The Nameless King by Amanda Larson
Odysseus lay face down on a large boulder. His bare tummy soaked in the radiant heat the stone had gathered from the sun while the water of the lake softly lapped against the rock. In the trees the birds sang and the wind rustled the leaves.
Small, nibble fingers finished weaving the last strips of cedar bark into his latest project. Content with his work, Odysseus set the new rain hat aside and nibbled on a few berries he had collected earlier in the day.
Leaning further over the rock’s edge he played his fingers over the cold water, mimicking the movements of an insect landing on the surface. With the sky’s reflection shining brightly over the gently rippling water, it was hard to see the tadpoles he knew were hunting for food not far below.
A plump one accepted his invitation. Odysseus giggled in delight as the tadpole tickled the tip of his finger before skirting back into the depths. “You can be Tethys,” the boy told the tadpole.
If people needed names then tadpoles did too. Hephaestus said a name gave a person power. That was why Hephaestus had given him a name. It was not right for people to be only a number and Odysseus had not even been born with a number.
A rustle in the thicket behind him caught his attention. Odysseus rolled onto his back to observe whoever or whatever was joining him in the clearing. The man who emerged from the lightly used wooded trail had long, gray hair and a full beard that outlined his well-wrinkled face. He wore deerskin pants and leaned heavily on a cane of naturally twisting Pacific madrone wood.
Odysseus could not remember meeting Hephaestus. Maybe he had always known him, like the moon had always known the sun. For many years, the old man had been the only person in Odysseus’s world. Now there were others in their village, but they all had numbers and all looked the same. None of them were children like him and unlike Hephaestus their spirits were broken. It made him miss Hephaestus all the more when his friend went on his journeys.
Springing off the boulder, Odysseus’s bare feet padded across the grass as he ran to Hephaestus’s side with his woven rain hat in hand. He presented the gift to the man who smiled warmly down at him.
“For me?” Hephaestus asked.
Odysseus gave an enthusiastic nod. “The storms will be coming soon.”
A contemplative look crossed Hephaestus’s face, his fingers tapping against his cane. The concern quickly melted into a silly grin as he placed the hat on his head. “A masterfully crafted fit,” Hephaestus said before ushering Odysseus back to the boulder.
The old man stiffly sat while Odysseus bounded back up onto the rock. He crossed his legs and settled beside his friend. Reaching for his remaining berries, Odysseus scooped up the large maple leaf that held them and handed it to Hephaestus.
After accepting a pinch of huckleberries and a few Oregon grapes, Hephaestus returned the leaf. “The rest are yours, sweet Odysseus, as is this.”
From his bag Odysseus revealed a generous helping of dried salmon that he set into Odysseus’s waiting hands. Hephaestus considered the lake for a long moment before speaking again. “I have also brought you a new story.” Digging deeper into his bag he revealed a tattered book. “You have read your others so often, you surely have them memorized by now.”
Odysseus’s eyes lit up. It was Hephaestus that had taught him to read because like a name, knowledge gave a person powerful. Hephaestus said books weren’t made anymore, but he had to be wrong. All the knowledge their village had, even their names, had come from a book. It was how they knew of the gods and legends, how to act and where they had come from.
“This is the continuation of your favorite book,” the old man explained while Odysseus began to scan through the text.
Odysseus’s excitement grew as he saw the name Hephaestus had given him printed on the yellowed pages. “It’s another one about me!”
Hephaestus nodded as he drew Odysseus closer to him. Odysseus let his head rest against his friend’s side, looking up expectantly. “That it is. Do you remember what I told you about your namesake?” Hephaestus asked.
“He was a ruler that went on a great journey.” Odysseus twisted his face as he remembered the part of Hephaestus’s words he had never understood. “And like him, someday I will make the same journey home and reclaim my kingdom…but I don’t have a kingdom.”
“This is all your kingdom.” Hephaestus gave a sweeping gesture to the forest and the lake and the mountains that surrounded them.
Odysseus had spent many lazy afternoons, watching as the sun set over the lake, wondering what his kingdom was like. He had never imagined that he was already there. They lived at the foot of Mount Olympus, home of the gods. Settled in the middle of a mountain range, they were surrounded by ancient forests. Once the area had been known as the Olympic National Park. He had wondered why the nation did not still have the park, but Hephaestus had told him it was simply because there was no longer a nation.
“The whole Free West?” Odysseus asked.
“That’s the problem, you see. The west is not free, only our little part is and only because no one could find us here.” There was a long silence before Hephaestus continued, “You were right. The storms are coming, but not all will come from the skies and they are calling you away.”
Odysseus shook his head. “But I don’t want to leave. If my kingdom is here, can’t I stay? I don’t even know how to be a king.”
“None of that. You have always played the part well for this village.”
“That doesn’t count,” Odysseus replied doubtfully. “That was just for fun.”
“Nonsense. It was practice. Your time has come too early, but we have no control over these things. When we are called we can only trust that the gods have set us on the right path. The world is calling you to battle.”
“How can I fight the whole world?”
“You’ll be armed better than Perseus himself, my boy.”
Before Odysseus could ask anything further cries echoed through the valley. In the distance black smoke billowed from the direction of the village. With concern darkening his young features, Odysseus looked questioningly towards Hephaestus. He had never seen his friend so sad.
“The storm is upon us.” Hephaestus held his bag out, but Odysseus could only stare at it in confusion. “The sun has set on our village. You must follow the strangers back to their land and seek a man named Howard.”
Cracking of twigs within the depth of the thick woods warned of someone approaching. They moved quickly and without care. Odysseus’s young eyes mirrored the pained wisdom of age in Hephaestus’s. His friend’s expression was resigned, but sported a forced smile of comfort that Odysseus attempted to mimic. Reality struck hard with the knowledge that he would almost surely never see his friend again. Odysseus threw his arms tightly around Hephaestus who returned the desperate embrace, holding him securely for as long as the moment would allow.
“Go now and don’t look back no matter what you hear,” Hephaestus urged.
Biting his trembling lip, Odysseus nodded. Quickly he took the woven shoulder bag and put his new book inside. The bag hung low on his small shoulders. With a last look to Hephaestus, the boy leapt from the boulder and sprinted from the clearing. A cold laughter was carried on the wind behind him.
“Burnt up every one of those Blue Eyes,” an unfamiliar voice chuckled like a snippy coyote.
“Don’t bust out the champagne until we find where that old gimp is hiding the King’s little bastard,” another man replied.
By the time Hephaestus cried out Odysseus had already reached the remains of their village. The few structures that had stood there were now ablaze. He could feel the scorching heat from the unnaturally large fires even from where he hid in the huckleberry bushes. The giant, moss covered trees that protected their sanctuary had endured many fires before and would survive this one.
The younger evergreens with limbs closer to the flames bobbed their branches with the rising heat. Their temperate rainforest home was always soggy, but they were at the end of the dry months and the fire would spread. He knew the men who had set it did not care when his disbelieving eyes locked onto the charring bodies in a flaming mound.
Painful hours passed before Odysseus was being rocked roughly in the back of a windowless carriage the men had called a van. He had slipped inside when the monsters had been loading their supplies. They must be shape-shifters because humans would never do the things they had done.
Odysseus struggled not to think of any of it and focused simply on keeping himself upright in the travel down the rough roads. He sat in the corner crammed behind some boxes with his knees tucked tightly to his chest. His cheeks were wet with the tears he could not fight. There was nothing left of what he had known, but this was what Hephaestus had been preparing him for. He forced himself to eat some of the salmon from Hephaestus’s bag and then tried to find sleep so he would be strong enough for battle.
When his fitful nightmare abated he first noticed that the movement of the van had changed. It was no longer jarring, but flowed smoothly over the terrain. He was unsure how much more time passed before the strange rumbling of the van fell silent. When he heard the front doors creak open Odysseus returned to his hiding place. From inside a box the boy could see only a sliver of the welcomed light that flooded the van.
“I can’t believe you couldn’t find one stupid little boy,” a man grumbled.
“Me?” another replied. “What about all those other morons that were too busy playing with the Blue Eyes?”
The argument continued as the van was unloaded, including the box Odysseus was tucked away in. He held his breath as he was carried and dumped unceremoniously on the ground, the impact jarring his entire body. When he heard the footsteps again move away, he risked a glance out of the box’s opening. Seeing the men’s backs turned, he slipped out onto the strangely hard ground and scurried out of view of the main street.
He recognized nothing of the world before him. It was devoid of life. All the trees had been transformed into massive structures that stretched unyieldingly towards the sky, blocking the view of the setting sun. What should have been fields of grasses was flat, gray ground. Everything was dull and empty despite the flashing of lights and mechanical sounds. The air was acrid and unpleasant to breath.
Some people were moving solemnly down the streets walking like ants while others rushed about like hurried worker bees. Many of the worker bees had the same washed out blue eyes of those from the village and like those in the village, all the boys were identical to all the other boys and the same for the girls. The people with other colors of eyes and darker hair all looked different. Odysseus had always wondered why his reflection in the lake had dark eyes. Hephaestus had told him it was because he had been born rather than engineered like the others, but he still did not know what that meant. They’d all come from the gods.
As he moved through the city the multitude of unnatural and blaring sounds bombarded his finely tuned ears. The sensory overload prevented him from hearing the approaching footsteps until it was too late. A man snatched him from behind, nearly jerking his shoulder from his socket as he was lifted from his feet. Instinctively Odysseus twisted in the iron grip. He sent a surprisingly firm kick do the man’s shin and followed it with a knee to the man’s gut.
“I got a rogue here!” What was meant as a shout came out as a ragged gasp followed by a grunt as Odysseus landed another solid kick. “I can’t find a number on this little brat.”
Another man approached and Odysseus momentarily stilled, but not because of the threat posed by the second man. He was looking past the men who were searching his exposed skin for markings they would not find and instead focused his sights on a third man in the distance. Stepping from the shadows, the man moved to stand beneath one of the many lights that shined down over the streets of the strange village.
He was powerfully built and stood with all the strength of Zeus himself. A sleeveless vest showcased the drawings that decorated the older man’s solid biceps. His long, swept back hair was the same color Hephaestus’s had been and, like his old friend, the man had a grizzly beard and mustache. It was the closest thing to a familiar sight Odysseus had yet seen here. When the man’s out of place smile was accompanied by a confident wink Odysseus felt an overwhelming sense of relief wash over him despite the rough hands that clutched him.
“Hit the bricks, kid!” the man’s gruff voice barked.
Without understanding the words, Odysseus somehow easily interpreted the meaning. In a final surge of energy, he twisted loose of the stunned men. Staying low, he slipped over the rough ground and beneath a parked van before the men could even attempt to recover their hold of him. There were several sounds so thundering that he imagined it to be the lightening bolts of Zeus that brought the men motionless to the ground.
“The coast is clear.”
The words again came from the man’s rough voice. Odysseus hesitated only a moment before crawling back out. Up close the man was even more like a titan and Odysseus had to tilt his head back to look up at him. There was no question about who he was looking at.
“You’re Howard,” Odysseus said.
“Jackpot. Been waiting for your train to come in. I just had to be sure it was you before I went sticking my neck out. It’s begging for the executioner’s axe as it is. Let’s save the small talk for safer harbor.”
Large hands hoisted him onto a strange thing that looked like a horse’s saddle with wheels. Curiously Odysseus ran his hands over the cold, bent metal. The saddle shifted as Howard climbed on behind him. An instant later it roared to life with a rumble even louder than the van.
As they swerved down the streets the wind blew around them faster than Odysseus had ever felt even in the strongest of windstorms. Closing his eyes, he could nearly imagine he was flying like Daedelus and that this was a dream. When he awoke in the morning he would be in a bed of moss hearing only the whistle of wind through the treetops and the trickling of his favorite brook.
When they stopped he opened his eyes and tried to breath again. “You okay, kid?” Howard asked as he helped him down. “You gotta be freezing.”
He had already noticed that everyone here wore far more clothes than his short pants. In the winter he wore many layers, but it was summer and the weather was warm. It seemed strange that everyone needed so much cloth covering them when in the village this time of year people would wear barely anything at all.
“I’m fine,” he replied, “but did they hurt you? I heard their weapons.”
Howard ruffled Odysseus’s hair with a fond smile playing on his lips. “That was my gun,” he told the boy with a pat to something holstered at his waist. “Urban warfare’s a bitch, but she’s my bitch. So you’re really him ain’t you?” the man asked as he checked Odysseus’s wrists. “I’ll be damned. You got the face, but not a mark on you.”
The passageway Howard led him down was dark and narrow, pressed in between two massive buildings. It was unlikely that even King Minos’s labyrinth was more foreboding than the shadow strewn alleyway. Without realizing it, Odysseus moved closer to Howard’s side.
Down a steep flight of stairs they passed through a door. Inside the light was low and the air was smoky. People were talking and laughing in a relaxed way that Odysseus had not yet witnessed in this village. A pang of homesickness again hit him, but he was distracted from it as Howard spoke to a man standing by the door.
“We in good company?” Howard asked in a low tone.
The wiry man gave a sharp nod. His eyes drifted curiously down to Odysseus, but he said nothing to him. “Only allies present,” the man replied.
“Seal her up then, I got good news for once.”
The doors were closed with a resonating thud and a bolt clicked locking it shut. Nearly instantly the conversation in the room murmured into silence. Howard’s heavy boots pounded the floor in the hushed room as he led Odysseus to the long table everyone was drinking around.
“Belly up to the bar, son,” Howard said.
Easily the man scooped him up and set him atop the tall table. Odysseus silently surveyed the large room. He had never seen so many people in one place. In fact, he was fairly certain that he had never seen so many people at all. Unconsciously he again leaned towards the relative comfort of Howard until the training Hephaestus had given him kicked in. After a few measured breaths, his posture straightened and he forced an air of confidence fitting of a king.
“Turns out some myths are real,” Howard said, this time addressing the assembled crowd. “That crazy old coot didn’t steer us wrong and here’s the proof.”
From the crowd, a woman emerged. She was older than Howard, but with dark hair. Her eyes too were deep brown, similar to Odysseus’s own eye color. Wrinkles stretched at the corners of her eyes as she smiled, but the clinical gesture dissipated as soon as she turned her attention to Howard.
“We shouldn’t jump to conclusions until the proper tests have been run,” she said.
“Who are you?” Odysseus asked curiously.
“Excuse her lack of manners,” Howard replied. “She’s a sympathetic lab coat. Our very own rebel with a cause, but she’s never quite gotten over that ‘the world is my guinea pig’ mentality.”
The woman shot a sharp glare towards Howard though her eyes warmed when she looked back to Odysseus. “I would like to say he’s wrong, but old habits die hard. I’m Doctor Carolyn Crandall. I was one of the designers of the current generation of working class.”
“The slaves?” Odysseus asked. There was no insinuation in the question, only an honest need for clarification.
Carolyn sighed and nodded hesitantly. “They were engineered to excel at particular tasks. We had the best of intentions…”
“But it ain’t the path to utopia that’s paved with good intentions,” Howard cut in.
“We were fools to in love with our own work,” she admitted. “In the lab we were so focused on what we were capable of creating, we never stopped long enough to consider the potential for abuse. The pale blue eyes were bred in to make them immediately identifiable, hopelessly singling them out as a slave class.”
While she spoke she was not standing idle. Her hands were busily unpacking the contents of a small case. Odysseus did not recognize any of the items. His head tilted curiously as he looked between what she was doing and all the people in the room who were staring at him.
“Do you know why you’re here?” she asked.
“To rule my kingdom?”
For a moment she considered his reply before seeming to agree. “Possibly. The working class was engineered sterile, at which point the succession of leadership via bloodlines was instituted ensuring that none in the working class could ever succeed to power. But our theory is that your mother was different, something the king did not
find out until too late.”
Gently she grasped his arm and rubbed a tingly swab over it. “This will sting a little,” she warned. A moment later she inserted something sharp into his arm. While he squirmed uncomfortably, he kept a strong face and watched with a perverse fascination as his blood was collected in a tube.
All the doctor’s flashy equipment was alien to him, but the audience in the room was enraptured with what she was doing. Everyone present was collectively holding their breath until a beeping sound came from the lit up box Carolyn was focused on. She looked shocked before her face ruptured into a full-blown smile.
“It shouldn’t be possible, but his DNA has most of the markers of the working class and a positive paternity result for the king.” The announcement caused the silent crowd to erupt into a whoop of cheers. “It means the stories are true,” Carolyn interrupted as the group began to settle, “but it does not mean that anyone will hear us out.”
Odysseus listened patiently as a discussion was opened. The calm talking soon broke into a frenzied argument about what should be done next. While he did not have a full understanding, he came to grasp what the primary concern was. The king’s advisers did not want anyone to know about him and would cover up his existence if they could. Odysseus would not allow it. Hephaestus and all the others in his village had not died for nothing.
“The truth cannot be hidden if everyone sees it.” Odysseus’s quiet words cut through the heated shouts.
Carolyn ran a hand through her hair and took a deep breath before replying. “Perhaps not,” she agreed. “If we could bring proof to the people it would not be the impossible task of winning over parliament. However, the authorities will not allow such information to be brought into the public eye. They won’t broadcast it and tomorrow’s inauguration of Key Adviser Drouin is going to be the only occasion of mass public gathering allowed of the working class.”
“Do you know how the Greeks won the Trojan war?” Odysseus asked. By the blank stares he received, the answer was obviously no. With everyone’s attention on him, he told the tale of Trojan war as it was laid out in his favorite book, the Iliad. If time permitted, he could have recited the entire text word for word. Instead he gave only a brief summary.
“It’s a nice story, kid,” Howard said when he had finished, “but parliament ain’t gonna buy a wooden horse.”
Carolyn though met Odysseus’s eyes thoughtfully and slowly nodded. “You’re suggesting a proverbial horse.” At Howard’s confused look she explained. “More than anything Adviser Drouin wants the appearance of being accepted by the whole of the populace, correct? If we send a massive crowd his way, they will be accepted without question before he can realize that they’re not there in support of his administration.”
Howard leaned against the bar, scratching at his beard. “It’ll get the people in, but once Drouin smells foul play he’s gonna flip the switch.”
“What switch?” Odysseus asked.
“The working class was built to do everything the free class doesn’t want to, including fight our wars,” Carolyn said. “Most are physically stronger than the free class. As a safeguard, a lethal gene was built into the line. It’s triggered by a biological agent. We have been distributing an antidote to soldiers, police officers and others in potential positions of power, but our supplies are limited. The delivery device will have to be disabled manually.”
The planning continued far into the night before Odysseus was given a cot in a backroom. With his mind racing, his first attempts at sleep were too fitful to call rest. He soon pulled out the book Hephaestus had given him and became lost in the story. Soon his head grew heavy and his next conscious moment was the calloused skin of a large hand gently nudging his shoulder.
“Got you some clothes and breakfast,” Howard told him.
Still groggy with sleep Odysseus sat up on the flimsy cot. The memories of how he had come to be there washed over him in painful waves. Struggling to push back the tide, he focused on the presented clothing. His nose wrinkled at the shoes that were set on the bed, but just as his namesake had disguised himself and his men as sheep to escape the Cyclops, he too would have to wear his disguise. Gratefully he ate the lifeless food that tasted like wood chips and then slipped into the stiff, scratchy clothing before again heading out into the village center.
This time he was not alone, but the environment was no less foreign and the farther they moved into the village the more suffocating its confines became. By mid morning he was standing with Howard, Carolyn and many others he had yet to learn the names of. They were looking out over a massive crowd. Odysseus had not known there were so many people in the entire world.
It was not until Howard lifted him up to sit on the man’s broad shoulders that Odysseus could see what everyone was gathered around. For the first time since coming to this village a smile cracked his lips. With its many Parthenon like pillars and domed roof the glorious grayish white building resembled the architecture of the Greek structures from his village’s first book.
“What’s ‘Legislative Building’?” Odysseus asked into Howard’s ear as he read the inscription from the front of the magnificent structure.
“It don’t mean nothing anymore, but that building there is your palace, your highness,” Howard whispered back.
Odysseus’s tentative grin spread for a moment before flipping to a frown. From his high perch he could see blue eyed people standing guard between the crowd and the building. It was not so different from the slaves of old, captured soldiers forced to serve the enemy, but he had never heard of such slaves being placed into such a critical role. Carolyn had told him it was an egotistical miscalculation. He did not know what that meant, but it at least seemed foolish.
Howard set him down and they skirted around the edge of the crowd, moving closer to his palace. As they squeezed through the suffocating mass of people a man began to talk with a voice of thunder, louder than any man Odysseus had ever head.
“As you all know I am Key Adviser Drouin. I want to thank you all for attending today’s grand event. Surely we did not expect such a magnificent turnout for the announcement of my inauguration.”
“No one’s here for you. We’ve come to see the real king!” one in the crowd yelled. A few more shouted in agreement, which slowly worked up a response from the majority of those assembled.
“The king left no eligible genetic successor,” Drouin refuted. “As his advisor…”
“The boy is of the king!”
By the second cry from the crowd, Odysseus had been led around the back of the parliament building. In awe he stared up at the imposing pillars, his small fingers brushing against the carved stone as they walked by them. The blue eyed guards assigned to the entrance stepped aside and let them pass.
The observing crowd grew louder as Odysseus and the others stepped into view. Drouin shot a tentative glance over his shoulder. Horror flashed over the man’s face before his expression returned to a blank semblance of calm.
“Doctor Crandall, what a shame.” Drouin’s bitter expression turned wary. “What have you done?”
“We have the genetic workup proving that this boy is the king’s legal heir.” Her words were spoken loud enough for all those gathered to hear.
“That abomination doesn’t even have a name,” Drouin spat. “Surely you must realize how absurd this is. You are implying that this product of not only an illegitimate, but illegal birth…”
Carolyn raised her brow. ”If the king carried it out how could it be criminal?”
“It’s not criminal it’s impossible! These things cannot breed. This was never supposed to happen!” The swelling crowd grew restless and the few dark eyed men standing beside Drouin began to look desperate. “This should have been addressed through proper channels, but at the least I hope you realize that we will have to run out own verification test.”
Odysseus stood close to Howard, drawing comfort from the man’s strong hand on his shoulder. At Carolyn’s nod however, Howard took half a step back. Drouin in turn sent a sharp glance to one of the men beside him. The nod he gave was subtle, but there was something wrong in the look the men exchanged. Odysseus was not the only one to see it.
The warning cry left Carolyn too late. Odysseus felt a sting like Carolyn had given him, but this time in his neck. His heart began racing, pounding violently in his chest. No matter how desperately he tried to calm it, the beating only grew painfully faster. A moment later it was a struggle to just draw in air.
“This is the same poison that will be released into the air if you don’t all…”
It was Drouin speaking in the background, but Odysseus lost focus of the words as his head swam and his limbs grew heavy. His eyelids fell closed just before his legs gave out. Consciousness left his body by the time it hit the ground.
He was unsure if seconds or centuries had passed before his starved lungs again fought for oxygen. He greedily gulped in air as if he had just been dredged from the bottom of the River Styx. At the edge of his focus Drouin was speaking again over the furious and frightened cries of the crowd.
“That corpse is proof there isn’t a drop of royal blood in that thing.”
The breaths began to come more easily and the disorientation had faded by the time Carolyn helped him to stand. She was talking frantically while she pressed her hand to his neck, but his focus was still too ephemeral to make out her words.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Howard throw an incapacitating punch at someone before turning to lock eyes with Odysseus. The man moved quickly to his side and lifted him up into his arms, clutching him with all the fervor of the last embrace he had shared with Hephaestus.
The atmosphere in the crowd shifted from confusion to outrage. Drouin had stopped speaking and was frantically hitting a button on the stand before him.
“The release has been disabled,” Carolyn said. “The control agent is neutralized.”
At those words the crowd surged forward, swarming the parliament steps. The word of parliament’s fall spread like wildfire. Most thought wildfires were bad, but they cleansed the earth and made way for new growth. Like the undergrowth of a forest, the free class was soon engulfed while the newly united working class stood with the unyielding strength of ancient trees.
Odysseus knew that it would be many years, maybe a lifetime, before he could begin his journey home. Yet it was difficult to mourn when all those who had been only numbers were allowed the dignity of a name.