Dark Rook, Pale King
By the time the sounds from below reached the room at the top of the stairs, they were muffled, but not lost. The room felt cavernous, a fire crackling in the stone fireplace across from the three tall windows. Shafts of moonlight slanted over the bed on the far, darker side of the room, with the fire casting a warmer glow over the coffee table and armchairs there.
Christopher Earnshaw stood by the windows, staring impassively at the snow-covered grounds below. A surge of pride swelled his chest; a lifetime of hard work had afforded this, a stone and wood fortress owed to no one. His family—his entire family, as far-reaching and far-flung as he had been able to find—was gathered below, and the muffled sounds of them and the snap of the fire was all he heard.
After a few moments by the window, he moved himself slowly to one of the gloriously overstuffed armchairs by the fire. His knees and back protested noisily as he lowered himself down, one hand gripping his drink, the other the chair. He settled back with a sound somewhere between a sigh and a groan.
The drink in his hand was an indulgence. He was not, never had been, a man given to excess in alcohol. His bones ached only for themselves, not at the call of some vice. He was not sick, in body or mind. He was just—
"Old," he muttered, shaking his head. "A party going on downstairs and I'm done for the night." He snorted, an inelegant sound made strangely elegant, and leaned forward, setting the glass down on the table. Then, from underneath, he pulled a worn wooden chess set. Symbolism, he told himself. The sides slid out, and he carefully began to arrange the white pieces on the side opposite him.
With only the white king and queen set up, he became aware of someone climbing the stairs. He stopped to look at the door expectantly. Now, soft footsteps were approaching the room, but stopped just outside the door.
A moment passed by quietly. "Don't just stand out there," Earnshaw called finally. "Come in."
There was a low murmur of surprise, and he could hear some fumbling and a clink of glass. Then the door opened, and a young woman wearing a long and well-fitted black coat stepped in. She shut the door behind her and hesitantly moved into the firelight.
"Mr. Earnshaw," she said with a nod. "You're…ah…looking well."
"Thank you," he replied, and for a few heartbeats they stared at one another, sizing each other up. She was a very pretty young thing, though the fire's glow made her eyes shockingly, vividly green, almost like she'd let a child color them in with crayon. He struggled to remember her from out of the crowd downstairs.
"Forgive me," he said. "But I don't seem to recall your name, my dear."
"Oh." Her jaw was working, but she seemed unable to form words. She cleared her throat, then said, "I think you misunderstand my purpose for being here tonight, Mr. Earnshaw."
He frowned and looked up at her, confused. Her gaze shifted significantly to a point at the back of the room, and, more curious than anything, Earnshaw followed her faze. Seeing nothing, he turned back, and understanding began to creep over him, like a dozen spiders skittering over his heart.
The sad young woman in a long coat standing in front of had changed: she was now a young woman in a long coat with great, leathery wings arching out of her back, hands holding an hourglass on a chain and long-handled scythe, still sad.
"I'm not in uniform, and I apologize," she said, miming pulling a hood over her head. "I must have confused the message. I actually thought I was running a bit late, you see, so I thought…" She trailed off, looking uncomfortable. "I, er, thought, I was just doing the pickup and leaving. I didn't realize you'd…see me."
"Is this a joke?" he said quickly, as if he hadn't heard her. "A poor one?"
When she spoke, it was the first time since lingering outside the door that she wasn't hesitant. "Mr. Earnshaw, I have a job to do." She strode over to the table and set the hourglass down in the middle of the chessboard. Only a few grains of sand remained in the top bulb. His name was clearly etched in the base.
"You can't be," he rasped, throat gone suddenly dry, his spine feeling like it had been fused together.
"Mr. Earnshaw," she said, understandingly, "in a very few moments I will have a soul to reap."
"Do you come for everyone?" he asked, picking the hourglass up gingerly, as if it would burn his fingers.
"A friend of mine saved you, once," she said, leaning her scythe gently against the back of the chair. "I'm here as a favor to her."
"It doesn't make any sense," he said absently. She pressed her lips together in a thin line, but said nothing. He stared at the hourglass until the chessboard swam into sudden focus. He looked up at her triumphantly. "I challenge you."
"I challenge you to a game," he said, grinning mirthlessly. "For my life."
She sighed, taking the hourglass and tapping it, then set it aside. "There are words you're supposed to say. Do you know the words?"
His look of triumph faded. "Um. Get thee…hence?"
She bit her lip. "Not quite, but if it's what you really want."
"It is." He gestured to the chair; she sat down slowly. "Would you like a drink?" She shook her head, tears springing unbidden in her eyes, unseen by her challenger.
"What will we play?" she asked softly.
He took the black king from its drawer. "Chess. Isn't it traditional?"
"Oh, not really." She began setting up the rest of the white pieces. "I've played chess, checkers, backgammon, and one astonishingly long game of Monopoly." He looked up at her. She shrugged.
They finished setting their pieces in silence. As she considered her first move, he said, "You, ah, you look a bit young…to be, ah…the Grim Reaper."
She shrugged again, soft black glove contrasted sharply against the gleaming white pawn. "I don't see why. I've been dead for over three hundred years."
"You used to be alive?" With the soft click of the pawn against the board, he became aware of the fire crackling alone—the sounds from downstairs had stopped completely, as had the sand in his hourglass.
"Alive and human," she said. "It makes sense, for the Reaper to have died. I remember dying. I sympathize with you completely."
They played a few moves in silence before he asked, or started to ask, "How did you…ah…"
"Die?" she supplied. He nodded. "I drowned. Bit of a ghastly business, that." She looked at him intently. "I was very young. It was…very unfair. But my time had run out."
"I'm sorry," he offered, feeling strangely impotent.
She looked him in the eye. "What about you, Mr. Earnshaw? Why should it be different for you?"
So he told her. As pieces clicked softly against the board, he told her the story of his life. There were no names, no misty-eyed recollections—he was quietly, deadly serious. He spoke of feeling, of struggles. He described for her what his rational mind had dismissed as a delirious dream: another young woman, an angel, with huge black wings who had saved his life.
"She said to me, 'Cherish this time, this second chance. Work hard. Make the sacrifices of those around you worth as much as your own. No one will save you now but you.'" He looked at her. "I've remembered that all this time. Who said it…if you will not be for yourself, eh?"
"Hillel," she replied absently. She frowned at the board. "You'd think I'd be better at this game. Oh, dear."
"Does this happen often?"
She picked up a rook and twirled it between black-gloved fingers. "Well, no. But it's symbolic, like the cowl and the scythe and hourglass."
"Do you…" He stared at the board, his drink churning uncomfortably in his stomach. "Do you often win?"
Their eyes met; she said nothing. Then, eyes dropping to the board, she replaced the rook and very carefully moved a pawn. After a moment, she said, "That's not something I plan on telling you, Mr. Earnshaw."
A few more clicks, a few more moves made. "Do you think you're winning, Mr. Earnshaw?"
Some instinct, some warning catch at the back of his mind inherited from Biblical or evolutionary ancestors, shot sparks into the forefront of his mind. It was a trick question—it was in no way safe to go any farther. Here there be monsters, and darkness, and wolves, and fire.
He ignored it as he a captured a piece. "Yes."
She nodded. "Tell me about your family, Mr. Earnshaw. About the people downstairs."
He told her that, too. Now he listed names, ages, relationships, anecdotes told in loving and fiercely proud detail. What would have been something like an hour, maybe two, if the hourglass had been running, slipped by, Earnshaw maintaining a tenuous reign over the board.
"You're afraid no one will be able to protect them all when you're gone," she mused.
"Very much so," he admitted. "I am for myself, but I am for them as well." There was a horrible, tomb-like silence as he judged his next move. Somberly, he moved a bishop. "Check."
He watched her eyes sweep back and forth across the board. It was a well-made trap. She sighed, and moved her king for all the good it would do.
Earnshaw shook his head, moved his piece, and said with something approaching savagery, "Checkmate."
She leaned her head back, heaving another sigh and closing her eyes. "This makes it harder," she muttered, and, looking at him now, he could see the tears glittering in her eyes. "I won," he said, tone carefully neutral. But she could see the triumph creeping unguardedly into his eyes. "I won the game."
"No," she said, voice tremulous. "Mr. Earnshaw, you did not."
"I took your king," he said angrily, as if explaining the concept to a particularly stubborn child.
"You won a game of chess," she said, tone rising to match his. "You did not win the game for your life."
"I challenged you to a game of chess for my life! You accepted!"
"You did no such thing," she hissed. "You challenged me to a game, and I accepted. You shouldn't have challenged me if you didn't know the rules of the game!" He watched, anger slipping momentarily into astonishment, as a tear slid down her cheek.
"Everyone knows—" he began.
"Everyone is full of it," she said, standing and crossing behind the chair. Black-gloved, fingers curled gently around the polished handle of the scythe. "Did you really think you could play a board game for your life? Was that how you planned to gamble with the Reaper?" she said, not unkindly. "The chess is played to pass the time while you try to convince me that your life—your death—is somehow different from six billion others."
He rose as quickly as stiff joints would allow. "Please."
She moved around to where the hourglass sat and picked up it up. "Mr. Earnshaw, I like you very much," she said softly, voice thick with tears. "You have led an extraordinary life and done good things." She swung the hourglass, and very suddenly, time and sound returned around them. "But I have a job to do, and you lost the game, Mr. Earnshaw."
He sank back into the chair, watching, the last minute of his life trickle by. "It will be quick," she whispered. "I'm sorry, Mr. Earnshaw."
He looked over the board, then met her eyes. "Don't be," he said, managing a weak smile. "It was a good game."
She nodded, tears still sliding down, and turned her head away, eyes shut tightly, as the last of the sand ran out. A man died beside her, and she took gulping breaths until she could control the tears.
She swung her scythe—in, out, the reaping of a soul—and turned away from the table and the firelight, only to knock the remaining pieces over with her wide-spread wings. The pieces were strewn about, mingled black and white together, half in moonlight, half in firelight, and yet entirely in darkness.
Slowly, she set down her scythe and hourglass and knelt by the table. One by one the pieces were put away, until each piece, pawn to king, had been laid to rest.