The Death and Times of Halren of Durgol
©2009 Jason Penney
Cabbage. The smell filled Halren’s nose. He gagged and began to cough.
“You’re going to be fine, son. Don’t try and move.”
Halren’s eyes opened. A pock-marked face stared back at him from much too close. The smell of the man’s breath almost caused him to faint.
Halren tried to back away, but couldn’t. “Can you…”
“What is it, son.”
“…step back a bit?”
The face smiled and floated away, upwards. Firelight danced across wooden beams. Halren realized he was lying down. He tried to sit up, but couldn’t. Ropes dug into his chest. “Why am I tied down?”
“I’m sorry, son. I wasn’t sure what to expect when you came round.”
What was happening? Halren tried to force his mind to make sense of what was going on, but it refused. “Where am I?”
“We feel terrible.” A woman’s voice. “We will have the driver flogged for you as soon as you feel up to watching it.”
“Who is that?” Halren’s eyes shot around the room. “Where am I?”
“Calm yourself, son.” Cabbage breath leaned over Halren again and whispered, “It’s Queen Rohna herself. There was a terrible accident. You’re lucky to be alive.”
“Alive? What do you mean?”
“It is a miracle,” said the queen. “We were coming to our great hall to hear from a potential new court musician, Halren of Durgol. We suppose that was… is you. Sorry about your instrument. Our silly coachman lost control of our horses. We thank the gods you have awakened. Our poor horses feel very bad about it indeed. We were sure you were dead.”
“I was dead.”
“No, son.” The man placed a firm hand on his shoulder. “Very nearly.”
“No. I was in Bolrinia. It was wonderful! I was just about to…” Halren remembered the queen, and trailed off.
“Just about to what?”, asked the queen.
“Pay him no mind, Your Highness. He’s probably suffering a brain fever.”
“No, I was dead. I saw the wraiths. I went to Bolrinia. I met Rystus. I met Valestra”
“Fascinating.” The queen’s voice betrayed no real emotion. Halren had heard people comment on it but only now did he understand. “You must tell us all about it. Our father is dead, you know. Poor Daddy.”
The memory of good King Amullon getting beyond intimate with Lynara came unbidden to his mind. “Yes.. uhm… I think I need to…”
“Your majesty, I think we should let him rest. He has been through quite an ordeal.”
“Very well, Malbar.” Halren heard no anger in her voice, but he saw fear in Malbar’s face. “We expect to hear all about it once he is feeling up to it. We’re very interested.”
Halren heard the queen move away. Others he hadn’t noticed before followed. From the clanking noises Halren assumed they were the queen’s guard.
Malbar bent over him to remove the restraints. “You won’t be needing these. I have some nice cabbage stew. You must be quite hungry after your ordeal.”
The thought of eating cabbage stew turned Halren’s stomach. “No, I ate quite a big meal at the buffet.”
“You’d better get some sleep, son.” Malbar covered Halren with a blanket.
“Thank you,” Halren said before he drifted off.
Halren awoke to hear Malbar talking to someone.
“Tell the queen that he will need some time to recover. He may not be right in the head. I recommend she not see him for at least a year.”
He shooed the man out.
“Why’d you do that?”, Halren asked.
Malbar hobbled over to Halren and smiled down at him. “Listen, son. I believe your story, but you want to be very careful about what you say.”
“What do you mean?”
“You say you were dead. You went to Bolrinia.” Malbar paused to scratch his chin. “Well, I’m sure you aren’t supposed to remember something like that, are you? Best keep it to yourself.”
“But the queen –”
“I may look dim, but I saw it in your eyes. There’s something you don’t want to tell the queen, isn’t there?”
Halren nodded. “I –”
“No.” Malbar’s hands shot up and covered his ears. “Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.”
Halren nodded. “Help me up then.”
“You can’t be getting up so soon. You were dead just yesterday.”
“I feel fine now. I need to clear my head.”
Malbar shrugged and held out a hand. Halren grasped it and tried to rise. His body ached, but he didn’t feel trampled by horses. He tried to walk. Everything seemed to work.
He stepped outside and bumped into a thin man who seemed in quite a hurry to get in through the door. “Sorry.”
The man looked at him for a moment, then spoke. “Halren of Durgol?”
The man bowed. “The Queen concedes to Malbar’s expertise in this. Due to the inconvenience caused she will hold open the position of court balladeer until you return. Do you agree to these terms?”
“Look, I feel fine.”
The man stood there blinking for a moment, then repeated, “Do you agree to these terms?”
“I’d just say yes, if I was you,” called Malbar from inside.
Halren sighed. “Yes, of course.”
“Very good.” The messenger bowed, turned, and walked away.
A year? Why had Malbar interfered? Meddling old fool.
Halren tried to focus on the food smells and ignore the low murmurs filling the room. His clothing felt too tight. The lute began to slip in his sweaty hands.
“Come on, play us something new.”
Halren couldn’t see the speaker, but he sounded like a big man. A big man who might easily toss him across the room, or through the window. Ever since he returned from the afterlife his music seemed to be missing something. Half a year gone. How would he impress the queen if he couldn’t impress these simple folk? Things could get ugly if he didn’t hurry up and come up with–
“Something with a story,” someone called.
Yes. That was it. Halren placed the lute on his lap and wiped his hands on his chest to dry them. He picked the instrument up and gave a weak smile.
“This story,” he began, standing up, “is true.”
Halren strummed the lute and let the sweet sounds fill him. It drove all his fears away. Vivid memories flooded over him. His mouth opened and he sang the whole story. Starting with waking up in the red room, and ending with waking up to the smell of cabbage. It came to him on the spot without effort. He felt liberated to tell the entire tale for the first time. It didn’t matter that he told a room filled with strangers.
The song left him drained. Covered in sweat, he slumped back into the chair. When his eyes opened, faces stared back at him. Smiling faces. Halren rose to his feet and bowed. The crowd laughed and cheered.
Halren traveled from village to village testing the song for different audiences. He made minor adjustments, and kept a close eye on people’s reactions. He avoided cities. It wouldn’t do for the queen to catch wind of the song before his audition.
He tried to drop the verse about King Amullon and Lynara. He tried a number of different ways to avoid it, but it just didn’t work. The crowd somehow knew he had withheld something important.
On the nights he sang the entire song, it garnered reaction he never imagined. The death of King Amullon had been a national tragedy. Some said it had driven Princess Rohna mad, and from what Halren had seen of her it might be true. Night after night folks would come up in tears and thank him for helping them deal with their grief over the King’s death.
Tune in next week for the final installment!