Head Over Heels

(excerpt from longer piece “Occultatum”)

By Emma Ryan

Once soft and loving, the Prince’s hands were now tainted with the blood of his comrades—the blood of his army, the blood of his friends. The hilt of Achilles’ sword was heavy in Conan’s calloused palm; he was not a swordsman, but it was the first weapon he could grab as the ambush began. The strong copper smell of blood lingered heavy in the air, and crimson pursed up around the leather of his boots as he walked through the swamp of bodies that surrounded him. Blood was everywhere, and he was unaware of what was his and what was the blood of his army men. Silence rang in his ear; the silence of death is deafening. Prince Conan, the furthest thing from a skilled swordsman, and Achilles, the leader of the revolution fighting hand in hand to slaughter a whole legion of army men—Conan’s army men. Conan knew that any survivors would carry word of betrayal to the King. The sound of choked, angry sobs broke the silence. Conan turned to find his lover plunging a broken arrow into the chest of a fallen soldier over and over again. There was an anger in his eyes, an anger that Conan had never seen before. 

“Achilles…” Conan spoke softly, placing a gentle hand on his shoulder. “He’s dead, they’re all dead, you can stop now—” Achilles’ arm swung around, and Conan froze as he felt the sting of the blade against his cheek and the warmth of his blood trickling down his jaw. The prince felt his eyes swell with tears, blurring his vision and threatening to spill as he took a step away from Achilles. He watched as his eyes changed from a murderous sneer, to a gentle gaze full of regret. 

“Conan, I’m sorry, I really am, I-I didn’t mean to—“ Achilles stuttered, climbing to his feet and extending his arms to pull him close in loving embrace, but Conan took another step back. 

“… Conan?” Achilles begged again. Conan looked down at the body at his feet, then back at Achilles as tears brimmed over his eyelids and fell down his cheeks like a cascade of waterfalls. The prince dashed off into the forest, pushing through shrub, and broken branches, running so fast that he could hardly get a hold of his footing.

Conan never cried, or at least not since he was nineteen when his mother passed away. Now here he was, blinded by hot tears that streamed down his face as he tripped over shrubs and fallen trees. Low branches whipped his face, but the stinging pain could not compare to the fire in his lungs and the copper taste in the back of his throat that seemed to rip open at the scent of fresh air. It all happened so fast, he was dizzy at the memory. 

Conan wrapped his arms around a tree. His mouth felt like cotton and his legs wanted to break out from underneath him, but the only thing on his mind was ‘Run. Get far away. Go back to the Kingdom. Now you know why Achilles is the leader of this revolution—he’s a ruthless killer, just like Father told you.’ He pressed his forehead against the rough bark of the tree, dry heaving on nothing but the thought of lies and betrayal. His ash blond hair matted to his face thanks to the sweat and blood—so much blood. The memory flooded back. 

There he stood, hand in hand with Achilles as Evora was laughing, and quite frankly, Conan couldn’t remember why, but the mere sight of Evora smiling for the first time was too breathtakingly beautiful that he didn’t care. For the first time, it felt like a dream. He wasn’t worrying about war, nothing about the feud between Conan’s kingdom and Achilles’ revolutionaries — in that moment, he felt nothing but pure love. All dreams come to an end. Most people wake up, but not Conan. God, he only wished he would wake up, but he couldn’t. He was wide awake as he watched his living nightmare unfold around him. He was too foolish; he should’ve heard the whiz of the arrow, but he didn’t. He watched as he saw the light leave Evora’s eyes, her smile fade as blood trickled down the side of her mouth. By the time Conan noticed his army, it was too late. Three more arrows flew through the air, and plunged deep into her chest. She didn’t cry out, she didn’t fight it, she accepted that this was her time. Conan froze in his place as Evora fell into the arms of her other brother. 

Run,” Evora choked out, grasping onto Achilles’ clothing. 

“No, no, no. I’m not leaving you,” Achilles cried, lowering his sister to the ground, holding her in his arms. “I promised you I wouldn’t leave—I’m not going to abandon you like Mother and Father did to us, not now, not ever—”

“Achilles! We have to go!” Conan said sternly, grabbing the collar of his jacket in attempt to pull him up, but he protested. 

“No!” Achilles cried again, holding his sister to his chest. Conan could hear the stampede of the army making its way, and with a mumble of a few curses under his breath, he drew Achilles’ sword. They were two men against an entire army. Conan thought maybe he could hold them off, maybe he and Achilles could run off. There he stood, fighting and killing his own men, his own army in order to save the man he loved—earning himself the title of traitor to the crown. He looked into the faces of those he grew up with, those he trained with, the men he commanded as they died by the grace of his hand. He turned as an arrow flew past his head, only to find Achilles with his sister’s bow drawn, tears streaming down his face as he bared his teeth like an animal. Even the silver-plated chests of the army could not withstand the wrath of Achilles. Conan watched as his man killed an entire army in a pit of rage that he had never seen in any man before. Conan watched him stab his best friend in the chest with a broken arrow over and over again. Conan watched his lover slice his cheek with the same broken arrow. 

Conan walked up the steps of his kingdom. Word spreads quickly in these parts. He was face to face with his father when he walked into the castle. 

“Your army. What happened?” the king demanded, without giving Conan a second to breathe.

“A revolutionary killed them all. I’m the only survivor, father,” he lied through his teeth. His father arched an eyebrow with a skeptical eye as he grabbed Conan’s jaw, forcibly turning his head to the side to get a good look at the cut across his cheek.

“… And this? Who gave this to you?” He pressed his thumb against the wound, making Conan flinch.

“I-uh… the revolutionary is dead. I-I’m the only survivor,” he lied again. 

“You keep praising the fact that only you survived. Conan, you are the one who is supposed to protect your army. They’re all dead now, and you’re speaking to me as if you’re proud.” The king raised his hand and cracked it across Conan’s wounded cheek. Conan didn’t flinch; he knew better than to show his weak side to his father. “You said the revolutionary is dead, correct?”

Conan stayed silent and coyly nodded, and the king’s lip pursed into a sinister smile. 

“Good. Bring me his head,” he said in the most graceful tone as he sat upon his throne. Conan felt his stomach turn. He couldn’t disappoint his father; turning up empty-handed would give away everything.

“Oh, and Conan. I hope you know that your mother would be proud of you, especially for everything you’re doing for this war and to wipe out those scum revolutionaries.” Conan turned and headed for the door. Evora. He couldn’t behead Achilles, let alone kill him… but what harm would be done if he beheaded one who was already dead?