! Until the end of days
Richard Harter's World
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Fiction
September 2010
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Until the end of days

His name was Aaron. He was neither Jew nor Roman. He was just a census enumerator who went from town to town and entered people's names on the census rolls.

On a certain day he was on his way to yet another town, a little town called Bethlehem. The road was packed was travellers making their way to their native towns. The air was thick with dust. There was little food or water save that which people carried with them.

He walked along a man and his wife. Yes, he walked. In those days census enumerators did not warrant a beast to ride. Aaron judged that the couple were not impoverished, for the the couple had an ass which he led and on which his very pregnant wife rode. He tried to engage them in conversation, but the couple had little to say. No doubt, he thought, they were worried about whether they would make to Bethlehem before she went into labor.

At a certain place in the road there was a large rock by the side of the road. As they passed a snake darted out from beneath the the rock and bit the ass. The ass reared wildly and the woman fell. It would have been to her death had not Aaron caught her.

The couple started to thank Aaron profusely and then time stopped.

That is, time stopped for everyone around Aaron. Instead it was as though there were a great mist with everyone within it frozen still. Everyone, that is, except Aaron and a figure in a black robe who stepped out of the mist. Aaron knew him for who he was; he was Death.

Aaron waited for Death to take him. Death did not. Instead he looked back and forth between Aaron and the woman. Finally Death spoke. "She was supposed to die. I came to collect her death. You have cheated Death. There is nothing to do but to take you instead."

Death reached out his bony hand to grasp Aaron. He was stopped by another hand, a shining hand that grasped the bones of Death instead. Death turned to the shining Angel restraining him and said ...

... something Aaron could not understand. The Angel replied and Aaron couldn't understand it either. The voice of Death sounded like a gravestone speaking. The voice of the Angel sounded like liquid light. After a bit Aaron began to make sense of their speech. They were arguing about him.

Death was arguing that he was entitled to a death. Aaron had robbed Death of a victim so Aaron had to take her place. The Angel said that the young woman had been part of His Plan. Without Aaron's intervention all would have fallen into darkness.

Death laughed. It sounded like a rusty graveyard gate swinging in the breeze. Light, darkness, it's all the same to me. I care nothing for such things. Your Master and I made our arrangement long ago, even before the world was made. He had need of me; without death there can be no life. My claim comes first; Death must be given its due.

The Angel replied that the young woman's death was not due; her fall was a trick of the Snake. She should never have been in danger.

Death said that what was was. What should have been was no concern of his.

The argument went back and forth. Finally Aaron interrupted. Why can't you just wait until my natural end comes and take me then?

Death and the Angel looked at Aaron with astonishment. What was a mere mortal doing interrupting immortals. For a moment they were silent and then Death said, that won't do - deaths must be collected when they happen, not later. I must have you now.

The Angel said, by your own words you may not. Either you are collecting him in place of her death or you are collecting him for his own. If it is for her supposed death you are too late; if it is for his death you are too early.

Death thought for a moment and said, You are right. Very well, he may go, but there is a price.

Aaron and the Angel asked, What price?

Death pointed a bony finger at Aaron. You have assumed the power to choose who lives and who dies. Having assumed it, you cannot give it up. When your time comes you must choose who will come with me, you or someone else..

The Angel said "Done!". Aaron started to speak but then he realized that Death and the Angel were gone. Time had started again. The man and his wife were thanking him profusely.

Aaron thought to himself, that was strange. It must have been a dream or a vision. He had heard of such things. And if it were so, so what. Who, after all, would cheat death by passing it on to someone else. If it were so, when his time came, he vowed that he would accept it as his due. After all, he was young and healthy. He had many years ahead of him yet.

Eventually they arrived at Bethlehem. The couple went their way; Aaron wished them well, though he feared that they would have hard luck finding a place to stay. At least he had accomodations at the census office. His bed was a cot and his food army fare, but it was something.

He saw the couple again once, and once only, when their names were entered on the census rolls. They had a baby boy with them. Evidently she had delivered. His only word with them was "Names?" Their only words were, "Joseph, Mary, and Joshua". He doubted that they even recognized him as they went through.

Completing the census was an ardous task. Tallies had to be made for each little village and each district. Fair copies of all of the census rolls had to made and checked. An army of clerks and scribes worked for two years in Jerusalem, preparing the final copy for Rome.

Aaron was one of three enumerators chosen to bear the census rolls to Rome. Boxes and boxes of parchment rolls were loaded onto a ship. Aaron thought it a mistake. Travel by land would have been safer. The precious rolls would have been guarded by army troops. Sea was faster, but it was dangerous. There were pirates and storms. Ships went lost at sea. It didn't matter. Rome had spoken and Rome would be obeyed.

The beginning of the trip went well. The skies were blue, the seas were calm, and there was a following wind. Aaron thought himself foolish to have worried. There was little to do besides making sure that no water touched the boxes of rolls. And then they neared Crete.

A storm broke. It was no ordinary storm; it was the mother of storms. Drenching rain poured and the wind howled. Giant waves, higher than the ship was long, beat upon them. Men were swept away. The mast snapped and the ship foundered in the waves. Water poured into the ship. Aaron tried desperately to keep water from flooding the boxes of rolls. And then catastrophe struck. There was a dreadful groan and the ship broke up. Aaron was thrown into the sea, together with another enumerator. Each held onto a handle of one of the boxes. It was something, a bit of hope, but not enough. The box rode low in the water and Aaron kept gulping water as he struggled. Panic rolled over him as he struggled. And then ...

Time stopped, and Death appeared. The gravestone spoke, saying: Your time has come, Aaron. Are you ready to go?

Aaron spoke the words, but it was not Aaron speaking. It was panic and fear speaking. And the words were, "No, no, don't take me. Take him."

Death said, "So be it." With those words time started anew. The other enumerator lost his grip and vanished into the sea. The box rode higher in the water and Aaron got a better grip. Within momentss the storm broke. The skies cleared and the wind died. The sea calmed. Here and there he saw wreckage but nary a human soul. For all he knew he was the only survivor.

And then the Angel appeared.

It spoke: You had salvation in hand as a gift and you gave it up for a few more hours on Earth. When next your time comes call on me and you may yet be saved.

And with that the Angel vanished.

Aaron did nothing. He thought nothing. He simply survived, He tied himself to his box and let the sea take him where it would. In time he slept. When he woke the sun was setting in a crimson sea. The shore was close. With his last effort he struggled ashore and collapsed on the beach. His last thoughts were, "It was all for nothing."

He awoke in a bed in a hut.

A local fisherman had found him on the beach and had rescued him. He spent some days with his rescuer while he recovered. He thought about what he had done.

Perhaps the encounter in Bethlehem was a false memory. Perhaps his memory of Death appearing in the midst of the storm was just a fancy. He didn't think so. He could still hear his voice screaming, "No, no, don't take me. Take him." That was truth. It had happened. He had said it.

What sort of man was he? Was he no better than a murderer, a man who lived by the death of others? Still, he did not make the choice by conscious will. It was the will to live within him that chose life.. Perhaps he was innocent after all. Yes, that was it. Next time it would be different. Next time he would let go. Next time ...

Within the shadows of his mind there was a whisper. He need never die. Life eternal was his to choose. It was not a whisper that he listened to, it was nothing he could hear, but it was there.

In heaven an Angel wept.

Aaron spent a few days with the fisherman while he recovered. It was a puzzle to him what he should do next. Finally he decided that it was not his decision. His duty was to report to the Procuratorate and let the authority of Rome decide his fate.

The local authorities didn't quite know what to do with him. In the end they decided that since he was an enumerator they would set him to work counting the sheep in Crete. It took him two years but Aaron counted all of the sheep in Crete. Of course by then the sheep population had changed quite a bit so they had him count them again. And again.

Do not think that his efforts were for naught. Quite the contrary; they were very useful. They became the basis for taxes on lamb, mutton, and wool. Aaron quickly became unpopular with the owners of sheep. He also became rich. Paying him bribes to undercount sheep was cheaper than paying taxes.

It happened one day that Aaron made a visit to a wealthy sheep owner named Georgias the Sheep Lover. Georgias's flock had increased greatly, and Aaron told him that his bribe must be larger. Now Georgias was a choleric man, and he grew wroth and began to beat on Aaron. Aaron defended himself as best he could, but Georgias was the stronger and gained the advantage of Aaron. Indeed, the more he beat Aaron, the angrier he got, until at last Georgias began choking Aaron.

Aaron grew faint and the world grew dark. Time stopped, and Death appeared. The gravestone spoke, saying: Your time has come, Aaron. Are you ready to go?

Without hesitation Aaron cried, "No, no, don't take me. Take him."

Death said, "So be it." With those words time started anew. The heart of Georgias burst within him from the force of his anger and he fell to the ground. Aaron gathered himself together. He looked down at Georgias crumpled on the ground and spat. "Pig! You deserved to die."

Aaron returned to his villa and sat in his favorite seat on the patio and gazed at the sea. He had his house slave to pour him a cup of wine, and sat there sipping it as he mused upon what had happened.

What did it all mean? This was the second time this had happened. He had sworn that he would never accept the death of another to save himself, and each time when the test came, he had chosen to let someone else die in his place. Was he, then, just a vampire, an immortal monster who lived by virtue of the deaths of others? No, he thought, not that. It wasn't my fault. I am a normal man; I am young and in good health; the will to live is strong in me. When a man full of life comes face with death, his will to live is his master. In time I will be old and feeble and death will be welcome. That is how it should be.

Having settled in his mind that none of this was his fault, Aaron thought on what he would do next. He was rich; he didn't need to count sheep. Let someone else count sheep. He would resign his post, retire, and go to Rome and enjoy the fruits of his labors.

Rome was different. He had never been to Rome before. He had thought he was rich, but the wealthy in Rome had riches far beyond his. He decided to secure a modest position. He bribed an impoverished member of an obscure senatorial family to adopt him. This gave him citizenship and a social position. A man could live very well in Rome provided he didn't indulge in the extravagent foolishness of the upper classes.

The years went by. Rome got a new Emperor. Aaron didn't care about that. Rome offered pleasure. He thought men were fools to engage in politics when all too often the price was their heads. Life was too short as it was.

He had been in Rome about twenty years when he realized an odd thing - he didn't seem to be getting any older. The face he saw in the mirror was the same that he had seen two decades ago. He didn't think much of it. After all, some men age quickly and others not so quickly.

Others began to notice that he didn't age. Some of his friends who were feeling the sting of age asked him for his secret. A few more years passed and it wasn't just his friends who were asking. He was accosted in the street by strangers who asked for his secret. Some were desperate. Aaron could see that no good would come of this.

Men wanted his secret. What could he tell them? Be at the right place and the right time and you can live forever? Few would want to hear such an answer. Men desperate for restored youth want an elixer of youth. Aaron didn't have an elixer; all he had was an improbable story that no one would believe.

He began to think that it would be a good thing if he were to leave Rome for somewhere where he wasn't known. He began preparations to leave. He sold of some of his fine possessions and some of his slaves. He made arrangements with a merchant to travel to Alexandria. It was a good plan but he started too late. The latest Emperor had heard the rumors too.

One morning soldiers appeared at his door. Aaron recognized them as members of the Praetorian guard. They told him that he was to report directly to the Imperial court and that they were his escort. He protested feebly that there must be some mistake. They told him that there was no mistake. The Emperor himself wanted to speak with him.

Aaron was afraid. The new Emperor was a madman. Every one said so, but they said it in whispers. When he needed money he had his soldiers drag in a rich man. The Emperor would force the man to leave all of his money to the Emperor. Then he would have the man killed and take his money. Perhaps it was Aaron's turn. He didn't think he could be killed, but still he worried. Perhaps there was a catch to his immortality that he didn't know about.

The soldiers brought him before the Emperor. The Emperor asked the decanus, "Is this the man?"

"He is," the decanus replied.

The Emperor looked down at Aaron. "Come, my good man, you have nothing to fear from me. If rumor speaks truly you have nothing to fear from any one. But let us not speak of such things in public. Our words are not meant for mortal ears. Let us adjourn to my private audience room where we can speak more frankly."

With that the Emperor led Aaron into a small ajoining room. It had but one door and that was guarded. There were two richly furnished benches in the room. The Emperor gestured for Aaron to sit down. When Aaron was seated the Emperor took the other bench.

"So," the Emperor said, "it is said that you do not age and do not die, that old men remember you from their youth, and you do not change. I will have truth of this and I will have it now."

Aaron thought quickly. It wouldn't do to lie - he could get caught up too easily - and yet he couldn't tell the whole truth. What he must do was to tell as much of the truth as the Emperor was willing to hear.

"It is as people say. Your majesty sees truly. Yes, what men say is true. I do not age and I do not die."

"Hmmmm. How can this be? Men are mortal; they live; they die. Only the gods are immortal. Are you then a god? I look at you and I do not see a god. I am a god, you know, and we gods recognize each other, even when we are bound in mortal flesh. If you are a mortal man as I think you are, how is it that you have the gift of immortality. Have you stolen it from a god? Have you murdered a god? Answer me quickly and answer me truly."

"Oh, no, your majesty. I am no thief and no murderer. Quite the opposite - I did a god a favor and was granted a boon as a reward."

"Which god, and what was the favor?"

"Many years ago I was in Israel. Quite by chance I saved the life of a pregnant young woman. After I had saved her an angel appeared and told me that the God of the Israelites had need of her unborn son. As a reward for saving him, their God granted me unending life until I tired of life. Since then I have not aged nor have I tired of life."

"And this unborn son, what of him?"

"Truly I do not know. The Israelites are a strange people and their god a strange god."

"Hmmph. He probably is yet another general who will lead a yet another rebellion against Rome. Some day these jews will learn their real place in the Empire and who their real god is.

That is a matter for another time. I do not think you are telling me the entire truth. Still, it is as you say. Death has no hold on you. You have the immortality of a god without the divinity of a god whereas I am just the opposite. Being bound in flesh I have the divinity of a god without immortality.

Ah, now I see what has happened. The god of the Israelites seeks to honor me and show his respect. He has chosen you to be the bearer of my immortality.

I have decided. We shall be friends. You shall be with me constantly, bearing my immortality until I have need of it."

Aaron didn't like the sound of this. There was nothing he could do, though, but to make the best of it and put on a happy face. "It shall be as you wish, your majesty. I shall be happy to be your friend."

The Emperor laughed. "Come, Aaron, be done with your majesties. We are friends now. You must address by name. You must call me Caligula."

Being Caligula's friend was wearing. Aaron attended all of the orgies and the banquets. Aaron attended Caligula when he bullied the Senate. He went to the games with Caligula and sat next to the Emperor. Courtiers toadied up to him, eager to gain the ear of the Emperor through Aaron. They toadied up to him, but he could see hatred in their eyes. He was a stranger, and strangers loved by the powerful are always hated. Caligula offered Aaron the favors of his sisters. "After all," he said, "we are friends. You shall enjoy what I have enjoyed."

Aaron thanked him for his generosity with his sisters. At least, Aaron thought, I'm not being asked to play Venus. No doubt that will happen he decides he wants to get closer to "his" immortality. Aaron began to worry about what would happen to the mad Emperor. Once he had been the darling of the mob and the senate. Now he was hated. Only the Praetorian guard protected him, and he had taken to baiting the members of his personal guard.

One January day Caligula was addressing a troupe of young actors. He praised them and instructed them on acting. After a while he tired of it all and turned to Aaron, saying, "Bah, these fools know nothing of acting. Let us be out of here." Caligula and Aaron and some of the Emperor's guard left the Imperial box and strolled through the Emperor's private passage way.

Caligula held up his hand and stopped. "Aaron," he said, "We must have a little talk. We are friends and yet you have lied to me. I forgive you your lies. All men lie to their gods and you are just a man. The time has come for an end to the lies. I am a god. I know the truth. Your tale about a pregnant woman and the god of the Israelites is just that - a tale, a fiction, a lie. You have an elixir of youth. I want it. I need it. I need it now to complete my transformation into a living god on Earth. You are my friend. Give it to me now."

Aaron stuttered, "But sir, I told you the truth. I have no elixir. I never had one. I have nothing to give you,"

Caligula's eyes narrowed. "So you want to keep it for yourself and cheat me of what is rightfully mine. Well, then, we shall right now how immortal you are. Cassius, kill him."

Cassius lifted his sword and stepped toward Aaron. "By the gods, the Emperor has shown sense. Die, you foul magician."

Aaron stood still as the sword of Cassius neared. Time stopped, and Death appeared. The gravestone spoke, saying: Your time has come, Aaron. Are you ready to go?

Without hesitation Aaron cried, "No, no, don't take me. Take him."

Death said, "So be it." With those words time started anew. Somehow Cassius must have heard his words because he stopped and said, "Yes, of course, take him. Let the real monster die!" Cassius turned. His visage became a mask of dreadful joy, and with one swift stroke he buried his sword in the belly of Caligula.

The other members stood shocked for a moment, and then they too took up the cry, "Let the real monster die!" Their blades flashed in a frenzy of stabbing.

In their frenzy they ignored Aaron who thought the time quite propitious for leaving quietly. In fact it was past time to leave Rome. There was going to be a real power struggle over the succession, riots in the streets, and a lot of scores settled. He was sure that he was on the top of many lists.

Haste was king. He had boxes of gold hidden in his villa. For a moment he thought of them wistfully and then told himself, let it all go. He had eternity to make more money if he wanted it. The important thing was to get out of Rome immediately. Maybe Death would protect him from an angry mob and maybe not. Aaron didn't want to find out. He had a purse with gold in it - plenty of wealth for a poor man.

He made his way out of the Colosseum and down to the port. He didn't run but he walked faster than he had for many a year. With luck his friend Julius would be there. Julius had a small boat. His luck was in; Julius was there.

Aaron explained what had happened. Julius whistled, "That's not good for you, is it?"

"No, it's not. If I want to keep my head I need to be out of Rome for a while. Can you get me down to Napoli?"

"Of course. But what about your villa? When they come looking for you they will loot it."

"Hang the villa. I will make out a deed and give it you. Get to it quickly. In the courtyard there is a loose tile. Underneath the tile are three boxes of gold. Keep them. Just get me out of Rome."

"Very well. I can't take you all the way to Napoli if we are going to do all this. It would take too long. However there is a fishing village about twenty miles down the coast. I can take you there. Remember secundus? He lives there and he can take you the rest of the way."

Aaron shrugged. He agreed. The important thing was to get out of Rome. An hour later they were sailing on the Mediterranean. Three hours later they were sitting in Secundus's courtyard sipping wine. Aaron related the details of the assassination. Not all of the details, of course. He didn't say anything about his conversation with Death. But he did say that Caligula had ordered him killed and that he had cried "No, no, don't take me. Take him." and that the guards had taken Caligula instead. Everyone agreed that Aaron was very fortunate and that the guards must have really hated Caligula.

Secundus asked if he actually was immortal and had an elixir of youth. Aaron laughed, "Of course not. My parents were long lived. My father died in his nineties and he had a full head of black hair when he died. Those stories about elixirs of youth, that's all they are, just stories. Men believe them because they want them to be true. When my time comes I probably want one too.

The next morning Julius went back to Rome to claim his new villa and Secundus and Aaron set out for Napoli. On the way Aaron thought to himself, "I have made mistakes. I should have had a story ready about my long lived father. Men want to believe in an elixir of youth. I should have had one ready in case I am pressed too hard. It doesn't matter what it is. All I need to tell people is that it won't restore their youth, it just keeps them from aging. Above all, I must keep moving. Ten years in one place, maybe twenty at most, and then it is time to move on. That is what I will do."

They arrived at Napoli. When Aaron got off the boat, Secundus said, "I suppose it is as you say, you are just fortunate in your choice of parents, and there is no such thing as an elixir of youth. Just in case you find one though, could you send me a bottle?"

Aaron laughed, "You may be sure that I will. I promise you the second bottle I find. And thanks for the clothes. I would have looked the fool if I had wandered about the dock in a palace toga."

Aaron had settled it in his head. He would become a sea man on a merchant ship. He could see more of the world and earn a bit of money. Nobody would know who he was and that was the way he liked it.

So it began. He found a job as a deck hand on a merchant vessel. Since he was not an experienced sea man his pay was not much - a place to sleep, his food, and a handful of coins at the end of the trip. He spent the next few years working his way around the Mediterranean. He liked the work but didn't think he would want to be a deck hand for the next thousand years. He decided his next step was to become a merchant's man at arms.

In Alexandria he paid a legionare to teach him swordsmanship and hand to hand combat. It was there that an odd thing happened. While he walking back from a bar one night a footpad assaulted him. The footpad might have gotten away with Aaron's purse if he hadn't tried to slit Aaron's throat. The usual happened. Time stopped, and Death appeared. The gravestone spoke, saying: Your time has come, Aaron. Are you ready to go?

Without hesitation Aaron said, "No. Take him."

Death said, "So be it." With those words time started anew. Aaron made one swift move and the footpad's knife ended in his own throat. Aaron looked at the dead body on the ground, kicked it, spat, and said, "Fool!", and went his way.

When he learned what the legionaire could teach him he became a mercenary man at arms guarding merchant caravans. He liked the life. He travelled to Arabia and Persia. He went north with an amber merchant. He even travelled to cathay on the silk route.

His travels were not without incident. The well picked bones of two bandits lay on the roof of the world. They had made the mistake of attempting to rob a caravan that Aaron was guarding. Aaron no longer worried about the morality of telling Death to take the lives of others instead of his own. It was just something that happened.

Aaron spent twenty years as a mercenary. He though a lot about what he would do next.

Aaron began to think of himself as a long timer, a person who lives on indefinitely amidst a multitude of short lived normals. Short timers have few chances and little time to acquire wealth and a place in the world. To them, wealth and place are great boons that few attain. Long timers see it differently. With all of time to play with, wealth and place are easily gained and as easily lost. What a long timer needs is protective coloration, the ability to move about in the world of short timers without being recognized as a long timer.

The mercenary life provided protective coloration but lacked safety and control of events. He could end up in a pitched battle with no assurance that he could be rescued from a thousand deaths at once. And yet he could not stay in one place indefinitely. He had seen what came of that.

After much thought Aaron decided he would become a merchant. Merchants wandered as they wished. They had wealth and the ability to control events. If they chose they could conceal who they really were or where they really lived.

At the time Aaron was working for a wizened old byzantine named Petronas. Petronas had leathery skin, a long scraggly white beard, and several missing teeth. He moved a spry old man and his eyes had the twinkle of intelligence in them. He had a dry wit and was a demanding but fair master. Aaron liked him.

One evening after the campfires had been he approached Petronas. "Master," he said, "if I may, could I have a word with you?"

"Of course, Aaron, what would you have of me."

"Sir, I have been a man at arms for many years now. I like the life. But the truth is we all grow older and the time will come when experience and cleverness of wit is not enough when the strength of arm has faded. I would have more than I have and do more than I do. I have thought long and hard on this, and it comes to me that I would like to become a merchant like you."

Petronas laughed. "Well now, that is easy enough. To be a merchant like me is simple. You must go to a place where goods are cheap. Buy them for a low price and take them to a place where the same goods are costly. Sell them for a high price. Keep doing this and in time you will be a rich merchant. What could be simpler?"

"I have heard men talk like that, sir, but I have watched you and other merchants and I know it is not that simple. When you go to buy goods, where do you go and whom do you buy from? How do you know which are goods of quality and which are worthless. What does it cost to transport goods? You hire people, guards and porters, a cook and perhaps a scribe. Where do you find these people and what do you pay them? When you sell your goods how do you secure a place in the market place? How do you know what price to buy at and what price to sell at? How do you protect yourself against thieves? The questions go on and on, sir, It seem to me that it is no simple thing to be a merchant. I look at the world and I see that there are many more men selling their labor then there are men paying those wages."

"So you are no fool. Have you thought about how you might learn about becoming a merchant?"

"You would know that better than I, sir. After all, you learned all these things. What if you were to treat me as a son or an apprentice? Isn't that the way men these things?"

"Ha! You don't want to be a son of mine. I have three wives in three cities and six fine sons by them. Each of my sons is great at drinking, partying, and wasting money. At making it, not so much. I have quite enough sons, thank you."

"Well sir, then let me be the kind of son you never had, the kind of son you wanted."

"Hmmmm. So you would be my heir even though you are not my flesh and blood?"

"Only of your wisdom, sir. Wealth may be left to anyone. Wisdom can only be left to those who are willing to receive it."

"You speak sooth. Still, it is much too early to speak of heirs, and sons, and apprentices. Let me give you various tasks and see how you deal with them. If you do well with them we might go on from there. What are you willing to pay for this chance to learn?"

"In money, I will pay nothing. Quite the contrary I expect to be paid for my labors. What I offer is hard work, conscientious attention to your interests, and my best efforts. That is a lot to offer and I can offer no more."

"Good. You are negotiating and staking out a position. Very well. Here is what I will do. You will continue your duties as captain of my guard. For that you will be paid as before. In your free time you will work on tasks that I set for you. I will pay nothing for your time spent on them. Remember, my would be merchant, that a man's wage is determined by his value to his master, not by what he feels he is worth. Your efforts will have no present value; they will only cost me time. It is only because you might be worth something in the future that I consider taking you on. Are we agreed?"

Aaron thought for a moment. It was clear to him that Petronas wasn't simply negotiating. He was giving a lesson. "Agreed." The two men shook hands.

"So, what am I to do with you. Your skills with the sword mean nothing here, your skills as a captain of men little more. Let me see. Do you know your numbers? Is an abacus your friend or your enemy?"

"My friend, sir. I know my numbers and I know the stones. I can keep tallies and accounts." Aaron thought it politic not to explain the source of his skills.

"Very, well, you shall audit my books. My bookkeeper, Mussef, is quite good but he steals from me. When I catch him at it I fine him twice what he stole. See for yourself what you can find. You can have half of what you find he has stolen."

Auditing the books wasn't hard. He quickly found a couple of small defalcations. From then on all he had to do was keep an eye on Mussef as he scanned the books. Mussef would quiver every time Aaron's eyes rested near another bit of chicanery. The total was quite surprising. Apparently bookkeeping paid better than being a captain of the guard. At least it had so far.

Aaron hauled Mussef up before Petronas and laid his results before him. Petronas looked at Mussef. "So, you got greedy. You know my rule. Can you afford my fine?"

Mussef quailed. "Not quite, my lord. Please forgive me, I must have time."

Petronas turned to Aaron. "What do you think? Should I turn him out like the dog that he is?"

"Not at all, sir. You know his tricks, now, or at least I know them, and if I know them, you know them. I think that Mussef has found that honesty is the best policy. Isn't that right, Mussef?"

Mussef nodded mutely. He was a broken man.

Petronas was a man of his word. The next day he handed Aaron a sack of gold. Aaron accepted and then said, "If you don't mind, sir, I'd like to leave the gold with you. Use it on your next buying trip and give me a share of the profits."

Petronas said nothing, smiled, and took back the bag of gold. From then on Aaron got lots of little assignments. Some were easy, finding a good inn in a strange town. Some were seemingly impossible, such as choosing between two rugs that looked equally valuable to inexperienced eyes. Most of the time Petronas never said whether Aaron had done well or poorly. Sometimes, when Aaron had obviously floundered, Petronas would explain what he could have done. Once and once only, Petronas admitted that he had learned something.

When they arrived at a market town, Petronas kept Aaron with him. He didn't set him any tasks; he just let him observe. When the day was done Petronas would quiz Aaron about what he had done and why he had done it.

When they arrived in Byzantium Petronas announced that he had taken on Aaron as his apprentice. The sons protested, but both Petronas and Aaron assured them that their inheritance was secure. Aaron had moved up in the world. He was an apprentice to a master merchant. He wasn't a partner, not even a very junior partner. He was just an apprentice, and that suited him very well.

His need was to learn and learn quickly. Petronas was an old man. He was vigorous; he might live another twenty years. Then again he might die within five. Aaron saw that a merchant's most important assets were his contacts, the people he knew and the friendships he had. He saw something else that Petronas didn't see - Petronas's friends and contacts were mostly old like Petronas himself. Aaron needed to befriend Petronas's friends so that they would accept him as they accepted Petronas. More than that he needed to cultivate younger men who would serve his needs when age had swept away all of Petronas's coterie except Aaron himself.

Five years passed. Aaron became a junior partner. He learned the trade routes and the trade goods. He learned how to find a good agent in a strange city. He knew where to look for goods and what their prices should be when he bought them and what they should be when he sold them. He could draw up a realistic budget for a trading venture.

Aaron would have been happy to continue being a junior partner but things fell out differently because of Mussef. The bookkeeper could not resist the temptation to steal even though he was regularly caught. Finally Petronas grew tired of Mussef's petty thefts and fired him. Mussef blamed Aaron and screamed curses at him.

Aaron and Petronas often combined business and dining. They would leisurely discuss business over an extended evening meal. One of the advantages of being a wealthy merchant is being able to hire an excellent chef. One evening, not long after Mussef had been fired, Mussef burst in on them, cursed Aaron, and threw a knife at him. Mussef was good. The knife was thrown straight at Aaron.

Aaron started to duck and then time stopped, and Death appeared. The gravestone spoke, saying: Your time has come, Aaron. Are you ready to go?

Without hesitation Aaron said, "No. Take him."

Death said, "So be it." With those words time started anew. Aaron twisted aside and the knife missed him. It did not miss Petronas; it buried itself in Petronas's throat. Aaron sprang to his feet and drew his sword in the same motion. With one swift move he had his sword at Mussef's throat. "So," he said, "not only are you a thief, you are a murderer."

Mussef blubbered, "I never meant to hurt him. It was all you. You took my life away and you had me fired."

Aaron whispered, "I know. Still, you are a thief and a murderer. For that you must die, but not at my hands. My hands are clean in this matter and they will remain clean."

"No, kill me now. My life is over."

Aaron answered by reversing his sword and striking Mussef a heavy blow with the pommel. Mussef fell, stunned, and Aaron had him bound and taken to the court. Justice was swift. Two days later Mussef was in the arena fighting a one sided battle with a hungry lion.

Unwinding Petronas's affairs was messy. He had six sons and three wives in three different cities. He had assets in Byzantium, in Persia, and in Egypt. His heirs knew nothing and cared nothing about his trading ventures. His executors were old friends who were, well, old. Everyone was happy to let Aaron take over Petronas's ventures and liquidate them gracefully and profitably.

Aaron was fair and honest. He was not stupid. His goods moved with Petronas's and his sold with Petronas's at the same prices. He bought no new goods for the estate but he bought much on his account, using the good names of Petronas and Aaron. It took five years but in the end the heirs had their inheritance and Aaron had a trading empire.

Aaron was rich. Rich men are marked. A poor man may come and go and no one will note his passing. Somehow Aaron needed to be rich without people noticing that he didn't age. His answer was to spend ten or twenty years in one place and then move on to some where else far away where he wasn't known. People didn't need to know that he was rich as long as he didn't act as though he were rich.

It was easier that way. He could make friends and take wives. He could enjoy their company for a few years and then move on when they started aging. Short timers - ordinary humans - were like pets. It didn't pay to get too attached to them; they just didn't last very long. Besides it was a large world. There was much to see.

Life settled into long slow rhythms. He was travelling the silk route when Byzantium became Constantinople. He was in India when Muhammad's armies flowed out of Arabia. He favored the East. Europe was a wasteland except for the tag ends of the Empire. The Caliphate was interesting but dangerous.

He covered his tracks well, but people still noticed that there was someone who never aged. He would be gone before they could act, but stories about an eternal wanderer flourished. Aaron collected them. It was an entertainment to see how he had become a figure of legend. He even started the legend of the Wandering Jew just to see what the Christians would make of it.

He was in Europe when the black death struck. He had a small estate outside of Paris. He had settled there because the daughter of the local mayor had caught his fancy. Eleanor was one of the most beautiful women he had ever met in all of his travels. Not only was she beautiful, she had a profound sweetness of character and an unassuming modesty that touched him to his core. He wooed her and won her, and won the approval of the mayor who valued Aaron more his purse than his character.

Something quite remarkable happened. Aaron fell in love with her. Aaron had loved from time to time, but nothing deep and nothing serious. To him women were a pleasure of life, and nothing more. Women were short timers - like pets, it did not pay to get to attached to them. That was his plan and that was how he led his life.

His plan was ended by Eleanor. She loved him, and he, quite to his surprise found that he loved her. He did not choose to have it so but it was not given to him to choose. It did not matter that he had been on this Earth for centuries whereas she had been on it for a bare twenty years. Their idyll lasted for three years and then the plague struck.

He assumed that he wouldn't get it. He was wrong; he came down with the plague. Eleanor insisted on nursing him. He tried to tell her to leave him and save herself, but he had no strength. All he could do was moan with the intensity of the fever. Finally the fever broke for a moment. He saw to his horror that Eleanor lay beside him and that she had the plague too.

Time stopped, and Death appeared. The gravestone spoke, saying: Your time has come, Aaron. Are you ready to go?

Aaron cried, "Please, does it have to be her?"

The gravestone spoke again, saying: Your time has come, Aaron. Are you ready to go?

Aaron knew that if his love was strong enough, if it was pure enough, then he could let go of life and let Death take him. It wasn't. He wanted to let go, but he just couldn't. His attachment to life was too strong. Finally he sobbed, "God forgive me, but let it be her."

Death said, "So be it." With those words time started anew. Aaron sat up. His head was clear and he felt the fever drain away. He looked at the form beside him. It was Eleanor. She was dead.

He shook his head and got up. He walked out the door and left everything behind; there was nothing for him here, not anymore. He would never let another woman get close to his heart again. He could never do this again. He could never let himself be put to the test again, knowing that he would fail. His curse was his master and no love, no matter how great, could defeat it.

He left Europe and thought he would never return. He did, though, when the Golden Years began. It was something new in a world that had grown old to him. In Europe they were inventing a new way of thinking that they called science. They were creating engines that ate coal and did the work of men and beasts many times over. Their ingenuity was endless. They created engines of creation and engines of destruction.

The pace quickened. Each year they found ways to grow more food from the same land. Each year they replace human backs by iron backs that never tired. They brought light into darkness, mastered disease, and travelled in hours distances that had once taken days or even months. The world grew brighter. Populations swelled until ten men stood where once only one had stood.

Mankind had made a pact with the devil and did not know it. All their great engines, all of their new found cornucopia, all was powered by coal and oil. Little by little the world warmed, first slowly and then more rapidly. Men grew alarmed and said they must stop burning coal and oil. So they did, but it was too little and too late. The golden years were false gold and the price was coming due. Men called it the tipping point. When the world grew a bit too warm it grew much warmer very quickly.

All that was ended. The fertile fields became parched and barren. Green became brown and life withered. The oceans died and became a great stench. People died like flies, worse than flies, for flies could feed on the dead, and men fed on nothing. Men fought for the oases, the green spots, and the lands that had once been frozen.

Within two generations all that was left were a handful of tribes trying to survive in the far north. It was not easy. The air was very bad and they didn't last very long.

Finally only Aaron was left. When the last short timer died, time stopped and Death appeared. The gravestone spoke, saying: Your time has come, Aaron. Are you ready to go?

Without hesitation Aaron said, "No. I don't want to go. I won't go."

The gravestone spoke, saying: But Aaron, there is no one left to take your place.

Aaron looked death squarely in the face and said, "Yes there is. There is you."

Death said, "So be it." With those words time started anew. The skeletal figure of Death turned to dust and blew away. His robe fell to ground and it too turned to dust and blew away. Aaron felt himself changing. He looked down and his tunic had become a robe. He held up his hand and it had become nothing but bones. He had become Death.

And now he knew that Death had cheated him. Death had given Aaron life so that Aaron could give Death what Death could not give himself.

Death, the new Death, asked himself, what next, and, having asked, knew the answer. Death had collected human souls and there were none left to collect. The reign of Death was not over. As long as there was life, there was death. Humanity had created a great extinction but there was life left on Earth, bacteria, insects, fungi, and primitive plants. Death must wait until all life was gone, until the end of days.

Death sat on a high place and waited. Death was aware of each bit of life on Earth. In time the planet cooled and life spread across the Earth once more. Time passed, millions of years, then tens of millions of years. The life that had been present in Aaron faded away. The death in Aaron waited patiently. Thought died; it was no longer needed.

All life on the surface died; all that remained were bacteria deep within the rocks. More time passed. The Sun swelled and the surface of the Earth warmed beyond the limits of life. Life was done. The end of days had come and gone.

Much later the Angel appeared at the high place. There was nothing there save a robe, a scythe, and some dust. The Angel wept tears over the dust and said, "He could have been saved. All he had to do was ask. All he ever had to do was ask. But he never asked and now it is too late. There is nothing here but dust."

The Angel turned and walked away into eternity. When it was gone, the dust gathered around the tears and formed a mouth. The mouth moved, forming the words, "Please save me." There was no answer. The mouth repeated the plea. It would repeat the plea for the rest of eternity and would never be answered. It couldn't be.

Aaron had asked too late.


This page was last updated August 24, 2010.
Copyright © 2010 by Richard Harter

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