There once was land that was forever at war and so long had it been raging it was hard to say if there had ever been a time of peace when the Angel of Death was not eternal in his presence.
The most wondrous and terrible weapons of any war were and still are of the Angel of Death's make; he crafted each himself and took the guise of a merchant to sell them, and every people of every land claimed to be his best customers. He laughed to see others' desire of death, for his heart was not like yours and mine, best beloved, and it was light with the pleasure of the sky stretched out and the taste of wine and the sight of beautiful women smiling, and deaf to human screams. Any battlefield he touched unfolded beneath his wings like a flower hungry for blood instead of rain, and weapons made by his hand never lost their terrible bite to rust or age. Great and terrible was his legacy, but it mattered not, for nothing mattered to him but his art, the deadly craft of his name and function.
Many years had things been so, the eternal Angel of Death above, the war waged with his creations below, until one day a mortal warlord said, "I shall bring down the eternal Angel of Death, and I shall take his wings that he can no longer fly above us, and holding them hostage I shall have him craft such weapons that I shall win this endless war," for of course, the Angel of Death could end it in a moment of terrible scouring flame if he wished – but he did not wish, for war was his delight and to see his craft work upon the earth was his greatest pride.
"Surely," said the Warlord to himself, "by watching him I shall learn how to be a great man of war such as he, and then I too will be able to make the mountains shake with the mere echo of my name."
So the Warlord plotted and schemed, but all his plans availed him naught.
A snake happened upon him, sunk in contemplation of his failure, and said, "You are a fool, O Warlord. Surely you know nothing of human make could touch the eternal Angel of Death?"
"By Allah, that is it!" Cried the Warlord, and leapt to his feet, for the snake's words had rearranged themselves in his thoughts, and it came to him that nothing could take down the Angel of Death but something he himself had made. And so the Warlord gathered together many clever devices of the Angel's own make, and he set them against him, so many that the Angel could not avoid them all, and at last, one flowered reluctantly against its maker and bore fruit of metal shards. Several shining fragments pierced the heart of the Angel of the Death, and he fell broken upon the earth.
Were he the merchant he sometimes appeared to be he would have perished there upon the sand, and even so he was terribly wounded, for the metal barbs fought to do their deadly work even after the fire of them had gone out, biting deeper and deeper into his heart with every passing moment.
Worried that he might lose his investment before ever he could gain from him, the Warlord called upon a great physician and said, "Heal this man and I will reward you."
The Physician bent to his work but though his skill was great, it was nothing to the Angel of Death's own art, and at last he shook his head and said, "I can do no more."
The Warlord shouted and roared but the Physician spread his hands and said, "I am not an angel, to counter the work of one. There is nothing more I can do."
"Then stay and watch him," said the Warlord, "and tell me when he wakens," and he left the Physician there to tend his sleeping patient.
"What have you done to me?" Demanded the Angel of Death when he woke, his hand upon the mess that was once his heart, unbalanced from the loss of his wings – for without his heart, he could not make them beat.
"I have saved your life," said the Physician, and he told the Angel all of what had passed.
Sore vexed was the Angel of Death that one of his own weapons should be used against him so, for his name was writ large upon them and each knew him as the child knows its father.
"How could you betray me thus?" He asked of the metal in his heart, but having struck him it was mute, pouring its heat and fire into his heart as if to replace the blood that was not there.
He closed his eyes, sick with pride turned like a worm in the heart of an apple, and fell into despair.
The Physician was outraged, and said, "Is this how the eternal Angel of Death responds when struck by misfortune? By Allah you are not worthy of your name, nor the regard in which you are held even by your enemies!"
The Angel of Death made to speak, for to prick his pride was the surest way to gain his response, but the Warlord entered the room.
He greeted the Angel of Death effusively, but the Angel remained still with the stiff disdain of a cat attempting not to show its unbalance.
"I have brought you down," said the Warlord when he had finished with his greetings. "You are no longer in the sky, but at my feet and now you must make weapons for me."
Great was the Angel of Death's wrath that he should be demanded of thus, for though it was his delight to make things of mortal destruction, it rankled that any should think he make them for any reasons other his own. But the Angel of Death was cunning, and spoke softly to the Warlord, and said, "Bring to me the tools I ask of you and I shall fashion such a weapon as has never been seen upon the face of the earth, nor even in the eyes of Allah most high."
His smile was as the teeth-baring of a tiger, but the Warlord was bloated with pride and saw only his capitulation. He did as requested and for the most vital ingredients gave back unto the Angel the greatest of his weapons that the Warlord possessed.
"This is scrap," sneered the Angel of Death – for such was his vast and lethal creativity that he rarely gave thought to anything that left his hands even a year before – but from it he fashioned for himself a new heart that shone bright burning blue, and stood staring at the Warlord with the patience of the hawk upon the wrist. "Well?" Said he. "Bring to me the tools and components I asked of you."
"Do not test me!" Cried the Warlord in rage, for it seemed to him not to be an angel at all that stood before him, only a man, and an infidel at that.
"Give me newer, give me more," said the Angel, swift with his appeasement, akin to the bird that drags its unbroken wing before its enemies. "I can make wonders of scrap," said he, and his new heart shone in his chest as proof, "But I can not build a weapon to make the world marvel such as you wish – poor iron won't make a sharp sword."
The Warlord was unamused, and would have ordered the Physician to be killed to make him aware of the severity of his situation (so convinced was he now that the Angel of Death was but a merchant aptly named for his skill of weapon-making; he was indeed a fool, but he had seen an angel brought low and could not unsee it, nor see instead how he bided his time and recovered his strength day by day) but the Angel of Death stepped forward and said, "Give him to me, I have need of an assistant; I cannot make it all myself – or if I did, I would certainly be slower about it."
"You will make the great weapons I desire," said the Warlord.
"Certainly," said the Angel.
"Keep him then," said the Warlord at last, and he ordered his men to scour high and low and bring the newest pieces of the Angel of Death's work that they could find and bring them back to lay them before him.
"Now you will make amends for your treachery," said the Angel to his work, and from it he fashioned a man of iron and in its heart he wrote life, but in its head he wrote protect and nothing more.
"Up!" cried the Angel of Death and up sat the man of iron, its eyes lit from within by the word in its heart.
The Physician was astonished and a little afeared and said, "What is this that you have wrought, that I have helped you make?"
"My greatest work of all," said the Angel of Death. "I will never make another weapon, for never will I be able to surpass what I have made here. I could improve it, however, and when I am free I will do so." He laughed to see the Physician's fear and said, "Fear not. You have been a boon and a friend to me in my captivity, and I will send you safe to your family when I am free once more."
The Angel of Death opened the man of iron's head, and touched the word written there. "Protect me," he told the man of iron, and the man of iron took its maker into its heart and began its inexorable walk towards the freedom the Angel of Death had learned to crave like the sky.
If the Angel of Death had written defend in the man of iron's head, perhaps it would have heard the pitiful entreaties of its enemies. Perhaps it would have broken bones and killed only by accident or necessity. But written in the man of iron's head was only protect, and protect can mean many things if you put no limits upon it, and so like the bear guarding her cubs, the man of iron was merciless, and like the bear it cared not that its enemies had cast aside their weapons and tried to run, but chased them all down.
"Turn," said the Angel of Death when at last they stood free with all the sky spread out above them, and the man of iron turned back to the prison they had just left behind. "Speak," he told the man of iron. The man of iron spoke, and its voice was fire and the place in which the Angel of Death had been caged was turned to ash.
"Most wonderful," said the Physician softly.
"You have been a good friend," said the Angel of Death awkwardly, for the Physician had changed him in ways he could not understand then, with his new heart and vague understanding of mortality. "Thank you for saving me. Go to your family now."
The Physician closed his eyes and took the path to paradise, and left the eternal Angel of Death standing alone with his creation, a different road before them.
"Well," said he, and pressed his hand to the man of iron's heart, glowing bright and brighter even than his own. "A good man has given his life for you. We must not waste it."
He opened the man of iron's head and touched the word there and said softly, "The word in your head is protect because while you are a weapon incomparable, my greatest work, I will not make war with you unless it is brought to me. Your purpose is to stand before my enemies and be unmoved, to protect all I call mine and all that I don't. Death is my dominion but the preservation of life shall be yours."
"Yes," said the man of iron, his first word, and the Angel of Death felt for the first time something heavy, even human, in his scrap-made heart, for he had never created life before.
They took to the sky and flew back to the country the 'Merchant' called his own, and many adventures did they have there.
Ah, but those are different stories, and this one is finished; in your hands I leave it.