Here is a third extract from my book Dark Inheritance: A Mediaeval Fantasy –
‘Saxony, more than forty years later …
The Woman with the Sword
I was seven years old when the Black Death came to Brunswick.
We heard of it in March, the day of my accident, the day I tried to sneak a look through the window of my grandfather’s laboratory. This was a little chamber, jutting out into his herb garden, where he would sometimes shut himself away for days at a time. I had often wondered what was inside.
The window was at man-height from the ground and easily reached from the garden if I climbed onto a buttress. I could already scamper up a tree as well as any boy, so a wall presented no challenge at all. The stones were rough and I had no difficulty gaining a foothold. I reached up with one hand and gripped the gnarled ivy. It was even easier than I had expected. Using both stones and plant as leverage, I pulled myself up until I could rest one foot on the projection.
From there it was a short stretch to the ledge under the window. I supported my weight with one hand on a horizontal limb of the ivy, stepped across and grasped the sill. I was just tall enough to peer over into the room.
Opa sat at a table on the left side. In front of him were a book bound in black leather and some rolled-up paper. On a second table to the right were laid freshly cut herbs, plant roots, a pestle and mortar, and some other pieces of apparatus. Above, and fixed to the wall, were shelves stacked with rows of phials, stone jars and glass containers of colourful berries.
I had asked about the room only for Opa to say it was a grown-up and dangerous place and that he would show it to me when I was ready. Never had I imagined it to be such a treasure house.
Eager to see more, I raised myself on tiptoe and pushed my face closer to the glass. I did not want to be caught spying but it was an opportunity too good to miss, a chance to see him at work and to learn the secrets he hid from us.
Opa opened the book. He picked up a quill, dipped it into an inkpot and poised it over the paper. A sudden thought seemed to distract him. He unrolled one of the scrolls and spread it out on the table. It was covered all over with drawings, the like of which I had never seen before. They were pictures of people, but with all of their fronts cut away to expose their hearts and stomachs and some other organs I did not recognise. The different parts within the outlines were coloured with blue, red and yellow dyes.
My face was now very close to the casement and my heart was beating furiously. I edged along farther to get a better view.
My grandfather looked up suddenly. Either I made a sound or my head cast a shadow into the room. I ducked out of sight. Anyway, I had seen enough and it was time to retreat.
I was careless. In my haste, I missed my footing and took a step into nothingness. My fingers lost their hold on the sill. I grabbed for the ivy but could not reach it and fell with a scream that might be heard in Hannover.
My knee hit the corner of the buttress, sending a tearing pain through my body, and I heard the ripping of cotton as my dress snagged on one of the rougher limbs of the ivy. I must have hit my head too, or fainted with shock because, when I came to my senses, I was lying in a bed of thyme, bleeding from a gash in my calf. I had never seen so much blood. It oozed out of the wound like red wine from a cracked flagon and trickled down my leg, over the straps of my sandals and between my bare toes. My petticoats were ruined beyond repair.
As my head cleared, I saw Opa standing over me. At his side knelt my mother, looking very worried. The tears welled up in my eyes as she cradled me in her arms. There was a buzzing in my ears too.
“We must do something about that cut,” said Opa and grinned wickedly. “Otherwise, she will live, I think. My treatment will be the best lesson.”
He took me from my mother, picked me up and carried me indoors, paying no attention that my blood was dripping on the floor. I was still dazed by the fall but remember wondering how long it would be before my veins were emptied and, if I died, whether Opa would forgive me for spying on him. There was no time for more idle thoughts. Before I knew it, I was inside the room I had for so long wanted to see. My enthusiasm for its secrets had waned.
They sat me in a chair. Opa lifted my injured leg so that it rested on the tabletop. He fetched a needle and thread from a box on one of the shelves and without saying another word began to stitch the ragged edges of my cut. It hurt even more than the cut itself. I clamped my lips together to hold back a yell.
“Well, Gretl,” said Opa, when he finished stitching, “I think you’ve seen enough of my work for one day.” He stood back to admire his repair, then covered it with a cloth soaked in foul-smelling paste. “Now, off to bed with you!”
It was only late afternoon but I was too embarrassed and hurt to argue. Limping badly, I followed my mother upstairs to my bedroom.’
With our present day world facing a plague of a similar kind, we can be thankful that our species has moved on from primitive superstition. Science is working very hard to find a solution – and it will find a solution – to the new coronavirus epidemic. In the meantime, while trying to keep myself as isolated as possible from others, I find reading and writing a consoling pleasure.
Until at least the end of May, Dark Inheritance: A Mediaeval Fantasy will be available here at a price of £0.99/US$0.99/Eur0.99 [and equivalent prices in other currencies.]