Friends of mine run a monthly Artistic Challenge Throwdown on facebook. While it’s primarily visual artist and craft, I sometimes get a short story in for it. This month’s submission is below the cut.
A Harnessed Death
There was once a humble farmer named Arn, and all he had in the world was a patch of rocky ground where few things grew, and an old horse named Nag. Arn was in love with Lucia, the daughter of the wizard Peng. He had glimpsed her from afar, just once, through the window of Peng’s tower, but from this brief vision Arn had extrapolated a whole portrait of the woman’s appearance, character, habits and thoughts.
Every day, Arn would lead the horse Nag around the little rocky farm by the harness, and he would tell the horse about his latest insight into Lucia, and the horse would ignore him.
“From the way she tossed her hair that day, I know she is free-spirited and yearns to escape her father’s tower”, Arn might say, and the horse would not reply.
“Though I only saw her face, and then only for a span of three heartbeats, and even then from quite a distance through a narrow window on a cloudy day, I assume from the shape of her nose that she has the most delicate and delightful toes that ever adorned the feet of mortal woman” he would conjecture, and Nag would plod dutifully on.
“Consider this – she has dwelt in the wizard’s tower all her life, no doubt courted by princes and knights and sorcerers and business executives, but there was no-one else in the room with her. Therefore, she has rejected all of them, and the only explanation can be that she yearns for a simpler, humbler man, one with dirt under his nails and who has but a single old nag to work his farm”, and Nag would not gainsay this speculation.
One day, as Arn and Nag pulled rocks from the stony field where few things grew, the horse fell to his knees, tugging the harness from Arn’s hand. Now, in that country, it was customary for horses to be given the miraculous gift of speech at the moment of their passing. Few used this gift wisely, and their last words were usually along the lines of “No, not the glue factory”
“Look out for that cliff”
“I told you I was ill”
“You idiot, didn’t you see those archers?”
but Nag had been a faithful servant to Arn and Arn’s father all his life, and so he said:
“Arn, I have been a faithful servant to you and before you, your father, all the days of my life, but now I must depart. I leave you with this advice.
First, this is a terrible place for a farm. Go seek your fortune elsewhere.
Secondly, a single glimpse is a very shaky foundation for a lasting relationship. Try talking to the girl. Or find one who isn’t in a wizard’s tower.
Thirdly, if you are set on this Lucia, I leave you with the only gift I can.”
And so Nag died. Arn had no way to move the horse, so he resolved to bury him where he lay in the field.
Now, as Arn bent down to remove the harness from Nag’s chest, he noticed something caught in it. It was like a shadow flapping in the wind, or a little shard of bone. He pulled off the harness, and the dark thing grew, and he saw that it was the horse’s Death.
The Death took on many forms, like:
A skeleton in a long black cloak, carrying the scythe of time
A thunderbolt from the heavens, sudden and terrible
A dark shadow that creeps in, day by day, leeching life and colour and joy until only dust remains
A serpent hiding in the grass, bright green and full of life itself, with venom that burns and rots the living flesh
But it could not free itself of the harness.
Once he had buried Nag and placed a stone to mark the grave of the loyal horse, Arn turned to the Death. “Are you any good at clearing stones from a field?” he asked, and Death made no reply.
“Do you know Lucia, daughter of the wizard Peng, who – based on all the evidence available to me – is my true love?” The Death did not reply, but inclined its head in a way that seemed to say not yet.
“Well, as Nag was the wisest horse I have known and he advised me to seek my fortune and talk to the girl, and you are my only remaining asset, let us set off in search of Lucia.”
They set off, with Arn leading the shadow of Death by harness and brindle as he had led Nag around the field for so many years, and in this fashion they came to the place where Peng’s tower had been. The tower was gone, and all that was there was a great muddy hole in the ground, and in that hole Arn saw a man hunting frogs.
“Where is the tower of the wizard Peng?” asked Arn.
“Why, it flies south for the winter. Every fool knows this” replied the frog-hunter.
“Your horse is invisible” he added a moment later.
“It is not my horse” explained Arn, “it is a shadow of Death, who came to take my horse and was caught in his harness. I intend to present it to the wizard Peng as a gift so that I might woo his daughter.”
“That does seem like an excellent plan,” said the frog-hunter, “for I have heard tell that the wizard Peng is obsessed with death. I wish you the best of luck.” As a gesture of kindness, the frog-hunter gave Arn a bag of frogs to eat on his travels.
Arn and the Death set off south, and walked for many long days.
In time they came to a narrow bridge over a fast-flowing river, and upon that bridge waited six bandits. The chief of the bandits sat astride a great warhorse and carried a shining steel sword. They blocked Arn’s path.
“None may pass this bridge” declared the chief of the bandits, “without paying a toll in gold.”
“I have no gold” said Arn.
“Silver then, of equal worth.”
“A large jar of copper pennies, as tall as a man, whose combined value equals that of the gold we desire.”
“Should I have a large jar of copper pennies such as you describe, it would be plainly visible upon my person. I have only the clothes on my back, a few frogs, and this harness that I carry behind me” said Arn.
“Then we shall kill you” said the chief of the bandits, “as an example to other travellers.”
Arn loosened the restraints, and gave the Death more freedom to move. Five of the bandits fell dead upon the spot, and the sixth was so alarmed he hurled himself over the parapet of the bridge and drowned in the rushing waters below, which amounted to much the same thing. The bandit chief’s horse said “I was wondering about that empty harness” and then died too, and Arn was left alone on the bridge with the Death.
They travelled south again, and word of Arn’s deed upon the narrow bridge travelled south ahead of them. And so it was that they met three petitioners in close succession.
The first was a rich merchant, who wore the finest silks and furs and whose fingers were adorned with golden rings and gemstones. His beard, too, was woven into plaits, and each greying plait bore gold and jewels of great worth. The merchant stopped Arn upon the road and spoke to him, saying:
“Is it true that you have a Death caught in your harness?”
Arn explained the circumstances that had led to his possession of a Death. The merchant nodded sagely.
“Dying would be a terrible inconvenience to me. I have all manner of business deals and contracts in the offing, and how will I see them through to the end if I am as mortal as a poor beggar in the ditch? I would like to buy your Death from you, so that I may convince it to spare my life. I offer you the going rate for such mythical wonders, a king’s ransom.”
“How is that determined?” asked Arn, and the merchant explained that the precise value of a king’s ransom was recalculated every five years by a band of shadowy actuaries who kidnapped a randomly selected king from a basket of standardised monarchs and ransomed him back to his kingdom. This was, apparently, an excellent time for Arn to sell, as the most recent kidnap victim was the Caliph of Ashala, who was exceedingly well loved and had fetched a fine price.
“Your offer is most kind” said Arn, “but I intend to use this Death to win the hand of my true love.” He bade the merchant farewell, and the merchant reminded Arn that he would be waiting if he ever changed his mind.
Next, he was stopped by a general at the head of a great army. The general was an old man, bowed down by the threefold burden of his duty, his armour and his moustache.
“You there! Peasant boy! You’re the one with a Death, are you not?”
“I am” said Arn, “I have a Death trapped in this harness.”
“Capital! Tactical advantage, you see. Hard to think of a better weapon than Death itself. Hand it over. Patriotic duty, you see. Quick about it, too!”
“I am sorry,” said Arn, “but I cannot give you this Death, not yet. I must use it to win the hand of Lucia, daughter of the wizard Peng.”
The general’s moustache drooped. “Dash it all. Certain about that? Reward in it for you. Could swing you a knighthood. Maybe even a OBE.”
Arn shook his head. “My heart is set.”
“Right!” barked the general to his men. “Back to the original plan, boys. Make ready to march into the jaws of doom by this time next week.”
Arn felt sorry for the many soldiers who would most certainly die in the war, but as the Death was his only asset, he felt he could not give it over to the war effort without first visiting the wizard Peng.
Soon after leaving the army camp, Arn was accosted by a procession of monks. They wore hooded robes and carried banners that were without any design or sigil. The lead monk knelt in front of Arn.
“We are worshippers of Death, and it has been prophesied that you will come to us bearing a Death, and give it to us that we might venerate it in our temple.”
“How old is this prophecy?” asked Arn with interest.
“About a week” admitted the monk, “ever since we heard about what happened on the bridge.”
“And if I do not give you the Death?”
As one, every monk drew a wickedly sharp curved dagger from beneath his robes.
“Oh,” said Arn, “please don’t. I have lost any taste I have for killing, and you already know that if I loosen this strap, the Death will reach out and take you all.”
The monks conferred, and agreed that they would worship the Death from afar for the moment, but asked Arn to consider donating the Death to their church when he was done. They gave him pamphlets emphasising the spiritual rewards of such a deed, and two of the younger acolytes guided him to the tower of the wizard Peng.
The tower had nested by the side of a crystal-blue lake. It was very tall, with unscalable walls of obsidian and spires of copper and bronze. High atop the tower was a single window, and through that window Arn could see the beautiful face of Lucia.
He watched her for a time, and then remarked “she is not as I remember her.” He made many observations along these lines, like:
“I do not remember her eyes being so downcast, nor so tearful.”
“Her movements have less joyful grace than I recall.”
“Her face does not shine with love for me, as I assumed it must.”
Or even, once, quietly -
“Why, I wonder if I was mistaken.”
The Death made no reply to any of these statements, and not for the first time Arn wished that Nag was still alive, for Nag had listened to all of Arn’s previous thoughts on the subject of Lucia and might have offered wise counsel at this juncture.
Arn led the Death up to the door of the tower, and knocked three times, and the door opened.
He wandered the mazy hallways of the tower for a time, and saw all manner of wonders, such as
A room where a dozen disembodied heads sang in chorus
A room where strange monsters were stabled, like riding-dragons and griffons and pegasi
A room of dragon eggs in egg-cups the size of man’s head
A library where all the books were bound in human skin, even the ones on topics like gardening.
A room of leaping, cackling shadows.
In time, Arn and the Death came upon the study of the wizard Peng, where the wizard Peng awaited them. He was an old man, bald save for a fringe of hair around his ears, and he wore a robe embroidered with various astrological symbols and magical runes in silver thread. His face was kindly, but his eyes were hard and cruel.
“I am Arn” said Arn, “and I have captured a Death. Also I am in love with your daughter, Lucia, and wish to marry her, or at least be introduced to her as a potential worthy suitor.”
Peng stroked his beard three times, and weighed each word before speaking it. “I too have captured a Death, but I have gone one better than you. Your Death is in harness; mine, I placed in a box of iron wrapped with many chains, and I hurled it into the depths of the ocean where it will never trouble anyone again.”
“So,” said Arn, “you might be in the market for a replacement, seeing as your first Death is no longer available.”
“Ah,” replied the wizard, “you misunderstand. The Death I caught was not my Death, but hers. Lucia was to have died of a fever many hundreds of years ago, but I stopped her Death before it could claim her, and thus by my art she is immortal.”
Arn magnanimously congratulated the wizard on this accomplishment. “Even if the Death I brought is of no interest to you, I have come a long way, and would very much like to see Lucia.”
“Then gaze upon the beauty of the world!” Peng threw open a door and led Arn to Lucia’s room.
The room was filled with flowers, and their sweet smell was almost enough to hide the smell of death. There was a crystal pitcher of water on a dresser, covered in a thin film of dust.
The girl stood by the window, just as Arn remembered seeing her. She was very beautiful, and very sad. She was not one day older than she had been when Arn first laid eyes on her.
Arn had spent considerable time thinking about what he would do when he met Lucia, and had held many one-sided conversations with Nag about his options.
He could fall to one knee and say “I am Arn, and I am your true love.”
Sweep her off her feet and kiss her
Charm her with the wit and grace that he would surely be inspired to spontaneously develop by her presence
Join her by the window and gaze out, and whisper “I saw you, and I have loved you since I saw you”
Arn did none of these things.
Instead, he thought of a time back on the stony farm, when Nag shied away from a patch of weeds. Arn pushed aside the undergrowth, and found a trapped hare there. It had wedged itself under an old tree-root, and could not free itself no matter how hard it thrashed and fought. Arn bent down and picked it up, very gently, and held the little quivering thing in the palm of his hand. It looked up at him with eyes full of terror and confusion. It craved to be set free but was too terrified to make a move. He remembered letting the rabbit fall and watching it sprint across the field, free and joyful. He even remembered sitting in his house stirring a bowl of soggy vegetables, thinking how much nice a bit of rabbit meat would have been, and convincing himself that the sight of the escaping animal was worth the hunger.
Lucia had the rabbit’s eyes.
Arn reached back to the harness and unbuckled the straps. The Death slipped out.
For a moment, Arn felt a cold breath on the inside of his skin.
The wizard Peng clutched at an amulet around his neck.
And Lucia smiled, and crumpled like a doll.
“What have you done?” roared Peng.
“I have done the one thing I never considered doing,” replied Arn, “and the one thing I think she asked me to do. I am sorry for your loss, even if you are not sorry for mine.”
Peng roared, and wept, and tore at his beard. Arn left the wizard chanting over Lucia’s body, and walked out of the tower. On the way, he found the room of harnessed beasts, and took three more horse-harnesses like the one he already carried. He retraced his steps along the road.
When he met the black monks, they surrounded him with knives drawn, saying “give us the Death, so that we may worship it.” Arn handed over the first of the three empty harnesses, and said “here in this harness is what you worship.” The monks thanked him, and promised that they would pray for him, and have him an excessively elaborate hat.
When he met the general, he said “I have reconsidered my position. Here is the Death you seek,” and handed over the second harness. The general spurred his horse and rode off to the enemy camp. The enemy, having heard rumours about the man who had harnessed Death, were very alarmed by the empty harness, and fled the field. The general was so pleased with his bloodless victory that he promoted Arn on the spot to the rank of Vice Lance-Commodore, and gave him a fine warhorse and armour and all sorts of other heavy accoutrements that were very impressive if inconvenient to carry.
When he met the merchant, he offered to sell him the third harness at a cut-price rate. The merchant was so overjoyed at purchasing a bargain Death that he did not stop to question Arn’s motives. (In fact, the merchant had been worrying himself to an early grave out of fear of death, and his possession of the empty harness so relaxed him that he lived an extra fifty years in happiness and health.) Arn rode on with two chests of gold on a little cart.
He crossed the bandit-free bridge and visited the frog-hunter, and gave him a pouch of gold for his wise counsel and his frogs.
After many days, he came to the little stony farm. He laid the empty harness down on Nag’s mound, and said “you were a good horse, Nag, and wiser than I am. Thank you.”
Arn rode away on his horse, and as he rode, he spoke to his horse, saying -
“I think I shall seek my fortune in the east.”
“I shall invest in ships, and become a rich merchant.”
“Does this hat make me the pope of Death?”