This story is by Charity Styles and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Eliana stands on the Grecian shore in clothing as decorative and useless as her own existence. She feels every shell underfoot. The thin material of her tunic and cloak offer negligible protection from the breeze off the Aegean Sea. Yet her skin is flushed in frustration. Just up the path her grandfather, Zosimos, is celebrating his twenty-fifth anniversary as Anax. At his command, his chief advisor, Glaucos, is negotiating her betrothal to Milon of Megera. They conspire to trade Eliana’s hand in marriage for the promise of riches and alliance. It is the only fortune and glory Eliana can bring her family. She slipped away from the festivities as the men plotted her fate.
“He is fifteen years my senior,” Eliana had argued when she pleaded with Zosimos to let her choose her own husband in her own time. “I barely know him.”
“You must do your duty. Since your father died, I have no male heir. You should have a son who can take care of you when I am gone.”
As if Eliana would choose a daughter over a son! She wouldn’t wish her fate on an enemy. Not even a king’s granddaughter may inherit lands, riches or titles. Eliana can only benefit her kingdom, family, and self by providing ornamentation and birthing sons. The weakest boy in Laurium’s silver mines enjoys more privilege and autonomy than she ever will.
Eliana fixes her gaze on the bright full moon. It hangs low, breaking free of the oceanic horizon. While she watches she prays to Theia, the goddess worshipped in Laurium. “I beg you to release me from my obligations. Grant me the power to make my own way.”
A shimmer on the shoreline catches Eliana’s attention. Twenty paces before her an object reflects moonlight in the breaking surf. Curious, Eliana removes her slippers and hoists her skirts. She follows a retreating wave across the wet sand. Standing over it, she halts in wonder. There is a gleaming silver rod at her bare feet. Lifting it from the waves she is impressed by its weight. It must be more silver than we’ve mined all year, she thinks.
On inspection it is not a silver rod, but an arrow. It is three feet long. Our smiths cannot forge something this large. She runs her hand along the surface and the metal sings out a lovely tone more beautiful than the tinkle of a silver bell. Untarnished by the ocean, the shaft glows like phosphorous on a sea turtle’s back where she touches it. Eliana turns it before her disbelieving eyes to better study it by the full moon’s light. The fletching is inexplicable – soft to the touch, yet still silver and seamlessly attached to the shaft. Anyone in Laurium could tell this arrow was not forged by human hands.
Theia has answered Eliana’s prayers bestowing on her a holy gift. A gift from a goddess is priceless. If she presents this arrow to Zosimos at the celebration, he will grant her favor. He must let her choose her own destiny. Slippers forgotten, Eliana runs back up the path on feet made fleet by new possibilities.
On approach she does not notice the silence and stillness. It isn’t until she enters the darkened hall that she smells the tinge of metallic blood. In the dying light of the forging fires she sees the bodies. The dead are strewn everywhere like discarded fish heads at the docks. All about her are kinsmen – on the floor, slumped in chairs or across tables. They display vicious stab wounds. Eliana freezes in horror and fear. Many are holding their feasting cups reminding her they were all alive and celebrating a short time ago.
Movement near Zosimos’ throne draws her unbelieving gaze. Glaucus stands with his back to her. He speaks. She can’t make out his angry words. Zosimos is slumped to his side on the throne. Glaucus thrusts a weapon through her grandfather’s shoulder.
Eliana dares to creep closer taking cover as she goes. She seeks to determine if Zosimos is alive and hear what Glaucus is saying. Glaucus brandishes a xiphos, the short, double-edged sword carried into battle by Grecians. It is no common xiphos. Eliana recognizes it as the Anax’s ceremonial xiphos. The pommel and guard are silver forged generations ago in this very hall. Passing the sword on is a significant symbol of the transition of title of Anax of Laurium.
Eliana sees that Zosimos is alive, but barely breathing. Glaucus hurls words down at him in anger. “Twenty-five years ago our people elected you their leader when my father died. It should have been me. You betrayed Laurium. Your greed ran the silver mines dry.” He rams the xiphos through her grandfather’s thigh. Eliana cringes at the sound of the sword connecting with the wooden seat. Why aren’t you fighting back?
“When I asked for Eliana’s hand you forced me to arrange for her to marry Milon. Milon, the son of the Anax that killed my father! You would rather partner with Megerians than reward my years of faithful service. You should have destroyed them as soon as you ascended. I always knew you were too weak to rule. It was all too easy to poison your entire following with deathshade.”
Deathshade. Eliana has heard of the horrendous toxin from afar. It paralyzes the victims as it slows their hearts and breathing. Zosimos was forced to sit impotent on his throne while Glaucus killed each guest in front of him.
“Such a pity that your lovely granddaughter escaped. You’ll have to die imagining what I’ll do to her.” Zosimos moans in agony and defeat. Glaucus prepares to strike with the xiphos again.
Rage fills Eliana. She casts about for a weapon, but they are forbidden in the hall. She notices Theia’s arrow in her hand. She had completely forgotten it. She is again struck by its beauty – functionless beauty. What good is an arrow without a bow! Even if she had a bow, what good would a bow and arrow be in her untrained hands! Disgust at the useless weapon stokes an irresistible urge to throw it away.
She charges Glaucus from behind and flings the arrow to the side. She expects the clatter of the silver weapon on the stone floor will distract Glaucus allowing her to catch him off guard. She’ll wrest the xiphos out of his hand and kill him, or die trying.
Instead of crashing to the ground, the arrow flies. It is impossibly fast – swifter than any mortal archer can achieve with the best of bows. Its phosphorescent glow leaves an afterimage of a tail like a brilliant shooting star in the dim chamber. Flight transforms its song into a fearsome knell. It circles behind the throne and blasts through Glaucus’ neck so forcefully it beheads him. Based on its trajectory, instinct tells Eliana the arrow will soon tear through her as well. She screams and ducks in fear shielding her face. Instead of striking, the arrow slows. It comes to a silent halt and floats in the air before her. She rushes around it to Zosimos.
“Grandfather!” Eliana calls while she gathers him in her arms. He’s covered in blood and his breathing is irregular. Eliana knows she is powerless to prevent his death. Zosimos tries to touch Eliana’s face, but can’t manage it. “Rest now,” she says tears pouring from her eyes.
“Theia’s instrument” he manages to say on a long exhale.
“Shh, don’t trouble yourself.” Theia’s instrument? Had Eliana heard him right? She mines her memories for a reference. The image of an immortal warrior comes to her mind.
Zosimos says no more. Eliana cries over him. His breathing and suffering gradually cease. She sends a prayer to Theia, “Please show mercy and grant him eternal peace.”
“I answer your prayers tonight as a gift of good faith to you, my instrument,” comes a crystalline voice. Eliana looks up to see an iridescent woman. Eliana’s sobs cease in awe. She beholds her deity through the veil of mortal eyes. Theia’s molten silver skin glows brighter than the moon. It swirls forming elegant, incomprehensible symbols. Eliana wants to spend eternity gazing on her features and feasting on her voice.
“I leave you with the arrow that needs no bow. When I have need of you, immortal warrior, I will come again.” The goddess then fades from view, leaving Eliana bereft of her glorious presence.
A wave of horror washes over Eliana. Theia’s instrument… her immortal warrior…her eternal slave.
Lyrical, intense, and lovely.
So proud of you to be short-listed as a Judges’ favorite in the 10th Anniversary contest!
Wishing you every success,
Linda Barrows says
Very cool and imaginative story. Loved the surprises and twists. Couldn’t stop reading. Well done!