by Lawrence Buentello
Apphia watched from where she sat on the side of the hill as the soldiers returned.
She knew they would return when she sent the first soldier away. Now more soldiers walked toward her flanking another man, certainly their leader, for he wore a red cape slung over his shoulders and walked with the posture of someone in full command of his authority.
She glanced behind herself toward the mouth of the cave that was her home. Her two young daughters were hiding in its shadows. Then she felt along her hip for the small piece of stone hidden in a secret seam, let her hand linger over the object for a moment, and finally returned both hands to the work in which they had been employed before the soldiers’ return.
She continued flaking at the soft piece of stone in her lap with a sharp granite awl even as the soldiers settled in a half-circle around her.
When she gazed up she saw the soldier with the red cape standing before her, his face as dry and unyielding as the flint in her hand. He was a man her own age, and as hardened by a military life as she had been hardened by a life in the wilderness.
She turned her head to stare at all the soldiers before her, most young and strong, dressed in helmets, cuirass, and greaves. Several held spears at their sides, though such a show of force against one woman seemed unworthy of their parade.
“Stand before the Hipparch,” one of the soldiers announced.
She remained seated on her stone perch.
The man in the red cape waved a hand at the soldier and the man fell silent. “What is your name?” he asked her.
She stared into his eyes, which shone a perfect blue. “I am Apphia,” she said calmly, “of the hills.”
“I am Halius, commander of these men. And of the ranks of men that wait for us below these hills.”
She returned her attention to the piece of soft stone in her hand and began pressing the tip of the awl into the indentation she’d already begun. “What do you want, commander?”
“I want the same as the man who first came to you,” he said sternly, though she didn’t see his expression.
She looked up from her work then, shaking her head. “Then I’ll tell you as I told him. I’ll not give you what you want.”
“You’ll give me what I tell you to give me,” he said, leaning closer. “I command an army, and a single woman of the hills will obey me as every man in my ranks. Do you understand, Apphia?”
“No,” she said.
“You are maddened by the sun! Don’t you know that I could cut your throat with the dagger from my belt and leave you bleeding in the earth? Or have you no love of mortality?”
She glanced at the Hipparch’s hip where a shining dagger hung looped. Then she stared into his eyes and said, “I cannot give you what you ask for, even on pain of death.”
Halius leaned back, and she thought she recognized the faintest smile on his lips. Then he waved at his men again. “Captain!”
“Yes, Commander,” spoke the soldier who had told Apphia to stand.
“Take these men a hundred paces down the path and take rest,” Halius said. “Watch that no one comes or leaves.”
Without questioning the purpose of leaving his commander alone with the woman, the captain of the men marched the soldiers down the path for a hundred paces. Apphia watched as they set down their spears and sat in the grass along the path. Any one of these men could have easily killed her, and now she wondered why the Hipparch had sent his men away.
When they were alone Halius said, “I know what you are doing with that stone.”
“I’m merely making a trinket for trade,” she said. She felt her heart beat faster, but refused to let her concern blossom on her face.
“I believe what you are making is for trade,” he said, holding his cape as he sat heavily on another stone. “But it’s not a trinket.”
“That’s all it is,” she said, folding the stone into her robe. “What else could it be?”
“Foolish woman. Do you take me for some ignorant farmer? I’m a civilized man, the leader of an army that will soon engage his enemy in battle. My men have been scouting these lands for weeks, interrogating the people of the villages, learning their secrets. The people told my men your secret, Apphia.”
“I don’t know what secret you mean.”
“You’re a maker of talismen. Very special talismen.”
“The people who seek your services don’t share your indifference to mortality,” he said. “They comply with my commands rather easily when pressed. They told my men that you were a witch woman who carves idols of gods. They told my men that your craft brings the gods to the one in possession of the idol. Why would they lie, Apphia?”
She sat unable to speak. The Hipparch had spoken the truth, though she was unwilling to confirm it. Yes, she did carve idols, each talisman bringing the blessings of the god bearing its likeness.
After her husband had died and left her alone with their daughters, she kept his priestly duties alive in her own work, but she was not a witch. She was as much priestess as her husband had been priest. She imbued the stones she carved with the ability to invoke the power of the gods, but only for the good of the people who traded for her skills. She had carved idols for men who needed to find a pure well, or to heal a sick spouse or child; she had carved idols whose power deflected the predators of the wilds, idols that kept livestock fertile, or gave good tidings to farmers’ crops.
She would not give the Hipparch what he wanted—the talisman of a god of war to take with him into battle.
To kill was evil—to commit violence on another was to abuse the blessings of the gods. She would only use her skills to bless those in need of benevolence.
“I see by your eyes that I speak the truth,” Halius said. “Now I’ll tell you once more. You’ll carve for me a powerful talisman, one that will cause a god to rise up before my cavalry and destroy any army that opposes it. One that will rise at my command, destroy whoever I fight, and becalm at my behest.”
Halius reached out and gripped her arm. He was a strong man, and she winced at the pressure he applied. “You’ll do this for me now.”
“Kill me, if that is your pleasure,” Apphia said. “I’ll not invoke the powers of an evil god.”
Halius released her, laughing. “No, I suppose you won’t. A woman who tempts the wrath of gods no doubt has the will of a dedicated soldier.”
“I’ll not summon the powers of evil,” she said again.
“Why not? What ethics has a witch?”
“I’m not an evil woman. I use my skills only for people who truly need the benevolence of the gods. Like my husband, who died at the hands of men like you in the metropolis, I’m in this world to help bless the people, not curse them. Go away from me now, or kill me if that is your decision, but I’ll not do as you desire.”
“Very well,” Halius said, standing. He let his stately red cape fall impressively over his shoulders again. “But as I said, my men have been scouting these hills for weeks. They reported on every man and woman they observed. They watched you, too, Apphia.”
Her heart beat even faster, and she stood awkwardly, letting the unfinished idol tumble to the dirt.
“I know you don’t live in these hills alone,” he said as he glanced at the mouth of the cave. He nodded, then raised an arm toward the men resting down the path. “Attend!”
At once the men rose and ran up the path, and before Apphia could react the Hipparch had commanded the soldiers to enter the cave and retrieve Apphia’s daughters. The captain of the soldiers held Apphia still as the soldiers forced her daughters into the sunlight. They cried in fear, and Apphia tried calming them, telling them not to be afraid; but then Halius commanded the soldiers to take the two young girls down the hill and away from their mother.
Apphia struggled against the prison of the captain’s arms, crying out, but she could do nothing else. When her daughters were gone, and Halius stood before her again, she ceased crying and stared at him sadly.
“I told you that I’m a civilized man,” he said. “But my patience is at an end. Tomorrow morning we will return with your daughters, and in exchange for their return you will hand to me a carven idol of the nature I desire. Otherwise, you’ll have the pleasure of watching your daughters die for your piety. Do you understand?”
“Release her,” he said, waving to the captain.
Apphia stood unable to speak. What could she do?
“I’m a man who must soon attend to his duty,” Halius said, turning. “Now attend to your duty, Apphia. Should my men or I see you before the morning, your daughters will die. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Apphia said, staring at the ground, her heart broken.
She raised her head and watched the Hipparch and the captain of the soldiers disappear down the hill. Then, wiping the tears from her eyes, she began surveying the hillside for an appropriate stone to carve.
Apphia watched the soldiers walk up the hill again, the Hipparch leading several men, and her own beautiful daughters behind them flanked by armed guards.
She sat on her stone perch with the terrible idol in her lap wrapped in a cloth. She couldn’t bear seeing the grotesque features of the idol the muses had guided her hand to carve. She had pondered half the night before finally beginning her work, the thought of betraying her oath to the gods weighing heavily on her heart. She, herself, was willing to die to preserve the purity of her craft; but she couldn’t bear to think of her daughters dying before they had an opportunity to enjoy their lives. If she were true to the gods she should have sacrificed their lives for the sake of her oath, but she simply couldn’t see them die.
She had labored the rest of the night by torchlight, scraping at the pitted stone while whispering dark prayers to diabolical spirits. When she had finished carving the stone, the idol lay in her hands like an ember. She bore blisters on her palms, and the shadow of evil spirits nestled in her heart—once she had sought their assistance, she no longer held only the benevolent powers in her soul, but mixed in the blackness of cruel and violent deities. She wept for this loss of innocence, but accepted the sacrifice if it meant her daughters’ lives.
Halius motioned to the soldiers to stop along the path before walking alone to where she sat. A grim smile found his lips. “You’ve done as I told you?”
She stared down at her lap and nodded.
“And you assure me this talisman will raise a god that will obey my commands?”
She nodded again.
“Then give it to me now.”
Apphia pulled the cloth from the stone and raised it in her blistered hand, her eyes averted. “I cannot look at it,” she said. “Take it.”
She felt the Hipparch take the idol from her hand.
“It is a hideous thing,” Halius said. “Do you swear that it will raise a god at my command?”
Apphia looked up into his eyes. “Yes. By the command I give you, it will rise up from the earth, and by another command it will return from where it came.”
“What are these commands?”
“They are unharmed.”
“I’ll release them when you tell me how to invoke the god’s power.”
Apphia glanced down the path to where her daughters stood, knowing she still had a chance to refuse the commander’s demands. She should have; but Apphia couldn’t bear to see the children of her body slain for the sake of someone else’s war.
She bade Halius bend to her, and then she whispered the incantations in his ear. The words bruised her throat as she spoke them, reminded her that she would never be of noble heart again.
When he was satisfied that he remembered the commands, he stood, then said to her, “As much as I would like to take you at your word, you’ll pardon me if I fear your betrayal.”
Apphia rose, her arms outstretched. “I’ve given you the idol!” she cried. “Release my daughters!”
“Not before I test your fidelity. My men have been instructed to slay your daughters the moment they bear witness to your deceit. If you’ve been true to me, then you have nothing to fear.”
In a moment, Halius had spoken the incantation to raise the spirit of the god that the idol had given him the power to command. The earth shook, and an immense creature rose up from the dust, an appalling phantasm bearing the terrible eyes and obscene mouth of the carven idol; it billowed into an undulating, amorphous black cloud, and growled like a hundred dogs. The apparition lingered in the air, as Halius and his men crouched in horror, but it remained at rest, waiting for Halius’ commands.
Halius then offered the incantation for the spirit to return to the earth, and the apparition vanished.
“I spoke the truth,” Apphia said, wiping her eyes free of the tears she cried when the spirit arose. “Release my daughters!”
Halius waved an arm at his men.
Then the guards finally released Apphia’s daughters, and her daughters ran crying to her side.
She embraced them in tears, kissing them and reassuring them that their trials were nearly over. But she was so distracted by her daughters’ return that she didn’t notice Halius walking back down the path to where his soldiers stood. Nor did she see him raise the hideous idol above his head and turn to face her in the morning light.
“I’m sorry, Apphia,” he said loudly, his voice echoing through the hills, “but I cannot leave you to assist all those who would oppose me.”
Apphia gazed up from between her daughters, seeing the idol raised high over Halius’ head, filled with terror. “Run to the cave,” she told them, pushing them away from herself. “Run now! Run! Run!”
But her daughters wouldn’t leave her side.
Again the earth shook, and as Apphia grasped her daughters and began running toward the cave the dreadful spirit once again spiraled up from the ground. She heard the Hipparch’s words shouting over the roar of the deity, even as she pulled wildly at the stone hidden in the seam of her robe.
By the time she’d pulled the small stone into her hand and began whispering to it, the evil god had sloughed up the hill, raising a torrent of dust and rocks like a thunderstorm. She heard her daughters screaming, but could see nothing in the clouds of dust, then she knelt and prayed for salvation over the small idol she always carried with her, the last vestige of a pure god. But because her heart had been corrupted by her alliance with evil spirits, the benevolent god to which she prayed failed to hear her words.
At last she was struck by flying stones and fell to the ground, losing her sense of her daughters, of the hillside, of the world.
Apphia wasn’t certain why she had survived.
Perhaps the evil god had let her live because she had brought it into the world, or perhaps she was fated to live with her sins. Or perhaps she was fated for another purpose.
She buried her daughters, cursing Halius’ name as she scooped dirt on their flesh and memories. Then slowly, very slowly, once her wounds had healed, she cleared the cave and hillside path of the debris cast through the air by the dreadful god. Long days passed, and longer nights, then weeks. She no longer carved talismen for the people. She no longer prayed. She only sat on her perch on the hillside gazing down the path from where the soldiers had come, wishing she had made a different choice.
But she had made her choice, and now her daughters were dead, and her heart blackened by hatred.
One morning, when she felt her strength had returned, she ceased staring down the hillside path. She turned on her perch and gazed up at the side of the hill. She studied every crack and crevice before rising to her feet and searching for a large piece of flint, the largest she had ever pulled from the earth, and began carefully flaking it into an axe.
When the axe was finally shaped, she walked up the side of the hill, fell to her knees, and began dropping the implement into the rocky soil, over and over again, in dark meditation.
Her virtue was gone, but not her resolve.
She knew it might take years to hew a pair of hideous eyes in the side of the hill, and a gaping mouth full of obscene curses; she knew it might take years to sculpt an enormous face, a profoundly evil face, on the side of the hill. But she was dedicated to her craft.
And when Apphia was finished, she would invoke the spirit of a god, an immense, and immensely supreme god, to unleash its wrath on Halius and his men, and all the other armies of the world.
* * *
Lawrence Buentello is a writer and poet living in San Antonio, Texas. He is the author of over 90 published short stories.
Where do you get the ideas for your stories?
Most writers tend to shrug at this question, or bow to the muse, but after writing for many years I’ve come to a different conclusion about the origin of story ideas. Writers of fiction invariably think in terms of story, either while reading other writers’ fiction or when drafting their own, so much so that their minds become trained in seeing the world in fictional terms. Once this faculty has become ingrained in the way the writer sees the world, any idea at all can find its way into this perceptual template and shape itself into narrative. Ideas, then, are simply pieces of ordinary information transformed by the writer’s mental tendency to see dramatic structure in all things. There is a little magic in this, too, lying in the unexamined parts of the mind; magic that can transform the ordinary into the fantastic.