© Julian Green
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About a fortnight after we’d left North Korea and moved into lodgings in Little Worthington, a knock came at the front door. I scanned the sitting room: War sat on the shag rug, hammering away on his games console; Strife studied at the table, while Death sprawled across the sofa, perusing the lonely-hearts column of the Chilterns Gazette. No one had forgotten their key and been locked out. So, who could be calling at the house of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse?
The knock came again with a hardness that might as well have shouted, ‘I know you’re there, and I’ll keep knocking until either you answer or I break down the door.’
Strife pushed back his glasses on his nose, and turned a page.
“Is anyone answering that?” War shouted above the chuntering of his machine gun, annihilating anything that moved in a bombed-out virtual Los Angeles. “I’m kind of busy here, guys.”
Death began filing his fingernails.
I sighed and returned Strife’s rat, Mao, to her cage. It was my turn, I supposed – it was always my turn. We’d have been homeless, if I hadn’t sorted out our accommodation. They were lucky I hadn’t booked a hotel room for myself and let them sleep in a ditch.
The knocking came again.
“Coming!” I shouted, then winced as Mao gave me a parting nip on my finger. I hurried into the hall, and forced open the front door against the snowdrift of mail underneath.
A man in a peaked cap stood on the doormat. I fixed him with my what-in-Heaven’s-name-do-you-want stare. He stared back.
“Officer Newman, RSPCA,” he said, waving an identity card in my face.
The word ‘Officer’ must have penetrated War’s ailing hearing, for the computer game paused mid bomb blast and a head turned on its rugby-player’s neck.
“R-S-P what?” I glared at the officer.
“RSPCA: Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. And your name is, sir?”
“Hunger – No, sorry.”
The man’s stare hardened.
“Harry. Yes, that’s it. Harry Charon,” I said, remembering I’d given that name to our landlord.
As the yackety-yak of machine guns resumed from the sitting room, the officer recorded something on his clipboard. “And are you, sir, the owner of the horses in the paddock behind this dwelling?”
“Er. One of the animals is mine, but my brothers own the others.”
“Would you mind accompanying me to inspect them? We’ve received a complaint.”
A complaint! We’d only just moved in. Half our belongings still dangled out of our saddlebags.
“Of course.” I glanced into the sitting room in the hope someone might join me. It appeared they were busy with weightier matters, so I banged the door shut behind me, hoping it made War lose a life in his game or made Death file off a finger.
“What seems to be the matter?” My voice squeaked up an octave, and I stumbled over one of the placards Strife had been making.
“We believe the animals don’t have enough to eat, sir.”
I licked my lips from our exploits in Chagang-Do Provence, but said nothing and opened the paddock gate.
He peered around as if he were War viewing a peace rally.
“It’s a good sized field,” I volunteered.
“Size isn’t the issue, sir.”
I stopped myself from asking what *was* the matter then.
He scuffed the ground with his foot. “Have you been spraying weed killer everywhere, sir?”
“Or been having a bonfire?”
“Well, what have you done to the place then?”
I opened my mouth, then shut it. The contrast between the clover-strewn meadow on the other side of the fence and the blackened, parched stems on our side would have made an interesting patchwork-quilt effect if viewed from a hot-air balloon. Scorching was a problem when the horses lingered; it just happened to be more noticeable in England than the dust of Burkina Faso.
“Making modern art,” I suggested and shrugged.
The officer’s scowl hinted that he didn’t watch light entertainment of an evening. “Sir, there’s no grass for them to eat.”
“Why would they eat grass? My horse, Fames, has nibbled on some rice and wheat over the years, I suppose. And Eris, there” – I pointed to Strife’s white horse – “he’s tried the odd potato in Ireland, but they only caught the blight.”
For some reason, the man reddened and looked as if he were about to explode. “All right,” he said. “Let’s see the horses. There are four, aren’t there?”
“Yes.” I slipped my fingers between my teeth and whistled. The dogs in the farmhouse half a mile away began barking, while Fames pricked up his ears and trotted over. As ever, the other horses ignored me.
“Isn’t he resplendent?” I said, patting his sable flanks. “He’s served me well over the years.”
“And how long would that be?”
“Oh, about two---”
“Two years!” he blurted before I could add the word ‘thousand’. “I’m surprised he’s lasted two weeks in your care, sir. Malnourished is an understatement. Look at those ribs poking through.”
“He doesn’t complain. And I’d challenge you to say you’ve ever seen a taller, sleeker specimen of equine perfection.”
“Height and softness of coat are irrelevant, sir. The horse clearly isn’t eating enough. Though, I’d say that one over there looks in fine fettle.” The man admired War’s brute of a red stallion as it flared its nostrils and circled us. I flicked my bony fingers at Aethon to shoo it away before it charged the officer.
“Muscle is over-rated,” I said, before turning to Strife’s horse. “And I wouldn’t go near Eris; he’ll nip you if you get too near, and his bite is bound to give you an infection.” While my brother preferred overseeing global unrest and protest, his horse was closer to Strife’s other role as Pestilence.
The RSPCA officer added to his notes, while muttering something about poor dentistry.
I gazed across the pasture, and said, “Thantos is well proportioned, I might agree.”
“Maybe, but there’s something corpse-like about it.”
“That’s probably just his pale colour.”
The man frowned, then headed towards Death’s greenish-yellow horse.
“Oh, no.” I darted in front of him. “I’d advise against approaching that one, if you want to live.”
“Is that some sort of threat?”
“No, of course not.” I laughed nervously. “It’s just that---”
“This is no joke, sir. Animal cruelty is a serious offence...” He set off on a diatribe of offences we had committed. He was going to confiscate the animals and the courts would probably stop us keeping livestock.
As Fames nuzzled me, my attention locked onto the mayonnaise stain on the officer’s lapel. Breadcrumbs lodged in his sweater and an odour of bacon-flavoured crisps lingered around him like the stench of death around a corpse. All this would have remained hidden to a normal mortal, but it shouted at me. I imagined him trudging back to his van and munching the sweets he kept in there; their sugary residue caked his fingers. That night, it would be along to the chippy for fish caked in layers of greasy batter, and carbohydrate-packed hunks of potato. His outward appearance of a slim frame belied the globules of fat clogging his arteries. Even from this distance, I sensed his heart struggling against such mistreatment. Normally, I might have done my performance of turning into a skeleton to see if his cardiac muscles could cope with a demonstration of true malnourishment. However, our latest orders were to cease that sort of thing.
While he filled out his endless forms, at least he was carving into his fat reserves at the rate of one calorie every thirty seconds. Maybe War’s Aethon could give him a chase round the field to accelerate his dieting.
The officer reached the end of his page, then pulled out his mobile phone. As he selected a number and gabbled on to me about arranging transport and collecting evidence, I bit my lip. Entertaining the whims of mortals was fine, but I had to stop things before they went too far.
I watched as his chubby thumb lingered over the dial button. He paused to hurl another earful of abuse at me – something about us being the scum of the Earth. Then he squeezed the button. Wheels were about to grind into motion. Soon, the only way to prevent things would be for us to flee before the authorities tried to confiscate our horses. But the opportunity of escape might not present itself. The officer could lurk in his van until the horseboxes arrived. All the while, he’d be munching on those sweets. And what other fatty snacks did he keep in there? I opened my mouth; I had to stop him.
The mobile phone slipped from the officer’s hand and bounced onto the charred stubble of the field. His hand flopped to his side. Then all eighty-five kilograms of human flesh slumped to the ground like a chimneystack in a controlled detonation. A pall of dust gusted into my eyes. I blinked and stared at the vacated space.
Death stood behind, his finger poised where the man’s shoulder had been. He grinned, then wiped his hand on his jodhpurs.
I gawped at the corpse; a forensic pathologist would have declared the man had been dead for weeks. A tinny voice rose from the mobile asking if anyone was there, before the caller hung up.
“A thank you would be in order,” Death said, brushing the dust from his riding jacket.
“You – you---” I began.
“Well, someone had to. I guess you intended to keep him chatting until he starved to death.
I clenched my fists behind my back. “And what part of ‘not interfering’ in the lives of humans does this come under? Our mission is to aid their passing, not go on a killing spree.”
“He was interfering in *our* affairs. We had to stop him. It’s as simple as that.”
“No it’s not,” I snapped. “We’re supposed to be fitting into the local community, laying low for the present. Those were the orders from upstairs. Why, I don’t know, but there you are. Do you think every Tom, Dick and Harry goes around killing people just because they become an inconvenience?”
“You chose to be a Harry, not I.” Death smirked. “But do tell how you planned to deal with things.”
I glared at him. “I was handling it, wasn’t I? Of course I wouldn’t have let him take our horses.”
“Watching him try would have been most interesting. But this way makes for less mess.”
Strife strolled up to us. “Someone been having fun, have they?” he asked.
“No they have not,” I insisted. “We blew our cover in North Korea. If we carry on like this, we’ll keep on having to move until there’s nowhere left. How are we going to hide all this now?”
Death tutted and glanced at Strife. “He has no confidence in me, does he?” With that, he reached into his jacket and withdrew an ivory container the size of a large matchbox. It slid open, revealing the iridescent casing of a scarab. The beetle’s legs twitched, and, with a whirr of stubby wings, the insect plopped to the ground. It clambered over to the corpse, while sampling the air with its antennae. Then, the scarab pitched forwards and dived underground.
The soil crumpled around our feet, and the overweight corpse sank into the ground as if it were quicksand. Within a minute, the officer had gone, leaving a slight mound of disturbed soil. Several toadstools popped up, before withering away. The scarab then emerged from the soil, shook itself, and fluttered back to the container.
“Stunning. Absolutely stunning.” I gave a slow clap. “You should win an Oscar.”
“Thank you.” Death ignored my sarcasm and tucked the box into his pocket.
“And for the encore, maybe your beetle could do the same to that vehicle parked outside our front gate.” I gestured towards the van with RSPCA printed on the side.
“Ah,” said Death.
I should have guessed it would be my turn to clear up the mess. Switching off the van’s engine, I peered out at the conifer plantation several miles from Little Worthington. Snippets of light squeezed through the canopy to illuminate a graveyard of trunks. Whether there was any point hiding the vehicle, I didn’t know. No doubt, the man had a doting wife to make his mayonnaise-laden sandwiches that stank out the vehicle. By the time his supper was cold, she’d be wondering what had happened to him. Maybe she had offspring to cuddle as they blubbed at her side. My stomach squirmed at the thought. Such consequences were common in our profession, but this bereavement was our responsibility.
Someone at the RSPCA office might know his itinerary. That would mean us having to deal with the police. Well, with any luck, a gamekeeper might pinch the van and complicate the investigation; I left the keys dangling temptingly in the ignition.
Pushing the matter from my mind, I clambered from the vehicle and whistled to Fames, who’d galloped through the fields, keeping pace with the van. I’d kitted him out in the usual saddle and paraphernalia English horses are obliged to carry – poor things. My hardhat and fluorescent jacket made me feel like an over-ripe lemon, but that was what the natives wore.
As we trotted home, birds warbled from the hedgerows and buzzards mewed overhead. “Oxfordshire is good riding country,” I’d reassured the others in justifying my choice of Little Worthington.
“So’s Mongolia,” Death had countered, while War had wanted to hang out in Greater Worthington – not that it existed anymore. I appeased him by pointing out that we’d be tenants of Sir Richard Dorgan, the British Defence Secretary, while the village was near several RAF bases. War had relented after checking that the connection speeds for his online gaming were adequate. At least, Strife had approved of our hideout, saying he had fond memories of the neighbourhood – suggesting he’d wiped out Greater Worthington during the Black Death.
With no starvation in the English countryside, I told myself to treat our confinement as a holiday; there was no point dwelling over the RSPCA officer. Clearing my mind, I spurred Fames and we cantered across the fields, jumping hedges and ponds, leaving only the slightest scorched hoofmark in our wake. The summer air gusted against my hollow cheeks, while Fames’ ribcage gyrated beneath my thighs. A neigh pierced from his mouth, startling pigeons into flight. I almost howled with delight myself, and any passerby might have witnessed a streak of a black horse and rider, their features blurred as if verging on another form.
While I was in mid gallop, the unmistakable ache of hunger gripped me. Over the centuries, our senses have adapted to detect the phenomena we’re responsible for – even if War prefers BBC News 24 these days. The pain ground into my stomach, forcing me to haul on my reins until Fames stopped. I glanced across the wooded vale. It appeared I was wrong: starvation did exist in this verdant land. With my heightened senses, I listened to the caterpillars munching in the hedgerow and the grubs gnawing through a rotten trunk. Plants grew, aphids sucked and ladybirds gorged. Life throbbed around me, but still I detected that desperate need for food.
Somewhere, a stomach lay empty.
I sniffed the air, trying to grasp its location. At last, I locked onto some farm outbuildings on the hilltop. A breeze gusted from their direction, bringing with it air that had passed through the lungs of a malnourished animal. I tensed: its plight had to be great for its scent to travel so far. A tractor roared through the yard, setting a pack of dogs barking. I squeezed my fingers around Fames’ reins. He too held rigid, his ears pricked towards the yammering animals – one of them at least was approaching death.
I would have cantered over there, but the command had come for us to halt activities. My horse fidgeted, no doubt sensing my indecision. I lingered, the draw of that starving soul dragging against my orders. No one had explained why the authorities above had grounded us: the first such dictate since the Reformation. The message had arrived while the four of us had happened to meet up in North Korea. Thoughts of what this meant echoed alongside the dogs’ barking in my numbed mind.
But while I couldn’t visit in person, my essence could deal with a starved dog easily enough. My essence was a projection of me, woven into the celestial ether, and invisible to most humans. Existing in every corner of reality, it allowed me to soothe every starved soul without being present. Normally, I was bonded to my essence, permitting me to be conscious of its every reverberation, but we’d separated when the orders had come from upstairs. I guessed it was doing its work all right without my guidance. People still had to starve, fight and die, regardless of whether us horsemen oversaw the processes.
I shook my head and turned my horse towards the village.
* * *
I left Fames in the paddock and rounded the house to find a woman stepping from a taxi.
“Now where can it have gone? Must be here somewhere,” she muttered, routing through her handbag. “Ah, hold that would you, young man. Thank you.” She shoved a carrier bag, laden with clunking whisky bottles, into my arms. The ‘Duty Free’ words on the side married with her blotched, reddened face, suggesting she’d been on holiday – not that this explained what she was doing outside my front door.
“Ah, there it is.” She pulled her purse from the depths of the bag. “I hope I’ve enough. Fares are so steep these days; don’t you think? There you are, sir, and keep the change.” The woman gave a cheery wave to the taxi, while I glared at her rotund body, squeezed into its tartan skirt and matching jacket. “You don’t mind, do you?” She plucked the bag from my grasp, then pointed at the mound of suitcases the taxi had left in its wake.
I opened my mouth to protest and demand what she was doing here, only to recall what had happened to our last visitor. “Yes – yes, of course,” I spluttered, and struggled with retractable handles, sticky wheels and straps that did impressions of cheese cutters on my shoulders. With an army’s worth of kit draped from every appendage, I turned to see her bustle up the drive of the house next door to us. I sighed with relief.
“Keys ... now, where can they be?” Her attention returned to her handbag, making her greying curls flop over her forehead. I lingered behind her, until she glanced up and saw I was doing an impression of a clotheshorse. “Oh, just pop them there, would you?”
She fixed me with her greenish eyes, magnified behind her glasses. “Are you new round here, my dear? I’m sure I’d have remembered your face if I’d seen it before.”
“We’ve moved in next door.”
“Oh,” she snapped. “I didn’t know the Maynards were moving. You’re still renting from Sir Richard, aren’t you?”
“Oh well, no matter. The Maynards were such prigs anyway. Goodness, new neighbours.” She grasped my hand and pumped it as if drawing out the dregs from a well. “And you are?”
“Harry ... Harry.” She toyed with the name as if tasting it in her mouth. “Nice homely name is Harry. Can’t go wrong with a Harry, can you? And Charon ... wasn’t he the boatman who rowed the dead across the River Styx to Hades? Can’t say I like that so much. Anyway, I’m Rosemary Pritchard myself – miss, by the way. Just had three weeks cruising around the Med. Heat nearly killed me. Actually, that whisky was for the Maynards, so you might as well have it as a welcome present.” She shoved the bag back into my hands.
“Um. Thanks.” I glanced inside, wondering what to do with it.
“Now you used the word ‘we’. Just married, are you? First home, is it?”
“Oh, no.” I blushed. “I meant my brothers.”
“Ah, that would explain the gunfire.” She glanced over the privet hedge separating our semi-detached houses. “Not the usual thing brides play with – computer games. Well, come on.” She flicked a set of wrinkled fingers. “Go and introduce them to me.”
“Actually,” I began, before realising she wouldn’t take no for an answer. “Um – just a sec.”
I hurried round to our house. How I was going to drag everyone outside, I didn’t know. And then there was the matter of Death’s trigger-happy finger.
“See, that didn’t take long, did it?” he said, as I entered the sitting room.
“No, I suppose not.” I looked around. Time seemed to have frozen since I’d left – other than War had advanced to the next level, and Death had finished filing the fingers on one hand and had moved to the other. “Um, look guys. Our neighbour’s back from her holiday.”
“Good for her.” Death admired his thumbnail.
“She wants us to say hello.”
Strife turned a page of his book.
“She’s waiting outside ... I really think we should---”
The door clunked behind me. I spun round, while Death leapt to his feet.
“Dear me. What a terrible load of mail you have.” Miss Pritchard bent to pick it up, while shoving her ample posterior in our direction. “It’s mostly for the Maynards I see or junk mail. Don’t you just hate letters addressed ‘Dear Homeowner’?” She tottered into the sitting room with the letters in her hands.
We stared at her. Strife’s abandoned book closed itself; the participant in the computer game gave a bloodcurdling cry and the words ‘GAME OVER’ flashed on the screen.
“Well, aren’t you going to introduce me?”
“Yes – yes of course,” I said, as my face flushed. “This is Miss Pritchard.”
“Do call me Rosemary.” She beamed at Death, who’d turned even paler than usual. “And what are all your names, then?”
“Um – names – yes, indeed.”
“You do know your brothers’ names, I presume.”
“Yes, of course. This is” – I gestured towards Death – “This is Dave.”
“Very nice to meet you,” she said.
Before I could intervene, she stuck out her hand. I froze as they touched each other, expecting her to crumple into a heap on the carpet, but Death simply fixed me with a glare that could whither roses.
“Now, this is Steve,” I said, hurrying to move her to safer territory.
“And what are you reading there, my dear?”
“*Silent Spring* by Rachel Carson. In essence, it’s about the incompatibility between humanity’s search for materialistic advancement and its long-term sustainability as a species on this planet.”
“Is it indeed? You’re studying at Oxford, I suppose. Of course you are.” She eyed the teetering pile of textbooks, before peering down at War on the rug. “And who’s this?”
“This is---” My mind turned blank. War had used the pseudonym Weng in North Korea, but that didn’t seem appropriate now we’d adjusted our features to look Caucasian. What name beginning with W was suitable for the overseer of holocaust and genocide, instigator of Agent Orange and the atomic bomb?
War burped and wiped his nose on his sleeve.
“Yes, this is Wilmot,” I said, causing Strife to snigger.
“And do you spend all day on the floor like that when visitors come calling?” Miss Pritchard asked.
“Er – no.” He heaved his bulk up and tucked his shirt into his trousers.
“Well now.” She gazed at the cigarette butts poking from the beer can on the table. “Four strapping young men living next to me. Goodness. I’ll never have a problem changing a light bulb ever again, will I?” She tidied the letters into a stack, before handing them to me. “Anyway, I’m sure we can have a chinwag over some tea later, but I’ve lots of unpacking to do. Toodle-oo, my dears.” She gave a cheery wave, then bustled from the room.
I followed her into the hall and watched her toddle to the end of the drive. Maybe I hadn’t selected the safest spot for us to lie low in after all.
As I made to close the front door, some nettles shifted on the far side of the lane. The movement was slight and soon stopped; a human wouldn’t have noticed anything. I peered at the spot. It could have been a cat, I supposed; they sometimes slipped past us horsemen, avoiding their fate. Yes, that was it, I insisted, ignoring the nervous tingle running up the back of my neck. I shrugged, then shut the door.
“Wilmot!” War cried as I entered the sitting room.
“Sorry,” I did my best to keep a straight face. “That’s all I could think of – that or Wesley.”
“What about William – as in The Conquer?”
“Oh. Well, you can choose the names in the next country we visit.”
“What? I have to keep Wilmot?”
I shrugged. “I’ve told her now, haven’t I?”
“What were you doing letting her in anyway?”
“I didn’t. She invited herself. But at least we’re not staying in someone’s house with servants scurrying around everywhere, as in Korea.”
“No, we’re in this pokey goddam little hole with no room to swing a corpse.”
“It’s not easy, you know, finding somewhere at short notice with land for the horses. And if you hadn’t tempted those guards into firing that rocket into South Korea, the National Defence Committee might not have discovered they were entertaining the spirit of warfare and they wouldn’t have kicked us out. So, if you think you can do better, why don’t you spend some of your war bounty and buy us a stately home.”
“Maybe I will.” War switched on the television news, and plonked himself on the settee. “God knows what we’re doing here. The Middle East is in turmoil, earthquakes are rumbling around the Pacific, crops are failing in Africa, and what are we doing? Sitting on our backsides in little old Blighty. Hasn’t been a decent war here for decades.”
“Well, don’t ask me. It’s---”
I looked round and noticed Strife with a blissful expression on his face, swaying his fingers around as if conducting.
He opened his eyes. “What?” he asked.
“You’re doing it again, aren’t you – egging us on?”
“I wasn’t doing anything.”
“We’ve enough problems with upstairs putting the world on autopilot without you making us bicker.”
He smirked. “Only doing my job.”
“Were you indeed.” I stomped across the room, before halting in front of Death’s empty chair.
“Where’s he gone?” I asked.
“Dave, you mean?” Strife chuckled. “That’s probably him now.”
A clomp of hooves came from outside. I opened the front door to see Death leading Thantos along the alley beside the house. “What do you think you’re doing?” I asked.
“What’s it look like? I’m going for a ride.” He adjusted his gloves, then bounded onto Thantos.
“Well, don’t forget the orders from upstairs,” I said.
Death cleared his throat. “ ‘All horsemen are directed to cease holy engagement with humanity forthwith,’ ” he quoted. “Don’t worry: there will be no visions, miracle cures, creation of stigmata or granting of curses on my part. And if I find someone dying, I’ll let my essence process their soul, rather than give them my esteemed personal service. Besides” – he withdrew his copy of the Chilterns Gazette with a ring around a personal advert – “it’s not a holy engagement I’m planning.” With that, he spurred Thantos, and the horse trotted down the lane.
“Oh, and well done with our names,” he called back.
I smirked and watched him riding proud with his shiny black boots and navy jacket. I glanced at my luminous riding top, then tore it off. Maybe he was right; we had been cooped up together for too long.
Heavenly dictates or not, provided we didn’t bump off any more humans, we didn’t have to stay indoors. My gaze turned towards the nearby hill.
* * *
Ivy rambled over the huddle of farm outbuildings, while mud and straw lingered in the yard. I vaulted the gate with its padlock and ‘TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED’ sign. This produced a cacophony of baying from the hounds in their pen. They peered above the first set of bars, then whined and ducked on spotting me.
“Don’t worry; I’m not here for you,” I said, inspecting their rippling muscles and bulging stomachs.
A hound edged forwards and let me scratch him behind the ear, though I felt his heart pounding as if it were about to explode. A human would have noticed a slim man in his early twenties, demonstrating a remarkable ability to calm a pack of bloodthirsty canines. But the dogs would have sensed at least some of my aura.
Receiving a visit from the angel of hunger is bound to affect one’s digestion, so I left them, and rounded the corner. A heavy wooden door barred the entrance to the building opposite. The stench of hunger was strong. I turned the rusted handle, before noticing the shiny bolt and padlock underneath.
A creature whined inside and a chain rattled. I pushed at the panelling, and my fingers melted into the wood. But then I pulled back. I couldn’t use my powers to enter; it was questionable enough whether our new orders even allowed me to be here.
I crouched beside the door and rested my hand against the peeling paintwork. “It’s all right. I’m with you,” I whispered, sensing the animal’s essence, weakened by thirst and starvation. Hopelessness hung in the air. The chain clunked, a nose snuffled in the gap under the door, and my fingers touched its paw.
“Your owner will be back soon,” I said with the stomach twinge that comes with lying. Too often, I’ve told the starved spaniel their elderly owner will awake from their heap of broken bones at the bottom of the stairs; too often, I’ve reassured the mother holding her skeletal child that the fighters will let the aid convoy through. Perhaps my deceit stung harder because I couldn’t cradle the dog’s soul; contact with its physical body was so distant in comparison.
With the other hounds so well fed, I puzzled over why this one was chained up. Perhaps its owner was punishing it. Did they know they were starving it to death? Did they even care?
“That RSPCA officer should have come here instead, shouldn’t he? Would have been best for everyone, that way.” I smirked, but the smile faded. When the inevitable happened – when the animal’s lungs stopped absorbing oxygen, when the heart took its rest – the orders from Heaven would force us horsemen to look on as if we were ordinary humans. Only our essences would reach in amongst the physical remains and draw out the dog’s soul.
The animal wouldn’t notice whether Death took it to the other domain personally or not. Every day, our essences handled countless spirits, but we oversaw the major events and special cases. A maltreated dog didn’t fall into either category, yet I closed my eyes and prayed we could give its soul our personal treatment. Maybe the ban on holy activities would lift in time; maybe the dog might escape and not need our attention.
In the darkness of my prayer, I caught an echo of the vastness from where I’d begun my life. All those centuries ago, a voice had boomed out “Come!” and there I’d been in Heaven, holding my weighing scales and sitting astride Fames. In his hand, Father had kept the great Scroll of the Apocalypse, foretelling the end of humanity. Three of its seven seals had been broken. Strife and War had arrived before me, while Death would follow with the smashing of the fourth seal. I’d then ridden out to oversee famine and hunger across the world – someone had to do it I suppose, though I’d often wished I’d been a lesser angel with nothing more to do than carry messages or appear in visions before susceptible children.
A laugh made me open my eyes.
“Right blighters. What’s the matter with you lot today?” A stick clattered along the bars to the hounds’ cage, making the animals whine.
I scrabbled up and hurried to the corner of the building. The bulk that called itself Sir Richard Dorgan balanced on a stallion, while clutching a whip in his podgy hands.
“They look a fine pack,” Death said, on Thantos behind. “Good killers I take it.”
“Indeed. Not that they’re supposed to be with this godforsaken anti-hunting bill. Can’t step on a bug without lily-livered lefties getting into a tizz these days. But that’s not to say we can’t accidentally run into a bit of sport, if you know what I mean.” He winked, then spotted me. “Ha, Harry. What the devil are you doing there? No matter. My tenants can come and go on my land as they please.”
“Thanks,” I said. “So, this place is yours, then.”
“Only a few grotty outbuildings, you understand.”
I smiled and tightened my fists. Any self-respecting person would have pointed out the hound starving in the other barn. But those blessed orders from upstairs rang in my ears. Oh, how I wished to be a human instead of an immortal castrated of his powers. No intervention meant exactly that. And I didn’t want my landlord suspecting our identities or we’d end up on the run again.
“Anyway, Harry. Bumped into your brother along the lane. A fine chap and a damn fine horse too. Thought you lot would love to ride out with us on Saturday. It’s the first of the autumn hunts. Delighted to have you. Providing that is these blighters get some bark into them.” He banged the bars with his riding crop again, this time sending the pack into a furore of baying.
I cringed, remembering the last time we’d hunted in England, and King William the Second had ended up with an arrow in his chest.
“Thank you,” I replied. “It’s a kind offer, but—”
“I accepted for everyone,” Death said, and grinned.
While I sat cross-legged on my bedroom floor, searching for harmony with the Enlightened One, Death’s stupidity of the previous day invaded my thoughts. How could we survive a hunt without at least one person being murdered or a civil war breaking out somewhere? Well, never mind. Forget about it.
All worries seeped from my mind. My inner being wafted from this world and drifted as a golden angel through the star-clad heavens.
A siren blared out, as a vehicle hurtled along the lane towards our house.
The RSPCA officer! The police must have found his van and were coming to arrest us. I flicked open my eyes, and choked on the incense in the air.
As I darted to the window, an ambulance whooshed past without slowing. I relaxed, though my pulse still raced; enlightenment would remain elusive for another day.
The vehicle powered up the hill, making the hedges sway on either side of the lane. But then another movement caught my eye: down low against the ditch. Was it that cat again? Some brambles shuffled, and I spotted a patch of russet fur as the creature slipped deeper into the hedge and disappeared. I frowned. The glass had interfered with my view, but the animal had seemed too dark for a ginger cat. Perhaps it was a fox.
The sighting festered in my mind as I snuffed out the incense sticks on the windowsill. But then a woman’s voice ascended from the kitchen like the clucking of a hen. Recognising it, I cringed and headed downstairs.
“Good morning, Harry.” Miss Pritchard beamed at me as I tightened the knot on my dressing gown. “Just popped over to get a jar opened. They’re so stiff these days. Manufactures never consider old ladies’ fingers, do they? Ah, thank you, Dave.” She retrieved the marmalade from a red-faced Death, before setting it on the worktop.
“Dear, dear.” She glanced at the confetti of pizza boxes and crisp packets scattered everywhere. “Didn’t your mother ever teach you to tidy up?”
“We don’t have a mother,” Death said, wiping marmalade off his fingers.
“Oh goodness.” Miss Pritchard raised her hand to her chest. “Orphans are you?”
“We never had a mother, just a father,” I explained.
“Must have been difficult raising the four of you by himself. I don’t know how single parents manage. But I shouldn’t have asked. Don’t think I’m the prying type or anything.” She patted my arm. “Anyway, let’s see what we can do.”
Before I could object, she was gathering the boxes and sweeping up crumbs while Strife was still eating his toast. Surfaces were wiped down and plates were stacked in the dishwasher.
“Who left the front door unlocked so she could wander in?” Death hissed at me.
I smirked. “She’s only harmless.”
Death pursed his lips, and folded his hanky.
“You know you can recycle half this stuff,” she said, rooting through the rubbish bin.
“It’s War’s – I mean Wilmot’s fault,” Strife said, dragging himself from his book. “He guzzles everything, then leaves the mess lying around. But, yes, we must recycle. The carbon footprint of packaging is horrendous. And that’s not even considering the shortage of landfill.”
“Where’s this offending rascal?” she asked.
“Wilmot?” I pointed upstairs. “In bed I presume.”
“At this hour? You lot really do need sorting out, don’t you? And here’s poor Dave looking for a girlfriend.” She squinted at the advert Death had ringed in the paper. “But what lass is going to set foot in here like this?”
“Perhaps we should wake Wilmot,” Strife suggested, sprouting a grin.
“Well, go on then,” she said, shooing him upstairs.
“It won’t be a pretty sight,” Strife added.
“Believe me, I’ve seen it all. But I think I’ll stay outside until he’s decent.”
Their feet thumped overhead, then a thud came, suggesting War had tumbled out of bed. Silence followed, reminiscent of the hush before the infantry went over the trenches at the Somme.
“She’s dicing with me. She really is.” Death retrieved his newspaper and stuffed it in a pocket. “If she’s your new sweetheart, you should get her out of here.”
I listened to the quiet upstairs. “Er, yeah. Perhaps I’d better investigate.”
“Good. Now, if you’d excuse me, I still have someone to look up, since Sir Richard waylaid me yesterday.” With that, he swept out of the back door.
I bounded upstairs to find Miss Pritchard emerging from War’s room.
She closed the door on the darkness within. “Steve’s helping him get up. Sleeping like a baby he was. But we’ve sorted that. A good diet and exercise regime is what he needs, not lolling around all day. Then again, as to you—” She cast her eyes over my skinny frame, and tutted.
“Is that your room in there?” The woman peered round the doorway. “Very minimalistic. And I do like that Buddha. What’s with the scales?” She tottered over and poked one of the golden balances, last touched by a Somali tribal elder.
“Father gave them to me,” I said, extracting a weight from her fingers and realigning it with the others. “People measured out rations with them, but they’re only symbolic nowadays.”
“You do still have your father, I take it.”
“Oh, yes. He’s as active as ever, even if he’s not so noticeable these days.”
“What’s he do?”
“He’s in government, I suppose.”
“Is he?” Miss Pritchard rubbed her fingers as if my scales had tainted them. “I suppose he knows Sir Richard. Of course, that’s why you’re renting from him. I can’t say he’s the best constituency MP we’ve had. Spends too long playing with his tanks, instead of badgering his cabinet colleagues to stop this railway.”
“What railway?” Strife peered out from War’s room.
“Haven’t you heard? Where’ve you been? Timbuktu?”
“Not lately,” he said.
“Well, it’s this high speed line they’re building just so they can knock ten minutes off the route between one concrete jungle and the next. It’s going straight through the village. You’ll see it from the back of your house.” She strode into Death’s room and pointed out of the window. “It’s going right there along the edge of that wood. Conveniently missing Sir Richard’s land, you’ll note – so don’t tell me he didn’t pull a few strings to arrange that. Everyone’s up in arms about it.”
“Literally or metaphorically?” Strife asked.
“Meta what?” Miss Pritchard looked up from eying Death’s sickle in the corner.
“I take it the village is doing something about it.”
“We’ve complained. But it won’t do any good. It’s government policy.”
“There’s no protest committee then, marches planned, demonstrations organised, leaflets printed, not to mention legal action and other delaying tactics instigated?”
“Not that I’m aware of, my dear.”
“Well, perhaps I can help.” Strife smiled, and I caught a glint in his eye – a sure sign of his inner being surging into activity. I cringed. First Death had arranged for us to go on this hunt and now Strife was planning God knows what – so much for us taking a holiday.