HEROES BE DAMNED • by Jareb Collins

“Old father, will you tell us a story?” The hall hushed; women settled their children, men settled their drinks.

The old man cleared his throat.

“I suppose…” he began. Despite his feigned reluctance, he enjoyed these nights, rare moments of a captive audience. There are stories that must be told.

“Very well.” He settled in his chair. “It was the summer of the Black Council, the worst in Sky Tribe’s history. Star Singer marched with his people across the harsh Vedorian desert…”

***

The devil sun cast its murderous eye on Sky tribe, intent on their destruction.

Or so it seemed to the hung-over chief.

Ravenclaw was forced to call a halt to the slow procession; another horse had died. They’d lost a dozen in the week since the seasonal migration had begun, and at this rate, they’d lose a dozen more before they reached the halfway mark.

“Gods be cursed,” Ravenclaw grumbled. This would be the worst council in Sky Tribe’s history — remembered as his fault.

Ravenclaw summoned his clan leaders. “Check on your people,” he said darkly. “Then we convene. One hour.” Then he went searching for a drink.

It was to be a long night.

A stone’s throw from the camp, Ravenclaw met with his clan chiefs: Mountain Bear, Cloudwalker, and Leaning Tree.

Cloudwalker had brought his grandson, a whelp named Star Singer who clung to his grandfather like a lost babe. The child was no friend of Sky Tribe; his whore of a mother had lain with the shaman of Earth Clan, claiming she’d been forced. It mattered little – she and the child were outcasts. When she’d died, Star Singer was sent to live with Cloudwalker. He’d been on Cloudwalker’s hip since this ill-fated journey began, and his presence tonight only angered Ravenclaw more.

The meeting devolved into arguing, and Ravenclaw was deep in his cups. The men turned to Cloudwalker. He was silent, eyes turned inward as he searched the faces of the Gods. Drawing five worn shells from a leather pouch, he cast them on the sand.

“Well?” Mountain Bear wasn’t a patient man. Leaning Tree settled back on his haunches.

“The augury has spoken,” Cloudwalker pronounced. “If we stay here, we will die.” The clan leaders looked at one another, then toward Ravenclaw.

The chief squinted at them, wine blurring his vision. “Nonsense. We stay. We can’t travel any further with this lot.” He waved his arm disgustedly at the encampment. He took another pull from his wine pouch. Mountain Bear rumbled to himself, while Leaning Tree rose, stretching.

Star Singer broke the silence. “Grandfather, what do we do?”

Ravenclaw lurched to his feet. “You’ll do as your chief commands, boy, and nothing else!” He launched a kick at the boy’s face, but slipped on staggering feet and caught Cloudwalker full on the chin. Time slowed to a crawl as Star Singer watched the old man’s head snap back.

Cloudwalker toppled over, dead.

Ravenclaw tottered drunkenly. He spat on Cloudwalker’s corpse, then glared at Star Singer as if daring him to challenge. Star Singer stared into the chief’s besotted face, unable to speak, mind reeling in shock. Ravenclaw, shaking his head in disgust, started back towards the encampment. Mountain Bear and Leaning Tree lingered a moment longer, expressions pained, then followed their chief.

Star Singer closed his grandfather’s eyes. The icy grasp on his heart released, and he wept. Eventually, he gathered himself to bury the body. He spent the night in silent vigil, eyes burning. But when the sun crept over the horizon, he rose with immutable purpose.

The council was to begin with the sunrise, and Star Singer could see that Sky Tribe – his people – had already assembled.

No. They are no people of mine.  

From his vantage point atop a dune, Star Singer could direct his spell with precision. He drew a circle in the sand, stripping to the waist as he stepped inside of it. He began chanting, his feet and arms sweeping in wide, graceful arcs. His hands were raw from digging Cloudwalker’s grave; sweat coursed like rivers of fire through the grime. Years of anguish and resentment warred within him, colliding with the burden of familial ties. The threads of obligation strained under the tension.

The first sparks of magic nibbled at the dryness in his belly. The hollow space filled with tendrils of rage, swirling madness igniting desperation for release. His vision hazed with murder. Too late, he realized the horror he was about to release.

So be it. Let them all burn.

And burn they did.

Sky Tribe never saw the danger until it was on top of them. Dark clouds materialized, roiling overhead. Gouts of flame shot down, searing flesh, melting skin and muscle from bone. Star Singer’s face was slick with tears, but he did not abate. Shame and anger mingled with the pain, unstable ingredients causing the flames to burn hotter still. The screams of the dying fluttered weakly on the hot wind.

Star Singer wept, and the world beneath him burned.

***

The old man finished his tale, his audience transfixed by the powerful enchantment of the story.

Finally, a small voice broke the spell.

“Old Father… what happened to Star Singer?”

He was silent for several moments, considering his words. “Star Singer was haunted by what he’d done, and never forgave himself. He wandered far, across the breadth of the nine kingdoms, running from his past. He disappeared into the storybooks, child, his soul blotted by evil.”

A serious-faced girl near the front of the room spoke up. “What do you think happened, Old Father?”

Old Father fingered a leather pouch hanging from his belt, feeling the finger bones within. I think the old bastard was terrible at dice, and bet money he didn’t have to lose. Some legend.

“I think, for tonight, I have said enough.” The assembly groaned in collective protest, but Old Father knew where tales must end.

History remembers the brave, but immortalizes the fool.


Jareb Collins is a freelance writer and rabid Notre Dame football fan. His work has been published in Flash Fiction Magazine, Microfiction Monday, Deadman’s Tome, and Every Day Fiction. He is a graduate of Liberty University, and lives in Northern California with his wife and four children. Want to see more of his work? Visit www.JarebCollins.com.


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