The Death and Times of Halren of Durgol
©2009 Jason Penney
Halren pushed up onto his hands and knees and spit dirt onto the red stone floor. Where was he? Where was his lute? He tried to remember if he had been celebrating the night before, or perhaps drowning his sorrows.
He got to his feet and brushed red dust from his leather tunic. Two robed figures stood before him in silence. “Excuse me sirs, but would you mind telling me where I am exactly? I can’t seem to recall how I got here.”
He looked from one figure to the other. The one on the left wore a snow white cloak, while the one on the right wore darkest black. The robes stood out in sharp contrast to the deep red of the rock cave walls.
Black, white, and red. Why did that remind him of something? They were the colors of… “Oh no.”
He spun around looking for a way out of the cave. Solid rock surrounded them on all sides. Halren stepped closer to the two figures and examined their pale faces. “I’m dead, aren’t I?”
Again no answer. Still, Halren felt pretty confident in his assessment. Where else would he see two living skeletons dressed in these colors? The escorts to beyond, just as he had always pictured them.
Well, two of them anyway. Ithus the White and Sythus the Black stood staring directly at him. At least it felt like they were. Could they even see? If empty eye sockets in skull faces could stare, they were doing it now.
Ithus raised his right arm and the loose white sleeve slid away to reveal a bony fist, palm side up. A single finger extended and then curled upwards, beckoning.
Halren pointed to himself. “Me?”
Sythus nodded, just once and with great deliberation. The wraiths parted like curtains and revealed a rickety wooden cart. Halren’s father used a similar cart to bring crops, and sometimes Halren, in from the field. He could almost see the old man now, walking beside their old donkey, Maggs, trying to convince Halren the road to a good life was paved with hard work.
“You don’t just ask the gods to give you the life you want. You have to earn it.”
“You could get a priest to ask the gods for you.”
His father stopped the cart, reached up, and pulled him bodily onto the road.
“What was that for?”, Halren asked the back of his father.
The man continued to lead the cart back to their little house. “Because there’s no such thing as a free ride. It’s time you learn that.”
The cart before him now had no donkey. Instead Halren saw two strange devices unlike anything he had ever laid eyes on before. Each had a small platform suspended between two large wheels. A post jutted up and out in front, with a cross-bar on top for handles.
Were these the escorts’ mystical steeds? Every depiction he ever encountered showed them as some sort of horses, usually rather large horses, not these… whatever these things were. What else did the legends have wrong?
“All right, no need to push.” They hadn’t moved, yet Halren felt the escorts’ impatience urging him forward like invisible hands. They wanted him in the cart. Now.
He obeyed and climbed in. “Where are we going?”
Sythus and Ithus approached their steeds and each stepped onto the platforms between the wheels. They leaned forward in unison and, with a faint hum, the wheels began to turn. The cart creaked from the strain and lurched forward.
They picked up speed heading directly towards a wall of red stone. Halren braced himself against the rear of the cart. Could he still feel pain? “Uh, my good fellows… I suppose I shouldn’t be concerned about it, being dead and all, but aren’t we going to crash?”
His escorts each waved an arm at the wall. Blue and white lights danced across a large section, dissolving it into nothingness as the cart rumbled through. Halren slumped to the floor, breathing heavily.
Just when things finally started going his way he had to end up dead. It just wasn’t fair.
Life’s not fair. That’s what his father replied any time he complained about things not going to plan. Perhaps the old man had been right. Halren took a deep breath and sighed.
His eyes began to water and his nose filled with a burning smell. He slid himself over to the edge of the cart and peered at the road below. Fire. He looked down at cart. Wood. He reached over the side and let a single finger touch the metal band on the wheel. He snapped his hand away with a yelp.
Two questions answered: the road was on fire, and he could still feel pain.
“Are you sure we’re going in the right direction? Surely this is Dramol Way, the flaming road to Kathadra.” Halren had no longing to visit the city of eternal torture. “Shouldn’t you be taking me to Bolrinia?”
“All right. I get it. I should never have pushed the priest to intercede for me.” Halren paused. He decided to leave out the part where he questioned if the gods had the power to grant his request.
“I paid the rather hefty ‘donation’ he demanded.” Halren moved to the front of the car and leaned towards Ithus and Sythus. “Should he have done that? I don’t think that’s right. Am I to be punished for his actions?”
In the months since his encounter with that priest things really turned around for him. He managed to gain an audience with the Queen, who happened to be looking for a new court balladeer. His future looked bright as he watched the Queen’s coach ride across the courtyard towards the palace hall..
Why couldn’t he remember?
Now this, traveling down the road on a one way trip to never-ending pain and torture. Halren looked upwards. “Well Dad, death isn’t fair either. You happy?”
He turned back to the escorts. “Look, I know I’ve been a bit of a pest, and I could have given a bit more at the temples now and again, but I’ve led a good life. Boring, sure, but I never harmed anyone. Isn’t there something I could do to change our destination?”
Sythus turned his cold white face towards Halren and shook his head. He turned away again and pointed. In the distance a tower-like structure rose up into the swirling purple sky. Lights glistened and sparkled up its entire height and letters burned across the top.
Halren struggled to read the words. His father insisted he learn to read, and it had come in handy. These words he did not recognize, except one. “Bolrinia? That’s Bolrinia?”
The two figures nodded in unison without turning to face him. Relief poured over him like rain. Paradise.
Halren’s gaze remained affixed to the towering structure for the remainder of the long journey. He always envisioned Bolrinia as a field or garden. When he tried to remember any description in the scrolls, he couldn’t recall there actually being any.
None of the artistic impressions looked anything like this. Its construction was unlike anything he had ever encountered. It appeared to be made entirely out of solid black marble. A long stairway led up from the road to a set of huge golden doors that danced with the light of the burning road.
His silent escorts leaned back and the cart came to an abrupt stop. Ithus gestured for him to get out. Halren leapt over the flames and onto the grand marble stairwell.
He waited for them to follow. “Do I just go in?”
Sythus nodded and shooed him away like an insect. The two wraiths exchanged a glance and then leaned forward and rode away on their strange humming mounts. He felt certain they were laughing at him.
So what? He stood just outside the gates of paradise.
A rush of energy surged through Halren, and he bounded up the stairs. Maybe the dead didn’t get tired. He could get used to this.
Check back next week for the next installment.