The Death and Times of Halren of Durgol
©2009 Jason Penney
Halren stood alone between the center-most pillars of the great hall. Every sound he made echoed back at him from all sides. Harsh light reflected off the marble floors in the palace hall. The Queen’s court surrounded him along the outer edge of the room.
Halren performed with confidence. The Queen sat on a raised dais, watching him without any reaction. Her expressionless nature was considered an asset in foreign relations, but it didn’t help Halren any. He looked to the other faces. Good-natured smiles adorned most, unabashed amusement on more than one. That priest had come through for him after all.
He sang the verse about old King Amullon. The smiles morphed into slack-jawed shock. He tried to ignore it, but all eyes stayed locked on the Queen now. She continued to display no emotion.
Halren finished the song with a growing sense of dread. He struck the final note and bowed low, letting it ring out through the otherwise quiet hall. He waited for the guards to drag him away.
Quiet, deliberate applause broke the silence. Halren peeked up. The Queen stood, applauding with a broad smile. Seeing Halren looking at her she let out a friendly laugh. Halren dropped his eyes and bowed lower. A rumble of approval passed through the room and a general applause broke out.
After a moment the Queen raised a hand and the applause stopped. “We ask that you rise, Halren of Durgol.”
Halren straightened up too fast and almost toppled over backwards.
“If the court agrees, we will end our search for a new royal balladeer. We are impressed with Halren’s skill, and his humor. His tale enriches our knowledge by illuminating cryptic details only hinted at in our legends. Having such a talent in our service can only enhance our own prestige. I assume my court approves?”
A general murmur of ascent rose. Halren’s heart raced.
“Let it be so.” The Queen clapped twice and a servant stepped out from behind a column and rushed to her side. She whispered something to the boy, who nodded and ran over to Halren.
“Please, master Halren. Do you accept her majesty’s offer?”
“Then approach her, and lay your instrument at her feet.”
Halren stepped towards the dais, and placed the lute on the stair before the Queen. He dropped to one knee before her, unable to believe his good fortune.
Halren stood before the gray stone altar, unsure how to proceed. With no priest about the temple should he just leave some coin on the altar? What if someone stole it? Well, let it be on their head.
“Galanthus, great god of the afterlife, I come in thanks. I’m not sure exactly which immortal the priest served, but you must have played some part, so I offer you…” Halren reached into a pouch and pulled out a handful of coins. “I offer you fifteen silver coins, and two copper ones. Also, some dried meat.”
Halren placed the offering on the altar.
A bright flash filled the temple. When Halren could see again the offering had vanished, accepted by Galanthus. He waited alone in the dark temple hoping for a sign, some sort of confirmation, but none came.
He turned to leave, surprised to see a woman with shocking red hair standing inside the temple entrance. She smiled and gestured for him to follow before turning and heading out into the street.
“Wait.” He exited the temple just in time to see her turn a corner. “Hold on.” Too late. Halren rushed to the corner. Where did she go? He walked down the empty street, looking for any sign.
There. Halfway up the street a white hand beckoned him from behind a half closed door. Halren walked over and opened it. Inside the woman stood, smiling.
The woman stepped backwards and motioned for him to enter. Halren did and shut the door behind him. The small room contained no furnishings and the only light came from a small fire in the hearth.
“Interesting decor.” What had he gotten himself into?
The woman held out her arms.
“Not the chatty type, huh?” He stepped forward into her embrace. They kissed. Her lips felt dry. Very dry. They seemed to be drawing the moisture from his own. He broke away and held the woman at arms length. Up close she looked a lot older than he originally thought.
The woman began to age and wither at an incredible rate. Before he could blink only a gray dust cloud remained. Halren gasped, accidentally inhaling some of her remains.
“What in the name of Galanthus…”
“Right here, Halren.”
Halren turned to see the god of death staring back at him from a large golden throne against the far wall.
“Sit, Halren, we need to talk.” Galanthus motioned to a small stool that hadn’t been there a moment before.
Halren sat. “Are you here for me? Am I going back?”
“No, Halren. It’s too late for that I’m afraid.”
“What do you mean? Was it my offering? I’m not sure when I get paid yet, but I’ll come back with more.”
“The damage is done. You really should have listened to Nenus.”
Listened to Nenus? None of the wraiths ever spoke a word. “I’m sorry, but I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Halren, you were given a gift. A second chance at life.”
“And I’m grateful, I really am. Death wasn’t so bad though. I’ll be happy to go back.”
“That’s the problem, Halren. You aren’t supposed to retain that knowledge. You should have forgotten.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Look, I’m not sure how you did it, but it’s not right. You should have no memories of Bolrinia. You should have kept your mouth shut. Now Dramol Way is backed up with suicides. People trying to get their turn with Valestra.”
“She doesn’t do that for just anyone. She really liked you.” He scowled as if these words left a bad taste in his mouth. “She cried for a week.”
“Look, I didn’t know. It’s just a song.”
Galanthus’ hands balled into fists. “It’s not just a song. It’s the truth. A truth gains strength when placed into a story. A true story put to song has enormous power. The people believe in what you sing because you know it’s true.”
“What can I do?”
“Too late. I’m going to have to curse you.”
“No.” Halren fell to his knees. “Please have mercy.”
“Halren of Durgol, Royal Balladeer of Tariel, from this day forth you are cursed. As long as your song is known you shall not return to Bolrinia.”
“You mean I’ll burn?” Halren cried out in agony and prostrated himself before Galanthus.
“Oh no, Halren. You fail to understand. You can not die.”
“What?” That didn’t sound so bad.
“Not until you have achieved such renown you are no longer remembered for that song. No matter how old you get. No matter how much pain you suffer. No matter how many of your friends die in your arms, you’ll live on, forced to remember it all.”
“Is that it?”
Fire burned in Galanthus’ eyes. “You have no idea how hard it will be.”
Halren knelt upright. “If you say so. Maybe it’s just not sinking in yet.” He knew he should remain silent, but the words just came out.
“Look, until the day that the song is forgotten you will be unable to die. To lift the curse you must do something more worthy of remembrance. Something that dwarfs the power of your song.”
“So if I do something great, I’ll die? That’s the curse.”
“Simpleton. That’s the cure.”
“So there is a way out?”
“Well…” Galanthus looked ashamed. “It’s just how divine curses work.”
“So that’s it?”
“That’s it?” The walls shook with the force of Galanthus’ exasperation. Dust and debris fell from the ceiling. The fire went out; the god’s burning eyes now the rooms only light source. Halren felt them burrow into his soul. “I’ll never understand what she saw in you.” A bright flash and a strange burning smell filled the room.
Halren sat alone in the dark room for some time after the smoke cleared. Why had Galanthus taken it out on him? What had him so worked up? None of it made sense.
“Life’s not fair.” He spoke aloud his father’s favorite bit of wisdom, and tried to forget Galanthus’ burning eyes. When that didn’t work he went and found the nearest tavern and proceeded to celebrate his new position as royal balladeer until he passed out.