Death sheathed his sword.
Its worn grip formed perfectly to his hand. Rainwater washed pools of dark blood and broken teeth across the stony ground, while crows picked flesh from fresh corpses. Death looked with distanced pity at the thousands of contorted faces laying at his feet. Every one unique. Every one the same.
That one woke up this morning dreaming of glory, he thought, looking at a dead boy hardly in his teens.
That one thought he was strong enough, he thought, looking at a bear-sized man, who’d clearly spent years training his body.
Death shook his head and gestured at a shadow beside him. “They’re all the same. In the end,” he said gravely. The shadow bowed reverently low.
Death looked out at the piles of bodies.
“After all these centuries, after all these people . . . ,” Death’s eyes drifted into distant memories. “After all the warriors, the kings and priests and sons of gods, all the mothers and wise women, I’d hoped someone would be worthy, would stand against me or outwit me. The young ones think I’m far away and don’t see me coming. The old ones sense me for a moment and tremble. The rich ones talk. Even the strong ones fall quickly. Even Achilles and Hector. No one . . .”
Death’s sunken eyes looked sad, and, perhaps, bitter.
The shadow said nothing.
“The truth is, I’m weary. I’ve won. This world is conquered. But there is nothing else to do but the never-ending, cruel work.”
The corpses began to quiver, but the crows pulling at them didn’t seem to notice.
“They’re coming,” Death said. “Take them.”
The shadow nodded and moved like smoke over the crowd.
Misty, glowing green figures arose all over the field as spirits awoke to see their bodies lying broken on the ground. Wails and screams echoed off the rocks, but the crows couldn’t hear them.
“What’s happened?” a spirit said. “Is that me!? I look so . . . oh my . . . no. No!”
Shadows outnumbering the crows blackened the ground, grabbing the screaming, terrified spirits of fallen men, putting them in black chains. It took no time at all.
Death himself led the forced march of distraught souls, single file, back to his keep. Cries stifled as the marching men came to terms with their chains. A young man begged the shadows to let him return to the world to tell his mother he was sorry. He promised to come back.
The shadows said nothing.
They passed through black gates into Death’s dark, cavernous keep.
As the spirits were cast into dark dungeon chambers, Death sat heavily down onto his throne above, staring into an abyss. He listened to the screams coming from the caverns below.
Night after night, day after day, Death arose from his throne and returned to the fields of the world. He slew and slew. He took and took. His dungeons filled. The shadows built more, and he filled them too.
Every night he sat again on his throne and listened to the chorus of screams and wails.
I’m as damned as they are.
Each day countless voices were added. He looked down, wishing, somehow, it would end.
One day, a demon came before his throne.
“Lord Death,” it said.
“What do you want?” asked Death.
“There are rumors.”
Death stared unamused at the creature.
“It is said . . . someone will one day come . . . who will try to break your reign.”
“There have always been those who try to break my reign. And they are all in my dungeons.”
“Yes, Lord Death. Yet I was told to warn you.”
“And so you have. Go.”
When the creature left, Death arose from his throne and returned to the fields of the world. He slayed and slayed. And took and took. He looked for someone who would stand against him. But no one did. He sighed on the long march back to his keep, tens of thousands of wailing souls behind him.
So much for my reign ending, he thought.
Day after day, week after week, year after year, century after century, Death reigned. And for all that time, Death thought, Maybe he will come. Millions of nights and countless spirits. Endless nights of wailing. After a thousand years more, he stopped looking for the one who would come to end his reign. Death resigned himself to his eternal task.
Centuries more passed.
One day, like any other day, Death returned to the fields of the world.
He slew and slew. He took and took. But something was different.
As he surveyed the dead, something caught his eye. On a rocky hill, a knight stood in armor, his sword drawn. Most warriors didn’t see Death coming. Those who did, did little to stop him. Most cowered. But this knight saw him.
Death walked to him and met him on the rocky hill. The knight looked into his sullen eyes. The knight’s eyes showed courage. Not boyish naivete and swagger. But courage.
“Are you the one?” asked Death.
“You don’t look like I expected.”
Death drew his sword, looking into the knight’s eyes, hoping he would do something unexpected.
But he didn’t.
Death’s sword passed through him like it had so many billions of others.
Death sighed and sheathed his sword. He turned his back on the knight and began walking down the hill.
The knight fell to his knees, the life draining from his face. Tears of blood streamed down his cheeks. His voice, weak, gasping, said, “In three days, I will defeat you.”
Death stopped. He turned and watched the man, now pale and lying in a dark pool of his own blood.
Death laughed a joyless laugh.
“You? You didn’t land a single strike. You didn’t even try to stop me. You let me kill you. And had you tried, you would have failed like all the others.” There was hatred in his voice.
Death looked at his shadows. “Take him.”
The knight was chained like all the others. He was taken on the long march to Death’s keep. As they passed through the black gates, Death looked at the knight. Just in case . . .
He said to his shadow, “Place this man in a solitary chamber. Keep him alone.” The shadow nodded. “And keep him chained.”
Death sat again on his throne. Once more, he stared into the abyss, listening to the wails of an ever-growing host. He shook his head in disgust.
The next day, he went to the fields of the world. He slew and slew. He took and took. He marched his captives, every step thinking again of the knight who defied him. He laughed. Then, he grew angry.
When the black gates opened to his keep, he walked to the chamber where the knight was kept.
“You disappointed me,” Death said, looking at the pitiful spirit bent beneath the weight of heavy black chains. “Do you know how long I waited for you? I too wear chains, you know.” He paused. “Part of me hoped you would win . . . I’ve waited so long.” Bitterness grew in his voice with every word. “But you . . . you’re no different. You died like all the rest. Achilles was more worthy. You . . . disappointed me.”
The knight said nothing.
“Well? Nothing to say? No excuses? No ‘if only’s?’ No begging?”
The knight didn’t answer. Death waved his hand dismissively. He turned to walk back to his throne.
He stopped when a weak voice, barely audible, whispered: “In two days, I will defeat you.”
Death shook his head and walked away. Fool.
The next day, Death returned to the fields he’d walked so many times before. He slew and slew. And took and took.
He returned to his keep and sat on his throne. Sad. Angry. Alone. He stood up and walked to the knight’s dungeon chamber.
“Look at you,” Death said. He stared at the knight for several minutes. “Do you know a devil came here to warn me about you before you were born? Before your mother was born. I waited for you. Looked for you. And look at you. You died. Your mother will die. They all die. You lost. You are mine.”
He glared at the pale thing before him. His voice echoed off the black walls, “Say something.”
The knight strained his head against his chains and faced Death.
“In one day, I will defeat you.”
Death shook his head in disgust and fury and walked to his lonely throne, sitting down with the weight of a mountain.
The next day, Death returned to the fields of the world. He slew and slew. And took and took. He marched the long march back to his keep, listening to the cries behind him.
A shadow met him at the black gate.
“Put these in new chambers.”
The shadow bowed reverently, apologetically.
“What is it?” Death asked.
In all Death’s years, a shadow had never hesitated to obey.
The shadow was afraid.
Death looked towards the caverns. With the fury and longing of countless ages, he ran down the black steps to the knight’s dungeon chamber.
No . . .
The lock was broken. The dungeon door swung from its hinges. The black chains were crumpled on the floor.
Death ran out into the caverns. The doors had been opened. Millions of chambers sat empty.
He searched for miles before he found any prisoners left at all.
Death walked slowly through his empty halls and up towards his throne, the knight’s words echoing in his mind.
But when he reached his throne, something was different.
It had been cracked in two. On it sat a scroll wrapped in a bow. Death looked at it for a moment, picked it up, and untied the bow.
Written in blood were the words,
I have defeated you. You have lost. You shall reign no more.
Death looked up in astonishment, realizing for the first time he heard something new.
There were no screams. No wails. No chorus of the damned.
Death sat on his broken throne, looked into the abyss, and smiled.
Roger Maxson served as a United States Marine under the White House Military Office. He earned an MAA through Houston Christian University, and enjoys reading, writing, reflecting on the great mysteries of life, and hiking.
Roger Maxson, “Death and the Knight,” An Unexpected Journal: King Arthur Legendarium 6, no. 2. (Summer 2023), 122-130.