The Plague Stones
14th May 2019
Publisher: Titan Books
An extract from The Plague Stones:
Without the healing water from Haleswell it took the stranger three more days to die, by which time Father Cuthbert was stricken with fever himself.
Finding that their priest was sickening, folk began to mutter that the Lord had abandoned Clegeham, and half the freemen quit the village altogether, packing what belongings they could into sacks which they carried, for few of them were wealthy enough to afford a cart. Several of the serfs slunk away in the night, though their fate was more uncertain since abandoning their plots was a serious crime punishable by flogging. Clegeham was tiny, barely a hundred souls at the best of times, and their desertion was a hard blow. Most of the refugees took the Stratford Road south towards Warwick or east towards Ulverley but a few attempted to skirt Haleswell to the north and thereby come to the larger settlement of Birmingham. Whether or not they succeeded, Hester never heard.
While Cristina Attlowe tended her husband, the other women, Hester included, shared the honour of nursing the priest as he worsened, by which time two of the men who had passed the night on the Attlowes’ floor had begun to sicken with the pestilence too. Their families caught it from them in turn, and the increased burden of caring for the sick was spread amongst fewer people capable of shouldering it. Where once she could walk past her neighbours’ cottages and hear their chatter and laughter coming from behind the doors and windows, now the village echoed with agonised moans, screams of pain, and hoarse voices begging for release. Eventually Hester was left to care for Cuthbert in his last hours alone, which was some comfort as they could at last speak the truth to each other without fearing gossip-hungry ears.
‘I am sorry,’ he whispered, stroking the tears from her face. It was one of the few times he had touched her since he’d been away on his pilgrimage, and she relished even this little. Every movement he made seemed an agony. His flesh festered with boils and the lumps in his throat were distended, the skin stretched livid and shining over them.
‘It is not you who should be sorry,’ she said, trying to sound gruff and strong like one of her brothers, though her heart was a wailing thing. ‘It is the bishop, for taking you away from me for what little time we might have had. It is the men of Haleswell, for denying you the water of Saint Sebastian’s Well.’ It is my fault, for defying my mother’s will.
‘You must accept this.’
But her rebellion had always been stronger than her guilt. ‘No, I will not. I will do anything to stop this. Anything. I will bleed you. Maybe that will—’
He placed his feverish hands over hers. She saw that the last three fingers of his right hand had turned black, but she didn’t flinch from his touch.
‘No,’ he croaked. ‘You will let it be, for my soul’s sake. Please.’
In the end she found that she could deny him nothing, not even his death.
Thank you Sarah Mather from Titan Books for providing this extract for my stop on the blog tour today.