The Plague Maiden (horror)


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  1. #1

    The Plague Maiden (horror)

    Come, sit with me, traveller! Care to buy a drink for an old man? I will make it worth your while, for I know many stories to pass your time with. Innmaid, fetch us two ales!

    You must wonder to what end I ask for your company, new friend. Fear not, for I am not trying to swindle you or gain your trust to ill ends. I am merely looking for pleasant company to pass time with. Don't mind those fools over there laughing. They call me an old drunk who will tell tall tales to anyone willing to buy him an ale, but what do they know! They haven't seen the things that I have seen in my long life...

    I see that I have piqued your interest, even though you look unconvinced. Let me tell you about myself a bit first.

    They call me Jacques, along with a number of much less flattering names. I used to be a soldier for much of my life, serving our King wherever need be, so I have travelled around a good share of foreign lands, seen many battles and many strange things. Again, ignore those ill-speaking sons of whores jeering and mocking me over there! Old Jacques may be an old drunk and many other things, but a liar he is not, every tale of my adventures being true to the word as Lord Christ is our Savior!

    I was born in the years of the Great Famine. It was a time of dire want, with harvests failing for several consecutive years, and the famine being so great that the peasants took to eating their seed, their draught beasts, and eventually each other. Parents would devour their children, armed bands of men would roam the countryside hunting for men as if they were beasts, and some wretched souls who were driven to madness by hunger would even take to digging up the recently-dead, smashing open their skulls and bones to get every last bit of flesh.

    It was in this time that I was born. My father was a peasant from Alencon, a cottage and a few acres of land being all the wealth to his name. He perished defending our house from one such band of roving man-eaters, and most of my brothers and sisters followed him to the grave on short notice, so my mother would tell me. My two older brothers had to do all the farm work to pay the rents, the toil evidently taking a toll on their health. After the two of them died in short succession when I was 14, and my good mother followed them to the grave with broken heart soon after, I was left all alone in this world, with no recourse but to beg and steal.

    They say that the Lord watches over orphans, however, and evidently He did watch over me indeed. I went over to Alencon in hopes of finding some honest work. It so happened that Count Charles, the lord of Alencon whom they called Magnanimous, was looking for bold men for his coming campaign to Flanders. His men-at-arms would at first hear none of me joining them, and would drive me away with blows of a cane, but I would tag along with the camp followers anyway. At first, I had to do the dirtiest and most humiliating work that no others would want, but beggars can't be choosers. With time, the men grew to accept me when they saw that I would carry out my duties humbly and without complaint. Eventually, one of the soldiers would take me under his wing, a man named Robert who would become like a father to me and instruct me in the art of war. Thus did my service in Count Charles' regiments began.

    I spent the coming years under the banners of our lord, marching wherever the King would summon him. With the grace of our Lord, Robert and I were spared by the sword and arrow in many battles, until that fateful day at Crecy.

    Now, I don't know what you may have heard of Crecy, there being many tales about it and most having gone from mouth to mouth until truth is no longer discernable from gossip, but know that no Frenchman disgraced himself with cowardice that day, regardless of what some foul tongues may lie about it now. If any man turned and ran, it was because God Almighty himself did not favour us that day, and no mortal sinner can hope to stand up against the will of heavens.

    Our army, headed by our King himself and accompanied by many noble knights from France and beyond had caught up with the Englishmen after a long and arduous march. The Englishmen had made camp on a hill and fortified the surrounding land, being well-rested after feasting on the loot taken from the poor peasant souls around Crecy. We formed our ranks and were about to march against the English encampment, when alas - the skies broke open and soaked the fields of Crecy with such a downpour I hardly remember seeing before or since. The greatest misfortune was that the Englishmen had with them several bombards and a multitude of bowmen, sporting their now-famed longbows, where our skirmish line was made of Genoese sellswords, famed for their skill with the crossbow. For you see - when the rain broke out, the English bowmen were quick to unstring their bows and hide the strings under their hats, where our men could not do the same with their crossbows. Furthermore, the rains had turned the field ahead into a bog, so the Genoese would leave their pavises behind to spare the effort of carrying them.

    When the rain finally stopped and our skirmishers made their advance, it turned out that their bowstrings were so soaked that their bolts would not even reach the enemy, much to the delight and ridicule of the Englishmen who would reply with taunts, rude gestures and volleys of their own cannonballs and arrows cast with their dry bowstrings. So many Genoese were struck down where they stood that the rest turned their tails and ran. Enraged by their cowardice, Count Charles and his knights charged and cut the craven dogs down, but alas, in doing so themselves came under barrage. Trying to save them, our King ordered a general advance, charging the English lines repeatedly only to end up being bogged down in the now churned-up mud of the battlefield and struck down by the never-ending hail of arrows. Many a fine chevalier including my master Count Charles fell that day, our King himself being wounded and barely escaping with his life. My regiment, dwindled to a quarter of its number, held out until dawn before the Englishmen finally advanced on us, and the few of us who were still standing had to run for their lives. It was then that my good friend and tutor Robert fell, dying in my arms with an English arrow through his neck, may God have mercy on his soul.

    Without a lord to call mine, I would wander south for the next year, seeking a new master to serve. It was here that I first heard of the great pestilence ravaging the Italian lands, and it was here that I met with the Plague Maiden.

    ---

    My mouth is dry from all the talking, and it is a mighty fine ale, wouldn't you think, new friend? Please, be so kind, buy another round for an old sinner, for the story I am about to tell you is the strangest and marvellous, and also most terrible one yet. To this day, I cannot bear to remember the things that transpired during and after that fateful encounter with a good share of strong drink in my head. There... Now, I promised to tell of my encounter with the Plague Maiden, and tell you I will, so that you may be the judge of whether I'm just a crazy old drunkard telling tall tales to any who will buy him a drink, or a man who has turned to drink to forget his sorrows and guilt over past misdeeds.

    I happened to be in the South at that time, a few leagues from Carcassonne, if memory serves me right. I had heard word that Count de Montfort was looking for men who knew their way with the sword and spear, and made my way there in hope to join his banner. It first came to my note that I was the only traveller headed south, droves of folk making their way north. There were numberless peasants, carrying all they owned on their backs, there were many merchants and other city-folk with their belongings in carts, even the odd knight with his flock of retainers and servants, but all as one had the look of terror in their eyes, and few were willing to speak of what they had beholden.

    I questioned some of these refugees to no avail, until a teary-eyed old man told me of a most dreadful plague that had seized the land to the south, the likes of which had not been seen in living memory nor mentioned in chronicles. The man told me he had buried his wife and five children with his own hands, all of them coming down with an illness so terrible and repulsive he refused to even describe it. He spoke of the dead littering the streets of Avignon and bloated corpses floating down the Rhone in droves, so vile in their corruption that even scavenging dogs and carrion birds refused to touch them, of the Pope in Avignon having locked away in his palace and commanded roaring bonfires being lit on all sides of his chair at all times to keep the pestilence away, and of the lawlesness and debauchery that would reign in the lands beset by the plague, men doing as they pleased and fearing neither law nor God.

    Although the old man had not seen it with his own eyes, he had heard others tell of the Plague appearing personified in the cities and villages strangled by its grip. In some places, it would take the form of a cloaked spectre on an undead steed, choking stench of death and clouds of corpse-flies emanating from its decayed nostrils and the air itself darkening in an unholy shadow around this terrible ghost. This spectre would haunt the streets at nights, earth itself moaning under the slow, heavy footsteps of its mount. In its gaunt bony hands, it would carry a scythe and an hourglass, stopping at each door to examine it. If the hourglass had ran out, the ghost would swing its scythe at the house, and surely enough there wouldn't be a living soul left inside within three days. Others said the Plague would travel the countryside by day, on the back of an ordinary black steed and in the attire of a rather ordinary gentleman, its only marks being sickly pallor of skin, and accompanying stench of death and a large tome in its hands. From this tome, the Plague would read the names of those bound to die wherever it passed, and those who heard their names called would fall deathly ill on short notice. Yet others from the seaside had mentioned a black-sailed ghost ship crewed by skeletons and with a headless captain making port, bringing horror and death wherever it went.

    Disheartened by his tales, I decided it prudent to turn around and go back north, for this dreadful plague had been last sighted on the outskirts of Carcassonne some days ago, so the old man told me, and could be expected to appear in the city any day now as it had done in so many other places before.

    Fearful that the Plague might ride down the crowded road, calling out the names of travellers it rode by, I decided to take a small and little-travelled country road through the hills instead. Although there were plenty of wolves in the forests and gangs of brigands were not unheard of in these parts as well, I had little fear of mortal men or beasts with my trusty battle-axe at my side, so I deemed it wiser to travel alone rather than run afoul with a spectre of pestilence that no mortal weapons would harm.

    Some hours passed as I made my way through the countryside and forests, not meeting a soul along the way, the deserted cottages indicating their residents had apparently packed up and fled along with the rest from these lands. No sooner had I made my way to a small river, when I heard pitiful cries from the forest. Alarmed, I drew my axe and rushed to aid whatever soul was in peril there.

    In a small sun-lit meadow, I found a maiden, the fairest my eyes had ever beholden. Her skin was smooth and white as ivory, her eyes as bewitchingly green as emeralds, and her long silken hair as black as a raven's wing. She was wearing plain white clothes of fine making, torn and stained with blood, a bloody kerchief wrapped around her foot, and cried bitterly.

    "Good day, my lady," I bid her respectfully, for it seemed to me that a maiden of such fair complexion and blemishless features had to be of noble birth, "What ill has befallen you that you sit all alone in the middle of this forest?"

    She seemed frightened by my approach and cried out: "Oh, please, good sir, have pity on a helpless girl!"

    "Fear not, my lady," I assured her, "I will allow no harm to come to you! Pray, tell, what happened with you!"

    "I was travelling with my servants to Lastours, when we were waylaid by highwaymen. My poor servants were all killed to a man, and I barely escaped with my life," the girl sobbed, "But not before their arrows had struck me and my horse, which expired in the hills. Now I sit here, hurt and helpless, and know not what will become of me!"

    "You need not worry, my lady," I spoke, "For I will tend to your wounds and escort you to this Lastours, wherever it may be."

    "It is castle a few leagues from here," the girl explained as I knelt down to examine her wounds, "Good sir, if you would be so kind and help me there, I would see that you are generously rewarded."

    Still fearful to my touch, she revealed her beautiful ivory leg inasmuch propriety would allow for my examination. It had been a long time since I had last been with a woman, so impure thoughts did cross my mind for a moment, but I chased them away, for making unwanted advances on a helpless girl in distress would surely be a foulest sin against God even for such a hardened and habitual sinner as myself.

    There indeed was an arrow-wound through her calf, though to my surprise, without any arrow to be seen. As I wrapped her wound with a fresh strip of cloth torn from my own cloak, I remarked:

    "You are very brave and strong indeed, my lady! Not every man would have the strength of will to pull out an arrow from his own wound, and I have seen quite a few men with such wounds."

    She smiled at me weakly, and I thought that I would be doing myself a favour indeed by taking this fine maiden to her father or husband that evidently awaited her in Lastours, maybe the lord of Lastours himself. Surely he would reward me for such a favour well, maybe even take me into his service.

    "You are very kind to me, good sir," she spoke when I was done, "Alas, I fear my leg will not be of much use to me now. Would it be too much if I asked you to help me on the way?"

    "Not at all, my lady," I said, "I shall carry you as far as my strength will allow, and protect you while you rest, should we fail to make our way to Lastours by nightfall. And please, call me sir no more, for I am just a humble lowborn."

    "How do I call you then, good man?" the girl inquired.

    "I am called Jacques," I gave her my name, but didn't think it proper to ask for hers, for the names of noble ladies are not meant to be uttered in the presence of common men like myself.

    "Will you carry me to Lastours, Jacques?" she asked almost playfully, as if her wound pained her no longer at all.

    "That I will," I said, and leaned down to take her up on my arms.

    No sooner had I done so when I realized that this lass was far heavier than her form would betray. I had to muster all my strength to lift her.

    "For a hardened soldier, your hands sure seem feeble, Jacques," she giggled, and I thought it strange how she knew my trade, never having mentioned it, though my axe and dress had evidently betrayed that to her keen eyes.

    "Would you mind if I carried you on my shoulders instead, my lady?" I asked, and she agreed. As I took her upon my shoulders, the weight of the earth itself seemed to settle down on my back, but I clenched my teeth and went on, determined to take the girl to Lastours as promised. As I carried her on my back, I had expected the pleasant warmth of a woman's thighs against my cheeks as she sat astride my shoulders, but her thighs felt cold as ice, having the earthy scent of a freshly-dug grave rather than that pleasing scent of a young and well-kept girl in her prime.

    I carried her across the river ford, nearly stumbling several times, and struggled onwards, pace by heavy pace.

    "Have you heard word of this dreadful plague of late, my lady?" I asked after some time to keep conversation, though I was not sure such terrible things were a proper subject for a young lady to hear.

    "I have," she said almost cheerfully, "They say it came from across the sea, from the lands of Saracens and Tartars. In the cities of the Holy Land where a hundred thousand souls once lived, now barely a soul remains alive, and in some castles whose lords would throw a grand feast in hopes that the pest would not reach them behind the walls, servants would find only the dead at the feasting table next morning."

    "You sure seem undisturbed by such dreadful news, my lady," I spoke.

    "If it can be helped, then there is no need to worry, and if it cannot, there is no point," I felt her shrug, "Death comes for all men, sparing neither prince nor pauper, and all are equal before her. Some meet her on the battlefield with sword in hand, to others she comes at old and infirm age, some others she grasps from out of their lover's embrace, and yet others she rides down on the pale horse of pestilence. But that she never leaves empty-handed is as certain as sun rising in east and setting in west. Why then fear that which God himself has set for a certainty, however it may come?"

    I had nothing to contest that with, so I continued to carry her in silence. To keep herself, and perhaps myself entertained, she started to hum a merry song. I found it strange that the girl spoke of fell things like death and pestilence with such uncaring ease and generally seemed to be in a merry mood despite being just attacked and wounded by highwaymen, but thought that it was perhaps simply her way of dealing with her dread. I had, after all seen men laugh off the horrors of battlefield that would numb any decent soul and mind before.

    The sun was low over the hilltops and the shadows were growing very long by the time the towers of Lastours finally appeared in sight. Despite being exhausted like a draught horse in the yoke of a merciless master, I picked up pace, eager to relieve myself of my burden, for the girl seemed to be getting heavier with each step. I could feel her shiver in trepidation, evidently awaiting reunion with her loved ones. Finally we entered the castle town.

    "Do you still have my kerchief, Jacques?" she asked, visibly excited, "Pray, tell that you have preserved it, for it was of great value to me!"

    For some reason, I had tucked it behind my belt indeed, perhaps intent on returning it to her later. To my surprise, she began to wave the bloodied silk at every house and passerby who didn't seem to notice her at all.

    "Where to, my lady?" I asked, expecting to head for the castle, but to my surprise she pointed me towards the town's small church instead. Gathering that she would want to thank the Lord for her rescue first, I indulged her request.

    No sooner had I stepped inside the church yard and the small, poorly kept graveyard that it contained, when my companion asked to be let down. Instead of going to the church, she went between the graves, dancing merrily so that it seemed to me that the poor lass had evidently lost her mind from the earlier terrors, before it struck me that she wasn't limping in the least despite having sustained a wound that would require good two weeks in bed to recover from. My bandage slipped off from her leg, revealing only unbroken, unblemished marble skin as if the wound had never been there, while the maiden continued to prance and leap among the graves with unbridled joy, waving her kerchief all about.

    "Thank you, Jacques!" she smiled, noticing my confusion, "I have long sought to pay this castle and town a visit! The grass in the graveyard hasn't been cut for so long. People aren't too keen on dying here, evidently. But not to worry, that will change soon and this place will see plenty of new graves..."

    "Who are you, in Christ's name?!" I cried out, cross-signing as I noticed an inhuman, otherworldy shine in her emerald eyes as the last rays of setting sun turned the sky blood-red above the dark hills behind her.

    "You never cared to ask for my name, though you should have guessed by now," the girl seemed almost offended, "My name is Pesta, which means "plague". You have brought plague to Lastours, Jacques."

    So there I stood, pale and frozen in absolute horror before the foul spectre that I had so hoped to avoid and which had so connivingly tricked me into aiding it by assuming the appearance of an innocent maiden in peril.

    "You need not fear me, Jacques," the ghoul spoke, approaching me, "I am not like mortal men who entice others with vain promises. I promised you a reward, and that is a promise I shall keep."

    With that, she leaned towards me and pressed her lips against mine, her touch cold as ice and her breath chilling and earthy as a freshly-dug grave, a chilling gust of wind bringing about a slight, lingering stench of death as a herald of what was about to befall this town.

    "For your kindness, I shall spare you. This kiss will ward all disease from you for the rest of your days, which are still plentiful," she told me, "Just know that the next time we meet, you will have to follow me where all men must go one day. Now farewell, Jacques, and live well."

    Overwhelmed with horror, I fainted. When I woke up, the Plague Maiden was nowhere to be found.

    ---

    The Maiden in flesh was perhaps gone, but not the pestilence that she had brought. The next day, barely a soul in Lastours was in good health but me, and within days, her words were indeed fulfilled, the graveyard being overfilled to the point where the townsfolk had to start dumping bodies in the nearby ravine, unable to cut a deep-enough trench in the rocky hard soil for all of them. They would then become ill themselves, all overcome with swollen groins and necks, coughing up blood and gangrenous boils oozing vile corruption, the fever driving many mad before they expired, with barely a soul remaining alive and the survivors resorting to pulling down houses on top of the dead and setting them on fire, there being too few to bury the dead. From Lastours, the pestilence spread into the surrounding countryside, and wherever the Maiden went invisible with her bloody kerchief, the stench of pus and decay and the fevered moans of agony soon followed, providing a bountiful feast for the crows.

    Thus did the Great Pestilence sweep all over Christendom and the world beyond, leaving desolate villages and empty cities in its wake, only unburied bare bones attesting to the fate of their residents in many places. I walked amidst it all untouched and unmolested, witnessing every horror, excess and depravity conceivable to man, and oftentimes wondered whether it was the plague or Man's base nature that was worse.

    Many years have passed since those dreadful days, many battles have been fought and many other adventures had, but none quite the like of my run-in with the Maiden. As far as her promise goes, she has indeed been true to her word, no illness ever having befallen me since even at times when men were dropping like autumn leaves around me. But now I am old, and my days grow short. I have lived a long and adventurous life, done many kind things and also many sins, which may the Lord forgive when the Maiden returns to take me with her.

    So I spend my remaining days drinking in this tavern. Not to comfort myself, for I have long come to accept my fate, but rather out of pity for people like you, new friend, and those sorry drunk bastards laughing at us again over there. All of you are too young to remember the horrors that the Maiden brought with her back in those times, and it is memories of these things that make me want to drown them in ale and wine. So I can't really blame you for not believing me. But worry not - the Maiden will be back for me soon enough, and then you will be able to hear and see what I saw.

    Which I pray to God you don't have to, young friend.

  2. #2
    Great! You write with a masterful voice. Ever since reading Ancient Sorceries by Algernon Blackwood and E. M. Forster's The Story of a Panic, the pleasant rural départements of the French countryside and other similarly-forgotten European locales have fascinated me. There's something about that land, isn't there, the arboreal too-quiet, the sense of remoteness, the locals that seem to care nothing for foreigners, all conspiring to keep something out - or in.

    The only things I wanted to comment on were the change in personality of the girl, from whem Jacques picks her up, to when she says he is feeble for a soldier, seemed quite sudden. She was all sobbing and in distress, then a moment later she is all cheeky. Could you ratchet that tension, rather than let it out all in one go? Let us start to doubt her but not be sure, before the reveal. Also I guess I wanted the ending to carry a bit more payoff. I thought perhaps old Jacques would be the bringer of plague himself, that the townsfolk of Lastours would raise their crosses to him for having the nerve to survive, before wheezing their last. I did also find his use of "consecutive" and one other, I can't remember what, just a little out of character. But that's minor stuff. I loved the Gothic creepsterism of this: "gangrenous boils oozing vile corruption", "Thus did the Great Pestilence sweep all over Christendom" - fine sentences!


    Hidden Content Monthly Fiction Challenge


    The first cut don't hurt at all
    The second only makes you wonder
    The third will have you on your knee
    s
    - Propaganda, "Duel"

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    It's the Mantasy!
    - Anonymous








  3. #3
    Have your computer read this aloud. I suspect that you'll find that what the reader "hears" is very unlike what you do when you read.

    You're presenting this as the voice of a storyteller, and when you read it you can hear your own performance. Your voice is alive with emotion. And at the same time you know the facial expressions you will use, the gestures you'll visually punctuate with, and the body language that will amplify or moderate the performance.

    But what does the reader have? Only what the words suggest, based on what has gone before and the reader's own background. So when you read, "Innmaid, fetch us two ales!" you hear it in the voice of your character. But the reader doesn't yet know where we are in time and space. They don't know what's going on, or who our protagonist is. They don't know if they're in modern day, in an unknown country, in the past, the future, or off the Earth. You do, so you can see the place. But you cheat. You had the place before you wrote the words. The reader has an noninflected voice in a generic tavern.

    The problem you face is that a storyteller performs the story. But our medium does not support either sound or picture.

    This method can be made to work, if you provide a substitute for the missing performance in the form of pictures, and tell it as a graphic novel. Take a look at Kory Merritt's, Derring-Do Dan. The opening few pages don't show it, but you'll soon see that it's presented very much like your story, except that the illustrations add hugely to the ambience, and make up for the missing storyteller's performance.

    Unfortunately, our medium won't support the techniques of verbal storytelling without something like that.

  4. #4
    This is a good, well written piece.

    I think Jay makes a good point about the way the story is introduced. Usually I advocate throwing the reader directly into the action, but in this case it isn't really action but a kind of monologue that brings to mind a Shakespearean soliloquy. Actually, I could see this quite easily working as part of a script, and doing so would address much of Jay's concern. I am not sure this works quite so well as a short story.

    I am once again impressed by your command of language and while your style with its over-long sentences and use of archaisms doesn't do much for me as a matter of taste I can appreciate good writing when I see it. let's give it a solid B+.

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