The two sides of the scythe

A Tarot

By

Accipiter G. Goshawk

The first story in my “Tarot” series.

Death is change, endings and beginnings.

It is also appropriate for these Days of the Dead.

Blessings to you on this day 😉

A.G.G

Reedited on the 7th of July 2020

The lone figure rode through the desert, their white horse barely stirring the sands with its hooves.

Around them the wind whispered over the dunes, disturbing sleeping snakes and beetles. These instinctively moved away from the passing rider, their heads bowed in deference to their oldest acquaintance and final companion.

The horse snorted eagerly: it smelled water. It could barely contain its excitement as they crested the last dune and came into view of the towering walls of Kara’na’Zell, the City of Might.

This was the domain of the great Morvan Lukk – twenty-fifth of his line -, who dwelt behind the golden doors of the Celestial Palace. Four times forty men marched around his home, each a trained killer. It was an impressive defence; certainly enough to discourage any but the boldest assassin.

Of course, the rider was unaware of this.

They flicked the reins, stirring the horse into a canter down the dune and into the farmlands. Water churned around them in a refreshing display of labour and life, but the rider barely noticed. Nor did they notice the skinny farmers, or the fat guards baring long knives and longer whips.

They simply rode towards the city, ignoring the fearful stares and dark scowls.

However, word of their approach had sped ahead.

The rider was forced to pull hard on the reins, as before them the city gates slammed shut. A stern-looking face peered out at them from atop the ornate walls.

“You aren’t welcome in the City of Might, stranger.”

The guard had meant to sound menacing, but he could barely hide the tremble in his voice.

The rider slowly peered up from within the depths of their hood and the guard stepped back, his face the colour of ash.

“I am no stranger, and no doors are closed to me.”

The words were soft but inevitable, an expression of reality rather than a threat.

However this didn’t seem to be enough to dissuade the guard.

“You-you are known to us, Reaper. Our lord and master has been told of your coming. The seer Verevestolo foretold your arrival and we have prepared. The gates and the walls of the city are warded against you. You cannot enter.”

The rider looked at the glowing runes on the gates. Then they stared at the guard again, the darkness in their eye-sockets dulling the light of the sun.

“Your master is afraid.”

The statement was less rigid then the first and seemed to end in the tail of a question.

The rider waited.

“I-…our lord fears no one! He-…he is only taking the logical precautions to preserve his life from your foul clutches.”

The rider grinned.

You are afraid.”

This time the words were laced with shadows, and had the cloaked fiend been capable of human emotion – the guard thought – the tone could have been mistaken for one of disappointment.

“I’m-I’m not…I’m not afraid. I’m within the city. You can’t hurt me! You can hurt no one!” exclaimed the trembling man, clutching his crossbow in a rictus of barely-controlled terror.

“You are all afraid,” murmured the figure. “And you don’t understand. Nor do I suspect, will you ever want to. Very well.”

For a second, the runes on the gate blazed with blue fire and the guard cried out.  In a panic, he took aim and shot a bolt at the figure’s head. The steel-tipped quarrel passed through them harmlessly and stuck into the ground.

The rider turned, twitched its skeletal grip on the reins and rode off, abandoning Kara’na’Zell to its fate.

As he watched the receding back disappear over a dune, the guard’s colour slowly returned.

“Well, that was easier than I thought! Inform the Master that the Reaper has left. And open the gates,” he added haughtily.

One man scrambled towards the palace, while five others climbed down the ladders and placing themselves on either side of the massive doors, heaved.

The gate didn’t budge.

In the meantime, Morvan Lukk was celebrating in his lavish chambers, quaffing wine and laughing at the thought of having banished Death from his kingdom.

“I am a god!” he gurgled happily between a bite of turkey and chunk of mango “I’ve removed the Dark One’s influences from my land! No one in this city shall ever die; I have given my people the ultimate gift!”

He was still celebrating when the report came from the gates.

“My lord, we…we can’t open them,” whimpered the captain of the guards as he shrivelled under the scorching gaze of his sovereign.

“What trickery is this?” he raved, angrily throwing an emerald-studded cup out of the tower window. “Get the army down there! Break them down!”

Their efforts proved fruitless. It soon became apparent that the gates could not be opened, destroyed or bypassed. Finally, Lukk ordered his soldiers to scale the walls and go secure food from the outside world.

They returned as white as chalk, trembling before the wrath of the master.

“We can’t get out, lord,” they said, recounting how all attempts of climbing down the walls had resulted in them reappearing within the city.

There was no way in or out of Kara’na’Zell.

Months later the population was starving.

Morvan Lukk had done his best to cull the revolts, but he had soon found that the revolutionaries couldn’t be killed. Their bodies could be irreparably mangled, but life persisted within the twisted remains.

Soon, even Lukk himself was deprived of nourishment, and he wasted away. After five years, he was no more than a dry husk of skin and bone, barely strong enough to move from his jewelled throne. Every movement was pain, and even immobility became torment.

Yet still he did not die.

Around the city, life flourished, and through the ages, the desert became green, then brown and then green once more.

But the city that had refused Death remained, unchanging.

*          *          *

The figure rode through a forest of willows, their horse snorting happily. They stopped from time to time to let the steed drink and munch on the green shoots growing in the glades and meadows of this quiet corner of the world.

On the outskirts of the forest, they found the town of Jopilan, its stockades describing a wide protective circle around the wooden houses and stone fences.

As the figure rode up to the gate, two guards stepped out of the shadows. They were robed in roughspun cloaks of green and brown and their faces were hard.

But they immediately swept into a low bow when they recognized the rider.

“My friend, you are welcome to our humble town. Please, follow us; the mayor has instructed that you be lodged in her house. Then we shall send Firn to warn the cooks: there is to be a feast tonight.”

The rider smiled and inclined their head.

The feast was lovely, and although the Reaper didn’t touch any of the food, the hosts were delighted to see that they were at least tempted by the wine. Around the large banquet table, people danced and sang by the fire, while others talked and told jokes.

As the moon rose, the rider lowered their hood, revealing a kind face.

“Thank you for your welcome, dear friends,” they said, as their smile coaxed laugh lines from the odd corners of their face. “I will now walk among you, and choose those that I must take with me.”

A silence fell over the crowd. They all nodded.

The Reaper rose and gently went from person to person. It marked only a few with its touch, and these became the centre of the festivities for the rest of the evening.

When morning came, the rider was waiting atop its horse in the centre of the square. Those they had marked came to stand beside them, while the rest of the village formed an honour guard to the gate that led to the Plains.

There were some tears, but mostly smiles as the dead, their heads adorned with flowers, followed the white horse into the Path Beyond. Behind them the gates of the town remained open, and a kind wind blew through them bringing the seeds of new beginnings.-

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