The horse and cart moved slowly down a lane in the hamlet of Pleasant Grove. It was the early hours of the morning, the sky still dark and cold. A young man walked slowly beside the horse obviously in no hurry. The sick and dead could wait. He pulled his tattered coat tighter around his chest and cleared his throat. The cottages were coming into few. While most were dark, others were lit by a single candle.
Pleasant Grove was the home of the great lord’s servants, artisans, farmers and troubadours. The village surrounded the castle, holding tightly to the fortress’ outer wall. Acres of farmland skirted the village stretching as far as the eye could see. Dark woods peppered the farmland. It was a good place to live and work, until the plague arrived.
“Bring out the dead!” The man’s voice broke the still of the night. It was a mournful call to the living that the time had arrived to part with their loved ones. Doors opened up and down the lane, spilling flickering candlelight onto the cobblestones. A older man stepped out from one cottage carrying the lifeless body of a young girl. A woman stood in the doorway weeping. It was something he'd seen every day since the plague started.
“Put her in the cart on the left. There appears to be several,” the cartsman said matter of factly. His spirit had grown a protective shell to the grief and helplessness around him. He had seen too much and buried too many. Besides he knew it was only a matter of time before the pestilence struck him down, as it had the two previous owners of the cart.
It seemed every other cottage required his services that morning. The cart was nearly full by the time he reached the Manor House at the end of the lane. The sound of a dozen mother's sorrow was replaced by the silence of the night as each cottage door closed.
The Manor house was home to the Shire's Troubadours. The top window was bright with lantern light. The cartman was pleased. He received an extra pence for the proper burial of anyone from the Manor House. The light in the window at this time of night was a good omen. He stopped at the gate and waited.
“Bring out your dead,” he called out. His breath hung before him in the chill, then disappeared, like the spirits of the dead in his cart, hovering momentarily, not wanting to part with this world, then willingly or not, carried away to heaven or hell.
“Shall I tell him to return later,” Jon Inquired. Lady Rachel sat beside Lady Stacy wiping her forehead in hopes of extinguishing the fever’s fire.
“She may survive another day, and with God’s good grace, perhaps live to old age and grandchildren,” Rachel answered.
“She doesn’t look well,” Jon walked closer, but not too close. The plague was dangerous and no one knew how it spread. Some thought by contact, others by smell. “I give her six hours at best, perhaps seven if the your prayers are convincing and the Saints take pity. I'll tell cartsman to come back later.”
“Away with you and tell the reaper outside to move along. There are no dead in the Manor House this night.” Rachel was tired and was in no humor to joust with Jon. She returned to caring for her charge.
"I'm not cruel, I just state the facts. They are with us one moment, and then gone," Jon replied. “No one knows his fate.”
“Master Jon, your discourse pulls light from flame and your disposition is foul and makes for poor company on a night like this." Jon shrugged his shoulders and walked toward the window overlooking the lane. "Look at the Lady Emily.” Rachel pointed to the opposite side of the sick room to a woman laying peacefully on a bed of straw. “Two week's ago the did she not hold the key to eternity’s door. Now behold, she sleeps peacefully, standing firmly several paces from death's door. That fact speaks of quality nursing and care. If I wrestled her from death's grasp then I can do it again. Have faith Master Jon. Have faith.”
Master Jon took an apple from a bowl and unlatched the window to the night’s air.
“There are no dead in the Manor tonight. Take this for your trouble and be on your way,” he shouted as he tossed the apple from the window to the cartsman below.
"Perhaps tomorrow?" the cartman's called back with hope in his voice. The extra pence would provide much needed bread for his house.
"Perhaps, one of our number stands between our world and the next. Now be on your way. Tis bad luck to have you linger so. Death follows you."
The cart rattled its way out of sight leaving the lane dark and void of sound. The Lady Rachel knelt by the fire, stirring life into the dimming coals. “More coal,” she ordered. “And tell Master Spenser his time approaches. I grow weary.”
“If you insist,” Jon answered. "And you should know that I'm not the only in this house that doubts a recovery for the Lady Stacy. Earlier in the day I saw Master Ben examining her room. He seemed hopeful of a soon to be coming promotion."
"Morbid, all of you. Where is the love for one who has served the people so well for so long?"
"The love is there. Lady Stacy has been good to us all, but the reality of the situation must be addressed."
"I say life is precious and must be held tight with both hands for it can be taken from us with one absent beat of the heart," Rachel held a tight fist over her heart as she spoke.
"That is a fact. Did you not hear about Master Alex?" Jon took a stool and sat to tell the tale.
"Pray tell," Rachel urged him on.
"He went out this afternoon before evening vespers to ride and take the air. His horse tripped in a hole sending the Master to the ground."
"Where is he then. Why isn't he here keeping us company in the sick room?"
"He is well after having been bled by Master Spenser for an aching head. The horse took the worst of the fall and was put down. He is now without mount."
"First the plague, then this. What do the Fates hold in store for us?" Rachel heard the Lady Stacy stir. "Go and fetch the coal and Master Spenser. Hurry now."
“Rachel,” Lady Stacy‘s voice was weak and rasp. She struggled to raise her head off her pillow of down.
“Lay yourself down. Rest is what you need and do not speak,”
“Will I live?” Stacy's eyes swam in dark circles stretching from her nose to her temples. The plague held her tightly. The Reaper, with scythe in hand, sat outside waiting impatiently. He was forbidden the soul of Lady Emily and felt this sickly soul was payment for a debt owed. Stacy struggled to speak, "Perhaps you should call for the priest for I grow weak and feel my spirit yearning to shed this ravaged body."
“Nonsense,” Rachel sat down on a stool to wipe her feverish forehead. “The Lady Emily was far worse than you and see her now. She breathes without labor. That will be you. No one leaves this world while in my care. Now rest.” The Lady Stacy’s head and pillow reunited.
There was a stumbling at the door. In half fell half walked Master Spenser. “Sleep and I didn’t have a chance to become acquainted,” he said. "Pray thee to continue through the night so I may rest."
“You shouldn’t have made merry into the wee hours of the morning. It is your shift and my bones are as weary as yours.” Rachel stood, walked to the doorway and placed the damp cloth into his hand. “Emily grows stronger and no longer needs constant care. The Lady Stacy is at the threshold. I warn you Spenser, if you lose her while I sleep I pray her spirit to haunt you to your dying day. Now be about your business.” Rachel walked out the door and struggled up the stairs to her chamber.
Master Spenser looked from one side of the room to the other, found a chair, moved it to the fire and sat. A moment later he was asleep.
I'm sure many of you kind readers are confused by stories like these. These fictional stories are for the staff and volunteers of the Center. They are my way of telling staff and volunteer news in an interesting and creative way. So, from this story you should understand that Emily was very sick but is now better and returns to work on Monday. You should also know that Stacy is not well and will be taking some time off. Finally you should have learned that Alex had a car accident and is fine. A straight telling of the news is boring. I like a writing challenge. So please know that I do understand your confusion if you don't get it.