Vasant 2024 Stories - Gabriel Graham Piessens

 

The Hero Always Dies

By Gabriel Graham Piessens

 

Pert found a sword, a real knight’s sword. He didn’t know what to do with it, and that scared him—he had always been better when he knew what to do. Then, there was no one as confident as him. Maybe someone needed it in the village; maybe he could be useful with it. Maybe it was a legendary sword, and everyone would like him for finding it. He would be the big person.


He stood from the side of the lake, and brushed his pants. The mud didn’t come off. The sword was clean; it had come from the water. Truth be told, it was the light reflecting on the handle—handle? He was sure there was a better word for it than handle. His grandpa had shown him how to use a sword once, and he had trained with it night and day for a month before getting bored, and yet he couldn’t remember the name for the handle—that had caught his eye. Sometimes, he came to the lake just to find stuff. Jane in the village liked most of the things he found. Most. He had been hoping to find her something interesting. It was his third time here this week.


But he couldn’t give her a sword. He picked it up by the handle that had a fancier name than handle, and then he picked up his bucket, and his second, and his third, and his fourth, and his fifth. All made from wood and steel, all made big enough that a normal man could only lift two. His buckets had nothing else in them.
It’s ok, I’ll come back tomorrow. If I have time after chores.


No, Jane was too pretty for swords.


Pert began walking back. The tree limbs were heavy with snow, heavy with their burdens. His boots crunched through the ice, and he had to lift his feet high to take another step. Jane liked pretty rocks. That’s what Pert usually found, in that lake. He didn’t know where the sword had come from, and he didn’t know what to do with it. That scared him.


Light snowflakes drifted from the sky. They melted immediately on Pert’s mittens. It was the kind of day where he didn’t have to wear a hat. Cold, but without wind, and only the sound of his feet as they broke the snow. Quiet. Peaceful. It was here that Pert could breathe. He tipped his head back, and for a moment, the sword was forgotten. Jane was forgotten. He was himself, and that was enough.


Oh god how he wanted to be enough.


He looked down, and took another step. Crunch. His house, and the village, would appear soon. He wasn’t far enough away. And there, to the side, a shadow crossed the empty space between two trees. Pert froze. A night wraith?


Flit. Yes, it was a night wraith. Pert dropped his buckets and drew the sword. It caught on the end of the scabbard, and then was free. He dropped the scabbard.
For a moment, he didn’t move. What was the warning again? What did the Watch say? Ah, yes. Don’t make noise. Move away from the wraith. Its claws are too fast, in close. Its teeth if you’re even closer. Don’t let it spot you; they have trouble doing that in day time. Pert took a big, slow step away. The snow crunched. He froze again. I can’t move without making noise.


The night wraith had stopped. Its head, a dark, shadow remnant of a human face, pointed just to the side of Pert. It doesn’t see me. Yet. Its ears, longer than they should be, twisted around, the ends flicking. Pert felt his heart thudding in his chest. Why did he try to move softly? He wouldn’t make it. He could feel sweat run down his back and his breath sounded too loud to him and the air was cold. What did the Watch say? He didn’t know. Did he run? Did he fight? He tightened his grip on the sword, and his toes felt cold in his boots, and he wanted to do something. No, don’t fight. That was against the previous rules. Were there new rules now? He took a breath, and it burned his throat, and it tasted like water after carrying logs—sweet and cold and like life.


The night wraith began to move. Pert nearly gasped, stopped himself, nearly choked. It was moving away. He stayed silent. That must have been one of the rules. Stay silent.


He watched it until he couldn’t see it any longer, and then he ran. His boots crashed through the snow, sending up waves, and the sword flashed in the white light.


The scabbard! Then, my buckets!


It was too late now. He could see houses through the trees, and smoke rising from the chimneys, and people moving through the streets, unaware of him. The village is this close? That couldn’t be right. Night wraiths didn’t come this close. He burst from the trees, and pounded down the hill, snow billowing around him, falling into his boots, spraying his face. A couple heads turned towards him, pausing, then turned away. Some stayed on him. One of the Watches, Jerald, started trudging forward from his post by the edge of the village, pulling his spear from his shoulder.


“Halt!” Jerald called. I have to warn the watch. That’s the rule.


“It’s me!” Pert called. He drew a breath. “It’s Pert! A night wraith, Jerald! Night wraith!”


He couldn’t see Jerald’s reaction through the flurries of snow. Pert knew his own beard would be covered—it would freeze if he didn’t brush the snow off in time.
“What?” Jerald said. Pert neared him, and slowed, then stuttered to a halt as Jerald hefted the spear.


“It’s me, Jerald, it’s me. There’s a night wraith! A night wraith was here, close to the town! You know what that means, Jerald!”


Jerald frowned. “A night wraith? This close?” He eyed Pert. “Yes, this close. You’re not even out of breath. Hm. Rule says we should tell the rest of the Watch. Come on. And where in the hell did you get that sword?”


Pert looked down. His mitten covered the handle from the heavy cross before the blade to the six sided pillar at the end.


“Oh, uh, found it.” Jerald had started back towards the town, and Pert took a few steps to keep up.


“Found it? No—that’s a story for another time. Set the barriers down as you get there, man, you’re stronger than I am. I’ll tell the Watch.”


Jerald hurried off, leaving Pert behind, sword and all. Pert paused for a moment. I want to fight with you. I can be useful. Invite me to fight. He went to move the barriers. They leaned against the wall between each edge house, as tall as the thatched roofs themselves. Usually it took four men to pull them down safely. Pert just had to set his sword on the ground before hefting them.


It took him enough time that the Watch had gathered into the street he and Jerald had entered on, by the time he was done. He went to join the crowd surrounding the watch, and Jerald glanced at him before moving to another Watch member. None of the others saw him.


“Listen,” he heard the Watch Leader say. “This is just a routine check. There is no reason to be concerned.” His voice was uncaring.


“We haven’t seen night wraiths in a while,” a raised voice—Matilde—said. No one else said anything, though from the back of the crowd Pert could see heads turning, whispering in each other’s ears. No one spoke to him. The Watch Leader’s eyes moved to the side, where the rest of the Watch moved about, still strapping on weapons.

 

He frowned. “It’s only one night wraith. We won’t need more than one patrol. If you’ll excuse me, I have to organize it.” He shifted, about to step away.

 

“But what if there’s more?” Matilde asked. Some of the Watch—the ones ready—grimaced at her. The Watch Leader frowned again. Pert’s eyes were drawn to the forest. He knew how this would end—Matilde usually gave trouble. The Watch Leader would eventually grow tired and leave, ignoring her. For now, he did his best.


“There won’t be. There hasn’t been in a long time. You said it yourself.” A tree branch moved in the forest, dislodging the snow. Wind. But the man, what was his name?” Matilde looked around, before pointing at Pert. “Him!” Why don’t you know my name? I’m always here. “He told us it was close to the village! They haven’t been close since last time we were attacked.” “Matilde,” The Watch Leader said. He turned, finally facing her. “You weren’t alive last time a night lich attacked.”
Muttering spread. More people had arrived, and they surrounded Pert now. A night lich. To his side, he heard a child ask.


“Momma, what’s a night lich?” The mother shushed him, and Pert missed what she said next. His eyes found them in the crowd. The mother’s hand rested on the head of the child, mussing his hair. He looked safe.


Through the houses, Pert saw more snow fall. He turned his attention back towards the Watch. They looked like brothers, and they still weren’t ready. Only a couple had strapped their weapons on. The rest nudged each other and laughed. I want that. One, an older man, pushed the cap over a younger man’s eyes as he tied his boot. The older one cackled while the younger shot back an insult Pert couldn’t hear, grinning.


There was movement in the trees. Pert’s hand clenched on his sword, remembering the movement of the wraith. He didn’t see anything else. It was just the wind. Like with the tree branch, like…


He opened his mouth, and the wraiths burst from the trees. The laughter continued. There was no wind.
Pert opened his mouth, and someone screamed. The child. The child! Jane! Where was Jane? Pert couldn’t see her. He ran, trying to get in front of the kid, and saw wraiths on the other side of the village.


“More!” He yelled. The Watch looked at him, some with faces blank, some with eyes filled, desperately pulling on the rest of their armour. What do I do? There are no rules for this!


Several members—the old man and his younger companion, still fixing his cap—rushed to the other side of the crowd.


“Into the buildings!” The older one roared. Shouting rose. The night wraiths’ hissing filled the air. Pert could smell piss. He clenched his sword, and his eyes couldn’t leave the wraiths, swirling, black shapes, soaring towards the village, their long claws already outstretched, and he could see blood on some of them.
What do I do?


He grabbed the child, and the mother, and shoved them towards a building. The square had emptied, only a few people remaining. It felt like an island of the brilliant snow against the blackened wraiths. Snow still fell, slow fat flakes, and as the wraiths hit, the scent of iron joined the cold air. A Watch member was cut, the wraith ripping his throat out, and blood sprayed against a house. What do I do? God, what is this?


Pert clenched his sword tighter. He couldn’t see beyond the rolling shapes. So many! Watch members, in brown with melting snow on their shoulders and in their hair, swung wildly, their swords ripping through wraiths like paper, and they looked like the glittering stones of the lake. Scattered. Individual. The old man fought beside the younger man, and blood fell, and the younger dropped, his knee at a wrong angle. The older stepped in front of him, swinging wildly, screaming, and he fell too, flying, rolling, coming to a halt at Pert’s feet, his eyes blank.


Pert looked up. A night lich stood above the younger man. A lich.


He watched as the younger man died. The lich stepped over him. It stood taller than the wraiths.


Pert looked at his sword.


Snow melted on the blade.


He looked back up. The Watch, around, fell. The leader stood three others around him. Two to Pert’s left. One ahead of him, then gone. There had been twenty. A broken crown hung around the lich’s neck.


Pert’s grip tightened on his sword—hilt. That was the word. Not handle: hilt. He knew what to do. He always felt better when he knew what to do.
And he stepped forward, his muscles bringing the sword to a ready position, the Leader looking back, seeing him, yelling something. Pert didn’t hear. He swung, and the lich ducked, claws like daggers reaching out, ripping through his trousers. Pain blossomed, and his leg was ripped back, cutting a rivet through the snow, his leg painted white and red and brown.


“You will not kill me,” he said. He saw the surprise in the lich’s eyes, too much a remnant of a man’s. It stood straighter than the wraiths. A normal man would’ve been thrown. Pert swung again, and the blade bit, pushed, held. He wrenched it out. In his mind, he could see the child, hear the scream. Saw Jane with her pretty rocks. “You will not hurt anyone here.”


He stepped forward, slamming the pommel into the lich’s face. It fell back, swept its cloak out, snarled, gathered itself. A normal wraith would have died. This one was too human, too broken. The sword flashed upwards, memories blossoming in Pert’s muscles, and it cut the lich’s cloak through. The cloth fell. Behind the lich, the Watch Leader fought, shouting, metal screeching, blood and sweat thick in the air, and to Pert’s surprise, he caught Pert’s eyes, and yelled, “HOLD MAN, I’M COMING!”


The lich threw itself, teeth snapping for Pert’s neck, and he moved too slowly, felt his shoulder rip. His sleeve sagged. He drove his sword upwards, adjusted as the lich dodged, swung it in an arc, slammed the lich backwards. Black smoke poured from its stomach. It stumbled. Pert could barely raise his arm. Tears came to his eyes. He knew what to do. It hurt so bad.


“You,” he said, and he couldn’t believe how strong his voice sounded, how loud it was over the din. “Will. Not. Hurt. Anyone!” It felt like the forest. Peaceful. He felt like himself


For once again, everything was right. He let instinct carry him, and his sword flashed out, caught the lich across the face. The chest. Sliced its arm off. It swung back, claws held like a sword, and blood exploded out of Pert’s chest. His heels dug in the dirt. Snow fell. He swung again, and sliced the lich’s leg, neck, and slammed it backwards with a punch. Pert followed. As did the Watch Leader, raising his sword.


The lich ducked. Pert saw its muscles clench. You will not hurt anyone.


And when its claws came up towards the Watch Leader's stomach, Pert was there, feet still skidding, holding his ground as no other man would have been able to do as the claws slammed into—through—him.


His sword severed the lich’s head from its shoulders. The crown hit the ground.


And there was silence. A last scream—cutting the air. It tapered off. Pert looked around, and it took his eyes a moment to adjust.


Where am I?


He was on his knees. How? Someone held him. He looked up. It was hard to control his head. The Watch Leader stared down at him, his face covered in red and black blood, his stomach whole and healed.


“You’re ok,” Pert tried to say. It didn’t come out. He let his head loll back down, and he saw a black carpet—no, the wraiths, dead, the ashes of their bodies a black counterpart to the snow. So that’s what killing a lich does. The black and white merged.


“What’s his name?” A rough voice shouted. The Leader? Why did it sound so far away?


“Pert,” Jerald said.


“Pert,” the Watch Leader repeated, gray eyes looking down, staring, solemn. “We will remember you.”


Pert wanted to say something. He felt the world fading. Black clouds rimmed his vision. What do I say? Nothing. There was nothing he could say to such an honour. To being remembered. To being enough.


And so as Pert died, all he could do was smile.

 

Gabriel Graham Piessens from Canada is an undergraduate student at Brock University in the English Language and Literature program, and has been published in the Brock Creative Writing Club Student Anthology, as well as Paloma magazine. He also received honorable mentions in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future competition.

 

Our Contributors !!

Some of our writers!

  • We occasionally invite writers to send their musings. Do send in your work, and we will host it here.
  • Do visit the Submit page to submit your work.