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Brook
Agnes Brooker was worried when she heard of the Great Pestilence that was sweeping through Europe. Tales of the sick rotting alive and their skin growing black had sent her into a pious state, lest the Pestilence should come to her. But she grew scared when it swept into Weymouth in June of 1348, the first time it had been seen in England. Agnes bought charms and relics by the dozen and proudly ignored the bemoaning of her son Peter and daughter-in-law Isabella. She insisted that they most certainly were not pieces of junk sold to scam people out of their money.

Yet, when it hit their little town of Greenshollow a full year later—long enough for some to believe God might spare them yet—she grew absolutely terrified. She wouldn’t leave the house, except for religious reasons, nor would she even draw water from the well, lest Death should come up behind her and strike her down. All the same, Agnes was the first of the Brookers to find that dreaded black ring on her body in July of 1349.

Agnes came up with a theory, too, that the plague came from those pesky merchants from Worcester and Ludlow. She probably wasn’t wrong, but what did that matter now? For here she was, sick and dying in her itchy, pus-caked bed sniffing perfumes to keep the bad air away.

Peter told her that, if nothing else, she should thank the Lord for having been given the fifty-three years she’d spent on Earth. Agnes supposed he was right, though it didn’t make her any more eager to die. Then she would wonder, though only to herself, why she had been given that many years when there were others who had gone before her. She couldn’t remember who they were, and the effort of doing so caused her to feel overwhelmed with anxiety. She didn’t want to think about that, not now that she was facing death herself. Dwelling upon the past for too long wasn’t good for the soul, she thought. Too much of it was likely to send her into paroxysms of grief and morbid reveries. No, she wanted to spend her last days with the family she did have left.

However, on the third day of her illness, Agnes heard the knock of a stranger on the door. She sat up in her bed and drew her black blanket closer to her chin, both curious and afraid.

“Now, who could that be?” she whispered to her son, Peter, who had just tended to her bedpan. His curly red hair glinted in the morning sunlight that streamed in through the grimy windows. His red tunic, too, seemed to blaze in the light.

“I imagine it’s Ferdinand at the door,” he replied. “It’s about time he came, too.”

“F… Ferdinand?” Agnes stammered. “Why, who in the world is that?”

Peter ignored her as he stepped out of the room to answer the door. She heard him give a timid but sincere welcome to the unknown guest, followed by the sound of a man with a gruff voice that put her on edge. She heard her two granddaughters, Joan and Matilda, run to greet him, while the youngest, Nicholas, ran screaming. She would, too, if she were seven and heard a voice like that. Especially if she were blind, as he was.

“And where’s your mother, the lovely Isabella?” the stranger asked.

“She’s at the market,” Joan replied with all the assertion of a queen. “She’ll be back shortly.”

“Very well. May I go to the back and tend to Agnes, then?”

“Of course,” Joan said, and Agnes heard the sounds of footsteps approach. She quickly straightened her posture and flattened her unkempt hair.

The door opened, and Joan, a strong-jawed girl of fifteen, came in, followed by her younger sister, Matilda, who was dreamy-eyed and the main love interest of the boys in Greenshollow, though she was too oblivious to notice. Behind her, however, towered the dark figure of the stranger.

He was a tall man who appeared to be around the same age as Agnes. His frame was like that of a skeleton, and he had to duck to avoid hitting his head against the top of the doorway. Black noble garments hung from his body like sheets, while atop his head was a wide, black hat that cast a shadow over his eyes. He stepped into the sunlight, and Agnes drew a breath.

His face was gaunt, with skin that was like that of a fresh corpse. Deep wrinkles lined his face, and dark stubble dotted his jaw. His nose was long and pointed, with steely blue eyes that seemed somehow to be full of life and concern. In front of those eyes were a pair of eyeglasses, though she had only seen such items on one or two occasions before. He smiled, and the skin of his face was stretched into a ghastly position.

“Hello, Agnes,” he said. “How do you feel today?”

Agnes blinked and said, not wanting to be rude to the guest, “I-I’m a bit under the weather at the moment, b-but please, do not be alarmed, I won’t let that be any reason to ignore hospitality. But might I ask who you are?”

The man’s smile turned into a frown, and his eyes seemed to sink with a sadness that confused her.

Peter, who had come in just after the gaunt-faced man, said to her, “Mother, I just told you before I went to answer the door who it was. Don’t you remember Ferdinand?”

Agnes, who was normally slow to ignite, felt a writhing frustration with herself. Now that Peter had said something, she knew she had seen him before, yet she could not place the face nor the name, despite having heard it just moments before. Little things like this had happened frequently for the past few weeks, and each time it felt like some kind of demon was teething on her mind, slowly driving her to insanity.

“Peter!” she cried. “Do you really have to do this right now, in front of our guest? This is no time to berate me and make me feel as though I were a fool! What kind of way is that to treat your mother?”

Peter’s face grew angry, and he opened his mouth to speak, but the guest placed a gentle hand on his shoulder with a sharp look to quiet him. The man then turned his gaze towards her and drew closer. He set a black leather bag on the ground.

“My dear Agnes, please, do not be angry,” he whispered, his voice suddenly soothing and his smile sweet. “Do you truly not know me?”

Agnes swiveled her eyes nervously at the people in the room and brought them down to her hands in shame.

“No,” she said. “I’m terribly sorry, but while your face appears to be a remnant of the past, I cannot recall from where it was that I knew you. Please, don’t take any offence by it, I just—”

“Agnes, it’s alright. I’m an old friend. My name is Ferdinand Ward. I also happen to be one of the only physicians here, and I’ve been treating you for the past two days. Please, do not be alarmed by my unfamiliarity, I’m only here to help.”

Agnes’s cheeks felt hot, and she stammered, “I-I’m so sorry. I just… I just….”

Ward raised a soft hand, and she stopped.

“No need to apologize, Agnes. I am not here to judge, only to be a friend and to treat your ailment. Now, tell me, how are the sores faring today?”

“W-well, I’m not entirely sure, as I’ve admittedly been too afraid to look. Though, I must say I do feel worse. My skin burns, and I’ve got a terrible pain behind my eyes.”

“Have you been smelling the perfumes and chewing the mint I gave you?”

“Oh, you did give me those, didn’t you? I’m starting to remember you now, yes. Matilda has been very helpful with my remedies.”

Matilda, who had been vacantly staring at the window with her mouth open turned her head to Agnes.

“Yes, Grandmother?”

“Nothing, dear,” Peter whispered. “Come on girls, let’s let them be.”

Matilda said nothing and glided out of the room, followed by Joan, who muttered, “Stupid girl,” under her breath.

“Actually, Peter,” Ward grunted, “Would you mind leaving Matilda behind? I could use some help.”

Peter called for Matilda to come back, while he and Joan left to attend to other responsibilities. Ward took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. He leaned down and opened his leather bag, while Matilda stared absently out the window. The physician procured a yellow and black towel along with a couple of small bags and a jar that held several writhing black creatures inside of it. He placed them evenly on a table opposite Agnes.

“I’m afraid your condition is very serious, Agnes,” he whispered. “Bloodletting and the old pigeon trick hasn’t seemed to be of any help. You do remember that, yes?”

Matilda turned her head and smiled, the physician’s glasses now on her face. “Yes, I do. It was quite interesting. I never knew we had so much blood in us. I also never knew how angry pigeons could be. They’re always so friendly to me.”

Ward stared at the girl for a moment before coughing and continuing.

“I, erm, was directing the inquiry to you, Agnes. And please do be careful with those, I got them during my studies in Italy. They’re not cheap.” Matilda took the glasses off while she hummed merrily away.

Agnes sneezed and said, “Oh, I remember. It was quite frightening, I must say. I do hope we won’t be repeating such treatments today.”

“Oh, no,” he chuckled. “We’ll be using less invasive measures today. In these bags, I’ve brought with me some chopped onions and various other herbs which I shall apply over the sores. I’ll also use leeches to draw out blood. I’ve personally found that bloodletting is better used in the initial stages of the sickness, but that after the symptoms escalate, it’s better to use leeches. It’s easier to manage the blood, you see, and easier on the body after having lost so much of it from the bloodletting.”

Agnes swallowed hard—she’d always been terrified of leeches. Ward turned to Matilda and had her help him prepare the herbs while he retrieved the leeches from the jar and applied them to Agnes’s body, who shivered from the feeling of the slimy, writhing beasts sucking at her blood, making themselves fat and swollen. Ward placed the black and yellow towel around her body.

“The progression is very concerning, indeed,” Ward observed as he applied the herbs to her now-numerous buboes. “There’s noticeable blackening of the fingers and the neck, as well as at the feet. I’m worried it may spread to the lungs.”

“How… how long do you think I have?”

Matilda, who had been lighting rosemary, piped up.

“Oh, don’t worry grandmother. You’ll be fine in no time. He’ll take good care of you.”

Ward shot her a sideways glance.

“I can’t really say, Agnes. It is possible you can recover, but patients who do not usually last two to seven days.”

Agnes could feel her old weathered heart drop into her stomach. She knew she was knocking on Heaven’s door, but hearing this come from her old friend’s mouth made her soul clammy and cold, as though it had been soaked in an icy sheet surrounded by the blistering winds of winter. She thought she might faint from the summer heat, but she managed to keep a semblance of composure.

“But… but you won’t let me die, will you? I know I’m old, but I can’t die yet. What will my family do without me?”

“Please, my dear, do not worry. Let’s just take it one day at a time, alright?”

Agnes nodded her head and tried not to think about the leeches nibbling at her skin. It was then that Joan came stomping in with a very angry-looking Nicholas in her hand.

“Peter asked that I bring him in here,” she explained. “He kept trying to play by the well and nearly fell in.”

“Well, I didn’t know!” he protested. His eyes roamed sightlessly around the room.

“Dearie,” Agnes crooned. She reached out her hand and motioned for Joan to give her Nicholas’ hand. Joan guided him towards her. “You know better than to go there. You can’t see, and you could fall in, you know.”

“But I didn’t know I was by the well,” he argued.

Joan’s brow furrowed. “We told you three times to get away from it!”

“Is this true, Nicholas?”

The child nodded his head, and Agnes gave him a light smack on his backside, to which he did not cry, though his eyes shot open in surprise.

“I think the well is a lovely place,” Matilda breathed, her eyes watery with reverie. “I once stuck my whole head down there. It was nice and dark… and cool….”

“I think your head is still in there, you stupid girl,” Joan snapped. Agnes shot her a glare.

Ward fumbled around in his bag, though he didn’t seem to be looking for anything in particular. He eventually pulled out a wad of mint and looked between it and Agnes for a moment before saying, “Er, I believe you should take this. Chew it to help keep the breath fresh.”

Nicholas screamed and tried to run out of the room, but Joan caught him by the arm in a bear-like grip.

“Just where do you think you’re going?”

“Th-the doctor! He’s in here! I don’t like him!”

“Oh, shut up and go sit down! There’s nothing scary about him. He’s a very nice man. He’s trying to help Grandmother, you know.”

Nicholas tried to escape his sister’s clutches, but it was no use; before he knew it, he was plopped firmly on Peter’s bed next to his grandmother’s. He grabbed her shoulders and hid behind her back.

“Dearie….” Agnes began, but Ward knelt down and whispered as softly as his gruff voice could manage, “My boy, please, do not be afraid of me. I’m here to help. I know my voice is harsh, but it is of no fault of mine. If your eyes could see, they would know that there is sincerity upon my face.”

Nicholas turned his head slightly, though he did not protest. Agnes rubbed his shoulder in consolation.

“Tell you what,” Ward continued. “Tomorrow, if your grandmother is feeling up to it, I’ll bring my raven, Thanatos, for you to meet. He’s a very playful bird, and he’s very smart, too. Would you like that?”

Nicholas said nothing, and Ward frowned.

A half hour went by, while the physician applied the herbs to Agnes’ cysts, and Joan babbled on about boys and town gossip. Nicholas said little, and stayed beside his grandmother, who, tried as she might, could not bring her mind away from the possibility that her life would soon be at an end. Her head throbbed, and she felt weak and cold. But she didn’t want to show this in front of her grandchildren. No, she had to be strong for them.

It was when Ward had just pried the last of the leeches from Agnes’s skin that Matilda, after having said almost nothing, came up to the gaunt physician.

“Ferdinand, can I ask you something?” she inquired. Agnes noticed that she shuffled her feet.

“Yes, of course.”

“Well, while I was helping my mother in the marketplace today, I overheard Everard talking about the Jews in Germany, and how they’re being hunted down. He said that they were the reason God has sent the Pestilence to us and that if he were a German, he would be killing as many Jews as he could. He also said that they worship the devil and that they have little horns on their heads. Is this true?”

Ward gave her a hefty expression and growled, “I take it you’re referring to the butcher?”

Matilda nodded her head. Ward sighed and went over to the window.

“Everard is a fool. And a hateful fool, at that. Yes, it is true that Jewish communities are taking much of the blame right now, but believe me, it is not them who are the cause of the Pestilence; they are as godly as any Christian, and you would do well to remember that. You see, they, too, are the Lord’s people, and this nonsense about horns and devil worship is nothing but lies.” Ward’s eyes shifted back to Matilda.

“You would do well to stay away from Everard, as he has clearly given in to the sickness that comes with panic. It is a sickness that clouds the mind and darkens the heart, and makes the mind see monsters in fellow men.

Matilda’s eyes were cast down, as though she were ashamed to have even heard Everard’s talk of the Jews.

“But,” Ward continued, “why do you talk of such things when they say that Greenshollow has been blessed by angels? That seems to be the sort of thing to catch your imagination, Matilda.”

“Angels?” Agnes asked. Ward turned his head.

“Yes, have you not heard? They say that angels have been visiting the sick and taking them away. The townsfolk believe they are Angels of Death.”

Agnes swallowed.

“What do they look like?”

“Well, some say that they look like beautiful men. Some say they are terrifying in appearance. Though, the most intriguing description I’ve heard is that they appear to be great insects covered in red leather, with strange devices that show letters on them. I find it quite an unusual superstition, especially considering the fact that people say there is more than one. If I had the time to do so, I would play the role of a scholar and collect as much information as I could about these tales, but alas, my time is filled with treating the sick.”

Joan scoffed while Matilda’s eyes, which were already wide and distant, seemed big enough to fall out of her head.

“I hope I get to see one!” she breathed.

“I hope well you don’t!” Agnes scolded. “If any should see them, it would be me, though I dare say, even the thought is enough to send shivers down my spine. But I know Adam would protect me if they came. Now that I think about it, where is he? Where is my husband?”

The room fell heavy within the second the words left her lips. Even Matilda, who was usually oblivious to anything of importance, perked up with eyes heavy and wet. Ward sighed and placed a hand on her shoulder.

“Agnes,” he muttered, “do you not remember?”

She grew worried and swiveled her head between their downcast looks. She tried to understand, but she could not. The old woman knew that something grave was on their minds and that it should be on hers as well, but her mind was failing her once more, as it had been of late. That’s when it hit her.

“Why do you look at me like that?” she croaked. She could feel her chin wobble with suspicion. “Why must you look at me like I am a fool? I am no fool! What has become of my husband? Where is my dear Adam? And where is Geoffrey? Please, stop looking at me in such a way!”

Matilda shuffled over to her and sat down on the bed next to her. Her fingers writhed amongst themselves.

“Grandmother, we tell you almost every day, now. We told you yesterday when you asked the same question.”

Agnes could not bear it any longer. She couldn’t play these games.

“Are they…. Are…. Are they… dead?” She blinked, and tears rolled down her cheeks.

“I’m afraid so, Agnes. Your husband died thirteen years ago. It was leprosy that took him. I treated him myself, if it’s of any comfort.”

She couldn’t believe it. Even though she knew the answer before it had been spoken, she still could not comprehend how he could have been dead for thirteen years without her knowing such a tragedy as though it were engraved into her very bones.

“But… but how have I forgotten? He was... here. Just last night, I lied down next to him in this bed. And where is my son, Geoffrey? Please, for the love of everything that is holy, please tell me Geoffrey lives!”

Their somber looks told everything.

Agnes lowered her head and tried to hold back the tears, but she could not. She had felt more and more lately as though her life had been slipping away like water through her fingertips. But no matter how tightly she tried to hold the water in, the water always escaped.

“Do you… do you need a moment?” Ward asked with warm consternation in his eyes. Agnes nodded her head as her throat began to croak faint sobs that soon would become howls of anguish. Ward gave a slight nod and waved the others out of the room before he assembled his things. On the way out, Nicholas grabbed Joan by the hand. He looked small next to her.

“Joan,” he whispered, “do you think grandmother will forget us all one day?”

“I hope not, dear brother. I hope not.”

And Agnes was alone.

Though Peter and Isabella shared a room with Agnes, she felt herself to be truly isolated that night, with death knelt down on her chest and digging its claws into her brain. She wanted to cry out to them, to ask them to get the beast off of her, as though it were an incubus leering down at her with dripping fangs. But there was nothing they could do, for Death was not on top of her; it was inside of her, robbing her slowly of mind and body.

Agnes didn’t want to die. She wanted to live. She wanted to stay with her family for eternity. She wanted to laugh and cry with the people she loved most in the world. She wanted to watch the grandchildren grow up and have children of their own. She wanted to watch Nicholas, though blind from birth, become the great man she knew he would one day become, and spit in the eyes of Fate. But, most of all, she wanted Geoffrey to come home and embrace Isabella, with Adam at the doorstep. She wanted them to come home and tell them it was all a dream. But she knew that she was awake.

Before Agnes drifted into the river called Lethe, she placed her hand on the pillow beside her and imagined that she had touched the face of Adam.

*  *    *    *  *

It was the year 1336, with thirteen years yet to occur. Geoffrey and Isabella had been married for three years, and Agnes’ little granddaughter, Joan was just shy of being two years of age, with another grandchild was on its way. They hoped the child would be a girl, so that they might name her Matilda, in honor of Agnes’ mother.

They were all seated around the dining table, waiting for the priest to arrive with the parish. Isabella, a small woman with bags under her eyes and dark hair, gently dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief while Geoffrey, a brawny man with a soft face, comforted her. Agnes sat next to Adam, who had his head in his hands, while Peter paced back and forth by the front door and Joan played obliviously with a doll by the fire. The wind whistled outside the cold walls.

“They should have been here by now,” Peter hissed to himself. He cracked open the door and closed it.

“I pray that God smites them down!” Geoffrey cried. “I don’t know why you speak as though they are welcome company.”

“I… I didn’t mean that. I’m just on edge, is all.”

Geoffrey glared at his brother.

“Please,” Adam murmured, “please, do not bicker. I don’t want any bickering.”

“Adam,” Agnes said, “are you sure you wouldn’t like a cup of water? Or some bread?”

“No, my dear. What I want is to stay here and live out my days in peace. Or at least be allowed to see you all again after tonight. But Father Foreman is a crook who dreams of riches with the serfdom under his heel.”

“That is no way to speak of Father Foreman,” Peter snapped. Adam raised his head to reveal a face covered in open sores and the beginnings of deformity.

“Why should any of us give a damn about the man? His actions are more blasphemous than any words I could say."

Peter opened his mouth to speak, but Geoffrey shot him a look that made him close it again. There then came a gentle tap-tap-tap on the door.

“That must be him,” Agnes whispered. Her face paled like a corpse.

Peter exhaled slowly and took a moment to compose himself before he opened the door.

“F-Ferdinand!” he exclaimed. “Why, come in, come in!”

Peter stepped aside so that the physician could enter the dingy cottage.

“Hello, Peter,” he grunted. “Hello, all.”

“Ferdinand!” Isabella cried. She stood up and ran towards, him, knocking over a chair as she reached up and flung her arms around the gaunt man’s neck.

Agnes stood and joined Isabella in her embrace of the old friend.

“My dear, you do know what is to take place here, tonight, do you not?”

“I’m well aware, Agnes. I saw the priest and the parish on my way here. They could arrive at any moment. I… I just wanted to stop by and give my final goodbye to Adam.” Ward turned his gaze to that of Adam, who had the first glimmer of happiness in his baleful eyes since any could remember.

“I must admit,” he continued, “that I feel partially responsible for this. You were under my care, and I failed you.”

“Really, Ferdinand, don’t blame yourself. Leprosy is a vicious ailment. There really was no hope for me.”

“It is. I tried to convince them not to send you to the leprosarium, and to lift Father Foreman’s deplorable leper tax, but they would not listen. They’re all a bunch of faithless dogs, if you ask me.”

“Well, I thank you and your friendship,” Agnes said. “Really, I do. Honestly, I consider you to be a Brooker, myself.”

Ferdinand blushed. “Well, I-I do say, that is quite the compliment. Rest assured, for the feeling is mutual, as I have come to feel as though you are a family I never had.”

Geoffrey patted him on the back and Peter gave a faint smile.

There then came a series of deafening blasts on the door, outside of which they noticed a myriad of voices. Nobody opened it.

The pounding came again.

“Adam Brooker, I command you to open this door at once! You’ve had quite enough time to prepare yourself. Now, open up this instant!”

Peter made to open the door, but Adam waved him away. He eased himself up and hobbled over to the door himself.

A small fat man in prestigious garments that looked fit for a nobleman pushed him aside and glared up at them past a long nose with beady little eyes.

“Oh, Father Foreman,” Peter gasped, “please, make yourself at home.”

Everyone else greeted him with stony faces, save Joan, who began to cry and rushed over to Isabella.

“Shut that little beast up,” Foreman barked with an almost comically nasal tone. Isabella picked up the child and tried to comfort her, though it was of little use. Foreman gave her a look of repulsion and turned to Adam.

“You are to accompany me outside, where we can commence with the Mass of Separation. The parish is waiting, and I haven’t got all night.”

“Please,” Agnes begged, “can you at least allow my husband visitation with us?”

“No. I asked you to pay the leper’s tax, but since you refused—"

“Hah!” Geoffrey scoffed. “Nothing but a sham you and your fellow pigs have put together to keep us in misery while lining your own pockets in the process!”

Foreman’s face reddened, and his eyes seemed ready to pop out of his skull.

“I will have you know that if you don’t watch your tongue, then you will wish you were in Hell!” he growled. Geoffrey scowled and crossed his arms.

“Please, let us just go and get this o-over with,” Adam coughed.

Foreman nodded his head. “Very well, let us go. But you, with the infant. Yes, you! Stay here. I don’t want to hear that wretched beast crying during the sermon.”

Isabella nodded and sat down, while the rest of them shuffled out the door, one by one.

Outside, the curates from the church were circled around the front of their house, while most of the township of Greenshollow were gathered behind them. Foreman stepped into the circle of curators directly opposite the door and pointed to the ground, where Adam kneeled before the priest. The rest of the Brookers stood behind the leper, grim and silent. Agnes could feel familiar tears coming back to her.

“Well, I don’t want to be held by this any longer than you do,” the priest sneered. “I’m sure you’re very eager to be escorted to the leprosarium.”

Adam spit upon the priest’s shoe, and Geoffrey whistled and clapped for a moment. He only stopped from a harsh look thrown by Peter. Foreman scowled and kicked Adam in the jaw, sending him to the wet ground.

“Faithless dog,” he spat. “You’re lucky I don’t have your whole family reported. But… I have a soft spot for the lower class.”

Agnes and Geoffrey scoffed, but Foreman said nothing of it.

“Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to read the sermon, and then we can move on. No more, no less.”

“Very well,” Adam said.

The priest pulled out a book and flipped through the pages for a moment before beginning.

“I forbid you to ever enter a church, a monastery, a fair, a mill, a market, or an assembly of people. I forbid you to leave your house unless dressed in your recognizable garb and also shod. I forbid you to wash your hands or to launder anything or to drink at any stream or fountain, unless using your own barrel or dipper. I forbid you to touch anything you buy or barter for, until it becomes your own. I forbid you to enter any tavern; and if you wish for wine, whether you buy it or it is given to you, have it funneled into your keg. I forbid you to share house with any woman but your wife.’” He looked up with a sneer plastered across his face. “Obviously, this does not apply to you, for you shall never speak to or lay eyes upon your wife and family again.”

Agnes turned her head away, and Geoffrey wrapped his arm around her shoulders.

“’I command you, if accosted by anyone while travelling on a road, to set yourself down-wind of them before you answer. I forbid you to enter any narrow passage, lest a passerby bump into you. I forbid you, wherever you go, to touch the rim or the rope of a well without donning your gloves. I forbid you to touch any child or give them anything. I forbid you to drink or eat from any vessel but your own.’ Now, any questions?”

“No,” Geoffrey snapped. “I think you’ve said quite enough.”

“Very well,” Foreman said. “Adam, will your family be accompanying you to the leprosarium?”

“Only if they wish.”

Peter knelt down next to his father.

“You know I will.”

“As will I,” Geoffrey affirmed. Ward gave a curt nod of his head.

Adam turned his hollow face to his wife, who sobbed into her handkerchief.

“Agnes?”

She gave him a quick glance and turned her head again. It was what she wanted more than anything, save for her husband to live out the rest of his days in their cottage. But she could not bear to see her love walk through the doors of the hospital. She could not watch the door close for the final time.

“Agnes?” Adam asked again, now standing next to her. She turned towards him, and he opened his arms, ignoring the disapproving coughs from the priest. But she turned away again. She did not see her husband’s arms fall to his side in defeat, nor did she see him lower his head and walk towards the crowd. When she did look up, Adam’s back was obscured by the crowd, and Peter gave her a scornful stare. Ferdinand and Geoffrey only looked upon her with disappointment before they, too, left with the parish.

Rain began to fall, and Agnes was alone in the mud.

*  *    *    *  *

Agnes awoke that morning to the sound of fear coming from the other room. Her hand still rested on the pillow, and she wondered why Adam was not there. She remembered that he had been there the night before and that the priest had also been there, though she could not remember why. Her muscles ached, and she felt cold even though it was summer. She could feel more buboes across her body and her fingers were blackened. She wished that Adam was there to comfort her.

“I-Isabella?” she coughed.

Her daughter-in-law came inside the bedroom, crying into Peter’s shoulder.

“Wh-where is Adam? And what is the matter? Has something happened?”

“Mother, Isabella found a ring under Nicholas’s arm this morning when he awoke with a fever.

“Oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear….”

Agnes made to stand up to comfort Isabella, but Peter motioned for her to stay in her bed.

“We’ve sent Joan for the physician,” Peter whispered. “I just pray that he isn’t occupied at the moment.”

“Where is Nicholas now?” Agnes asked.

“He’s in his room.” Isabella dropped her handkerchief and began to reach down for it, but Peter grabbed it for her. She cried harder.

“My dear,” Agnes said, “come here so that I may give you comfort. Isabella turned her disheveled puffy face towards her and sat down on her bed. Agnes took her hand and caressed it.

“Nicholas will be alright,” Agnes said. “Ferdinand will take good care of him. And see, we are all here to help you. You have me, Peter, Joan, Matilda…. You also have Adam and Geoffrey."

Isabella looked to her mother-in-law and went silent. Peter hung his head and groaned.

“What is it?” Agnes asked. “Why has that upset you so?”

Peter walked over to Agnes’ side and furrowed his brows.

“Mother, we’ve been through this time and time again,” he said. “Adam and Geoffrey are no longer with us. They’ve been gone for years.”

The silence that followed felt somehow familiar, somehow both sad and angry. It confused the old woman.

“What… whatever do you mean?”

“Adam died thirteen years ago. Geoffrey followed suit nearly seven years ago, now, not long after Nicholas was born.”

“B-but, they were here! Just last night, we were all here! And Ferdinand, and Father Foreman. I don’t remember what was going on, but I remember! We were all here!”

“Agnes,” Isabella said, her cheeks still wet, “I believe you were dreaming last night of when Adam was taken away.”

“But… but why would he be taken away? Did he do something wrong?”

“No, Agnes. He… he had leprosy. Ferdinand tried to cure him, but he was forced to go to the leprosarium.”

“I-is he still there? Perhaps we can see him!”

“No, Mother. We couldn’t afford the priest’s leper tax. He passed away in his sleep five months after.”

The news made her head swim, and a dull pain erupted behind her eyes, as though some little bird inside of her banged and begged to be let out, to fly away from repeated revelations and daily heartbreak.

“Oh dear,” she murmured. Phlegm rattled in her throat. “My Adam…. No… he can’t be dead. H-he… he can’t be….”

“Mother, it’s true. We were all there that night.”

Agnes stared off into the distance, her eyes wide and scared like a child faced with the terrors of a beast. Her hand reached for her head and she ripped out a chunk of it and was about to pull out another wad of hair before Peter grabbed her hand and placed it upon the nest of charms and trinkets she wore about her neck.

“Why?” she whispered, her voice hoarse and barely audible. “Why must I keep forgetting the faces of those I love? Why must I keep reliving the woes of grief for bodies that were laid to rest so long ago? Why is this happening to me, Peter? Why have I been struck by Pestilence? Why must I die, Peter? I don’t want to die. I don’t want to lose you. I don’t want to lose you all, I’m not ready to go. Please, Peter, please! Don’t let me die!”

Neither Peter or Isabella made a response. Instead, they looked down towards the dirt floor.

“Peter,” Agnes whispered, “Peter, tell me that everything is going to be alright. Tell me that I won’t die. Tell me that Nicholas won’t follow suit. Please, Peter. Tell me this.”

Peter looked to her, and his eyes were red. He opened his mouth but closed it again. Agnes sank her head back into her pillow and blinked back hot salted tears. A warm hand briefly touched hers before Agnes was left to be alone in the bedroom.

Little time was wasted before Ward arrived, and Agnes remained alone in her room. Nicholas screamed as the physician drained his blood, and the terror held within those screams seemed to echo within Agnes’s soul, resonating and becoming one. They seemed to go on for an eternity. She had never heard screams of the likes before. Eventually, the old woman could not bear it any longer and forced her diseased body to get out of bed and go to the children’s room, where Nicholas shrieked in his bed while a stream of blood poured into a dish held by the physician.

“Nicholas, please,” Ferdinand said, “this will only last a minute longer or so.”

“Do you think the Angels of Death will come for him?” Matilda asked. Her eyes were fixated upon the blood.

Peter furrowed his brows. “Matilda, that is no thing you should be saying in front of your brother.”

“But I heard they came again last night. I heard they took away that old woman who used to give us flowers on Sundays.”

“Matilda!”

Joan kicked her sister’s leg, and Matilda said no more. Ward grabbed Nicholas’ arm to hold it steady, and the boy retracted it and screamed as his blood splattered against the floor and bed. A little sprinkled against the physician’s hollow cheeks.

“Nicholas, no!” his mother cried. “You’re making a mess of yourself!” She grabbed his arm and directed the blood to Ward’s dish. The boy cried and screamed. Peter and Joan tried to hold him down, and while most of the blood landed in the dish, much of it spilled onto the floor.

“I think that’s quite enough,” Ward said. His lips were taught as he stemmed the bleeding.

“Nicholas, what is wrong with you?” Isabella scolded. “You better hope I can get these stains out of the sheets. Lucky for you, we’re too lowly to have real floors. Matilda, take these sheets outside and clean them up. Joan, go fetch me clean ones.”

The two girls nodded and tended to the tasks with immediacy, and Isabella busied herself with wiping the blood from her son. Peter shook his head and stopped it, as he noticed the figure of the decrepit old woman braced against the doorway.

“Mother, you should be resting. You don’t need to be watching this, it will upset you.”

“Oh, no, Peter, I… I’m just fine. I wanted to make sure my grandson was alright.”

Nicholas turned his head to Agnes and said, “Grandmother? Can you make the doctor go away? I don’t want to be cured. I’d rather be sick.”

Agnes shuffled her way over to Nicholas and sat by his side.

“Dear, Ferdinand isn’t trying to hurt you. He’s trying to make you better.”

“I know. But I don’t like it. I want him to go away.”

“Nicholas,” Ward started, “you will surely die if not for my treatment. I… I know it’s unpleasant. But it has to be done."

The boy sniffed and turned his head, his eyes fixated upon a spot on the wall behind the physician. “Can you really make me feel better?”

“I can certainly try to.”

“But can you make me live?”

Ferdinand hung his head and stared at his feet.

“I… I can’t....” He sighed. “I can’t promise anything. I know I should tell you I can, but I don’t want to make a promise I can’t keep. I will do everything in my power, as I am doing with your grandmother, to make you better. Alas, that is all I can say. But if there is to be any chance of survival, then I must continue with my treatment. You have to be strong for your family, Nicholas. You have to be strong for yourself.

Nicholas wiped his eyes and nodded his head. Ward knelt down beside the bed.

“Tell me, if you could be anything you wanted, then what would you be?”

The child looked up, and his blind eyes met the soft gaze of the physician.

“A knight. I would be a noble knight. I would fight off the king’s enemies and be a hero.”

“And guess what? You are a knight. You are being very brave, right now. You were cursed with blindness, but you are unwilling to let it get in your way. And now, here you are, battling the kingdom’s worst enemy of all: pestilence. Now be the knight you want to be, and together, all of us, we can beat this disease back, and you will be a nobler hero than you already are.”

Nicholas did not answer for several moments, and when he did, it was not with words.

He opened his arms, and he and Ferdinand embraced.

“Thank you for helping me and my grandmother. And thank you for trying to help my grandfather.”

“It is never a pleasure to see your family in times of distress, but I am always here to be a healer and friend, Nicholas.”

A smile crept over the boy’s face, and he asked, “Do you think the Angels of Death will come for me if I die?”

The sad smile that had been on John’s own face faded.

“I don’t know. I really don’t.”

Nicholas’s bed was moved into the other bedroom with Agnes, Peter, and Isabella that night. Ward told them that he was worried it might spread to the other children. He also checked on Agnes, whose condition was getting worse, though she tried desperately not to show it.

That night, Nicholas slept fitfully, and Agnes could feel the sickness spreading to her lungs, which rattled and sent an ungodly amount of phlegm into her throat, which she constantly had to clear. Her hands and feet were nearly completely black now, and her muscles roared in agony. Yet, despite this, she eventually fell into a deep slumber.

*  *    *    *  *

It was springtime, 1342. The Queen’s College was barely more than a year old, and Greenshollow had just received word that Pope Benedict XII had been replaced by Pope Clement VI. Pope Benedict had been a popular pope amongst the townspeople, and his death had proven to be a dampening of spirits, but they hoped that the new one would prove to be better yet. However, these worldly affairs were far from Agnes’ mind as she stood by the brook, tossing stones into the water in idle thought. The forest she was in was lush, and the grass was covered in dew that sparkled in the yellow morning light. A willow swayed in the breeze opposite the brook.

She had been lost in the old days, the good ones, when her family was young, when she and Adam had been raising Peter and Geoffrey, while her own mother, Matilda, was the old crone instead of her. Agnes thought of how Matilda’s mind had failed her in her last years and hoped that the same would not happen to her.

Her thoughts then turned to her oldest, Geoffrey, and how, despite having no reason to be anxious, she worried that he would never return from his trip to Ludlow. He’d set out three days prior to sell a sheep, cow, and lamb, as the crop had proven to be hard the harvest before, and they were now desperate for coin. No one in Greenshollow could afford to purchase the animals.

A voice startled her out of her contemplation, and she dropped the stone in her hand.

“Agnes.”

She turned and saw that Ferdinand Ward stood before her, as grim as he ever was.

“You… you startled me.”

He gave a dry smile that somehow did not look like a smile.

“I apologize. I was told you had come here for a slice of solitude.”

“Yes, yes I have. Though, do not misunderstand me, as I am always welcome to a friendly face.”

His eyes, which looked to be mournful, shifted from the stream and back to her.

“A Brooker by the brook. How fitting.”

“Oh, yes, I’ve heard all the jokes about brooks and streams there are, Ferdinand. May I ask what brings you here?”

Ward sighed and sat down upon a moss-covered rock on which Agnes had rested not long before.

“Alas, I do not come with light tidings. The business I am here on is nothing I would ever wish to be occupied with. Before I begin—”

“Oh, please, Ferdinand, do not draw this out. If it’s important, just tell me.

“Very well, though I would ask that you find a place to sit, for the news is dark, indeed.”

Agnes, with a puzzled expression, sat down upon the rock next to her old friend, whose hands were clasped about his knees like a falcon on the arm of a falconer.

“I know that you have expressed concerns in regard to Geoffrey’s trip to Ludlow, and though I at first thought these anxieties to be irrational, it is of my regret to inform you that your suspicions have been validated.”

“John, whatever do you mean? Is my son okay? Will he be back soon?”

Ward wiped his eyes, but not before Agnes could see the wateriness that had come over them.

“He was found by a courier, who was on unrelated business to Ludlow, to be lying on the side of the road, seemingly unconscious. The courier inspected him after realizing who the man was and found that the body had been rid of what little items of value Geoffrey may have had, along with multiple wounds to the abdomen and backside, apparently caused by a blade. It was likely from a highwayman.”

He briefly looked towards Agnes, who stared at him with a blank expression, though her lips were taught.

“The courier was but a few miles north of Ludlow, and so hurried to the town and alerted the proper authorities, who have promised to bring Geoffrey’s body back with expediency. The courier rushed back here ahead of them and told me the news, as I was the first he encountered. I have already told the rest of your family.”

“Do they know who killed him?” Agnes whispered.

“I’m afraid not. There has been a known group of thieves along the road, but their identities are not yet known, as they have thus far eluded capture. I’m sorry, Agnes. I truly am.”

He opened his arms to embrace her, and, after a moment, she complied. Tears strolled down her face, the first since they had received news of Adam’s death.

“I know it is hard, especially after the passing of Adam at the leprosarium. Just know that I have always been and always will be a friend of the Brookers.”

Wails befell upon his chest, and he patted the woman’s back, his mourning silent and locked away behind his watery eyes.

“Here,” he murmured a few minutes later, “I have brought to you a gift, so that it may, even if only by a small amount, cheer you up.” He reached into his pockets and procured a dark, crimson rose.

“The courier found two of these in Geoffrey’s pouch. I gave the other one to Isabella and thought I might give this one to you; a last gift from Geoffrey.”

Agnes took the rose and clutched it tightly. The thorns burrowed into her calloused palms and drew small streams of blood, but she did not mind.

“Agnes, don’t. Wait, Agnes! Agnes!”

She looked down to see that a black, deathly colour had spread out from where the thorns pierced her skin. She gasped and slipped off the rock, though her grip on the rose’s stem never faltered.

“Agnes, let go of the rose!”

She shook her head. The skin of her hands began to rot away as the scourge spread up her arm, towards her face. Her lungs filled with fluid, and she gasped and hacked up blood and phlegm. Black cysts erupted over her skin, and her muscles burned… yet her skin felt icy. She writhed on the ground and her eyes rolled into the back of her skull, and there she perished upon the ground, next to the brook. Ferdinand Ward stood over her, screaming for her to let go of the rose.

*  *    *    *  *

Agnes gasped and thrashed in her bed, with her fingers clutched around her throat. She pulled them away to see that they were rotted and black, the insides of them covered in blood and pus from her neck. “Mother, what is it?” Peter cried. He rushed to her side and pushed her grey hair from her face.

“Geoffrey,” she sobbed. “Geoffrey, oh, Geoffrey.”

Isabella came into the room, and Peter motioned for her to be quiet.

“It was only a dream, Mother. It was only a dream.”

“I’m going to die, Peter. I’m going to die, just like Adam and Geoffrey.”

“Shh…. Don’t speak of such things. Everything will be alright, Mother. You and Nicholas will live, yet. And think! You have your memory this morning. You show promise!”

“What promise does it show that I have become a living corpse? What promise does that show, Peter? My lungs rattle with the tolling chimes of death, and poor, blind Nicholas does not appear to be faring any better. Look at how his skin has become! Look at how in only a day, it has become like mine looked just yesterday!” She paused and drew a breath.

“What solace is there in death, Peter? I never asked to die.”

“Mother, I know it is frightening. But think of how the Lord will reward you for your devotion and suffering here on Earth.”

Agnes reached up and grabbed Peter’s red vest.

“The Church speaks of Heaven and its angels, of how a good Christian will be reunited with their loved ones, but what do they know, Peter? The only way they know is because their forefathers told them it was thus. But, Peter, we are only human beings, and we are proven wrong every day. What evidence is there that our ancestors were any more right than we are? What if they were wrong, Peter? What if God has not been pleased by my devotion, and I should be cast into Hell? What if—I despise myself for even thinking of such a thing—but what if there is nothing? What if death warrants silent oblivion, and the world is just as uncaring and cruel as this pestilence that has gripped the world?”

“Mother, calm yourself! Even if you should pass away, you have my promise that Adam and Geoffrey will come to you! You simply need to have faith! Even if you should not believe my words, hold onto the semblance of belief so that you can be strong for your grandchildren. They are saddened by these times, Mother, and they have told me that they look to you as a hero. Please, stay strong for them. Even if it should only be Joan and Matilda who survive the Pestilence, they shall remember your strength and carry you and Nicholas as inspiration later in life, when they themselves have children of their own.”

Peter was panting, and his breath smelled of mint against her nose. Agnes closed her eyes and nodded. She sunk her head back into the white pillow.

“Just look at my hands, Peter. Look at how they have rotted away.”

“I see, Mother.”

“Look at the stain of death upon my flesh.”

“I see.”

She grimaced.

“I hurt. I hurt so much, Peter. In my dreams last night, I dreamt of the day when Ferdinand told me of Geoffrey’s death. I dreamed of the rose he gave me, the one that was dark crimson. And this dream was accurate to my recollections in its entirety, save the end of the dream.”

“What happened?”

“I clutched the rose so that the thorns drew blood from my palms. And though I remember doing that, the thorns did a most peculiar thing, Peter. A sickness began to rapidly spread from the incisions, and it spread up my body in a matter of moments, until I died on the pebbles by the brook, while Ferdinand stood over me, telling me to let go of the rose. Yet, I never did let go of that rose, Peter. I never let go.”

Peter continued to stroke her hair, but his eyes could not meet hers.

The heavy air was broken by the ghastly shrieks of Isabella. Peter and Agnes both looked towards her and saw that she was struggling with the writhing body of Nicholas. Peter rushed over to her, and Agnes saw that the child’s eyes were rolled back, and that foam spewed forth from his mouth as he quaked with a violence she had never seen before.

“Matilda!” Isabella shrieked. “Matilda!”

The girl bolted into the room, and Isabella grasped her by the shoulders.

“Matilda, I need you to go fetch Ferdinand! Your brother is having a fit, and we need him. Now, go!”

The little girl nodded and raced out of the house without a word.

“Where’s Joan?” Peter asked.

“I sent her to the market to buy herbs and rosemary for Nicholas. I was afraid to wait for Ferdinand’s arrival, since his condition is faring much for the worse.”

“Very well. Perhaps Matilda will run into her and tell her the situation. I only hope that Nicholas will last until they get back.”

Nicholas seized for another few moments and went limp. His eyes were glazed, and his breath was short and ragged.

“Nicholas! Nicholas, can you hear me?” Isabella whimpered. He gave no response.

“Dear,” Agnes whispered to the boy, “please, say something. Will you, Nicholas? For your grandmother?”

He still gave no response; his unseeing eyes were fixed upon the ceiling.

They waited with bated breath for nearly an hour before the two girls came back. Joan’s expression was one of disbelief, while Matilda was in tears.

“What is it?” Peter demanded. “Where’s John?”

“Dead!” Matilda wailed. She threw herself into her mother’s arms.

“Dead?” Peter gasped. “What do you mean, he’s dead? He’s one of the only doctors in Greenshollow willing to treat the Pestilence. We need help now!”

“He was murdered,” Joan whispered. She sat down by her brother. “He was killed this morning on his way to treat another one of his patients. The whole town is in an uproar.”

Agnes was stunned beyond words. Her old friend, dead…. The one who had always himself brought both grim news and comfort in troubling times, no longer there to be their guardian.

“Who did it?” Isabella asked. “Why would anybody slay a healer in times like these?”

“It was Everard, the butcher,” Joan explained. Her body was rigid, and she seemed to speak from a far-away place.

Peter flung his fist onto a table and startled everyone in the room.

“That bastard! That god-forsaken bastard! Does he know that he has killed more than one today? Does that damned fool not know that he has put every one of his patients into the grave?”

“It was because of the Jews,” Matilda whimpered.

“Jews?” Peter asked. “What Jews? There are no Jews left in England.”

“It was discovered that he was treating a family of Jews, all of whom practiced in secret. Everard heard this and stabbed John thirty-three times in the back.”

“What times are these for killing fellow men?” Peter roared. “As if there wasn’t enough death already! Who cares if they aren’t Christians? Is Greenshollow now a town of savages? Are we no longer unified in these troubling times? Does that fool not know that in the Bible itself the Jews are God’s people? Does his pathetic mind not comprehend that we are all God’s people? Tell me, who was the family that Everard hated so much?”

“It was the Davidson family.”

“The Davidsons? Who gives a damn about what they believe? Their family has done more to help this town than any other family! Definitely more so than those stuck-up noblemen and that God-forsaken priest! They’re the kindest people I ever met! Why, Everard is an evil man, indeed. I hope they hang him for what he has done!”

“They will,” Joan said. She stood and looked at her father with pain in her eyes. “Along with the Davidsons in three days.”

“What a wretched place this town has become,” Peter moaned. “To hang a murderer next to innocent people. Everard is the only one who should be hanged, I tell you.”

Agnes agreed, though she could not bring herself to speak. She was shocked beyond words. She wanted to cry, she wanted to scream… but nothing felt real anymore. She wanted to escape forever, in a peaceful bliss where nobody died, and she could live out her days in the company of her friends and family. Agnes wanted to be somewhere beautiful, like the stream. She wanted to be free, free of death and decay. She wanted life.

It was then that she felt a strange fog loom over her mind. The fog seemed to be dark, and toxic, like a cloud of those burning body piles she had heard about in London. It swelled, and she felt a strange sensation come over herself. She closed her eyes and screamed… screamed for the pain to go away, for her life to start anew.

And just as suddenly as it came, the fog disappeared.

She opened her eyes to find herself in a strange room, where the roof was made of straw and the floors made of dirt. Everything screamed misery. There were unfamiliar faces around her bed, which she did not recognize. There was a man of mousy features and red hair, while next to him was a disheveled woman with dark bags under eyes, who possessed in herself a strange beauty. On either side of them were two children, one a pale, dreamy-eyed girl and the other a strong-faced girl of about fifteen with her hair tied back. Agnes looked down to her hands and saw that they were rotted away. She had no clue why they were like that, and it frightened her.

There was a stinging sensation around her neck, and she ripped away a scarf of charms and relics which had been irritating the raw skin underneath. She threw them to the floor.

“Mother?” the red-haired man whispered. “Mother, are you okay? I know I’ve called those old things junk, but—"

“Who…. What did you say?” the old woman asked.

“I asked if you were alright,” the man explained. “You screamed and threw down your charms. You look troubled. What is it?”

The old woman searched the strange faces for an answer as to where she was and who they were, but she found none.

“Who are you?” she whispered.

“Mother, I….” The man stopped and swallowed hard.

The woman wiped her eyes and gently said, “Agnes, we’re—”

“Who’s Agnes? Who are all you people?” She sat up in her bed and spat blood into her hand. She stared at it in horror and wiped it on the black blanket which was on top of her.

“Where am I?” she croaked. “Where am I? What’s happened to me?”

“You’re our grandmother,” the little girl choked. Her eyes were wide and afraid.

Agnes wondered why they all had sadness in their eyes. She wanted to make their sadness go away, to make them happy, but she was too confused to organize her thoughts. Each one seemed to slip away before she could grasp onto it. Her ears rang.

“I… I’m not your grandmother,” she said. “I don’t…. I don’t know where I am or who you think I am, but I can assure you, I’ve never seen you before.”

The older girl thrust her face into her hands, and the woman turned her head with her hand cupped over her mouth.</p>

“You… your name is Agnes Brooker,” the little girl wailed. The man was silent, a terrified dread cloaked in his dripping eyes. “You’re my grandmother, and you’re very sick. I know you don’t remember, but you have to believe—”

“Stop!” Agnes yelled. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, but I need to go back to the brook, there’s a man—a dark man with a kind heart. He’s waiting for me, and I need to go back there! I don’t remember his name, or how I know him, but please, let me go!”

She made to get up, but the little girl gently pushed her back into her bed. Agnes swiped the girl’s hand away and made to get back up.

“No!” the girl screamed. “You can’t leave us! P-please, you have to remember!”

“Remember what? I need to go!”

“P-p-please, Grandmother! Please remember!”

“I…. I…. Where am I? Why are you keeping me here? I need to go to the brook!”

The old woman sat up and smacked their hands away from her. The ground was warm against her covered feet. She threw their arms away from her and she shuffled towards the door and ignored the pleas and cries of the strange people. She passed by a bed with a boy in it, with glazed eyes and spit caked over his chin.“Grandmother,” he croaked. His voice was hoarse.

“What is it, child?” She could tell that the boy was deathly ill. He had a strange blackness upon his skin that she noticed was akin to her own body. Why were her hands blackened?

“I miss you,” he said.

She had no clue as to what he meant, but her heart was softened. She turned towards him and leaned down.

“What is your name?” she asked. Her limbs were trembling violently, and it was difficult to stand.

“Nicholas,” he said. “My name is Nicholas.” He turned his head towards her. “I’ll see you again, Grandmother. And I’ll get to meet Grandfather for the first time, and Father will be there, too. So will Ferdinand. And when you see me, I’ll be a knight. I’ll be on a horse in royal armor. Ferdinand told me that, just a moment ago, while you were in a daze. And my eyes… they will know colour for the first time. I will finally know your face, Grandmother. And you will be beautiful and young. We will be free of this sickness, together.”

The old woman shook her head. She felt pity for the dying boy, but she did not know how to tell them that she was not who they thought she was. She did not know how to cure madness.

The boy turned his head back to the ceiling, and his breath was hoarse and ragged, like the door to a tomb rolling shut for the final time. The ringing grew in intensity, and a black fog crept over her mind once more. The woman fainted, with her head nestled next to the child’s.

*  *    *    *  *

She was alone in a quiet, gleaming forest in the springtime. The old woman looked about herself and recognized it as being close to the brook. There was a grim man waiting for her, though she did not know his name. She crept forward, the song of birds distant while her feet rustled against the grass. She did not travel long before she saw the bubbling brook. It seemed to call to her, to invite her to play in the water like a little girl. She remembered a rock covered in moss, though she did not know why. The little girl looked to her left and saw nothing. She turned her head to the right, and behind a thicket of emerald bushes could she see the vague shapes of people. The girl crept over to the bushes and pulled them aside. She gasped and lost her breath.

Sitting upon the rock was a figure in dark rags and a hood that covered its face. It was leaning its face over the limp body of a boy, while on the ground was the corpse of the grim man. He was missing his eyes. A raven was perched upon the man’s skull, and it glared at her with eyes of firebrand.

She looked back to the cloaked figure, and the figure raised its head and lowered its hood. The little girl screamed.

It was a corpse, with skin blackened and blistered by pestilence and covered in fat slimy leeches. Its cheeks were sunken, and the lips were torn away to reveal a set of leering, rotten fangs slowly chewing on an eyeball, the juices of which dripped down the creature’s chin and onto the face of the boy. The girl looked down to see that she somehow recognized the boy, as though from a dream.

She screamed, and the rotten figure cackled at her misery. She looked up to see that the sky had grown hazy and green, while the forest smoldered in decay.

“You must cross the River, little girl,” the monster sneered. She turned around to see that the merry stream had been replaced by a vast black river that was covered in a dark greenish-yellow fog that made the little girl think of disease. The waters were still, and there was nary a sound save the methodical chewing of the cloaked figure. The raven squawked. She thought she saw a pale hand in the water.

“You’ll need payment, little girl,” the figure rasped. It stood up and towered over her, the juices from its mouth dripping down to her head. A bell rumbled in the distance.

“Payment for what?” she asked. The figure pointed to her left, and she saw a dark wooden rowboat.

“To get across.”

“But I want to go back to the brook!”

“You must cross the brook, stupid girl.”

She looked back across the river, and back to the figure. It began to open its mouth, but the creature was interrupted by a groan from the dead man at their feet.

“Wake up, Agnes.”

The little girl stepped back.

“Wake up,” the dead man repeated. He lifted an arm and got to his feet. He wobbled, and his eyeless sockets frightened the girl. The raven flew to his shoulder and he grabbed the girl by the wrist.

“Wake up, Agnes! For the love of God, wake up!”

The little girl screamed and ripped her hand away. The cloaked figure laughed and reached out to grab her, but she turned and lost her balance. She fell into the cold water.

*  *    *    *  *

The girl was back in the strange cottage, back in the strange bed. The room was dark, and she could see the shapes of people fast asleep in their beds. To her right was a window covered by blue curtains. She slowly stood up, her body wracked in agony, and drew back the curtains to shed silver moonlight upon the silent room. She made her way over to the beds and saw that there were the sleeping bodies of the man and the woman she had seen before her vision of the River. With the realization that the vision had only been a dream, she sighed and made her way over to the smaller bed, where the boy had been. She pulled the blanket from him and drew a short breath.

The child was dead.

The little girl turned her head, suddenly aware of just how silent the house was. It was suffocating. Her ears rang.

A blinding light erupted from the windows, and she covered her eyes with her withered hands. The light was astonishingly blue, and she wondered how it did not wake the others. The girl made her way to the window and heard a faint, gentle cooing from outside. She squinted her eyes and looked out, where she saw two large silhouettes in the light. Ordinarily, she would have found them frightening, but now, she found their cooing to be welcoming. She wanted to greet them.

The way to the door was painful, and she wondered why her body felt so old, but she eventually found herself outside, where the light didn’t seem to be so harsh anymore. There, before her, were what appeared to be two large insect-like figures covered in dark red leather, each with four massive wings curled atop their backs. One of them held up a glass tablet with blue writing on it.

“I can’t read your words,” she whispered.

The figure drew the tablet away and extended a small, three-fingered hand. She looked around the empty street. Except… it was not empty. There, atop an ashen horse, was a very noble-looking knight in gilded armor. Next to him was the grim-faced man she had been searching for at the brook. From the darkness appeared two other men, one of muscular build and the other an older gentleman. They all smiled at her, and she smiled back.

“You look lovely, Grandmother,” the knight spoke. His voice was gentle, yet proud.

She looked down at her hands to see that they were clean and young. She put her hands to her face. She was no longer a child, nor was she old and rotten. No, she was young and beautiful once more. The people smiled at her again. She turned to the strange creatures before her, and a thought came to her: Angels of Death.

She was no longer afraid.

The young woman took the angel’s hand, and the last thing she saw was a castle of bronze.


Related:

I Made First Contact, and Now I'm Dying

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