The Death Is Not The End
"Oh how dark the night..." - Edwin was singing, while making his way throught the thicket. Sometimes bushes became too dense to go through them, so his old, a little rusty, sword took up the song in its own whistling and crackling voice.
The life of a hermit was a quiet one. No one bothered him since he made a small cabin out of tree branches and leaves in the very heart of the Elder Woods and settled inside. Years passed, the cabin became a little cosy hut, but still no one bothered Edwin. He guessed that all the local hunters, adventurers and others like them were just too careful (or too lazy) to go deep enough into the gloomy-looking forest. He also considered it to be good for his hermit's life.
But now, after ten years of hut-living, bog-fishing and serpent-hunting, he felt himself eager to make a little break. So, now he was making his way towards the southern edge of the forest, where, as he slightly recalled, a small village resided. Just what was its name?.. Ah, yes - Beerhill. Not bad, eh...
Something strange suddenly caught Edwin's eye. Looking at a nearby oak, he stopped, beholding a white skeleton, hanging on one of its branches. What a way to die... must be the work of some brigand band around.
Suddenly, a firm crackling voice echoed in his ears:
"What are you looking at so closely? I've always been thinking that a mere skeleton isn't worth such an attention..."
Puzzled about the voice's origin, he looked around, seeing no one nearby. But then, the voice continued:
"Have you lost something? Ah, we often lose something... And sometimes we lose our lives, never to find again..."
Edwin stared at the skeleton in astonishment for a while.
"You speak? Hell, I haven't heard of any speaking skeletons before..."
"Yes, I do. Why? In fact, that's all I'm still able to do - speak, speak, and speak, mostly to myself. Or, maybe, think. Recall... Not much good memories left, though..."
"So, who are... were you? And why are you here?"
"Oh, I don't think that my story would be of interest to you... But if you kindly insist... oh well. Some thirty years ago, my name was Charline..."
Edwin looked somewhat closer at the skeleton, then smiled a little:
"Ahem... Well, pleased to meet you... lady."
"A bit hard to tell it by my looks now, huh? Well, that's okay... I haven't been feeling myself too feminine all these years anyway. Hanging on a tree is not a pleasant way of killing the time, you know. So, let me get on with the story now..."
Edwin listened very carefully. At first, it seemed, there's nothing unusual about the story. Charline was just a peasant's daughter, living in a small village nearby. Everything around had been rather quiet and calm... until one night the brigands came.
There were several dozens of them. Dozens of ruthless cutthroats, ready to kill for gold. The villagers were not rich at all, but the bandits didn't care - that merciless band just swept over their homes, as would a blind ocean wave - taking everything, torturing and killing everyone brave (or foolish) enough to stand on their way. Of course, they could not pass by a young peasant girl without satisfying their animal needs.
"I knew, that my village won't survive that dreadful night, - she continued, - and I also had no hope of surviving it myself. I was quite sure, that they would just kill me after doing with me all they wanted to do. So, when one of those bastards grabbed me, I just spitted right into his grinning face. That was my fatal mistake..."
A few hours later, they hung her, violently beaten and completely broken, on a tree branch. As she closed her eyes, feeling her life slipping away, hoping to end this agony at last, she suddenly heard a sinister laugh nearby.
It was him. Red-faced bandit, looking at her with an exultant air, laughing like a jackass... and there also was some strange greenish glow, emanating from his wrinkled hands. She grew cold with terror from a sudden thought... but it was too late: that eerie light was growing brighter, floating off from the bandit's hands, and surrounding Charline. Before falling into darkness, she felt something ice-cold touching her skin and proceeding inside... That bastard was no ordinary brigand. He also turned out to be a necromancer.
When the darkness suddenly let her go, she knew, that she was dead. But she was cursed to retain her mind forever, to hang on that tree, slowly becoming a lonely, helpless skeleton, losing any hope of, at least, finding some peace in death...
The slow, sad voice of the skeleton finally faded, and nothing but a distant cricket broke the silence for a few moments. Finally, Edwin raised his head, shaking it a little, and said:
"A terrible story... I'd say I'm willing to help you with all I can... but I guess, that would just sound silly in your case. Still... aren't you bored by just hanging here for thirty years?"
The skeleton shrugged her shoulder-bones:
"Bored? Maybe... but what else is possible for me now? Must be my destiny. You can't struggle against destiny, can you? Besides, what else can I hope for, when I am nothing more than a few bones of a long-dead woman? Yes, these bones are still intact... they still feel something... But that's just the result of that cursed necromancer's cruel joke."
"Well, there's much more things in our world, than one could see. I guess, even a skeleton could find something to "live" for, if he... or she wished to. Maybe it would be better for you to get off that tree and go for a walk at last?"
Charline remained silent for some time, than replied softly:
"Okay, maybe I'd give it a try. I don't think that anything can help me now. But why not? I don't have any things to do here... I don't have any living (or at least undead) relatives or friends. I don't have anything at all in the whole world! So, maybe, it would be good, at least, to have some freedom..."
It wasn't too hard to tear away the rotten remnants of an old rope, which was holding the skeleton on the tree. When she was finally down, she carefully stretched her legs, made a few steps around the tree and stopped.
"What a surprise. I still remember how to walk. Still, I doubt that it would be too helpful in my current state. Well... I guess I should thank you, sir..."
"Edwin, - he said, - And you are welcome. Really..."
"Welcome... sounds somewhat strange, when addressed to a skeleton... Oh, whatever. So, now I am free to go... but where? I don't know any places I want to visit now. Maybe... may I please just follow you, kind Edwin?"
"Err, - he hesitated a little, - I don't mind, really... but what if someone sees us together? I mean..."
"Yes, I understand, - Charline interrupted, stretching her jaws, in a weird resemblance to a sour smile, - you mean, what people would say when seeing you walking on a village street with an animated skeleton by your side?"
"Ummmmm... well... yes."
"Okay. I promise to keep distance, to be careful and not to show myself too much. Would you agree to such terms?"
"Hm... yes, - Edwin tried to smile, - Yes, okay, you may go with me, Charline..."
...The village of Beerhill was gushing with activity. "A strange sight to behold at such a late hour" - Edwin thought, looking at all those men, women and some other rather strange and unfamiliar creatures, filling the streets. They were loudly talking with each other, laughing, or just wandering around with torches in their hands, as if no one had ever heard of sleeping at night.
"What's going on here?" - Edwin asked a young man, wearing a funny-looking wide-brimmed hat and a purple robe, passing him by. The man stopped, looking at the hermit, clearly surprised:
"What's going on?! Had you been living in a forest for the last ten years, or something? That's the Mid-year Festival, of course! And now, don't bother me anymore please - I'm going to the tavern to take part in the masquerade!"
The hermit stood still for a few moments. He didn't see any purpose in explaining that he really lived in the forest for all this time... He did not care THAT much about what the people think of him. But the word "masquerade" got his attention.
He turned back to the dense bushes and called:
"Charline? Looks like you can go out and show yourself. I don't think that someone here would be too surprised by your looks now - they would just think of it as of a good costume for their masquerade."
"As you say, kind Edwin... - the skeleton replied in her sad, crackling voice, going out from the bushes, - But do you really think that I'd look good enough at their festival?"
"Charline, really! Who cares? I bet, they would just drink their beer, sing their songs and arrange a few fights when they get tired of beer! No one would even notice us, if we just sit in a corner and look..."
Edwin was right. Upon entering the tavern, they approached the bartender.
"Two beers, please," - hermit said, putting a few old coins on the stand.
"No... one beer... - corrected Charline from behind his back, - You know, I can't... I mean, I just don't want to drink now."
Edwin felt himself a bit silly, when taking the cup from the barman and directing his steps towards a small table in the corner of the tavern. How could he possibly think that a skeleton would drink any beer? That ten years of hermit's life must have been a bad experience for his brains...
They sat silently, watching people around drink, dance and sing - just as Edwin predicted. They all were ordinary men inside (even though some of them looked not very humanic), with their simple needs and wishes. They liked to celebrate, no matter the occasion, and right now, they were doing just that.
A huge figure rose from one of the tables. It was clearly a troll, no matter that he was wearing a behemoth mask on his head - it still was not too hard to recognize his true nature. He was also clearly dead drunk. Slightly rocking on his way and muttering something, he dragged himself towards the door. But when he was ready to go out, the door suddenly flied open, and a man in a dark cloak, concealing his face under a hood, rushed in, immediately crashing his head at the troll's huge paunch.
Spitting out a round oath, he tried to push the troll aside, then, understanding all the foolishness of such an attempt, quickly raised his hands and muttered something. A small ball of green light flashed in the twilight, throwing the troll back. With a growling yell of surprise and pain, he crashed into a nearby table, breaking it down. Everyone around became very silent, as they watched the strange visitor coming up to the barstand.
"Barman, a jug of beer!"
"Sir... I don't think you are welcome here after what you have done to poor Hrogger. You'd better go away and not waste this fine night with your presence..."
"What?!! How dare you say THAT to ME! Looks like I'll have to teach you some manners!"
He raised his hands again, taking off the hood and quickly glancing back, then turned back to the brave barman...
"Charline?.. Where are you going?" - Edwin whispered, when the skeleton suddenly rose from the table and went slowly to the barstand. Looking back at him, she replied:
"It's him... it is the one who cursed me... I remember him well, so I'm sure. Now, it's time for one of us to die once and for all."
Edwin opened his mouth again to try to convince her to stay in place, but then stopped. Why the hell should he stop her from at least trying to get some revenge from her murderer? She's long-dead anyway...
Another greenish ball of light was ready to part with the fingertips of the unwanted visitor and meet the bartender's chest (he was already white as a sheet from fear), but then the necromancer suddenly felt someone's ice-cold fingers on his neck. Surprised, he waved his hands, releasing the magic bolt into the ceiling, then turned to see the skeleton before him. His face slowly broke into an ominous smile - he, too, recognized Charline at first sight. How could he possibly forget his own creation? Pushing her away without any real effort, he began to mumble something indistinctly, obviously preparing another deadly (or whatever word would be more suitable for destroying an undead creature) spell, but in that very moment, barman, who had finally came back to his senses, grabbed a large wooden plank from under the barstand, and bashed the necromancer's head from behind. Stunned by the blow, he just stared at the tavern's side wall with an uncomprehending look for a few moments, and that moments were enough for Charline to raise her boney leg and hit the necromancer with all her might, throwing him back from the barstand... right into Hrogger's awaiting arms. The troll, who had clearly came to himself by now, but still did not look too sober, uttered a wild roar of fury, slightly mixed with pleasure and anticipation:
"My gotcha, nasty magick! Now my kill ya! Rrrraaaaaarrgh!!!"
Everybody turned away from the scene - it was not a pretty sight. The necromancer yelled madly, but his cries ended very soon, after a number of mighty blows from the raging troll...
As the sun was beginning to rise over the horizon, Edwin and Charline were still sitting in the corner of the tavern silently. This night's events were an unusual experience indeed, but one thing was still unclear. Finally, Charline spoke first:
"He is dead. I guess, he must be really dead now... not undead like me. But if so - then why am I still feeling anything? Why hadn't my worthless bones crumbled into dust the very moment the necromancer, whose evil powers made me what I am now, gave his last breath? I don't understand it, Edwin."
"I don't understand it either..." - hermit replied, rubbing his forehead with a thoughtful look.
Suddenly, they saw Hrogger slowly approaching them from other side of the tavern hall. Troll stopped near the table and stared at Charline with his half-drunk eyes:
"Good fight was! My beat bad necros to death! My thanks ya brave skeleton fo' yer help!"
A bit surprised with that tirade, she replied slowly:
"I, too, should thank you for killing that bastard. But tell me please... what have you done to him?"
"Why, my crash hims head! My bash him many times! My crumble hims bones! And then my eats hims black heart!"
Edwin smiled to Charline:
"Looks like I undestand everything now. Our friend here, - he nodded at Hrogger, - had eaten the necromancer's heart, thus taking a part of bastard's power into himself. He surely doesn't have an idea of how to use that power, and I guess it is good for all of us. But still, that power remains... so, that must be the reason, why are you still intact as a skeleton."
"Sounds like that could be true, - Charline replied after a moment of silence, - but what do I do now then? I'm tired, Edwin... I'm tired of this half-living, tired of being a skeleton... tired of everything! There just haven't left anything in the whole world for me to hope for!.."
Hrogger was standing near the table, looking at them, clearly not understanding, what are they talking about, and what the problem is. Catching his misunderstanding gaze, Charline uttered a sad sigh, and said:
"Sit down, friend. It seems, that no one of us has nothing much to do right now anyway, so, maybe I should tell you everything, too..."
The troll was listening carefully, though he hardly could understand some of the things, Charline spoke of. When the tale was finished, he sat silently for a few moments, then, suddenly, roared:
"My help ya! My hears of a wizard far east! Good wizard! Never meet him, but many tales! My helps ya find wizard, wizard helps ya be fine!"
Edwin and Charline quickly exchanged glances with each other:
"Hmm, Charline... I think that sounds like a hope for you."
"A hope? For me? I don't think so... what hope can I have after being dead for thirty years?"
"I don't know... But who knows, what is that wizard capable of? I think, you should give it a try."
"Maybe... maybe not... Oh, well. I have nothing to do in this world anyway, so I'll try... Okay, kind Hrogger. I will go with you."
"Aaargh! My glad! Let we go now!.."
...Edwin was looking out from the tavern's window, watching the two figures - one large and bulky, the other thin as a stick - slowly disappear behind the eastern horizon. The rising sun was illuminating their way, promising a new hope to the hopeless...
Then, he went out silently, and directed his steps towards the edge of the Elder Woods. Home again...