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Changes of Life (sample)
Julia H. West
The stench of death filled Goody Sarah Albright's nostrils and the bawling of unmilked cows rang in her ears. On the pallet near the cottage's fireplace Kate stirred, but Goody Albright caught her daughter's hands and held them before the young woman scratched at her face. Wishing it would stop the pain, Goody Albright washed the wound along Kate's cheekbone yet again. Kate moaned, and Goody Albright gritted her teeth. She knew how this felt, all too well—a week ago she had moaned and thrashed while Kate had done the same to her wounds.
She closed her eyes to still rising tears. She could not lose Kate, too.
A knock on the door, then the inquiry, "Are any alive within?" She limped over to lift the bar and open the door.
Two elderly women stood without—one gaunt, with thinning gray hair pulled back in an untidy bunch, the other plump and dressed all in black. No one Goody Albright knew. Why had they come to this village of the dead?
"Are you healers?" she asked. "Don't risk yourselves; I have this well enough in hand."
Their gaze dropped to her bandaged foot, touched her scarred forearm. "We aren't healers, goody, and we don't fear the pestilence. We've come because magic created the flesh rot, and only magic can remove it," said the thin woman.
Magic. That would explain how quickly the pestilence had fallen on Lexby, and how none of the surrounding villages seemed to be afflicted. "You're wise women?" Goody Albright asked. They looked like anyone's grandmothers, threadbare and wrinkled.
The plump one answered, "Indeed."
"Now," said the thin one, "Show us your sick, and we'll remove the disease."
"It left my flesh," Goody Albright said, "and you're much too late for my man. But my daughter.…"
They followed her to the pallet by the fireside and knelt beside Kate. They studied the wound on her cheek. "You've been cleaning it?" the plump one asked.
"With sweetflag juice and an infusion of everlasting. They were the only remedies to slow the decay," Goody Albright said.
"Without our magic, that's true." The thin one held her hand above the wound. "The disease is nearly gone. There is another wound, though.…"
Goody Albright loosened the strings at her daughter's throat and drew down her blouse. "Here, on her shoulder." The flesh was black, the smell almost more than she could tolerate. It was much worse than it had been—in the center the bone showed through, pale amidst the rotting flesh. "The cleaning hasn't helped much, as you see."
"Dear God," said the plump wise woman, "may we not be too late." She held her right hand above Kate's shoulder, reached out with the left to grasp the thin woman's hand. The thin wise woman held her left hand near the plump one's right hand. They closed their eyes.
No incantations, no potions or glowing talismans—but the blackened flesh melted and pink appeared in the wound's center, then moved outward. It still gaped dangerously deep, but no longer showed any sign of the flesh rot.
They remained motionless for many heartbeats, then the thin one sighed and opened her eyes. "The disease is gone from her body. Burn that blouse, though, and any cloth that's touched the wounds." She looked pointedly at the rag Goody Albright had used to lave Kate's face.
The plump wise woman opened her eyes, face pale, and said, "This wound might still kill her. It's deep, I couldn't—"
"You did what you could," her companion interrupted. She turned to Goody Albright. "Cover the wounds with sphagnum. The scars will heal cleaner if you make a cream of irish moss and bedstraw herb and rub it into the wound."
"Yes, I have those." Goody Albright had made the washes and creams when the pestilence first came to Lexby, and Kate had treated her wounds with them. They'd tried to treat Titus, but his hands.… No time for that. God sent these women to heal Kate, now Sarah must do her best to keep her daughter alive.
The thin wise woman helped the other to her feet and they started for the door. "You've done well, goody," said the thin one. "Would you consider traveling with us?"
"I can't do that," said Goody Albright. Why did they suggest such a thing? "I must tend Kate and the farm. I have responsibilities here in Lexby. But before you leave can I make you tea? We have no bread—"
"Thank you; there's no time. We must help your neighbors."
"My thanks then, and God go with you."
Goody Albright dropped the bar into place once more and turned to Kate. The girl slept, chest rising and falling in natural breathing.
Goody Albright bent a knee for a moment in prayer. "Please, save my daughter." Then she took the jar from a kitchen shelf and dabbed cream into Kate's wound. She wondered if flesh rot struck in Hillborough or Kenham. Could any place in the kingdom be safe from a magic-borne pestilence?
* * *
"Oh, mama, I can't go anywhere." Kate covered her scarred cheek with spread fingers. "I can't let anyone see this."
"It is much better, love. No one in the village will notice. They've seen worse—all of them."
"Is the village really that bad?" Kate asked, pausing as she tried, one-handed, to tie her bodice-laces.
Goody Albright limped along beside Kate, finding the least-rutted section of the road into the village center. On both sides untended fields showed golden. Nearly harvest time.
In the commons before the headman's house a pitiful knot of people gathered. Remnants of families stood together, staring sidelong to see how their neighbors had fared. Only three of the Beck's ten? Goodman Beck, gaunt and pale, missing fingers from both hands. He was luckier than Titus.
Two little Decker girls clung to Widow Marshal's skirts, and young Avery Marshal leaned on a crutch, half one leg gone. I am luckier than he, thought Goody Albright.
Goody Leer and Goody Yarrow stood together, heads covered with black kerchiefs; had neither of their husbands survived?
The reason they had all gathered, a middle-aged man in the king's gold and blue livery, stood on the far side of the commons. He backed off when the villagers approached him, looking from face to face, his adam's apple bobbing as his gaze moved from one deformity to the next.
"People of Lexby," began the kingsman. His voice cracked; he cleared his throat and continued, "I bring a message from your sovereign, King Thomas of Trauland." He read from a roll of creamy parchment. "The wizards of Pantaj sent flesh rot to Lexby and Norberg, Nether Thatchhold and Emmer. King Thomas's wizards struck back, and now Pantaj suffers worse than did our kingdom."
A low moan from the villagers. "How could any suffer worse than we have?" growled Old Man Gray.
The kingsman licked his lips. "The wise women have declared this village clean, free of pestilence."
"Now that most of my family is gone," muttered Goodman Beck.
"And these wee lambs' mama and papa," said Widow Marshal.
Headman Preece, one arm in a sling and his head bandaged, stepped from his cottage doorway. "Hush, listen to what the man has to say."
The kingsman mopped his brow with one sleeve and continued, "The war has taken a grievous toll on the kingdom, and King Thomas has decreed that all able-bodied men will take up arms against the Pantaj."
The muttering turned to an outraged howl. "There are no able bodied in Lexby," Avery Marshal said, "the Pantaj have seen to that. Go and leave us honest folk alone."
"Nevertheless, you must prepare. King Thomas has spoken." The kingsman rolled the parchment, pushed it inside his jacket, and marched from the commons.
Cover design by Danica B. West, all rights reserved.
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Other stories by Julia H. West from Callihoo Publishing:
The Peachwood Flute (collaboration with Brook West)
Weeds (collaboration with Brook West)
|Banner by Danica B. West
This page created 13 December 2011
Last update 20 March 2014