We Thought We Would Be Heroes

Alex McHaddad, 4/26/2018

We thought we would be heroes. We drew swords on the front lines for a grand coalition of the four imperial armies of Shaolin, united to rid our lands of the goblins that had crept out of the shadow realm of Legatus and taken hold of our border settlements. We were supposed to fall first, yet every inch of ground taken came at the cost of our blood. We were the enemy’s first taste of the sting of katanas from Nara, dragon fire from Chosen, rocket blasts from Cathay, and elephant stampedes from the Bharat. And as children danced safely in the fields for the first time in generations, we were kept on the outskirts of town, “standing guard” and awaiting table scraps from the festivities.

Our comrades, nominally unscathed after a year of fighting, marched in a circle atop the hilltop around the town where we had stopped, leaving a perfect silhouette in the evening light for painters, woodcutters, and tailors who intended to imprint monuments of the victors in their communities. Great portraits and tapestries would show the glory of cowards who had not known the glory of battle, while those who had born in the hell of war languished in the heat of camp, distraught and defeated by our banishment and craving but a drink of water after a long day of guarding the camp in the blistering heat. By nightfall those men without bedding partners would stumble drunkenly back into camp, and we were expected to set up their tents and cots before the first one arrived. We had at least a week of this before the march took us to Boden’s Haven, where I could finally board a ship and return to my home on the Isle of Nara.

I doubted anything would be left of the place I used to call home, but the thought of returning kept me going throughout the campaign. All the hatred shown to us half-breeds finally found an outlet in war, and as we cut down goblins we saw in every one of those beasts the people who had cursed us. Half elf, half dwarf, half anything else - either of the races we shared would look down upon us in the streets, no matter how much we tried to bless our neighbors. We did not realize how much their hatred took its toll until it made us invincible on the battlefield, and those who had treated us with derision found themselves envisioned as the hundreds of goblins we beheaded and scorched each day.

On the Isle of Nara I had been a cobbler in a human colony, perfecting my craft over several hundred years without ever being paid a fair price for my shoes. The elf who fathered me in a moment of weakness years ago retreated to his old city and left me with my mother, whose dowry was doubled for any man who would take her. This man taught me the art of making shoes, treating me with greater humanity than a half-breed bastard could expect but never giving me the affection he showered upon his children. My mother and her new family all aged and died long before I grew stubble, and when I was forbidden to enter the cities of the other Naran elves, I chose to remain in the human town, crafting shoes to the same families over generations.

Loneliness remained my only faithful companion, as neither elf nor human turned their face toward me except to buy my shoes or sell me the few provisions necessary to live. For years I cried out to the human God, begging for the mercy and blessings he bestowed upon those who cursed me. Finally, my prayers seemed to be answered, as a boy from the village visited my shop and asked to learn my trade.

“You sure your parents won’t mind?” I asked, the longest sentence I had spoken in a century. “The ill repute of a half-breed’s company will be worth a whooping.”

“I’ll come in the night,” the boy assured me. “When my parents are asleep, I’ll steal away and learn your craft.”

The boy’s enthusiasm enthralled me, and over the course of five years I taught him every trick I knew until his skills exceeded my own. He was forced to hide work from his parents, but I gave him the most challenging projects after the sun went down, and he always received every coin I was given in return for his craftmanship.

Then came that fateful morning when the soldiers came to drag recruits to the front lines of the coalition’s war. I was indifferent to the cause, as the Naran Navy had always ensured that goblin ships ended their final voyages several leagues south of the island. Word traveling thoughout the village said that those providing crucial services to the community or the Empire would be left in peace, sometimes even given money to supply goods to the military.

When they came to my door, it was demanded that I grab only my neccessities and join them immediately as they gathered others destined for the battlefield.

“I’m a cobbler,” I objected. “My value to Nara is far greater making shoes for our soldiers, as I have done for several hundred years!”

“A half-breed with his own shop? Nonsense,” they laughed. “You’d be driven from this place in a week!”

“What’s going on here?” My faithful apprentice passed by the shop on his way to other errands, shocked that I had been accosted by the military.

“You came by just in time!” I declared. “They want to send me to the war, but I’ve told them that I’m much more valuable making shoes for our soldiers in my shop!”

“Who’s this then?” inquired the soldiers.

“My apprentice,” I announced.

“You jest!’ laughed a soldier. “Son, you wouldn’t let a half-breed tell you what to do.”

“Nonsense; he’s the help around my shop,” said my apprentice, appearing completely genuine. I hoped that his words were a clever ploy to send the soldiers away and leave me in peace, but the conviction in his voice worried me.

“Well, he’s needed on the front lines,” said the soldier. “Hope you weren’t needing him to be around much longer.”

“Of course, take him!” said my apprentice. “This half-breed wasn’t ever much help in the shop anyway.”

“How could you!” I growled, lunging forward in anger but quickly tackled to the ground by the soldiers.

“Forget your neccessities, you’re going straight to the first ship to Boden’s Haven!” laughed a soldier. My apprentice smirked as I wept in the rough grip of the soldiers, likely knowing full well that the sandles I wore would not last long on the battlefield. A pair of boots in my shop would have lasted me a year, but my apprentice would likely sell all of my effects to the first interested customer.

This betrayal stung me bitterly as I rested that night in the brig, and I let my hatred build up over the long nights on stormy seas that carried my ship to Chosen. The human soldiers around me believed that I would be among the first to die, but every time they justified their cruelty with my coming demise I stood strong as I thought of returning to my village and wresting back my shop from that sniveling traitor’s hands.

In Cathay I was placed in one of the half-breed camps, joining thousands of my fellow undesirables in receiving leather armor and rusty old weapons, receiving scant training while human and elfin warriors drilled to perfection. Their preparation was driven by passionate nationalism, while we half-breeds relyed on our anger to become fierce warriors. Each of us had been cast out of our homes, and we swore that not even the goblins would have the pleasure of cutting us down without a brutal fight.

We were sent to the front just as winter ended, chartered with clearing the fifty square miles of territory west of Legatus that had been seized from Cathay and the Bharat over time. Goblins swarmed ghost towns and fortresses, patrolling the skies with their dragons and feasting on those few people who dared venture into their territory. While we entered the battle with equally powerful weapons of war, our smaller numbers were expected to lose every battle.

The first moment were were prodded forward into an empty shell of what had once been a grand city, night was quickly falling and we prepared to be struck down together in the dark. But as the goblins taunted us from the shadows, scurrying about to make us nervous, we felt annoyed as we had been with those who had toyed with our lives, and the moment the enemy arose, we treated them as we would have treated purebreds if given free reign to fight back. We hacked and battered every slimy tear-face in the whole town until they stopped howling, and once we exited, the armies around us trembled. They did not respect us, no - instead, they believed they had just witnessed half-breeds as they thought we were, savages lacking emotion and sentient instincts.

It was not my company alone that carried on this way. Three other armies advanced eastward over the occuppied lands a mile at a time, half-breeds at the forefront bearing the brunt of violence and earning all victories. Within a year, each army had finally reached the four mountain passes providing the sole access to Shaolin from Legatus, and goblins beheld our lands no more.

Marching back to civilization, we believed that we would be greeted as heroes by the people of Cathay, yet we were kept apart from the revelers. The children needed to be kept safe from bellicose half-breeds, our comrades warned, because they had seen us give in to our darkest impulses and they knew we would attack the innocent in fits of drunken rage. So outside this little village we fell upon the ground, suffering under the heat of the sun while those who had never tasted blood were praised.

“We shouldn’t have to live like this,” I said finally. In all my centuries as a cobbler, I never spoke out against my ill treatment, but now that I had spent a year responding to trespasses with the thrust of a rusty sword I did not fear my opposition.

“Don’t fool yourself,” sighed one of my comrades. “I knew we weren’t going to celebrated, no matter how many goblins we killed.”

“But the few of us did so much for so many!” complained another. “How are we still barred from society?”

“I too thought that we would be heroes,” I said. “But I see now more than ever that we will not be celebrated. We lack the means to escape Shaolin and we don’t know whether another nation will treat us like people. Before us lies a whole empty land, and if we are not welcome in our old nations, we must build our own.”

“What do you mean build our own? If the goblins see the few of us settling in to their old haunts they will pass over the mountains and wipe us away once more.”

“No,” I declared. “Fewer of them stood against their fear the closer we approached Legatus, and they shall not return to drive us away. Stand with me, comrades, and together we shall build a nation of half-breeds, welcoming our fellow soldiers and all who are weary of persecution in other countries.”

I expected more objections, but before anyone could raise their voice I lifted myself from the grand, threw away my helmet, and began walking confidently to the east. I was done wallowing in sorrow, and my comrades shared this fatigue. One by one I heard them get up, cast down their burdens and join me on the road to the old front. Our fields of battle would soon flow with fields of wheat, and half-breed children who came after us would grow up hearing the stories of how we held the fort alone. They would be our people, and we would be their heroes.