I looked over my land one early July morning while my children ran in between rows of vegetables, ready for harvest. I inhaled the cool Tuscan air and admired my plot of land, as I do each morning. I thanked the gods for my family — and for my loyal mule, of course. I thanked Gaia for the bounty. I thanked every being to whom I owed, which is why I did not recognize the mysterious rider who came upon my land, or the snow that followed behind him.
His horse — black — echoed and pounded towards my home. He was a lone, cloaked rider but the hoofbeats mimicked an army. The backdrop of our mountain village amplified the sounds, frightening my children. They stopped in the fields and stood frozen, their gaze on the dark figure that approached. I called out to them but they did not hear — or could not. I leapt forward and ran to the children as the rider drew near from between the mountains at impossible speeds down the sloping hills. I couldn’t tell if the rider and horse were merely floating over the land — if the hoofbeats were mere trickery — for he did not waiver. Nonetheless, I rushed to my children and grabbed one in each arm. They squealed in fear before realizing it was only their father’s protective embrace. I stumbled a moment in the muddy field and noticed the air was cold. I looked down and saw frost on my harvest, my vegetables wilted before my eyes. Dead. This was no act of man. I shook off the thought and ran as hard as I could from the rider, followed by snow and the beating echoes of a vengeful tribe against my own panicked heart.
I placed my children in the house and into the arms of my wife, who looked at me with a grieved, pale face. She held our babies as they wept in fear, as if they knew who rode down the hill. I didn’t know how to comfort them.
“He brings frost and snow,” my wife said. “He will bring death. Why, my love? What did we do?”
“I will ask,” I replied. I had nothing to hide, nor to fear.
I stood up over my family huddled together on our floor and noticed how deathly still the world became. The hoofbeats stopped. I picked up my scythe for protection and looked beyond the open door where the rider appeared to wait at the edge of my property. With one hard swallow, I exited my home and instructed my wife to secure the door behind me, then marched across my frost-covered field in the biting July cold. The rider’s horse stood like a statue, but breathed heavily out of its nostrils, leaving trails of mist that snaked and coiled into the sky. I noticed a smell of decay — most likely the horse. It seemed entirely unaware of its exposed ribcage under the boots of the rider. When I got closer to the rider, I saw a man — not quite a man — gaunt, sickly looking. He lowered his hood and straightened his spine. He lifted a hand and bit into one of my rotten vegetables.
“Rider,” I asked, “what are you? Why have you brought this weather?”
“I am Famine,” he said. His voice cut the air heavy and thick. My skin tightened and my spine chilled. A Horseman of the End Times.
“Forgive my boldness, Horseman. I didn’t know it was you. Is this the Apocalypse?”
“No,” he said. “I am angry at Death.”
“What does your anger with Death have to do with us? With my family? I thank the gods everyday for my gifts. I pray everyday!”
“I am not the gods,” Famine said. “Death will be busy.”
Famine turned his horse and rode away from my fields, a thousand hoofbeats following. I stood at the edge of my ruined crops and turned my head towards the sky. Snow gently fell — a peaceful summer snow.
The mule died first. She was loyal and hard working, but we needed to eat. The famine lasted months, summer’s winter turned to autumn’s winter, then true winter. Eventually we ran out of mule meat. My wife and I took less than our children, but the winter sickness gripped them both. I sat beside them, each delirious from fever and begged them to hold on as my beloved wife cried silently. I prayed for help and thought an answer came when my wife called to me.
“Hoofbeats! Maybe a doctor!”
“What color is the horse?” I stood, suspicious.
“White? Pale-colored.” she said.
I exited my home and waited for the individual to approach, and told my wife to tend to our children. The rider in white stopped before me. He leapt from his horse and I froze in the door. His scythe gleaned in the moonlight. He was no doctor.
“Death,” I breathed, “I pray of you. I beg of you. Do not take my children. Take me!” I tried to reach for his robes, ready to battle the Horseman, but he did not try to pass me. He did not fight. Instead, he extended a delicate hand and placed it on my forearm.
“But you are healthy,” a calm voice replied. It was not a deep, piercing voice like Famine. It soothed me in some way. Death lowered his hood, and I saw he was no man at all.
“You’re a woman,” I gasped.
“No, I am Death,” Death said. “I must apologize for Famine, but do not fear. I will end their suffering.” She walked past me into the house. I froze. I wanted to scream, but no one could beat Death. I stood outside and watched the shadows of winter clouds pass over the mountains as tears trailed down my cheeks, and waited for the Horseman to return to her steed.
My son died first, then my daughter.