The Walls of Yesterday
Kalyxis nudged her figure-of-eight shield so only her eyes appeared over its edge. Wearing her father's ill-fitting leather cuirass and boar's tusk helmet made her sweat. She leveled her spear at the three approaching men. Krisa's ruined gate rose behind her, overlooking a wide bay beneath a mountain. Snowflakes drifted through the air. Her suspicions rose as none of their breaths misted in the chill weather.
"Stay where you are. I've killed other trespassers." She nodded at the spears jutting from the ground outside the gate. From each hung a different helmet: Achaean, Lukkan, horned Sherden, even a Peleset crowned with black feathers.
Since the collapse of Achaean power after the war with Wilusa and Ilios, the land had been terrorized by barbarians, sea raiders, and monsters. In the past year alone, Kalyxis had lost her sister, mother, and father.
The men kept coming, brandishing spears. Their armor appeared battered, missing entire pieces. Kalyxis loosened her body, ready to thrust the spear. She forced it not to tremble in her hand. The men didn't blink. The winter breeze filled her nostrils with their stench.
The manticore had returned.
"Stay, I say!" Fear took hold in her heart. She planted her feet and thrust the spear through the closest man. Black, foul liquid poured forth, its reek almost making her vomit.
The man didn't die.
The others stabbing spears at her. One punctured her shield, grazing her left shoulder. The other scraped her helmet, knocking one of the tusks free. Kalyxis drew her sword, fingers quivering on the handle. She smashed one man with her shield, breaking his face. She cleaved another's head, spilling brains and teeth on the ground.
The third man outflanked her, swatting her with his spear shaft. The bronze studded leather cuirass bit into her flesh and numbed her limbs.
They had her.
Kalyxis turned the shield, anticipating a second blow, but the man with the crushed face grabbed her sword arm and pressed with cold fingers. He snapped his jaws, missing her nose. His eyes bulged red. Before she could pull free, the one behind yanked the horsehair plume on her helmet, jerking her head back. She bared her teeth, fighting like a cornered wolf.
Brains and blood splashed her face as something shattered the man's head, leaving a headless, stumbling corpse. The one holding her right arm turned, receiving an arrow through the mouth, exiting out his neck.
Kalyxis fell onto the bloody ground with them. Her shield, still attached by the shoulder strap, clattered over her
Through the falling snow, armed people appeared. A man in bronze greaves and leather cuirass wiped gore from his axe. He'd slain the one she'd speared. Behind him three men with bows crept forward, eyes cautious.
"Hurry, bring the others inside the walls," the man with the axe said. "There may be more of them lurking near the mountain." He had curled black hair and stubbled cheeks, speaking Achaean with a nobleman's inflections. He offered Kalyxis his hand, but she backed further away.
Reaching Krisa's gate, she stood and leveled her sword. Her back burned with agony. "Stop or I'll kill you."
The man with the axe placed it in a loop on his studded belt, then crossed his arms. Thick muscles showed through his once-rich clothing, now just faded rags. "We just saved your life. I am Taricus, late of Orchonemos. These people need shelter. Food as well, if you can spare it. If more of these creatures come, you won't hold them off alone." His voice rang clear in the gray chill, sunshine in the dreariness. A baby cried.
"You might have plague. You'll bring the manticore back to my city if these things followed you here." She couldn't help it. Too long she had defended her ruined home; too many raiders she'd slain. She didn't wish to face the manticore again.
Taricus stepped forward, ignoring her raised sword. "We are clean, but more of them may be around, still looking for what their master didn't eat last time. The Manticore will devour us all, unless we act together. I ask you to let us in, but either way we'll sleep inside these walls tonight." His blue eyes regarded her with determination.
Kalyxis didn't flinch. "Your children's stories won't earn my sympathy. How can I trust you? Orchonemos fell years ago, before Mycenae. My father, ruler of this city, knew the king there. I was to wed him, before these evil days. You aren't him."
He nodded. "No. I fought the raiders in the ashes of our city, but in vain. Think you the only one to have seen death? Hardly. I didn't know the king of Krisa trained his daughter to fight as a man. Now that's a children's story. Perhaps you can tell it when we're all out of the cold?" Smiling, he gestured past her towards the citadel.
Kalyxis tried ignoring the baby's wails and the haggard gazes of the people gathered before the gate. She guessed they numbered two score, aged from infants to the ancient. All in patched, worn clothing, belongings carried in sacks or dragged on makeshift sleds. The air chilled her anew, almost freezing the sword to her palm. She realized her own physical and emotional fatigue at last. Lowering the wall around her heart, she nodded.
"Come. My name is Kalyxis. I have a few goats left. That child will eat, at least."
To her surprise Taricus bowed in the old way. Kalyxis almost laughed. It seemed frivolous keeping alive their old traditions, but she kept silent. The thankful respect in his eyes wouldn't allow her to belittle him in any way, and shame came over her. Glad the helmet straps hid her burning cheeks, she led them into what remained of Krisa.
Leaning her shield against the palace wall, Kalyxis led them into her familial abode. A commanding view of the bay showed two shipwrecks on the beach, buried in a year's tide. Passing red and blue painted columns, the group entered the throne room where a fire burned in the pit. Wooden doors stood closed and barred with spear shafts. Furs and blankets lay about just as in her father's reign. Shields hung from the walls and a rack of spears, axes, and swords sat near the empty throne.
"Your people can sleep in here. The other buildings are ruined or are too drafty." Kalyxis removed the boar's tusk helmet. With numb fingers she undid the string holding up her sandy blonde hair, letting the fire's warmth seep into her body. She took Taricus's arm. "Come with me."
Hand on her sword, she took him into an adjoining room. Sacks of grain and urns of wine filled it, along with three goats tethered in a corner. On a small table sat a loaf of fresh bread and a hunk of goat cheese. A golden pitcher held goat's milk.
"You and your people may eat and sleep here tonight, but you must leave in the morning." Kalyxis knew she blustered since she couldn't enforce her wishes, being outnumbered. For all intents and purposes Krisa was his if Taricus pressed the issue. Yet he leaned against the wall, staring at her in the faint light as the sun set.
"How in the name of the gods do you have all this? I have seen no one else here. No servants, not even--"
"My people left long ago. They feared the manticore-or more raiders. I stayed with what few stores a former princess could gather from the countryside, and what I had hidden. Eat your fill. I'll find more."
Taricus shook his head, regarding her with new eyes. "There is no more. The manticore feeds off what remains. You can't remain alone any more. Maybe you should let us stay. Strength in numbers. The manticore will come here soon."
Kalyxis pointed at the bread. "Get that and the cheese. I'll take the milk to the baby." She took the pitcher. It had once served her father his wine. The palace had been alive then, cheerful. Biting back tears, she left the storeroom and halted. Laughter and voices filled the throne room as it hadn't for a long time. One man even played a flute, making the harsh reality seem far away, sparks in the fire pit mirroring old dreams.
The refugees from Orchonemos bedded down among the furs and blankets. The baby, sated with the goat's milk, slept in his mother's embrace. Several men stood guard at the palace's front door. Braziers throughout the palace dispelled darkness and chill, lighting frescoes of bull-leaping acrobats and bronze-gilt warriors. A few snores disturbed the throne room's tranquility. Only then did Kalyxis loosen her cuirass straps. Taricus leaned against a column nearby.
"How does my back look?" Kalyxis asked. It still ached, making her wince whenever she moved. She set aside the cuirass, faced away from him, then pulled off her tunic. She crossed her arms, covering her breasts, praying he wouldn't lay a hand on her. She trusted him too much already, even with the sword still strapped to her waist.
Taricus came nearer and grunted. "Purple. You need a poultice. I can wake one of the women--"
"No." She put the tunic back on, cheeks burning. "I'll be fine. I've dealt with worse."
Someone shouted outside. Kalyxis wheeled, sword already in her hand. Taricus held up his axe, motioning for silence. They hurried from the throne room to the front door. Two men with bows hunkered there, fright plain on their faces in the faint brazier light.
"Do Aristos and Eryx still watch the city gate?" Taricus's voice was tight with tension.
Kalyxis pulled a shield from the wall and handed it to him. She pulled another for herself.
One of the archers nodded. "We were about to relieve them when we heard a voice."
"His voice?" Taricus asked.
Both men looked at each other, trembling. Finally, they nodded.
Kalyxis nudged Taricus. "The manticore?"
Before he answered, a scream shattered the still winter night outside. A heavy beating sounded, as if someone flapped a thick blanket over Krisa's walls. The beating of large wings. Kalyxis shook. She'd prayed never to hear them again.
The gods had scorned her.
Taricus cursed. "They're already dead. Go wake the others. Tell them to guard the doors. There are only the three main ones."
The men ran to their posts.
"He's out there, Taricus," said Kalyxis. "In the name of the gods, why did you lead him back here?"
Something carried on the wind outside, a cooing, an invitation. It reminded her of better times without pain or hunger. She reached for the door.
Taricus slapped her hand away. "No! At night he'll tear us to pieces. The wind will send our arrows astray. If we stay inside we might live. He can't fit through these doors."
A spear crashed through the door.
Taricus glanced at her. "They'll rush the doors, just as they did us at Gla after we fled Orchonemos. The bastards only fall if you destroy their heads." The door shook as someone outside pounded it with a heavy object. A familiar stench made her sick.
Kalyxis moaned low in her throat, memories stabbing her heart. The Peleset raiders slaying her people before her eyes. Her beautiful sister Euboeis raped in the street, then hacked apart by murderers from Phokia. Her father fighting disease and madness, depending on her to defend them from the darkness swallowing them. The manticore, devouring her mother and many others. Eating the world until nothing but a rotted core remained.
The door shattered in a shower of splinters. Several bodies pressed through, arms grabbing, broken weapons thrusting. Kalyxis screamed and bashed them with her shield, stabbing amid jets of black blood. Beside her, Taricus hewed away heads, hands, arms. Powerful blows dented her shield, numbing her left arm. She planted her feet firmly and met them eye-to-eye.
Together the pair held them back, though a blade nicked her knees, fingernails scraped her neck. Her body afire with pain, blood, and fury, Kalyxis cut away the jaw of one who tried biting her, bashed another's brow flat. Black blood bathed her, cleansed her, each strike releasing anger and grief.
The attack ceased. Kalyxis blinked, her blood and theirs stinging her eyes, her shield ripped in half. She dared not flex the fingers on her sword, fearing she'd drop the weapon. Snow filtered through the doorway along with chill air, biting her flesh, leaving it raw and tender.
Taricus hacked off the head of a still squirming man, its red eyes almost glowing in the darkness outside. His left earlobe had been bitten off, and wicked claw marks ran over his muscular chest. Covered in blood, he could have been Hades himself, come to take her at last.
She wondered how awful she must look.
"He's not done," Taricus managed through heaving gasps. "He knows we have women and children in here. That's what the bastard eats. Men he uses thus." He gestured at the mangled bodies clogging the entrance.
One of his men rushed towards them. "The other doors held, but we lost four men. If they try again, they'll be inside."
"I know, Panos." Taricus turned to Kalyxis. "Is there any other way out of the palace?" His eyes shown with something she'd seen in the men loyal to her father before they died defending Krisa: sacrifice.
"Yes," Kalyxis said. "The entrance is under the table in the storeroom. It leads to a cistern in a shallow cave. If you wade through it you'll be outside Krisa's walls, at the foot of Mount Parnassos."
A voice called from outside, pleasant and cheerful. Taricus stiffened, then nodded. "Panos, do as she says. Take everyone. She and I will stay."
Panos wiped away tears and patted Taricus on the back.
Panos' loyalty and emotion touched Kalyxis. She wanted to ask how he came by such followers, but shapes came after them in the dark.
Taricus dashed one's head away and kicked another to the ground. Kalyxis, using the sharp edge of her broken shield, slashed and rent at cold bodies, her fatigue and pain erased in an instant. The creatures made no sound as they perished, the red light fading from their eyes as they fell. The attack ceased, and the cooing returned.
"Don't listen, Kalyxis!" Taricus shouted. "Stay right here!"
Kalyxis started to reply, then realized she stood in the courtyard, snow crunching under her feet. The delicate flakes swirled as something large disturbed them, waving through the air. Taricus yelled at her, but his voice seemed far away. The cooing filled her ears with the promise of happiness, freedom. A release from this life swathed in dark rags. She took another step. A face loomed above her in the night, snowflakes dusting its matted beard.
The manticore's visage almost stopped her heart, though as much in pity as in terror. A tortured face with a child's bulbous cheeks and an old woman's kind eyes. Tangled white hair hung from its chin and around its head in a mane. Great paws, caked with old blood, dug at the earth. A tail crusted in red carapace hovered over its body with a glistening stinger at its end. All made visible in the faint brazier light from inside the palace. In daylight the monster must look like a god.
It lowered its face, opened its mouth, and cooed. Fangs gleamed in the light. Kalyxis couldn't move, couldn't breathe, just wished to hear it finish its song. Maybe it was as lonesome as she, lost in a crumbling world. It, too, needed a family.
Her face reflected in its ivory smile as its mouth came closer.
"Father," Kalyxis whispered. His disease hadn't killed him, but transformed him. Months had passed since she'd finally believed her own lie concerning his fate. A lie protecting her sanity. Now, the lie melted as ice before a flame, burning her soul with pain and horror. A pact with the gods to give him power to defend his lands in these dark times. Consumed with it, he sundered his own lands and people instead. He'd trained her to kill him.
Hot gore spewed over her as Taricus's axe flew through the air, splitting the manticore's nose and rupturing its lip. A roar, both sad and furious, came from its great maw. Part man, part beast, both trapped in an agony without end.
Kalyxis staggered, almost dropping her sword, her ears ringing.
"Get back into the palace!" Taricus charged past her, thrusting a spear into the manticore's neck, painting the snow red. It backhanded the warrior with its paw, knocking Taricus into her, bowling both over. Hot, slavering breath passed over her as they rolled to a stop. A flash of red in the darkness, a whirl of snow, and Kalyxis acted. She held up her shield. The stinger pierced wood and almost touched her stomach. She slashed the stinger free of the tail.
A great bellowing filled the night, shaking the earth beneath her. Kalyxis cut the shield's strap and flung it away, stinger and all. She grabbed for Taricus, found his arm, and pulled him along as the manticore spread its leathery wings and leapt after them.
Right before its paws raked them, Kalyxis rolled and jerked Taricus with her behind a toppled wall. The beast struck the stone, raining shards over them. She tugged Taricus on, slipping into the ruined temple opposite the palace.
The manticore roared again and heaved with all its girth, forcing down a wall as the pair stumbled to the altar. Kalyxis spun, brandishing her sword for one final stand. The horrid face stared down at her, hungrier than a thousand starving wolves, angrier than a million disturbed bees. It hissed, hot saliva dripping off its fangs, sizzling on the stone floor. It raised its head to strike when a sickening wet sound came from its side. Yowling, the beast slid down the ruined wall and lurched after a figure sinking a spear deeper into its side. Panos. Four other men stabbed the manticore's hind legs, pinning it down. It swung its tail, deadly even without the stinger, and crushed one man's head in red spume.
Bleeding from dozens of nicks and scrapes, Kalyxis surged to her feet. She ran up the fallen wall, sunk her sword through a cheek, and jerked it with all her might, slicing open the monster's face. She stabbed it again under the eye before it slapped her back into Taricus, sharp claws rending her leg and shoulder.
Searing agony wracked her body, burning her alive in its totality. Kalyxis laid atop Taricus and bled. The manticore gurgled, sliding down the pile of wrecked stone. Three spears stuck from its hindquarters and one beneath its right leg, dripping crimson. It looked straight at her, face wrecked from her blows, left eye already glazed over and useless. The wings rose once and flapped, sending snow over her. A horrid moan escaped its lips, right eye showing sadness and yearning once more.
Kalyxis struggled up and found her sword. Her limbs almost too cold to move, she staggered to the manticore's side. It didn't hiss, didn't strike, only shuffled its bulk so its chest showed by light of a single palace brazier. Through sliced lips it cooed once before Kalyxis plunged her sword deep into her father's heart.
Kalyxis sat on her father's throne, limbs dull from the poultices covering her body. Her hair hung loose over her shoulders; she wore her mother's old robe. The sword that had slain the manticore leaned against the throne.
"They're buried now." Taricus said as he entered the throne room. His people had returned the morning after, caring for her and burning the manticore's body. He had buried Panos and the rest in a mass grave just outside the walls.
Kalyxis met his eyes. "They were faithful to you, disobeying your commands to stand by your side. Why?"
Taricus looked at the fire, memories passing in his gaze. "They were my servants. Panos taught me how to use a spear and sword. Something all princes of Orchonemos had to master if they planned on being king one day."
Her heart started. "You're a prince? Of Orchonemos?"
"No. King of Orchonemos, since my father passed when the city burned. I would have perished there too, fighting those raiders, but Panos and the others forced me to retreat. They told me I carried the future in my veins. I feel it is an empty title now, though they honored it to their deaths."
Kalyxis smiled sadly. "I was supposed to wed the King of Orchonemos before our lands fell into darkness. I could have been your stepmother."
"Why not my wife? Orchonemos will still honor the original agreement." Taricus smiled, no mockery or arrogance in his eyes or tone.
Kalyxis laughed, making her wince as the movement irritated her wounds. "Look at me. A crippled princess, at least for now. Krisa is all I have, and it is but a shell." A strange hope budded in her heart where none had been for a long time.
"Then be a strong queen afterward, at least until Krisa lives again," he whispered. "The raiders have long gone. The monsters, slain. Let's build a new world here. Our world."
Children played outside in the winter sunshine, the piper performing a tune on his flute. Maybe the monsters inside her had gone as well. Maybe this man could fill her life in its place. Kalyxis remembered almost laughing at his bow, realizing he had hope for the future, preserving his old world for the new. The walls around her heart, the walls of yesterday, fell away. She extended Taricus her hand.