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To Be a Hero

Liam is a London based writer and host of the award winning monthly literary event, Liars League. He was a finalist in Sci-Fest LA's Roswell Award 2015, and has had work published in Leap Books' Beware the Little White Rabbit #Alice150 anthology, and in Sci-Phi Journal. More at happyendingnotguaranteed.blogspot.co.uk.

"So," the crone said, looking up at the tall, muscular man holding a stout cherry-wood pole, "You want to be a Hero, do you?"
Her cackle was cut short as he shook his head and his wife stepped forward, a cloth covered bundle in her hands. "Wise woman," she said, tugging back the shawl to reveal a sleeping baby, a wisp of pale hair on his crown. "Please--it is not for us, it is for our son."
"A long term project, eh?" the crone chuckled. "Unswaddle him."
The woman did as she was asked and the crone took the babe in her lap, holding each tiny hand, each delicate foot, in turn.
"Well. The boy is healthy enough." She turned and skewered her two visitors with an icy stare. "If you want your son to be a Hero," she said, raising a crooked finger and pointing it at them, "then you will need... to die!"
There was a stunned silence, punctuated by a small cough. "Excuse me?" the father said.
"Orphans make the best heroes," she shrugged. "Everyone knows that."
"They do?" said the woman, unable to tear her fearful gaze from this aged and quite possibly deranged woman who was now clutching her only child.
"From infant wizards and caped crusaders to once and future kings, even Superman: all orphans." The crone stared at them expectantly.
The woman bit her lip and shook her head, her hand seeking that of her husband.
"Look," said the man, "Is that... strictly necessary?"
"Oh yes," the crone replied. "Think about it. What Hero has the chance to run to his mother, who'll comfort him and kiss it all better? Or can hide behind his father whenever something frightens him?"
The two parents stood in confused thought until the man shook his head. "I don't think--"
"Well," the crone cut him off, "How about if just one of you died?"
"I... erm--"
"--Preferably the mother?"
"The mother?" spluttered the father, tightening his grip on his stick.
"That way the father is a distant figure, blaming the infant for the death of the mother in childbirth. Though we might have missed that window of opportunity. Don't worry, sir!" the crone continued, "You can remarry! As long as the step-mother is particularly mean spirited and preferably has a brace of her own needy and brutish children."
"Isn't that Cinderella?" the mother croaked.
"Yes, yes, Cinderella and a dozen others. It works just as well on sons, trust me."
"I don't think either of us are prepared to die," the man said, firmly. "Perhaps... if we left him with a distant relative?" he suggested, though the look he got from his wife had him wishing he hadn't.
The crone appeared to think on this. "No, I'm afraid that won't work. Your son's quest will be to track you down, rather than rescuing fair maidens or fighting fearsome dragons. Also, it leaves the door open for you to return in a moment of high crisis and save the day. Death is preferable."
Again the two parents frowned and stayed silent. This wasn't going the way they had hoped.
"Suit yourself," the crone said, "Though it does make the whole 'Hero' thing a bit more difficult. Any Royal blood in him?"
The two of them shook their heads in concert.
"Pity. An attempt to reclaim a stolen throne usually works quite well. Any prophecies I should be aware of?"
"Erm, no," admitted the father.
"Hmm." It was the crone's turn to frown. "Look, don't take this the wrong way. You seem like nice people and obviously want the best for your son, but are you sure you want him to be a Hero?"
"Yes!" exclaimed the father.
"Why?" asked the crone.
"Well... because..." the woman began.
"Because 'Hero' is a Great and Noble thing to be!" completed the man. "Famous deeds, bravery, honor, a chance to win glory!"
"There are many professions that are noble," pointed out the crone. "Craftsman, teacher, leader. And 'great' is a measure of how well you do your chosen task, however humble."
The man's face darkened. "If you won't help us, wise woman, there are others..."
"Oh okay, fine. Keep your hair on. I'll see what I can do," the crone said.
The boy was awake now, his hands clasping and waving around. The crone stuck a couple of fingers into the nearest cauldron and rubbed a white, waxy substance on the infant's dry scalp while it cooed and squirmed in pleasure.
"Is that it?" the woman said doubtfully.
"Is that it?" echoed the crone. "No! Of course that's not it. You must also... tell your son he is a hero--ah yes! You must tell him that he is 'My Hero' whenever he is kind to you or to others. You must feed him well, so that he grows up big and strong. And you must tell him that you love him."
"Love him?" queried the mother.
"Yes. You do love him, don't you?"
The mother and father nodded, as the child gurgled and kicked its legs.
"Then that shouldn't be too difficult. Finally--and this is very, very important, possibly the most important of all--you must allow him to find his own way."
"And then he'll become a Hero?" asked the father.
"Yes, yes. Of course. He's bound to. Look at the way he's gripping my finger, a real Hercules in the making. Right, well, I think that's everything."
"Don't you have a magic sword, or a protective talisman, or something?"
The crone looked at him incredulously. "A magic sword? No, no... he won't need one of those. In fact, best keep swords and other sharp edges well away from him until he's fully grown. The, erm, magic is within, and will only be revealed when the time is right."
"Then thank you, wise woman," the mother said, bowing her head before eagerly reclaiming her child.
"De nada," replied the crone.
"How can we repay you?" said the father.
"Think nothing of..." the crone tailed off, thoughtfully. "Although... what did you have in mind?"
"We don't have much," admitted the mother.
"But you may take anything you desire," the father said.
"Anything?" the crone asked, eyeing the man's strong limbs and straight back.
Heroes, she snorted as she poured herself a cup of tea and replaced the lid on the cauldron of freshly prepared cold cream. It was getting harder and harder to convince parents what a stupid idea that was. Sure, heroes made for rousing tales, but role models? Really? Misogynistic, brittle tempered, muscle-brained oafs? Why didn't the parents ask for robust health instead? For happiness? For a solid career path that didn't involve trying to hunt and slay mythical creatures, or messily hacking to death other Heroes whose only crime was to be sporting a different colored shield?
Ah well, she thought as she cradled the warm cup in her frail hands, at least she'd gotten a nice new cherry-wood walking stick out of it.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, February 18th, 2016

Author Comments

I've always been somewhat distracted by the concept of Heroes, always thought they had life a little too easy. They're stronger, quicker, more talented and much, much luckier than we are. Blessed by the Gods. We know they're going to prevail, whatever the difficulties. So I was never going to write a story that went down that well trod path. Instead, I wondered what a parent might sacrifice for their child, and whether it would turn out to be quite such a good deal after all.

- Liam Hogan
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