We love to play the Hero — exploring dungeons, grabbing treasure, saving the world from evil. But I started wondering about the reasons behind some of the actions in such games, and especially about what my Heroic deeds looked like to the ordinary people of the lands I passed through. (As my wife once put it: “Why isn’t there a Hug button?”) The result is this story.
I don’t normally write this sort of antiquated prose, but the genre does require it. It was actually a fun exercise, and I’ve tried to affect more of a James Branch Cabell or Lord Dunsany voice, rather than the tiresome faux-Tolkien of most current heroic fantasy.
The news came by way of a fast rider, who galloped into the village square on a sweaty horse of athletic stature, and had no sooner swung himself down than vanished into the house of the mayor. He emerged half an hour later, more calmly, holding a jug of beer and wedge of cheese provided by the mayor’s wife. The children who had been anxiously monitoring the door instantly swarmed around him to ask questions, while the adults (whose attention had been more surreptitious if no less anxious) feigned calm as they slowly moved into earshot.
“What’s the news?” cried Lin the baker’s son; or rather, of the dozen voices that called out the same question, his came through the loudest. “Are the beasts rising again? Has the castle fallen?”
At this, some of the smaller children went silent. Our parents tried to keep such dark news from the ears of the younger ones, though gossip carried it to them anyway in more or less distorted forms; and several times in recent months I had seen children crying with the fear that the dark beasts of fairy-tales might be encroaching on our village. It was no idle fear, for I knew that they had been sighted in the high mountain passes. My parents had told me: I am small, yes, but old enough to know about the world, the bad as well as the good. My father was among those who searched the woods last month for little Lana, and though her body was never found, he told me and my mother of the blood-soaked forest clearing, the dark runes scratched by claws into the caked dirt.
The rider could not immediately reply, being occupied with a mouthful of cheese; and by the time he had washed it down with some beer, the adults had made their feigned-casual way toward him, so it was to them that he addressed his reply.
“The castle stands! And our King and his Princess are well. I bring news to the towns on this road — good news! — that a Hero has appeared, yonder in the Meln valley; and that he is even now crossing the pass and will be traveling through your village by nightfall.”
At this, pandemonium broke loose — an actual Hero had not been seen in our village, or in the entire valley, since the days of my grandparents. All those present began shouting with glee, or asking further questions, or speculating on the significance, or in the case of many of the children, picking up sticks and dashing about to do imaginary battle in the guise of this Hero.
I walked off toward home. I am a quiet type, and I knew that reflection, and some words with my parents, would profit me more than any attempt to decipher the present babble.
Everyone knows who Heroes are: they feature prominently in the history of the land, as well as in less trustworthy legends and tall tales. At times of crisis, when invaders or rogue magicians or monstrous beasts threaten the land, a Hero will rise and defeat them all.
“But who is this Hero?” I asked my father. “As a knight, or a master of martial arts, wouldn’t his name be well known? Why did the rider not tell us the Hero’s name?”
Father chuckled as he tied off the fletchings on an arrow, which he deposited on the pile accumulating before him. “You haven’t been attending to the full histories; or the old man’s not been teaching you all of them. A Hero’s not known beforehand, not as a Hero at least; two or three of ’em may have been warriors, but most came out of nowhere, were cowherds or shopkeepers.
“Don’t you be getting ideas, though!” he warned me in mock earnestness. “Even before, they all showed skill at combat.” Involuntarily, I drew my withered right leg beneath me. “That’s not your path, son. Your eyes are as sharp as your mind, and you’ll make a fine craftsman. Too many are the young men who’ve mooned away their strongest years waiting and hoping in vain for the guise of the Hero to drop upon them.”
“Did the real Heroes know what they were, before they began their quests?”
“That’s a matter for the philosophers at the Court. Which is to say, if they had foreknowledge, they never told anyone about it; and Heroes on their quests not bein’ overly talkative, no one’s heard their stories of how it happened.”
Another arrow dropped on the stack. My father no longer had the strength to draw a hunting bow, but his skill as an arrowsmith was still legendary, in a small way, in the valley. The ones he was finishing now were of the highest quality: he was using the finest wood for the stocks, and taking the heads from the small supply of obsidian he had obtained at great price from the rock-men of the mountains. These arrows were clearly a gift for the Hero.
As if reading my mind (or the direction of my gaze), my mother came up from behind me and said, “Tom, we must all work today to prepare for the Hero’s arrival. I am taking the cart to Benners to buy jars at the market; and you must use your famous eyes to find jewels.” I blushed a bit; not so much from her praise of my jeweling skill, as from the way she implicitly included me in that “we”, meaning the adults — I could hear the children outside, my sister among them, still playing their mock-Heroic games, and last year I might have been among them (as a lame yet fearsome sorcerer, my favorite role), but today my parents considered me a man.
“Then I’ll be off to the field!” I replied, and pulled myself to my feet.
The gem field was some way out of town, and as I walked along the path with my staff and empty bag, I thought about this strange business of Heroes. It was true, I realized, that the histories old Magrew taught me were (intentionally?) vague on the origins of the Heroes, and though several bore the surnames of prominent noble families, I could not recall if those titles predated them; perhaps they were bestowed upon the family in gratitude afterwards? The Heroes themselves never stayed around long after their quests were done — a typical history ended “…and Larq was carried from the wreckage of the Witch’s castle, and spent some days recovering, after which he and his deeds were fêted at a great celebration at Court; but the Princess’s hand being offered him, he declined politely, explaining that he had (unspecified) duties and unfinished business to undertake in the far West. Though he left well-supplied, and carrying his weapons of fearsome power, he was never heard from again, and is presumed to have met his end in that unknown land.”
I recited the entire history to myself, actually, and it lasted me all the way to the field. Once there, I needed to focus all my mental energies down on the grass, and below it to the dirt, looking for the minuscule gleams.
Beneath this field, and one or two others of which I have heard, some unknown processes within the Earth give rise to small semi-precious gemstones which, unlike their kindred that the rock-people mine from deep shafts, are pushed to the surface. They can then be collected like pebbles from a lakeshore … but only if one can see them. Their appearance is hardly distinctive, as they emerge covered in a dark tarry shell; and one can discern them only by the subtlest clues of shape, or a minute gleam of color where a corner is scraped clean. I am one of the best stone-hunters in the town, and even I can collect only a handful in a few hours’ slow traversal of the field, which is all that my eyes (and back) can stand.
I was returning from the field, with seventeen stones in a sack my reward for the headache I now endured, when I met the little man. (In all honesty, I was sitting beneath an oak tree taking a rest. Long walks are difficult for me, even with my staff, and the sun was hot. But I was not idle: I was cutting the shells from the gems with a pocket-knife, letting their colors and facets tumble out into my lap.) I looked up when he addressed me by name:
“You must be Tom, son of Roger the arrowsmith? I can tell by the fine hoard you have there!”
I looked up, and made to scramble to my feet, but he showed with a wave that I might remain sitting.
“That I am, sir; has my father sent for me?” But now that I looked at him, I realized that he was neither from our village, nor from the valley, nor anywhere nearby; for his appearance was unlike that of our races. His hair was pitch black, like a cat’s, where ours is brown or blond; and his eyes had a curious narrow shape, though they showed no suspicion or anger. On the contrary, they twinkled, and a great welcoming smile spread across his wide face. I had no choice but to smile back at such jolliness.
“Not at all, Tom! Your father trusts you will make your way home when your job is complete.” He settled himself to the grass next to me, cross-legged. “I merely asked him for directions as to where I might find you; for I have a small job for you to do.”
“You do me an honor, sir!” I replied, for I thought it best to assume him to be a figure of some importance. He was clearly a traveler from a far land, and my father had thought well enough of him to entrust him to meet with me on a lonely road. Moreover, the small man’s clothes were of an unfamiliar foreign style (collarless tunic, narrow pantaloons) but quite clearly cut from the finest cloth, something with the drape of linen, woven of stitches too small for me to see. “May I be of service to you? May I offer you some of these gems?”
“Bless you, son, but no — quite the contrary. Those gems you hold are for the Hero, and you must scatter them in the grass of your village for him to find; for he is not a prince to be offered gifts, but an adventurer who expects to make his own discoveries. I do, however, have a different task for you that relates to this same Hero.”
Here he paused for dramatic effect, and I could not resist asking breathlessly, “Then do you know this Hero? Have you seen him? What adventures have befallen him so far?” Immediately I blushed, for I realized my naïve enthusiasm showed me for a child. But the little man took my words seriously.
“I myself have only seen him from a distance; we have not spoken. It is not wise to interfere with one who is under the geas of the Hero. Extremely powerful forces are at work upon the one so chosen, and direct meddling can be dangerous; extremely so, since the penalty for a Hero’s failure can be a grave one for the entire land.
“But over many centuries, those of the order to which I belong have studied these Heroes, and found that their success can be aided without harm, by quietly preparing the way for them. You are well-studied, says your proud father; do you know the history of the Red Lord’s uprising?”
“I do, sir; it is a sad tale for us, though an ancient one, for it was here that the Red Lord demonstrated the power of his alchemical apparatus, by summoning a cloud that filled our valley with caustic fumes and killed half the inhabitants.”
“Quite true. But did not the Hero Xander use an enchanted claw that sprang across a great distance to snatch the alembic from the Red Lord’s very grasp?”
I thought carefully, reconciling the timeline of the legend in my thoughts. “Sir, he did; but that was in Meln, on his second encounter with the Red Lord, for earlier he had not yet acquired the claw from its ancient resting place beneath the lakebed.”
His smile widened further, if such were possible. “Indeed so! You shall be a scholar one day, I foresee; perhaps of our order. Let me cease evading my point: Had Xander not failed to discover the entrance to the caves when he first explored the lake, he would have obtained the claw before first meeting the Red Lord here, and could have used it during that meeting to save this valley from its gruesome fate.”
I nodded slowly, understanding coming to me. “Does your order, then, provide such assistance to newer Heroes, without their knowing it?”
“Precisely, Tom. We consider the overall strategy of the threat facing our land, which they cannot so easily see, and make certain subtle changes to guide them.”
“Is the welcome that our town is providing this Hero part of such a change, sir?”
“In a small way, yes. A well-fed and -provisioned Hero is a more alert and successful Hero, one might say. But I am actually here to work a more significant change.”
At this, he stood and opened a sack that had been lying behind him, from which he pulled a metal box. It was not a large box, nor was it ostentatiously decorated, but when it emerged, it did something to the quality of the sunlight, the temperature of the air, the sounds of insects around us. All the hairs on my arms stood up.
“This is a chest that we obtained, at great effort, from the ruins of an ancient temple. I should not disclose its location, even here where none can overhear. We are confident that the Hero who even now approaches will explore this temple, to obtain the chest and its singular contents. But we also know that the location of the temple is such that he will most likely reach it only after a dangerous encounter in which he will have great need of the artifact in this chest. Do you follow me?”
“I do, sir. You wish to give the Hero this chest so that he will survive the peril.”
“Precisely. But, as I have said, we cannot merely give the Hero gifts, for he is under a great spirit’s control, and such interference would be quite dangerous to us all; as dangerous as knocking the elbow of a monk while he copies a manuscript, perhaps upsetting his ink-bottle across the unfinished story.
“No, we must bend the story’s arc gently, letting the Hero discover this great treasure on his own. There is a small limestone cave by the stream behind your house, is there not?”
Blinking at the non sequitur, I merely nodded.
“Excellent. I am told you have explored this cave in the past. Please take this chest and deposit it at the back of the cave. If you can, bury it halfway in sand, and take care to brush away your footprints as you exit.” In saying this, he returned the box to its sack (causing light, air, sound and skin to return to normal) and placed it in my lap.
I knew this for a test, not having missed his reference to a potential future for me in his fascinating Order. In dreamlike slowness, I took hold of the sack, looked him in the eyes, and assured him that I would undertake this task.
“I knew you would. We watch many things, in my order. You have our great thanks; and should our tasks this year be successful, with the Goddesses’ blessings, you may hear from me again. My name is Mi-Mo-To.”
At that he gave an odd little bow, smiled again, and walked off down the road at surprising speed.
So awhirl was my mind with speculations that the walk back seemed to take only half its usual time, despite the extra weight of the sack slung over my shoulder. It was a harsh familiar voice that awakened me when I entered the village.
“Tommy! My good man, is that a sackful of rubies you’ve scratched from the dirt with your cane? Come, sit and dice with us, and we’ll soon relieve you of that weight!” It was Roger, an idle young man of twenty, sitting at a table outside the tavern. Roger had some talent at gemspotting, but used the proceeds for drink and gambling, and imitated as best he could the look and manners of a city dandy. I believe it was his vanity that kept him from actually moving to a city: there he would be lost in a crowd of his peers, while here in the village he could feel important, and unique, and attract an equally idle clique of hangers-on.
Several of his companions laughed coarsely at the joke, and I turned red. His reference to my lameness had not gone unnoticed, by me or by them; I was a frequent butt of their jokes.
“Look, we’ve made a new game!” said Lenny in mock invitation. It was true: on the table were more dice than usual, some of odd shapes, and a sheet of parchment with a sort of maze drawn upon it. On the maze stood little whittled figures striking heroic poses. (Even his worst enemies, a title for whom many competed, were forced to admit that Lenny could find fame as an artist, were he ever able to apply himself to the work.) “It’s a game of Heroes! And I’ve made a figure for you to play!” Here he produced another figure, of a gnarled cripple balancing on crutches.
The roaring in my ears drowned out even their laughter as I limped away.
I went straight to the stream, bypassing the house and any inconvenient questions about the sack (or my tears). Where it turned a corner there was a small gravelly beach, and behind a stand of bushes, a narrow hole. Through this I pushed first the sack, and then myself.
Most of the village children knew about this cave. It was actually rather new, unblocked a few years before by the cracking in half of a large boulder. The idea of a cave was terrifically exciting, of course, but there was not actually very much inside the cave, apart from darkness and an unpleasant dank smell, so it was less popular than one might expect. I was fairly confident the treasure chest would be safe until tomorrow, especially as the children were today in such a state of Heroic fever that the cave would hardly cross their minds.
I walked lightly to the back wall of the cave, and dug a little hole into which the chest halfway fit. Then I smoothed out the cold sand, and walked backwards to the entrance, using a frond from a bush to sweep the ground smooth. I looked back at my handiwork, and saw the chest shining in the darkness. To my dark-adapted eyes it lit up the little cavern, transforming it into a fantastic lair. We had never brought fire in here! So I had never seen the small stalactites hanging from the ceiling, with crystal-ball waterdrops sparkling from their tips. I saw answering sparkles in the sand, and knelt to uncover a green and a blue gemstone. I turned back to the entrance, and next to it I saw a drawing on the wall, in an ancient style, its red ochre outlines depicting a man with one leg brandishing a sword in one hand and the severed head of a beast in the other.
I swept at the sand some more, to cover up the inexplicable tears that fell there, and stepped back out into the world.
Throughout the remainder of the afternoon I sat at home, which being not atypical of me, caused no comment. I had acquitted myself well at the gem-field, and after admiring the flash and color of the stones, my mother placed a few into the ceremonial new guest-jars beside the hearth, bidding my sister to scatter the rest in the grass before the houses. This task little Elsie undertook with great seriousness, having just that year learned that it was the adults, not fairies, who scattered the sweetmeats in just this manner on the early morning of the spring feast.
Visitors came by to gossip with my parents, and as there was only one topic of conversation that day, I learned much of the troubles besetting the land. Beasts of formidable size had waylaid travelers in Ordon and were making the countryside unsafe at night. Some of them were said to have language, and carry weapons in their mutated paws. Ours was not the only village to have lost a child, and some of the aftermath was considerably more shocking than a mere pool of blood. Great towers of fire had been seen in the south, and what appeared to be birds of enormous size circling them, though no further details were known, as traffic from the South Road had dried up completely, to the dismay of innkeepers. There were dark rumors that one of the southern lords (a clan that were always fractious) might be behind all of this; from there, the conversation drifted to complex recountings of Court intrigue that I could not follow. My mind drifted, too…
The door burst open, awakening me from my reverie and halting the conversation between my parents. A tall, slender figure stood outlined in the doorway by the light of sunset, then stepped inside. The Hero was clad in green, his tunic mud-stained and scratched. A cap hung down behind his head. His sword he held unsheathed, the point trailing unnoticed on the ground.
He grunted an acknowledgment as he surveyed the dim room, but observed none of the formalities of an entering guest (which in any case would have begun by knocking, as Elsie was constantly reminded.) His eyes shone large and bright, and more so than clothing or weaponry announced his singular role: he was, quite clearly, a man possessed, one driven by a spirit in the service of superhuman feats.
My father cleared his throat; he had no doubt expected a more formal entrance, but picked up his script where he could. “Sir, your presence in our home honors us. How may we —”
But the Hero did not need to be asked; abruptly he lunged and ran his sword through one of the guest jars on the hearth, which shattered most spectacularly. Elsie shrieked and hid behind Mother; the rest of us merely started back. The Hero knelt and, with a heartfelt “that’s what I’m needin’”, grabbed the small red cake that had been stowed in the jar and shoved it into his mouth.
This was all quite wrong, of course, though if you are unfamiliar with our customs you may not recognize quite how wrong. A visitor, of whatever rank, must knock and ask permission to enter (which must, in turn, be granted.) An honored stranger will be offered guest-jars by the lady of the house, which he will ceremonially toss onto the hearth and then pick up the small gifts from among the shards, this symbolizing his acceptance of hospitality and the breaking of the walls of formality between guest and host. Then all can speak openly, using the at-home tense rather than the more formal cross-rank speech.
But instead, while busily chewing (and despite his appalling manners, I could well imagine the hunger that impelled him), he went on to destroy the remaining three jars with swipes of his sword. Two held green and blue gems, which he approvingly shoved into his wallet. The third was by mistake empty, however; he glared at Mother, who cast down her eyes and turned red.
“Any more cakes?” he asked when his mouth was clear. “I’ve got room for two or three more, after that hike from Meln. Not a bloody thing to eat on the trail, unless you count the heads I hacked off the wolves that came after me — ha!” He accepted two more of the heart-shaped cakes by shoving them into his mouth. This did instill in me a certain form of respect, for those cakes were extremely rich and filling, and I could not imagine eating more than one at a time.
The Hero dropped into Father’s chair while he chewed, and an uncomfortable silence reigned for a few minutes. Elsie emerged from behind Mother and ran to rescue her dollie, which had been thrown across the room by one of the sword-blows, and which now leaked stuffing as Elsie ran outside in tears.
I felt an unaccustomed (yet explicable, I trust) rage growing in me. This young man, though undeniably a Hero, upon whose mighty endeavors the safety of village and kingdom must depend, was just as undeniably a lout. He lacked any form of manners; he cared nothing for us as people, seeking only to get what he needed. His smirk at Elsie and her wounded dollie told me most eloquently that he saw all of this as a game. Hero? He was no better than Roger and Lenny and their lumpen companions. We were just part of an idle story to him, little figures he pushed about by rolls of dice. Could the fate of Hyrule really depend on such a thug?
“Right. Now, I want information. There’s news of some tough beasts and beast-men gathering south of here, and the equipment I got’s seen me through a lot so far, but it’s nothing to what I’ll be needin’ from here out. I’ve heard tell of some enchanted item in this valley, though the tales leave a lot to be desired in details. Ye know what I mean? Got any clues or local tall tales?” He ran his gaze between us.
That gaze was bright and sharp and almost impossible to resist. I felt impaled on it, on an arrow of Fate shot from the Heaven of the Goddesses. If the fate of the land depended on him, then so did his fate depend on me at this instant. My part, clearly, was to pipe up and inform the Hero of the mysterious cave that had opened up recently, which he would not notice on his own but whose location I would explain to him. This would complete the task entrusted in me by the mysterious little man; would return the weight of Fate from my shoulders to the Hero’s; and would perhaps influence my own fate directly, if the little man’s Order were pleased at my performance.
…And yet I could not do it. I saw in the Hero all the petty cruelties that had been inflicted on me by other boys; all the unthinking arrogance of the able-bodied (whose easy movement I desperately envied); all the blind unfair randomness of a universe that gave out rewards and punishments undeserved by their recipients.
I said nothing.
My parents uneasily related the usual local legends, including the curious one of a ruined temple of the old religion, whose entrance lay hidden at the far end of the narrow Samer gorge to the south. This one aroused his greatest curiosity, and after quizzing them at some length on the specifics (of which there were none) he headed off into the twilight, kicking the door open with his muddy boots such that the hinges cracked.
The Hero had left, along the road to the south, leaving a tumult of gossip in his wake. A few other families were as outraged as ours, having been similarly ill-treated in their homes (we had at least been spared from having jars gleefully thrown about at all four walls, and chests of valuables ransacked!) Those who had not personally met the Hero nor experienced his peculiar manners were more inclined to believe the descriptions from histories and legends, and several foolish young women who had only seen him from a distance were swooning at his beautiful large eyes and effortless swordsmanship.
It did not take long for us to learn of his next adventure. Two days later, a merchant coming from the south related news he had heard from a ranger, of a rockfall in the Samer gorge. Great boulders had fallen from the cliff faces at the near end and rolled at high speed down the steep slope; and midway was found the body of a warrior clad in green, crushed like an insect between two of these rocks. His tracks showed he had been desperately trying to outrun the avalanche, but failed.
I crept away from the crowd, my thoughts in great turmoil, and made for the stream. I rinsed my face, but could not clear away a vision of that ruined, blood-soaked body. I shivered with horror, and with guilt.
I had been avoiding the cave, and apparently no other child had entered it, for the chest was still there. It had waited patiently for me. I knelt in the sand, my heartbeat a crescendo in my head, and pried the ancient lid open.
The chest’s contents were no more than a few pieces of leather, dusty, with sinews sewn along the edges.
No, they were more than that — as I blew the dust off of them, they began to shine, revealing themselves as gold. Gold with the softness of leather, or perhaps leather with the shine of gold. They were sandals, of an ancient design that I had seen in a book, open soles with straps that laced about the feet and around the legs to the knees. They vibrated with power, I could feel it: in my hands they spoke to me, wordlessly, told me of the centuries they had been captive in the box, waiting to run, to leap, to kick…
There was nothing to do but to put them on. I took off my left shoe, placed my foot in the left sole, and awkwardly began to fasten the laces. No matter: they wrapped themselves into place in a blur. I was not accustomed to wearing a shoe on my lame right foot, but I placed the other sandal upon it anyway, and again the laces grabbed tight. Then I stood, without my staff, effortlessly, disbelievingly.
I still needed one more thing, and I now saw what it was, and where. The jewels I had earlier seen sparkle in the sand were not randomly placed, but lay equally spaced, in a line against the cave wall. I reached between them into the sand and lifted out a scabbard. The jewels adorning it were the exact same type that I had been selling to buy food, or trading for arrowheads, but had here been inlaid into fine metal. Two rare orange ones decorated the hilt, which I took hold of, and drew forth the blade — yes, this blade, which I wield to this day, never has it failed me!
I leapt from the cave and headed south.