The Writer and The Silver Horde.
A wise man once said that space is big enough to hold practically anything, so, eventually, it does.
Humanities' fascination with deep space has been around since early man first
stepped outside of a cave to view it. Of course, it rated a distant second to
humanities' fascination with finding enough to eat and drink, somewhere warm to
sleep and avoiding getting eaten, but it was still there, all the same. For the
first few thousand years, it was enough to fill the night sky with gods, heroes
and wild animals written in the stars, though it often takes a fair bit of
imagination to see them, which suggests that astrology was a lot more
interesting before people figured out which mushrooms were safe to eat. As people started to use
their brains for a bit more than finding ways and reasons to kill one another,
typically over who saw the best god, their interest became more involved. They
started flinging satellites and robots into the darkness, to try and find out
what lay up there. And while data and grainy pictures are being gathered apace,
there really is nothing like going and having a look for yourself.
Against a mass of arrayed stars, laid against the inky blackness like diamonds on a roll of jewellers velvet, five horsemen galloped through the void. Even by the normal standards of interstellar equestrianism, these riders are poorly dressed for the activity. They ride bare chested and bare armed, and what body parts are covered are covered by fur, and leather, and chainmail. But here and there are scratches on the visual vinyl, details which stand out. Slung across a back is a scabbard for a sword nearly as long as a man; a walking stick protrudes from the top. Armoured sandals padded with woollen inner soles, an iron studded saddle is stacked with cushions. A casual observer might comment that these incongruities are not very surprising compared to the surprise of finding a horde of octogenarian barbarians are riding through space, but that is simply because they do not know the whole story. If they did, they might know that Surprise is the nature of the universe.
As they rode through the firmament, one of the men reached into his saddlebag and pulled out a hunk of chocolate.
“Hmph,” he went, inspecting it mournfully, “This is the last bit.”
“And whose bloody fault is that then?” Said another, pausing to spit in the general direction of a red giant. “You ate a damn mountain of that stuff.”
“Well the whole planet was covered in it. It could spare a mountain.” He replied, as he chewed the final morsel.
“You want to go easy on that stuff,” said the member of the group who appeared to be the youngest, though you would have to count the wrinkles to tell for certain, or possibly, use carbon dating. “I heard it rots your teeth, and I’ve still got a few of mine left.”
“I said IT ROTS YOUR TEETH, HAMISH!!”
“Ain’t gonna worry him, is it?” The rider, who had a horned hat and a beard like an overgrown bramble bush, nodded towards the rider at the head of the group, who turned in the saddle and grinned to his fellows. The light of a thousand stars glittered off teeth of diamond.
“You can go back and get some more when it’s your turn to choose a star to ride out to, Caleb,” said the leader, “Now come on, we’re almost there.”
They had seen a multitude of worlds as they had ridden through the void. Planets of eternal night and ever-present day. Worlds filled with deserts, and drowned under oceans. Spheres of burning ice, where the skies rained glass, the ground was made of diamond and lakes swam with methane. Against those, this world looked fairly ordinary.
“Another round one!” exclaimed the sweet-toothed savage, wiping a few flecks of chocolate from round his mouth. “We’ve visited hundreds of worlds, and not one’s been the right shape since home.”
“There was that one back a while ago that was flat on one side.”
“Only cos it was blown in ‘alf Truckle,” replied his companion, “That don’t count.” He peered closer.
“How does all the water stay on it? You’d think it’d all run off the bottom.”
“Lot of desert on that bit,” spotted Truckle, “Reminds me of that world we went to with all those damn wormy thingies on it. Bunch of arrogant buggers, they were. I’ll walk how I bloody well like!”
“That bit there, one that looks like an elephant ear.”
“So it does. And that there looks like a boot, you see?”
“I said IT LOOKS LIKE A BOOT, HAMISH!”
“No it don’t! Not the sort of boot I’d wear, leastways. Maybe Mathilda the Grun.” Hamish’s eyes misted over in recollection, finishing off what the cataracts had started. “Now there was a lass who could dress for the occasion. Mostly in woad, o’course.”
“What about that bit over there?” Caleb pointed across to the other side of the ocean, and considered the lower corner of the other continent.
“Yeah, I don’t think I much fancy landing over there.”
“Now that’s some cruel and unusual geography, that is.”
“Gotta feel sorry for anyone who lives on a tonker. What do you reckon, Cohen? Cohen?” When there was no answer, Truckle turned and looked to the old warrior.
Cohen hadn’t said a word the
whole time they had been staring at the round world. His single eye was focused
on a point in the distance, hand resting on the pommel of his sword. Finally,
he curled a lip back.
“Someone’s coming.” Drawing his sword, he gestured ahead with its point.
Following the direction of the signal, the Horde spotted a new Horseman riding towards them. And while they may have been astride horses, the newcomer was most definitely a Horseman with a capital aich. He was dressed all in black, his robes so dark as to be indistinguishable from the perpetual night around them. They billowed and fluttered in a non-existent breeze, and provided a stark contrast to the white of his steed. Despite the convention which determines that white horses are in fact grey, against the evidence that the eyes of everyone else might suggest, this horse was white is such a vivid way that even the most ardent grey-horse advocate would be silenced. Proud as a knight with a pennon, the dark horseman carried a scythe with a violet aura murmuring around its edge. And surrounded on all sides by pinpricks of white, yellow and red, from deep within the hood, two piercing blue stars stared out. Practised veterans of the art, the Horde stared Death in the face.
He appraised them coolly.
GENTLEMEN. The voice was the sound of basalt monoliths toppling into desert sand.
“I know you.” Said the leader levelly, his voice edged.
AND I YOU, GENGHIZ COHEN, said Death. Looking to the next man, he nodded to him. AND YOU, TRUCKLE THE UNCIVIL. CALEB THE RIPPER. BOY WILLIE. MAD HAMISH.
Each man nodded to him in turn, and while their faces showed no outward signs of any change in the mood, there was a subtle crackle of joints and a whisper like dried paper as weathered hands grasped tightly at weapons of choice.
“And what business do you have here today?” Asked Cohen, sword resting on his shoulder.
DO NOT WORRY, GENTLEMEN, Death replied. I AM NOT HERE FOR YOU.
“Then why are you here?”
I HAVE SOMEONE WITH ME WHO I THINK YOU SHOULD MEET. Death intoned. He gestured behind him, and a figure walked round the horses flank, and strolled up to them.
Not one of the assembled company had met him before, but every man of them knew who he was. Sheathing their weapons, they removed their helmets as a mark of respect, for some the first time they had done so in decades, and he doffed his hat in return.
“It’s good to see you, at last,” said Cohen, bowing his head.
“I was hoping we would catch you,” replied the newcomer, “Though I suppose the wait wouldn’t be too problematic in the circumstances.”
“If you don’t mind us askin’,” muttered Boy Willie, “How old were you when…?”
He told them.
The Horde made a collection of hissing sounds through its teeth. Brows furrowed in anger.
“That’s no age at all for a hero,” said Truckle. He turned to Death. “You’re a cruel bugger sometimes, you know that?”
I AM NOT CRUEL, MR UNCIVIL, remarked Death, MERELY TERRIBLY GOOD AT MY JOB.
“Ai’ve owned shirts for longer than that,” growled Hamish.
“We know Hamish, we can smell,” replied Cohen.
IT IS NOT MY PLACE TO DICTATE WHO, WHEN OR HOW. For a featureless skull, Death somehow managed a look of mild embarrassment. THAT IS THE RESERVE OF A HIGHER POWER.
“Yes,” said the writer. “It’s ours.”
The writer turned to look at him. He was smiling, very slightly. But behind his eyes, flecks of anger hotter than any sun were sparking off the anvil of his mind.
“It’s up to us when we choose to die. I don’t know of any way to go that might universally be called a good way, but I can think of a lot of bad ones. I've met people who were dying in bad ways, and had no option on whether or not to let it stop. Pain and frailty took everything from them, and the poor sods weren't even allowed to end it. Some people think it’s because their gods wouldn't want them to, or because they might have unscrupulous relatives who would want them to, but what it should be is ours and ours alone. It’s life, after all. None of us get out of it alive. And I’ve seen a lot of suffering in the name of higher powers, but I’ve not seen one of them who’ll step forward and own up to it. So you go find me a higher power than people, and I’ll spit in their other eye.”
The Horde shot sidelong glances up and down the rank. Almost imperceptible nods of the head were exchanged. Then Cohen said,
“Fancy coming with us?”
The writer paused for a moment, then smiled and nodded.
“Got any experience in barbarism?” asked Caleb. “What did you do back in the world?”
“Well, my first job was as a journalist.”
“Any career overlap?”
“I saw my first corpse three hours in,” the writer replied levelly.
Willie sat back, impressed. “Journalism, eh? Isn’t that writing things down and stuff like that? Reminds me of Teach, that does. He was always coming out with these sayings about how, oh, the pen was mightier than the sword, things like that.”
“Only if the sword is very small, and the pen is very sharp, I think is the full version.” Completed the writer, with a small smile. Then he turned and looked wistfully back at the world behind him. “I had a sword myself, back down there. I made it myself. Wish I had it with me now, a sword is sort of part and parcel with this sort of thing…”
Without a word, Death reached into his robes, and retrieved an object from within. The pommel was trimmed with silver, the hilt black leather, and the blade shone and rippled in the starlight. The writer was stunned. “But… how? Why isn’t it still back on Earth?”
IT IS BACK ON EARTH, explained Death, BUT IT IS ALSO HERE. THIS IS THE EFFORT YOU PUT INTO FORGING THIS SWORD. THIS IS THE SENTIMENT BEHIND IT, WHEN YOU DECIDED THAT A KNIGHT SHOULD OF COURSE HAVE A SWORD. IT IS THE THUNDERBOLT IRON YOU GATHERED FOR IT, WHETHER YOU BELIEVE IN THAT OR NOT. IT IS, IN ESSENCE, EVERYTHING WHICH MADE YOUR SWORD, YOUR SWORD.
Reaching out, the writer took it reverentially. The Horde looked on approvingly.
“That’s a good sword that is.” Said Cohen. “Not got as many notches on it as a proper heroes should, by rights, but after you’ve ridden with us for a while, should be able to sort that out, eh?”
“Unfortunately, I didn’t have the foresight to forge a horse as well,” said the writer. “And I while I like walking, I can’t help but feel I’d slow you down somewhat.”
“Maybe you could double up with one of us…” Truckle started, then trailed off, realising it was a daft suggestion even as he said it. The Horde knew what the back of a horse was for. It was for sacks of loot, the corpses of bounty kills, and the occasional struggling maiden, though it seemed to have been an awful long time since the last one had featured for any of them. But a hero ought to have his own horse.
All of a sudden, the writer felt a gentle nuzzle at his shoulder. He turned, and Binky paced up level with him, and kneeled down. If he had been stunned by the sword, he was now doing a very good attempt at flabbergasted. He spun round to Death, who grinned. He was of course, always grinning, but this time you could feel the intent behind it.
HE CHOOSES WHO IS ALLOWED TO RIDE HIM, said Death, AND I BELIEVE HE IS OWED SOME HOLIDAY LEAVE. I DO TEND TO USE HIM A FAIR AMOUNT.
“And you’ll be able to get around okay by yourself?”
I DARESAY I WILL BE ABLE TO MANAGE. AND I COULD USE THE EXERCISE. A supernova shone from an eyesocket as Death winked to him, as he mounted up.
“I’ll bring him back when I am done.” The writer promised. Death ran his skeletal fingers through Binky’s mane, and bowed his head close. For a moment, there was a subtle susurration that emanated from under the cowl. When he straightened up, Death nodded to him. NO RUSH.
As he got comfortable in the
saddle, the writer looked up, as if only just seeing the cosmos spiralling
around them. A suggestion of a tear glimmered in his eyes, as he contemplated
the enormity of the space around him. “So much universe, and so little time.”
THERE IS ALWAYS TIME, remarked Death. AND FOR YOU, THE TIME IS NOW.
The Horde shuffled their line across to make room as the writer rode up into formation with them. Cohen gave him a hundred carat smile. “We ride out to stars in turns,” he said. Without seeming to give any kind of command, his horse deftly retreated a short step, leaving the writer just proud of the rest of the riders. “And I think it’s your go. So, where to?”
The writer looked up, his eyes scanning the stars above. There was a lot to see. There was a lot to do. Of course, even after you’d done all that you had to do, you’d suddenly find there was a whole pile of things to do that you’d never even thought of. But now of course, there was time for them. And the pile after that too. And the one after that…
“Well, lads,” he said. “I fancy seeing the elephant. In fact, there are four elephants I have in mind to see right now.” He glanced at Cohen. “And a turtle. Can you remember the way?”
“I reckon I just about can, at that,” replied Cohen. “Come on then lads. Time to ride out!” With a noise of rasping iron, the Horde unsheathed their weapons and whirled them over their heads. As the writer raised his own sword, the fire of alien suns danced on the blade. The white steed reared for a moment, and then, whooping and laughing, the Silver Horde charged into the stars. Death watched them go, until they faded from even his sight. He looked down next to him, to another figure who at first looked like a scrap of his own robe, which in a sense, it was. It held a scythe the size of a letter opener, and when it looked up at Death, a tiny bleached rodent skull peered out from under the hood.
SQUEAK? Asked the Death Of Rats.
OH, THE AUDITORS MAY TRY TO STOP THIS, replied Death, BUT THEY MAY SUDDENLY FIND THEY ARE GOING TO HAVE AN EVEN HARDER TIME OF IT THAN THEY ORIGINALLY ANTICIPATED. AFTER ALL, NOW HE HAS FRIENDS WITH HIM, AND EVERY MAN OF THEM HAS MADE A LIFE LONG CAREER OUT OF NOT CARING MUCH FOR THE RULES.
OH, WHO AM I TO TELL A MAN IF HE’S DEAD OR NOT?
The Death Of Rats gave him a very pointed look. SQUEAK.
Death shrugged his shoulders. TRUE. I ONCE HEARD A VERY WISE MAN SAY, HOWEVER, THAT A PERSON IS NOT DEAD WHILE THEIR NAME IS STILL SPOKEN. He turned and looked back at the great sapphire jewel, spinning gently through the blackness. He could feel every life on that planet, and by extension, he could tell how many the writer had touched. He felt every laugh and tear, every contemplation and new train of thought, every blow struck against arrogance and idiocy, every mind changed for ever for the better by its journey to a far off world. All those minds, united in grief, and in love, behind one name. AND IF I’M ANY JUDGE, HE IS GOING TO LIVE FOR A VERY, VERY LONG TIME.