Death of a Darklord
Laurel K Hamilton
The skull lay on the desk, gleaming in the thin daylight. It was an old piece of bone, clean and dry. It looked human until held in one's hands and studied. The eye sockets were huge, almost as large as the empty sockets of a bird of prey. The strong yellowish teeth had sharp edges; the front teeth were fangs, made for piercing flesh, spilling blood.
Calum Songmaster remembered what the thing had looked like when alive. Something between a hawk and a wolf. . and what was left of the human the creature had once been. The man had been Gordin Smey, a friend, a comrade in battling evil. With the remnant of his mind, his decency, he had begged Calum to kill him. Calum had done it. Gordin had been a good man, with a wife and children. He had slain many monsters, but in the end, he had become one of them. Calum had saved the skull as a reminder that the land of Kartakass could corrupt anyone.
Now he lay in the soft, smothering folds of his sickbed, propped up on one side like a spitted piece of meat, save that pillows and quilts kept him in place, not a sharp metal spike. But he was just as trapped. He stared at the skull of his long-dead friend and envied him his quick death.
Calum had survived all the evils of the land for eighty years. It was a prodigious age to have lived to see. Foul sorceries, monsters, beasts, robbers, evil people of every description; all these he had survived. Old age was not so easily escaped.
For many months, he had been unable to sit at his desk and work. The pain of the disease that ate him alive made every movement agony. He had been a tall, strong man, but now he was a bundle of sticks clothed in loose skin. He had made his housekeeper take down the room's mirror. Calum no longer recognized the fragile creature that stared back at him. In his mind, he was still young, strong, but mirrors did not lie, so he banished the truth-telling glass. The pain, and what he could see of his own body, were reminder enough.
His friends had come to visit him. His good friends. It was why he was propped up on his side, so he could see them without having to move, without having to let them know how much even the smallest movement hurt him. His housekeeper was very good about such things. He planned to leave her what money he had and this house. After twenty years, she deserved more, but it was all he had. Fighting evil was not a particularly lucrative business.
His friend, his best friend, sat in a chair by the bed. Jonathan Ambrose was not really young, nearly fifty. There was gray in his beard. His hair had receded to a thin circle that he kept closely cropped. The fashion was to let what hair you had grow long, but Jonathan never cared much for fashion. He wore a simple brown robe, clean, well mended, but utterly plain. No one had worn ankle-length robes in a decade, but Jonathan found them comfortable. His clear blue eyes looked at Calum. His face was smooth, calm. There was no hint of horror or pity.
For that Calum was grateful, but at.the same time, irritated.
To look at him, Jonathan might have been here on any afternoon. No special reason. Calum wanted to shout, "Don't you know I'm dying, dying?" He was angry his friend could face him without showing the pain he saw on so many faces. So why had he gotten angry at his housekeeper for crying this morning?
Calum gave a careful sigh. Nothing would satisfy him. He wanted everyone to know and pity his pain, and yet not to show it. He wanted to have his cake and eat it, too.
"I am a cranky old man," Calum said in a scratchy voice that he barely recognized as his own. Jonathan smiled that same gentle smile. "Never." Calum had to smile. His anger dripped away. He was suddenly glad of the visit. Was it a sign of death's nearness, these swift-changing moods? He was not sure; he had never died before.
In a smaller chair, the one his housekeeper usually sat in to do her sewing while she kept him company, sat the only other woman he allowed to see him like this. Tereza was tall, lithe, dark. Her thick black hair spilled round the strong bones of her face like a raven cloud. Her short, more fashionable tunic was scarlet, breeches brilliant emerald green. One black-booted foot was drawn up on the chair, her strong hands holding the knee. The belt from which hung short sword and pouches was black but much embroidered, so that it gleamed rainbowlike. Jonathan had a matching belt that made his brown robe look even more ordinary. But Tereza had embroidered the belts herself, and Jonathan always wore his.
There were no more chairs, so Konrad Burn stood behind the others. He was the youngest, not even thirty yet. His face had been handsome once. His green eyes were fierce and glittering as jewels, brown hair caught back in a leather thong. He was dressed all in brown leathers of varying shades that matched the tanned skin of his face and arms. An axe rode at his hip, a small shield on his back.
Calum was not sure what had changed in the younger man. His face was still clean-shaven, still unlined, but the life had gone out of it. It was as though he were looking at a bad painting. The picture looked like a man, but there was no life to it. Only his eyes gleamed, alive with. . rage: Konrad's wife and partner had been killed two years ago.
Calum's body was dying, but his mind and spirit cried out for life. Konrad's body was healthy, strong, but mind and spirit waited for death. Konrad lived, but it was only the motions of life. Calum would have changed places with Konrad in a moment. He wondered if the younger man would have agreed.
"The twins are just outside," Jonathan said. "They would love to see you."
"No," Calum said. "They are too young to see how all life ends."
Jonathan touched his hand, gently, gripping the fragile flesh. "It does not always end like this, Calum. You know that."
"Then why is my life ending like this?" Tears warmed his eyes. He tried not to blink, holding his eyes very still. Crying would have been the final embarrassment. His voice came out choked, and he hated it. "I was a good man, wasn't 1, Jonathan?"
"You are a good man, Calum." Jonathan squeezed his hand as if holding tight could make it better.
Calum clung to his hand, the betraying tears spilling down his cheeks. "I have fought the evil of this land my entire life. I have nothing to show for it."
"You are Calum Songmaster, one of the greatest bards in all of Kartakass. You could have been a meistersinger of any city or town if you had wanted it. You could have lived in luxury, but you chose to serve the entire land. To search out and destroy evil, to serve the brotherhood."
"But what have I accomplished, Jonathan? The evil still rules this land. The brotherhood is no closer to discovering who, or what, poisons Kartakass. The corruption will outlive me, Jonathan. It will grow and thrive, and I will be dead."
"How can you say that?" Jonathan asked.
Tereza knelt by the bed. "You are Calum Song-master, who defeated the vampires of Yurt. Calum Songmaster, the slayer of the great beast of Pel. Savior of Kuhl."
Staring into the woman's dark eyes, Calum could almost feel his blood flow stronger. For a moment, he was not an old man at the end of life, but the young Calum, the Songmaster who had tamed the wilderness and slain his share of monsters.
The pain roared up from his belly. A red, burning tide of pain that filled his body, ate his mind. Nothing was left but to ride the pain. He was aware, dimly, of Jonathan's hand still gripped in his own, but the rest of the world vanished while he writhed and trembled with pain.
He lay, weak and gasping, on the bed. Sweat covered his body. His hand was limp, too weak to hold Jonathan's. Jonathan cradled the trembling limb in both his own. A single tear trailed into his beard.
Tereza stared at him; no tears, but he could see a deep roaring pain in her eyes. He had never seen her cry. He was glad this would not be the first time.