The battle raged outside the walls of Skysmere even though the defenders had broken the forces that assailed them hours ago.
“This isn’t right.” Roarish grumbled. Lightning cracked open the sky and pounded down into the center of Skysmere. It was an attack, the latest of many, and as futile as all the rest had been. “They’re still fighting. I should be out there. I’m supposed to be defending this town.”
“Hush up ya daft old fool. You’ve run the walls plenty of times now and you’ll not being doing it again with your knees in the state they’re in.” Brenhild said.
She’d been a nurse once upon a time and had patched him up more times than Roarish could count in the years since then. She was a deft touch with the needle and had chased away many a pain from him, both of the body and of the soul. Even wounds that are healed can stay with you though and Roarish had never hesitated to tax his body and mind beyond their limits. As a young lad, such foolishness had carried no cost. As a fit man he’d been able to bear the burden of his folly well enough. It wasn’t until age settled onto him that the bill for his recklessness came fully due.
“I’ve run the walls and defended this overgrown pig farm since before most of those little boys were weaned. I’m supposed to be out there, doing my job, not laying here on a pack of comfy pillows, sipping sweet tea and eating food I’d only give to a rabbit.” Roarish said.
“You’re going to eat your rabbit food, and drink your medicine or I’m going to stitch you to that bed and get me some of those boys to carry you around whenever I need you brought anywhere.” Brenhild said.
“Those boys need me!” Roarish insisted, though it was plain to the two of them that what he feared was that they didn’t.
“Aye, they do.” Brenhild agreed. “So eat your rabbit food and drink your medicine.”
Roarish scowled. Tea and vegetables weren’t going to make him young again. There was no magic elixir that would turn back the years and make him the man he once was. He didn’t like where those thoughts led him though so he jammed a forkful of leafy greens into his mouth and crunched on them noisily.
Brenhild scowled back at him and left to take care of the chores that remained in the house.
Roarish chomped down a few more bites of the salad, trying to ignore the fact that it was reasonably tasty and filling. He was determined to hold onto his anger and frustration. It seemed like they were all he had left. The knock on his bedroom door nearly shook him out of his foul mood though. Aside from Brenhild, there was no one else who had a reason to come for him. Not while the siege was technically still on.
“Come in!” he yelled. It was a barked order, like he’d give to a recruit under his command. He’d been expecting it to be someone from the garrison, come to tell him that the siege was broken and they had the attackers in a full retreat. What he got instead was a young girl, in black robes, carrying a scepter at the top of which pink fire burned.
Death had many depictions, more than a few of which Roarish was familiar with. Looking at the girl filled him with so much dread that he could only guess that he’d found a new one. What he was surprised by though was that he was still scared at the thought of meeting her.
“Is it my time already?” he asked. He’d felt terrible it was true, but he’d been eating Brenhild’s rabbit food. That should have counted for something shouldn’t it?
The girl looked puzzled at that.
“I guess it is.” she said at last.
“What are you going to do?” Roarish asked. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know how he was going to die. He might already be dead for all he could tell. It would be just perfectly fitting if Brenhild’s rabbit food had turned out to be the death of him.
“I’ve come to talk to you.” the girl said. “You can call me ‘Jin’.”
That was an odd name for Death, Roarish thought.
“What do you want to talk about?” he asked.
“You.” she said.
“What about me?” Roarish asked.
“That’s the question isn’t it. What about you? Would you say that you’re important?” Jin asked.
“I’d say that I was. I guess. When I started out here, we had so little. Skysmere isn’t rich by any stretch of the imagination, but our walls are solid and our hearths are warm.” Roarish said.
“What would you say was your most important day?” Jin asked.
Roarish considered that. He also considered who he was talking to. He wasn’t fond of discussing his life with strangers but if this girl wasn’t Death come to claim him, she was something equally far beyond him. Either way, he suspected the questions were more for his benefit than for hers.
“I can see you’re struggling to pick one out. Let me help you. The most important day of your life is today. It’s always today.” Jin said.
“I don’t understand.” Roarish said.
“The days that you’ve lived? They define the present. It’s today that defines the future though. That’s true in a general sense, but I’m also being very literal here. Today you have choices to make, choices that will set you on a path that will determine more than you can know.” Jin said.
“You’ve got the wrong man. I’m not making a difference anymore. Look at me, I can’t even get out of this bed. How am I supposed to follow a path when I can barely walk?” Roarish asked.
“You want to be out there, don’t you? Out there fighting like you used to?” Jin asked.
“Of course. That’s what I do. Keeping this town safe. That’s all that matters.” Roarish said.
“And you think you do that by fighting?” Jin asked.
“It’s what I do. It’s what I’ve always done.” Roarish said.
“Yes, you have, but that’s not how you’ve truly made a difference.” Jin said.
“I don’t follow you. What else have I done? There’s nothing that can match keeping these people safe. There’s nothing else that I’ve put my life into like that.” Roarish said.
“There’s one thing.” Jin said. “Come with me. I’ll show you.”
Before Roarish’s eyes, the girl’s black robes whirled around her and transformed her into a raven. She took wing and flew out of his window. Without thinking about it, Roarish beat his own black wings and followed her.
“I’ve become a bird!” he shouted.
“For the moment. You’ll want to see this without being seen.” Jin told him.
Together they whirled over the city, and Roarish took in the vista below them. The enemy forces were in full retreat, with harriers from the city pursuing them. From the fires and devastation, it looked as though a small force had crept out of the city under the cover of night and ambushed the attacker’s command center. The defenders in the city had likely launched an offensive at the same time and thrown the attackers into complete disarray.
Jin pointed her beak down to the center of attacker’s former command area. Troops from Skysmere were already milling about and taking care of their own wounded. She tipped her wings and glided down to settle atop one of the still standing command tents.
“I can’t wait to tell Captain Roarish about this one!” one of the soldiers said.
“Aye, he’s not going to believe we pulled off one of his plans.” another said.
“Oh he’ll believe it alright. He’ll just be giving us the third degree over it and pointing out all the mistakes we made and how we can do it better.” a third said.
“Aye that’s the Captain for you.” The first one laughed.
“Would you being here have meant that they wouldn’t have made any mistakes?” Jin asked Roarish.
“I’d like to say so, but I don’t think I’ve ever had a plan work out the way I intended it to. Those boys…” Even as a bird, Roarish felt emotion stick his words in his throat. He was so proud of them, and yet it was like a knife in his heart to know that they didn’t need him anymore.
“Those boys did this for you. They wanted to protect their town. They wanted to keep their people safe, but look at them and see who really brought them here.” Jin said.
He looked at them, the boys he’d trained. The one’s he’d fought beside. The one’s who deserved to be called the men that they were. He looked in each of their eyes and Roarish saw himself.
“Why?” he asked.
“It’s not the battles you’ve fought or the hard work you’ve done that defines your legacy. It’s this. The inspiration you’ve given, the example you’ve set. It’s thanks to you that these men are who they have come to be. They’re proud of you, they cherish you.” Jin said.
“But I can’t be that for them anymore!” Roarish cried.
“Like hell you can’t.” Jin said. “Do you think how you live now is any less of an example for them. Do you think you have nothing left to teach them on how to handle hardship? On how to find joy beyond pain and loss? On how to live?”
“I…” Roarish felt like his world was tossed on a great ocean. He saw the future expanding out before him. Saw the challenges that being old would put before him and saw how he could meet them and be an example to those who would follow him into those grey haired years. He was going to live, he knew that. The girl wasn’t Death come to claim him. She Life come to remind him to get off his sorry butt and get back in the game anyway he could.
“And there’s one other question you need to ask yourself.” Jin said.
“What’s that?” Roarish asked. He felt hopeful in a way he hadn’t in many years.
“You have a lot to teach them still. Do you really think they don’t have anything to teach you too though?”