Stay safe this Bonfire Night and good luck to anyone with pets and/or babies. It's going to be a long night!
‘Are you going to light that thing?’
Death was losing patience. He had watched the man ponder over the fuse for what felt like a lifetime. The big pile of kegs remained damp and dormant in the dark undercroft below the Houses of Parliament.
‘We shall see,’ he said.
Death did not expect the man to answer back.
‘You can hear me?’
‘I can see you too. You are Death.’
‘I have many names.’
‘Me too. Right now, I am John Johnson, harmless caretaker. In Spain, they called me Guido. But you can call me –‘
‘Have we met before?’
‘I am Death. Omniscient, omnipresent.’
‘If you say so.’
‘You don’t seem scared.’
‘I have seen worse.’
‘The living are not supposed to see me at all.’
‘I came close to dying many times during the war.’
‘Yes, the battlefields of Spain and Calais.’
‘So we have met before. You collected the souls of my men.’
‘I am always there when someone passes. Sometimes I am early. Which brings me back to my question. Are you going to light that thing?’
‘Don’t rush me.’
‘I have a hundred dead politicians to collect and a King. I don’t often get a King.’
‘You are getting ahead of yourself. I haven’t lit it yet.’
‘It is unwise to toy with death.’
‘Is that a threat?’ Guy eyed Death’s scythe.
‘I cannot interfere,’ he said, a little too remorsefully for Guy’s liking. ‘I only collect.’
‘Well then, mind your manners, or I will blow out this match.’
Death folded his arms and tapped his foot. His bones clacked loudly on the stone floor.
‘I thought you’d be more patient than this,’ said Guy. ‘Being omniscient and all that.’
‘Put it this way. Time does not concern me. I am everywhere at once – the past, the present, all possible futures. Yet even I can see you are dragging this out.’
The first match snuffed out. Guy lit another.
‘You know,’ said Death. ‘Lord Monteagle received an anonymous letter about this plot of yours.’
‘Soldiers are headed down here right now.’
‘They will catch you,’ said Death. ‘Do you know the penalty for treason?’
‘Humiliation, mutilation, execution. You should be glad. Another body to collect.’
‘I don’t enjoy collecting bodies. This is work. A postman doesn’t look forward to delivering a thousand parcels.’
‘What’s a postman?’
Death sometimes forgot which Time he was in.
‘Anyway,’ said Guy. ‘If volume doesn’t matter then why are you so excited about a hundred politicians? Thirteen executed conspirators will be much easier to collect.’
‘I don’t care about the politicians but a dead King is a novelty. Even a postman takes pride in delivering a rare item.’
Guy still hadn’t lit the fuse.
‘Although I might take some pleasure in delivering your body if you don’t hurry up.’
‘Sorry Death, but I’m going to live forever.’
‘No one lives forever.’
‘As a soldier and a Catholic, I thought you would know better.’
Footsteps echoed down the corridor.
‘The guards are coming,’ said Death. ‘Quick!’
Guy lowered his hand to the flame – and stopped. He stared at the fuse, eyes glazed over. Death held his breath, so to speak.
‘Halt, in the name of the King!’
The soldiers had arrived. Guy reached a decision and blew out the match. He sat on one of the kegs and made himself comfortable.
They drew their swords.
‘Explain yourself, sir,’ said Knyvet, their leader. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘Blowing you Scottish beggars back to your native mountains.’
The soldiers dragged Guy away and Death watched in puzzlement. The man smiled as he was parted from his matches and gunpowder.
Death followed Guy to his torture chamber in the Tower of London. It was the next day for Guy but a simple sideways step for Death. Time was mere background noise.
King James had ordered for Guy’s interrogation, beginning with manacles and progressing to the rack. Death watched it all from a distance.
Guy took great pleasure in antagonising his torturers – introducing himself as John Johnson, speaking in French and remaining jovial throughout.
‘You have a Roman constitution,’ said Waad, Lieutenant of the Tower. ‘It won’t last.’
Death knew of Guy’s stubbornness but the torturer was right. Guy was broken on the second day and they kept breaking him until the fourth. In the end, he surrendered all twelve of his fellow conspirators.
When Guy signed his confession, he could barely hold the quill. His usual handsome handwriting had eroded into a jagged scrawl.
‘I bet you regret not lighting that fuse,’ said Death.
‘Quiet, I’m trying to write.’
Death didn’t like being shushed.
They dragged Guy to a gaol cell. He was in pain and no longer laughing, but still, there was a glint of triumph in his eyes.
‘You should have given me the King,’ said Death, appearing in his cell. ‘You could be in Europe right now.’
‘I’ve been to Europe. I have bigger plans.’
Death sighed at the deluded man.
‘See you in a few months.’
The trial was short. Guy’s confession saw to that. Lord Chief Justice Popham proclaimed them guilty of high treason. They would be tortured and hung opposite the parliamentary building which they tried to destroy.
Death re-joined Guy on the scaffold leading up to the hanging platform.
Guy had aged visibly since Death had last seen him. His great muscles had shrivelled, his red beard seemed duller and his moustache had thinned to whiskers. He plodded his way up the scaffold, one step at a time. Guy had just been drawn across London on wattled hurdles, so his progress was understandably slow.
His co-conspirators were ahead of him, having their genitals burnt and removed, then flying the noose, one by one. Guy was last on purpose, so he could watch the deaths of those he had surrendered.
Guy shivered as he climbed, whether from cold or pain, it was impossible to say. Death took a little pleasure in the transformation of the arrogant man.
‘Still think you’re going to live forever?’ said Death.
‘More than ever.’
‘I beg to differ. Well, at least you’re last. Whoever wrote that letter to Monteagle will be hung before you. Take some solace in that. You can watch the traitor die.’
‘I wrote that letter,’ said Guy, through chattering teeth.
Death’s jaw dropped. ‘You? You betrayed yourself?’
‘That is why I signed my confession with a barely legible scribble. Otherwise they would recognise my handwriting from the letter.’
‘But why? Don’t you want the King to die?’
‘Oh, he deserves to die. The politicians too. But there will be other tyrannous Kings and corrupt politicians. A victory on the fifth of November would have been short-lived. I would have been vilified by historians.’
‘Failure has not exactly made you a hero. Look around.’
The crowd booed and glared with malice.
‘Many men served under me in Spain,’ said Guy. ‘Do you know the ones I remember? Those who fought bravely but died. History remembers a fallen hero.’
Death peeped into the future – one of his many talents – and witnessed Guy’s legacy.
‘You’re wrong. They burn your effigy every year. You are a villain.’
‘Not to everyone, I wager. Look again.’
Death looked deeper, rummaging through Time. Guy was right. There was another side to it.
‘People toast you,’ said Death, in amazement. He was in two places now – walking alongside Guy and flitting between futures. ‘They raise their glasses and name you the last man to enter parliament with honest intentions.’
‘Others use your likeness,’ said Death. ‘You are a symbol of anarchy whenever a rebellion is needed against corrupt leaders or despotic religious cults. They wear masks of your face.’
‘Truly?’ Guy breathed out in happiness. ‘Then it was all worth it. My failure will inspire a future of successors. The weak and downtrodden will always have a champion.’
‘That is very selfless of you.’
‘The life of one soldier is unimportant if the war is won.’
Death considered the screams from the platform ahead. ‘It doesn’t seem fair that your sacrifice is rewarded with such a gruesome death.’
‘It is tempting to jump off this scaffold but we Catholics don’t believe in suicide.’
‘Then let me help.’
Death broke the rules. He gave the condemned man a shove. The crowd gasped as Guy plummeted from the scaffold and cracked his head on the cobbles below.
Death was beside him in an instance.
Guy’s soul stood up and patted himself down. His body remained on the cobbles.
‘Thank you, Death.’
‘The pleasure is mine.’
‘I’m sorry you never got to collect your King.’
‘There will be other dead kings. The death of a hero is rarer still.’
‘Death?’ said Guy, smiling. ‘No, I will never die. As long as people remember the fifth of November, I will live forever.’
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