NEW FEATURE FOR THE HORROR ZINE!
Part One of a novel by Jeani Rector
WE ALL FALL DOWN
(historical fiction about the bubonic plague in 1348 England)
You can buy the complete novel HERE.
WE ALL FALL DOWN
(before the plague reaches England)
The flea was hungry.
Its flattened body, similar in shape to a sunfish, made for easy maneuvering through the hair shafts. Because its large hind legs were adapted for jumping, the flea could travel quickly, with the ability to leap seven inches vertically and thirteen inches horizontally. It had a row of spines that could catch the hair with a backward pull, so it would not be easily dislodged if its host attempted to scratch it off.
With its rows of sharp mandibles, the flea bit into the flesh of its victim, but the flea’s bite went unnoticed until salivary secretions caused an itching sensation in the rat. Even though it had just punctured the skin of the unfortunate host to extract its meal of blood, the flea was still hungry.
This flea was infected with Yersinia pestis, a bacterium that, in the quantities multiplying within its system, created a blockage in its throat. When the flea attempted to feed, the meal could not pass below the blockage. Instead, the flea regurgitated the blood back into the rat because it was unable to swallow.
The rat only received its own blood back after more Yersinia pestis was added from the flea’s system. The flea would eventually starve to death. The host received the regurgitated blood containing the bacterium, and would inevitably die of the disease the bacterium caused. The flea and the rat were the original vectors in an event of horrific magnitude, because the bubonic plague had arrived in medieval England.
Elissa sat in front of her looking glass, studying the face that looked back at her in the mirror. The brushing she had just given her hair caused the golden tresses to fall around her white shoulders in waves. She knew that vanity was a sin, but she was secretly glad she was pretty. Gazing at her large, gray-blue eyes, Elissa noticed a couple of hairs growing from her eyebrows that had, just days earlier it seemed, been fiercely plucked. Sighing, Elissa reached for the tweezers. She winced as she removed any wayward hairs she found, leaving a smooth, hairless brow. No matter how painful it was to pluck, this was the fashion.
"You might want to pull out some of the head hair gowning at your forehead," suggested Fern, the maid. "After all, the larger the forehead, the more beautiful the lady."
"And less head lice." Elissa made a face. "No, I don't want to pluck any more hairs. Besides, the nebule on my head-dress will cover the top of my forehead. Would you help me braid my hair? Oh, and I want to wear my embroidered dress today. Could you get it for me please?"
Fern rushed to get the dress. Bringing it to her mistress, she said, "This dress will certainly impress the knights at the tournament. It's cut low, so it will accentuate your long neck. I'll bet John of Essex notices you today."
Elissa blushed, for she would be seventeen in December, and she knew it was time she married. She had confided to Fern about her secret admiration of John Wythe. John was twenty, and had recently become a knight. Elissa was thinking about how his dark eyes would crinkle when he smiled. she dreamily imagined him standing tall and straight in the room before her, his brown hair falling down to his neck, his chin strong and jutting, and his broad shoulders tapering into a thin waist.
She felt a thrill ripple through her body as she thought of his touch. She suddenly trembled as though she was chilled as she pictured in her mind details of the last time she had seen him. Elissa had secretly met with John in the stable, stealthily creeping into the night for a forbidden encounter. Although he had wanted to lay in the straw with her, she had put limits on his desires. Would she let him explore more of her body the next time they met? All at the same time, the idea was both abhorrent yet incredibly tantalizing.
Elissa liked to think about her meetings with John and to envisage future meetings. She scripted potential interactions between her and John in her mind over and over again, each time imagining different twists in her little fantasy plays so that the outcome was never the same from one day to the next. But in real life, Elissa knew that she would never permit her fantasies to completely materialize unless she and John were married. Still, she wondered if she dared to give John a little peek at herself the next time they met.
I'll see John at today's tournament, Elissa thought. She gook special care in the way she dressed, because she wanted to ensure that John would notice her. She practically dove into her dress, and when it was positioned properly, she pushed the bodice down to reveal the tops of her small breasts. She tucked her braids up into her headpiece, which was a soft tan color, enhanced by gold stitching and a veil that covered her ears and gathered at the back of her neck.
Finally Elissa was finished readying herself. When she met her parents outside by the carriage, her father scowled at her. "I don't like what you've got on," William told her. "That dress is too low at the bust. You're too young to wear it."
Elissa had anticipated this reaction from her father. That was why she had dallied so long to get dressed. She wanted to make sure that it would be too late for him to insist that she go back and change. She knew her father would never want to miss even a second of the day's events. She took a chance and said, "I can go back and change, but that would take a long time."
"No, it's too late now. Get in the carriage," William told her irritably, and Elissa smiled inwardly. How well she knew her father.
Even though the field prepared for the jousting tournament was close to the castle, Elissa rode in the carriage with her father and her mother, the Lady Eleanor. The carriage heaved as it bumped along the hardpan dirt of the road that lay between the castle and the neighboring village. Elissa knew that her family was to be a proper and fitting example to the peasants who lived in the village. So although the field lay within walking distance between the castle and the village, William insisted they ride.
"Who will be there?" Elissa asked her father.
"Only the nobility from Essex county are invited to this tournament," William told his daughter. "This is a formal event, with no peasants allowed. We need to make a good impression on our neighbors from Essex. Peasants would only drag the dirt and filth from the fields into the stands, and their ignorant ways would be an embarrassment, so of course they won't be in attendance."
Elissa had never spent much time with peasants, having no reason to be exposed to them, but she listened to her father's demoralization of the lower class with only one ear. Young enough to be an idealist, Elissa privately thought that her father never had a kind word to say about most people in general, so she frequ3ntnly ignored his opinions. Still, she loved her father fiercely. It was a paradox that she couldn't understand.
But there was something else on Elissa's mind this morning besides the tournament, and even besides her fantasies about John Wythe. She had been hearing the servants gossip among themselves about something that worried her. While she had his attention in the confines of the small carriage, Elissa decided to ask her father about what was bothering her.
"I heard the servants talking about a great pestilence in France," Elissa said. "They say it's rampant, and that a lot of people are sick, even dying. Daddy, do you know anything about it?"
"I've heard talk, but it's all nonsense!" William exclaimed. "You've no reason to fear. Isn't England gaining control over France? Didn't King Edward just win an easy victory in Sluys, Crecy, and Calais? That just shows you how incredibly weak the French people are. They have no fortitude, so of course they get sick! If the French people are diseased, then they should give penance for their sins, because God does not approve of their resistance to England's rightful claims. God is punishing the French, so that they will see the error of their ways."
Elissa persisted. "Still Daddy, I can't help but overhear what the servants are saying. Even Fern said something about it. she told me that this pestilence came out of Cathay by shops that made landfall in France. She's afraid because the port in Suffolk is so near Wynham Castle."
"We'll have no more talk of this," William said. "How dare you listen to the ignorance of peasants. Servants don't know their place any more. Don't be as ignorant as they are by giving any credence to their tales. And you treat Fern like a friend instead of the maid that she is. You need to keep a firm hand with servants so that they do not forget their lot in life."
"I like Fern," Elissa whispered quietly, and no one heard.
Instead, her father changed the subject. "I wish Henry could be here for this. I'd like to see him perform in the jousting match."
Elissa silently considered her brother Henry, who was two years older than herself. she thought, Henry looks a lot like me, but he's not like me at all. I would never admit this out loud, but I hope he stays in military training for a long time.
Quickly the carriage arrived at the field that would hold the war games. Elissa saw that anticipation had everyone giddy, and she let herself be carried away with the excitement of the crowd, shutting the servants' gossip into a compartment at the back of her mind.
The seats were filled to capacity, but special places had been saved for Elissa's noble family. In the stands, the wealth of the people in attendance was obvious. Everyone was brilliantly dressed, and the vivid colors of their clothing swam in waves of constant movement as people enthusiastically waved flags and blew horns. Ribbons fluttered as the ladies threw them down towards favored knights. The noise of the crowd escalated into a loud clamoring as the first round of knights emerged onto the field below.
Below on the ground, great ceremony was observed as the knights chose their opponents bowing to the crowd and delighting in the admiration they received. Elissa was awed by the energy that seemed to radiate from everyone around her. Even the horses appeared to feel the excitement as the muscled steeds pranced and snorted, draped in colorful fighting gear.
The simulated battle between knights from different regions began in earnest. Opponents were chosen, and each knight suited up in complete fighting gear: helmets, chain neck-guards, body armor, and metal footwear. All knights wore linen padding under their helmets to muffle any blows; otherwise, if a sword struck the metal helmet, the resulting clang would be deafening.
On the ground, knights charged at break-neck speed towards each other, knocking one another off their steeds with long, blunt-ended poles. When one knight was overthrown, another immediately took over. Defeated knights were captured and held for ransom back to their lords, sometimes in exchange for horses, sometimes for armor. It was all in great, raucous fun, and it was a way for the knights to show off to the public and bask in its glory, at least for the winners. The defeated lost not only the mock battle, but their pride as well.
Elissa held her breath when she saw John Wythe ride onto the field with the knights from Essex. This time two group of knights were to ride against each other, five in each group. The noise was deafening when the riders impacted against each other, their spikes cracking, and their armor crashing.
Suddenly something went very wrong. A young knight was knocked form the saddle, and began to fall from his horse. His metal shoe caught in the stirrup, leaving him dangling dangerously, still attached to his mount. The young knight tried to pull himself up, but was unable to grasp the saddle and couldn't find the reins. The horse, already pumped with adrenaline and spooked from the strange behavior of the rider, bolted across the field.
The stands grew abruptly silent, and then a collective gasp went through the crowd. The young knight was dragged helplessly by his running horse. Time stopped, and so did the other knights on the field. Suddenly one of the riders turned his mount to chase the runaway horse as an attempt to intercept it. Others followed suit and broke into action to stop the young knight's horse.
Elissa inhaled sharply as she saw John Wythe in the lead of the thundering group of knights chasing the runaway horse. John caught up with the fleeing mount, and reached to grasp the reins that were flapping in the wind. The young knight, still helplessly dragged, was unconscious, probably very badly hurt if not already dead. Leaning out of his saddle at a dangerous angle as his own horse raced forward, John Wythe was able to grab the reins of the young knight's runaway mount. John pulled back on the reins, and the knight's horse shook his head violently, but slowed down. John pulled the runaway horse to a stop.
The crowd suddenly came to life, screaming and cheering. Horns blew, and multitudes of ribbons came fluttering down, along with material ripped from sleeves to show their support. The crowd was ecstatic. What a show!
As John Wythe remained on his own horse, holding the reins of the trembling and frothing young knight's horse, the other knights leaped from their mounts to assess the damage to the victim.
"He's alive!" exclaimed one of the knights at the top of his voice, and all around Elissa, the crowd went even wilder. They screamed and banged on the seats. It became pandemonium as one spectator rushed onto the field. Others followed, and they ran to touch John Wythe, to bang him on the back, and to shake his hand. John's mount reared up, and other knights pushed the spectators back.
"Go to your seats!" cried one of the knights in the circle surrounding John. Slowly the spectators crowding about moved off, and the knights were able to carry the injured young man off the field.
Elissa had watched it all from the stands, barely able to contain her excitement. Surely the bravery of John Wythe would impress her father. Would her father consider this act worthy enough to allow John her hand in marriage?
When her father was distracted, Elissa slipped from her seat and made her way into the crowd. She knew her father would punish her once he discovered her absence, but Elissa felt that she had to talk to John, no matter what the consequences.
The crowd was festive, and contained high classes of people from both Suffolk and Essex counties, from nobility to merchants and artisans. As the peasants had not been invited, their absence was noticeable.
Elissa carefully stepped down from the stands, pushing past people who pushed back at her. Never venturing far from the castle before, she was unprepared for the contrast of the good humor of some people, and the rude mannerisms of others. she didn't want to shove people out of her way, but he crowd was caught up in the excitement of the moment and she was constantly blocked as people failed to let her pass. Still, Elissa was determined to find John, so she firmly pushed people aside, continuously saying 'excuse me' to deaf ears.
She spotted John off the field as he gave his horse into a servant's care. It was the incentive she needed, so she became assertive and elbowed her way through he unyielding crowd. Making her way over to John, she waved and caught his attention.
"Keep your saddle," Elissa said, "because of course Daddy doesn't know. But I didn't come to talk to you about my father. Oh, John, you were wonderful! You made me so proud. You are the bravest knight in all the county!"
The corners of John's brown eyes crinkled as he smiled. "Go back to your seat," he said loudly for the benefit of bystanders. Then he whispered one word: "Tonight."
Elissa's heart raced. She nodded. She understood the message. Then she turned to go back up the stands to where her parents were seated.
It was easier to go back up the stand than it had been to navigate down.
"Where have you been?" demanded William as she sate beside him once again.
Elissa forced herself to look her father directly in the eye. "I went to congratulate John Wythe. His courage is extraordinary. Daddy, he's the man I want to marry."
William's face darkened. "We've been over this before. You are promised to Sir Gregory gladden, Lord of Framlingham."
"Oh Daddy," Elissa protested, "Sir Gregory is too old. He's almost as old as you are."
The blood rose to William's cheeks. "Gregory's wife has died, God rest her soul, so now we've been given this opportunity that he is looking for another wife. It's been agreed that land is to be exchanged between our families when this marriage takes place. There is to be no argument from you! How spoiled you are. A girl's fancy comes and goes with every whim. But marriage is serious business, and you will be the lady of the castle at Framlingham. That's high status indeed, not to mention the land that will be added to my estate with the merging of our bloodlines. As his wife, you will be held in high regard. About John Wythe, he may be a knight, but his family owns no property, so he'll be lucky if he rises to the rank of squire. And, as far as age goes, there's still a lot of life in someone my age."
Was there nothing Elissa could do? She could not imagine herself married to Sir Gregory, held in bondage to a man who was reputed to be mean-tempered and cruel. But she knew it was true that the farmland held by the Framlingham castle was fertile. In these seasons of unusually heavy rains and frequent crop failures, obtaining some of the Framlingham land could save Wynham from the lean times it had been experiencing as of late.
Well, she thought, I'm not married yet. She was determined to find a way to meet John Wythe later that night in the castle's stables.
When evening came, Elissa sat on her bed. She looked around her bedroom that was so familiar to her after so many years. The bed was curtained, and the pillows were feather-filled linen. Off to the side of the bedchamber was an anteroom where the maid was to sleep, positioned to ensure that Fern would be within calling distance of her mistress. A chamber pot was by the window, and a wash bowl was by the hearth.
She called to Fern, who instantly came out of the anteroom. Elissa was glad to see her, for despite William's disdain of the working class, Elissa liked Fern greatly and could never be stern with her. As a result, Fern was fiercely loyal to Elissa. it was this loyalty that Elissa counted upon for what she had planned that evening.
"I want to go out to the stable to see John tonight," Elissa told Fern. "Please don't let anybody into y room. If my parents want to see me, tell them I'm asleep."
They waited until ten o'clock, then Elissa opened her bedroom door. She peeked down the long hallways that were lighted by torches, placed in holders on the stone walls. The torches shone, wavering form the drafts that gently blew down the corridors. The flickering flames caused the lights to dance, creating an illusion of shadow-creatures creeping stealthily through the passageways. Elissa was scared, so she trembled as she crept from her bedroom and hurriedly made her way down the hall.
She reached the main stairwell, desperately hoping that she would not be observed as she went down to the second floor of the keep where the exit was located. She wore slippers so that her tread would be silent, and she gathered her cloak and her simple tunic tightly around her to guard against the cold. Finally Elissa reached the main entrance. A guard let her pass, having already been forewarned by Fern of Elissa's passage and sworn to secrecy.
The night air was cool and crisp, and the sky was incredibly clear. The moon was a tiny crescent, so Elissa felt secure that she would not be seen. millions of stars shimmered and sparkled, and the night sounds were beautiful as frogs called and the last of the late-season crickets sang. Elissa took a deep breath of the fragrant night air, and felt how wonderful it was to be young and alive, with a future so full of promise if only she could marry the one she chose.
She made her way down the steps to the ground, then scampered along the castle grounds, holding her cloak tightly to hide her face. Her slippers had thin soles, and Elissa felt every small pebble she stepped upon. She quickly navigated the castle road that led to the stable. Elissa entered, and her nose was assaulted by scents of sweating animals and manure.
She stood there, watching, afraid; then a form came out of the darkness. John Wythe approached Elissa and enveloped her into his arms.
Gripping her tightly, John whispered, "Tonight will be the night."
They kissed passionately, and then John took Elissa's hand, leading her to a pile of clean, unused animal bedding. They kissed while he gently lowered her to the fragrant straw.
And then Elissa panicked. She broke out of his embrace. "I can't do this," she said, trying to catch her breath. "I cannot behave as though I were a wife."
John drew back, and she could see his scowl even in the dim liught of the stables. She knew his temper was short because his need was great. "I can't make you my wife unless you persuade your father to accept me as a son-in-law. If we do this, your father will either kill me or allow me to marry you. I'll take that chance."
"I can't," Elissa said. "I shouldn't have come here; I see that now." She started to get up, but John pulled her back down upon the straw.
"I'm leaving tomorrow," he said.
"What! Leaving? Where? Why?"
"I've been ordered to France because their King Phillip is hostile. Our King Edward has been patient, but now England must defend our territory in Normandy. Our past few months of peace are coming to an end. So you see, Elissa, this is our last night together. You must give in to me."
When she started to object once again, John kissed her on the mouth, stopping her protests. Gently but firmly, he pushed her backwards on the straw until she lay prone. He removed the cloak away from her head, and removed the strings that held her braids in place. Elissa's long hair tumbled down and fell freely onto the straw, blending the similar colors of the fragrant bedding and her golden hair together. John combed his fingers through her hair, loosening the braids further. He seemed to delight as pieces of straw caught the golden strands and intertwined among them.
Then things continued from there. John pulled her tunic own over a shoulder, and she felt him taste her smooth skin with a flick of his tongue. He pressed her body down firmly into the straw so that she was unable to move away from him.
Her brain became inundated with confused thoughts as she fought feelings of panic. Half of her wanted John to continue, but the other, more dominant half had been conditioned by the rules of society. Virginity was a commodity that was highly valued.
She had to decide. She had to decide right now, before it became too late. What should she do?
Should she let John continue to make advances upon her? Or stop the passion before it was too late? Decide, decide!
He began unwinding he cordage that was laced at her waist. That meant he was opening the front of her dress. He murmured softly, "If you can convince your father to allow our marriage, my title will be equal to yours."
What did he say? More importantly, what had he meant?
Elissa felt anger pass through her at hearing his words. Suddenly her decision was made. She pushed John off and sat up, pulling her dress closed around her. She could sense his confusion. But for her, the spell was broken.
"Why did you stop me?" John asked, his voice thick with impatience. "Did I hurt you?"
She looked directly into his face. "Do you love me? Or do you just want to take the title our marriage would give to you?"
"I think my questions were clear."
"You sure know how to extinguish a man's desire," John said.
Elissa re-laced her bodice. She knew he was angry and frustrated because he would have to remain unsatisfied on this night. She began to wind up her hair to tuck it under her cloak, but John stopped her.
He took a small knife from his shirt, and gently cut off a small lock of Elissa's hair.
"I'll keep this," he told her, "so you will always be with me." He put the hair up to his nose. "It smells like the straw where we lay, and it looks like a ray of the sun. I'll keep it in a pocket next to my heart."
Elissa hugged him. "I don't think I was ready for what almost happened tonight. But maybe when you come back . . . when can you come back from France?"
"When I can," he said, "and that's all I know. But I will be back. And when I do, we'll finish what we started tonight. In the meantime, keep trying to change your father's mind about allowing me to marry you."
John kissed Elissa a final time. Then she went out the stable door into the cool night and hurried back to her room in Wynham Castle.
It was a ghost ship.
When the men from the dock climbed aboard, they cautiously walked along the deck and the galley. Unmindful of the creaking timbers, the five men banded together in an apprehensive group as they explored the upper level of the seemingly empty ship.
The men who were upon the drifting ship had been ordered to investigate the apparent abandonment of a seaworthy vessel. They took notice of the empty crow's nest, the deserted helm, and the vacant galley. Something was very wrong, indeed.
As a group, the men descended the companionway into the crew's quarters, which ran the width of the ship. They kept their heads down to avoid the low beams of the ship's bowels. the man nearest the front of the group tentatively reached to open a cabin door.
Afraid to look, one man made the sign of the cross on his chest. But finally unable to resist, he too decided that he wanted to see the devastation. Together the five men gazed in alarm at what lay before their eyes. Collectively they had all seen horrible things, but nothing could have prepared them for what they witnessed now.
And as they stood paralyzed with horror, the five men completely ignored the rats that crept upside to the deck of the ship.
Elissa walked around as though in a daze; she went through the motions of everyday life but she knew that part of her soul was traveling on horseback in Normandy. Not a moment went by that she didn't think of John Wythe, and she prayed for his safety. To her parents, she pretended that nothing had changed. It was only to Fern that Elissa could confide her longings and also her fears. Fern, who was only two years older than Elissa, had a sympathetic ear and sealed lips.
But even to Fern, Elissa could not express the concern that nagged at the corners of her mind, because the single sentence uttered by John on their last night together invaded her thoughts. Sometimes when she lay in bed late at night, she kept picturing him as he had said, If you can convince your father to allow our marriage, my title will be equal to yours.
She analyzed that sentence over and over again in her mind. Most of the time she could dismiss the sentence as unimportant, but at other times, she couldn't help but to wonder at its significance. Did John love her? Really love her? She remembered that John had often told her I want you, but had he ever told her I love you?
And as the days melded into weeks, Elissa once more became involved with her daily routines. She began to push John out of her mind because all the wondering about him went without answers. She realized that she would never have the explanation to her questions until John came back from Normandy.
One Sunday morning, in early October, Fern and Elissa dressed for church. They left the bedroom chamber and continued down the steep stone steps together, but parted on the second floor as they each walked to separate entrances of the castle's chapel. The chapel was located next to the great hall, and its ceilings were high. The chapel was separated into two seating arrangements. The household servants sat on stone pews on the floor and the privileged sat in the balcony. The clergy preached from the altar, known as a chancel, which was positioned at the front of the room.
On this cool October morning, Bishop Prenton welcomed his flock, then began his praises of the Almighty. He shifted to the subject of penance, and his thunderous voice filled the room as he began outlining reasons why the Lord was becoming increasingly intolerant of the sins of mankind.
"The failed crops are warnings from the Almighty," Bishop Prenton shouted at them with his booming voice. "People are selfish; they live only to seek the sins of the flesh. They lie and blaspheme. We need to get on our knees to beg the Almighty God to forgive us! We must repent from our sins! The great Lord God will not longer look past our transgressions!"
He paused for effect, then continued in a deadly calm voice, "Now there is word of a great pestilence coming out of France."
Elissa gasped, and next to her, William shifted in his seat. The Lady Eleanor gave no indication that she was listening.
Bishop Prenton told them, "In Avignon, rumors abound that masses of the population are beset with tumors in the groin and armpits. In Normandy, it is said that people are erect and healthy one minute, then falling to their deaths on the ground in the very next minute. In Burgundy, tales are told of mass graves that are filled to overflowing with countless dead. And in the Medical Facility in Paris, Pope Clement IV has requested that the doctors prepare reports on ways to reduce the spread of this great pestilence."
Again Bishop Prenton paused for effect. Then he thundered, "But still it spreads!"
The chapel was incredibly still, waiting for their leader in the faith to continue. Not a sound was heard; it was as though no one dared to move.
Elissa silently told herself that England was shielded. Hadn't her father always said that God favored England? Elissa calmed herself with the idea that the Bishop would never allow the sins of the French people to travel across the channel.
She thought, England is good. Therefore, England is safe.
But when Bishop Prenton began to speak again, his words were shocking. "There have been reported cases of this fearsome pestilence in Dorset. That is south of here, on the mother soil of England!"
All around Elissa, pandemonium erupted in the congregation. Cried of fear and shouts of denial flowed from both the pews on the ground and in the balcony.
"Listen to me!" shouted the Bishop, and the people settled back into their seats, trembling, but quiet once again. "We must beg the Lord's forgiveness. Each of you! Beg the Lord immediately! Get down on your knees right now and pray with me for your own salvation, and for the salvation of England!"
The entire congregation immediately dropped to its knees, Elissa included. Bishop Prenton bellowed a prayer at the top of his voice, beseeching God to have mercy and to forgive his faithful flock. Elissa could hear the people praying reverently, some moaning softly and others brought to tears. Fear seemed to be the prevailing emotion, for if the rumors of this terrible pestilence were true, then it was a hideous affliction to be sure.
And then Elissa thought about John Wythe. He was in France where it was rumored that this ghastly illness was rampant. Was he safe? Or was John lying somewhere on the cold, wet, foreign ground, with no breath passing through his still lips?
She was brought back to the present when Bishop Prenton ended the service. People began leaving, dazed, as they vacantly stared ahead, seemingly numbed with shock.
Elissa felt the same way as did the others. Once away from his booming, frightening voice, she thought, Bishop Prenton may be a man of God, but he's still a man. And men have been known to be wrong.
She looked at the departing congregation. She could hear snatches of conversation here and there as both the privileged and underprivileged left the chapel: Aren't we good and faithful to our great and forgiving God? Don't we pray every night and go to chapel every Sunday? Aren't we already giving a great penance by living with such unusual rainfall and widespread crop failures? Surely the good and righteous people of England are in God's favor!
And so Elissa, just like everyone else, consoled herself with denials. She pitied poor Dorset, but she told herself that Dorset was a seaport, full of sailors. And sailors were known to be blasphemers.
Within an hour after Bishop Prenton had broken the news of the pestilence reaching Dorset, Elissa had convinced herself that any pestilence would be limited to a few sailors in that town. She could not fathom that the sickness could come to Wynham, so she told herself that it wouldn't. If she didn't believe it, then it couldn't be true.
Elissa went to the formal hall to dine with her parents. The dining hall's floors were strewn with rushes and straw to camouflage the dirt, and she stepped carefully over them. Bouquets of herbs and nosegays of flowers were strategically placed around the room to disguise any undesirable scents, and the sight of the indoor flowers cheered her.
"I think Bishop Prenton is concerned for the congregation, and that's very commendable," William said. "But clearly no one here is sick. The Bishop is a good man; a righteous man. Still, in this instance, I believe his concern for the people has exceeded the limits of reality. Bishop Prenton is overworked, and it is starting to show. Now, Elissa, don't be troubled about it. I don't think we should waste our time worrying about something that has no chance of happening anywhere near Suffolk County, much less here at the castle."
William then changed the subject to what appeared to be his favorite topic, the on-going war with France. "England's army has a fantastic offensive position, with a united command center," he told his wife Eleanor. "Now that our army has the new crossbow weapon, how much longer can King Phillip posture against England? His men are cowards, they run like rabbits!"
Elissa broke in. "Have you heard any word of John Wythe?"
As a maid served the meal, William turned to Elissa and said, "You should be thinking about Sir Gregory. I've spoken to him. He agrees to the unification of our families. The marriage is to take place next month, on Saint Martin's Day. November is blood month when we slaughter the animals to be preserved by the cold, so there will be plenty of fresh meat for the wedding feast."
Elissa froze in her seat, shocked that the wedding was really going to happen. Her face drained of color. Jerking herself into motion, she cried out, "I won't marry Gregory!"
In contrast to Elissa's white face, William turned very red. "Don't make a scene in front of the servants," he said with a forced calm. "You are going to obey me. You will marry Gregory. After all, Elissa, you are but a child, complete with a child's fantasies of what life is like. But I'm the adult. As your protector, I will make the right decisions for you."
"Wait..." Elissa tried to interrupt.
William continued without letting her speak. "And if you have any ideas about John Wythe, then you can just forget those ideas. John Wythe is dead, struck down in France!"
Elissa sat still for another moment. Then, with a strangled cry, she jumped up from her seat and fled from the room.
She ran to her bedroom, and pounded on the maid's anteroom door. When Fern came rushing out, alarmed by the loud pounding, Elissa flung herself on her bed and sobbed uncontrollably into her pillow. Fern became frightened for her mistress, and sat on the bed to try to soothe Elissa. Fern coaxed Elissa into sitting up on the bed and she held her in her arms. Fern let Elissa cry without saying a word.
Elissa began to talk through her grief. "It used to be that bad things could happen in the world, but I was here in Wynham Castle, so nothing ever affected me. Now I feel that my sanctuary is a lie because I realize the world outside this castle is very real, and it can touch me."
"What happened?" Fern asked.
"Oh my God in Heaven, John Wythe is dead, killed in France!" Elissa wailed.
"I'm so sorry," Fern said, helpless to do or say anything else.
"My heart is sealed," Elissa said. "The death of John has closed my heart. I never want to fall in love again."
And so she stayed in bed for two days, crying into her pillow, her heart broken by the death of the man who had once come so close to becoming her lover. In Elissa's mind, the days were long but the nights were endless. Over and over again in her thoughts, Elissa replayed that night with John in the stable that would now prove to be their last. If she had known at that time what she knew today, would she have given into his desires? Should she have consented, giving John a final gift that he would have taken to his grave?
Finally Elissa rose weakly from the bed where she had been emotionally imprisoned, and dressed to leave her bedroom for the first time in days.
William was delighted to see his daughter at the main meal that day, always served at noon. "Elissa, I'm glad to see you're feeling better. You've recovered just in time for the Harvest Home celebration tomorrow."
"Who is plowing the fallow field this year?" asked Eleanor.
Elissa was puzzled for a moment as she wondered what her mother was talking about. Then she remembered that for Harvest Home, a field that had been left to grow wild with weeds would be the site of a plowing race between four farmers, who would use their finest oxen to see who could plow the fastest, and who could produce the straightest rows. The villagers would select the four farmers, each chosen because of their strength and stamina.
"One of the chosen is Richard the Powerful, and he's my personal favorite," William answered his wife. He always delighted in any ceremony that contained contests and conquests.
"I'm looking forward to find out who is going to be this year's Grape Maiden," Eleanor said. The vineyards were to be picked at this time of year, and traditionally a young woman whom the men of the village voted to be the most beautiful would pick the first handful of grapes.
"Well now, Wife," William observed, "you must be in a very good mood today. Usually you don't say a word."
Eleanor shrugged in response, and ate the rest of the meal in silence. Elissa knew that her mother was conditioned, as were all ladies, to let the men take the lead on all matters of consequence. And on this day, Elissa finished her meal just as silently as her mother.
The next morning, the sun was shining in an almost magical manner as it burned off the mist that floated upon the land. Elissa and her family stepped back into the carriage for the short, bumpy ride to the village fields that lay just outside the castle walls.
All the people from Wynham Castle and the surrounding village gathered in the fields for the Harvest Home celebrations. Elissa knew that this one would be grander than any previous Harvest Home festivals that she had ever experienced. It was as though the villagers were trying to trick fate, by pretending that the dismal harvest yield of the season was instead one of the most bountiful. Perhaps the villagers were determined to show God that if they could be thankful for this season's grim crop production, then perhaps He would take pity upon them and show mercy for the next season's weather.
And although Elissa was supposed to stay close to her family, she sneaked off to wander through the festivities freely because she didn't want to miss a thing. The frolics began with minstrels singing gaily while other colorfully dressed peasants strummed lutes and blew the wind instruments. A group of mummers then took the lead and spoke poetry without musical accompaniment. Finally, a troupe of actors, all adorned in harlequin dress, performed a play to the delight of the crowd.
The singing and the plays led up to the next activity. A pretty maiden from the village was pushed to the front of the crowd for the symbolic picking of the grapes. She was fourteen and had long, reddish-blonde hair that streamed freely from her ribboned head wimple. As she was pushed through, she was handed from person to person, and the spectators reached to touch her for the luck that legend promised she'd bring.
But the main event, the one Elissa wanted to see most of all, was the plowing contest. The four villagers chosen for the contest were all muscled, strong men, brown from long days of laboring in the sun. They laughed and joked as they taunted each other. For the benefit of the crowd, all four men loudly exclaimed how they would leave the other three in the dust. The crowd cheered and shouted encouragement as the four contestants shackled their oxen and readied their plows. The men were aligned in a row, ready for the starter to give them the signal.
Elissa watched as the starter blew the horn and the contest began. The oxen surged forward, sweat already foaming on their flanks, the animals agitated from the noise of the crowd. The men attempted to keep their oxen in as straight a path as possible, crying "Ho!" and "Gee!" to guide them. The sharp blades tore through the earth as clods of dirt parted and fell by the wayside. The crowd ran alongside the plows, cheering and gesturing, causing the oxen to snort anxiously.
Suddenly it was neck and neck, the contest now only between two men as the others fell greatly behind. Richard the Powerful and Bertram the Brazen called to their oxen in unison. They gripped their plows firmly, because if the contest ended as a tie for speed, then the quality of the rows would be the determining factor to decide the victor.
Both men had sweat streaming down their faces from their efforts as they grunted with exertion. Their neck muscles stood out like cords and their arm muscles bulged from the demand placed upon them. The oxen seemed to react to the tension in the air; they pulled and strained to move quickly ahead.
One of the animals began to falter. It seemed lame in one leg. Bertram the Brazen screamed at this animal to go forward, to continue on! He acted furious that his ox slowed and favored its sore leg as it began to limp. Elissa was caught up in the excitement as the crowd shouted jeers at Bertram, and she found herself joining in as they mocked him. With obvious anger, Bertram the Brazen halted his plow.
Richard the Powerful burst ahead, and all around Elissa, the crowd went wild. Richard crossed the finish line, his ox snorting and panting. The crowd gathered around him, slapping his back, and someone handed him a large mug of ale.
Harvest Home came but once a year, a respite from the toils of back-breaking daily labor, and Elissa could see that the peasants made the most of it. Wine and beer flowed freely, and musicians played cheerful songs. Men grew loud as they grew drunk, boasting to other men and courting the women.
Elissa strolled away from the crowd to see the animals. The animals mooed or bleated as they were confined with tethers, displayed for sale or for trade to the crowd. The animals were exhibited as potential breeding stock, and Elissa knew this day would be their last chance for respite. If the animals didn't find new owners here at Harvest Home, they would surely be slaughtered on Saint Martin's day. Elissa knew that it made sense to kill the animals when the weather turned cold enough to keep the meat fresh for a longer stretch of time. Plus she knew it would save the precious grain for the breeding stock instead of wasting it on an excessive number of animal mouths to feed.
Except she had no way of knowing that soon there would be nothing normal about her life at all.
The rat felt hot.
Detecting a subtle change in the movement of the floor, the rat ventured carefully from its dark hiding spot, sniffing the air and peering cautiously as it crawled between two bales of cloth. The rat could not seem to comprehend the signals from its meager brain; and its movements were slow, its actions confused.
The rat suffered pains and had to stop moving from time to time to allow frequent spells of dizziness to pass. Sensitive to the moonlight, the rat hesitated at the doorway that would lead to the upper level, but then made the decision to proceed. Shudders rippled through its eight inch long, black body as the rat ventured into the open air for the first time in months.
If anyone were to see this rat, it would be very obvious that the animal was sick. This rat had spreading boils on its underside, and in its bloodstream coursed Yersinia pestis. But no attempts were made to prevent the rat from making its escape.
The black rat was of a breed called Rattus rattus that were common stowaways on ships. Its long, muscled tail helped maintain its balance as it ran from the bowels of the ship onto the open deck. Its dense fur, normally shiny and sleek, now appeared dull and lifeless in the moonlight. The rat's fevered brain instinctively guided the creature to search for fresh water in the hopes that its unquenchable thirst could be sated, and its internal heat could be cooled.
It sneaked, undetected, to a long, thick rope that moored the ship to the dock. The rat began climbing off the ship onto the shore that was England.
Early November 1348
"I'm going to run away," Elissa confided to Fern. "Can you help me?"
"What do you want me to do?"
"You have relatives outside Wynham Castle," Elissa said. "Will any of them take me in for a while?"
The two young women were strolling on the grassy meadow in front of the castle. They walked by the banks of a stream that bordered the castle wall. On the other side of the wall was the forest where the villagers gathered nuts, berries, and herbs. Often the villagers allowed their pigs to forage between the trees. But today, the forest was quiet, as the villagers were busy planting the fields with winter crops. Elissa and Fern were undisturbed as they formulated the plans for Elissa's secret departure.
Their feet crunched on dry leaves, which had long fallen from the oaks. The wind had carried the red, brown, and gold leaves over the castle wall where they landed on the ground to form a carpet of color. Somewhere there was a cook fire burning, and Elissa could smell the familiar scent of smoke. She heard the calling of geese, and looked up to see the birds flying overhead in their "V" formation as they traveled on their southern journey. Elissa's eyes misted, for Wynham Castle had been the only home she had ever known, and she expected to miss this lovely place. Already she was homesick, and she hadn't even left yet.
"I have an uncle outside of Suffolk County, but he lives in London," Fern said. "I don't think London would be the sort of place you'd wish to go."
"Well," Fern said, "I don't know how safe London is for a finely bred woman like yourself. You couldn't let anyone know who you are, or you could be kidnapped and held for ransom. What I'm saying is that London has thousands of people, all living close together, and not every one of them are pleasant."
"I don't care!" Elissa cried vehemently as she stopped walking. "I won't marry Sir Gregory Gladden. I won't! I'd rather take my chances in a den of thieves."
"Den of thieves!" Fern laughed. "Well, I don't think it's that bad. As with anywhere people live, London also has its share of good people too. My uncle is one of them. His name is Taylor, Thomas Taylor. That's what he does."
They started walking again. "What do you mean when you say that's what he does?" Elissa asked.
Fern laughed again. "Oh you are so funny! You are so nice to me that sometimes I forget that you are in an upper class, and that you've never really been outside the castle walls. I consider you more of a friend than a mistress."
Elissa thought to herself, If my father heard Fern say that, he would have her beaten. But I would never have Fern beaten. That's just one of the ways my father and I are so different.
"You still haven't told me what you mean," Elissa reminded Fern.
"I mean that a lot of the people outside of nobility have last names that reflect their profession," Fern said. "For example, Smith stands for blacksmith. Then there are names such as Farmer, Miller, Potter, Baker, Mason, Gardener; the list goes on and on. My uncle's name is Taylor--he sews clothes. So did his father, and probably his grandfather as well."
"I never knew that," Elissa said. "I only know people with last names such as Gladden, Prenton, Rothschild, and of course my own last name, Hastings."
"Well," Fern said, "if you choose to go to London, you had better pick a much simpler name."
"I can't decide," Elissa said. "Who shall I be?"
"If you didn't live in a castle, what sort of job would you prefer to do?"
"I have no idea." Elissa realized it was true--she really didn't know what went on over the castle wall and she was very surprised at the thought. "All I know is what I saw at Harvest Home. I certainly wouldn't want to be a Fisher or a Skinner. How about Hunter? What do you think of that name?"
"No," Fern disagreed. "Hunters are usually falconers or skilled bowmen who have some connection with castles. Why don't you pick something in the garment industry? That way, if you ask to be my uncle's apprentice, he may be more willing to accept you, if he thinks that dressmaking or some other type of garment making is in your blood."
"But his name is already Taylor. What does that leave for me?"
"How about Weaver?" Fern suggested. "That way people will think your family weaves wool into clothes and blankets. But you need to change your first name as well."
"How would I know that someone is talking to me if they don't call me Elissa?"
"Pick something close to your real name."
"How about Elizabeth?"
Fern smiled. "Elizabeth it is. I'll send a messenger to my uncle that a villager named Elizabeth Weaver will be coming to request an apprenticeship. Of course, he'll expect payment, and you could pay up to six pounds. The garment guild allows masters of apprentices to charge between two pounds for the minimum and six pounds for the maximum. So you should come prepared, because it will be my uncle's decision about the fee. You are lucky that his last apprentice died, so he doesn't have any now. Well, the apprentice wasn't lucky, of course."
"Is the work hard enough to kill someone?" Elissa asked.
"Of course not," Fern said. "But living in London may be hard enough. Elissa, are you sure you want to do this? Why would you want to trade this good life for the hard life of a laborer? Have you thought this through?"
Without realizing she was doing it, Elissa thrust out her chin in defiance. "If I married Sir Gregory, my life would be over before it even had a chance to begin. Fern, there is a whole world out there and I've experienced none of it. I won't marry Sir Gregory at any cost."
"The cost could be high indeed," Fern said, "and I am not talking about the apprenticeship fee."
"London cannot possibly be that bad!" Elissa said. "You said yourself that good people like Thomas Taylor live there. I've been doing a lot of thinking. I've decided that I cannot predict my future. The future will probably have a mind of its own. I'll go out into the world, and fate will decide what is to occur next."
"But," Fern protested, "what if you wind up being a dressmaker all your life? What if fate decides you are never to come back to Wynham Castle?"
"By the time the oak leaves have grown green with life again next summer, I'll be back," Elissa said. "I just want to give Gregory Gladden enough time to find another wife. My father cannot permanently expel me from Wynham Castle. It is my birthright to be here. Besides, Daddy loves me."
"If you're sure," Fern said, the doubt sounding in her voice. "When do you want to leave?"
"So soon?" Fern sounded sad. Then she became all business. "There's a messenger going to London in about an hour. The messenger is taking Sir William's business, but I know him, and he'll take my message for five or six shillings. I'll ask him to deliver the message to Uncle Thomas. And here in the castle, I'll tell the guard at the keep that you'll be going out tonight after dark. I sure won't mention that you won't be back."
"But I will be back," Elissa said. "Just not until next summer. In the meantime, I'm probably going to miss you most of all."
"Miss me?" Fern asked. "I am but your maid."
"Oh, stop being so formal and fussy," Elissa said, and the two women hugged.
When they separated, Fern said, "One more thing. You are going to need an escort to London."
"No proper lady travels alone. That's just not done, and for good reason; it's not safe. Besides, how would you find your way? You'll need an escort who has traveled to London many times, so you won't get lost. Or robbed. Or worse!"
Elissa didn't like the sound of that. "What do you mean by worse?"
"Never mind," Fern said quickly. "I know who to ask to guide you. I'll send him to the east entrance of the wall tonight at ten. He'll have a horse for you."
"Why can't I take one of my own horses?"
"Because," Fern said, "your father will figure out which horse is missing, and he'll put the word out about what the horse looks like. This way, he'll only put the word out about what you look like, and not the horse you will be riding as well. That's something, anyway."
"You think of everything! And I thank the Lord God that you do."
"Well, it will also cost you for the horse."
"I don't care. I have plenty of money."
That afternoon, Elissa packed a small satchel. The intention was for her to travel light, taking gold coins instead of clothes. Elissa anticipated that, working for a dressmaker, she would be making her own clothes once she arrived in London. Plus, food and shelter would be provided if Thomas Taylor agreed to take her on as an apprentice. But if Master Taylor refused, then the coins would help her find another direction to take. Elissa had learned, in her short life, that money solved everything in the world.
The preparations for the departure had an unreal quality, and Elissa felt as though she was acting out one of the plays she had seen during Harvest Home. It was as though she was looking as someone else's behavior through her own eyes. She wondered, How could I really be planning such a drastic change in my life? I've never even peeked beyond the castle walls before! How do I know what is out there?
But Elissa calmed herself with the thoughts that she had no other choice. Her father wanted her to marry Sir Gregory in five days. All the castle was preparing for the Saint Martin's day wedding and the accompanying feast. But Elissa wanted to follow her heart, and she told herself she would be willing to sacrifice everything she had ever known in order to do so.
Darkness enveloped the castle grounds, and the clock approached ten. Elissa knew it was time to go. She was warmly dressed and made sure she wore firm, pointed-toe shoes that had low heels and sturdy soles. She hugged Fern a final time. Picking up the satchel made of cloth, Elissa cracked open her wooden bedroom door to take a look into the hallway.
Nobody was in sight.
The passageway was cold, lit by the torches on the walls but not warmed by them. The torches released their smoke into the hall, causing the walls to be covered with a fine layer of soot.
Elissa could smell the sweet fennel, rosemary, and lavender that was strewn with the rushes and straw on the floor. She could also smell the faint underlying foulness of grease, body odor, and chamber pots that permeated throughout most of the castle.
She reached the main stairwell. She felt the pounding of her heart as the fear gripped her tightly. She was desperately hoping that she would not be observed as she went down to the second floor of the keep where the exit was located. Elissa was thinking that she had never been caught while sneaking out of the castle at night for her meetings with John Wythe--would this be the night that her luck wore out?
She passed the guard who stood propped against the wall at the entrance to the keep. He didn't acknowledge her, and Elissa didn't know if it was because he was paid by Fern for his silence or if he was asleep.
Hastening down the stairs, she was aware that the steps were wet and slippery. Elissa thought, Wouldn't it be ironic if I fell and broke my neck, dying before I even had a chance to get to London where the real danger is supposed to be?
But she made it to the bottom safely, and continued quickly across the castle towards the lawn outside.
Elissa hurried across the meadow, thought the grass was wet with dew. The dew sparkled from the moon's glow, and again the beauty of Wynham Castle struck her. The air was damp but smelled sweet, and the night was quiet except for a late-season screech owl that shrilled as it hunted rodents in the darkness. Right before she reached the east wall of the castle grounds, Elissa paused and turned around for a final look at Wynham Castle, which had been the only home she had ever known.
I won't cry, Elissa thought. From now on, I will be a much stronger person than I have ever been before.
She reached the castle wall. The guard at the gate knew she was coming, having been paid by Fern just as the guard at the keep had been. The gate would not open from the outside, and could only be opened from inside the castle grounds.
The guard did not speak, but nodded his head slightly to Elissa as he opened the gate. Elissa knew that both guards had been paid well for this secret service, but if they were caught in the act of allowing her escape, they would be imprisoned, or worse, hanged. She was grateful that their greed overcame the adversity to risk. Again, Elissa was convinced that as long as she had money, all would be right in the world.
The gate closed behind her. Now she was on the other side, outside in the world. She stood uncertainly. A new fear gripped her. What if no one was here to meet her? What if the escort decided not to show? What would she do then?
The moon's reflection allowed some visibility as Elissa took a step forward. She wondered, Should I call out? Or should I search in silence for my escort? Or should I face the idea that he didn't show up, and go back to the castle to try again another night?
Then she heard a horse snort and jangle its bridle. A man appeared from behind a bush, riding a horse and leading another. The riderless horse was very large, dark brown, and spirited.
Elissa was inwardly overjoyed to see that her escort had come. She felt relief flooding her veins and suddenly her knees felt weak. She had not realized she had been holding her breath with suspense before the man's arrival and now she let the air out in a rush.
NEXT MONTH: PART TWO OF WE ALL FALL DOWN
We All Fall Down
Ring around the rosie;
Do you want to learn about medieval history?
We All Fall Down may be fiction, but this book is very thoroughly researched to bring you medieval life as it really was during the 14th century.
As appalling as it may seem, this novella titled We All Fall Down describes real events that occurred in the 14th Century. I took care to accurately portray the destruction of human life as a direct result of the bubonic plague, including the documentation of the cause and the symptoms of the illness. I also was careful to make sure the characters never referred to the bubonic plague as The Black Death, as that reference was not used until the 16th Century. During the medieval time period of this novella, the bubonic plague was simply known as the "pestilence" and the deaths were called The Great Dying.
It is difficult in this day and age to imagine the superstitions of the 14th Century, but in the absence of scientific knowledge, the people did their best to deal with the horrors of the circumstances by explaining it to themselves in any way they could imagine. Certainly the bubonic plague must have tested the faith of the medieval people in the most extreme fashion, and I attempted to reflect this in the contemplations of Elissa Hastings.
We All Fall Down in no way reflects my own viewpoints about the pros and cons of religion (or my enthusiastic embrace of science), but in this novel, I portray life as it was back then. Religion was the way of life for the medieval people of England, and their idea of God was one of a punishing Master to be feared. Everything was attributed to God's Will, and so when the bubonic plague marched across England, the people of the land believed its catalyst was their God seeking to punish the wicked. The religious extremes of the times included the flagellants, who were groups of people who attempted to take on the penance of the entire world in exchange for God's mercy.
All of the methods the medieval people used to combat the bubonic plague described in this book were actual "remedies" of the times.
The position of a medieval doctor faced with the "pestilence" was the certainty that the air surrounding the infected area was at fault. Because the plague would attack a particular region, kill most people within it, and then move on to an adjacent region, the circulating and moving air was blamed for the deaths. People were urged to leave low, marshy places or to at least stay inside their homes, covering the windows and trying to keep cool (heat was also a believed cause of the disease). The medieval population were urged to wash their hands and feet regularly, but not to wash their bodies and especially not to take baths because these would open the pores, another way for the disease to enter the body. Sleeping on one's back was discouraged because this allowed the foul vapors to enter noses more readily.
People themselves often carried posies, flowers, or herbs wrapped in a handkerchief and held to their noses, stemming from the fear of breathing in the disease. They also carried fragrant flowers in their shirt pockets, which was the origin for the "pockets full of posies" line in the nursery rhyme Ring Around the Rosie.
And it is from that 14th Century nursery rhyme that I came up with the idea for this aptly titled novella of historical fiction, We All Fall Down.
This book, although fiction, is carefully researched so I can confidently say that We All Fall Down is based upon facts and actual events that really occurred.
You can buy the complete novel HERE.