's 2017 Horror Write-off:

On a Pale Horse

Submitted by Millien

He swept through our villages, cutting us down as easy as a reaper cuts his harvest. On dark nights when the winds howl, mothers clutch their children close. Fathers sit in the chair by the door with their pitchforks and scythes. Grandmothers and grandfathers wrap themselves tighter in their quilts in the attic rooms.

But nothing stops Him. He arrives on his pale horse, his cloak rolling in the gale. No mortal can gaze upon the face that lies beneath the hood.

He hears your frail cough. The rattle in your breath. He sees the sickly shade of your skin. The darkness of your eyes.

He finds farmers in the fields, hunters in the woods, and spinners in their homes. He slips through locked doors, sneaks up in open glades, and steps out from the gaps between blinks. Those who run find themselves swiftly outran. Those who hide find themselves found. Those who fight lose.

Like all before, I feared the day he would come for me.

When I was very small, I saw him claim my mother. She lay pale and sickly in her bed as He and his horse strolled through our house. I cried and screamed as he took her, while my sister tried to quiet me.

I knew that I could never let it happen to me. How was it fair? How was this dark spectre allowed to claim us so, with no hope of respite? The quiet looks on the faces of adults when he arrived filled me with rage. They didn't understand. He cast his dark thoughts of submission into their minds. They wouldn't understand that it didn't have to be like this.

I would never let him reach me.

I sought out all the knowledge I could. I took work attending to the sick, so that I may be more often in places he was likely to appear.

Occasionally, men of medicine would pass through from the cities. I would ask them what they thought of He on the pale horse. They all had similar answers; that they were the ones who pushed him back.

I learned much from these men, helping them with their art. I learnt some of their tricks, though I was always unsatisfied.

I asked if he could be defeated.

I received few answers. All we could do is push him back. Maybe, one day far in the future, if we ply our craft well.

Like all others I knew, none were brave enough to truly fight him. They never tried to save someone properly, with finality. They merely stayed his hand briefly.

I had heard many things, so I sought out the preachers and the Holy men. I asked why He was here, why He was allowed. They said that it was the fault of man, that we had brought his hand down upon us. I asked them if we make up for our ancestors mistakes, but they only told me stories I had heard before.

Some told me that he is weak, a mere passing necessity on our way to paradise. I asked if we were not allowed to remain in this world, rather than pass on to some mysterious place. They told me that this world is temporary, but could not understand why I did not want it to be so. Things are worse here, they said. But I didn't understand.

I tried asking soldiers about Him. I asked if they had ever thought to fight him. They said that He was the Lord of all weapons, and it was a useless endeavour. Many knew Him well, intimately so. They had see Him countless times. He rode into the thick of battle, revelling in thy singing blades and crying blood. But still, they too took his existence for a constant.

My research fruitless, I turned to my own knowledge.

My family are a part of this land. We have lived and worked here since the times long before the preachers came, before the soldiers marched, and when men of medicine were merely midwives. We have seen the songs and tales twist and change through the eons. We knew the old stories, how things used to be done. We knew the origin of real power. We had old and unusual blood.

I sought out the wild lady of the woods. The one with burnt eyes, who lives in the quiet dark places. I asked her for a weapon that could touch him. One that could strike the one who rides the pale horse.

But the wild lady always asks a price. The price she asked of me was in blood.

The child was supposed to be doing chores, but was easily distracted. I wove him stories of a place deep in the woods, where the hard dark trees gave way to gentle glens bursting with fruit. He was someone left hungry by his family. I told myself that they would not miss him, that someone so easy to lead astray would have been a burden on them.

I took him to the wild lady.

I gave her the child.

She gave me a sword.

I had remembered seeing swords like this once. The kings' men had marched through our fields off to a distant land. I remembered the swords, smooth and glittering like water.

The sword of the wild lady reminded me more of their swords when they returned.

It was quenched in blood and touched by the moon. It could strike shadows and cleave spectres. It hung between this world and that other, bound by a soul taken by the lady, denied to the one on the pale horse.

I had been told that the wild lady was terrible, that she was a foul spirit that doomed men to suffering. The words of where she lived where spoken with whispers, kept as a terrible secret that could see us burn. I had betrayed my family in seeking her out, but as I hid the blade in a secret place I could hear my bones sing to me. My family's blood danced through my veins, joyous in their celebration of meeting the wild lady once more.

The sword sat in its hidden place for many years. It kept Him and his horse at bay; for the plague that he rode across the lands would not take in our homestead. People looked upon us with suspicion, and keen ears would hear the travelling whispers of witchcraft.

Eventually, the whispers would become too much. They came in great numbers, hurling words of accusation. That we had made the plague, that we had withered their crops, that we had cursed them to this fate. My grandfather took my sister and cousins and ran to the woods beyond our field.

Now they would be forced to find the wild lady, lest the wolves find them first.

But I did not get to run. I had rushed to my sword, but they were too fast. The pitchfork speared my stomach, and they left me pinned to the ground. I watched the dark clouds spiral overhead as they walked away, lighting fire to our home behind them.

With great effort, I pulled the pitchfork out. I fought back against the darkness creeping across me and retrieved the wild lady's blade.

I knew it was time.

I waited in the barn. I could feel the aches in my chest, the whispers behind my eyes. The hack in my cough told me that He was coming for me. The wind howled and the rain poured, as it often does when he draws near. The cows huddled in the corner, taking shelter from the storm. Their eyes saw far more than ours, and they knew His world like a second home.

The doors opened themselves. Lighting tore its way across the fields, and he arrived on the following thunder. He stepped off the horse and swept towards me.

Towards the edge of my blade.

It was my time to face him, to see the one in whom cloak and man are one.

He reached for me. His hand was like a bone stripped clean of all trace of life.

But he had never been struck like I struck him. The wild lady speaks only in truth, and the blade did as I was told it would. He stole the howl from the storm and forced it into my ears. He howled with the pain that he had inflicted on so many others.

My wounds wept from the exertion. I had done what all men had sought to do. I had freed us from his terrible grasp.

But the rattle still hung on my breath. The aches in my chests tightened.

My eyes hummed.

I dropped the sword when I fell to my knees. It turned to ash as it left my hand.

I collapsed into the dirt and hay on the barn floor, the world wicking away from me. I was overcome by pain, then warmth. I pushed my last breath out of my mouth. How had I failed?

In my final moment I pulled my head up to look.

We were wrong, distracted by a gesture like that of a travelling juggler. While one hand dazzles, the other does.

He was not the one who claims us. He never was the one who claimed us.

It was the horse.