“We’ve arrived sir,” the coachman said to Michael.
“Thank you, friend.” He said, tossing the man a small pouch, “Take a few extra coins for yourself.”
The man nodded and thanked Michael for the small act of kindness.
Stepping off the carriage, he was hit with the usual smell of elderberries, straw, and horse dung. The wooden bridge creaked under the footsteps of the local townsfolk. A large rat scurried across the cobblestone road. He jerked back from the rodent. Disgusting vermin he thought. Gathering himself, he continued into town. With a deep breath, he smiled at the thought of being home.
Michael had been away for several years. The Edwardian War had taken its toll on the knight. His short black hair had turned gray and his tall, thin stature had begun to hunch. He had taken several injuries with him over the decades that he served King Edward III. His hands no longer worked the way they used to. Gripping the sword in battle became a liability to his fellow countrymen as of late. He had served his king and country well until the very end.
When he was sent out to conquer France a decade ago, his family was still alive. His wife and son admired his courage and his ability to provide. They knew this was the best way for a man born in poverty without an education to rise from the dirt.
They had perished during this last cruel winter. Michael had been told they both died while he was on foreign soil. Better for me to not think too long about that. What good does it do? They’re gone. Accept that you cannot change it. He told himself that, yet at the same time, he couldn’t shake the feeling of guilt and despair as he gazed at his empty house.
His boy, Thomas, would run up to him and jump into his arms when he’d return home from training. Thomas was always so excited to see his dad every day. He was 5 years old and had scruffy brown hair and eyes that were an earthy color. They had once looked at him with such love and he wasn’t even there to see them when those beautiful eyes returned to God. Looking at this empty house now brought him nothing but misery and regret.
His wife, Judith, was also the loveliest person he’d ever known. She had jet-black hair and a smile to light up a room. Her hooked nose made people wonder about the origin of her birth. They treated her with prejudice due to her Romani heritage, but not Michael. He couldn’t have been bothered about something as ridiculous as that. He knew how the others thought in regards to his love, but he didn’t pay them any mind. He just knew that he and her were destined for each other, regardless of the conditions of their birth. Yet even that wasn’t enough to keep her with him. The harsh reality of nature made sure of that.
Michael left the house almost as soon as he’d entered. He told himself he wasn’t strong enough to see it yet. Maybe one day he’d be able to gain the courage, but today was not the day. Not so soon. The stone walls felt more like a prison than a home.
He made his way into town.
The normally-crowded streets were strangely barren this evening. It’s been several years since he set foot in Norwich. It was quite disconcerting to see his home so empty save for several black cats walking in front of the local tavern.
The tavern was nestled in a decrepit building. It withstood the test of time for generations. No one was quite sure how old the place was, since it outlasted all written records in the area. It was almost as important to the folks of Norwich as the church. Michael walked past the tavern to reach it.
St. Julian’s Church was a beautiful cobblestone building with the most elaborate architecture Michael had ever seen. It was a place of worship as well as a place to admire amazing art. The door was Romanesque and the windows were exquisitely rounded. The triangular pantile roof dressed the stone and brick building next to the circular tower. Atop the door sat a singular raven. Its unblinking black eyes stared at Michael as he entered the church.
Inside the church, he saw several people at the pews. He didn’t recognize any of them. He thought it possible that they moved to Norwich since he’s been gone. At least the priest was the same man.
“Welcome all” Father Edwards started, “it’s great to see you all here and healthy”.
The crowd looked solemn as he said this and nodded their heads in agreement.
“As some of you may know, our doctors have all been working incredibly hard to maintain your safety during this difficult time. But God will see us through. Through Him all things are possible. He is our salvation, our protector, and our savior.”
Maintain our safety?
Father Edwards continued, “The time has come for your faith to be tested. This is where you show your resolve. I have faith in all of you. God simply asks that you have faith in Him and he will protect you.”
“Amen,” the crowd said in unison.
The priest noticed Michael seated in the back and locked eyes with him.
“Let’s all welcome our beloved knight, Sir Michael, back to Norwich. He served England valiantly in the war against the French and served God even more so.”
The crowd turned to look at Michael and he felt a little uneasy at the attention. He gave a curt wave and said his thanks.
“Thank you all for joining me in prayer, today. I hope you have a safe journey home” Father Edwards said.
Once everyone else left, he walked away from the podium and towards Michael. His long black robes dragged behind him. He was a rather tall man with a stocky build and scarred face. Maybe that’s why Michael trusted him so much. Scars showed character. A man with scars is a man who has a story to tell and strength to defend his words. They meant he was a survivor.
Michael had battle scars of his own but they were often hidden by his tunic. Ever since he became a knight, people looked at him differently. He wasn’t noble-born, so he didn’t belong with that crowd and the ones at home treated him like he abandoned them.
The peasant folk he called his family and friends had turned their back on him. Maybe they thought he would treat them like some of the other knights. Those people abused their power and their authority to shake out any coins they could get from them. Michael was chastised when he reminded them of the chivalric code they were all supposed to uphold. He learned quickly to remain silent lest he receive another lashing.
“Michael. It’s good to see you again. I just wish it was under better circumstances.” Father Edwards said, “My condolences for your loss. Is there anything I can do for you?”
“I appreciate that, but I don’t think so, Father. I’ve been meaning to ask you, what did you mean up there? About being healthy?”
“Oh, that? It was nothing. It was simply a gesture of wishing well. There’s nothing to be concerned about.”
Michael raised an eyebrow at him but didn’t press the issue any further. Instead, he changed the subject. “Have you seen James lately? There’s news that I must deliver to him.”
“James? The Wellington boy? Yes, he’s been at home I believe. His mother had passed away last winter and he’s had to fare for the farm himself since. Poor lad. I pray you have good news for him. He needs it, I’m afraid.”
“It is”, Michael lied. He didn’t have the heart to tell the priest the truth. He knew he shouldn’t lie to the clergy, but it was better than the alternative at this moment.
He raised a questioning eyebrow at Michael and gave him the directions to the farm.
“Blessings to you, Michael. May the Lord be with you”.
The journey to James’ farm would take several hours. It was nestled in the middle of nowhere and the only way to reach it was through miles of a dark decaying forest.
As Michael walked through the forest, he was met with the low croak of ravens overhead. They seemed to follow him as he made his way along the dirt path, progressively becoming louder. A chill gust of wind sent a shiver down his spine. He stepped on a branch that made a loud crack which sounded like the breaking of bones.
He knew that sound too well, he thought. With every swing of my blade, aye. Every crack reminded him of a man whose life was ended by his actions. Crack, a young boy no older than 17. His knees buckled even though he stood ready. Crack, an elderly man who could barely raise his own arms. Crack, an archer who had surrendered. Michael felt ready to vomit.
The moon rose overhead, staring at him with a single unblinking eye. It condemned him in his head for his actions as he continued on. Murderer, the moon said. Thief. Bastard. It should have been you, not them. Had you been here instead, he wouldn’t have died saving you.
He shook his head in an attempt to shake off the internal strife and forged onto James’ farm. The trees oppressed him with claw-like branches that hung above the road. This place was not intended for visitors. The howl of a wolf warned him of continuing further. He could not heed it, no matter how much he wanted to, for he had a mission, an honor to uphold, and a promise to keep.
After another hour, he reached the boy’s home. It was a small shack of a house made of straw and clay. It was alongside a barn, which seemed to have been more expensive to build than James’ own home. Inside the barn were several sheep bunched into a single pen. Next to it however was a sight even worse than he could have imagined.
There was a pig covered in blood and bile in its pen. The poor thing seemed like it was forcing itself to breathe, holding onto its last remnants of life. The chest was rising and falling incredibly slowly as it was lying in a puddle of its own bile.
Michael almost released his lunch at the smell of it. It was like a sweet, fruity, cheese smell. He turned and walked away as fast as he could from the poor dying creature when he suddenly felt remorse. He should do the right thing. He knew it wasn’t his animal, but he didn’t want to let the swine suffer like that. He withdrew his pocket knife from its sheath and walked back towards the bloody animal. He made a quick slice across its throat-the mercy stroke. It died almost instantly.
Michael walked back to the house and knocked on the wooden door several times. There was no answer, but since he saw a light on inside, he opened the door.
“James! Are you here? I’m your dad’s…”
There was a groan in the other room. It sounded like the labored breathing of the pig had gripped this boy as well. Michael walked around the corner of the house and saw a disturbing image.
A young man no older than the age of 17 laid on a dirty mattress on cold hard ground. The cobblestone wall hung several tools next to his bed. Hay and straw covered his feet for warmth, but looked horrifically uncomfortable. Animal fur blankets covered him as he shivered violently. The boy was as pale as a ghost.
He had a pile of yellow solidified vomit next to his pillow but didn’t have the strength to get up to clean it. This boy wasn’t long for this life at this rate. Michael didn’t understand what ailed him. He didn’t have medical expertise by any means but he knew death too well. His illness was going to take his life soon.
He looked at Michael and slowly blinked his pus-ridden eyes at him. “Mother? I’m so glad to see you,” James said followed by a hacking cough, “have you fed the horses?”
“I’m not your…” Michael began.
“Will you please help me up, mom? I haven’t been feeling well and got sick a few times earlier. Do you think I’m going to be okay?”
James took his blankets off with great difficulty. They stuck to his legs and smelled horrific. They made a ripping sound as he took them off. Michael was horrified.
The boy’s limbs were covered in black oozing pustules. They were dripping yellow pus and blood. The liquid came out so fast, it was as if a waterfall of black and yellow sewage replaced his limbs. The boils pulsed every few seconds with the beat of a disgusting dying heart.
A revolting stench assaulted his senses. It smelled sickly sweet and reeked of infection. The strong and putrid stench almost matched the disgust he felt while looking at James’ uncovered and ill body.
Michael didn’t know what to say to the boy. He stared in revulsion as James tried to force himself to turn and sit up. His knees buckled and he fell forward. Thankfully, Michael caught him. Exasperated gasping escaped his lungs. Struggling for breath, James laid back down.
His breath smelled like moldy bread and radiated a nauseatingly sweet smell. His eyes were so glazed that it was a miracle he could see at all. Michael saw his own son in this boy. Pure innocence of youth was imprinted behind those glazed eyes.
“You’ll be just fine,” he lied before adding “son.”
The kid deserved to have someone with him. If it wasn’t possible to give comfort to his own, well, then this just makes sense. James smiled then coughed.
With great difficulty, he rasped, “Mom. If I don’t make it tonight, will you take care of the animals? I can’t let dad down by failing to keep them healthy. He’s fighting for England, but he’ll be home soon. They’re important to the farm and to him.”
Even in death, James only thought of others. His family, yes, but even his animals were a higher priority than his own life. Michael remembered the pig outside. It had suffered for so long, it was unlikely that James had cared for it in days. How long was he ill?
“I’ll make sure to take care of them. You did well. He’d be very proud of you.”
He took his hands in his. The boils on the back of his hands dripped blood and pus down Michael’s arms. He repressed nausea as he comforted the child. Now was not the time.
James smiled at him as he gave his last breath. Tears streamed down Michael’s face in his grief. It felt like he could finally grieve for his own family. He placed his head on James’ chest. I’m sorry. I’m so damn sorry.
Michael stood and backed away from the body after a few minutes. He wiped his eyes and turned to leave. Suddenly, there was an unnerving sight on the road.
A lone horse rider was trudging along the dirt path. It was visible through the window. It wore a long black robe and had a head resembling a bird. It seemed to ride at an unholy speed.
It rode toward the farm. Michael knew he had to leave before it reached its destination otherwise the spirit would have him. He wiped the sweat from his forehead and gathered himself. He frantically searched the house for another escape route. There was no use, the only way out was the front door.
Michael opened it slowly. His pulse was racing and his knees were shaking with crippling anxiety. He looked in both directions and when there was no sign of the black rider, he walked outside.
A raven was making a loud, raspy kraa noise. The chilly wind blew the leaves from trees. He breathed a sigh of relief for only a moment when suddenly the apparition was right behind him. A black bird head sat atop the body of an emaciated male body. Its raven eyes carried a sense of malice unrivaled by the worst imagination. The same ghastly horse rider locked its soulless raven eyes with his. The sight horrified him so terribly that he sprinted into the dark, unforgiving woods away from the creature.
It reached a hand toward Michael as he ran. He couldn’t stop running. With legs burning from the perilous journey to the house, he carried himself as far as he could go. He ran for what felt like hours until he was too exhausted to run anymore. His sight became blurred and his throat was dry and likely bleeding. He looked behind himself one last time. The shadowy figure of the raven-headed man was the last thing he saw before everything went black.
Michael blinked his eyes open. His head was pounding and he felt nauseous. The dizziness from the night before hadn’t subsided as he learned from standing.
He woke up in a strange place. It wasn’t his home and it didn’t look like the hospital he remembered. This room seemed like the one designed for lepers. It was separated from the other hospitals in its own secluded building and smelled like herbs and glass vials.
Michael groaned and a nurse walked in.
“Are you alright sir? How’s your head?” She asked.
“I’m fine. Where am I?” He responded.
“St. Mary Magdalen. Sorry about it being a few towns over. You lost consciousness and this was the nearest hospital from your friend. The one who unfortunately passed away?”
So it really is a leprosy hospital. “Yes, my friend. What happened?”
She looked nervous to answer. She tugged her long black braid and looked pained. This was obviously a difficult subject to discuss in the hospital. Maybe it was more common than Michael thought?
“It appears to be the plague, sir.”
“The plague? Like from the Bible?”
“Not quite. Some are calling it the Black Death. It struck Italy last year and now it appears to have reached our home. Italy warned us about the rats. Best to avoid them for a while.”
A man wearing a dirty white gown slowly walked behind Michael’s hospital bed as they talked. His bare feet slapped against the brick floor.
“The rats! The rats! Can’t you hear them now? Scratch, scratch, scratch. Tearing out your eyes as you sleep. They’ll find you as they found the others. As they found me.” The disturbed man cried.
One of the orderlies lunged at him. Grabbing his arms, he restrained the mentally insane man and dragged him back to another room.
“I apologize about him. He hasn’t been the same since hearing the news. He is one of the survivors from Sicily. He was infected with the Black Death, but by God’s grace, he survived. It did a number on his mind though. I can’t believe what he must be going through. Escaping Italy just for it to end up in England. It’s quite tragic how much it changed the poor man, but it’s much better to be alive, right?” the nurse said.
“Yeah, I guess so”, Michael said, “am I free to go? I don’t feel sick. I honestly don’t know how I got here”.
“Well, that’s why I came here. You are free to go home. We haven’t seen any symptoms and you seem healthy to us and to the priest. You may leave any time you wish. There is a carriage out front for you, courtesy of that same priest.”
“Thank you miss.”
Michael walked outside and saw a black carriage with two horses and a driver. He was a plump man with a bald head and a clean-shaven face. The driver wore a long black robe, suggesting he was a member of the clergy. This must be the carriage intended for him.
“Sir Michael?”, the man asked.
“Ready to go? The Father would like you to join him for mass.”
“Yes. Let’s go home.”
Michael had not slept well on the carriage ride. It was a harsh endeavor filled with a bug-infested cart, a silent driver, and a bumpy dirt road. The little sleep he did get was interrupted by the loud coughing of the man.
“Sorry sir.” He said again like he did each time.
“It’s quite alright. Are you feeling okay?”
“Oh, it’s nothing. Mum has a fever and I think I’ll have one myself soon. I’ll be okay until we get to St. Julian’s, sir.”
Michael didn’t believe him. The man looked like he was knocking on death’s door. His head was covered in sweat, he looked exhausted, and he smelled horrid. He repeatedly scratched his thick neck and arms. It was as if his skin was an invader to be expelled.
Michael tried his best to ignore it for half an hour. He looked out the window at the dark woods fading from view. The familiar town of Norwich would soon be approaching. The birds would be singing again and the familiar beautiful sun would be shining above the moors of his beloved home.
Don’t look at him.
Hooves clapped against the cobblestone road.
He continued staring out the window. The soft breath of English air brushed against his face.
You know what it is, don’t you?
He shook his head. He begged for strength and resolve. However, one thing itched the corner of his mind. Can one really call it strength to ignore the truth? To look away from what’s right in front of you is cowardice, not bravery. It’s to look at a cow and call it a chicken.
Of course, he knew what it must be. It afflicted that young man, James, and it would likely infect the rest of Europe. He was a young, strong, and healthy boy and it took him, what chance did this old clergyman have? How could he possibly hope to fight this Black Death?
The temptation was too great. He would steal a glance. A single look at the old man would be all it would take to confirm his suspicions. He slowly turned and faced the old man again.
A pool of blood was dripping from his sleeve. The man was sitting upright with an expression seemingly devoid of thought. His hands were on the reins, but they lacked all grip. He was as still as a stone.
“Sir?” Michael said to the man.
“Are you alright?”
Dead silence. He placed his hand on the man’s neck to check for a heartbeat. He removed two bloody fingers from his guide’s lifeless neck. He jumped back in shock which was then followed up with nausea.
Seeing two men whom he had recently spoken to fall by disease was entirely different from conquest in battle. War was honorable, chivalrous, and for the glory of God. This… this plague was a crime against God. It took good men and caused them to rot in front of men’s very eyes. There was nothing noble about that fight. No glory to be won. Was it God’s will to see men who worshiped Him decay in such a violating manner?
It couldn’t be. It must be the work of the Devil. His wretched hands must have weaved this disease into existence. Nothing else could be so evil as to make a man feeble for no reason. To strip a man’s very humanity from him by losing grip on reality is an abomination in itself.
Suddenly, while trapped in contemplation, the carriage abruptly collided with the brick wall of St. Julian’s Church. The two horses that were pulling the carriage had fallen dead before they collided. Several black boils were visible on their fur. How had it progressed so quickly to kill them both within a day? Horrified, Michael sprinted from the carriage and into town.
When Michael entered the town it looked much different than he last remembered. The plague had fully spread it seemed.
Norwich was completely barren. The sound of wind brushing the tree leaves became a revolting grating sound. The once bustling merchant district was entirely devoid of humanity. The stench of smoke and ash replaced the pleasant smell of freshly baked bread he had grown to expect.
He continued through the district looking for a sign of life. The only life he could find for several minutes of walking were sick sheep lying down and huddled in their pen and of course…the rats. He avoided rats at all costs. Those plague-ridden vermin crawled throughout the entire town feeding on the dead animals and spreading disease.
Turning the corner, he finally saw the church. St Julian’s Church was his place of respite. Father Edwards would be pleased to see him again and he desperately needed the company right now. It’s a damn shame about his carriage driver. He hoped he would take the news well.
Father Edwards is a kind man who helped him make it through the toughest of times. He was someone in which Michael could entirely put his trust. He had confessed many things to this man and was not judged once. That was a rare quality to find in a friend. Yes of course it was his job to listen to confessions in the confessional, but he was always available as an ear.
Michael was happy to see that the church was not abandoned. He’d finally found where the people had gone. He saw Sarah, Elizabeth, Jonathon, and Thomas. There were many others he didn’t recognize, but these few were people he’d known before achieving knighthood.
He sat at the wooden pew and prepared for the usual long sermon. He longed to have some normalcy return to his life. The feeling of dread couldn’t be shaken, it was a lurking fear; a malevolent shadow that shrouded the entire town of Norwich. The few people in the church were the only ones he’d seen the entire day. They sat as far away from each other as possible, avoided looking at one another, and jumped at every disruptive noise.
Paranoia had a chokehold on the townsfolk. They refused to acknowledge each other and sat with their coats covering them like a safety blanket. Sarah Goodwin looked at him and when he returned the glance, she shot away faster than a speeding arrow. Michael looked down in despair. He longed for human connection and it was obvious that he wouldn’t receive it from those he considered friends. They all lived in fear and it was clear that the plague was where kindness and camaraderie died.
After what seemed like an eternity in Dante’s ninth circle of Hell, Father Edwards slowly walked to the podium. He didn’t look up at the churchgoers on the way up. He shuffled his elderly robed feet to the podium with great difficulty. Age was creeping up on the old man. He took a long pause and coughed once before finally speaking.
“It is a solemn day this evening.” The priest said.
“With great sorrow, I regret to inform you all that our beloved Julian has passed. He was a loyal and honorable member of this church. We read him his last rites before he passed on to the afterlife. He is in a better place now.”
Michael looked around the church and noticed that none of them were surprised. What is going on? he thought. Not one of them blinked an eye, it was as if they expected this to happen. Julian was only 22 years old.
“Even now he is conversing with our Heavenly Father. Julian is rejoicing to be with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. He will endure no more pain, no more torment, no more disease. You can rest assured that he is in paradise as he was a good Christian man.” Father Edwards sighed and took a sip of the offering chalice.
“I hope you all remain happy and healthy.” he said while looking around the room. “I know that there are plenty fewer here than the night before. I respect and thank all of you for coming today. St. Julian’s Church would be nowhere without all of…”
His speech was interrupted by Michael’s cough. It was a loud hacking cough that rang within the empty church. This was followed by several more coughs and it seemed he could not stop them from happening. He coughed violently several more times.
St. Julian’s Church was dead silent. Not a sound could be heard in the entire building as everyone held their breath. The crowd looked at Michael with such hate…and an incomprehensible amount of fear.
Michael didn’t understand why he couldn’t stop. He coughed several more times before noticing the crowd had pushed themselves as far from him as possible. One woman ran out of the room and another held her child to her side and hid away from him. A few of them screamed even though the coughs had stopped. Hysteria had completely taken over the people.
Father Edwards calmed the crowd by announcing something Michael would never have expected. It felt like a complete betrayal by the one man he could trust still in Norwich. Judas would have been proud.
The priest cleared his throat and said, “I’ve called the guards. They will place him into what the Italians call a quarantine. He will have no contact with the outside world for forty days. If he is clear of the plague, he can go free. If not, then he will be treated or granted mercy. I’m sorry, Michael. It’s for the good of the people. You understand.”
He felt his heart sink into his stomach. How could he do this to him? The crowd nodded their approval. They’d really toss him away like he was trash.
“I don’t have the plague! You’re killing an innocent and healthy man! It’s just a cough, not the Black Death!” He looked around frantically for a helping hand but none came.
“You don’t know what you’re doing. You’re going to toss me aside and for what? To make yourselves feel better? Is that it?”
“Michael, you’d kill us all? You are plagued. To bring that to our doorstep is unforgivable. You knew your affliction before you sat down, didn’t you?” The words coming from Sarah’s mouth barely registered in Michael’s head. He felt dizzy. It sounded nothing like the sweet woman who smiled when she sold him hotcakes. She used to toss him an extra one for free with a wink.
Michael stuttered before another familiar voice spoke up. “Just get out! You don’t deserve to be here anymore. How dare you come back here? Killing foreigners wasn’t enough for you? Now you have to kill your own? Get out!”
That hurt. Elizabeth was once so kind to him. She was a young woman with long blonde hair and a hope in her eye that made you feel everything was going to be okay. She was the woman who had comforted him when his world fell apart. An innkeeper’s daughter, she offered him a spare room when his wife had died and he learned the news. He wasn’t there, of course, he was off fighting in the war when she died. Now she was here to remind him of that and twist the knife in the wound.
The guards slammed the church door open and grabbed him. The three large men dragged him through the length of the holy place. How quickly they turned on a knight of God. He screamed his innocence the entire way out of the building. It stopped with a thud and everything went black.
Michael woke up in a decrepit building. The cobblestone walls were falling apart, clutter was everywhere on the floor and seemingly untouched for years. He looked around and inspected the belongings. There were several dusty dresses and a bonnet. Rats crawled over them as they lay scattered on the floor.
On the other side of the room, he noticed a small waterlogged wooden horse with a string in front of it for pulling. He inspected the toy with great care. This is because he immediately recognized it. This horse is the same one that Michael made for his son. He was in the house that he dreaded.
He ran to the door and slammed against it as hard as he could. It wouldn’t budge. He sprinted to the window in a frantic attempt to escape. To his horror, he could see the silhouette of wooden boards behind the wooden shutters on his windows. He was completely trapped in this hell house.
With a loud thump, he crashed onto the cold and hard ground. His options were limited and he didn’t know what to do. He didn’t have any food in this house and he didn’t want to spend another minute here. It carried too many memories. This is what he’d been avoiding for years.
He could still hear the soft harp in the corner. His love pulling the strings in just the right ways, her beautiful voice lulling both he and their son to sleep. The same harp sat in the same corner with cobwebs and decayed strings. But instead of the instrument bringing him joyous memories, the sight of it only filled him with despair.
This harp was used on so many nights to calm him. He had an anger problem but the soft pull of the strings made everything clear. She was his peace and their son was their future and their joy. Now the only things the harp and the horse represented were his failures.
They weren’t killed by sickness, they were impoverished. He was lied to about his wages as a knight. The king promised to take care of his family while he was fighting in his war but instead, they starved to death without him. He returned years ago to find them dead on the floor. He buried them under the house and never returned.
He had replaced the anger and sadness in his heart with the fury of battle. ‘Sir’ Michael, the title had become more of a stain to him than an honor, had poured his all into the war. He had quickly become the most feared fighter in the army. Whenever someone stepped into his path, he’d cut them down without prejudice and with great ferocity.
A knock on the door shook him out of his dark memories. With a shuffling of the board on the door, it was being opened from the outside. His heart raced with both anger and anxiety. A dark figure strode into the home. He had several straps and buckles on his jacket, needles on his belt, and a large knife sheathed at the hip. But worst of all, beneath his black top hat, was a long-beaked raven mask.
“Sir Michael?” It said in a raspy voice.
“Stay away from me.” He replied with rapid breath.
“I’m not here to hurt you. I’m here to help you.”
“You didn’t seem to help anyone before! But you sure were quick to ride after me and accuse me of being sick. Now, what, you think trapping me in my own house of horrors is going to help me? Help me, what, die?”
“You’re obviously upset. I get that. I came into your home after helping lock you in it. You have to understand that the quarantine is for your own good. You have the plague. You don’t want everyone to die because of you, do you?”
Rage boiled inside of him. To bring that up so brazenly struck him like an open slap. He stood up from the ground with a wince. With great effort, he lunged at the intruder, and fell right onto his face. The apparition reached out a gloved hand to help him. With difficult breathing, he slapped it out of the way and sat back up against the wall. He pulled up a chair and sat directly across from Michael.
“Are you done trying to fight me, Sir Michael?” He said.
“Not for as long as I breathe. You are responsible for James’ death. If you had paid attention to him before, he’d still be alive. And stop calling me sir. I’m not a knight anymore.”
The robed man sat silently until he could come up with a response. “Ah, murder by neglect. One of the easiest crimes to commit because you literally don’t have to do anything to be guilty. Whether that be against a stranger, a friend, a family.” He looked into Michael’s eyes on that last line, almost taunting him.
“So you admit it? You neglected him?” Michael said.
“Me? No. There’s nothing I could have done. He was too far gone when I arrived. You saw when I first rode into town, you were there after all.”
A rat walked across Michael’s shoes and he kicked it out of fear. If this vermin is what caused whatever killed James, he would rid his house of them. He will stay healthy.
“I feel fine though. Why the Devil are you in my house? Why am I trapped? Because of a stupid cough?”
“Are you? Look at yourself, Sir Michael. You can’t attack me like you desperately want to do. You can’t even stand up.”
“Are you here merely to chastise an elderly, retired, Knight of God? Why are you even here?”
He ran his hand along his long beak. There were several bronze buttons on it that seemed to glow in the dim moonlight. A single kraw of a raven could be heard outside. It seemed like it came from his roof, it was so loud.
“Because, I’m your guide.”
“You’re not a doctor?! And a guide? Guide for what?”
“I’m a doctor. But not the usual kind that you’re thinking of. I’m here to make it easier for you, as you, well, you can figure it out.”
“You’re not going to help me at all, then, you’re just going to watch me die? I don’t even have food you bastard.”
“I brought some for you.”
He tossed Michael a bundle of moldy bread and dried meat.
“Is this a joke? You expect me to eat this?”
“Your family did.”
Michael felt his blood run cold as the rage built inside him again.
“How did you know about that? Who are you?”
The man stood up and said, “I told you already. I’m your doctor.”
With that, he walked out of the door.
The next morning was difficult. Michael woke from the bed he used to sleep in years ago. Bedbugs infested the cloth and fleas fed on him while he slept. His chest ached and his head throbbed in pain. He found that it was much harder to breathe lately. Dizziness took hold of him whenever he tried to stand up.
Michael did know one thing, however. Those men couldn’t keep him here. He’d escape and live out his days away from these insane people. All he needed was to be out of this house and in the company of the Lord. This quarantine did nothing for him besides make him angrier. He wasn’t some peasant, he was a knight of God! He deserved better than to be locked away like some vermin the people didn’t want to look at anymore.
They can’t ignore me he thought, I will break down this door and demand an audience with the king. I have earned that right with my service. I have earned it through blood and strife, through conquest and war. I will not be denied.
The rats could still be heard scratching inside the walls. He didn’t know how they got there, but they were embedded in the foundation of his home. Those rats and the flies were his only company as they infested the kitchen and walls. Every minute he could hear the incessant buzzing of those winged insects or the sound of gnawing rodents in the walls.
They carried the disease with them. He knew he had to avoid those creatures at all costs, but those heretics that threw him in here left him no choice. If Michael remained in this home, he would die of the Black Death. The rats would come for him and infect him with the disease. He would be damned if he’d die by disease in his old age. He would go out fighting until his last breath. It was in his nature to turn violence into holiness.
Michael took hold of his longsword. With a grunt, he used it to force himself upright. He shuffled over to his wooden door. He raised the blade above his head and with a loud crunch, he hit the door. It didn’t budge. He raised it into the air a second time in another attempt to break the door. A sharp pain in his chest prevented him from swinging again. Devilish claws gripped his heart and his arms burned with the fury of a thousand suns. Such agonizing pain can only be attributed to the devil. He dropped his weapon and fell to the ground.
Am I really that weak now? I can’t even swing my sword? That’s all I was made for. Now, what is my purpose? Has age stripped everything from me? He sat up and leaned against the wall, breathing heavily. Rolling up his sleeves, he was horrified to discover black boils. They weren’t there the night before. The pustules ached and burned so fiercely, it was a miracle that they didn’t catch fire. The boils were along the entire length of his arm like a sea of black islands.
He began to scratch. Anything to soothe the pain was worth it in his eyes, so he would keep scratching until it stopped. Unfortunately, that moment didn’t come to him. The boils taunted him like a deadly premonition. He knew exactly what they meant and he didn’t want to think about them or see them any longer. He’d rather run away from the problem now and deal with it later if he could. As he considered his options, several boils popped and spilled their vile contents onto the floor. It emanated a sickly sweet smell and caused Michael to nearly vomit.
After standing and shuffling his way to the window, he could see several ravens staring at him. The first one tilted its head and studied him. It’s long black feathers and beak mocked him just like the man who invaded his home and locked him in this prison. The beady eyes were malevolent and taunting.
“You think this is funny, don’t you?”, he said to the birds. They continued staringly blankly. He almost expected them to respond.
“What do you want? I’ve already given this life everything that I have. You mock me now, you wretched omen of death. Am I supposed to grovel? I’ve been kind to those that didn’t deserve it, been chivalrous to those that needed it, and served my king and God faithfully. And what did that get me?’
The raven turned its head.
“Nothing! All it got me was an empty house and even emptier heart. You hear me, God? I gave you all and you took away my everything. I forsake you. You were the great deceiver, not Satan.”
Rain started to pour down. Thunder cracked the sky like the beating of a hammer. His knees stumbled a little as he continued his heretical tirade. Everything he had, he poured out in this moment.
“Smite me then, All Mighty. For I have given you what I can and you have spit in my face. This is the fate you believe I deserve, then? My family fell and I cannot have my vengeance. I cannot even fight anymore and you curse me, so I curse you in return. I hope that I never make it to your pearly gates. If I do, I’ll ask you why. Why would you let Satan cause evil if you’re all good? And if you can’t stop him, how can you be all powerful? You want this to happen. And for what, to test us? You need to test MY faith? How about we test your worthiness?”.
Michael didn’t know if he wanted a response, but one never came. He was seething in rage while his hands gripped the window sill with white knuckles. That’s when the rats began scratching the walls again. They ruined everything. Those vermin are the cause of this plague, and if he could exterminate them, he could stop it. The scratches became louder and louder, assaulting his senses while they infested his eardrums.
He walked over to the walls and began attacking them with his bare hands, clawing and punching at the cobblestone. He continued his violence against the wall for several minutes until he vomited blood. Hunched over, he lifted his hands to his eyes, and noticed they were bloodied and completely damaged. Most of his fingernails had fallen off while clawing the wall and blood dripped down his arm, combining with the pus from his boils. Michael felt dizzy and walked towards his bed. He missed it as he collapsed in a faint. The rats could still be heard scratching the walls.
Michael woke to the black-robed man seated across from his bed. He would have jerked, had he much strength left. Instead, he just stared at the masked figure in a long silence. He remained lying on the floor. Finally breaking the silence, the man who called himself a doctor spoke.
“Ah good, you’re finally awake. How are you feeling?”
“How do you think?”
“I can tell that your boils have gotten worse. What are your symptoms?”
“Michael, I’m here to help you. I told you that. I can’t do that if you don’t cooperate.”
“Here to help me? You locked me in this home and fed me poison. You’re no doctor and you have no honor.”
He shook his masked head in what appeared to be a look of disappointment, then said,
“You know, I’ve studied guys like you before—the chivalrous knight types. You always prattle on and on about your code, your honor, yet you have no honor in war. You claim that you have given your whole life and body to God, yet you care about your body more than anything. Even now, you don’t feel your limbs are your own anymore, do you? And that makes you want to tear them off. You wish to forsake God’s gift of your body because it feels like an impostor to you.”
It was true, Michael’s limbs were covered in so many blisters at this point that they resembled black fish scales. His arms and legs oozed and throbbed in agony, making every moment both disgusting and painful. He was unsure if he could even stand up anymore, his legs felt like they had fused to the floor. He had scratched them raw yesterday, but they just grew back today, worse than before.
“You know nothing about me, demon. Everything I’ve done, I’ve done for God, king, and country. I’ve been spit on for my service. I come back here and am condemned for all the good I have done. I can’t trust someone like you. How do I even know you’re human? Take off your mask and let me see the one who’d trap me like an animal”.
“I’ll take off my mask when you take off yours.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You live in an endless cycle of hypocrisy and fraud. The great and noble Sir Michael, the peasant turned knight, earned great renown for his courage in battle and his chivalry at home. That’s you, correct?”
Michael looked him in his masked eyes but said nothing.
“Tell me, while I’m here, you reveled in it didn’t you-the conquest, the violence?”
The man folded one leg over the other and leaned back in Michael’s chair.
“You call yourself a doctor,”, Michael said, “you come into my home, and you wear a mask. There is no intention of helping me, so what is this game? Where are you from? Paris? Enemy back for revenge, are you?”
The man laughed.
“A little south of that. You’ve been closer to there than you think”.
Michael scoffed and tried to stand up when suddenly the figure shouted, “SIT DOWN”.
He felt compelled to do so, his body was no longer his own. Not a single muscle could be moved against the will of this man. The man stood up and put his masked face as close as he could to Michael. The smell of embalming fluid, pus, and sulfur emanated from it, he wanted to be sick. The eyes burned into his soul, there would be no more lying to this man, he was sure.
“We’re going to try an experiment. How does that sound? You’ve heard of bloodletting of course?”
Michael twitched a little but was otherwise paralyzed. His head throbbed and his stomach was in knots. His eyes burned.
“Well,” he continued, “none have ever tried that on a plague bearer. I’m going to drain your boils and we’ll go from there. Stay still. Oh, sorry. You don’t have a choice in that matter.”
The man withdrew a large knife from his belt. It was razor sharp and bloodstained. He placed it on Michael’s boil-covered arm. The blade stabbed through the black, pus-filled bubble, a surge of agony overpowered Michael and then everything went black.
When he awoke, his arms and legs were entirely covered in bloodstained bandages. He didn’t feel weak like he expected, he felt like he had another fight left in him. A violent coughing fit reminded him that he wasn’t feeling one hundred percent. It would likely be a very long time before that, if at all.
He longed to see the outside world, but the windows were boarded up from the outside now as well. I don’t think the ‘doctor’ expected me to live. He tried to kill me, what a surprise it will be when I sneak up on him. Michael reveled in the fantasy of killing the doctor. The rat thinks he can trap him in this hell and leave him to die. He knew what he’d do, he’d catch him off guard. The man is bound to come in again and when he does, Michael will be there to cut him down.
Michael took up his sword once again and hid behind the door. The blade yearned to be used. But I guess that’s what he was talking about in the first place. The bloodlust. He shook it off and waited for his opportunity to strike. His breath felt more strained and his heart started racing as he heard footsteps outside. The chance to be free would soon be his. No one will trap him, no one!
The footsteps crept slowly up the stairs. He white-knuckled his sword hilt in anticipation and his mouth was watering. The door handle turned and slowly opened inward. The doctor’s beak was first visible, then the rest of his body entered, back turned to Michael. He only had a split second to strike. With a lightning-fast slash, he chopped down onto the man’s collarbone.
The blade sliced straight through him. He threw his left arm up in shock, but fell down almost immediately. The figure writhed in pain on the floor and Michael hacked at him again. Still alive-hack. A slight twitch of the hand-hack. With sheer brutality, he ensured that his target was dead after several more hacks and slashes.
Blood covered Michael’s face and body, a familiar feeling to him. He did take pleasure in seeing his enemies fall to his strength. This kill was especially gratifying, the bastard deserved it for trapping him in the house and trying to murder him. He wanted to live a normal life and he ruined it all. He wasn’t even that sick, he could have recovered had this man been an actual doctor.
He looked down at the nearly unrecognizable body of the dead man. Everything was hacked off except for the raven mask. He wondered what was behind that cowardly facade.
He coughed then reached down and grabbed the mask. With a yank and a twist, he unmasked the demon. He expected a devil, a demonic red face, horns, something that indicated he was a demon. To his horror, it looked nothing like that. The man that he killed wore a perfect representation of Michael’s face.
He shakily dropped the sword and stared at it for a very long time. He couldn’t believe his eyes. Some demonic trick must be being played on me he thought, this can’t be real. Michael touched the man’s face with his hands and found that it was indeed real. There was no seem to indicate a mask, no stitching, nothing. Then suddenly, Michael remembered the now open door.
He bolted outside, hoping to feel fresh air on his skin, the sun as it warmed his face, and the smell of hotcakes in the air. Reality was horrifyingly different. It assaulted his senses and threatened to overwhelm his sensibilities. This horror was unlike anything he could have expected.
There was a pile of burned bodies lying in a pyre at the center of Norwich. Carts laid abandoned with starved horses. Corpses littered the street, several being people he once would have called friends. Red Xs were painted on many boarded-up doors, screams could be heard from the inside.
As he walked through the town, no one seemed to survive. The sky had turned black as the rain felt like fire on his boil-covered skin. The smell of burning flesh assaulted his nose worse than any battle could. Plague-ridden men and women crawled on the ground, hysteric.
“Help me.” one of them called to him.
Michael slowly looked down at the man. To his shock and disbelief, it was a man that he had struck down in France. This particular man didn’t deserve it. He just happened to be in the vicinity when the battle began. He didn’t even have any weapons, but that didn’t stop Michael from reveling in the violence.
“I’m sorry…I can’t”.
“You can’t? Or you won’t?”
“You’re dead! I killed you! How can I help you?”
“I’m sure you had a good reason to, right?”
“I…I don’t know.”
“Then why did you do it? I had a family, one who needed me. I understand war, I do. But you struck me down for fun. There was no threat from my house, but you chopped my legs off and left me to die.”
“Don’t you dare pretend that you’re just an animal! You had a choice!”
Michael ran away from the apparition. He ran toward the open field, avoiding the fire that engulfed the town. Screams could still be heard from inside the homes and the protesting of the legless man continued. He shouted something about him being a coward. Standing on the other end of the barren green moor was a long-haired man in a white robe. He took one look at him and knew who he was.
He blinked and in a second, he was directly in front of him. Michael screamed and fell onto his back. He laid trembling on the ground as he stood over him. The presence was overwhelming.
“Am I dead?” Michael asked.
“Then what do you want from me, Lord?”
“You still wear your mask. You’re a hypocrite and a deceiver through and through.”
“I gave myself to you. I fought in holy wars of conquest in your name. Have I not served well? What have I done wrong?”
“When your family came to paradise, your wife said you were a lovely man. You didn’t become…this until after she left this world and moved on. Am I right?”
Tears welled in his eyes and his breathing became heavy. He had never talked to anyone about their deaths. No words formed so he simply nodded.
“You hid your pain away behind a shield of anger, violence, and duty. It was easier to kill those you deemed inconsequential than to fix yourself. These men bastardize my word and hide behind their faith while they commit atrocities in my name. I’ve offered you so many chances to change and you still insisted on continuing the cycle.”
“How do I apologize? How can I make up for what I have done? I’ve caused so much pain to the undeserving. Can I really heal them?”
“You can’t. People don’t owe you forgiveness and you cannot force them to heal”.
“What can I do, Lord? I don’t want to feel this way anymore. I want to be who I was before I became the man I am now.”
“Be better than you were before. You can’t be who you were before. Do better for you, not for anyone else. Do you want to be better for you or do you simply want salvation?”
He thought for a long while. Michael wanted salvation of course, but he wanted his family to be proud of him when he made it to paradise. They deserved the man that they fell in love with. His wife deserved to have a good husband in eternity, not the monster he’d become. He took a breath and answered,
“My family, country, God, and myself deserve better than this. I’ve hurt so many in my life instead of bettering myself. I will be a better man.”
He seemed satisfied with that answer. Michael bent his head down and felt a hand on his shoulder. A wave of overwhelming emotion and forgiveness washed over him. He closed his eyes. The wind howled around him and he felt a cool breeze on the back of his neck.
When he opened his eyes, he saw the familiar walls of his home. So it was all a dream then, he thought. Of course, he couldn’t have been visited, it was all a vision. How foolish of him to believe otherwise. Shrugging, he stood up and walked outside.
The piles of burning bodies were gone, the corpses that laid throughout the streets were now the familiar carts of merchants. He looked around confused. Had he really imagined the whole thing? That’s when he heard the sweetest sound in his life.
“Where are you headed without saying goodbye?”
It was the voice of his love.
He turned and looked upon the most beautiful face he’d ever seen. Her hair was still as luscious as the day he last saw her. Their son was still as handsome and cheerful as ever. He couldn’t believe his eyes. They were alive after all these years. Was this a dream? He sprinted and gave them a large hug.
“I don’t believe it. You’re here.”
“Of course we are, we never left. You aren’t still thinking of going off to war are you? They could find someone else to fight their battles for them. You’re needed here, not in some other country fighting for a man who doesn’t even know you exist.”
“I will never leave you, my love.”
They walked hand in hand into town. Their son skipped next to them in his own little world. They went into the local farmer’s market inspecting each merchant’s supply. Most carried bread, fruits, meats, and random items. Some of the street vendors carried weapons and other items. Michael noticed a friendly and familiar face several paces further. He asked his wife to stay there with their son while he went to say hello and look at his wares.
He jogged over to the man’s setup. It was a rather small selection, but Michael was always happy to see his good friend John anyway. A small rat crossed his path as he walked towards him.
“John! How are you my friend?”
“Oh hey, Michael. I’ve been okay. How are you?”
“Never felt better in my life.”
“That’s good to hear. Staying healthy then?”
“That’s good. I’ve been feeling a little under the weather myself, but don’t let that distract you from these great deals.”, he laughed, “I just got this new sharpening stone right over here, take a look”. John reached over and his shirt sleeve came up just enough to make something out. He felt his heart stop as he stared at it. On his friend’s arm was a black boil.
“Michael? What’s wrong?”
My name is Skylar Sturtevant. I am an English major at my local university. I am a loving husband and father returning for my degree in order to better my family’s life. I am currently working in a warehouse at the same time as attending school in order to provide. I have dreams to become a teacher one day.