Be They Heroes
By Rob Liden
A dusty caravan trekked slowly across the sister sands of Hidari. Few knew where her dunes ended and her sibling, Unshref’s, began. The barren landscape was sprinkled with the remains of unfortunate travellers, some of them inexplicably tied to ropes that all disappeared over the horizon in the west. Something hovered in the sky above, waiting for the caravan to shrink as the sun shrunk the shadows below. It didn’t stay long, however, perhaps distracted by a greater quarry.
A rag-tag group, the caravan plodded along as shifty, sideways glances pervaded the ranks. Many of them had made the trip before, but the smell of new blood was strong enough to stir interest in the veterans. It was always a delight to learn the origins of someone’s first scorcher, be it pleasant or otherwise. Mostly it was just nice to have someone to talk to amidst the static of the shifting sands.
Lavishly adorned with fine silks that he was transporting from Unshref, Garandu slowed the pace of his horse to fall in line with the rear of the column. He had seen the newcomer before they began the voyage, and he wondered if one so wrapped with tattered rags might venture a coin for a fashionable upgrade. Ever the businessman, Garandu wasn’t one to pass up an opportunity—especially when the almost imperceptible glint of gold betrayed itself with the desert sun.
“Ho there,” Garandu said with a wave to the heap of rags on the black steed. “You look as if a change of clothes might soothe you.”
The heap didn’t respond.
“Hello?” Garandu said as he leaned over to peer into the folds of smelly linens. Could he have been mistaken? Was he merely attempting to converse with the laundry of one of the other caravan masters? It wouldn’t have been the first time that Garandu had made himself the fool on a sand-span. As the most junior of the leadership, he was subjected to similar pranks, like the time that Womoh filled his mocassin with key-root and they kept untying his laces. Womoh was a jerk.
With a new resolve to see if he had been tricked, Garandu reached out to jostle the heap. Just as his finger brushed against a corner of fabric, the black horse whinnied in distress, startling Garandu’s horse and nearly hurling him to the ground. As he regained himself, he counted his lucky stars that his balance had been true. Hidari’s grains weren’t as negotiable as Unshref’s, and he was reminded of the caravan master’s mantra. Only the hooves must touch the sand, lest there be one less hand.
As Garandu pondered what peril actually waited on the surface of the dunes, the mass of cloth lurched forward. Waves of flies emerged from the folds, and an unearthly stench wafted about the caravan as each rider casually pulled their cloak collars above their noses. Garandu hopelessly waved at the air in front of his face and grimaced at the moist cloud of raunch that curled the hair at the end of his moustache. Through the wave of stink and amidst the fabrics, he thought he saw a shock of emerald green.
“Emeralds and gold?” he thought. “Fortune shines on me this day, indeed!” Eager to make a sale, Garandu craned his neck about to see if he could find a buyer. He kept catching flashes of emerald, but he was unable to find an ear to bend. With squinted eyes, he put a palm over his brow and leaned forward as he gazed deeply into a small orb, most green and radiant. It took but a moment for him to realize it was an eye.
“Such a handsome shade of green,” Garandu said with a smile. “Perhaps I could help you find a complementary satin to make your eyes more dazzling than your odor.”
“Funny,” a stern voice called back. “The smell was meant as a deterrent, not a conversation piece.”
“A thousand pardons then, friend, I was merely trying to help.”
“You merely want to make a sale, merchant, but I’m not in the market for your wares.”
“Perhaps I have something else your gold may like?”
“Perhaps. What are you called?”
“I am Garandu of Unshref.” Garandu bowed deeply without taking his eyes off of his customer. “What do they call you?”
“They don’t,” came the reply.
“Oh, mysterious,” Garandu jostled, swaying his shoulders to and fro.
“If you say so,” the stern voice said contemplatively. “Tell me a story, Garandu.”
“What manner of story would you like to hear?”
“Heroes. Tell me of your heroes.”
“My heroes?” Garandu said with a raised brow. “And if I tell you a tale, what coin would you offer in return?”
“If I am pleased, you can have all the gold you want, Garandu.”
“You can’t mean that.” Garandu leaned back on his horse and smiled, confident that he was becoming the butt of another joke.
“I have no use for gold. I only need to cross the desert. I promise you that you will be enriched if your story is to my liking.”
“And if it isn’t?”
“Then we can talk about fancy linens. Deal?”
Garandu paused for a moment. His intention, after all, was to make a sale, but bartering jewels for words was a trade that no merchant would turn a nostril to. “Deal,” he said as he smiled lightly and slowly found his dagger beneath his robes. He had a thirst for bargains, but he wasn’t a fool.
“Excellent,” said the voice, appreciation evident in the tone and what was visible of the emerald eye.
“I have heard,” Garandu began, “and this may just be hearsay, but I have heard that there are two young ladies making a name for themselves in the ranks of the Academy.”
“The Academy . . .”
“Yes, of Dindial Studies. Well beyond my grasp, but they sort of ‘guard’ the world from the threat of forces forgotten by the rest of us.”
“What are they called?”
“Amelia and something with an H.”
“Hegel,” one of the other travellers said.
“Yes, Hegel,” Garandu said. ”Also, mind your own business, Womoh.”
“I see,” came the emerald voice. “And these are your heroes, Garandu?”
“Well,” Garandu replied, “that’s the thing about heroes, isn’t it? They don’t belong to anyone. They are just as much the rest of Hod’s champions as they are mine. Have they done anything for me personally? No, but the effects of their contributions are felt far and wide.”
“Like what?” the voice asked.
“Oh, many things. Like when they discovered that the town of Retzduo was experiencing tremors because it was actually built on an ancient giant’s toenail.”
“That’s . . . disgusting,” said the voice.
“I remember that,” Womoh chimed in. “My favorite was when they had to take turns burping the son of the volcano until he could have some soothe-weed delivered to cure the indigestion.”
“Yeah,” another traveller said, “Xexed damn near burned down a third time that month. I don’t understand why a people continues to rebuild a town in the maw of a belching volcano.”
“Because they grow lava bulbs,” Garandu said. “Lava bulbs that I have made quite a bit of coin off of.”
“Hmph!” one of the caravan masters yelled from further up the column. “I could have done without that geezer that they managed to convince wasn’t a ghost. He was more disruptive as a man than a spectre.”
Many of the travellers nodded and muttered agreement.
“I thought I was spinning the yarn here!” Garandu yelled. The column went quiet for a moment, and he leaned toward the emerald eye. “That geezer was a much better customer once he knew that it wasn’t his duty to wail like a banshee to keep the moon from crashing into Hod. Ghosts have no need for material goods.” He tapped his temple with his index finger and winked.
The emerald eye was quiet for a moment.
“Was that story to your liking?” Garandu asked as if he were a curious child. “Or perhaps I could interest you—”
“Something occurs to me,” the voice said absently. “For every deed that is done, be it righteous or evil, the effects are felt by all, regardless of their alignment.”
“Yes,” Garandu said as he scratched his head. “I think I said that, didn’t I?”
“Something akin to that, yes, Garandu, you did. And it would follow then that not everyone experiences positive ripples from those deeds.”
“I suppose so. If they were to stop some charlatan that frequented my shop, I would not have that business.”
“It’s more than that though, isn’t it, Garandu?” The voice grew stronger and less delicate than it had been. “They are also drawing attention away from the despair of true heroes.”
“I’m not sure I follow,” Garandu said as he tightened his grip on his dagger.
“Yes,” came the voice as some of the cloth about the eye fell away. “This Amelia and Hegel can’t be the purest of heroes if their actions lead to negative repercussions in kind.” Some of the fabric around the midsection fell away and revealed the glint of even more gold.
Garandu caught sight of the brilliance of the gold and fumbled his blade. It was clear that the traveller had the means to make him fabulously wealthy if his story scratched the itch. He fantasized about purchasing entire shipping routes and branding the keep at Alabaster Abbey with his sigil. Anything was possible for a shrewd businessman with a ton of capital.
“Perhaps I could tell you another tale, my friend,” Garandu said, mesmerized by the glint of wealth.
“Oh, you’ve told me enough, Garandu,” said the voice, strong and commanding like a quartermaster. “You’ve told me the most important of tales. You’ve told me where your heroes have gone.” The radiant gold shone more and more as layers of tattered and bloody rags fell away from the rider of the black horse. “It is comforting.”
“What is?” Garandu said as the heads of the other travellers turned to see what the fuss was. The column slowed to a halt as the last of the rags fell away from the golden armor of a paladin of the order of Aldune. She stood on the back of her mount with her face raised towards the heavens. Garandu’s skin went clammy with anxiety. Never before had he seen armor so brilliant and valuable. The desert sun was at its apex and there was nowhere to hide from the blinding radiance and the astonishing beauty of the emerald eyes that rested above.
“It’s comforting that there are still usurpers of the title of Hero. Usurpers who would steal that moniker from the one true hero, Aldune. Usurpers and their heretic acolytes that spread stories of their theft.” The paladin looked down at Garandu, her glowing green eyes fiery in the light of the sun. “And yet they go unpurged in Aldune’s light. Does that not trouble you, Garandu?”
The caravan became deathly silent. Garandu gripped his blade tightly within his robes. Some of the others shifted restlessly. No one breathed.
In a flash of gold and raven-black pitch, the paladin brandished a stiff, bird-like claw with a cuckoo clock nestled firmly in the talons with some sort of tar.
“Corvid’s Ticker!” one the caravan masters said, recognizing the weapon.
Immediately, the travellers of the caravan burst into a litany of screams and buzzing flies. Their tattered robes hovered in the air, wet with what remained of the helpless sand-spanners. Stunned, Garandu was the only one that remained. He fumbled with his dagger, lost in the folds of his robes. The paladin crouched on the back of her black horse and smiled at Garandu.
“You won’t need that,” she said. “And you should have removed your robe before you went for your weapon.”
Garandu could scarcely breathe as his mind raced. His mouth hung agape, and he shivered despite the scorching heat.
“It is a great gift you have given me,” the paladin said. “Knowing that I once again have purpose. It’s just so . . . I don’t know. Even if I never encounter the heretics, I know they are out there. And you.” She grabbed Garandu by the scarfs that adorned the neck of his robe and pulled him off of his horse.
Garandu yelped and shielded his face as he hovered over the sand. His dagger fell out of his robes and made a paf when it hit the grains. He managed to turn his eyes downward as he dangled from the paladin’s grasp. All around the dagger, small rocks emerged from the sand and rolled towards the weapon. Where they touched it, the metal began to corrode at an accelerated rate until it was gone, merged with the sands of Hidari. Only the hooves must touch the sand, lest there be one less hand.
Garandu screamed and looked back at his aggressor, the fabrics that once adorned his comrades swirling above her head. “Why?! Who?!”
She calmly smiled at him, her eyes thin with contentment. “Enerendis. I am the one who is called. And when she deigns to remind me, it is always Enerendis.”
“Enerendis?” Garandu said as he struggled against her grip. “But . . . you are supposed to be—”
“No one tells me what I’m supposed to be,” Enerendis said as she pulled Garandu’s face close to hers. “Oh, and the odor? It keeps the quartz mites at bay. As for your wares, perhaps I am interested after all.”
Enerendis shook Garandu once, and his scarves came loose in her hand. He plummeted to the ground as the silky cloth rose into the sky to join the others as they swirled. He didn’t have time to scream. The sands seethed with quartz mites and he was gone. Enerendis sat upon her horse and the fabrics slowly coalesced around her, creating a new shell of soiled cloth as she clutched the weird bird claw. Her horse began plodding forward as if nothing had transpired. How many times had it seen the same grisly act? How many did it take before it was no longer startling?
As Enerendis rode into the east, she prayed. “Glorious Aldune, I give thanks. I thought my purpose was spent, but I am renewed in your light with the knowledge that this world still claims to have heroes greater than you. I will defend your name until my dying breath, your judgement swift on the heads of your transgressors, be they heroes, or be they heathens.” She nestled her head deep within the clothes and began to doze.
A single black horse trekked into the east with an indiscriminate pile of tattered cloth seated on top. It was easy for it to tell where the Unshref ended and the Hidari began because the carrion fliers stopped searching for corpses where they met. The further it got from a herd of horses nearby, the less they looked like the remnants of a caravan. And if you listened closely, you could sometimes hear a whisper on the rusty dunes, “Tell me a story. Where have your heroes gone?”