More Than Life Itself

From DivNull RPG

Tanador occasionally told this story to an audience. Wordman (Tanador’s player) introduced the story originally just because he liked it, but emphasized it later when he started to suspect what the secret of the Carmarthen Service was (for reasons that Tanador would never know). The story is actually by Neil Gaiman and is used here without permission. It has also been edited slightly to fit the campaign better.

Once there was an king, who had a wife whom he loved more than life itself. This is no pretty turn of phrase, as you will see.

One day, there came a holy man to the palace. He was thin as a scarecrow, his beard white as pearl, his skin blackened and gnarled, like burnt wood, by the sun.

He demanded to see the king. The guards refused him entry, whereupon he took a knife from his loincloth, and, with one hard swipe, cut off his left hand at the wrist. They were most astonished at this action, more so when they realized that there was no blood issuing from the wound.

The holy man picked up his hand, which was crawling around in the dust, scuttling and skittering like a scorpion, and fastened it once more to his wrist with a mystic gesture. Magically, he was whole again.

“Now,” he said. “Take me to your king.” And they did.

“Light of the gods on earth,” he began, “I am, as you can see, a holy man. And I have, through trials undreamed of, and through alchemy, and through prayer, obtained for myself this fruit. In appearance it partakes of both the fig and the apple. It is, however, the fruit of life, and whoever eats of it shall live forever.”

“So why do you not eat of it?” asked the king, who was nobody’s fool but his own.

“For three reasons. Firstly, I am an old man; immortality should be given to the young, and those in good health; secondly, I desire to remain on the karmic wheel of death and rebirth, on my path to eventual rewards far greater than living forever.”

“And thirdly?” asked the king.

“Thirdly, I am too scared to taste of it.”

“How can you assure me”, asked the king, “that this is not a poisonous? That you are not tricking me?”

The old man ordered a mongoose brought to him, and fed it, with his hands, a tiniest slice of the fruit. Then he ordered a fire kindled and tossed the animal into the furnace.

In time the fire burned down, and the king saw the mongoose questing about inside, unharmed by the flames. Then the king knew that the man was telling the truth, and he took the fruit with thanks. He ordered that gold be brought to the holy man, but the holy man refused it and went on his way.

The king pondered the gift of immortality. Now, he had a wife whom he love, as I said, more than life itself: for he decided that this wife should receive the gift of the fruit and not him. That night, he suited deed to word, and gave his wife the fruit of life.

Alas, his wife was unfaithful, and she had a lover, who was captain of the palace guard. And that night, because she loved him, she gave her captain the fruit of life.

The was a prostitute in the town – not a ragged prostitute, but a courtesan, like they had in those days – with whom the captain was infatuated, and whose favors he bought with gems and gold and silver that he cozened from the queen. And to her he brought the fruit, untouched.

She was very beautiful. But she was uncertain enough of the fruit, and of its provenance, and desirous enough of earthly reward, to hie herself to the palace. She offered the fruit to the king. He took it from her, and, once she had told him how she had obtained it, ordered her to be rewarded.

Then he had the queen and her lover brought to him, and had them both killed – without torture, though, for he had loved her more than life itself. He dressed himself in the clothes of the poorest beggar in his realm, and, making his brother king in his stead, left the palace.

He ate the fruit, and walked out of the city into the desert, never to be seen again. But still he walks the earth, immortal and undying. Perhaps you’ve met him, without knowing it. A senator perhaps, or a farmer, or a merchant. Or a husband, or cousin. Even a bard.