CORINTH



CORINTH, by Gerald Henson:

They hounded me through the streets of Corinna.  They had surrounded the crumbling barn where I slept and thought to catch me unaware, but even then I knew to listen in my sleep.  I knew not to close my eyes long enough to dream.

The Antonine Empire had failed a generation ago, but the massive and fractured body was long to die.  Only the coming of the Burning God had closed the throat of the gasping corpse.  The Burning God had stopped the slowly beating heart of the Empire and ended the old ways even in this distant province far removed from the core of the realm.  Antonius had not stepped within a thousand leagues of remote Corinna in his lifetime centuries ago, but his roads of stone, his marble gods who held all the virtues of men, his metered armies, and the bloody circles of his empire spanned the known world.

I lay panting in the Circle of Corinth, bleeding.  My wounds were many, but mostly light.  My pain was great, but time would soothe me.  I would have been dead a dozen times, but the mob wished to cause pain before the kill.  Each of them wanted to kick me, stone me–a mere child of the empire’s blood.  They wanted to club me with their fists or gouge me with their raking fingers.  They wanted to slay the Empire in their god’s name.

I was stabbed once, a glancing strike across the ribs, but some conductor among the carnage pulled the knife-wielding man away before he could end my life and spoil the sport for the rest of them.

I saw the man with the blade; he was Weldi who I thought a friend.  I knew not if he sought to vent some new religious wrath upon me, or if he wished to spare me from the Burning God’s mob, but I took that disruption of the crowd to flee.

Only one who has been close to death could understand the strength reaching my undernourished, fourteen year-old limbs as I fled.  I was desperately panicked and my heaving flesh ready to collapse from the effort, but I moved with the Zephyr’s haste and made my way to the circle, seeking sanctuary among the accursed and the damned.

A stone struck my head, and I stumbled several steps inside the circle before crashing to the ground.

I heard the shouts and curses of the crowd from beyond the high stands around me.  They gathered at the breaks in the stone walls, the openings where quarrymen unmade the architecture of the old structure to erect haphazard things of thatch, waddle, and stolen stone.  I thanked those thieves of history, for without their vandalism, I would never have reached the safety of the arena’s interior.

To think that the arena became a place of safety is strange to me even today, half a century later.  The great stone circles of Antonius were places of execution, places where the innocent and guilty alike were sent to die.  The denizens of Corinna were loathe to enter such a place, thinking it tainted, haunted by spirits.  It remained taboo to set foot within the stone walls even while those of the old Empire, who condemned so many, were themselves dead.

I remember sinking into a black sleep.

I remember the red and angry sky shepherding me into darkness as the mob burned the Antonine relics of old Corinth.  They cleansed the city of its history and its name.   It became Corinna in dedication to the Burning God who dwelt in flame, smoke, and rose from the ash.

I was so very close to death then.

It was not simply from my injuries, from thirst and starvation, or from any threat of my life passing, but I was so very close to the thousands before me who had passed in that place.

I breathed dust chipped from cobbled stones as spatha and axe clove through flesh to strike the ground beneath numberless bodies.  I breathed the musk of voxen and panthers, the metallic tang of the chains binding the beasts, and the fearful stench of their victims before tusk and claw savaged their lives away.  I lay among the grasses fed by the blood and bile of countless torn men, and I sprawled in the same shadows where noble equestrians and vulgar masses sat in horror and glee to watch their fellows die.

And in that black sleep, I did dream.  I watched the deaths of so many, but I did more than watch.  I felt the death blows delivered an infinity of times.  I saw each strike by a myriad of blades and felt each agony.

First I was naked but for rags, starved, accused of a crime by the invaders, the Antonine.  I did not know their tongue as the crime was announced, and in my heart I knew that there was none.  I was simply an example for others of my barbarian kind.  I remember a death for stealing bread from my master’s kitchen, and death as a woman for refusing to submit to my master’s touch.  These deaths were horrible, savage, and clumsy, but there were other, older deaths.

When the marble of the arena was new, when the stones beneath my sandals were sharp and square, unmarked by time, I remembered a warrior’s death.  I remembered the struggle with a man my equal, not with a beast sent only to destroy.  I died then for honor, for the glory of battle.  I died for the Empire, and I died a thousand times.

I fell to sword and spear, to a dagger beneath my breastplate a dozen times.  I died by javelin and garrote, and by fists and fingers, and in those times I knew what it was to walk in the shadow of Antonius.  I knew what it was to serve our true gods, to master steel and warfare, and to bring a wild world within the reigns of a great civilization.

And knowing the last deaths here in the Circle of Corinth, I knew the error of ancient arrogance.  I saw the decline of the Empire as the warrior became merely an executioner, and I could see at once the rise and fall of the new world under the Burning God.

What I saw last, before the sun rose in the east and I climbed from black slumber, was perhaps Antonius himself.  He looked down upon me, eyes bright green even in the predawn dark, old as time, but as strong as the mountain.  He was a warrior in leather skirts and plate.  He was a hero with his helm removed in salute, and his knee bent.

Stá difícil dematar,” he said in a tongue like ringing steel, and I did not know then what the words meant.  I knew the word fullonica in Antonine.  This word and the soiled clothes of better men were my only inheritance.

I felt something cold in my hand.  Cold and as rough as his calloused touch when he patted my bare chest.

Agor mais difícil.”  With those words he vanished, or walked away, or I fainted once again.

The dawn was fully upon me when I woke.  It was not the light in my eyes that woke me, but once again the voice of the mob.  I sat up and blinked in the light, gathering myself, and intending to check my wounds.  I found my tunic, little more than a slave’s cloth, wrapped around my torso as a bandage.  My mouth was dry, but not as dry as my thirst had left me in the night, and there was a strange taste lingering on my tongue like raw cinnamon.  Strangest of all was the sword now in my hand.

It was an old, rusted relic.  It was hilted for the use of two hands, once of great length and weight, but what remained was a broken thing, broken like the Empire.  It was jagged where there was once a cleaving tip; pitted along the thick and dull blade.  The thing had survived decades left in the dirt, beneath the weather in some lost corner of stone.  This was once a great weapon.  It was a sword of the old quality, a ruined legacy, I somehow knew, from the time of Antonius.

I rose up, strengthened from my rest and from the draught the man must have ministered while I slept.  I looked around the arena that was the great Circle of Corinth, and I saw the history of my Empire.  I saw the glory as warriors did battle to honor their martial art and warrior gods.  I saw the shame as women and the innocent were torn apart in a spectacle of slaughter.  As I watched the crowd churning at the open gates and guarding the breached walls, I could also see the death of the last martyr, Banoien.  His death brought the riots and the fall.  Banoien it was who ascended upon the prayers of his followers to become the One God.  The Burning God was but an aspect of the One who dwelled in seven parts.

I closed my eyes and forced away the memories from beyond my young flesh.  The centuries weighed upon me, but I carried the burden of my own years.

#

I was nothing.  Nothing to hold high and nothing to scorn.  I was a fuller, a laundry boy, and but for my father’s eyes I would have never known the sword.

My father’s eyes were green, Antonine green, but my mother was of the Selgo horsemen.  Her hair was black as coal, her eyes midnight blue, and her colors remained true even when the sickness came again.  The sickness had taken Father before I could know him, and on its return, it took my mother.  Father left us with a partnership in a laundry shop, a fullonica, but what share could a woman or babe at breast wrestle from an unjust man?

By the time I was old enough to understand injustice, theft, I had already grown accustomed to a life of little more than slavery.  I gathered the urine to fill our vats.  I stomped and paddled filthy tunics in the buckets.  I rubbed my hands raw working cloth against the boards and through the river stones.  I ate little better than the slaves, often less, for they were many and shared their meager gains while I only had my sickly mother.

But Mother was satisfied.  She said that for a Selgo, once fierce raiders and rebels, to wed the Antonine was a sign of the changing world.  She spoke of better times in another life to the west where the sun departed and carried the day’s woes into the sea.

It was godspeak.

It was the word of a priest carried on by the faith of sheep.  Mother knew well the words of many gods, and to her, each day was a chance to take life anew, cycling away the troubles of the world as the sun bore them across the sky.

She did not know the terrors of my night.

I will not speak of this, but know that Weldi came to me.  He knew, and together we burned my father’s stolen fullonica.  The lecherous thief’s soul was sent to his god upon a missive of smoke and ash.

By then my mother was gone, and she did not have to share my life of dust.  I was less than a slave, starving but for the scraps I could beg and what Weldi left on his vestibulum.  In secret, he fed me like a dog, and I did have to be quicker than the curs of the street or my few meals would have been lost to feral teeth.

How could they hate such a one?  Could such pain and fury be all for my father’s eyes?

#

I took up the sword and stumbled toward the main gate.  Faces peered through every gap in the arena wall, but I moved for the thickest of the mob.  I sought the Primus, the godspeaker controlling the masses.

A poor and homeless thing I was, but in my blood was the blood of the Empire.  For all I knew, the smoldering town was cleansed of everyone of my thin lineage and I was last of the Antonine to remain on the continent.  I would fight as my forefathers did.  I would die as a man of stone and steel though I was yet merely a boy.

I surged forward into the stink of wood smoke and sweat.  An arm reached through the rusted bars near the main gate, brick in hand, and hurled it at my head.  I batted the brick aside with the clumsy blade and hacked into the man’s arm, bludgeoning and breaking bone more than cleaving, but effective.  As he screamed in pain, the chipped corner of my broken blade drove into his throat to silence him.

He was the first man I killed that day, but by the legends, the single blow felled a score.

A hail of stones flew from the walls, passing over me as I moved toward the fray.  A man blocking the gate hammered a blow into my hand, crushing several bones.  I gripped the sword with both hands and pushed it up into his belly, somehow piercing the thick cloth, and somehow ripping through flesh.

His painful screams echoed into the roaring madness and bloodlust of the mob, terrifying and silencing those near me, and bringing doubt to those who heard.

A tiny space of shocked inactivity surrounded him for half a breath, and I used the freedom to rush through the gate and hack a deadly arc of steel at those around me.  The crowd pressed back even further, stones hanging in paralyzed hands.

I remembered the martyr.

“Stones!” I yelled.  “They stoned Banoien and you pray to the Stoned God for justice.  What crime am I guilty of, but for having green eyes?”

A stone struck my brow, tearing a flap of skin loose, and a man stepped forward, possibly to speak, possibly to strike.  I rushed him and smashed the hilt of my sword into his mouth.  He reeled backward, I ducked another stone from the mob, then drove my knee into his stomach, doubling him over.  A backhand slash tore into the cheek of a man who came too close, and I swept low to duck a kick and break the leg of that attacker.

I came up panting, blood dripping into my eyes.

“They shattered his bones and you pray to the Broken God!  They tortured him and you pray to the God Upon the Wheel for the strength to endure.  I have that strength!” I yelled loud enough for them all to hear.  “And he is the Hanged God who sees the truth beyond the veil…”

“You dirty Antonine scu–” Weldi began, but as quick as the wind I clove the sword through his forehead, nearly splitting it in two, then dashed the brains from the men to either side of him in rapid succession.

The crowd stumbled back from me, fleeing the gore, guilt or death at my hands.

The life’s blood and viscera of my only friend clung to my scrawny, wasted form.  I would have fallen from grief or exhaustion but the sword held me up like a crutch.  Like eagles’ talons reaching down from the open sky.  Through history.

Another man stepped forward from the crowd, and I took the look from his eye.  I had seen it in the arena, upon the face of the executioner.

“You come to me for murder,” I said.  “Murder in the name of the God Who Was Burned.”

“The Burned God seeks vengeance,” he assured.  He was tall with closely-cropped hair.  He had the look of the soldiers from the faded mural on the wall of the civic hall.  He was as broad as any man, wore a leather jerkin, armbands, and was the only person carrying a functional sword.  “I will take vengeance in the name of Primus Naventi, and in the name of the Burned God.”

He moved with confidence, like a fighter, which I was not.  He had the bearing of so many men of the circle, like so many of the warriors who took my life those countless times as I dreamed the thousand deaths in my black sleep.

The man made a gesture and the crowd opened around us, forming a wide circle of flesh outside the stone Circle of Corinth.  Worshippers, miscreants, whatever the mob was composed of, they gathered around to witness the drama of my execution.

Primus Naventi stepped forward, and I saw the flaming sword in his hand.  “In the name of the Burning God I bless you, Arben, and bid you to do what must be done,” the priest said.  He touched his sword to the warrior’s blade, and that too burst into thick, rolling flame.

The crowd began to chant his name:  Arben!  Arben!

Blessed Arben turned toward me, waving the sword before him, a sly and hungry smile upon his face.  I had seen that smile a hundred times, and fangs that were much more savage, eyes far more than terrifying.  After a thousand deaths, the loss of one life seemed the smallest matter, but I would fight for mine regardless.  The small life to be worthless would be his.

Arben swung his sword from side to side casually, but he suddenly used the momentum to whip the blade in an overhand slash to unbalance me.  He followed it with a quick thrust meant to spear my chest.

I had been killed in this way before, once, twice, perhaps twenty times, and twenty was enough.  As he thrust forward, I stepped forward also, but just to the outside of his striking blade with my own sword held shoulder high.  Its corroded edge easily sawed through his throat as I stepped past him.

The crowd’s chanting instantly ceased.

Arben’s blood fountained from his neck to spray me and mingle with my own dripping blood and the blood of the few who fell to my broken blade.  The spirit of empire had honed its edge.  The memory of sharpness was like razor steel.  I spun around and hacked down, fully decapitating the man.

His flaming sword fell to the ground, still burning as more blood gushed to puddle at the fallen corpse.

“The burning martyr was drowned to quench the flames, my mother told me, and the Drowned God became the god of peace.”  I kicked the sword into the pooling blood, and flipped it in the gore to extinguish the flames.

“Banoien is now the One God of seven aspects,” I said, moving toward Primus Naventi, and no one dared to stand between us.  “Stoned.  Broken,” I began the litany.  “Stretched upon the wheel.”

“Hanged,” a woman in the crowd intoned.

“Burned.  Drowned,” the crowd chanted with her.

“Can you tell me, priest,” I said raising a bloody hand, “the last remaining aspect of the One God?”

The sword slipped from the Primus’ hand, but he did not retreat from me.  “The God in Seven Parts,” he answered with what I now recognize as resignation.

“The god of salvation, and redemption,” I agreed, speaking my mother’s words.  Then I took my sword to the Primus, beheading him, quartering, and castrating him to achieve the seven parts.

The crowd of worshippers watched in religious awe and holy terror as the strange sacrifice was made.  After some time I rose up from the corpse, panting, delirious, still expecting to slaughter more of them before they took my life, but I didn’t really care.

“The Empire is broken, and the Burning God has had vengeance,” a strong, heavily accented voice spoke.  His words were like steel.  “The hungry flames have drowned in blood, and the One God is now whole.”

“He is whole,” the woman said.

“It was an offering,” said another.

On that last day of the Antonine Empire, a new Kingdom of Corinth was born.  I was the first monarch of the land, and as the mob now surrounds me again, I may be the last.

That sword has remained with me as a talisman, a trophy from the first battle that I fought and won.  I clutch it now, and despite my great age and the number of enemies within this very throne room, I am smiling.

I remember what that strong Antonine voice first told me when he tended me in my sleep of death.

Stá difícil dematar. Agor mais difícil.

“You are hard to kill,” he had said, then he gave me the relic.  “Now even harder to kill.”

I hold that broken sword in hand, and I face death with ease.  Not my own death, but the deaths of all my enemies.  I hold history in my hand; legend and fate.  This is my palace, and there is stone beneath my feet.  Stone that was once the Circle of Corinth.

END

_______________________________________________

G. Jerome Henson has been a technician for twenty years, an amateur philosopher, and a last generation soldier of the Cold War.   He has always enjoyed telling tales, none of them true, and decided to start writing them down.  He is the author of numerous fantasy and science fiction stories in a variety of styles, his first appearing in the heroic fantasy anthology THUNDER ON THE BATTLEFIELD.  He is a husband, a father of two, and the family is happily crafting a tale of their own. 


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