Clerk or Hero
After a long, terrifying slide, Tiero’s feet touched the ground. The thin rope tying him slithered down and coiled at his feet. Only his weight kept the loop tight for his involuntary descent. As soon as he was down, the witches dropped the rope.
High above him, at the mouth of the shaft he had just been lowered through, one witch sniggered, invisible behind a bent in the chute. “Bon appetite, boys!” Her mocking cackle drifted down the shaft.
“Harpies!” he shouted back.
Nobody replied to his toothless insult. The voices babbling far over his head trickled to nothing, leaving Tiero alone in the dimly lit stone well. No, not quite alone. He had a comrade in misery, a young officer, slumped unconscious against the shaft wall, the wound in his leg bleeding sluggishly. They were both going to die here.
Wincing at his morbid thought, Tiero wriggled out of his rope. At least the officer had fought bravely during the attack, while Tiero quaked shamefully in the carriage. Gosh, he was such a wimp, but he didn’t know squat about fighting and didn’t have any weapon except for his tiny pen knife. Ironically, neither the officer’s valor nor Tiero’s cowardice made any difference. The witches killed everyone else, tied up their two living captives, and pushed them both, the gutless and the intrepid, into one hideous hole in the rock.
Tiero’s stomach rumbled, reminding him that he hadn’t eaten since morning. Bon appetite, indeed. The witches cruelly sentenced both of them to starve to death, unless some beast got to them first. It would’ve been more merciful to kill them, but they hadn’t for some reason. He wanted to wail at the unfairness of it all. He was too young to die.
“Wake up, sir, please,” he muttered. Maybe his companion would have an idea how to get out of this trap. Tentatively, Tiero shook the officer’s shoulder. “Please, sir, wake up.”
The blue eyes beneath the shock of sweaty blond hair snapped opened, their owner’s face tense.
Tiero flinched and stepped back. “The witches dropped us both here,” he said quietly.
The officer transferred his fierce gaze to their surroundings. There wasn’t much, just the two of them, the smooth stone walls, and the rock floor littered with dirt.
“Who are you?” he asked hoarsely.
“I’m a clerk. I was in the carriage. Name is Tiero.”
“I’m Eurist. I was supposed to protect the carriage, my men and I. Obviously, I failed. What happened to my soldiers?”
“The witches killed everyone.”
Eurist shut his eyes for a moment. “Why didn’t they kill us?”
“I don’t know,” Tiero said.
Eurist clambered to his feet and gasped, clutching at his wounded thigh. “Damn. I have to bind that.” He sat back down, stripped his torn uniform jacket and pulled off his white shirt before donning the jacket again.
Tiero almost salivated at the sight of Eurist’s muscular torso, sprinkled with golden hair. He forced himself to look away. The beautiful warrior was a known womanizer. The city buzzed with his exploits. Eurist didn’t discriminate between aristocratic ladies and common wenches but he would probably spit on Tiero if he knew what Tiero was. Tiero’s sexual predilections were usually frowned upon.
Eurist bound his leg with his shirt and stood up again, wincing. A glance up along the dark polished sides of the chute produced an angry growl. “Don’t think I can climb that.” His gaze swept around the floor, an irregular oval about two human heights at its narrowest and three at its longest. Multiple layers of rotting leaves and needles, interspaced with pebbles, blanketed the stone at their feet.
“Do you have any weapons?” Eurist picked up his rope and wound it around his waist.
“No, just my pen knife.” Tiero had a few other odds and ends in his travel pouch under his jerkin, including a few coins and his lockpicks, but he didn’t mention them. If he and Eurist survived this misadventure, nobody needed to know that he had been a thief before he started working as a city clerk. He grabbed his own rope and secured it around his body.
“The damn witches took my weapons,” the officer said. “What is there?” He nodded at the oddly shaped rock at the far end of their tiny prison. The rock seemed folded like a wrinkle, and Eurist limped to it. He bent to examine the shadow behind the wrinkle and straightened abruptly. “There is a crawlway here. Maybe it’ll lead somewhere. Come on, Tiero. Move.” He dropped on his hands and knees and disappeared into the shadow. His baritone echoed faintly in the small chamber.
“What if there are monsters there, in this hole?” Tiero muttered. “Or snakes. Or whatever. Did you check? Move, indeed.” He stomped after Eurist and crawled through the hidden passage.
Dense darkness met him on the other side. Of course, he should’ve expected it. They were deep underground. Feeling around with his questing hands to make sure he didn’t brain himself, Tiero slowly straightened.
“Eurist,” he whispered, his heart thumping. He tried to breathe, but the darkness didn’t only swallow the light. It also seemed to have sucked out the air.
“Here.” Eurist’s calm voice floated from a few feet away. “We’ll have to go blindly. There is some kind of a tunnel.” His clothing rustled as he explored. “It’s not very wide but it’s high enough for me to stand in. We’ll tie a rope around both of us, so we don’t lose each other.”
“I can make fire,” Tiero offered. “I have a bit of magic. Not enough to warrant a place at the College but I can light a fire. We can use one of the ropes as a wick. It will take a long time to burn off, if I’m careful.”
Tiero lit one end of his rope. The rope swayed, or maybe his hands shook, and the tiny flame didn’t provide ample illumination, but at least he could see. The tunnel was narrow—they would have to go single file—but the floor was even, as if smoothed by years of flowing water. Was it an abandoned underground riverbed? No water trickled anywhere now. They would’ve heard it in the silence of the tunnel.
“I wonder where it leads,” Tiero said quietly. His voice seemed too loud.
Eurist shrugged, his face taut, his mouth bracketed by lines of pain. “Does it matter?” He was leaning heavily on the wall.
“No. Do you need time to rest? Your wound must pain you?”
Eurist snorted. “I don’t think my wound will heal in the next few hours, and we don’t have food or water. Not much fuel for your fire aside from our two ropes either. We’d better find an exit soon. Let’s go, Tiero. I’ll walk as long as I have to.” He pushed himself off the wall.
“Fine.” Tiero started walking. The small fire at the end of his rope burned merrily, throwing uneven shadows around them. He could see only about a yard in front of him, enough not to stumble. Every now and then, he played out the rope; it burned slowly but steadily. What would they do when both ropes were gone? He didn’t want to think about it.
Eurist limped behind him. Occasionally, a tiny moan or a curse escaped him, and his breathing grew labored, but he didn’t complain and didn’t slow down.
“Why were you traveling to the capital, Tiero?” Eurist asked suddenly. “You said you’re a clerk. Where?”
“I work for the magistrate in the capital,” Tiero replied. He licked his dry lips. How long had they walked already. He was terribly thirsty, and Eurist must feel even worse. What if he collapsed of his wound? What would they do then? Tiero couldn’t carry him—the soldier was bigger than Tiero. He pushed the disturbing thought away.
“I was sent to collect certain documents in the provinces,” he continued. “Spent all spring away from home. I was just coming back. The witches probably burnt all my papers.”
“Damn witches!” Eurist spat. “They’re becoming a menace, setting their ambush this close to the capital. If we come out of this stinking hole alive, I’ll talk to the council myself. They should’ve killed all the witches years ago instead of exiling them.”
“What do you mean, why? Because the witches’ minds are poisoned by magic.”
“Why is it when a man has magic, he is gifted, but when a woman has magic, she is poisoned?” Tiero asked softly. He had never expressed his opinion about witches openly—it might’ve cost him his job with the magistrate—but he always thought that expelling witches from the city was a bad idea. Now, when he faced death, perhaps it was time to say what he thought. “If the College accepted them for teaching instead of banishing them from the city, the witches wouldn’t have to steal and kill. They just want to survive.”
“They can’t handle magic. They are females. Their brains are not equipped for such a heavy load.”
“Who said? The College magi? The old farts are just jealous of the women’s power. From what I could see during their ambush, they can handle their magic fine. They did win a skirmish with you and your men. And you all carried magical amulets, didn’t you? Issued by the College?”
“Yeah, we did,” Eurist grumbled. “Much good they did us. Are you turning the witches’ advocate?”
“Not really. It’s just…” Tiero hesitated before continuing. Every instinct of his warned him to keep his mouth shut, but he was tired of always agreeing with the pompous magistrates, always pretending to be a complacent little clerk.
“They’re different, that’s all,” he said after a lengthy pause. “I’m not saying what they do is right. Violence and murder are never right. I’m not even sure I’ll survive their attack but I know that it’s not easy being different. The College shouldn’t have pushed the council to outlaw them. It’s the wrong law, the immoral law. The witches are forced into a life of crime if they want to live. You would’ve done the same, if someone outlawed you.”
Eurist shuffled for a while in silence. “Maybe,” he grunted at last. “Would you?”
Tiero grinned although Eurist behind him couldn’t see it. “I would’ve become a thief.” As he had been before, he added to himself. He didn’t voice that last codicil aloud. “I would never kill. I never have. I don’t know if I can.”
“Everyone can if pushed far enough,” Eurist said. “How much rope do you have left?”
Tiero would rather discuss the witches. Contemplating his shrinking rope and how far they still had to go was scary. He felt nauseous as he thought back. When they started, the rope had been coiled across his shoulder five times. Or six. Now, only three coils remained.
“We’ll walk some more, and then we’ll rest,” Eurist said.
Tiero didn’t argue. His stomach ached, and his mouth was dry. The tunnel stretched unchanged in front and behind them. What would happen when their hunger became unbearable? The thirst? The little flame at the end of his rope was his only point of hope. What would happen when both ropes burned out?
When he heard the singing he thought at first it was a hallucination, darkness playing tricks on them.
Eurist put a hand on his shoulder to stop him. “Do you hear?” Eurist’s fingers dug into Tiero’s flesh. “Let me go first.”
So the song wasn’t a hallucination. It even got louder.
“You’re wounded, Eurist,” Tiero objected.
Eurist didn’t listen. He pushed past Tiero and kept going into the murky depth of the tunnel, disregarding the darkness, as if the beautiful song pulled him in.
“Wait. What’s the rush?” With his burning rope swinging, Tiero hastened after Eurist. “Eurist, it might be dangerous. Slow down. You don’t know who is singing or why.”
Eurist didn’t seem to hear. If he wasn’t limping so badly he would’ve been running. As it was, his desperate, jerky hobble was painful to watch. Despite his injury, he was getting away.
“Stop, damn you!” Tiero sprinted. So far, the tunnel hadn’t had any sharp turns but it bent slightly now and again, snaking its way through the rock. The singer was hidden by the upcoming bend, and Tiero had a premonition that he shouldn’t allow his companion behind that bend unescorted. A faint light emanated from the bend as well, and the song weaved around the light, beguiling and beckoning, resonating in the narrow tunnel.
They turned the bend together and stepped into a narrow cavern. Panting from his spurt of speed, Tiero jumped in front of Eurist, thrusting his burning rope in the officer’s face. “Stop!”
At the far side of the cavern, the singer, a woman with long shining white hair—the source of the light—lounged beside a gurgling stream. Her hair concealed her face and pooled around her like a silvery puddle. She lifted her arms at them, and the song became a triumphant hymn, rising to the ceiling and bouncing off the walls. Pale twisted waves of magic shimmered around the woman.
She was not a woman at all, Tiero realized with horror. She was a water nix, a vodianitsa, luring Eurist with her song, as her sisters, sea sirens, lured countless sailors to their doom.
“Out of my way, clerk.” Eurist pushed at Tiero’s chest. His eyes were glazed, his fists bunched. He swayed and staggered determinedly forward, ready to plow through Tiero. He would have if he was at full strength. Fortunately, he was not. Wounded and exhausted, he teetered on his faltering leg.
“Stop, idiot!” Tiero yelled. “She is an undine. She’ll kill you.” He had never seen an undine before, of course, but he had heard stories. Everyone who lived on the seashore heard those stories. Why wasn’t the siren’s song affecting him? He didn’t feel any compulsion to get closer, while Eurist didn’t seem to hear anything but the song.
“I must get to her,” the officer mumbled, his eyes glued to the undine by her stream. He shoved at Tiero with all his might and swung his fist.
Tiero ducked. Eurist was crazed. The song had him in thrall. If Tiero let him go, the undine would kill the man. Even wounded, he was stronger than Tiero and he was an experienced fighter. Unable to think of any other way to stop Eurist, Tiero kicked his wound. The injured leg collapsed, and Eurist went down, roaring like a wild animal. His head collided with the stone floor of the cavern, and his tortured scream cut off.
Tiero gasped. “I hope I didn’t kill you. I’m sorry, Eurist, but I had to stop you.” He dropped to his knees beside his unconscious companion. Eurist was still breathing, although he was bleeding from a gash in his head.
“See what you have done.” Tiero tossed an angry glance at the undine. Oblivious, she kept on singing, her sweet trills and tremolos echoing in the cavern, creating an elaborate silken tapestry of music, but Tiero didn’t care. “Shut up, would you!” he snapped.
He needed to dress Eurist’s head wound. Stripping off his undershirt, Tiero bound the wound. Then he climbed to his feet.
His burning rope fell down during their scuffle. The fire was still hissing, and Tiero stepped on it to kill the flames. No point in wasting the rope. The undine’s coruscating hair gave off enough illumination. Cautiously, he approached her. Not too close though. He eyed her suspiciously, ready to jump back, if she lunged at him.
She didn’t. She stopped singing and regarded him from behind her pale curtain of hair.
“Why can you resist my song?” she asked in a lilting, flowing voice.
“I don’t know,” Tiero said. “Maybe because I’m a clerk. Maybe because I have a smudge of magic. Or maybe because I don’t like girls.”
She lifted her head at that. Behind her gorgeous hair, her face wasn’t pretty. Her features vaguely resembled a fish, and her mouth was filled with pointed teeth, like a pike.
“You shouldn’t have stopped him,” she said
“You were going to kill him.”
“That’s not the reason to kill a man,” Tiero said. Although that was exactly the reason a band of witches had attacked their carriage earlier. Because they were hungry. But they didn’t have a choice, while this nix did. Didn’t she? “Why don’t you get into your stream and eat some fish or whatever undines eat?”
“I can’t. I’m chained. I can only swim a few yards. Besides, men taste better.”
Tiero shook his head. “Who chained you?”
“Witches,” she said resentfully.
“They want to use my stream. Sometimes they take a boat to the river.” She gestured behind her, and as she half-turned, Tiero noticed a small boat tied to a bronze ring protruding from the rock. Her tail flipped nervously under her hair, its scales glittering.
“You can get to the river from here?” Tiero asked, dizzy with hope.
“All the way to the sea,” she confirmed. “I’m not supposed to let humans use my stream; I’m its guardian, but I don’t have a choice. The women chained me, and now I must serve them. They send me men periodically, so I don’t starve. When your friend wakes up, he’ll come to me, and I’ll eat him. Then, the women will come, and I’ll eat you.” She stretched her fish mouth in a hideous grimace.
Must be a smile, Tiero thought disgustedly. He stared at her, his thoughts whirling. That’s why the witches’ parting words were what they were. That’s why they didn’t kill Eurist and himself. They dropped the men into that hole in the ground knowing that their beleaguered captives would eventually discover the tunnel and come upon the undine—her fresh dinner delivered on schedule, on their own feet.
“Why don’t you eat the women who chained you?” he asked.
“Women don’t taste right. And they’re impervious to my song. Like you.”
He chuckled. “If women were sailors, no siren would ever entice a ship to its doom.”
“Good for us humans wouldn’t let women sail.” She sniffed. “You don’t smell right either, almost like a woman.”
“Probably because I like men,” Tiero said. He couldn’t suppress a grin. Once in his life, his sexual oddity worked for him. “What if I unchain you? Would you let me and my companion use the boat?”
Her mouth opened, revealing the horrible teeth, and her protuberant eyes glinted. “You can unlock the chain? You have the key?”
“I don’t have the key but I might be able to pick the lock. You have to promise not to eat me though.”
She cocked her head to the side. “But I’m hungry. Can I eat your friend?”
“No. None of us, if you want my help,” he said sternly. Why did he even bargain with her? For all he knew, a vodianitsa didn’t have to keep her promise to a human. She might lie to him just to get him free her, but on the other hand, what other choice did he have? He was hungry too, and according to the nix, the witches would be coming soon, and then both he and Eurist would be dead anyway. He pressed on. “Do I have your promise that you won’t harm either of us?”
“Yesss,” she hissed. She sounded irate, totally unlike her previously mellifluous singing voice. “If you free me from the chain, I promise you and your friend a safe passage along my stream this one time.”
“Deal,” Tiero said and stepped towards her. Pulse pounded in his veins. Would she pounce? Would she drag him to the bottom of her stream? Devour him alive? He spared a momentary glance at Eurist, but the officer didn’t twitch. Tiero was on his own. He resolutely turned his attention back to the vodianitsa. “Where is the chain lock?”
She lifted the shining mass of her hair and pulled it to one side. Her body above the scales of her tail was sleek and pale, with no breasts or any other protuberances. She didn’t have a waist either. A wide bronze fetter linked to a thick chain fastened around her long neck, below the thin slits of her gills. The other end of the chain dropped into the water. The fetter obviously chafed her, and the unhealthy swollen redness circled her white neck under the metal.
“Gods,” Tiero muttered. “You poor creature. That must hurt. I’m sorry.”
“Why are you sorry? You didn’t do it.”
“Nobody should’ve done it to you.”
“You’re strange. Can you unlock it?”
Tiero knelt beside her, lifted his jerkin, and withdrew his lockpicks from the travel pouch at his waist. He selected the smallest pick, inserted it into the tiny keyhole, and the skills he hadn’t practiced for two years flooded back, as if he had picked his last lock yesterday. Even his hands stopped shaking. His faint fear that the lock might have been be-spelled didn’t realize. It made sense. The nix was a magical creature. If her restraints were magical in nature, she would’ve dismantled them herself long ago. No, it was a simple lock. It took him only a few moments, before the tumblers clicked.
She didn’t move while he worked. Neither her skeletal, webbed hands nor her gorgeous hair stirred. Tiero pulled his tool out of the hole and slowly removed the bronze cuff from her neck. No magical trap bit him. He dropped the cuff beside her, scrambled to his feet, and stepped away.
“You’re free,” he said.
She shivered. Her hair spread around her again, she opened her mouth and began to sing, but it was a different song. Its liquid notes rose to the ceiling. She didn’t try to entice anyone anymore. She was celebrating her freedom. Then, between one melodious arabesque and the next, she disappeared into her stream in a lithe silvery dive, while the last twirl of her song echoed faintly between the walls. A small wave splashed onto the stone shore beside the chain with its vacant fetter. The cavern plunged into darkness, except for the stream that seemed to retain the faint glow of her hair.
“Dumb nix! Don’t you know I can’t see in the dark?” More by touch than by vision, Tiero stumbled towards his abandoned rope, ignited it again, and put it on a rock shelf. Then, panting and swearing from unaccustomed exertions, he dragged Eurist’s unconscious body into the boat.
Undoing the nautical knot of the rope took some time, but eventually, he did it, grabbed a single paddle from the bottom of the boat, and pushed them into the stream. His rope torch twinkled behind his back, until a bend in the stream cut the light off.
He almost missed it, when the boat slipped into the open river from the underground stream. It was just as dark outside, but the air abruptly felt fresh and infinite. And when he looked up, stars winked overhead, the tiny bursts on the velvety darkness of the sky. The undine had kept her word and granted them a safe passage.
By now, Tiero was so tired he couldn’t even rejoice. Eurist still hadn’t woken up, and Tiero wanted to sleep too. He couldn’t do anything anyway. He rested the paddle on the bottom, sighed, and closed his eyes. The river current rocked the boat gently and crooned its timeless lullaby.
In the morning, Eurist woke up, grumpy and uncommunicative. No surprise: the man was obviously in agony. He had the right to be upset. Without much talking, they moored the boat at a small village, breakfasted at the local tavern, and hired a carter to convey them to the city, a few hours away.
“What happened?” Eurist asked at last, as the cart rambled along a narrow, rutty road.
Tiero told him everything, omitting only his lockpicks. Eurist didn’t need to know, so Tiero lied. He said there was a key on a ledge, where the undine couldn’t reach. It might’ve been the truth. There might’ve been a key. He hadn’t looked.
Eurist shook his head. “How could I be so idiotic?”
“The undine’s song bewitched you. You couldn’t help it.”
“Why didn’t it overcome you?”
Reluctantly, Tiero explained, “I think because I don’t like girls. She said I don’t smell right.” He waited for Eurist to utter a cutting remark, to show his revulsion, to avert his gaze. Even though homosexuality wasn’t against the law in the city, most people disliked it.
Eurist didn’t look away, just nodded quietly. “Ah. Lucky for me.”
Surprised by his easy acceptance, Tiero blurted, “I’m sorry I kicked you.”
“You saved my life. I owe my life to a heroic clerk.” Eurist’s grin turned lopsided. “Go figure. Should’ve been the other way around. Thank you.”
Not only didn’t the officer despise him. He thanked him, and Tiero’s ears heated up in embarrassment. He didn’t deserve Eurist’s gratitude. “I couldn’t just let her eat you. I didn’t do anything heroic.”
“I disagree. You approached her. You put your hands on her neck. Weren’t you afraid she would bite your head off despite her promise?”
“Of course I was. Witless. But there was no other choice.”
“That’s what a hero means. Scared or not, he does what’s necessary. There is a dashing hero hidden beneath your clerical jerkin.”
“Nothing is hidden beneath my jerkin,” Tiero said gruffly. Except his lockpicks. He stared at the woods rippling in the breeze alongside the road and couldn’t quite suppress a smile. It felt nice being a hero.
Olga Godim is a writer from Vancouver, Canada. Her short stories have been published in multiple internet and print magazines plus several anthologies. One of her stories, FLOWER CONSULTANT, was published last year in Aurora Wolf. Her fantasy novels ALMOST ADEPT and EAGLE EN GARDE were released in 2014 by Champagne/Burst. In 2015, EAGLE EN GARDE won EPIC eBook Award in the Fantasy category.