(A Short Extract #2)
by Andrew G. Lockhart
July, August and September were always busy months and that year they were more hectic than ever.
All summer, my father and Roland were preoccupied with affairs on the farm. The crops had come under threat from unusually large numbers of rats that descended on us and tried to devour the unharvested produce.
‘I’ve never seen so many of the creatures,’ I heard Roland say more than once. ‘Thank God for the vigilance of the servants and for our army of cats! Without them, the kitchens would be overrun.’
My father agreed.
‘It’s one step forward and two backwards,’ said my uncle. ‘When we drive them from the fields, they only return more determined. When we kill them, others take their place. I swear, Lou, they’re more resourceful and daring than ever before, and that they’ve grown larger and more ferocious than the rats of bygone years.’
‘More aggressive, yes. But I’ve noticed smaller ones too. They’re darker in colour and have tails longer than their bodies.’
‘There speaks the man of science!’ said Roland. ‘You are your father’s son and no mistake.’
‘I’m sorry,’ my father said. ‘You need help and not a lecture. We’d better look to the harvest.’
Roland clenched his jaw. ‘If we don’t keep the rats at bay there’ll be no harvest,’ he said.
‘We’ll set traps for them, and drive them off,’ said my father. ‘Holes in barns have to be repaired, and new barriers erected in the grain stores. Greta will help too. ‘
He set about these tasks eagerly. Much of the work proved futile, for the rat is a cunning animal that can find its way through most obstacles. Before September was over, more repairs were needed and the barriers had to be reinforced.
By the onset of autumn, we were to see the first cases of the scourge that would leave its mark on every town and village in the Empire. But the Mortality came upon us stealthily. Through July to September, my grandfather had tended most of the sickness on the estate – which was no more than usual – and had made the occasional visit to neighbouring towns.
‘Rumours of plague are rife,’ I heard him say one breakfast, as harvest time approached. Four months had passed since I had met Princess Ennia. ‘The city streets are more crowded than ever, and the inns bustle with strangers. Yet I’ve seen nothing of the symptoms that were described to us.’
‘More travellers than usual are passing through the valley,’ said Ludwig. ‘Servants are accosted daily by pedlars and clerics, soldiers and footpads, all making for the towns. I don’t understand it. There are no festivals.’
‘People see security in city walls,’ Opa said. ‘They take comfort in wooden doors and iron gates. In Hannover and Hildesheim, the churches fill to overflowing and the priests will admit no more. Migrants from the countryside are encamped in the streets with jugglers and musicians. I fear the lot of the poor, already bad, will become much worse as the population grows.’
‘But no signs of this Black Death?’
‘None,’ said my grandfather. ‘Yet I’m worried. The newcomers to the town wallow in filth and, in consequence, suffer disorders of the bowel and stomach from eating bad food. They seem to live in fear of one another and of any stranger who approaches. The poor shun the company of all but their immediate families or friends. Tradesmen shut themselves indoors and only venture out of necessity. Truly, it’s well nigh impossible to make a proper study of anything. I’ve seen no plague, but who knows what lurks behind shuttered windows, in crowded churches, and in dark alleyways? If there’s little work for me to do, it’s not because of the absence of sickness, but because the population suffers in silence.’
Even we children were hearing stories. The servants and the villagers talked freely of boils the size of apples that turned purple within three days; of black warts that grew in the private parts and oozed black pus so that the sufferer died in less than a day from the loss of blood. There were folk who bled instead from the nose or ears, when the blood could not be staunched by any means. Anyone who touched them, or their clothing, or came near to them would be similarly afflicted. No one had seen any of these things themselves; it was always a sister, or a brother, or a cousin who had heard it from a son, or a father, or a mother.
There were reports of armies of phantoms, hovering over the countryside like black smoke and dispensing death to anything that moved. So many priests had died in France, they said, that there were none to dispense the last rites. Physicians were afraid to approach the sick, and spent their days in taverns and brothels, drinking and whoring, until they too, and all with whom they fraternised, fell victim to the pestilence. The worst reports came from the cities of Italy, where the dead, it was told, could be counted in tens of thousands. The plague had even reached faraway England.
Aunt Matti was sniffing and tutting more than ever, and when she did offer her opinion, it was only to say that she didn’t believe any of it. I’m not sure anyone did. Yet many of the tales were true in part, as it turned out, though Saxony had still seen no plague.
It might have passed us by – who can tell? Opa would have protected us if he could but none of Ennia’s warnings prepared us for what followed. I was to learn later that Singari have the gift of prediction and that many of their women were feared as witches. Did she know, I wondered, and did she hold back her knowledge?
Magic lives in men’s heads and in their imaginations. It sucks their brains. It eats away their sanity and replaces sweet reason with foolish fantasy. Its fingers are long and crooked so that, sometimes, even the strong-willed are infected by its poison.
Nor are we women immune from its power. They say we are closer to nature than men are, and thus better able to resist, but I cannot testify to that. What we call magic, the magic whose twin allies are ignorance and fear, is an idea only, not an unnatural embodiment of all that is evil. And women are affected by ideas just as men are.
My great-grandmother would have said the true magic resides in all of us, that the real miracle is life itself: the heart that pumps the blood through our bodies; the breath that gives us speech; the fingers that pluck the lute; the mind that can grasp the knowledge of these things and use it for good.
I wish I had known her. I wish I had known something of my true heritage during those dark days of the Great Mortality. I wish that I had had the comfort of her words then, and later, at times when life seemed so cruel. But she is long dead. All I have to remind me of her is a legend, and the gold ornament that in those days hung about my grandfather’s neck.
The su-asti. The fylfot was still bright in that autumn of 1348. I had yet to see its dark side.
- The new edition of The Dark Side of the Fylfot: a mediaeval fantasy is available as ebook and paperback from Amazon, and as ebook only from Apple Books, Lulu, Kobo and B&N.