In which a new year begins
In the village of Woodbark, the ordinary had never looked quite so extraordinary.
“Are you sure this is the place, War?” Farroh asked of the tall, broad shouldered man who stood beside him.
The two men stood outside of a church hall, pondering the invitations that they held in their hands. One of the slips of paper was undeniably more crumpled than the other, as though the recipient of it had crunched and straightened it several times. The bearer of this particular invite steadied his coal-coated horse as it kicked at the ground impatiently.
Farroh looked at their surroundings, at the gravestones which encroached on the building. Some were made from a smoothed black marble, others had started to crumble away and one, an angel who was just plain showing off, sat upon an elaborately carved base looking down on the pair judgmentally. A little way in the distance sat a church, the three small stained glass windows dull without the sun’s rays to awaken them.
“Of course this is the right place,” War answered confidently as he removed the steel helmet he had been peering through. “It’s smaller than the last, but the girl has a few lessons to learn and who can fault my brother for wanting humility to be one of the first!”
Before a reply could be given, a crash came from behind the door, followed by a howl unknown to the living but somewhat welcome among the dead.
“Should we have needed any more convincing, a ghattan’s call it is. Let’s hope we have arrived before his royal pocked and boiled highness.” War patted his horse on its red flank and then pushed open the doors of the church hall.
They were greeted by the sound of a trumpet being blown ostentatiously to their left, followed by a howl similar to the one they had heard just moments earlier, when the blower of said trumpet was given a swift clout around the head by the thickly furred and sharply clawed creature to their right.
“I ent tellin’ you again, Tybuld,” the old ghattan began to say, his highly pointed brows reaching up towards the ceiling in anger, “I’m to blow the trumpet and you’re to…” But before he could finish speaking the younger ghattan had wasted no time in showing that he knew his orders and loudly blurted out to the room, much as he was supposed to do, “…announce the Horsemen: War and Famine!”
“Yes, yes, that will do,” the older ghattan remarked and then habitually used his free hand to comb down his eyebrows. “But if you can’t be trusted to just hold it and not use it I’ll ‘ave it back off you. This is to celebrate Sophie’s birthday, not for you to show off any trumpeting skills you think you ‘ave.”
With the mention of Sophie, Farroh turned away from the commotion the ghattans were causing and looked across the room to see that War was already making his way towards her.
Death’s daughter stood beside her father. Her dress was the colour of the leaves on spring trees and her hair that of those leaves once autumn had taken its claim on them. With it braided away from her face, her expression was visible and, Farroh noticed glumly, was one of disappointment.
Death, with his long coarse beard hanging about his chest, and the skulls that made it their home chattering their teeth, looked down from his great height to his daughter. Despite his stature positively towering over hers he looked uncomfortable as, from a distance, it appeared he tried to reach a compromise for whatever predicament he was in.
After handing Sophie her gift War departed towards the buffet table and Farroh realized that unless he wanted to be ostracized by the young girl, he too ought to wish her a happy birthday. He approached her as one might a lioness and only when her father caught his eye and a smile warmed his cracked lips did he return his step to an ordinary pace.
“Happy birthday, Sophie,” Farroh said once he was within a reasonable distance to be heard above the general chatter and the haphazard playing of the band.
Unlike her father, Sophie had not been expecting his sudden appearance and when she turned to him, it was not with a greeting but instead a stormy, “Oh look, Dad, another gift I’m not allowed to open yet,” before haughtily stomping across the church hall and towards a table with a monumental amount of food plated upon it.
“Straight to the fanganhoardens,” Death said gloomily. “I tell you, Farroh, there is little point in any of us being here when she has those two creatures to keep her company. Yet still she complains that the only people here are the dead and, well, those that help the living become the dead.”
Farroh watched Sophie as she took her seat at the middle of the table in between two skeletal robed figures. One of which, unlike the other, still had flesh on his bones and a mass of grey hair on his head that was pulled into a band at the nape of his neck.
“She has Sitrac,” Farroh said, gesturing towards the flesh-covered vorlan.
“A vorlan is hardly a friend to a young girl,” Death replied with a heavy sigh. As he said this, one of two small albino creatures scurried across the table with an apple between its teeth, prompting him to continue speaking, “Then again, neither are the fanganhoardens. But who can I trust to be a friend to her other than the likes of us?”
Death adjusted the multi-coloured pointed hat that he wore on his head, “I suppose there’s no harm in seeing if the appearance of cake could make this night any better,” he said, and gestured for a creature with skin hanging loosely from its bones to come closer.
It had been busy blowing into a small plastic toy that made a loud whirring noise which it found incredibly amusing, but seeing that Death had summoned it, swiftly dropped the toy to the floor and lurched over.
“Bring out the cake,” Death said. It was difficult for his voice not to sound imposing, even when asking for the simplest of things to be done. Once the request was made, the imp-like creature rushed across the room to where a number of boxes were stacked.
Farroh noticed that the gift table was behind where they stood, and so in watching the imp struggle to find the cake he wondered if a second table had been set aside for Sophie’s gifts, the cake lost somewhere among them.
“He’s going to ask which one,” Death said sullenly. “I don’t know which one. I had a dozen baked. It’s too many isn’t it? I should have just gone with the image of a bone-wagon and reaper. Why did I have to try and break away from the norm? I do have that one still at least. I’m sure Sitrac took care of it.”
Farroh said nothing on the matter of the amount of cakes that were piled high on the table, but watched when just as Death had predicted, the imp was soon back with two boxes in hand. One cake had the image that Death described and on the other was depicted a graveyard with a number of ghattans chasing ghosts with nets. In seeing the second cake, Death began to laugh, “I do like that one though.” He looked at the cakes for a few moments more, the skulls in his beard playing through a number of expressions before he blurted out irritably, “Farroh, I can’t choose. You decide.”
Farroh had met Sophie on many occasions yet still he knew little of the girl other than her reputation for being difficult. Not wanting to be on the receiving end of one of her tirades he went for what was, admittedly, the easier option.
“Both of them,” he said, and to his surprise sounded confident in his decision.
Death’s pale blue eyes widened and the skulls smiled broadly. He clamped a hand on Farroh’s shoulder and repeated to the imp, “All of them.”
“All of them?” it replied uncertainly, shooting a nervous glance back to the table. “I don’t know if we have enough candles for all of them.” The imp stopped speaking, his eyes caught in the unnerving gaze of Death’s. “We’ll have enough candles,” it said, before shuffling off towards the table and grabbing another imp on the way.
“That should liven things up,” Death grinned, the cracks on his lips splitting further apart. He placed a hand on one of the skulls in his beard and brushed his thumb over it fondly. “We should toast with the other Horsemen before the singing begins.”
“I’ve only seen War,” Farroh replied, taking another look about the room, his eyes doing leaps and bounds over the banners, balloons and streamers that lined the walls, floor and tables.
“You’re yet to see Pestilence?” Death asked. His slight smile and raised brows showing his amusement before he added, “He’s seen you.”
As he listened, Farroh met the sharp, green eyes of Pestilence, the man whose fair hair was dark with grease and whose complexion was made ruddy with the boils that corrupted his skin. He stood towards the back of the room, finding shelter in the few shadows that danced as the candle flames swayed.
“Tonight, Farroh, you are to toast as the Horseman whose place you rightfully took. You are to toast as Famine.”
They walked towards the table where War was showing little trouble in eating more than his fair share of the food and drinking more than everyone’s fair share of the beer.
“Pestilence is smart,” Death continued, “He knows better than to make a spectacle tonight.”
When they reached the table Sophie looked up only to give a drawn out sigh before asking, “What are you doing?”
Before her father could reply, War had pushed his helmet on to the head of an unsuspecting ghattan and lumbered over with a plastic cup in his hand. He glanced around blearily for Pestilence and in seeing him called over: “We’re to toast! Get to the table you blistered plague-bearer!”
Only War laughed. It was not the place of a reaper or likewise to make a joke of one of the Four Horsemen, and neither Death nor Farroh wanted to be made a part of War’s mocking calls.
Pestilence came to the table and taking a cup that was readily filled he first lifted it to Sophie, then, turning to his brothers and Farroh, he waited for Death to speak. A singular beat from the bass drum made way for silence to take its hold and the room fell quiet immediately.
“To my daughter, on this day and every day forth may she be all she is destined to be,” Death said proudly. He then shot the liquid into his mouth. As he grimaced at the sourness, part of the flesh on his lips tore open and blood slithered down and on to his beard. The skulls, already excited by the atmosphere, lurched backwards to try and catch a drop.
“The Pale Horseman!” War cried, and raised his plastic cup into the air to the sound of cheering and calls of the same name while ghattans raised their claws, reapers stamped on the ground and the imps leapt and spun nimbly.
Sophie applauded, pleased to see something that was familiar to her upbringing in the enclosed walls of a place she found uncomfortably plain. Sitrac, still seated beside her, rose from his place and bowed.
The three remaining horsemen spoke after the hurrah of Death’s followers calmed. Their speeches were not met with the same animated dances and chants as his, but had they been amongst their own a similar scene would have occurred.
Once they had finished speaking the horsemen stood aside as the lights dimmed and a chorus of happy birthday began. Sophie grappled for the fanganhoardens that were clumsily pawing about the food on the table and clutched them to her chest.
Two sets of red eyes peered out from under her arms at the approaching horde of imps who were making their way across the room with cakes of various sizes and colours held out in front of them, their gangly arms shaking beneath the weight. When they reached the table it could be seen that there was a mismatch in the number of candles per cake but, as Death had requested, each had at least one candle.
Sophie placed the fanganhoardens down carefully on her chair as she stood up and exclaimed gleefully at the sight of the cakes. There were swirls of icing to decorate their edges and images of reapers and ghattans. One even showed the fanganhoardens hanging from the end of Sitrac’s finger as she laughed in the background. Some were a single layer, and others towered up high, swaying precariously from being moved across the hall.
She quickly began to blow out the candles and the singing was replaced with the sound of cheering when only smoke drifted about the waxy tips of the small black pillars.
Gykruk and Tybuld, the two ghattans who had been guarding the door, clapped their hands together frantically. Gykruk, pausing only to wipe a tear away from the creased skin under his eyes, his permanently dilated pupils fixed on the girl he had helped to raise as she smiled proudly and lifted the fanganhoardens back up from her chair.
The celebration was drawn short.
A loud clatter sounded and all present turned to see that a group had entered the building; one of them, much to Tybuld’s dismay, placed a trumpet to her lips and blowing sharply into it caused the guests to become quiet.
In a swirl of darkness Death appeared beside the woman, and even with the party hat still placed on his head he managed to cause her to shriek in fear as he stepped out from the smoke which had concealed him.
“We bring a gift from the Lord,” a voice said calmly, removing from a scarlet jacket a wooden box.
Death turned it over and started to lift the lid, only to find a delicate hand was placed above his own.
“It is to be opened by your daughter,” the messenger asserted.
“Of course,” he replied. “But a Lord’s messenger will always show their seal. Where is yours?”
The messenger curled thin fingers into his palm and pulled from his sleeve a peculiar coin, the metal similar to gold, but it glinted like that of a smattering of stars across a dark sky. A hole was in its centre where it attached to the material of his clothing.
Seeing this, Death nodded and then made his way back to the main table. He placed the gift in front of Sophie and said, “This one you can open now.”
No reply was given and instead the attention of the room, including that of the Lord’s messengers, was on the box that Sophie now held in her hand.
She opened it carefully, the lid lifting up to reveal a slip of paper that she read aloud, “To see that which is often hidden.”
Glancing up to her father for an inkling of a meaning she found that he waved his hand, urging her to reveal what was beneath it. She did so to find what at first looked like overlapped birds feet, but upon further inspection saw that it was a ring in the shape of a talon. Those who could see went through the motions of putting their hands to their mouths and brushing fingers through their hair, should they have any, each with an echo of a gasp.
“Are you going to try it on?” Sophie’s father asked expectantly.
She nodded her head. Nerves were an uncommon feeling to her but, with everyone’s eyes fixed on what she did next, she found her hands were trembling as she reached into the box. There were only a few pairs of eyes that had moved away from her, and those belonged to Tybuld, Gykruk and the messengers of the Lord who, in their attempts to gain a better view, had stumbled in to one another.
“We’re her friends,” Gykruk hissed, “And as ‘er friends we ‘ave more reason to want to see this occasion than you do!”
Tybuld started to climb upon a chair, but was soon shrieking, “Get off me!” when one of the women began to pull him back down.
His cries alerted Sophie, and before she could pick up the ring, she looked up from the box and across the table. She tilted her head to the side to see through a small gap between the imps and watched as Tybuld was lifted up by the collar of his tabard.
“A reaper will take care of it,” Sitrac insisted, seeing that Sophie was distracted.
“They’re all too busy gawping at this box,” she snapped. But before she could push herself up from her seat a crash came from the edge of the room. It was enough to momentarily distract the guests and instead turn them towards the younger ghattan as he tried to regain his balance after being flung through the air.
The table that he was using to steady himself groaned. It was already unbalanced from the number of gifts that sat upon it and now had the added weight of Tybuld’s body being slung into it.
“Don’t move!” War cried. He stormed through the small crowd, making long strides towards the table.
Tybuld, startled by both the attack and the cry, pushed his hand down onto the corner of the table in an attempt to stand up. A bottle sprang upwards and was speeding back down again when it was caught in War’s hand.
“This,” he snapped at the young and wide-eyed ghattan, “Would turn even the likes of you into a berserker. Damn good ale, not a drop to be wasted!”
Although his gift was safe, the others that had rocked and shifted soon began to slide to the ground. This caused a raucous commotion to begin, which soon increased when a small explosion announced the first to smash upon hitting the floor. War jumped backwards, dragging Tybuld by the collar out of the way with him.
A despairing scream filled the room as luminous mist erupted from a vial and the spectre of a wailing woman came clawing out of it. In unison the reapers made their way across the room, each pulling the blade of a scythe from its waist, a stave of black smoke appearing in its wake.
“Get back!” bellowed Death.
More gifts were falling to the floor and from them a variety of noises filled the room along with the ordinary clunk of a box or shattering of glass. The banshee had swiftly been dispatched of by Sitrac. It being of little challenge, he had removed only one of the scythes that he wore at his hip, but now readied the other as, along with Death, he listened to the tell-tale sound of crackling that was coming from one of the larger presents to have fallen.
The noise soon became similar to the whirring a firework makes before fleeing into the sky to claim its home amongst the stars. Its intensity slowed the pace of the guests who had rushed to help and instead they now stood still, hypnotized by the noise. The only ones to move were the messengers, who believing what was to transpire was no longer of their concern, were making a steady getaway towards the church hall door.
The first to approach wrapped a gloved hand around the brass handle, but as soon as he pulled the door inwards blackness filled the room. It flooded in from outside and snuffed out the flames of the candles. Silence enveloped the whirring noise and in its place a vision of tiny golden lights erupted from the box.
“Fool’s fire,” hissed Gykruk to Tybuld. “Who buys a girl fool’s fire?”
From the golden orbs, silver streams danced and spiralled around them, which were then joined by small multi-coloured spheres, giving each light the appearance it was a sun with its own miniature solar system.
“How many wanderers do you think it’ll bring?” asked Tybuld, keeping his eyes fixed firmly on the lights.
“We’re in a graveyard,” replied Gykruk, “These lights are about to show everyone just ‘ow lousy some ghattans are at their job.”