It wasn’t a smell of sickness. It was the smell of death. It had seeped into every fold of fabric in the room, and it settled heavily on the furniture of what had once been a room full of life. She had not been young when she had bought the house, oh no, but she had still been strong and full of vigor. Her armor always lay polished and ready in those days. Now, that corner of the room was empty. She had sent that armor to the blacksmith months ago to be re-shined and reworked to suit her young nephew who always looked to the mountains with eyes full of wanderlust. The shield was too heavy for him now, almost taller too, but it seemed like a disservice to bury an old woman with a shield meant to protect the living.
Her hands struggled to grip the cloth of her dressing robe. Once, these hands had held a greatsword steady against a half-ogre parrying in lethal combat. The dark and smoke and sweat-smell of those caves still filled her lungs when she thought of it. Years ago now, she had been the shining blade of justice leading her faithful companions in countless quests to destroy evil, to slay those who would prey on the weak and the helpless. Her sword now lay in the chest at the foot of her bed. There was no need to send it to the blacksmith. Even the wrapping on the hilt and the sheath were crisp and new from the same magic that kept the blade ever-sharp. Her hands, unpreserved by magic or time, could no longer grip her clothing with sureness, and because she trusted no messenger to send it safely, her nephew would need to claim in person.
The floorboards creaked almost louder than her knees as she shuffled towards the door. Perhaps it had been unwise to have a bedroom on the ground floor, but this door led to the back porch where she could watch the sun rise above the mountain. A dragon had once lived there and freely terrorized the sheepherders and caravans of goods before some other adventurous souls had journeyed to the mountain’s peak to face the dragon. Or, perhaps, the mountain was simply named after the red color of the sun on its slopes and the mist that clung to it in the morning. That story was before her time. She had faced no dragon in her lifetime except a drake with delusions of grandeur and a swallowed magic ring of fireballs.
She slowly eased into a sitting position on the porch. The wood was cold and damp. It seemed like all the world was covered in grey dawn mist in those moments before the sun reappeared. She only breathed for a moment. She too was grey and as substantial as mist these days. Her skin was dry as cracked leather, her bones like a wizard’s ancient parchment with stories of injuries documented in every ache. This warrior was diminished and frail in the only defeat she would ever accept, but in these moments waiting for death, she would look to the mountain and…
A shadow was clinging to the mountain. The old woman’s eyes narrowed. A shadow only, it could be nothing else. All was still. The highest peak was still half-hidden in the mist, but no mere shadow bloomed with wings of that shape, with a body that great in size. Her eyes were clear, the world was sharp again. There was a dragon on the mountain, and she watched as it circled before diving out of sight. The morning light was beginning to fill the world and the old woman found she once again had the strength to stand, her sword was heavy and her hands strong enough to draw, to swing, to parry. The old adventurer was young and it was time stride into battle with her helm and armor shining and bright. With eyes fixed on the light from those distant peaks, the fighter strode off the porch and was whisked away with the wind.
Some time later, the ancient woman’s servant opened the door to her bedroom to see if she had woken. He felt his heart clench to see she was not in bed; she had not had the strength to leave it in weeks. The door to the outside was open and he rushed over. The small old woman was sitting just beyond. Her hair was no more than spider webs, and her body was merely a small, desiccated husk in death. The servant bowed his head and began to weep for the loss of the once great hero who had lived for so long. High on the mountain, the last of the morning mist battled the sun, and lost.
Story by Dr. Lissa Goins, Author of The Hero: The Villian's Story.