The old man wore a tattered cloak; it was barely more than a rag. None of us boasted anything as fine as even that remnant of faded glory, but this was of little concern. There was an innate dignity about him and I was no more immune to it than any of the others who gathered around him.
We respected him because he respected us. We loved him and were loved in return.
Young children jostled for a place closer to him; older children tried to hang back and appear disinterested, but their eyes, bright with curiosity, gave them away. They were as eager as the young ones to hear his stories.
He peered at us from beneath the hood of his cloak, his eyes faded and sad ? but gentle. That is my most vivid memory of him. He never raised his voice, even when we grew loud and rambunctious. With a softly spoken word and a smile, he would quiet the rowdiest among us.
He was a familiar sight in the poorest parts of town. He moved among the dregs of society, the thieves, the prostitutes, and us ? the urchins, the children of the lowest of the low. We all knew the shuffling figure in the ragged cloak. Everything about him was worn and frayed; even his voice was a husky rasp, as if he pushed it past damaged vocal cords with the greatest of effort. His scars were numerous, some so fierce that they prompted much speculation among us.
We wondered if he had fought in the wars and concluded that he must have done so. We always laughed at the idea of the tenderhearted old man striking down an enemy. There were times, however, when I glanced at him in an unguarded moment; I would catch a glimpse of something ? someone ? else in those faded eyes. I would see something that balanced his gentle spirit, something that gave me pause.
There was an air of suffering to him. The more perceptive of us noticed and we spoke of it, among ourselves, far from the prying ears of nosy adults. He had endured much in his many years; even as children we recognized this.
His pain grieved us, though we did not know its source. He never spoke of his past however.
His stories entertained and amused us, scared and thrilled us. We would gather around him, barely able to sit still ? until he began speaking. The moment that husky voice began spinning his tale, we would sit enthralled until the last word.
If an adult tried to join the group, he would stop, level his cool blue gaze their way and remain silent until they withdrew. The mothers of the little ones would stay within sight, but just out of range of his raspy voice.
We heard of great deeds, of knights boldly fighting powerful enemies against seemingly unbeatable odds, of good triumphing over evil. Sometimes the tales were of love, a great and noble joining of hearts that outlived history itself. Even the older boys listened avidly to these stories, because the old man would weave them skillfully with thrilling battles and terrifying enemies.
No matter the subject, we loved the old man?s stories. We waited impatiently for him to move down the street toward us in his shuffling gait, his shoulders hunched and stooped as he laboriously made the journey through dusty alleys.
We watched with wonder as even the most hardened criminals gave him a wide berth. We never understood why, because to us he was merely the gentle storyteller. The smugglers and the thieves, however, eyed him warily, their gaze sliding away from him and their hands straying to the weapons always holstered on their hips.
He ignored them, looking neither right nor left as he made his way to us. We thought perhaps he did not see them, that his old eyes were failing. Of course, we were wrong. He would have known they were there even if those faded eyes had been plucked from his skull.
A welcoming smile always greeted us as we parted to allow him to sit in the place of honor reserved for him. We always met by a crumbling wall over which hung a bedraggled tree that clung wearily to life. One day it would give up the struggle and even that scant shade would be gone. However, it was our haven, and sufficient at the time.
The old man would settle himself down on the rock with a quiet sigh and arrange the folds of his cloak carefully. Then he looked at each one of us, bestowing his undivided attention upon us for a precious moment.
?And what would you like to do today?? he would ask, his eyes twinkling.
?Tell us a story!? We would cry in unison, our excitement building with each moment he delayed.
?A story?? he would ask, as if greatly surprised. His eyes would widen and a smile would tug at his lips. He would straighten his shoulders and look at us thoughtfully.
Then we would laugh and there would be a cacophony of voices, each of us making our own entreaty. He would hold up his hand and we would quiet, knowing that soon the story would begin.
?All right then,? he would murmur, and that husky voice signaled his surrender to our will.
He would begin to weave his magic, using his words to transport us to times and places far away from our dreary lives. For those moments, we were neither slaves nor the children of the pleasure workers; we were not bruised and battered from the fists of those who held power over us. We were simply children.
He gave us the gift of a childhood.
We listened and we became great knights on heroic quests or brave queens saving our people. We were special. His stories planted within each of us a seed, the knowledge that life could be better if only we strived hard enough. We began to believe in ourselves, to believe that we might lead lives beyond the filth and squalor that surrounded us.
We learned to hope.
Then one day the old man did not arrive at his appointed time.
I was older then, too old for the stories, really. I had hoped, however, to see him one last time at least, to sit at his feet and soak up his tales of grandeur and nobility. I wanted to feel special, just one last time, before I moved into the confines of manhood and responsibility.
I went to the hovel he called home.
My knocks received no answer and I had turned away, ready to leave, when I heard the thin thread of a voice from inside.
I pushed open the door, my eyes adjusting slowly to the gloom inside. At last I could make out the old man sprawled on a cot, his familiar cloak pulled around him as if to ward off a great chill, though the day was hot and I was sweating even in my light tunic.
He squinted against the bright light that streamed in behind me. I closed the door and he studied me carefully, giving a nod of his head as he identified me.
?Mertt,? he mumbled. ?I should have known it would be you.? He knew my name; he knew all our names.
?I was worried about you,? I said as I moved closer. Overnight he had become a wasted shell. His cheeks were hollow and pale, his eyes glazed with fever.
?No need to worry about me,? he whispered. ?I?m dying, that?s all.? He chuckled as if that was some great joke. Perhaps to him it was.
Death was too familiar for me to deny it, or even offer a token protest. I studied him with a practiced eye. Yes, death was standing vigil over him, impatient to claim him.
He motioned me closer. ?I want to give you something,? he murmured. ?It?s all I have left of her.?
I sat down and touched my hand to his forehead. Flinching at the heat radiating out of his wasted flesh, I pulled my hand away. Then he pushed something into my hand and I stared down at it.
It was a holocube, an old-fashioned one. It was worn and battered, much like its owner.
He turned it on and smiled as the image came flickering to life. The tiny figure of a dark haired woman smiled up at me. She was laughing, her eyes bright and her hand coming up to her mouth as she tried in vain to contain her amusement at something I could not see.
His eyes locked on the figure, growing soft with something even I recognized as love.
?That?s her,? he whispered reverently. ?That?s my wife.?
?She was beautiful,? I said.
He nodded and a look of pride and longing crossed his weathered face. ?She was the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.?
?What happened to her?? I asked. Still more child than man, I gave in to my curiosity without hesitation.
The blue eyes filled with tears. ?She died long ago?? His lips thinned and I was given a glimpse of the man who must have fought in the wars, the warrior who had lived in the body before it became old and frail.
?He killed her,? he whispered and a single tear slid down his cheek. ?He set loose the beast that destroyed her.? Then his expression turned sly and he laughed; it was a harsh and ugly sound. ?So I killed him.?
I did not know what to say, so I turned my gaze back to the image. Something about her tugged at my memory. I stared and stared until at last insight came to me.
?She?s the great love, the noble lady?? I said, my eyes flying to his.
He nodded, proud of my deduction. I frowned. ?But she was married to a knight?? I began, and then trailed off in confusion and suspicion.
He laughed then. ?That?s right, I was a knight, my boy,? he confessed. ?And she was my love.?
I looked at him in wonder. I began to think back on all of his stories, the tales that had defined my childhood. ?All of your stories! They?re?real? aren?t they??
?They were real,? he admitted. ?Once, a lifetime ago, I was real.?
He thrust the holocube at me again. ?Take it, and remember me. Remember her??
The old man motioned me close to him and put his mouth near my ear. ?Remember Anakin Skywalker, the Hero with No Fear and Padm?, his wife. Tell the story of their great love.? Then he slumped back against the dirty covers on the cot and smiled at the image still flickering in my hand.
He reached out to the empty space before him, as if greeting someone I could not see.
Then, as if he had done everything he wanted to do and needed to hold on no longer, he simply stopped breathing.
Anakin Skywalker, the greatest hero the Republic had ever known, was gone.
I closed his eyes and arranged the folds of his cloak about him carefully. My friends and I would bury him later, perhaps near the wall where he had changed our lives forever, one story at a time.
We cleaned out the old man?s hut and found his lightsaber, the legendary weapon of the Jedi Knights. It was proof enough of his claim. I have kept it hidden away, cherished it for all he accomplished with it and for the man whose hands wielded it so courageously.
It is still my greatest treasure and one day I shall pass it on with his stories to one special person who will do them both honor. I posses a part of the legend; I protect a bit of the hero.
So, I borrowed his magic and pass along his gift, telling his stories to the children that everyone else has forgotten.
I tell the stories of the heroic knight and his fearless queen, recreating the splendor of their love for a new generation. Somewhere in the distance, I am sure I hear them laughing, together at last.
I know he is pleased that his legacy lives on.
Original cover by Rhonderoo. HTML formatting copyright 2005 TheForce.Net LLC.