He awoke and looked up at the starfield above his head, the stars were beautiful and brighter than he’d ever seen them. He sat up, then stood up, realising that nothing hurt. No aches or pains, no stiffness, no tiredness. Looking at his new surrounding he saw a black desert in every direction with no sign of an end. Of course, he thought, he was dead. This thought struck him quickly, clearly, cleanly and was joined by a second thought: this second thought was that he was thinking clearly for the first time in a decade, maybe even longer. A third thought struck him that he was thinking about thinking and that was joined by a forth, that these were such interesting thoughts. Except that last one. That fifth thought had felt a bit smug and he wasn’t at all keen on it so sent it to the back of his mind where it could stand in a corner with a conical hat with the letter ‘D’ on it. Other thoughts raced into his brain and he realised that the fog that had surrounded his mind for years had lifted, a fog that he hadn’t even noticed was drawing in until he could barely see the ideas in front of his pen. Metaphorically of course.
He looked around, still a desert. He’d told stories about such a desert: the desert to cross in order to reach…where? He’d never specified really, just that those who had been good in life would not suffer during the journey and would reach their destination without fear and those who had been evil would fear the destination so much that if they ever made the journey they would be terrified to reach the end. He’d claimed that belief defined reality and that you’d end up wherever you thought you would. He pushed his hat back slightly, the black felt rough yet soft in his hand and looked down at the large gold ring, the shape of a hooded skull on his finger. Odd, he’d died in bed with his cat on his lap, yet here he was fully dressed including his favourite hat. Belief had defined reality.
It wasn’t like Him to be late. He added the extra inflection to the word ‘Him’ in his head to give Him the respect He deserved. Of course He didn’t attend every death personally, He was much too busy for that. The bard was enjoying capitalising the Hs in his head. Could He get away with saying His Head…no, that didn’t seem right. He’d Hoped…stop it…he’d hoped to meet Him but perhaps it wasn’t to be, perhaps he would have to start the journey alone.
He looked round once more and smiled for there, as expected, was the tall, hooded gaunt figure in black robes carrying a long thin ebony handled scythe with a blade so sharp he couldn’t even see it. Belief defines reality indeed. He’d written about Him many times and now, here He was. The figure turned to him and His skull…wasn’t visible, it was under several layers of skin and flesh.
“You were expecting someone else?” asked Kan Slaar.
The bard tried to hide his disappointment, “Actually, yes. Are you his apprentice? I can tell you’re not his grand-daughter.”
“No and I don't have an apprentice. Or a grand-daughter. I am sorry to disappoint you but sometimes it doesn’t matter what you believe, reality has already been defined by someone else.”
The bard was peering at him critically “That’s not a scythe.” he said slightly accusingly
“I see you are an expert on farming implements. It’s a staff.”
He couldn’t resist it “I notice that it has a knob on the end.”
Kan Slaar looked at the long black staff with the blade so sharp as to, in actuality, not exist and nodded.
“Can it break the connection between body and spirit in order to send a soul to the afterlife?” the bard asked unperturbed.
“Yes. Extremely effectively…but so can any weapon. Or accident or illness…there are hundreds of ways in which to separate body and soul and send them to the afterlife.”
“And you do that?” he’d started a sentence with a conjunction which felt wrong to the author within despite how often he’s done it in life.
“No. The ending of life happens without my intervention, I am here to talk about beginnings not endings, I have come to talk about an…opening.”
“Ah, the apprentice you don't have? I’m 166 years old, I’ve been around since the beginning and I think it’s a bit late to be someone's assistant, besides if you’ve read my work you’ll know it doesn’t necessarily work out well for either party.” replied the bard drily as he stroked his beard.
“There is a…position available.” Kan Slaar tried again, this time more darkly.
The tone was probably meant to be ominous thought the bard but he was a master of writing characters who tried to be what was expected of them and could tell someone trying a little too hard, the pauses before the euphemism were a dead, pardon the pun, give away.
“You mean a job?” call a spade a spade and all that. Or a scythe a scythe.
Kan Slaar smiled slightly and his face, just for a second, appeared almost skull-like “Indeed.”
The bard looked around at the desert for at least the fourth time, little had changed. In fact nothing had changed, that was probably the point of deserts. He turned back to the Lord of the Hope Wastes.
“I don’t think so. This is the desert that I have to cross to go…wherever I think I’m going.”
“No, this is in actuality a desert. A desert in the realm of the dead but still a desert. This isn’t a metaphor, it’s a place with history, geography and a population. Cross it and eventually you’ll reach a settlement and probably encounter other departed souls and, just as likely, demons. What you believe doesn’t change that.”
“I was looking forward to seeing everything.”
“Then accept this…” he sighed “…job, as you call it, and you will.”
“Everything?” his eyes sparkled.
“Everything. The world is a story and you get to tell it.”
“I was a scribe once, I could tell their stories.”
“You became much more than that. Now you could write their stories…”
Tell them, write them, semantics. “So what is this job?”
Kan Slaar smiled “You will be the new God of Bards.”
He paused “You realise that I’m an atheist?”
The God of the land of the dead shrugged “I don’t really believe in atheists. Besides you were right.”
“Right about what?”
“Gods don’t mind atheists, if they’re deep, hot, fiery atheists who spend their whole lives not believing, spend their whole lives hating gods for not existing. That sort of atheism is a rock. It’s nearly belief”
“I did say that. I also said that gods like atheists as it gives them something to aim at.”
“So you accept?”
“Do I have a choice?”
“In the end, that’s all anyone has.”
Once, Velmaneth had Luthir as the God of Bards: worshipped across Velmaneth by those who made a living by song and story but he had fallen and his followers had been left broken, alone, the light snuffed out, the stories silenced, the master gone. But now there was another, just known as The Poet*.
* Sometimes just by his initials.
This is dedicated to one of my favourite authors and greatest influences on the way I see fantasy. It's part of Heart of Pargon's memorial to him.