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The Greatest of Heroes
Heroism is misunderstood. Everyone thinks the heroes are the ones who fearlessly face down creatures or circumstances in blazes of glory. But . . . that isn’t true at all. For I have learned that heroism is not found in those who seek out dangerous situations to prove themselves in, but in those who take up the call despite their reservations for those they love.
I have been called a hero. And perhaps I am, but I never intended to be.
My name is Will Everett.
And this is how I became such a hero.
The day was one of those where the sun doesn’t quite come out from behind the clouds, but still fills the world with a white light. I leaned against my tree, hidden deep in the forest, and squinted at the bit of parchment I’d nicked from my father’s stash. He was a farmer, like everyone else, but his grandfather had taught him how to write. It turned out to be a marvelous gift, really, one that my father passed on to me. Having words, as he liked to say, gave me power to speak my mind without anyone knowing. But the parchment was hard to come by, and I wasn’t allowed very much of it, so I tended to snitch little scraps when a good idea popped into my head that I couldn’t afford to lose. Yes, I know it was unethical. But brilliant ideas don’t last forever, and I figured I had to capture them while I could.
I smiled as I finished scratching the idea onto the paper. I turned to my tree and pulled out the small wooden box I kept hidden in a hollow. Inside it contained my ideas for stories, beginnings of poems, anything important I had had on my mind at the time. I’ll admit, I wasn’t the sort who typically spent a lot of time wrestling with other boys, or whatever else those idiots did. While they lived a single, mundane life, I lived many through my stories.
A thundering echoed in the woods, the steady stamping of hooves. Breath caught in my throat and I tucked myself behind my tree, peeking out slightly. A common brown horse slowed to a trot before the tree, giving me time to get a look at its rider. The rider’s face was hidden by a cloak, his form different from that of most men, though I couldn’t identify how. The cloak flowed over his entire body, draping over the horse’s rear slightly. The rider, as far as I could tell, was bareback. He stopped the horse entirely, just in front of my tree, cocking his head. The leaves rustled and murmured, and I held my breath without realizing it.
The rider dismounted, sliding gracefully down to the ground and landing silently. He stood motionless for a moment, as though he were thinking, his back to me. Then slowly, so painfully slowly, he turned, facing me.
I had to blink once or twice when I saw his face. For it was not a man who rode on the brown horse, but a woman. Her face was commonly lovely, but forgettable. Her blackish hair streamed over her front, reaching to her waist. All else was concealed. I grinned and stepped out from behind the tree.
“My dearest madam, it seems Fate herself has-“
The woman created a flash of movement, and before I could say another word, there was a fine dagger at my throat, its hilt embedded with what appeared to be emeralds. “Say another word,” the woman hissed, forming each word softly, delicately, “and I shall slit your throat.”
My stomach constricted and I did my best to nod silently. That sword had come out of nowhere. There had been no sound of steel against scabbard, no warning at all. This woman was not to be toyed with. She lowered her dagger and gestured for me to sit down.
“I require your assistance,” she said in a gentler voice. “Can you give it to me?”
“That depends,” I breathed. “What sort of assistance are we talking about?”
“An adventure,” she replied, sheathing her knife – silently – with an almost dreamy look on her face. “I need someone to come with me.”
I swallowed. Adventure, just like I dreamed of. But I was hesitant. This was an unknown woman, wandering through the forest alone, with a dagger. I didn’t even know her name. Chances were, she was delusional about whatever adventure she was going on. “How am I supposed to believe you’re not going to sacrifice me to your mad god or something?”
“That’s a chance you’ll have to take.” Her eyes flashed brightly, drawing attention I hadn’t paid to them. They looked like molten silver, liquid and glowing. They locked onto mine, and I couldn’t look away. I was literally captured by them.
'I know you are afraid,' a soft voice said inside my head. I gave a garbled shriek, clutching at my head and beginning to shake. It was not very brave. 'Oh, calm down. If I wanted to hurt you, I would have already. Use your self-control. And, by the way, my name is Nineve.' I breathed deeply and stopped most of the shaking, trying to stare back into the silver eyes confidently. 'Much better. Now, as I said, I need your assistance, though it pains me to make this admission. There is a lord, in the north, who has studied the powers of sorcery since he could speak. His name is Sir Palomides. He is fierce, and ruthless, but we need him to defeat a much greater force – the Mykelendes, giants from the Scandia nations. Only Palomides power combined with a hero is enough to defeat these giants, who would rule our land and turn all the world to slaves.'
“Who’s the hero?” I asked warily.
'I think you know,' Nineve thought-answered.
“Me,” I whispered. “You want me to be the hero?”
She smiled discomfortingly. 'You already are.'
We traveled for three days on the way to Palomides’ before anything bad happened. Nineve spent the time giving me basic instructions on how to fight with the longsword she had procured for me. It wasn’t nearly as beautiful as hers – just plain iron with a leather grip – but it was functional. She taught me a few basic moves that would help me if we got into combat, but I was having trouble with them. The closest thing to a sword I had ever held was an axe, and that wasn’t close at all. Nineve kept saying I
simply needed practice, but we both knew there wasn’t time for that. Yes, the story of the Mykelendes was unlike anything I had heard before, but I could sense Nineve wasn’t lying, and that our world truly was in danger. There was no time for practice. I had to be able to fight now.
I got my first opportunity the third day. We traveled on Nineve’s horse who, as it turned out, was a prince in the new world I was being ushered into. His name was Boanerges, and since I couldn’t understand him, Nineve translated for us. He was our guide and lookout, as his ears were far sharper than ours. Nineve halted him on the path that day, breath stopping in her mouth.
“Nineve?” I asked carefully. “What’s wrong?”
“Boanerges has just informed me there are Grimorie ahead on the path.” Her face was somber.
“Servants of Osthanes – who is essentially a god-warlock in league with the Mykelendes,” she breathed. “The wizard gave the Grimorie powers far surpassing those we possess. We must flee.” She turned Boanerges and began urging him to a gallop back the way we came.
Light shot past my ear, a fiery ball of what would certainly mean death. “Nineve!” I shouted, figuring the Grimorie knew where we were anyway. “Magic!”
“Am I supposed to be surprised by this?” she yelled back. 'Leap,' she thought-spoke. 'Get off of Boanerges, run into the forest. I will delay them.'
“I can’t leave you!” I gasped. “Nineve, you don’t know what you’re asking!”
'You are the hero,' she answered gently. 'It is you, Will, it always has been.'
“No,” I choked out. “I’m not going to let you sacrifice yourself!” There was another flash of light.
'Jump,' she whispered. 'Go.'
I leapt from Boanerges before I could think about what I was about to do. I wasn’t about to run – if I was the hero Nineve seemed convinced I was, I couldn’t leave her. My feet hit the ground hard, and I had no choice but to fall and roll back up. I unsheathed my sword, drawing it long out before me. Nineve was shouting behind me, telling me to run. I blocked her out the best I could and kept moving. The Grimorie appeared from behind a clump of trees, horseless and running faster than any man, their hands full of the fire that had been shot at us. Fear rose up inside of me, nearly knocking me over. These creatures had the forms of men, features of obsidian, and skin alight with the same flame that pooled in their hands. I could not fight them – or at least, I couldn’t win. Not even if there had been only one.
But I raised my sword. And in that moment, I made a choice that changed everything. I was no longer the youth who wrote stories and was laughed at for his lack interest in the other boy’s antics. I became the hero who stood for others, who was a willing sacrifice. Power coursed through me, unseen and unfocused, filling my veins with the knowledge of what I was about to do. I stepped to the middle of the path, blocking the Grimorie, and crossed my sword over my chest before me.
“Move, hero,” one rasped in a horrible voice that crackled like burning flesh.
“No,” I whispered. I swallowed, ignoring the heat, and said it louder. “No! I’ll not move for vile beasts such as you!”
“Fool,” the other hissed. “We will destroy you one way or the other. Why shorten your already pathetically abbreviated life?”
“Because I would rather die than allow you to touch her,” I shouted. “Because there are things worth dying for that you will never understand!” I gripped my sword tighter.
The Grimorie looked at each other, sinister blackened smiles spreading on their faces. “Your wish is granted,” they crackled together. “You shall die.”
They stepped forward smoothly, flickering. The flames in their palms rose higher, extending themselves to me. With a flick of its wrist, a Grimor sent a ball of flame flying at me. The flame hit my chest, instantly blackening the skin beneath my tunic and sending white-hot pain through me. My limbs shook violently, wanting nothing more than to drop the sword. Steeling myself, I gritted my teeth and raised it higher, sweeping it through the nearest Grimor. His body separated for a moment, dissipating slightly, before recollecting itself.
“Iron cannot beat me,” it hissed. “Metal has never conquered fire.”
“It can try,” I gasped as another fireball hit my shoulder. I felt tears leaking out of my eyes – not from the physical pain but the pain of knowing this had been useless. I had accomplished nothing. The best I had given Nineve was a few moments to ride ahead, and that was assuming she had done so. Thunder echoed in the sky as I raised my sword again. A soft drop of rain landed on my burnt chest, momentarily providing relief in the small area.
The Grimorie shrieked and howled as the rain began to fall in earnest. They steamed and sputtered, and it took me a moment to realize why. Iron cannot beat fire. But water – water will always beat fire. I smiled and gasped slightly. The fires the Grimorie had burned my chest and shoulder, covering most of each. I was weak, and could hardly think. But I knew something was wrong when the Grimorie began coming closer.
Then they enveloped me, covering me completely in their fires. The agony was so pure, so unearthly, breath stopped, movement stopped, noise, everything. There were no senses, no sounds, nothing. Pain. That was all.
I woke to the smell of a freshly rained-on forest. The scent of dampened leaves and pine needles assaulted my nose, but pleasantly. It was quiet, except for an occasional bird or rustle in the trees. Then the pain began again, and I remembered. I had been burned by the Grimorie to save Nineve. I only hoped she had somehow run with Boanerges and was safe. I reached out for my sword, but was forced to be still by the onslaught of pain it brought. I grunted and tried to keep from cringing.
“Will?” a soft voice said, seeming to reach out to me and wrap around my body.
“Nineve,” I gasped, releasing my gritted teeth. “I did not burn like that so you could stay.”
“You would have died, if not for me,” she replied, appearing above me. Her silver eyes were duller. “It was I who sent the rain.”
“Sometimes, when great sacrifices are made, magic happens. I assume you know I am not human, and that I possess magic. That is how I mind-speak.” She breathed deeply and continued. “But I cannot control when the sorcery happens. A great event or emotion must invoke it. And your sacrifice for me, for Boanerges, for the greater good – it was enough to help me summon the rains.” Nineve touched my face. “We have vanquished them.” I was silent, thinking only of what a horrible hero I was.
“Heroism is not found in fighting,” Nineve whispered, knowing my thoughts. “It is found in sacrifice.” She leaned forward and kissed my head. “And you, Will, are the greatest of heroes.”