Sunday, 3 Gabrianym, 1007 KR
”Welcome back to the Stop,” Ceph said.
“Thank you! Um… back?”
“You’ve been here before.”
The man was dressed as if the latest fashions had been introduced to a rainbow and had a bastard love child. Blues and oranges and purples and greens and yellows, accented with flashes of white or hints of black. A lute was slung across his back, and the whole ensemble topped with a wide-brimmed black hat and huge orange feather.
“Hard to forget an outfit like that,” Ceph said.
The man smiled. “I am Floerian Silverstring, Humble Bard of Great Renown, Wearer of Bright Colours and New Fashions, Player of Flute, Lute, and Trumpet Mute, Maker of Fun, Player of Jokes, Traveller of Worlds, Herald of the Knights of Cantara, Actor of the League of Rune, Personal Scribe of Biggles the Chicken, Herald to Many, Servant of None, and Flamboyant Travelling Minstrel Extraordinaire!” He ended with a flourish.
“Ah yes,” Ceph said. “Hard to forget that, either.”
Floerian smiled. “That’s the idea.”
“Stormcrow wine, if you have it.”
As Ceph poured, he sensed Floerian’s eyes on him. They were old eyes. Like his own, they had seen a lot.
“Would you like to hear a story?” Floerian asked.
“Only if it’s not yours,” Ceph said.
“I never tell mine.” His eyes glinted.
“Sure,” Ceph said.
“It’s a story of the infamous Biggles the Chicken,” Floerian began.
In the days after Biggles the Chicken escaped his life enslaved, he travelled far and wide across the countryside, seeking adventure and revelling in the joys of freedom.
One evening, as the summer sun cast its long shadows across the hills and Biggles began to want for a place to rest, he spied dark smoke in the distance. Thinking perhaps it was the smoke of a fire from a roadside inn, he hurried forward.
Cresting the next hill, however, he discovered that the smoke was not from a merrily burning hearth fire, but from the smouldering wreckage of a farmhouse.
“What tragedy has happened here?” Biggles said, though there were none around to hear him. When nobody answered him — for how would they? — Biggles decided he must find out for himself, and he hurried toward the wreckage.
As he neared, he saw a shape among the planks and beams that still burned on the ground, a man standing amidst the debris, shrouded by the smoke.
“Hello!” Biggles called. “Are you all right?”
The man turned to look at the little chicken hollering from the grass. Biggles saw his eyes were all white, and the fire did not seem to touch him.
But Biggles also saw the bodies that lay on the ground around the man, burned by the flames. And he saw the shades of those people, their spirits, rising like the smoke from the bodies.
It was a family — a man, a woman, and three children. The farmers, whose home had burned down around them.
“Why don’t you help them?” Biggles said to the white-eyed man, aghast. But the man did not respond, only looking at Biggles with those eyes.
“Well if you’re not going to help, I will,” Biggles said. “I can’t just let that family die!”
And so he ran forward into the heat of the fallen building. He ran to the bodies of the family, as their spirits rose out of them. And though the embers scorched his feathers, Biggles paid them no mind.
First Biggles dragged the bodies away from the lingering flames. Their burns were bad, but Biggles tried to soothe them with water from his satchel, binding them with clean cloth. He opened the mouth of the smallest child and tried to fill it with air from his own tiny lungs.
The spirits of the family rose around him as he worked. Their eyes were sad, pained. But their bodies could hold them no more.
The man watched Biggles with his white eyes.
“If I can’t save the bodies, maybe I can help the spirits,” Biggles said, and turned to the shades of the family.
“Return to your bodies!” he said. “You are too young to pass into the Queen’s Land, into the shadow.” But the spirits did not move.
Biggles had heard that music had the power to affect spirits, and so he began to whistle a lively tune, hoping to inspire life back into them.
The spirits of the family stood around him as he whistled. Their eyes were still sad, still pained. But they had risen and would not return.
The man watched Biggles with his white eyes.
And so Biggles turned to him, this white-eyed man who stood unscorched among the flames, who watched Biggles silently, who seemed to be waiting for the farmer’s family.
“You are Death,” Biggles said to him, understanding. “You are here to collect these souls.”
And the man nodded, silent, for he was Azrael, the Angel of Death.
“If I can’t save the bodies, and I can’t help the spirits myself,” Biggles said, “then maybe you can. Look at this family, Death. They are helpless, they have small children. It cannot be their time to die. Put their souls back in their bodies, let them live again to see their lives through!”
The spirits of the family watched him as he spoke. They were sad, pained. But Death would not relent.
He watched Biggles with his white eyes.
Biggles sat on the grass, exhausted. He had tried to save the bodies, he had tried to rescue the spirits, he had even argued with Death himself, and nothing had worked.
He looked at the spirits of the family with their sorrow and pain.
“I’m sorry that you have died,” he said. “But I have tried everything to save you. There’s nothing more I can do.”
At this, the man smiled. Then the woman smiled. And then the children smiled. They nodded. And they drifted away, peaceful at least.
And Biggles looked at Death. But the angel had spread his wings of shadow and turned away, preparing to depart as well.
“I can’t stop death,” Biggles said, “no matter how unfair it seems. All I can do is accept it, and let go.”
In response, Death took wing, and disappeared into the smoky sky.
That night, Biggles thought of the family as they embarked on the next stage of their journey. And the next morning, he continued his own.
“A chicken?” Ceph said.
“Let me guess. There’s a moral.”
“Probably,” Floerian said. “But I’m just the storyteller—I don’t get to dictate what you get out of a story.”