Ordelius Dobber knew that today was the day he was going to die — and there was nothing he could about it. The gods above issued the portents of life, and in his case, death. In the dark bells that had passed the night before, he had prayed silently to Ol to change his inevitable fate. His prayers had failed, for he had woken with an icy cold grip of dread still clawing into him, its unseen talons piercing his heart as his life force slowly seeped away. All that he had left was today. He moaned weakly and rolled over in bed, his clammy face pressed into the pillow, stifling the anguish he felt within.
“Delius!” Mona screeched just outside the window. “Get your breech end out of bed right now and come and feed these pigs.”
Ordelius pulled the pillow over his head with trembling hands, clutched the shivaree’s claw on the thong around his neck and rocked gently. It was hard to accept that he would die on an ordinary day like this, with his wife whining about the pigs being in need of their swill. He groaned again and drew his knees up under the covers, hugging his scrawny legs to his chest.
“I said *get up*!” The words boomed in his ears as Mona suddenly barged into the room, plucked off the pillow and tossed the bedding to the floor. Ordelius knew that Mona was not a woman to be trifled with. Over the years she had become rather broad in the beam, and there was solid strength in her akin more to an ox than a cow. Ordelius shrugged himself upright and swung his feet onto the cold floor, ducking to avoid the blow aimed in his direction.
“Turdation!” she cussed as she stormed out the door, grabbing a bucket and broom on her way.
Ordelius sighed deeply and stood up. He tugged his nightshirt over his bony shoulders and ran cold hands over his skinny body, checking carefully for any signs of malady or disease. Mona had left her wash pitcher on the stand. He splashed some cold water on his face and half-heartedly raked the stringy flap of gray hair over his bald pate before pulling on his breeches and threadbare shirt. He slipped his bare feet into his mud-crusted shoes and turned towards the door. Pausing on the threshold, he tapped the ground twice with the tip of his shoe — once for health, once for wealth — the little ritual his mother had taught him in childhood. It seemed rather trifling this morning, but now he was ready to face the day. His last day.
It had all started a sennight before, on a dark street near the edge of Dargon, and on a night when Ordelius had perhaps had a bit more than usual to drink. He had stumbled from the Shattered Spear — or rather, Jahlena had tossed him out the door because he had become rowdy and impoverished at about the same time — and had staggered into the road just as the fourth night bell clanged in the distance. The world had seemed a little unsteady around him and he had paused to regain his balance. The air had been black and cold; each breath had burned his lungs and made his head spin. The clouds had lifted, letting a bright Nochturon shine down on him, and Ordelius had raised his voice in a greeting, hailing the moon and thanking it for casting a light unto his path. Then he had shuddered, overcome with the feeling that something or someone lurking unseen in the shadows was watching him. He had looked about, anxious, then had decided to hurry home, even if it was to face Mona’s wrath. That would have been all good and well, if it had not been for the other thing that had happened on his way home.
“Delius Dobber!” Ordelius dropped his head and shuffled the bucket of swill across to the pig trough as Mona’s heavy stride approached.
“Skies above, Delius!” she exclaimed. “What in Stevene’s name has gotten into you?”
“Sorry, dear.” He stared at her, recalling how nice it was to snuggle up behind her and place his arm around her, cupping her full breast in his small hand as he fell asleep at night. She had a familiar scent about her, almost sweet, but with an undertone of warm spice. He would miss that.
“You’ve been behaving very strangely.” Her tone mellowed and she reached out to wipe some splattered swill off his face. Her touch reminded him of the days when he was courting her. It felt like a lifetime ago.
“You said you would be getting these things to Sian.” She was clutching a cloth-covered basket. He did not want to be away from home on today of all days, but this errand was important to Mona. Once an orphan herself, Sian had used money left to her by her adoptive parents to give a home to street children. Ordelius and Mona had been childless throughout their marriage, and he knew that she had found some comfort in providing what they could from their land for Sian and her little ones. Mona took the bucket from him and gave him the basket. Ordelius heaved a long sigh, then pecked her down-soft cheek and set off for Dargon.
In truth, as he recalled, it had been an act of nature that dark night that had signaled his imminent demise. After he had left the tavern, he had felt more and more discomfort with each step, the result of having drunk too many ales. A sudden rustling in the shadows had startled him and he had increased his pace, silently telling himself that it was merely the rats foraging in the gutters. He had felt a growing sense of pressure and had hurried on until the urge to relieve himself could no longer be ignored. With one hand fumbling with his breeches, he had staggered over to the edge of the roadside buildings. There was a tight, narrow gap between two of the walls, and he had slipped in through it, gripped his bursting cod and unleashing a stream of piss into the black night. In that instant, it was as if Makdiar itself had sundered open. There had been a loud rattle and a feral grunt as the ground beneath him erupted, buckling his knees and tossing him to the dirt. A giant figure had risen up above him, blocking the moonlight with an outstretched arm that jabbed violently into the blackness as he cowered below. For just one moment, Ordelius had raised his head and had found himself staring straight into the face of Death.
“Hello, Ordelius,” a voice called from behind, bringing Ordelius to the present. He spun around to face the caller and saw Sian crossing the road, little Kerith tagging behind.
“Greetings, Sian.” He extended the basket to her. “I was just bringing this to you.”
“Thank you kindly.” Sian gripped the basket and lifted the cover, spying the fresh bread Mona had baked and the burly-beans from their small garden. “You should be blessed, you are such good people.”
Ordelius swallowed hard and tousled Kerith’s curls, wishing that Sian’s words were true, for he was not blessed, but doomed. The sun was not yet fully high, but his hands were all clammy and he could feel his shirt clinging to his body.
“You should stop by and see Mona,” he said suddenly. “Bring the children. She’d like that.” Sian gave him a quizzical look.
“Of course.” She put a hand on his shoulder and looked down at Kerith. “Some of us would like to see the new piglets, wouldn’t we?” Kerith smiled shyly.
“I’d best be off.” Ordelius looked down at Kerith’s pretty face and realized she had a whole life ahead of her. He only had today.
“All right, Ordelius. Tell Mona we’ll see her soon.” Sian clutched Kerith’s hand, swung the basket onto her hip and headed back across the road towards Market Street. Ordelius watched until they turned a corner. He felt hot and sticky, and his throat was very dry.
The memories flooded back. While he had trembled near the ground in the dark alley, the putrid stench of the gaunt being before Ordelius had overwhelmed him. The creature’s eyes were sunken in its head, the skin stretched taut across the emaciated face. It had raised a bony hand in his direction and spewed evil-sounding grunts. The hand clawed in on itself and he watched in horror as it twisted towards the creature’s own neck, mimicking a stranglehold.
Ordelius had pulled himself into a tight ball, afraid to face the demon. His ears had filled with a frenzied rattling noise that echoed in the alley. He had felt a cold, damp presence over his naked scalp and had not waited another moment, but had scampered to the gap in the wall and burst onto the road, his breeches flailing about his churning legs as he raced homeward through the black night. Mona had looked up in fright as he had crashed through the door, but after listening a short while to the blubbering man in front of her, she had accused Ordelius of being a no-good drunk and clobbered him solidly. He had spent that night curled in front of the fire, listening to Mona’s gentle snores in the room next door, wishing that it had all been a horrible nightmare from which he would awake in the morning.
Indeed, when morning came Ordelius had put the incident behind him and had almost forgotten about it until last night, when he had returned to the Shattered Spear.
The loud clatter from a wagon snapped Ordelius from his reverie. He looked up, his chest tightening. He dragged his eyes away from the shimmering blue heavens, fearful that his eyes would light upon the sign that marked his pending doom. The sun was nearing its zenith, which meant that the midday bells would soon ring out. For Ordelius, every bell that tolled in Dargon this day rang with the echo of his funeral dirge. After saying farewell to Sian, he had not returned home to Mona, but had been wandering through Dargon’s streets, on this, his last day alive. He had been down to the docks to smell the brine of the ocean for the last time. He had listened to the water lapping gently against the dockside and watched screegulls swooping down into the waters after hidden prey. He had followed a trail of voices and stopped to watch the flurry of activity in the market place. It was so alive, with the sounds of people talking and haggling, and animals squawking and squealing. He would have gone to Temple Street, but he doubted that the Euilamon and priests would have any answers. As he had paced through the dusty streets of Dargon, he had come to a realization: he had met with Death in the alley that black night and, from that moment, he should have known that his days on Makdiar would end soon. All it needed was a sign, and it had come, last night.
It seemed fitting that he was now standing in front of the Shattered Spear, for it was here that it had all begun. There was a gnawing feeling in the pit of his stomach as he ran his tongue across his parched lips. He pushed the tavern door open and went inside, and smiled forlornly at Jamis, the tavern owner, who was already decanting a tankard of ale for him. Ordelius sank into his regular seat close to the grimy window. A buxom serving woman brought the tankard, not caring that she sloshed the dark liquid onto his lap as she set it down before him. He gulped it down.
“I want something to eat,” he said. She waited mutely on him for a few moments, but when he did not elaborate, she walked off, leaving him to stare blankly into the distance.
It had been right here that he had heard the news, on the night before. Ordelius recalled that he had felt a strangeness in the air as he had slipped out the cottage door and hurried to the Shattered Spear. The tavern was crowded and he had scrunched himself into a corner close to a huddle of burly sailors while quaffing his ale. For the most part, his attention had been on the young wench serving them; each time she had leaned over the table to pass down another tankard he had caught a glimpse of her brown nipples peeking from the lace bodice. The little thrill that it had given him made him tingle until he had heard one of the sailors say, “It is a strange light — I swear it — up in the sky, glowing like fire.”
There were rumblings and murmurs and guffaws around him, but Ordelius had felt his chest grow tight. The sailor was getting annoyed at his skeptical audience.
“All right!” he had boomed, “If you don’t believe me, step outside and look for yourselves.”
Ordelius had felt a hard lump swelling in his throat as he waited anxiously for the sailors and other tavern patrons to get up and accompany the sailor to the door. He had spilled out onto the road with the rest of them and looked upward.
The dark shapes of clouds scudded across the starlit night, blacking out Nochturon’s yellow glow.
“Stupid buffoon,” a man had yelled and slugged the sailor who had dragged them out.
“No … look …” An unknown voice had caused them to fall silent and stare at the strange light that was now clearly visible. Ordelius had stared at the light. If he had ever doubted that he had met Death, he could be certain now. The sign he had secretly feared was burning in the night sky, and only he knew what it truly meant.
“A bowl of soup.” There was a thud as she plopped it in front of him and Ordelius looked at her.
“Thank you,” he said politely. She looked at him and gave him an encouraging smile, then walked off. Ordelius lifted the spoon to his mouth and slurped in the hot broth. It had no discernible taste — no doubt made from the leftovers of last night’s tavern fare. It was hot, but not hot enough to take away the chill in his bones. She was suddenly back with another full tankard.
“Would you like some stew instead?” She had deep blue eyes, and on any other day Ordelius would have been happy to drown in their depths.
“The soup is fine.” He clinked the spoon on the full bowl. “I am not that hungry.”
“It’s been awful quiet in here today,” she said, “on account of that strange light. People just want to be home.”
He was not in the mood to talk about the strange light.
“Some say it’s a bad omen,” she continued, trying to engage him in eye contact, “but others say it is the birth of a new god.” She waited expectantly for him to say something, but even after another good swig, Ordelius’s throat was too tight with fear to speak. She walked back to the counter, swishing a cloth over her shoulder.
Ordelius shifted uneasily on the bench. He was the only one who knew the truth: that Death had no words, only signs and deeds. He had fouled Death and such an evil act alone could have an awful result. From the moment he had seen the light in the sky last night he had known that it spelled his doom. He downed the last dregs of the strong bitter liquid, burped, and took a mouthful of soup. He thought about his life. There had been too many days spent here in the tavern, drinking, and not enough time spent at home with Mona instead. Ordelius sat mutely, his body trembling violently. He wondered briefly if he should go to the healer who lived on Atelier Street. Raneela, he thought her name was. But he doubted that she would see how the hand of Death had reached inside him and was tearing him apart. His chest burned, his arms tingled and his jaw felt rigid with th e fear that crept through his body.
The crackle and sputter from logs in the tavern’s great hearth brought Ordelius back to the present. He realized that it was getting dark. Soon Death would be here to claim him. Ordelius shivered. He had hardly touched the soup, and now it was cold and lumpy. He set the spoon down and took another half-hearted swig of ale, letting it dribble down his chin. An icy draft swept through the tavern as the door swished open and closed behind a new patron. Ordelius looked up, but the stout man was a stranger to him. He turned away and took another deep slug of warm ale. The serving woman crossed the tavern and stopped just short of his table, reaching up to light a torch on a nearby wall. The last rays of daylight had faded outside. His head jerked at a new sound that had intruded into his thoughts. He had heard that noise before. A tap. A rattle. A tap, then a rattle. His eyes grew wide as he peered through the tavern window into the encroaching night. He raised his hand to brush away some of the mire on the murky glass pane. Staring back at him he saw the cold waxen features of the creature from the dark alley. Suddenly he was cold, so very, very cold.
Raneela looked weary as she approached the scrawny little man who was slumped over the table, his hair trailing in the soup bowl in front of him. There was a small cluster of onlookers next to the serving wench, who was blubbering about how he had looked all funny when he came in and that he had been drinking and hardly eating and drinking more, and then he had just keeled over.
“I bet it was the food that killed him,” Raneela joked, but the humor was lost on the stout lass who bolted away, tears spilling down her face. She looked away from Jamis, the tavern owner, and the faces of a dozen or so curious drinkers as she slipped her fingers under the floppy head and held them there for a mene.
“Waste of good time,” she shrugged with annoyance and turned away. “There is no healing to be done here.”
Someone tipped Ordelius Dobber onto the bench, straightened him as best they could and covered him with a blanket as Jamis walked with Raneela to the door.
“Be off with you!” Jamis shouted to a dark form that was skulking in the shadows outside the door. They watched as the giant robed figure scurried into the night, grunting under its breath, a bony hand stabbing at the air and pointing skywards.
“Who in turdation is that?” Raneela asked, clenching her nose to expunge the rotten stench the man had left in his wake.
“The Death Rattler.” Jamis spat into the dark. “The man can smell death. I swear he scavenges for dead bodies at night. Probably kills a few live ones too.”
Raneela looked up at the night sky as the ball of light cast a trail of fine sparks behind it. She had been kept busy ever since it had appeared, with wild-eyed men and women at her door begging for herbs to ward off this unlikely portent of evil. She wondered how anything that beautiful could be feared by anyone.
“Why didn’t you throw him out?” she asked Jamis, jabbing her thumb in the direction of the prostrate form on the bench.
“Felt sorry for the puny little runt. His wife’s a real tyrant.” Jamis sighed and bid the healer farewell.
The light that assailed his closed eyes was painfully bright, and Ordelius Dobber wondered if indeed there was life after death. Then he heard a sound he dreaded. It hammered right into his aching head, pounding through the haziness.
“Delius Dobber! You get your breech end out here right now!”
Ordelius forced his eyes open and surveyed the side edge of the table. He dropped his feet to the floor and let the blanket slide down in a crumpled heap, propping himself on the table for support. Jamis was leaning over the counter with an amused look in his eye, but he straightened up and took a step backwards when the formidable Mona Dobber burst through the tavern doors, her shrill voice berating him too. The wenches wiping down the tables suppressed giggles as Mona seized Delius in a firm grip and marched him out the tavern.
Jamis crossed the room and leaned against the doorway. He laughed heartily as Mona Dobber strode up the road, dragging Ordelius by the collar, stirring up the dust in their wake.
“I bet right now poor Delius wishes he was dead.”