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Hero

Frances Koziar has 80+ pieces of prose and poetry published in over 50 different literary magazines, and she is seeking an agent for NA high fantasy novels and diverse children's fairy tales (PBs). She is a young (disabled) retiree and a social justice advocate, and she lives in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Visit her website at franceskoziar.wixsite.com/author.

I was still a young woman in my thirties. An expert at the sword; a dabbler in enchantments. Someone lucky or unlucky enough to be the one to dig the princess out of the rubble that day when the old world fell and the rest of the royal family was killed. Someone lucky or unlucky enough to have had feelings of duty turn to admiration and admiration to love while we tried to save the world.
I slide my feet forward slightly, and shift my weight, my copper arms moving as slowly and fluidly as water in an old river. My sword slides softly through the air, parting it as easily as the portal once did, in this very spot.
The crater is beautiful, though most leaving the city walls are going somewhere, and don't linger to appreciate it. It is covered in grass now, where once there was bare, broken rock. A fountain stands in the center of the bowl, a statue of her, but I don't look at it.
I sweep the sword left, right, then spin in slow motion until my front foot is my back, and nearly all my weight is on one.
One old, nonbinary person watches me from one of the benches that surround the fountain, on the other side from where I'm moving through the form. Only the old burden themselves with the past.
The young still tell parts of the story, but only the unimportant parts that they find exciting. They speak of the great swirling portal that opened between this world and a world of demons, and grew larger and larger. They speak of a curse and a riddle and a princess who solved them at the last moment by sacrificing her life. Of the explosion that caused, that formed the crater outside the city walls. They might even speak of the princess' champion, who followed a hard-won path of corpses back to what remained of the city then. The champion who shook hands with people rejoicing for being saved, and couldn't find the words to speak and tell them that she had failed.
I bend my old, wiry legs into a squat, turn slowly, and rise up again. Above me, the sky is blue. It changed back, when the portal was destroyed. It changed back, and it was as if the horror of the year before had never been. As if the deaths were forgotten, and the seasons that followed the same as the seasons that came before.
I feel the grass beneath my feet, the rough fabric of my shirt against my wrinkled chest. My legs and arms burn, but I breathe, and flow, and dance. Not even her armor had been left behind: I had had nothing to hold on to through the years of bitter heartbreak and feeling lost that followed, through the years of hiding in the mountains to avoid being told I was a hero. It was several years before I finally mustered the courage to return home to her city, and it had been a spring day just like this one: sunny and bright and hopeful, as if life was always the beautiful thing you wanted it to be.
I breathe slowly, steadily, counting my exhales with the rhythm of my heart. I feel peaceful, and think it a wonder that movements of war can be peaceful when slowed down.
The remnants of the army and the city guard that survived with me that day are gone, and new, younger faces have taken their place. A new elected council rules in place of the royal lineage that was. She would have liked that.
"The blood of queens," the princess told me once, citing a line from that old riddle, "comes from destruction and colonialism. It comes from exploitation and abuse." She had dropped her strong bright eyes, as dark brown as her face, and murmured, "It is evil."
"You are not," I had told her that day, not yet aware what had changed within me. Not yet aware that she was my hope, my future, my cause, but aware that when she lifted her eyes to me with respect, admiration and a touch of wonder, it made me want to protect her all the more fiercely.
I sweep my sword over my head, listening to the steady water of the fountain. It is quieter in the crater, like a bubble of memory, but I can hear birds and the wind through the grass beyond it. The air is fresh and damp against my nostrils, the ground slightly soft from rains a few days past.
I slide into the final position: smoothly, surely, like the ending of all things. I straighten, sheath my old battered sword, and push a few strands of my white hair from my face. I had grown it out, after my years of fighting were done, and it too felt like a reservoir of memory. Maybe everything did, these days. That house. That wall. That fountain. That crater. All had decades of change piled on them, so many stories of people and anger and grief, layered like embroidery threads in a picture too large to see.
Silence roars in my head like a waterfall, as the people's joy had that day, but it is only one of so many memories I carry, like a chest full to bursting. I think of my wife, waiting back home, unable to walk around anymore, and I think I am ready to head home and see her. I take a deep breath, and feel content.
"Mistress," someone says from behind me before I take a step, and I turn to find the elder on their feet, their forehead dipping toward me and palms pressed to their heart in a gesture of respect. "Not many become mistresses of the sword anymore," they say with a wistful smile, but their eyes are twinkling in a friendly way, and I smile back.
They extend a hand as withered and blotchy as mine, and I take the coin they offer me. It is an old custom of goodwill: to pass someone a coin so that they can a make a wish in a fountain.
I look down at it for a moment. The coin is warm, as if the elder had been holding it for some time. "My wish is that we all might remember what is important, the young and the old," I say, my voice creaking like old floorboards, and the elder smiles as I flip the coin toward the princess' statue.
And for a moment, the sunlight sparks against it, like the dreams of youth.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, December 3rd, 2021


Author Comments

Many of my stories come out very close to their final form in the first draft, but "Hero" was the opposite. I wrote the first draft of "Hero" to help me process the grief I felt at the ending of the computer game "Oblivion" when (spoilers) the man you are working to save the whole game and who I came to respect as a person dies at the end and no one else is sad because they didn't know him and the world was saved. My first draft of "Hero" was actually narrated from the day of the calamity, as the main character struggles with her heartbreak and (perceived) failure, but it felt lackluster, generic even, and I wasn't able to fully capture the emotion I wanted to convey. A couple years of sitting on this piece and one failed rewrite later, I tried again. I was considering how under-represented old people are as main characters in fantasy, and the idea occurred to me to shift the telling of this piece to decades later. At last, and in one easy go, "Hero" finally came together. Rather than being a story about love and failure, it became about memory and age, the passing and perspective of time, and about the answers and the questions of life.

- Frances Koziar
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