How Heroes Die
The affects of war had taken their toll; the warrior was no longer the naïve young man that he had once been. His skin was scared, his eyes were cold, and yet he was thought of as a hero. He had saved countless lives, had forced back the enemy, and had been praised by the King himself. Children would happily call out his name in the streets, and women would throw themselves at him in the villages that he had helped to defend. He was the greatest warrior of the times, and yet his heart belonged to the past that he had left behind.
He could still see it in his mind – the quiet hamlet by the riverside. Too small to be considered a proper village, it was a place of few but close families, where the days were filled with laughter and adventure, and the nights by stories told by grandparents who had seen far more of the world than the wide-eyed children. He could still see the girl with the fire red hair, who's eyes were like deep blue pools of water; inviting and yet mysterious. She was the one with whom he had left his heart and a promise of marriage once he had returned. She was a woman of indomitable spirit, and it was for her that he fought; for her, and for others like her, who should never come to know the horrors of war. The memories of his home were like a precious bubble, and his desire to protect it was what kept him going, even as the years past him by.
It would be three years before the hero of the realm returned to his home. They had recently fought off the invading forces from the neighbouring kingdom, with their Captain fighting at his best, and not losing a single soldier in the skirmish. They were relaxing by a river, sharing stories of home as well as ale, when the hero recognised a certain bend within the river. Surveying the landscape, he realised with a start that he was no more than five miles away from his precious hamlet, and from the woman who was patiently waiting for his return. It was an opportunity that he simply could not pass up.
Leaving his men for the moment, the hero followed the course of the river upstream, his smile growing as he recognised more of the old landmarks – guides that he had used as a child to find his way home. He spotted the places where he had lain with the red haired woman, watching the sun sink into the water, and the places where they had whispered promises to one another under the cover of darkness. As he started jogging, it was as if he were a child again, sprinting home after spending the day out fishing. Indeed, he felt like a child again, and no longer the scared and weary hero of the realm.
But then he stopped. He could smell smoke, and the wind brought to him the sound of screams. Lifting a horn to his lips, he sent out an urgent call to his men before sprinting along the familiar tracks towards the small village. A horse came thundering towards him, its rider holding a sword high in one hand. The hero recognised him – a rider from the invaders that he and his men had recently fought off. As the horse approached, the hero drew his own sword and waited. Leaping into action, he slashed at the rider, knocking him to the ground as the horse reared. Stealing the mount, the hero thundered along the track, before stopping dead at what he found.
The rolling green slopes and the quaint thatched houses were a blaze, the peaceful citizens screaming and running for their lives as the brigands cut down anyone that crossed their paths. With rage in his eyes, the hero rushed into the fray, cutting down any attacker within striking distance. How dare they invade this place – his place – and bring such destruction down upon its people!
His men arrived soon after, and it wasn't long before the invaders were either dead or retreating, leaving the hero to search for his beloved. In the chaos that had been brought down onto the peaceful hamlet, it was difficult to distinguish one person from another, and even familiar faces seemed strange somehow. Yet he soon found her, outside of the house that would have been theirs.
Her long hair was still a wave of fire red, and yet now it was matted and dirty. And her eyes – those beautiful blue eyes – stared accusingly back at him, cold and lifeless. She lay on her side amongst the fallen leaves, only one eye completely visible, almost as if she were lying in wait for him. Indeed, she had been waiting, and yet he had arrived too late. Of all of the people that he had saved, and of all of the villages that he had protected, the one person whom he should have protected above all else was the one person that he had been unable to save.
As grief overcame his body, the hero collapsed to his knees and drew his beloved against his chest. Her body was already growing cold, angering him all the more. Whilst he had been taking a break with his men, his lady had needed him more than she ever had before, and he had failed her. What was there to live for if he could not even protect the one who meant more to him than any other? What was the point of being a hero if you lost everything that you had once held dear?
Carefully lying his beloved back down amongst the leaves, the hero picked up his sword. Turning towards the stone wall of the charred house he set about carving out the final words that any would receive from him ever again, using the very same blade that had saved so many, and yet had failed to save his heart.
"You whom I could not save, listen to me. Immediately after the monsters die the heroes."
With this last deed done, the hero vanished and became legend, and yet his words remain, etched into the cold stone and serving as a warning and a lesson: The ones that you love the most are the ones that you should protect and never leave. Stay by their side, and cherish them everyday, for to lose that which you could have saved is what – in the end – kills even the most glorified of heroes.
Author's Note – So, this little piece was inspired by two quotes, which are the words that were etched into the stone. The first sentence comes from the first line of the poem "Dedication" by Czeslaw Milosz, and the second sentence comes from "The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony" by Roberto Calasso. Together, I always thought that these two quotes made for an interesting – if not tragic – idea for a story, and so I finally decided to write it. Think of it as an old tale told by a grandfather, sitting by the wall with the words, trying to enlighten the younger generation. That's what I was trying to get across, anyway. I hope you all enjoyed, and please review!