Death and the Dwarf

by Eugene Marckx

From an ancient tale

Roghnall was the most daring warrior chief of his time. With his cohorts he had won so many battles that he began to feel invincible—so much so that he sent out a challenge to anyone anywhere to meet him in battle. No one answered.

But the last, if not the least, of all his cohorts was a dwarf named Clive. He told Roghnall that his challenge would surely invite bad luck. Roghnall scoffed. As far as he was concerned, Clive was too small to take a warrior’s blow straight on. And so he learned to dodge away from serious danger, or at worst he could hide among the dead and dying. Roghnall held to this opinion even after Clive had killed more than one great enemy, and even when it was Clive who devised a brilliant strategy against a foe. Roghnall gave him no honor.

But at his castle one evening as they were feasting in the hall, Clive jumped up on his own far end of the table. “Chief, your trouble has come! Just now your challenge brings bad luck to you.”

“What is that noise back there? Is it the kitchen door squeaking?” Men around Roghnall laughed.

Clive shouted, “Soon you’ll not laugh.” He stomped on the table, spilling mugs of mead.

The men close by would have dowsed him. But as they looked up, his face was etched in fear, and his eyes froze as the door of the hall slowly opened on a stranger there, dressed in a dark cloak.

Roghnall leaped up with his dagger. “Who are you to break in here?” His men laid hold of the stranger, and Clive came up behind with a short sword.

The stranger shook off their strong hands as if they were nothing, and he knocked the sword from Clive’s grasp. Then with his eyes he struck fear into each of them. At the last he turned to Roghnall. “You know me, but you surely wish you did not. I come for you.”

The warriors had not yet recovered when he let his cloak fall from his shoulders, and before them transformed into a great bird, and flew over them and out the ceiling vent into the evening sky. They all ran to their horses, and Roghnall led the chase after the bird into the forest. And as evening drew down into night they all got lost.

Roghnall could not see which way to turn, but in a narrow sliver of moonlight the stranger was standing before him. “Aha!” Roghnall shouted and drew his sword.

“Aha!” Like the greatest of eagles the stranger swooped in, knocked the chief off his mount, struck him to the ground and stood on his chest, pinning him there. “Aha!”

Roghnall suddenly felt weak and frail, so frail that he could barely whisper, “What do you want?”

“I am the Angel of Death. Prepare to leave this life.”

“The Angel of Death?” Roghnall squirmed. He had faced death in battle, but not like this. “I am humbled. I apologize for your trouble, but, please, will you give me time to settle my affairs?”

“Do not be humbled. Do not apologize. Do not bargain. I am the Angel of Death. I am but a servant and follow my orders.”

“A servant? Then get yourself off me right now!” Roghnall stood up and shook himself. Then he called into the dark forest with outstretched arms. “Oh, Death, forgive my haughty ways. I deeply regret offending you. Please, will you give me another chance to live?”

A moment passed. Then the angel whispered, “My master says that you might be allowed to live—but only if you find another person willing to die in your place.”

And so, guided by the angel, Roghnall rode out of the forest and took the road through the night to his parents’ home. There he asked his old father if he would take his place for Death.

“Oh, son, how can you think I am that old? I would like to enjoy a few more summers at least.”

Then Roghnall turned to his mother. “Oh, my son, I bore you, I fed you, I raised you and I nursed you through illness. I gave my life for you many times already. Do not ask this of me.”

Roghnall was crestfallen. As twilight began to turn the skies to gray he rode solemnly back to his castle. His cohorts were nowhere about, all of them gone but one, Clive. He looked at the dwarf. He had never asked Clive for anything. And Roghnall was glad to keep it that way. But in the dwarf’s face he saw his own fear mirrored back. Yet the dwarf had not left him, but stood shaking beside him in his greatest need. Roghnall wanted desperately to live.

“Clive, you have always served me well. At this late hour I finally give you your due, here as the Angel of Death stands at the door. Have you any idea what I can do?”

“No, my Chief. I see no way around this.” Clive’s voice quavered. “But I serve you alone. No one else. Ask—and I will take your place.”

“You...” Roghnall’s voice faltered. Why had he been too proud to ask the dwarf? Here was a moment to ask, if he could. He bent down on one knee and whispered, “Will you?”

Clive, still shaking, began to move forward. Roghnall watched him go bravely, every ounce of him determined. Then the Chief’s hand reached out and lay upon the dwarf’s shoulder. Clive turned.

“Brother, you do me so great an honor, but here at last I see how fine a brother you are, how fine a brother you have always been, and I never showed you any gratitude. So I release you from this.” Roghnall stood up. “From the courage and love you show me, brother, I gladly go to my own death.”

Then with the first light of dawn the Angel of Death entered. “Roghnall, for the sake of this brotherly love you now have discovered, Death spares you. Live on, Chief, into ripening age.”

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