About This Tale
A tale of a boy, his master, and the battle of life versus Death in the annals of human history.
1 – Awakening
Osmund awoke with a start, as was the case every day. His dream of his family, and his home in the long distant past, faded instantly from memory. He didn’t worry about that anymore; he knew the dream would return tonight, to be forgotten again.
“Has it arrived?” he asked, rubbing his bleary eyes.
He looked up at his companion. The tall figure was already carefully folding the list, and placing it securely away beneath his black robe. “Of course it has,” Osmund muttered. It always arrived, without fail. It had done so for 800 years, of his knowing, and lord knows how long before that. “I’m not sure why I always ask?”
“Humanity is curious. It has been your blessing, and your curse, for millennia.”
Osmund stared at him for a moment. He wasn’t often so vocal, especially in the morning. “Is everything alright, sir?” he asked. The stony silence that followed made him regret that “sir” – he knew not to use such terms, and yet a half a life spent in servitude was not easily forgotten.
“Everything is as it should be, and ever has been. Get dressed. We have a long journey today.”
With that he was out of the door, his long, elegant, stride both regal and haunting. Osmund knew better than to question, or to argue. He wished he could go back to sleep. He wished, every day, that he would wake in a place such as this with no plans, and no rush, and only fields and livestock to bother him. But that was not his life anymore.
Shaking off the thought, he pulled on his rank old clothes, and his ragged brown cloak, and gathered up their things. Well, his own things. Death himself tended to travel light.
2 – A Precise Destination
Following Death wasn’t as hard as one might expect. Osmund had travelled as his liege for so long that he had stopped asking the questions of how or why any of this was possible. It had been explained to him from the beginning that he was merely one of many followers; destined to assist and witness, but never interfere, with the Reaper’s work.
The “one of many” part had been a struggle for Osmund. Over time he learned to accept this as a fact. However, the idea that the being he was standing next to was actually existent at every point in time, and at this very moment was standing in 5th Century Greece, while walking around in 1999, and all the while still here, standing by his side, was the cause of many headaches.
That each parallel Death was neither his clone, nor his twin, but the very same being, and that each had a companion much like Osmund to lead around time or space as he pleased, was another head scratcher. The young man had soon learned to not think too much about it, and to live in the moment. He supposed that was the point of it all anyway.
Day by day he trudged after Death, carrying what little things they needed to get by, sometimes assisting where Death could not exert his influence in an obvious manner – Osmund could, for the most part, still be seen and heard by the local folk. Or at least he could when it suited Death. This was yet another thing Osmund would lie awake at night and ponder – was Death in control of such things? Where did his powers lie? And if not him, then who?
He often wondered about the other assistants. Did they follow as loyally as Osmund did? Did they bicker, argue, fight? Could they be fired from this job? Worse still – what happened to them if they were? Are all assistants given such little information, and expected to abide by his side?
He suspected that much was the case – he didn’t imagine that Death had developed any other personalities over his various different forms, and so life was probably much the same for every little Osmund out there, whatever their name or rank in the lives that came before. But it didn’t stop him thinking about it on the long, hard road, when conversation was slow and the journey tiresome – like today.
Today was some time in the late 1650’s. The list had brought the pair here last night, and they slept in an old farm house in middle England. A pleasant trip all round, if you ignore the unpleasantness that they had came for. Death’s relentless stride was leading them along a dusty roadway, with the sun rising brightly in the sky, and Osmund shielding his eyes from its glare. He considered making a joke about sun tans and picnics and making the most of this glorious morning but he knew better than to say it out loud. Only one of the pair would be amused by the humour, so he allowed himself a smile and continued on the way.
By mid-morning they could see a tall spire at the rise of the next village and Osmund knew this to be their destination. For all of Death’s mastery of time, he had rules he must obey; the main one being that he must be present in a place of ancient worth for time to flow around him. So, standing in an abandoned barn and expecting the future to come would do no good, unless all you wanted to do was to pass an hour standing in a barn.
However, standing in old churches or ancient cathedrals freed the pair from the chains of time & space. Time would flow infinitely in the world outside, and allow Death to step out into precisely the place he needed to be. Osmund knew that “precisely” wasn’t always as accurate as you might hope, but there was usually a reason why. Someone once said “Life is about the journey, not the destination.” Well Osmund could confirm that Death held much the same philosophy.
The sun was climbing to its highest point when they finally reached the church. Osmund couldn’t say if he had been here before – eight centuries of cathedrals, basilicas, churches and monasteries blended into one. He remembered the odd few, those he had truly revered on sight alone. Mainz Cathedral, from his youth. Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt, from an all too brief visit during his inglorious military career. And of course, Chartres Cathedral near Paris, where he had spent much time before the Crusades came calling.
This one was basic. Certainly ancient, but little used, and not highly decorative or memorable. A place for locals to keep their faith and be in touch with God. Death stepped inside, unseen by the eyes of those around him. An elderly woman shuffled near the altar but did not pass a glance at the travellers. They strode purposefully towards the altar and Osmund stood back, as always, allowing his master to perform his ritual.
The ritual was a secret, and something of quite some significance. Osmund knew this, but had never gotten any closer to an answer as to what exactly it involved, despite his constant enquiries for more information. From his vantage point he could see the robed figure of Death kneel and lay down his scythe. All else was done in silence. He knew only that once the master stood their surroundings would change, and the world will have moved on.
The master stood.
In an instant Osmund knew something wasn’t right. Their surroundings usually changed quite dramatically; altars moved, windows were replaced, people appeared or disappeared all around. This had never happened before, however. The stained glass windows cracked, the brickwork shifted, throwing out decades old dust. The great stone walls of this ancient building began to crumble away before his eyes.
A deafening sound followed. BOOM it cracked through the building, echoing to the peaks of the tower, where no bell chimed. BOOM it rocked the walls, as sediment flew into the air all around. BOOM it came through the wall; a wrecking ball, cascading rubble everywhere.
“We must leave this place,” Death spoke. He turned and strode calmly towards the great wooden doors, except Osmund noticed they had gone too – replaced by metal grates and luminous yellow tape. “What is going on?” he asked, hurrying to catch up.
“We have come to a place we have not visited before,” the reaper responded. “We are further into the world than you have travelled with me previously.”
“By further you mean…?”
“We are present in the world’s far future. Many things have changed”
The Reaper used the end of his scythe to jar the metal grates away from the doorway. The two stepped out into a decidedly less beautiful day. The sun, hidden by rolling cloud, hung ominously low, as dust and smoke blew wildly in the wind. All around demolition crews worked busily to co-ordinate their efforts. As the pair walked clear of the building a loud crack rang out – Osmund turned in time to see the gothic tower of the building crumple into itself, sending more ancient dust into the atmosphere.
“They are destroying something old here, something that has stood for generations.” Osmund stood still, looking on in disbelief.
“Come, Osmund.” Death spoke, already moving far off along the road. “It is not our concern now.”
3 – Age of Advancement
“How come we’re still here?” Osmund asked. It was rare for the pair to walk into a church, and walk out again in the exact same place.
“We are where we need to be, as always,” came the reply.
Osmund mulled it over, knowing yet again that he could have given that answer himself. They always arrived where they needed to be, and he had stopped worrying about the logistics of that a long time ago.
“But there’s something else going on isn’t there?” he asked. “We always end up where we need to be but I’ve never seen anything like that before.”
There was a pause. A definitive silence as his grim companion strolled on ahead. Osmund wondered if he should push the point further; try to force an answer, at the risk of angering Death himself. He had never found that to be a good option.
“The world has changed. We are further than you have travelled, Osmund, and humanity is not something you would recognise here”, he finally responded.
“Those demolition teams looked normal enough to me.”
“Physically, maybe, but the hearts of man have changed. Science grows to new and wondrous heights in this age. The old ways are forgotten, and miracles happen on a regular basis – provided in laboratories and test tubes.”
“That’s good isn’t it? I’ve seen them come a long way from my days as one of… them” Osmund said, thinking of the struggle he called a life when he was a mortal man. He had seen man invent weapons and technology, air travel and space exploration.
“It is good for them,” Death responded, with no hint of emotion or invective in his voice. Osmund stopped dead in the road and turned back to look at the fading view of the village. The skyline was now empty in the space where the church had stood for so long.
He considered the view for a moment, putting the pieces together. Slowly a thought dawned on him and he turned, running to catch up with Death.
“Hang on! You say mankind has advanced… And so I’m to believe that the church has something to do with that?”
“That is correct.”
“They are so enlightened now they happily throw down ancient landmarks?”
“No. They are so advanced now they cast off that which they see as unnecessary.”
“Religion is unnecessary?”
“For some. For man in this day, they have no need for places to worship.”
“Then how do they keep their faith in God?
Silence again. This time there was no sense of an answer brewing, and Osmund knew he would not get one. He had asked the wrong question, and it took him a few moments to consider what he really wanted to know.
“What has science achieved to change things in this way?”
“Science has answered the eternal question.”
“Yes. Eternal life, and the ability to create it freely for all men.”
“Only God can give life freely…”
“And so we have reached a turning point in history.”
Osmund struggled with the thought, the implications twisting and breaking and reforming in his brain; if man can give life freely, and can live an eternal existence, then they not only have become god’s, but they…
“Let me see the list”
Death walked on.
“Why have we not stopped to do our work? It’s long past midday.”
Death walked on.
“Answer my questions!!”
“You are asking questions to which you know the answers already,”
Osmund stopped again, despair and confusion and every emotion known to him running across his face. He knew the answers, but he didn’t like them.
“If God created man, and man has conquered creation, then God is….. dead.”
Death walked on.
“Come along. We have a job to complete.”
4 – To Journey To Eternity
By sunset they had reached another small town, which appeared to be mostly abandoned. Death led the way through the streets; past dusty cafes and rusty old shop fronts. They passed through the town without a word, and Osmund couldn’t help but notice the distinct lack of church or chapel. Times really had changed.
On the far side of the town they hit a dirt track which led to the foot of the hills. The same hills had looked infinitely distant this morning, and now here they were, looming high and wide. The peaks looked pitch black, silhouetted in the fading light.
“We have arrived,” Death spoke. “Be prepared.”
Osmund gazed at their surroundings, wondering what could possibly be here for them.
Death approached the rocky foothills by the side of the path where stones, which stood as tall as Osmund, had fallen for millennia. Death picked a path through them. They soon were surrounded in almost pitch black and, when Osmund lit a torch from his pack, he saw that they were entering a cave of sorts.
Hollowed into the side of the hill was a tiny space, not big enough for more than 4 people standing abreast. At the very back, carved from the wall itself, was a flat ledge, and on it stood a cross and some hand-carved rosemary beads. Of all the sites Osmund had visited in his time, this was the most basic, and it gave him an intense sadness to see this; one of the last vestiges of faith in the emergent world of Man.
“We aren’t enclosed here,” he spoke quietly.
“It does not matter. This place will allow us to get close to our destination. It is all we have, and all we shall find for many a mile.”
Death stepped forward toward the makeshift pulpit, and took to his knee, as per his ritual. Osmund closed his eyes and let the torch burn out. He felt like a traitor in this place – standing amongst such strong faith, and knowing the task that must be performed before the day was done.
He opened his eyes and witnessed Bethlehem by night; an unforgettable sight he had seen too few times. They were in the highest peak of The Church of the Nativity, and he could see that this place had not been touched. The most sacred of places, to many, had survived mankind’s advancement so far. He took in the sight, wondering if it may be the last time he would get to view it.
“Why are we here?” he asked calmly.
“We must make a journey that we cannot make from a simple cave. Only a place with truly ancient roots can guide us.”
“Then we are going down?”
Death nodded his hooded head, and turned, angling down the narrow limestone steps. As they walked the winding staircase, Osmund thought on his companion’s words. “Are we going where I think we are going?”
“We are going down, Osmund.”
“Yes, but this journey you mentioned… If it is to where I think it is then surely it’s a one way trip?”
Death made no response.
“You told me once that to journey to Eternity is to remain Eternal,” Osmund said, hoping the poetic and prophetic notions would entice The Reaper into sharing more. No response came, however, and the two wound their way ever deeper into the dark.
The Church of the Nativity ran deep underground, and was fabled to be the very birthplace of Christ. The truth of that did not really matter much to their purpose – millions of believers had devoted enough time and faith to the site over a thousand years to instil it with the energy they needed.
They arrived at the very deepest part of the church, which was no more than a grotto of sorts. Osmund could feel the energy here, something powerful which could not be removed even if mankind sent every bulldozer and demolition expert it had.
Death approached an altar which bore markings in more languages than Osmund could count. He took to his knee, and bowed his head. Osmund stepped back, waiting.
“Osmund. You must approach,” he said.
He had never approached during the ritual. Well, strictly speaking, he had tried to once – way back in his formative days as an apprentice, he had assumed he should be by his master’s side. His admonishment for that was long lasting and he had never tried it again.
“I… Must I?” he managed to ask, feeling his legs tremble slightly.
“You must,” came the only response, and he knew he had no choice. He stepped forward tentatively, and clumsily took a knee beside the robed figure.
“Does this mean…?”
“Even I do not know what this may mean for you,” Death replied, matter-of-factly. He bowed his head again, and waited until Osmund followed suit.
Death spoke in a voice that he had not heard before, with tone and shape that he had never expressed to Osmund in all of their time together. He recited something in a language Osmund had never heard, that rhymed beautifully, and moved him deeply, but was terrifying and threatening at the same time.
Osmund felt the earth shift beneath him. His stomach was wrenched inside out, or so it seemed, and his head spun wildly. Everything moved and stayed perfectly still all at once, and Osmund was quickly quite sure that he had passed out.
He steadied himself, eyes tightly closed, hoping to open them and find a rustic barn roof above his head, and another bad dream ended, soon to be forgotten.
He opened his eyes and was blinded momentarily by the light.
5 – That Which Is Already Dead
Light flooded the room, if it even could be called that. A vast space lay before him, and everything was the whitest of whites. A Presence lay ahead; something so strong and full of fizzing energy that it drew Osmund to his feet, and slowly forwards.
In that moment, Death moved too – arising at the same moment, and walking alongside him towards the fiery, invisible energy ahead. He looked to his side and the black looming presence of Death stood out vividly in the hazy white beauty of the surroundings. The arching, threatening, deadly scythe shone gloriously in the light. Osmund’s heart sank.
The urge to stop their approach hit him strongly, and Osmund halted on the spot. The Reaper stopped with him, and turned to his apprentice. “You have served as well as any man ever could, Osmund.”
Osmund looked at him, as confused as he ever had been, not knowing any of the answers to his own questions this time. The Presence approached. Closer by an inch, maybe, but the overwhelming power struck Osmund again.
“I leave you here,” Death said.
The Presence beckoned, the call pulling at the two, but Osmund could feel inside that it did not expect him. It tore at his link to the Reaper, severing their perpetual ties, and in the same moment he felt the pull on his master.
The Presence was drawing him near, and Death took one step towards it, while Osmund was pinned to the spot. He wanted to reach forward and pull the dead man back, but his limbs were useless now. Everything was useless now, and he once again knew all the answers he required, but could not stop himself from asking the questions anyway.
“What is happening here? What about the list…?”
Death turned, the light repelled around his dark visage. His bony fingers emerged from under his cloak, holding the list. He passed it to Osmund.
“You cannot kill the maker of all things,” he said, with what seemed to be emotion crackling through his haunting voice.
“I am ready when you are,” he said, resigned to his fate.
“No…” Osmund unfolded the paper, and one glance at its contents was all it took to crush both his hope and his heart in an instant.
“This… It doesn’t say anything?” he shouted, as Death walked slowly into the light ahead. He stopped and turned, finally, to the boy.
“You cannot kill that which is already dead.”
“But I don’t understand. We came here to kill Him. You said it was the end.”
“Indeed it is. For Death no longer reigns, and life has won. It is only I that has been conquered, not the powers that govern me.”
Osmund stood straight, fighting the urge to fall to the floor in his despair. “But you said – ‘everything is as it should be, and ever has been’. How? How can this be right!? It’s unnatural, what they’ve done”.
“It is as natural as life, death, humanity, the moon and the stars. It is natural as it is the way things have presented themselves, through the choices you all have made.”
Osmund stood, unable to find the words to argue back, totally sure that they would make no difference anyway.
“I go to my reward now, Osmund. It has been a long, long path that I have walked.”
In that moment, he cast back his hood, revealing the indescribable visage beneath for the first time to his squire. His blank skull, featureless, yet full of expression – the very face of the afterlife itself.
“So that’s it. We lost,” Osmund said, dejected, as tears formed in his eyes.
“No, Osmund. Mankind has won. Death has lost, and it can be no other way.”
With that, Death walked on.
On and on, into the light, which grew brighter and brighter until Osmund could look on it no more.
He closed his eyes and turned his head awayt, and once again felt the sickening twist in his stomach, and the spinning in his head. He was lost.
6 – Homecoming
Osmund awoke with a start, his eyes adjusting to the light. He was flat on his back, and from the smells around him he knew he was on a familiar bed of straw. Up above, he could see gorgeous sunlight seeping through the gaps in old timber beams.
A rustling roused his senses, and groggily he sat up, pulling straw from hair. He clutched gingerly at his stomach, feeling sea sick.
“Has it arrived?” he asked out loud.
No answer was forthcoming, but the gentle rustling came once again, and a sound of breathing. Vast , heavy breathing.
Osmund rose to his feet and gazed around the room. He was alone, save for livestock and their laboured breath, as the glorious summer sun beamed into the barn.
He allowed himself a smile, as his new reality dawned on him.
Just a boy, in a barn, with an already half-forgotten story to tell.