The purple sun slung low near the timberline in the hills north of Willshire Keep. Common folk were bringing in the fruits of their labor from toiling in the fields, whilst animal tenders shooed their beasts into the enclosures for the night. Patricia Perryman dodged ox drawn wagons and wayward children playing tag in muddy avenues winding betwixt stone cottages with the pungent curls of woodsmoke belching from their smokestacks.
Having procured some salted meat, bread and a few tubers from the open market before it closed, she was planning dinner with a hymn whistling in her head. Living outside the walls of the keep, one needed to bed down after dark to be safe from the toothy monsters that wandered the Earl of Willshire's land after sundown.
“Good evening Gerold.” Patricia spun about as she closed the wooden door of their thatched roof dwelling.
“Can't call me dear anymore, eh?” Gerold Perryman was standing near the flaming hearth, beefy hands stropping the butcher knife on the leather to hone it's edge for cutting up the meal.
“You're always a dear, dear. Having seen Lady Willshire passing the market in her carriage, I'm feeling proper.” The food tumbled onto a worn uneven cutting block table.
“I'm feeling like a few eggs on bread would round out this stew nicely. Would you be a kind Patty and check the nesting box?” Gerold turned and raised an eyebrow, knowing Pat would be squinting and folding her arms at the request.
“I shall but, I'm taking the club, in case I spot one of those vile creatures.”
“They can't hurt a sturdy lass like you.” Gerold let out a huff and set back to stoking the fire.
Fortunate to be freemen by the labor of their forebearers, Gerold and Patricia in addition to a cottage had a hencoop and a few layers. To Patricia's chagrin with animals, came other animals. Specifically rats. Brown rats, gray rats, baby rats, rats the size of full grown water fowl; the lady of the house had hefted the knobby shillelagh onto her shoulder and threaded her arm through the loop on a wicker basket to hold the eggs and trudged out to the back of the bungalow.
She had become keen with her eyesight, even being able to spot them hiding about in the grass. Not seeing any she unlatched the door to the enclosure and picked up the hens, checking for eggs. A nice haul of six hen fruit put a dandy smile on her face. Stepping out of the door to the nesting boxes, she felt an awful squish, followed by the most inhuman squeal. Looking down, there it was, a rat. Her shoe had caught the base of its tail and it was thrashing about gnashing and flopping like it was demon possessed.
No longer cringing and jumping on chairs, Patricia had pushed past that years ago with vitriol and hate. Gently putting down her basket, she set her jaw and simultaneously jumped up and slammed down her cudgel. The rodent's tiny brain popped out its eye sockets and Patricia thumped it a few more times for good measure.
“I killed it, you can get rid of it.” With a stern look, she pointed outside and stood with the other hand parked on her hip.
Gerold knew better than to say a word, wiping his hands, he grabbed the shovel from the wall and flipped it over his shoulder and headed out to do his husbandly duties.
Later, dipping the soup into wooden bowls they sat across from each other, the silence evenly interrupted by Gerold's slurping and Patricia adjusting the legs of her chair.
“If the calendar is right, I suggest we busy ourselves putting the pitchfork in the hay, if you know what I mean.” Her side eye and slight grin caught her husband off guard.
Coming back quick he quipped, “I could probably plant a set of twins the way I've been feeling.”
“I bought some herbs at the market that spark fertility.”
“Don't tell me you've been handing our coin to that witch.”
“No, the apothecary. I have instructions on making what he called fecundity tea.”
“I guess it won't hurt to try something. My mums been desperate for some time to see a new grandchild.” He thought it best not to tell the other things she mentioned like her being barren or bewitched.
“What about them though.”
“What? The rats! I swear Patty, you have rats on the mind like poison.”
“The rumor at the market was the Beckwith's child, didn't just pass in the night. She was devoured by rats, nothing left but a bonnet and a bloody dress.”
“You know what they say about gossip, best to take anything you hear at the market with a grain of salt.”
Scrubbing in the basin, Patricia tidied up after the meal with Gerold splitting kindling for the fire to stave off the chill of the night. As the crickets came to life and a shy moon dangled over the trees, the wooden feet of the bed frame creaked rhythmically into the night.
* * *
Breakfast of tea and biscuits was followed by a hug and a smooch.
“I'm going to the square. The town crier announced a meeting this morning. Constable Turnberry is going to address our growing issue with the rats.” Patricia had on her best blouse and scarf. Gerold shook his head and waved her off.
The morning was punctuated by the sting of the blacksmith's hammer and the neighing of carthorses packing supplies to the keep. Patricia nodded and exchanged pleasantries with ladies and gents as she passed, keeping her expression composed. She and many others had signed a petition to bring about the meeting and wasn't about to let it pass without hearing what the council was going to do to address the problem.
The square was bustling with dozens of concerned townfolk. Thankfully there was no drunk in the pillory. It was situated next to the speaking platform the Constable would be using. Patricia nodded recognizing a few neighbors, patiently waiting for the open meeting. Over the heads in the crowd the red and black crest flag of Willshire fluttered from the top of a halberd as the men at arms marched into view.
“Residents of Willshire, The honorable Constable Turnberry.” The crier removed his hat as the Constable took the podium. The men in the crowd removed their hats and placed them over their chests in a sign of respect.
“It has come to my attention that our dear residents have deemed the expanding population of rodents in Willshire a hazard, an emergency of sorts. We have taken steps to secure the grain stores and are implementing a service to remove waste by cart out of town on a weekly basis. Latrines must be cleaned more often. However, at the request of the auditor in the Chancery of Willshire, to fund the effort, there will be a duty placed on any food, drink or wares purchased at the market, the amount which is yet to be determined by the council. The crier will announce the specifics in a fortnight.”
An uneasy din bubbled in the crowd. Soon residents were raising their voices and a few pushed forward to address the Constable.
“A tax is it? Was that not the reason we broke the shackles of Rome?” Hoots and shouts erupted as fists were raised in the air.
“Why don't we import some cats and snakes? They eat rats, don't they?” A big brassy woman chimed in.
Next to her a holy man in plain brown robes recoiled. “Witchcraft isn't going to solve this problem, why not call on the devil himself?” Crossing himself he clutched his prayer beads as the woman shot him a dirty scowl.
“If anyone has suggestions on how to better deal with the problem, The Chancery of Willshire will have a scribe to note your recommendations during daylight hours.” The Constable was droning on about the legal process to submit a grievance when a young curly headed woman shrieked and passed out in front of the crowd. The sentries moved to investigate and stopped and stared as a black rat the size of a small dog was ascending the podium, unbeknownst to the Constable, who was still drumming on his legal disclaimer.
An archer nocked an arrow and pointed it at the platform. In the confusion Constable Turnberry was whisked off the stand by his personal body guards who feared an assassination plot was unfolding. The crowd descended into chaos as a guard drew his longsword to confront the archer. The huge rat leapt from the podium into the panicked crowd. Darting back and forth seeking cover, the rodent split the crowd, most of whom were now running and screaming, unsure what had just happened.
Patricia was now bemoaning the fact that a lady should not be seen in public, toting a weapon. She was sure one whack from her club could have ended the madness. Turning she headed back to cottage to relay the news to Gerold.
“A duty! On everything! Why it's madness, folks can barely get along as it is. Isn't the tax on our land already funding the Earl of Willshire and his vassals. He should have to skip a meal occasionally like a peasant. A duty indeed!”
His dear Patty hadn't heard a word, her weapon was high over her head waiting for the rat's body to emerge from under the bed. It's pink snout was wiggling around, whiskers dancing off the stone floor. Dark beady eyes were scanning for danger and any crumbs that might have made their way to the floor. With a sudden jump it ran between her legs, she turned with a growl and it raced to escape. With a quick move it dodged her strike scurried under the door and bounded down the street.
“Gerold! Are you going to fix that door, or am I going to have to put this wood upside your head the next time one of those disgusting rats gets in this house?”
“I'll take the measurements to the smithy straight away. A proper sweep on the bottom of the door will stop them.”
* * *
Unbeknownst to their husbands, Mrs. Beckwith, Mrs. Perryman, and Mrs. Godfrey had arranged a secret meeting over tea whilst Mr. Gerold Perryman was traveling for an overnight labour assignment at Willshire Keep. Patricia Perryman had procured a measure of asian tea from the apothecary at the market and planned to address the rumours that had been flying about recently. Most importantly she wanted to know the truth about the Beckwith infant, since she herself thought she was with child.
“Hello my lady.” Mrs. Godfrey arrived first, her husband being a merchant, she wore the finest imported cotton dress, the striking red hue of the fabric, accented with silk and brightly colored piping set her apart from the commoners. Mrs. Perryman bowed in a sign of respect and motioned her to a seat with a hot tea on the table in her finest decorated stoneware mug. Patricia offered some honey to Mrs. Godfrey to temper the bitters of the imported tea. Accepting the offer she smiled at Patricia to which she smiled back, delighted that a woman of her standing had graced her threshhold.
A knock at the door was the most anticipated. Everyone had heard the rumours about the Beckwith's baby, yet Patricia and Mrs. Godfrey were about to hear the first hand account of what actually happened. Mrs. Beckwith was dressed in the same pale linen as Patricia, hence the lack of hesitancy for them to embrace and touch cheeks. Holding hands and smiling, Patricia motioned her to the seat and placed hot tea on the table in front of her. Sitting across from each other, the time for honesty among women was here.
Mrs. Godfrey had no trouble confronting Mrs. Beckwith, “What happened to your child? I have two toddlers and I'm not so sure I don't want to just move from this infested area. My husband has given word of the problems at the ports of the Black Sea.” Her high cheekbones peeked over the mug as she sipped the tea.
“Well, I've only told the priest. Kalliope was born healthy. She latched and nursed with vigor. We knew as she was our second child we had the experience to care for her properly.” Mrs. Beckwith heaved a sigh and cast her eyes to the floor.
“What happened?” Patricia sipped her tea and stared with concern at Mrs. Beckwith.
“We don't know. Her armpits and groin formed boils. Not pimples, these were the size of eggs, the barber said we should pierce and drain them.” Mrs. Beckwith clutched and shuddered recalling the treatment. “The smell was not of this world. The pus and blood was vile and Kalliope cried and screamed in pain. We decided to discontinue treatment and just bath her and keep her comfortable, hoping the fever and sickness would pass.” Patricia reached out and comforted her as Mrs. Godfrey leaned back and sipped her tea.
“The sailors have dubbed it the Black Death. Entire ships have docked with a skeleton crew of survivors.” Mrs. Godfrey pulled out a vial of tincture and tapped a few drops into her tea. Her expression masked a knowledge of death and despair beyond anything the Willshire has seen.
“What is the Black Death?” Mrs. Beckwith gripped her clay mug hoping for closure.
Mrs. Godfrey animated. “Pray to God, beg the Heavens and the Earth, nothing of this world or beyond can stop it. The only survivors are monks and hermits that avoid the world. It is a contagion, as the dead man looks on you he transmits it. Putting flowers in your pocket will only make your dead body smell better.”
“What causes it?” Mrs. Beckwith rose from her chair and clutched her dress as she stared with wet eyes at Mrs. Godfrey.
“The priest will tell you your sins, the barber will blame bad blood, yet some say it travels in the air. I suggest you listen to your heart and pray for salvation.” Mrs. Godfrey had heard enough. She straightened the ruffles in her dress and thanked the host. Nodding and handing her mug to Patricia she left the cottage.
“Mrs. Beckwith, you're welcome to stay for a while. Gerold will be gone for the night.”
“Maybe I can enlighten you Patricia. Once the babe is here, your life changes in a very fundamental way. Your man is a dedicated soul and a gentle one at that. Yet, the child will test you at every turn. The little one will figure you out before you figure out yourself.”
“I don't care. I've wanted a child for so long.” Patricia reached down and cupped her belly, casting her eyes down in hope.
“God help you. I clutch my child every night, not knowing if it will be the last time I feel her embrace.” Mrs. Beckwith drew a clasp from her garments and placed it in Patricia Perryman's palm.
“What is this?” Patricia rolled the jewelry in her hand. It was fashioned from bronze in the shape of a scarab. The back was inlaid with green abalone.
“It is a symbol of rebirth. Consider it a good luck charm.” Mrs. Beckwith handed her cup to Mrs. Perryman as she glided to the door with a loose hug and weak smile.
Patricia sat down on her stool and clutched the brooch, cupping her arm across her midriff she envisioned a healthy naked child bounding across the room. The hearth crackled and popped as the feeling in her gut fluttered. A little life was doing somersaults in her abdomen.
Gerold would give anything to become a father. Placing the scarab brooch on the mantle, Patricia bowed her head and wept bitterly. Knowing she would have trouble sleeping from what she heard tonight, she fetched her knitting needles and decided to fashion a baby blanket. She could pester Gerold in the morning for proper boy and girl names.
The wind howled, rattling the door. Stitching thread on the knitted baby blanket by the gentle light of a tallow candle, an image formed as the darkness sawed away at the emptiness of the night. Slowly the shape took form. A warrior, hoisting a sword from atop a winged steed. A hero they would be.