Silvery flakes drifted down, glittering in the bright light of the harvest moon. The blackbird was startled off his perch in the old oak tree by the approaching rider, taking off with a flutter of feathers and a disgruntled caw. The horseman was dressed all in black leather, gleaming at the seams where snow and moonlight collected. He pushed his steed hard, its breath pillowing about them like fine, spun glass.
At the crossroads the horseman abruptly reined in and the horse skidded to a stop in the middle of the intersection. Standing in his stirrups, the man turned and looked intently in all directions. All was calm to the north, west and east but behind him to the south there was an approaching darkness. The wind bore with it a low grumble, the sound of many voices raised in anguish. Hearing this, the rider spurred his horse to the west and galloped toward the lights of a small village in the distance.
Luke, the village blacksmith, was the first to see the rider approach from the east. He was in his shop with the doors flung wide to take advantage of the cold evening breeze. He stepped out onto the street, unfinished shoe still clenched in his tongs, expecting to greet a customer in need. Theirs was the only village between the capitol to the south and the rebel stronghold to the north and they often had visitors at odd hours looking for supplies or refuge. They didn’t discriminate as a rule, not being in a position to chose sides and thus turn down half their business.
Rather than stopping, the horse and rider blew past, nearly toppling the blacksmith, who dropped the shoe in surprise. The horseman continued to gallop down the main street, straight towards the building at the end of the village.
Intrigued, Luke followed.
Horse and rider skidded once again to a stop outside the post and news office at the end of the street. Harry Ness jumped off his horse and threw the reins around the hitching post. Stopping briefly to clean the snow off his glasses, he strode purposefully to the door and banged on it for all he was worth.
The door opened a crack and a pock-marked nose peaked out at him. Harry glared at it and yelled, “Come out here, you no good son of a rebel. I’ve got something to say to you.”
“Ah, Harry! How nice to see you again. How’s the placement going?” said the nose, which resolved into a small, apron-clad man as the door was flung wide. Joseph was the printer and town crier, the later performed when paper was scarce. Seasoned newsman, he was quite used to late night disturbances and was not perturbed in the least at the sight before him.
“How’s the placement going?” asked Harry, seething with rage. “How’s the placement going? I’ll tell you how it’s going. It’s hell!” Harry stepped forward and put his face down into the bewildered face of the printer. “How could you be so incompetent, you worm?”
“I’m sure I don’t understand,” stammered Joseph, looking around for help or encouragement. He spied Luke lurking at the bottom of the steps and was grateful to see that he had his poker iron at his side.
“I’m sure you don’t, you imbecile!” Harry spat, turning away suddenly and scrubbing his hands through his hair. “You sent me to hell with your mistake! I only hope they find me here so that you can see personally what your blunder has done!”
“What blunder? You’re speaking nonsense, Harry,” said Joseph. He’d known Harry since they were boys and he’d never seen him so upset.
“You advertised a placement for a second deliveryman with the apothecary!” Harry yelled. Still confused, Joseph merely nodded. “Well, I applied for it; it sounded like a good job for me, what with my interest in chemistry. I thought I could start at the bottom and work my way up. So I visited the tent you cried out in the advertisement for an interview. A strange fellow conducted it and the tent smelled of wood smoke and bacon, but I thought nothing of it at the time,” said Harry, his brow wrinkling briefly at the thought. He shook it off and turned back to the printer. “I was granted the job and told to come back the next day with my horse.”
“Yes, that’s good, isn’t it? Jobs are so scarce these days,” said Joseph, leaning against the porch rail.
“You’d think so, wouldn’t you?” yelled Harry, wild eyed again. “Turns out I’d applied to be the Second Horseman of the Apocalypse! You misspoke and now I’m indentured to hell!”
“You’re what now?” Joseph asked, face turning ashen at the news.
“Second Horseman of the Apocalypse! You ninny! I’m going to tear your eyes and throat out!” said Harry as he lunged at Joseph. Luke rushed in, keeping the two separated with his iron poker.
“Now, Harry,” said Luke, “perhaps you heard wrong. You always were a little deaf on the right side since that hunting accident.”
“Oh come on, Luke,” said Harry, “you’ve heard how loud Joseph is when he’s all decked out in his official uniform. I distinctly heard ‘second deliveryman of the apothecary.”
Joseph took this opportunity to defend himself. “I swear, Harry, I cried it just as it was written! The note came in by courier that morning. Here, I’ll go and find it.” He hurried inside. Harry and Luke heard the sound of the door being barred.
“Come back out here, you coward!” Harry took to banging on the door again.
“Give it up, Harry,” Luke said, pulling him back. “You know he’s got three pieces of oak to bar that door with. Security of the press and all that.”
Harry slumped down the wall and put his head in his hands. “What am I going to do, Luke? I can’t stomach skinning a rabbit and they expect me to slaughter any soul I meet on the road. Tomorrow we’re supposed to take over an entire town out east.” To Luke’s amazement Harry started to quietly sob. Just as he was about to pull out his handkerchief and offer it to the poor man, Luke heard the change in the wind and looked down the street.
A thick, black cloud of dust was gathering at the far end of the village. “Oh no! They’re here already!” Harry jumped up and ran to his horse. “I’ve gotta get out of here!”
Before Luke could protest, Harry was up on his horse and turning away from the office. He gave the horse a loud thump with his boots and they were off like a rocket.
“Oh, fantastic,” muttered Luke, getting a better grip on his iron and turning to face the cloud. A very large man in a black cape emerged from the cloud and reined up in front of Luke.
“Excuse me, sir, but did you see a rider pass through here, dressed all in black?” said this apparent leader of the pack.
“Yep. He just left. He went that way,” said Luke, pointing in the direction Harry had galloped off in.
“Thank you kindly,” said the leader, who turned and shouted an order at his hoard. “Goodnight, sir,” he said, tipping his hat to Luke. The hoard moved off again, leaving nothing but stillness behind them.
“Good Luck, Harry,” Luke waved. “Never did like you, anyway, you geek.”
Luke strolled back to his shop, picking up the abandoned shoe as he went, and closed up for the night. Another day done.