He was a very ugly old man
|The Old Man
He was a very ugly old man; shrunken and wrinkled, almost blind and with no teeth. He was too weak to climb stairs, or travel from one room to the next without help and there were only a few wisps of white hair left to cover a mottled pink scalp. No one really knew how old he was, but Jim's father said he'd been called Old Ben even when he was a boy. He was the oldest person in the castle, maybe the oldest person in all the world. He had lost both his sons to the war, and his daughters had long ago married and moved away and then died. Most his time was spent roaming the countryside, searching, but Old Ben kept returning, teaching the King's children and telling them all the old stories.
There to meet him upon his return was James Ebbard Howl, all of fourteen years of age, and the young heir to the throne.
"So why'd you come back?" James asked him. "I thought for sure the journey would have killed you."
"Not the journey, but the horse," he said laughing. "I looked for Death, but I am old and can't see as good as I once could."
"How old are you, anyway?" James prodded.
The old man smiled at him, toothlessly. "Too old to remember," he said. "And that's for certain."
"Are you as old as your dumb ol' stories?" James asked with a smirk.
"My stories? No, little one, not mine. The stories are, before me and after me, before you too."
"So, how were you able to cheat Death this time, old man?" he asked.
Old Ben let out a deep sigh. "Death has forgotten me," he said, "and every time he does come lurking about, I stick my tongue out at him and laugh in his face." Old Ben giggled at that, and then grinned like a madman. "Do you want me to tell you your favorite story?"
James slumped down in his chair. "I don't want anymore stories," James snapped, his voice petulant. "And don't care whose stories they are," he told him, "I hate them all."
"I know a story about a boy who hated stories," Old Ben said with a stupid smile.
"No! Besides, my favorites are the scary ones."
"Oh, sweet child," he said quietly, "what do you know of fear? Fear is for the long night, when the sun hides its face, and little children are born and live and die all in the dark." He glanced up at James with pale, filmy eyes and asked, "So boy, this is the sort of story you like?"
"Well," James said reluctantly, "yes, only . . . "
Old Ben's nod was as slow and deliberate as a glacier. "In the darkness, the Other came," he said as his eyes rolled back in his head, his voice like honey pored over thunder. "It was a cold thing, dead thing, that hated every creature with hot blood in its veins. It swept over cities and kingdoms, felled heroes and armies. Nothing could stop it. Even maidens and suckling babes found no pity from it. The Other hunted the maids through darkened streets and fed upon the flesh of human children."
"Really? What was it?" James asked, more than a little scared.
He told him the truth as if he were tearing away the scab from an unhealed wound. "Evil," Old Ben whispered. "Pure evil."
"Was no one brave enough to stand up against it?"
"Evil can steal the bravery from any fighting man. It can set his courage ablaze as if his bones were nothing more than kindling." Old Ben continued, caught up in the trance of the story. "There was one though . . . one who would try."
James had never heard this story, and sat on the edge of his seat in anticipation.
"Eventually we all have to face the things that scare us most, and this brave lad, his head full of books and old stories, with no fighting experience at all, ventured forth."
"Who was he?" James asked.
"He was an innocent boy from long ago, not yet a man, but ignorant of Evil, even as his fear burned like ash in his chest. He carried a sword too heavy to wield, and a shield too heavy to hold out in front of him for protection."
"He doesn't sound like much of a hero," James said.
"Could you look Evil in the eyes? Could you face down Death itself?"
"Maybe," James said, "if I had you to help."
Old Ben rolled his eyes and smiled. "Hush now, and listen. . . .
"The stars that night shone down like distant cries, glittering and wailing. The young man trembled because his burdens were too heavy for him. As he entered the spine of the valley, he saw a riverbed of black water, viscid as oil, putrid as excrement, running from a gaping wound in the cliff between the mountain's knees. The cave gaped like a waiting maw into the gullet of the earth.
The boy's face was etched in details of grimaces and fear, clenched expectations. No man had ever come this far and lived. The cave, revealing unguessed aspects of horror, waited in the dark. At the entrance, two huge boulders stood on either side like raised fists. The young man did not falter, he rushed through the opening and into the black of the cave.
Death waited patiently inside, for it knew some fool had entered its domain. 'Who dares approach me?' He sneered, in the language of wounds.
Mute as an unmarked grave, the brave boy discarded his heavy shield and sword and faced the Evil within.
'You will make a wonderful dinner for me, boy,' Death said, his voice a tortured thing.
The young man's jaws clenched arrhythmically, chewing prayers or curses, when finally he said, 'If there is Great Evil in this world, then there must also be Great Love. You can no more destroy me than I can destroy you.'
With that said, in an act of defiance, the boy stuck his tongue out at Death and laughed in his face.
'You are wise to know this but still a fool for confronting me. No matter how old in years you become, you will never see me again.' And with that Death vanished, never to be seen by the boy again.
James looked into the face of Old Ben, and said, "It was you. You were the young man."
The look in Old Ben's eyes was agony. "Yes," he said, claws tearing at his heart. "I was that young fool."
"So, you can never die?" James asked.
Old Ben's eyes wept anguish. "I cannot find Death, although I have looked for many years. Soon I will leave again and continue my search."
"I will help you," James said. "Even if I must plunge a dagger into your breast myself."
Old Ben thought on that for awhile, and then said, "Yes. Yes." His eyes lit up. "Do so now. This very instant!" He unsheathed the small dagger from his belt. "Use this. Plunge it into my heart."
James was befuddled, but reached for the knife.
"You are innocent, are you not?" Old Ben's eyes shone with excitement. "You have never killed a man?"
"No, of course not," James said.
Old Ben took the boy's hand and steered the point of the dagger to his chest. "Do it now! Thrust!"
"I cannot. You are my friend, my teacher."
"And only an innocent can save me from this." Old Ben grabbed the back of the boy's arm, and then . . . fell into the knife. The blade entered his bosom to the hilt. He staggered and fell to the floor. Blood oozed from the wound.
James gasped and stepped back, hands outstretched. "No! What have you done?"
From the corner of his eye, Old Ben saw Death once again. Death's mouth sneered, and then he smiled and stuck his tongue out. "Now we're even. Come on, old man. Come with me."
His eyes went white, rolled back in his head, his lips slightly parted in a smile. Drool moistened the corners of his mouth and dripped on his bearded chin, and then Old Ben sighed his last and went willingly.