine the sweat sticking the armour of the soldiers to their skin and layers of clothing. The wind was not a refreshing thing, but a hot breath blown into their eyes and ears and onto the backs of their necks.
Akakios sat with his spear in the ground, spear slung over the back of his chair. His bow was perched by his side, left untouched throughout the battle.
He walked to the commanders’ tent in spite of their wishes, and stood tall with his spear and shield, playing the role of the soldier he was in his mind. “The God of War is on our side.”
The commander– speaking in hushed tones with Philokrates– looked away from the conversation.
“The God of War is on our side,” Akakios repeated, standing up straighter. “We must make offerings to Him, and speak our prayers, to invoke His power and strength.”
The commander nodded. “You are dismissed.”
Of course, Akakios did not know that the God of War was on their side; he could only guess, could only extrapolate what he could from the golden lines on the flag staring back at him. He could, from a general knowledge of the world around him, figure out that the Gods wanted something in return for their contributions in human politics. Not that they were unsympathetic, or uncaring, but that they simply were not mortal. Wars came and went, for them, like lover’s quarrels; ever fleeting, ever inconsequential. Worship, then, provided an incentive: they expended their energy and time for their devotees more than they would indifferent, disregarding mortals.
I am the embodiment of Power and Strength. The God of War gives His vigor to me, and turns the tide of battle toward the Aredians.
The mantra soldiers whispered in the beginning of battle, or in a clash with a Tethrian soldier.
And, of course, offerings were given at dinners and breakfasts and in times of doubt. Weapons of departed soldiers, as well as their armour; broken remains of fallen Tethrians; maps, bird’s feathers, scraps of leather, cleaned and tanned. Food was given, but for larger offerings– their rations were sent in every few weeks, so they were to be conservative with these offerings. They sent orders home to pray to the God of War; statues were sculpted, flags were raised, temples were repainted and renovated. Orphic hymns were composed and sung throughout the hot days in Aredios, and weapons were forged in honour of the God. Everyone in Aredios was awfully devoted to Him, in these times. Hawks, eagles, and vultures circled the skies and perched on flag poles. Akakios took this as a sign of their success.
The commander arrived at Akakios’ tent with plans.
“We have two options.” He paced around the tent, placing two pieces of parchment in Akakios’ lap. “We’re obviously not going anywhere with what we’re doing. We’ve defeated major Tethrian warriors and factions, yes, but it’s been two weeks. We need a new strategy.” He started explaining the blueprints to Akakios, pointing as he went along. “We can creep to their camps at night and ambush them, here– travel with a whole fleet across 13 kilometres will take an hour or two, if we don’t want to be detected. We’ll take a thousand soldiers– more than enough for a surprise attack– and when the battle gets loud, someone will give the signal for the rest to join the battle.
“This one here– we have to target Demophon. ” The most noted warrior of Tethrios; the one who had not been killed, despite Aredios’ best efforts. The man who killed Alexios. “Go in at night and kill him. A two-man mission– if the first fails, the second won’t. The operation will be faster, with only two men to obscure. Now obviously this is the smarter option; without Demophon, their manpower is significantly less, and they’ll need to adjust to their loss.” He shuffled the papers. “Now, son, we’ve all come to a general agreement that we’ll be killing him, and continuing the battle the next day. But I just wanted to clarify– this is all right by our God of War, right?”
Akakios stared at the page for a moment, ever conscious of his breath.
“Yes.” Akakios nodded. “Yes, that’s the best course of action.”
The captain stepped outside, and Akakios followed him for fresh air; his chest felt tight.
A vulture perched on the top of his tent, and swooped forward.
Akakios was prevented from participating in the ambush. Apparently the commander knew he would want to take part, because a few soldiers stood guard around his tent under the guise of his protection. Tethrios might have been planning an ambush, as well; without the high-ranking soldiers there, he would be their target.
He was flattered; honestly, he was.
He sat outside, at least, next to the campfire heavily obscured by the forests in front of them and the tents standing upright in its path. The guards circled him like vultures, like the one that had been waiting for him earlier. Some had been perched on branches and poles. He felt watched.
Akakios sipped his wine, and found it to be dull.
After a few moments of peace and admiration up at the starry night sky, a jarring pain filled his stomach, his torso. He keeled over in pain, clutching his stomach, sucking air through his teeth.
The two guards rushed to him, and looked at each other in concern.
“Poison?” one said to the other, ducking his head to investigate Akakios: his face, his skin, his mouth.
“No, I’m fine, I assure you,” he replied, unfurling himself slowly. “I must have had too much wine, that is all.” They did not believe him. But his face was human and unscathed, if somewhat pale. Their oil lamps did not reveal much, anyway.
A few minutes later, a pair of soldiers– Philokrates and another one Akakios didn’t recognize– returned to camp, with the spear that had slaughtered Demophon.
They offered the bloody spearhead to the God of War, as if to placate him, to find his approval in the abyss that was divinity. They went off into battle the next day, the Tethrians scrambling to find their places, fit themselves into the battlefield properly, and massacred the opposing side. Akakios nocked an arrow and pulled it back, loosened it, pulled it back, loosened it, in the direction of the battlefield. He would not release it, he decided; it could very much land on his own side of the war.
They accomplished much on the sixteenth day of battle.
Akakios felt the pain in his stomach consistently throughout the day, and sat down to force it to subside. It often would not. Vultures swarmed in a shrinking circumference around his tent, and around his seating area; he ignored them.
Soldiers, as they were returning from battle, congratulated him, patted him on the back. The pain flashed, and he only dealt a grimace to Philokrates, standing taller as each passed by. “You’re an honourable man, Akakios,” they said, each in their own way; he nodded to them without a passing thought, then sat back down.
He dreamt of vultures.
He dreamt of vultures circling him in an aura of war and power, except it was not of the God’s favour– His doom surrounded Akakios, His threats, His strife. Akakios keeled over into the ground, and dug his nails into the earth, crying out to the world about how they should kill the apprentice of the God of War.
Demophon’s face flashed for a moment.
He was drinking wine with Akakios, red on his teeth, spear in the earth, or rather stabbed into Alexios’ chest. Akakios begged on his knees for him to be saved.
“Coward,” a thundering voice spat. “Dying is the highest honour.”
He was on the ground already, head bowed in reverence. The spearhead that Akakios had killed with was lined up on a table, followed by his bow, and Alexios’ shield; Demophon’s spear, and the spear that had killed him, were entangled into one. A fluttering dove was stuck by an arrow into the right hand side of the table, wings gray and decomposed, body shrivelled up like a prune.
Akakios looked up.
He shivered at a tall figure that stood in his presence. Roiling eyes, irises of red and gold and black, dark bushy eyebrows that furrowed when His browbone met. He held a spear to Akakios’ chest, muscles flexed, or at the very least threatening. The God of War was there, right there, and Akakios had angered him. But how?
“‘How?’” the God mocked, laughing at the irony. “‘How have I angered You, You Gracious God of War?’ The God of War gives His vigor to me, and turns the tide of war to the Aredians.”
The God laughed again. There was a bitterness to it; a coarseness. Akakios did not look up.
“You have lost the battle for your fellow men, Akakios. You have disappointed the Gods. Particularly me.” Footsteps circled Akakios, and the butt of the Patron’s spear shook the ground, revertebrating into Akakios’ legs of jelly and wine. “Look up.”
Akakios did. An ironic smile twisted the God’s face into rage.
“There is one thing you can do, Akakios,” He continued. “You can return to your old ways. Step down from your pedestal. Become a warrior again.” The butt of the God’s spear dug into Akakios stomach, where the pain had been showing itself recently. “Fight in this battle, for honour, and you may be forgiven. You Aredians may win the battle, only then.” He prodded at Akakios’ stomach.
“Yes, My Lord.” Akakios cowered as much as possible.
“Look up, Akakios,” He replied, in a singsong voice, using his spearhead to raise Akakios’ chin. “If you will speak in place of me, you will have the courage to look at me, at the very least.”
Akakios made eye contact with the God he’d impersonated, and lurched himself awake.
A vulture stood at the foot of his bed.
“I must go into battle,” Akakios told the commander, armour on, weapons equipped. “I received a direct message from the God of War. This will turn the tides.”
“With all due respect,” was his reply, “We’ve got this under control. We have the soldiers, the power, the morale. And, besides, you have proven yourself a great resource. Do not waste that on warfare.”
Akakios took note of a vulture perched on a flagpole. “I already have.”
“Listen, son. I won’t let you go onto the battlefield.”
“He has provided me with protection.”
“I don’t doubt that. But you can go out on the battlefield later. For now, be our messenger, our Oracle. You will receive much more honor from this than a premature death in battle.”
“With all due respect, sir,” Akakios turned toward the plains, “All death in war and politics is premature. The difference is, I will not die.”
Philokrates tapped the commander on the shoulder, and replaced him in the conversation.
“Akakios. Do you really want this?”
“Yes, otherwise, why would I be doing it?”
He grabbed Akakios’ arm, giving him a sharp look. “I know you’ve been wanting to get out there, and I understand. But would Alexios really want this for you?”
“Yes,” Akakios replied, gritting his teeth; the conversation had been long enough. “He was obsessed with honour. He died for it. His last words were asking me to win his funeral rites. He had no plans to survive the war.”
“An unfortunate fault,” Philokrates agreed, though Akakios wondered at its genuity. “But Alexios–”
And, suddenly, Akakios was filled with a surge of rage, of animosity, of passion. His stomach was filled with a self-aware, parasitical madness that grew as he stared at Philokrates’ face. He took his right hand, bearing his spear, and stabbed it into his chest.
And Philokrates’ face, red and getting paler, looked swollen like a balloon, gasping for air, trembling to keep the blood inside his body.
Akakios had been infested with a mania which had wormed its way into his hands.
He took the spear and turned it onto himself, plunged it into his own heart, imagining that the vultures would devour his corpse in the afterlife.
And, far away, a God laughed.