Holding Out for A Hero
Smoke streamed into the sky, a swirling torrent so thick it blotted out the rolling, forested hills between the village and the mountains. The fire crackled below, so hot its heat seared Hieron's
face when the breeze lulled.
He watched the column of grey rise toward the heavens and sighed, resting his hands on his hips. 'All in all, today's really not been the best day.'
'Well, in the grand scheme of things, it could be worse,' Old One-Eye said, warming his hands in front of the roaring flames.
'Worse...' Hieron glanced up at the bright summer sun behind them and wrinkled his nose at the smell of roasted meat and woodsmoke. 'It could definitely be better.'
'It's not raining.' Old One-Eye’s face was cast orange by the glow of the fire, every wrinkle and crease lit up like cracked summer mud at midday. 'And we've got a nice fire that ought to keep us
warm for a while yet.'
Technically true, Hieron thought.
'We're doing better than most of our village.' Old One-Eye brushed some of the ash off his front. ‘Can-sas is going to need a lot of rebuilding.’
That too is true. Hieron dusted some of the ash off his own clothes while Old One-Eye untwisted the strap of his battered eyepatch.
A loud rumble and a crash came from the other side of the smoke.
Old One-Eye sighed. 'When I was young we had fires like this every summer. The grass got all dry back then. Anyone who dropped a lantern could set the whole country ablaze.'
'Oh here we go,' Hieron muttered. 'Back in my day we had real fires. I lost my eye in a fight with a squirrel. You young ones don't know how hard life can be.'
'It was a wolf,' Old One-Eye snapped. 'And you don't. Look at you, dressed all fancy, spending your time drawing maps and writing stories, never had a hard day in your life.'
Hieron shot the old villager a dirty glare and dusted some more ash off his leather jacket. 'Today wasn't great.’
'You young ones, always complaining. We've got the fire to keep us warm, clear skies, and I've got some tobacco in a pocket somewhere. Back when the plague went through here, before you were even
born, you’d have been grateful for any of those.'
Hieron shook his head at the elderly man and squinted through the smoke at the large shadow amidst the flames. 'Once the fire goes out, there's not going to be much of Can-sas left. Looks like just
the temple’s survived.’
'Your sister's meant to come back from the city market today, ain't she?' Old One-Eye spat into the flames, and rummaged for his pipe. 'This'll be a bit of a shock for her, but at least the coin
she brings back from selling your scribbling will pay for a new house.'
Aphania should be back already. Hieron glanced toward the road. A pair of brown lines snaked away down the valley until the long grass swallowed them. Good thing she’s not.
'The whole village's gone up in smoke in the month she's been away,' he replied. 'Aphania's not going to be happy.'
'That's the downside of having wooden houses.' Old One-Eye produced his pipe from a pocket. 'You’ve got to be very careful with those fires. The old temple's stone, though, so we should still have
shelter once it dies down.'
The dark shape through the smoke shifted and let out another rumble.
Hieron took a step back. 'That big shadow's not the temple, is it?'
'No.' Old One-Eye’s pipe slipped through his fingers. He'd paled white as goat's milk. 'I thought it’d fucked off after burning the place down again for the fifth time this month.'
The shadow spread its wings, great leathery dark ones, and buffeted the smoke away, bending the flames flat to the mud. A maw full of teeth as long as Hieron's hand gaped between the wings, a red
tongue coiled over the fangs, beneath a pair of bright gold eyes.
Eyes that are fixed right on us.
'Perhaps we should start running,' Hieron suggested.
Old One-Eye had vanished.
'Fuck!' Hieron hurtled down the hill from the burning village as fast as his legs could carry him. 'Sneaky old fucker left me behind!'
Old One-Eye had already made it out onto the flat near the river when the dragon swept over Hieron's head to pounce on him.
It caught the old man's good leg in its teeth and tossed him from side to side like a cat would a mouse, then waited for the elderly villager to make it a few metres away before hooking him back in
with the claw of its wing, and repeating it all again.
Hieron made for the trees. He doubled over behind the first good-sized trunk, and gasped until his breath returned. 'Live near the mountains, they said. Nice, fresh air, lovely views...' He poked
his head round the pine’s trunk.
Old One-Eye was gone, Hieron needed only one guess as to where, and the dragon was airborne. He released a long sigh as he watched it drift down the road toward the river.
Aphania. Hieron stared at the lopsided old cart trundling. His sister sat on top, bobbing her head as she sang, How has she not seen the dragon and the smoke?
He squeezed his eyes shut, but no roar of flame came, just a single, shrill scream.
The beast snatched the whole cart up, and flew east towards its lair.
Hieron stared after the little speck of white between its claws. 'I must be mad,' he said as he began to give chase through the trees. 'I must be completely fucking mad.'
He glimpsed nothing in the sky through the trees, not even when he veered out of the woods for a better look.
'Fuck.' Hieron kicked the closest thistle in half and stomped on it. 'Fuck! I told her. I told her. I said I didn't like fresh air that much. I said we could just live in the city
house. Only a few corpses turned up in the attic. They weren't even scary looking when we were children. Our grandmother looked exactly the same as when she was alive.'
He took a deep breath and ran towards the mountain. He knew the way. He'd drawn it often enough on his maps, a little beetle-shell black ink triangle above a carefully drawn curving line in
eggshell blue. Follow the river, the river leads to the mountain. Dragons like mountains.
Hieron sprinted through the trees, batting aside the worst of the bracken, but between one stumble and the next he found himself not beneath the ironbark pines, but sprawled upon worn, pale stone.
'At last!' A deep, rich voice rejoiced from somewhere beyond the smooth floor and the grass and ivy that sprouted from its cracks. 'A hero comes!'
Hieron pushed himself up off the floor with a groan.
A domed roof and its ivy-cloaked, worn columns loomed over him.
There're no doors, he realised, peering round the columns. And no hole for me to’ve fallen through. He double-checked, but found nothing again. That can’t be good.
'Ah,' the voice mused, 'a looker-abouter, always a good sign that. No good hero ever considers himself the hero to start with.'
Hieron traced the sound back to the broken half-column by the far wall and picked his way across. 'Where am I? How’d I get here?’
The footmarks in the steps up to the half-column were worn so deep in the stone he imagined a thousand thousand men must’ve walked them. A bronze-bound, leather-covered book with a single, simple,
white sunburst cut into it lay atop the pillar.
'Hello?' Hieron brushed the ivy and dust from the old tome's cover.
'Hello!' The book fluttered its pages.
Hieron flinched so hard he nearly fell back down the steps. 'I hit my head, didn't I?' He ran his fingers over his scalp, searching for wetness, or a lump.
'This is the Hall of Heroes,' the book told him, when he found no mark on his head.
'I've never heard of it. There's no such place near the village. And I’m a mapmaker.’
'There's only one way anyone can reach this place. It's on the road of life and no other path. If you take the right turns, you might find yourself here, as you’ve done.'
'How do I get out?' Hieron demanded. 'I need to leave.'
'Of course you do! Only people who need to be elsewhere ever come here.'
'And? Where's the secret door?'
‘No door. There’re two ways to leave, however. With me, or without me.'
Hieron took a long look at the size of the book and shook his head. 'You'll weigh me down, even if you are a magic book, and not the result of a nasty concussion.'
'I weigh nothing. And it doesn't matter how long you spend here, you'll be back just when and where you were. This place is convenient like that.'
'Right. So what's the deal?'
'Where were you going when you ended up here?'
Hieron shuffled his feet. 'After a dragon.'
'Dressed like that? Really?'
Hieron straightened his jacket. 'You don't even have eyes. How do you know what I'm wearing?'
'And you've got no weapon,' the book mused. 'That settles it. You're either suicidally brave and very noble, or very stupid, or both. Excellent hero material in any case!'
The tome snapped open to somewhere around the middle, and Hieron found himself staring at a column of names, most of which he couldn't read.
'I am Anna Chironina, Almanac of Heroes,' the book declared. 'And you’ll be the next great hero. A few dragons, a couple of necromancers, and a giant snake, and before you know it you'll be on par
with Konan the Pescetarian!'
Hieron scratched his cheek. 'Anna? So you're a girl? And I'm fairly sure it's not Konan the Pescetarian.'
'You can't just assume my gender by my name,' the book huffed, flapping its pages at him. 'I'm not a girl, anyhow. My creator just had an unfortunate obsession with puns.'
'I've heard worse.' Hieron muffled a snicker into his sleeve.
'Don't think I can't hear you laughing,' the book accused. 'If I’d a gold crown for every hero who laughed at my name...'
'I wish,' Hieron said. 'I need the money to rebuild the village.'
'Who said I'd give it you?'
'Well.. it's not like you’ve any hands to stop me.'
'So you'd just take it from beside my cold, pale pages would you? That's just rude.'
'What would you even use it for? Rebinding?' Hieron chuckled.
The book sighed, venting a cloud of dust from its pages. 'I suppose the gold would be useless to me. I'm not the unluckiest of us, you know. The vast book of spells he wrote is called Great
Hexpectations, so frankly I should count myself lucky I was named early on. The more thought he put in, the worse they got.'
Hieron laughed. 'What are those ones called, Anna?’
'Don't you have a dragon to go after?'
'Yes. So… What now?'
'I guide you to become a great hero and to fame, glory and fortune, and also potentially to a grisly death. Just sign your name in blood here.'
'Just sign, huh…' Hieron weighed the ornate, silver-tipped quill that had appeared in his hand. 'Wait… What was that bit about death?'
'A few minor risks.' Anna’s pages fluttered. 'Hero stuff. Million to one odds of success, occasional dismemberment, mild mutilation, scarring, frequent self-defenestration is generally essential,
but does result in nasty bruising, and in the interest of full disclosure, I should warn you hero work is not good for your back or your knees and has no workplace pension scheme.'
'Right,' Hieron said. 'Suddenly I'm having second and third thoughts about this. The lack of a workplace pension is a bit of a dealbreaker.'
'Would it help you if I said going back to dragon hunting without me tends to result in death by incineration?'
'I'm not sure help is quite the right word,' Hieron muttered.
He pressed the silver tip of the quill into the ball of his thumb and scrawled his loopy signature at the bottom of the list just beneath Thisius the Weaver. Thisius had dotted all his letters with
'Actually,' Hieron said as his signature darkened from red to brown, far faster than it really had any right to. 'This Thisius sounds vaguely familiar.'
'Another great hero,' Anna said. 'Wonderful with a sickle, but very forgetful. He put a bit too much stock in dreams, and frankly the less said about his love life the better.'
'So do I go back now? How does it happen?'
Anna snapped shut. 'We go back like this.’
Hieron’s right palm seared with pain and he sprawled face first between the roots of the ironbark pines he'd been in.
© Copyright 2020 M J Bradley. All rights reserved.