Flash Fiction Month 2019, Day 28
Once upon a time there lived a hunter in a wild land. Each morning he set out into the forest to check his traps and seek out game. Each afternoon he returned to his cottage to tend its small garden and to cook a simple meal. And each night, he rested that he would be ready to begin the next day anew.
One day, while treading a path that even he seldom used, the hunter passed an old man who wore a thick cloak and walked with a long staff. The hunter gave him a cordial greeting, yet the man responded by grasping his arm, pulling him backwards along the path.
“I pray you,” said the traveller, “walk no farther this way!”
The hunter began to protest, but his words were drowned out by a widowmaker falling on the path where the traveller had just passed and he had just been approaching. The vast bough rested, still trembling from the impact, as the hunter struggled to put his gratitude into words.
But “Do not thank me,” said the traveller. “I have not saved your life, but rather the trouble of lifting that bough.”
The hunter looked to the traveller and realised with horror that the man’s wrinkled face was but a skull, and his thick cloak a pale shroud. Likewise he carried not a staff, but a vicious dart. The hunter tried to pull away, but the terrible figure’s fleshless hand was still closed over his arm, and he remained fixed upon the path as firmly as a coffin nail.
“As I have spared you the pain and indignity of being struck by that falling limb,” said Death (for Death it was that he had met upon the path) “please spare me the inconvenience of chasing after you. All must accept their fate in time, and those who do it soonest are the happiest.”
The hunter saw that he could not free himself by force, but thought words might yet avail him.
“How am I to know that would have fallen on me?” he demanded. “This might be some trick to take me before my time.”
“There is a plague in the North, a war in the East, a famine in the South and an uprising in the West.” Death spoke with a weary tone. “It is a wonder that I did not come to you a week late.”
“Then what about a wager?” asked the hunter, who had heard tales of such things. “If I can best you in some game or other, will you let me go?”
“I am not bound to,” Death replied, “but my work is tiresome. I would be glad of a diversion, that I cannot deny. Name your contest and I will oblige.”
The hunter doubted that he could defeat Death in any show of speed or strength—if it were so simple, he could simply run or fight—but he wondered how many in his shoes would choose a game of luck. A fair chance, he considered, was far preferable to no chance at all.
“If I win,” said Death, “do you promise to come willingly? I must take you even if you don’t, bear in mind.”
The hunter was about to answer when he saw that Death clutched a pair of dice. They were carved of bone and the pips were set with jade. He rolled them as if the bone of their surface and the bone of his palm obeyed the same will.
“If you win, I promise to come willingly,” agreed the hunter. “However, if I win—”
Death put up a hand. “Choose wisely, for of the few who best me, many come to regret their prize.”
The hunter reconsidered his next words. He had thought to insist that Death never claim him, but now he wondered if that might prove to be a curse. He might name a date of his choosing, but then must surely dread its approach. Still, however, he wanted some guarantee that Death would not merely follow him from that place and strike within the hour.
“If I win,” the hunter said at last, “you will not come in daylight.” This, the hunter felt, would at least assure a peaceful death at home.
“Very well,” said Death, and shook his dice, ready to cast them without delay.
“But the game will not be dice.”
Death tilted his head. “Strange. I felt sure that was what you had decided. What do you propose instead?”
“I shall loose an arrow,” said the hunter. “If you can split it, I will go with you. If not, you will let me live as we agreed.” He readied his bow.
“I will not turn down this wager, but I warn you: my dice would serve you better. The dart I hold is unerring. All those who would not walk with me have felt its point.”
“My bow is my livelihood. I trust my aim over your dice.”
“So be it,” said Death, and the hunter loosed his arrow into the air.
The shaft soared high above the canopy, and Death drew back his arm. However, he would not take his throw. There was a faint splash as the arrow landed in the river near the hunter’s cottage and was swiftly carried away.
“Even now I could strike that!” cried Death, furious.
“But you could not reclaim your spear.”
Death pulled his shroud over his face, but could no longer bear the sunlight streaming through the trees. Hissing in anger, he vanished from view.
The hunter strode onwards, pausing only to heave the widowmaker off the path. He walked lightly, buoyed by the knowledge that even in the deepest woods—while daylight shone at least—he had nothing to fear from the hazards of that place.
Death strode onwards too—at exactly the same pace—albeit somewhat hunched. He had forfeited the right to come in daylight, but the hunter had not forfeited his shadow and that served well enough.