by Ryan S. O’Malley
I was seven when they executed the last hero. The day had been sunny and there had been a cool breeze to calm the milling crowd. My child’s mind waited only for a flash of color and the gentle sounds of the songbirds. So engrossed in my bird watching was I, that the rising noise of the crowd passed my notice. Only the people’s cheer made me turn to see a bloodied man being lead onto a platform. Not knowing what all the fuss was about, I joined in with the cheering, thinking the man to be some sportsman who would grace us with a speech. I kept yelling with the rest as they forced him to his knees. I joined in the frenzied screams as the man in black, sharpened his axe. I stood rapt with the rest as the charges were read.
I fell silent when the head rolled.
Years later it was said that the crowd had quickly dispersed and that all that remained when the man in black was through was a patch of red stained earth and a shallow grave. In my memory the crowd remained, the echoes of their mindless chants and screams forever bound to that place. I stood their staring where the kneeling man had been until the cold of the setting sun awoke me to the world. I was alone with only the birds’ calls to accompany me home. Their calls were harsher than before. Gone were the songs of the larks; in their stead were the croaks of the scavengers.
On my journey home I wondered why they had killed the kneeling man. I had heard whispers of the hunts and stories of men and women being found and brought to the chopping block. Whenever I had asked about it the older ones had told me that at my age it was none of my concern and to let the big people take care of it. I had been naïve then and my memory short so the whole matter of secret trials and bloody deaths slipped my mind to be replaced by chasing games and fanciful tales.
Now those blissful distractions could gain no purchase in my mind. Now that it had seen death. My thoughts were a swirling mass of thoughts and emotions crying together in one thought. Why? I later discovered that the man had saved a girl from bandits, that he had helped a newly crippled man plow his fields. When I learned of the man’s actions I remembered the charges that had been read that could scarcely be heard above the roaring crowd. The man in black had said that the man had aided others without repayment. For that, he must be put to death.
When I reached home my parents scolded me for being late, but they softened when they learned where I had been. They put me to bed and I heard them whisper that I had seen death too soon. Mad times they had said. Mad times. That day is the first in my memory. Snippets remain of what came before, but all have to do with the whispers of hunts and purges. Before that day, there is only a color-filled blur, a time of impossible joy and untouched peace. After that day, my thoughts are filled with the horrors that came when there were no heroes to stop them.
A family butchered in their homes for a few coins; twenty homes burned to the ground for pleasure or warmth no one knew; diseased people roaming the streets, dead walking who all turned away. Mad times everyone called it. Mad times. No word was said to comfort the bereaved, no aid to those who had been wronged, with the sick left to die in the gutter drowning in filth as they tried to get one last drink. When I was still a boy I thought that the big people would take care of it. Then one day I saw a woman murdered in the town square and no one lifted a finger. The echoes of her screams joined the chants inside my head.
When I became a man, I thought the soldiers and the man in black would help. After a long journey, I had re-entered the city and saw a man being robbed and beaten. At that moment, the soldiers were passing by, the man in black at their head. The beaten man pleaded with the soldiers begging them to help.
“Do you have coin?” the man in black had asked.
“I’m being robbed.” the man said, the blows of his assailants raining down harder than before.
“Do you have coin?” the man in black had said again.
“Please.” was all the man could say.
The man in black had turned away and he and the soldiers left. That man’s pleading joined with the woman’s screams and the chanting crowd to fill in the haunted song in my soul.
Made old, I thought that I would help. A drunk had fallen on his face in a puddle of his own vomit and was choking to death. I moved to help but a person in the crowds pulled me back.
“Remember the heroes,” he said.
“But he will die,” I replied.
“Remember the heroes,” he said again, as he rejoined the crowd. I turned to look and the drunk was dead, one more voice snuffed out, whose burden it was mine to carry. At last, I thought that a hero must help, but they too were gone.
So I became one with the crowd. Like the others, I passed right by the screams and begging. I shook my head at terrible news and muttered under my breath that they were mad times. Mad times. Like the rest, I told those ready to help to remember the heroes. Unlike the rest, the voices stayed with me.
Every waking minute and every terror-filled dream was filled with their voices. The anguished cries of parents bereft of children and the screams of children left without care. The sobs of lovers over the cold forms of their beloved and old widows left to die alone. Like a ghoulish choir their voices filled me until I was but a vessel for their pain.
I was sixty when a hero saved a family. The news hit like an earthquake, as word of the deed spread throughout the town. The man in black was one of the first to hear and he began the hunt. There was little need, for the hero stepped forward, a coin held in his fingers.
“The family paid,” the hero said to the man in black. By no amount of insistence could the man in black get the family to say anything different. With a glare, the man in black had walked away, leaving the hero in peace. The crowd cheered for the man and carried him through the city streets.
For months the hero saved people and the man in black came for him. Every time the hero held the same coin and the people he rescued told the same story. No longer were the times mad and no longer did one have to remember the heroes. For now the Coin-bearers guarded the city, for now peace returned.
I remember well the day the first of the Coin-bearers banished the man in black from the city, the crowd throwing coins as the man in black fled. Those were the good years, the times when the voices quieted and I slept easy at night. Like my childhood, those days became to me a bright wave of peace.
Like my childhood, the peace ended in blood. The first of the Coin-bearers had told the crowd that the man in black was gathering an army and that he had sworn to burn the city to the ground. The crowd had panicked at the news and it was all the Coin-bearers could do to quiet the shouts. Then the first Coin-bearer had spoken of sacrifices that would have to be made, of the defenses that would have to be built and the training that would have to be completed. As he spoke the crowd had slowly grown silent until all that could be heard was the voice of the first Coin-bearer. That one voice said that defenders needed to rise up and protect this weak city. He had said we needed heroes.
I wonder still, if he had said some other word, if the bloodshed would still have occurred. At that word the crowd would have no more; the mad times were over, the man in black was gone and so too must the heroes go. In a rage, the crowd hunted the Coin-bearers tearing them limb from limb, burning them alive, cutting them to pieces. All of the Coin-bearers were killed, but the first. He, they brought to the edge of the city. He, they forced to his knees.
I ran when his head rolled.
The man in black came for everyone. I was outside the city when the fires started, atop a hill looking on. True to his word the man in black burned the city to the ground. Not a soul was left, the crowd was gone. I remember the blood filling the streets. I remember the roaring flames. But mostly I remember the voices.
Hundreds and thousands crying out to the heavens that did not send rain. The voices that had been stilled within me cried back in chorus; the voices of the dead welcoming the voices of the dying.
Some call me the gardener, because I tend to the flowers that grow on the crowd’s graves. Some call me the ghost because I guard the ruins like a specter of things that were lost. I call myself the Confessor, because I tell the world to remember the heroes.