This story is by Catherine Lamb and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“My Lady. They are at the gates.”
A breeze blew through the silk curtains bordering the open balcony covering the sigh of the woman silhouetted between them.
“When do you believe they will break through Athanasius?” She asked, brushing a lock of curled black hair behind her ear and not taking her eyes from the view from the window.
“Markos believes they will break through just before sunrise.” Anthanasius hesitated, shifting his sandaled feet and pressing down on the sword hilt at his left hip. “I believe they will break through shortly after nightfall.” Simultaneously they both looked up at the moon rising to the north, the sun being blocked by the mountains but casting a red glow across the city below them, mixing with the fires devouring everything in reach.
“Markos has already proven himself to be incompetent. Have the evacuations finished?”
“Markos is your husbands chosen general.”
“And my husband paid for his inability to spot incompetence with his life, I will not make the same mistake when I have nine thousand souls in my care. Now, have the evacuations finished?” The woman snapped sharply, knuckles white on the railing.
“They should reach the Pass by nightfall. Barring any uncomplications.” Anthanasius took a step forward, then when the woman made no move he walked the last few metres to join her at the window. “We have a hundred men in reserve from this morning. If you send them in to help we may buy a few hours but we will have no defence here.” The woman gave a small bitter laugh.
“Brother,” she said turning towards him and meeting his gaze. “We are the only ones left.” Anthanasius nodded and turned his gaze out of the window.
“Have you thought about his terms?” He asked hesitantly.
“And what do you think? We have no way out of this that will ensure all nine thousand of your souls survive except to meet his terms.”
“You believe we should surrender?” The woman blinked at him then also looked down at her army defending her kingdom. Their red helmets easily spotted among the sea of once white plumes.
“A belief I am confiding in you as your brother, Kalliope.” Anthanasius answered.
“Orestes will not keep his promise.” Kalliope raised her hand and let it hover over Anthanasius’ shoulder. “He will let my streets run with the blood of my people and I will have saved not one of my nine thousand souls.”
“Then any other option will kill half of them.” Anthanasius snapped pointing to the fighting on the ground. “Once they breach the gate it will take them minutes to tear through the city and they will be here in an hour stopped only by the narrow pass up the cliff!”
“You have never ruled Anthanasius. You do not know the shame of surrender.”
“There is no shame in saving their lives! If you surrender they will at least have a chance to not be massacred!”
“I cannot surrender.” Kalliope firmly placed her hand on Anthanasius’ shoulder and squeezed it. She took a deep breath and turned to face him fully, the half-light throwing dark shadows across her face and making her eyes glow. “I cannot surrender, brother, because I cannot meet the terms.” Athanasius froze before jerking backwards and stumbling into the marble balcony.
“You removed it.” His voice was dead, and he ran his hand through his sweat soaked hair. “I did not believe you could remove it.”
“That is because you are a man and only think in concrete, certain terms, I, however, am a woman who is used to changing her life to suit that of men and decided that I would rather not have Orestes anywhere near it and if he had come to it then I would simply have to take it from him. Since the magic properties come from the stone as long as it is in water, it was that I removed. The spring the stone sat in is now just a spring.” Kalliope smirked at her brother’s wide eyes and after a few seconds he smirked also.
“He is fighting for nothing.” His smirk dropped. “Your people are dying for nothing.” Kalliope frowned, brushing back her hair.
“They are dying to allow their families to escape.” They stood in silence for a moment. “We cannot surrender but we can delay.” Kalliope continued stepping forward and taking Athanasius’ hand. “If we send in the reinforcements we can give the women and children time to escape but all the men will die. If we evacuate the men, the city will fall, and they will not spend long searching the city and they will catch up to us.”
“We must keep them searching.” Athanasius realised.
“We must keep them searching.” Kalliope repeated, eyes gleaming.
“So, we are fake surrendering?”
“Brother-” Kalliope cut herself off and she blinked as her tears started to fall. Athanasius pulled her trembling hand to his lips and kissed it.
“What were Orestes’ full terms?”
“The Fountain, myself as his wife and…” She trailed off, eyes trailing along the floor to look at a door in the corner of the bedroom.
“And Damokles.” Athanasius finished.
“He is a cruel man. I cannot subject my people to his rule, and with me and Damokles he will have legal right to rule, and that Fountain was dangerous in our hands and we used it for nothing more than parlour tricks.” Kalliope stared at the ground, then looked up to stare Athanasius in the eye. “What could a man like Orestes do with the Fountain of Eternal Youth?”
“Stay young?” Kalliope dropped Athanasius’ hands and stared at him in disbelief. “What happened? What did you do Kalliope?” He grabbed her hands back, his humorous expression vanishing.
“I drank from the Fountain every day of my pregnancy and Damokles was born glowing. I hid him for days until he stopped but my foolish husband decided that it meant Damokles was unhealthy and fed him more of the water.” Kalliope glanced at the fighting still ranging below them as the sun touched the horizon. “My son is not normal Athanasius. I took him to the priests, but they did not know what was wrong, so I prayed to the gods and Ifa responded.”
“Ifa is a crazy slave.” Athanasius sighed. “What lies did he spin you?”
“He said that Damokles was eternal. He said that no natural cause may slay him. He said that I had made my son immortal to all but the blade of man.” Kalliope pulled a small cloth bag from her belt and opened it. “He fed my son Belladonna and he survived.”
“Ifa belongs to the people we stole the Fountain from. He knows it’s properties. He knows how to ensure that it is used safely.” Kalliope turned Athanasius’ hands around and tipped some black berries into them. “I have been slipping you water from the fountain. If you eat these, they will kill you some time in the next week.”
“Not planning on dying by sunrise?” Kalliope’s hand froze.
“We need to delay Orestes any way possible. The best way to do that is by talking or single combat but I do not know which option he will choose.” Athanasius pulled Kalliope towards him and let her burry her head in his shoulder.
“Tell me your plan sister. I will aid your people.” He whispered by her ear.
“We negotiate surrender and have the old men on the city walls. The rest should go through the Pass and close it behind them keeping all my people safe, once Orestes has torn the city apart he will have to follow them over the mountains.” Kalliope clenched her hand into Athanasius’ shirt. “He will enter Androkles’ land and his army will be torn to pieces.”
“But if it isn’t?” Athanasius asked. “What will happen when he catches up with them? He will be enraged enough to slaughter them all and then what will stop him from taking the fountain and Damokles?”
“Neither are there.” Athanasius leaned back and cradled Kalliope’s face in his hands, his eyes searching hers for regret.
“You trust Ifa with Damokles? After what he has done?”
“I trust Ifa with the power of the Fountain and I trust in the gods to guide my son home when the time is right.” Athanasius pursed his lips and Kalliope raised her chin in response.
“And what will happen in between?”
“I do not know.” Kalliope admitted. “But I hope that I will have made the right choice.”
“Then I pray that you are right, sister.” Athanasius pressed a kiss to her forehead and stepped away, a small smile on his lips and eyes sad. “Call for surrender. I will send your people to safety.” They both glanced down at the fighting, at the enemy soldiers at the city walls. Then together they raised the berries to their lips, swallowed them, and marched to their deaths.