Barbara Wilcock Bland is now living in Lancaster. She is retired. Once she was a school teacher (Juniors) but for most of her working life was employed by BT (British Telecom).
Barbara has written for as long as she can remember, mainly poetry, but also stories. From the 1960s she has had poems published in quite a number of ‘little magazines.’ She loves poetry, music, and cats.
The Death-Slayers A Variation On A Theme From Chaucer
The Old Man trudged across the yellow-dusted landscape beneath the eerie light of the green sun shining from the pale lilac sky of Athanasy, the Deathless Planet. Martell watched his approach and was assailed by an emotion perilously close to panic.
‘I’ve gone mad at last. No wonder, marooned on this unnatural planet with those two fanatics.’
In describing his plight as that of being marooned he was exaggerating. In describing Athanasy as unnatural and his two colleagues as fanatics, he was being strictly accurate. It had been in order to escape the eternal arguments that he had wandered off on a walk away from their camp.
Martell, Holman and Prescott were explorers. They were seeking the amaranth crystal with as much eagerness and for the same reason as the alchemists of old had sought the elixir of life. A vague legend rumoured that on Athanasy was to be found a substance which would make men physically immortal. Death, which is part of Nature since the Disobedience, was reputed never to visit Athanasy. Yet no pioneers seemed anxious to settle there. Only vegetable life was found there now. Of the animal world, not even insects flourished. Any pollination must have been carried out by the wind. Athanasy’s very name was an act of arbitrary baptism.
That meant that the three explorers were alone on this planet, apart, thoughtMartell, from any figments of their imaginations that chose to afflict them, like theOld Man approaching him now. Martell knew himself to be cursed with a vividimagination but had never expected it to project its creations in this way.
‘This is what comes of reading ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’!’ he groaned. For the stranger looked remarkably like Chaucer’s ‘old man and a povre’. He wore a long brown hooded cassock of rough woven material and he leaned upon a staff. He reached the young man and stopped.
‘You and your companions would be well-advised to leave this planet before you find what you seek, Hugh Martell.’
‘Now I know that you are a creation of my mind: how else would you know my name? But if I am mad I may as well humour myself. Do you know what we seek?
‘You seek Death to destroy him, even as three other young men whom once I met sought to do. Your race’s fear of Death has become unhealthy. If ever you win immortality this side of Jordan you will not enjoy it.’
‘Of course, the reason that you are echoing some of my own uncertainties about this quest is because you are really part of me. You just happen to have taken on some of the trappings of the legend which I have been reading.’
‘Not all legends are entirely fiction; if they were, would you three have come to Athanasy? Was it not to investigate the Athanasians, whom you regard as less than legend? Yet they were a real people. They never died whilst they dwelt upon this planet. Fortunately they were neither as promiscuous nor as prolific as your race. Æons ago they wearied of their home where Death was an exile and sought out other worlds where they might lose the burden of immortality.’
‘They were successful in their quest: they have all died.’
‘In a way that is a pity; they could have warned you of what it would mean
to endure unending life. Not that you would have taken the advice. Who should know that better than I?’
The Old Man spoke with such feeling that Martell stared at him, wondering. How old was he? His face bore the marks of a long life. He was as tall as Martell himself, his shoulders stooped, but only slightly. His eyes, dark as Martell’s own, where not the rheumy eyes of age. But no young man could have attained the knowledge of joy and sorrow which dwelt in them.
‘You speak of immortality as though it were your doom to bear it.’ said Martell.
‘It is in my mind that you shall learn what I know of immortality before you are much older.’
At these words, Martell had a curious experience. He was looking at himself through the Old Man’s eyes, aware of a sense of ages passed in fruitless search for something unattainable. He also felt, urgently, that this young man before him, who was himself, must be warned of something vitally or mortally important. The hallucination, if that be what it was, passed. He was once more in his own body, looking at the stranger. The Old Man looked disappointed about something and turned away, saying:
‘When the time comes, remember that I warned you.’
Martell retraced his steps to the camp which they had set up beside their land-skimmer. Tomorrow they would be exploring this district in quest of the amaranth crystal. Their space-ship was a hundred miles away to the south. He felt no pleasure at the thought of meeting Holman and Prescott again. People living in enforced proximity can and do get on one another’s nerves, even when there is family affection or the camaraderie of workmates to ease the strain. Not even their temporary exile on this far-off planet had caused the three explorers to become more friendly towards one another.
Julian Holman was a reactionary; Derek Prescott was an extreme radical. The one feature of character in which each man resembled the other was the callous indifference that each of them displayed towards those who happened to get in the way of his theories as to how people ought to react. Neither of them liked Martell, who was one of those unfortunate people who can usually see at least three sides to every argument. Holman regarded him as a dangerous subversive, worse in a way than Prescott because Martell seemed more deceptively gentle. Prescott thought of Martell as a cowardly Fascist lacking the courage to declare his belief.
‘Did you have an interesting walk?’ asked Holman, as Martell returned.
‘I found it so. It is strange the fancies that one gets when one’s been cut off from civilization for a long time. There seemed to be a distinct feeling that there was someone else on the planet.’ He did not mention his meeting with the Old Man. Why should these two have the chance to think that he was mad?
‘That’s a well-known phenomenon.’ said Prescott, referring to Martell’s remark. ‘Many explorers have had the fancy that there was one extra in the party. Pious people used to think that it was God revealing his presence.’ He laughed.
‘I don’t see why you should laugh at the idea!’ snapped Holman, disagreeing with Prescott through dislike, not because he himself was a fervent believer.
‘Don’t start an argument, you two!’ said Martell, wearily. ‘One of the
reasons I went for a walk was to get away from your constant bickering.’
The other two stared at the normally placid Martell in surprise.
‘And I thought that you might have been on the look-out for the amaranth crystal!’ said Holman.
‘We’ll be able to look for that tomorrow.’ said Prescott. ‘Think what a discovery it will be if we can find it and use it to make people immortal. We shall have destroyed Death.’
‘It would fulfil the Biblical prophecy: “the last enemy that shall be destroyed is Death.”’ said Holman.
Quotation out of context irritated Martell.
‘That prophecy refers to the end of time when Christ returns to judge the world.’
‘You shouldn’t take these things seriously, Martell.’ said Prescott, for once allying himself with Holman. ‘Prophecies don’t always come true in the way that people expect. I feel in my bones that we are getting near the place where we shall find the amaranth crystal.’
‘It may not work when we do find it.’ said Martell. ‘Andrew Sumner didn’t live long after he’d found what he called the amaranth dust.’
‘But the laboratory mice that were fed on a solution made from that dust were still alive long after the normal life-span of their kind when we left on our journey here.’ Holman pointed out.
‘Of course we shall have to be selective in the people we choose to give the gift of immortality.’ said Prescott. ‘We can’t go dooming deformities like those with Down’s Syndrome and cerebral palsy to everlasting life. And we mustn’t make the sort of mistakes that they did in the transplant era, when they were using organs from young people’s corpses to keep alive the middle-aged moribund. Useful people are the ones who should be given the chance, not those who have outlived their contribution to humanity.’
‘Just who do you mean?’ snapped Holman. ‘The ones that you’ll want to have a chance are those whose ideas agree with yours, and to Hell with all the rest.’
‘You’d be just the same ....’
‘Aren’t you starting to argue about the chickens before you find out if the eggs will hatch?’ asked Martell. ‘Wait until we have achieved the quest on which we embarked.’
He decided to go to bed. Long after he had finished his frugal supper and settled in his shelter with his copy of Chaucer, he heard the voices of his companions bickering, their words indistinguishable.
‘They’ll kill each other one of these days.’ he thought drowsily. It hardly seemed to matter. He slept and dreamt that he had found the amaranth crystal and wished that he had not done so.
When the emerald sun of Athanasy rose the next day the explorers prepared to set off on their quest in the land-skimmer. They left the three shelters and some luggage at their camp site. Prescott drove the vehicle slowly. Then Holman startled the other two.
‘There’s someone over there.’
‘Don’t be daft, man!’ said Prescott. ‘We’re the only people on Athanasy!’ But he looked and saw that his colleague was right.
It was the Old Man whom Holman had noticed of course. Martell was
puzzled. Yesterday he had thought himself deluded. Now that his two companions could see the Old Man standing some twenty yards away from the land-skimmer he still had the feeling of unreality. Prescott braked. The Old Man approached.
‘You ought to have warned your two companions of what I said yesterday, Martell.’
‘Why didn’t you tell us you’d met this old space-tramp?’ asked Prescott.
‘I thought that he was just a figment of my imagination and that I was going mad.’
‘I reckon that you have gone mad if you can’t tell when people are real or imaginary.’ said Holman.
The Old Man smiled grimly: ‘Martell is the only one who is sane, because
he alone fears madness. Well, my fine Death-Slayers, perhaps I can help you in your quest.’
‘Are you Death?’ asked Prescott abruptly, showing more imagination than Martell had thought that he possessed.
‘No: I seek Death, but shall never find him until some man of his own free will offers to exchange his youth for my age.’
‘You’ve got a hope!’ said Prescott, ‘Fancy anyone preferring to be old!’
Martell was silent, considering. Holman spoke to the Old Man.
‘You say that you can help us?’
‘I can do so: you foolishly seek the amaranth crystal that will give you eternity. You will find your eternity in the grove of golden birches over the crest of yonder hill. God help you!’
Without a word of thanks Prescott started the land-skimmer and drove inthe direction which the Old Man had indicated. Martell, his feeling of unease growing, glanced back to where the Old Man had been. He seemed to have vanished.
When they reached the grove and left the vehicle, they realized how apt the Old Man’s description of the trees had been. The golden birches were very like their silver-barked namesakes of earthly woodlands.
In the very centre of the grove they found the amaranth crystal. It thrust through the soil of the grove and gleamed like sapphire blue basalt.
‘This calls for a celebration!’ cried Prescott. ‘What a good job I brought that flask of wine in the land-skimmer! That surprises you, doesn’t it! I’ll go and fetch it.’
As Prescott went, Martell noticed the bulge, as of a terminator weapon, beneath Holman’s arm. He was not surprised to discover that the Old Man was standing beside him, but Holman was.
‘How did you get here in this time?’
‘Like the dead, the undead travel fast.’
Prescott returned, carrying the flask of wine. The Old Man moved unobtrusively between Martell and Holman.
There was a sudden vicious stab of light and sound. Prescott lay dead on the bedrock of amaranth crystal. The terminator weapon glowed in Holman’s hand. He aimed at the Old Man. Martell felt no emotion either of fear or anger at this.
‘Perhaps now you’ll find what you have sought so long.’ said Holman. ‘So will Martell. I want the credit of the discovery of amaranth!’
Again the terminator stabbed - with less effect on the Old Man than the weekly catastrophes used to have on the indestructible heroes of the comics Martell had enjoyed as a lad. Holman stared at the Old Man.
‘You told the truth!’
‘I usually do. Give me that weapon: you must not kill Martell.’ He reached out his hand and took it.
Holman stooped to pick up the fallen flask.
‘Well, I shall drink a toast to our discovery.’
‘Don’t!’ cried Martell, remembering both his Chaucer and his fears of the night before. Holman had swallowed a generous mouthful. Then he crumpled and fell lifeless by the body of his victim.
‘Prescott poisoned the wine.’ Martell never could remember whether he or the Old Man spoke those words. He did remember saying:
‘The Pardoner’s Tale is acted out once more.’
‘The ending is somewhat different.’
‘Is it true that you cannot die until a young man volunteers to exchange youth for age?’
‘Will you permit me to be the one who makes the bargain?’
The Old Man’s eyes shone with joy.
He sank to the ground and lay still. Martell saw the dead face become young, become his own face. He reached out his hand to close the dark eyes, expecting to see it old and withered. But it was still his own hand.
He straightened up. His physical strength was still that of Hugh Martell,but his memory was that of the Old Man. Life stretched before him, infinite as space, eternal as time, until he should meet, beneath some alien sun, a young imaginative idealist willing to make that bargain which he had just made.
Now, after burying the bodies, he must return to civilization to tell his story. He made his way back to the land-skimmer and set off across the yellow-dusted landscape beneath the eerie light of the green sun, shining on the planet Athanasy where Death was no longer an exile.