My piece for Write the Wrong, contest 1.
I know "fervourless" isn't a real word, but if it's good enough for Thomas Hardy, it's good enough for me.
This is the result of hardcore Wikipedia-stalking of Ancient Greece.
He had been waiting for this moment for years, but now that it was here he just wanted it to end. The fine hackles on the back of his neck were raised and ragged, his captain's words fermenting between his champing teeth. Beneath his feet, the ochre earth crumbled with his urgency, sending his feet stuttering sideways. He clasped a hand upon the armoured shoulder of a fellow and regained his footing. Tonight was the night for haste, and mistakes would not be tolerated.
In the desolate background, the bleeding soldier of the sky crouched, the waxing sun with the half-lidded scowl; he splayed his last few rays upon the horizon, weakening with each droning stomp of the oncoming legion. Neither sigh nor song had their place in this cloudy lowland, this place where dreams would falter and lives would end; the wind alone called the armies onwards.
Alcander had been waiting for this moment for these long years; now that it was here he only wished for it to end. At the head of his division, his captain called the halt, to draw breath before the deepest plunge of their lives. To live or die, to wrench his heart out in curdling pain, or to excel with the highest victory, Alcander did not care. So long as this itching pause would end. At his side, teeth chattering at the growing nerves, stood one of the newest soldiers, fresh from his mother's love and likely to die before nightfall.
"Eyes on the target," he whispered to this boy, whose eyes only welled at the break of silence.
Alcander knew the signs; the lip biting niggles of discomfort deep in the belly of your soul, chased shortly by the great, heaving wails of fright: forceful war, have you done making corpses out of boys? Alcander gave the bravest smile he could manage to this youth, and wrenched his eyes back to the captain. It would not do to miss some vital information, and have their whole operation sent to ruin.
At the head, Laertes was pacing here and there about his division, shouting out the obligatory war cries that accompanied every such battle. Alcander knew him well, this stocky captain with the missing eye and the relentless glare to his face. Before war had split the lands, and they had been called upon to fight, Alcander had drawn wheat and bales with Laertes in the same village, no thought to swords or stakes.
"My men," bellowed Laertes, in the very voice he had boasted of in their farming brawls, "fight as though this is your last - for all any of us know, it may well be." At Alcander's side, the youth gave a whimper. "Fight as though you haven't been going and going for years without end. Fight for your honour, or your lives, or the promise of a good meal at the end - I don't care much why you fight, but for the lord's sake fight as you have never fought before." His one good eye let out a solitary tear, of pride or fear Alcander couldn't guess from the unreadable grim expression, and he stepped back between his men, clapping their arms and tapping their swords with his.
They had been toiling for years, more years than any of them cared to recall. Dirty years, spent harbouring hatred in the putrid ditches of their enemy's fields. Years without end, without sight of their purpose, with only empty promises and Laertes' uncertain words to urge them onwards. When they had begun, Alcander could picture his son's rosy, baby face before him; now, who knew what features shaped his adolescent appearance?
The youth at his side, nameless as a ghost, was all he could imagine his son to resemble. Stubby arms, trembling as the bruised fingers clutched the hastily-made sword, and knocking knees supported by clubfeet that swirled in the mud.
"What's your name boy?"
He met Alcander's eyes, his gaunt sunken face rising in some distant memory. "Perimus, sir."
"Perimus. Don't turn to despair yet; I've seen battles like this turn out in victory. There's hope in today yet."
"Hope sir?" His voice was fervourless as the latent dusk, as if he had never heard of such a word.
Alcander chanced a smile, bright as his bronze helmet allowed, and slapped Perimus playfully in the gut. As he had hoped, the boy gave a plucky smile and glared back at the division's head with courage in his eyes.
In the distance, beyond the glinting eye of day, the tangling pickets of the far-off city bordered the prize that they sought: eternal glory, a safe voyage home or treasures innumerable, all was enclosed within those resilient walls. One last surge, Laertes had promised, and all battle and war would be over.
Laertes, on his duty rounds about the division, happened across the line that Alcander and Perimus occupied. The boy was knelt tightening his boot buckles, fresh leather that had never seen battle and kept coming undone in the boy's anxiety.
"Captain!" Alcander hollered, raising an arm in the air. "Laertes!"
At the sound of his name, the captain looked about. He would have ignored the calls, lord only knew how frightened the men were, and yet his gaze rested upon the old friend and smiled. "Alcander, good sir." It was forced formality, for honour's sake, and yet there was a twinge of joy in Laertes' good eye. Better to die beside a friend, than to live amongst strangers. "Ready to bite the bow?"
Alcander's stomach clenched. A lie, even a half-truth, was better than admitting cowardice. "More ready than I have ever been old friend. We'll see Greece yet, eh?"
"That's the spirit!" Cried Laertes, slapping Alcander's shoulder with the arm that wasn't supporting the seven-foot pike. War had never been a modest thing, Alcander remembered one of the older veterans joking one night, as they camped beside a river. All rivers were the same to these disheartened men. "Come then men, Lilaea and home await us on the morrow." He made to hurry back to the front of the division, his one good eye locked on Alcander's pair for assurance.
Alcander gave him a nod of assent and hurled Perimus to his feet. The boy had begun to cry, bitter tears only fit for the dead of night when no one could mock. He was whimpering like a kicked puppy, saying that he wanted his mother and his father, and burbling that he must get home, and soon, because he was going to be married come the summer.
"Perimus, brave Perimus, we can't predict our fates. Who would ever guess that you would be here, with me, on this darkest day of our time? Nobody. This -" he gestured around him at the men, armed with scimitar or simple bow and quiver, the spectrum of battle spread before him - "this, all this, for one man's glory? One man and his unruly wife - could bring us to this? There's no guessing the fates Perimus, so don't fall apart to grief just yet. You'll get your wedding day; I'll see my son ride his horse, so just hold onto that. Every step we take is a step closer to the end. Wouldn't it be better to go there bravely?"
Perimus' lips seemed gelled together by intense concentration, but he nodded roughly. For Alcander, that was good. There was enough to be thinking about without carrying a boy through it all.
The march began again, with every step sending Alcander's insides jumping with the prospects of what could come. His teeth chattered to the mantra of Laertes' carrying battle cry. For Greece and glory, he was cawing back across the men, and the end of our quarry. His throat ran as dry as the sand beneath his heavy feet, and his mind was blank as the sky before the greatest storm. Alcander had no words for this growing gloom, no more comfort to offer the weeping boy at his shoulder; as Laertes pushed them onwards, promising a life of reverence hereafter and rallying them with talk of Titans and Troubadours - there was nothing for Alcander to do but clutch the sword at his belt and pray it lasted the night.
Yes, I know "Troubadour" is a French term, not Ancient Greek but... meh, it's my fiction, I can write whatever I wish (: