A hooded figure walks the battlefield.
She treads softly on the blood-soaked ground, disturbing the crows that came to feast. She carefully picks her way among the dead and the few who are still living—the living do not see her, anyway. Except the ones who are about to die, of course. Or the one who… but she can no longer allow herself to hope for that.
A young man lifts his head as she approaches. “Lady,” he whispers. “Have you come to take me?”
“I’m only here to help you along your way,” she whispers back.
“Where to?” He’s half-dead already, his arm cut off at the shoulder and his blood seeping to the ground like water, but he’s still curious. “Where do we go when we die?”
The Lady looks at him. He’s so very young; young even for a fresh recruit in this terrible war. He has emerald eyes. “You don’t need to ask,” she replies. “You’ll find out soon enough.” She’s neither harsh nor mocking, and the sound of her voice soothes him. What she doesn’t say: Why do you ask me? How could I know? I have never died.
He dies in her arms, and she moves along.
Hearing a rasping breath, she discovers another youth lying face down, half-buried under a pile of corpses. She kneels next to him and caresses his cheek.
He doesn’t even have the strength to turn his face to look at her. “My mother,” he can only whisper. “What will my mother do without me? I’m her only son. She’ll have no one left when I’m gone.”
“Mothers are strong,” the Lady says. Her voice catches in her throat, yet she goes on. “She will endure.”
She witnesses his death and goes to the next man.
He is inquisitive. “Why do we have to die?” he asks as she kneels beside him to hold his hand in her lap.
She takes a deep breath, looks at the night sky. “Long ago,” she says, “the Gods created the first race of men, the Golden Race. They did not age, nor did they know disease or die. But they would not live, either. They just went through the motions. Nothing excited or motivated them. They had no use for food, or drink, or the pleasures of the body. They did not lie with each other and they had no children. They knew neither lust, nor greed, nor did they wage war on each other. Eventually the Gods grew bored with them and destroyed them. It is said that when they perished they only sighed with relief. Immortality is tedious.”
“But the Gods?” he says. “The Gods do not die, and yet they live their lives at the fullest.”
She takes pity on the young philosopher. “Gods die,” she says. This is what gives her power even over the Gods, and such a thing should thrill her or scare her, but it does neither.
She recites for him the tale of Rosewayne, the young maiden who seduced Struna, the God of the Mountaintops, and how he drowned in the stormy sea while trying to rescue her from her wicked stepfather. By the time she finishes her tale, the man is dead.
No one ever asks the question: why a Death? Is it a kindness, or a cruel joke? People would die anyway, even without her ministrations; but still they need her, especially the ones who linger at the threshold.
Back into the palace, Moira takes off the Lady’s robe and helps her into the bathtub. She diligently scrubs the Lady’s back, washing the blood and the grime and the stench of… The stench of Death, the Lady thinks. The stench of mine.
Moira caresses the small of the Lady’s neck, easing a little of the tension away. Just a little.
The Lady stands and steps out of the tub. She glimpses her own naked body, dripping water over the floor tiles. She hasn’t aged at all, since that night when she became the Lady Death.
She walks into Moira’s arms, messing up her dress. She reaches for Moira’s mouth, hungrily, with a passion that only matches her despair.
She can hear the children scream. The house has become a hellish inferno. She rushes headlong into the flames, but some men catch her and hold her down. “You mustn’t go in there,” the men say, “you’ll just burn too.” As if it matters. She fights the men and claws at them, but they hold her down. Let me burn, she wants to scream. At least let me burn with them. But she doesn’t speak, she just wails and screams, echoing the screams coming from the house.
The Lady wakes up panting and trying to breathe. She must have screamed in her sleep because Moira is awake, beside her in their bed.
Moira caresses her face. “Hush now, My Lady,” she whispers. “Hush, my love. It’s just a nightmare that will melt away with the dawn.”
The dream is calling to her; she knows it is not done with her yet. The Lady curls into Moira’s arms and reluctantly succumbs to sleep again.
She notices the hooded figure walking about, as she lies among the ashes in the burnt shell of her home. “You are Death,” she says. “You have come to take me.” She says it with conviction, as if it’s what she’s been waiting for.
The figure turns to face her. “You shouldn’t be able to see me,” he says. “You are not dying.”
“But I want to die,” she says. “I can’t go on living. I have nothing left to live for.”
Lord Death comes closer. He seems sympathetic. “There’s always something to live for,” he says. “You are young. You can have children again.”
She will not think of it. What children? Her children are dead. They cannot be replaced.
“I can’t live,” she repeats stubbornly.
“You can’t die, either,” he says. He comes closer. She can smell him now, a smell of fading flowers, of damp earth and fallen leaves and decay. “You are the One,” he says. “The One I’ve been waiting for, all these centuries.” His voice drops, as if he’s afraid to say the words lest the spell dissolve. “The One to take my place.”
She wakes up, Moira lying asleep beside her. She wonders if Moira had shared the bed of her predecessor too. She dismisses the thought; it would be such a cruel thing to ask.
The Lady sits up on the bed. Her jaw clenches, then unclenches slowly. She hasn’t smiled since the fire. Though her body has remained unchanged in all the years of her service, she feels her face ever tightening, as if it grows to resemble a skull. The grinning skull of Death in the paintings, only without the grin.
She’s Lady Death now, has been for long centuries. No one remembers her old name, not even she does. She can still eat, drink, make love. She can take pleasure in Moira’s warm body. And yet—she is not dead, but she is not alive either. This must be how the Golden Race felt, if the tale is true.
She never prays to the Gods, except to ask for the one to take her place.
Moira is down on her knees, scrubbing the palace floor. Looking at her, the Lady is overwhelmed by tenderness; she kneels to take Moira’s hands, lifts her up and embraces her. She feels Moira’s strong muscles under her shift. She holds Moira tight in her arms, feels her heartbeat next to her own.
“These menial chores aren’t for you,” the Lady whispers. “You are a Goddess; you should summon spirits to do them, or work some magic.”
A ghost of a smile in Moira’s face. “Gods are not nearly so omnipotent as you think,” she says. “Besides, I am your servant. I want to do things for you.”
They look eye to eye now, still in each other’s arms. “But why?” asks the Lady as she caresses Moira’s back. “I know Death is supposed have a servant, but why have you stayed with me for so long? Couldn’t someone relieve you of this duty?”
“I stay with you because I love you. Though you have never said you love me back.” Moira is not accusing the Lady, she says it as a matter of fact, her amber eyes full of love and sadness.
But I don’t love her. I love my children; how can I love another? My attraction to her is only physical.
So the Lady keeps telling herself; sometimes she even makes herself believe it.
The Lady ventures again into the realm of the living, to comfort the ones who are about to depart it.
This was a wedding before it turned into a massacre. The dead and the dying lie all around the temple. The bride lies dead before the altar, the groom kneeling in front of her body, his tears flowing into her vacant eyes.
As the Lady approaches, he lifts his head to look at her. “Lady Death,” he says. “I welcome you.”
She freezes at the sound of his voice. Is he the Οne? “You can see me,” she states.
“Take me to the other side,” he says. “I need to be with her.”
“This cannot be,” she tells him. “The living are not allowed to cross the threshold.”
“We were just getting married,” he says, “but she was everything to me. I won’t live without her.”
“You are young,” she says, the irony—of repeating the empty words that had once been told to her—not lost on her. “You will find another woman to love.”
“I know I will,” he says. “I know that in time I will forget, and love again, and marry again. And that’s exactly why I don’t want to live anymore.”
She comes closer. “I can grant your wish,” she says. “I cannot let you die, but I can take your life.” And leave you hollow and empty as I am.”
“But I need to cross the threshold with her,” he says. “I want to be with her on the other side.”
And I want to be with my children. It’s what she’s been craving for, to be released from her duty; to be allowed to join her children again. But will her children even remember her, after all the centuries? Will they need her? She tries to recall their faces, but fails. What is this other side, anyway? All that she knows: the dead go to Hades, the domain of the King in Shadows. And the King guards his secrets as fiercely as he guards his subjects.
“Please,” the man says. “Please take me there. Let me cross.”
She shakes her head. This cannot be. He is her replacement. He is the one she’s been waiting for so long.
She reaches for him. She hesitates. She touches his face.
She does what she must.
Moira is so distressed she can barely speak. “Did you do it?” she asks.
Lady Death nods. She knows what she did was foolish, let alone strictly forbidden, but she couldn’t make herself condemn the young man to her own fate. She granted his wish—and now she’s ready to face the consequences of her action.
The Lady stares at Moira, trying to gauge her feelings; the Goddess is visibly worried about Lady Death’s punishment, yet also relieved that the Lady’s still there with her.
Strangely, the Lady feels relieved too. She should reflect on why it is so, but there is no time. She hears flapping wings, and a great, red-plumed bird with eyes of liquid fire descends from the heavens to stand between them. “You have allowed a living man to the Halls of Hades,” Radiant Sun, the Messenger-God, says to the Lady in a thunderous human voice. “This is a violation of every divine law. You are summoned to the Palace of the Gods, two days hence.” He turns to Moira. “Your girlfriend, the Death’s Mistress, should get a taste of her own medicine,” he says. “Maybe she will, at that.”
Nothing would please the Lady more. Or would it?
She spends a day and a night in bed, immobile like a statue, pondering her fate.
Will her end mean the end of death? There is no one to replace her now, unless the Gods bring the young groom back from the Halls of Hades, but the King in Shadows does not part with his subjects that easily.
Yet people will still die, even without her ministrations. And she knows the dying need to be comforted in the beginning of their journey into the unknown.
She still yearns for oblivion, or at least so she thinks. Her days of living death have drained her, but now the portent of doom quickens her, and the prospect of mortality makes her feel more alive than she has in long centuries.
She looks at Moira, curled asleep at the foot of the bed, her expression strained with worry even in sleep. Moira is a Goddess, she thinks. Gods do not love. It would be a folly to believe that they do.
But she knows Gods can die, doesn’t this mean they can love, too? She gazes at the sleeping form of the Goddess of Fate. A Goddess; but now her servant, and her lover. What has she given up, to live here in this crumbling mansion with me? Moira loves her, the Lady realizes, with a passion so strong that she has been afraid to recognize it for what it is.
What about me, then? The Lady thought she would never love again. She didn’t love Moira, she just took comfort from her, some fleeting pleasure to relieve the desolation of her days. We have lived together for centuries, and yet she has never complained, or protested, or spoken a harsh word. The veil lifts, and it’s like the Lady sees herself for the first time. She can open her own heart and see what lies inside.
Despite herself, she likes what she sees.
Lady Death is up and dressed before Moira wakes. She kneels beside her and kisses her eyelids. “Wake up, my love,” she says as Moira’s eyes spring open. The Goddess sits up, her amber eyes full of concern.
The Lady answers the unspoken question. “It’s time to go meet the Gods,” she says. “They won’t be appeased that easily, but I know they need me. I promise you that I’m going to plead, cajole, threaten if I must. My duty here is not done yet, and I’m not giving up my position. Men need Death—and I need you.”
This story originally appeared in Galaxy’s Edge Issue 37.
Edited by Tochukwu Okafor / Melody Friedenthal
George Nikolopoulos is a speculative fiction writer from Athens, Greece, and a member of Codex Writers' Group. His short stories have been published in over 60 magazines and anthologies including Galaxy's Edge, Nature, Daily Science Fiction, Factor Four, Dream Forge, Best Vegan SFF, and The Year's Best Military & Adventure SF. Find his books on Amazon and learn more at GeorgeNikolopoulos.wordpress.com.