UKArchive ID: 36619mitch
Originally published on June 13, 2016 in Fiction
Chapter 18 of the Light-Father: Fria tells her tale of how she endured the Plague that decimated Crawcester in the worst place possible - a hospital. She and another girl were left alive yet she was forced to watch as Bethwin slowly became a dangerous Feral...
“Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art - it has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival.” - C. S. Lewis
“You had no choice,” Harold said kindly but Amos did not reply as he was resting his elbows on his thighs and staring at the floor in black despair. “You did the right thing by saving your sister but I just can’t believe that a child of that age could walk into that room with your parents, brother and sister all butchered like that and say a prayer over each of them.”
“She was so calm, Light-Father. I couldn’t even look at their bodies let alone cry or say a prayer for them,” Amos said bitterly. He glanced across at his sister who was fast asleep, cradling her sheathed machete. “She’d picked those four flowers as if she knew they were dead but how could she possibly know?”
“Maybe she worked it out from what that Father was saying,” Harold suggested then turned to Fria who was busy sorting out her saturated topknot. “What happened to your family, Fria?”
“I was an only child and my father vaccinated me two weeks before the plague began,” she said distantly. “I was rushed to hospital with a high fever caused by a reaction to the vaccine. My parents visited me every day and I slowly got better. A handsome postulant from the Order who had twelve years used to visit me too as part of his sacred duties,” she smiled fondly. “He made fun of the Fathers and how serious they all became after this seven-headed lamb was found in the Vatican genetics laboratories.”
“A sign from the Book of Revelation,” Harold nodded. “Did this young lad know what the Order was planning?”
“No, I don’t think so but I knew something was wrong because my parents were so frightened of the Order. Dad said a terrible disease was coming but the vaccine would protect me but that’s all he told me. I had but eight years at the time. Then about fifteen days after I went into the hospital, my mother and father didn’t come again. Nurse Cerys was looking after us and she said that an epidemic had broken out in the town so they probably didn’t want to bring it into the wards. I knew it was a lie because so many sick people were already cramming into the hospital and all the corridors were full. She even tried belling home several times for me but the phones were all dead.”
“The plague was already under way,” Amos explained. “While my sister and I searched for our grandparents, Fria was watching the plague happen in the worst place of all - a hospital.”
“I understand,” Harold said grimly. “Excuse me a second.” He got up to drag Mouse’s mattress a little from the fire and applied a fresh wet towel to her forehead but she just groaned and fidgeted in her troubled dreams. “Her fever is dangerously high,” he reported as he sat down again. “Damn it, there’s nothing I can do for her. This is so frustrating. If David’s warning comes true we won’t be able to flee if she’s in this condition.”
“That’s how I felt when I was in that hospital, Light-Father,” Fria said, repressing a shudder. “Helpless.”
Harold lit another cigar and savoured the smoke before blowing it out into the rain. He looked at Fria and wondered at the incredible inner strength these children possessed then he suddenly realised that for every Child of Exodus in the Keep possibly a hundred or more had never made it. There were two exquisitely sharp and unsheathed knives laid across her thighs and he understood how, despite her anaemia, she had survived such unspeakable odds.
“Why are you smiling?” she asked. “Do I amuse you?”
“Not at all, Fria,” he assured her. “Back home we have all these pathetic gangs; mostly the cowardly brats of moronic parents who wander the streets and terrorise the sick and elderly - they would not have lasted ten seconds here. That hospital sounded awful - we have all night so you might as well tell me what happened.”
Nurse Cerys had never known such an epidemic and none of the hospital analysts could identify the pathogen so she did her best: administering painkillers and fever-reducing medicines by the trolley-load. She might as well have been dispensing placebos for every single patient got steadily worse and one week from the first admission, people started dying. However, at the end of the top floor corridor and isolated from the mayhem below, was a private children’s ward where her youngest patients were housed.
She wheeled a trolley into the ward and Fria immediately helped her dish the dinners out. “You look exhausted, Nurse Cerys,” she said. “You haven’t caught this disease, have you?”
“Not yet, bless Mary, but I can’t get home to my husband because it’s too dangerous on the streets as riots are breaking out everywhere. I had to cook these dinners myself as most of the catering staff are ill. It’s just bacon, peas and potatoes because that’s all that’s fresh down there at the moment. We aren’t getting any deliveries through as the roads are blocked.”
The four girls, who were not that friendly with each other, ate in silence despite the nurse’s valiant attempts to cheer them up. “I’m sorry,” she apologised as she finished her meal. “I’ve tried my best to reach your parents but I will keep trying, I promise.” She coughed suddenly and violently and took out a cloth to wipe her mouth. “Excuse me - I think I have a cold.”
Fria was alarmed to see blood on the cloth although the nurse had tried to pocket it without them noticing. “You have caught it, Nurse Cerys,” she said with panic in her voice. “Is it true? Are there lots of people dying on the lower floors?”
“I’m fine, dear heart,” Cerys said, wiping her mouth carefully with a fresh tissue. “I don’t feel ill but I am tired. I haven’t slept for two days and I’m worried about my husband because he can’t boil an egg without setting fire to the pan.” She got up and cleared the dishes away and pushed the trolley to the door. “I’ll be back at eight of the clock with your medicines so be good until then.”
After the nurse had gone, they huddled around the small television - as they did every day - to watch a world slipping relentlessly into chaos and darkness.
All the channels were running stories on the riots and the frantic efforts of governments trying desperately to quarantine ever larger areas of their countries until May Day when law and order finally crumbled across the globe and the dead piled up in the streets. The girls’ reserve - bred of high-class status – finally broke down as they began to comfort each other, watching the television by day and the fires covering Crawcester by night – a chilling sight made more vivid by the fact that no streetlights were working.
On that fateful May Day, Cerys had appeared with her eyes still red from crying, to plait white flowers into their hair to mark them as May Maidens. “I’m sorry,” she wept as she worked. “I managed to get home last night but several houses in my street had been burnt out. Our front door was kicked in and my husband was dead on the floor with foam all over his mouth – he’d been dead for over a week and I…” She buried her face in her hands and sobbed. “I have no home or husband and the streets are filled with rats, crows and dogs eating the bodies… this isn’t an epidemic - it’s a plague and they’re all saying that the Order started it!”
“My father thought that the Order was up to something evil,” Fria said, kneeling on the bed next to Nurse Cerys and placing an arm about her shoulder. “But nobody believed him. He said a bad disease was coming but they told him not to slander the Order.”
The nurse’s sobbing turned into a coughing fit. “No wonder they never offered to help us. We all thought they were saints – how could they do this to the world? You’ll have to excuse me, girls, there are so many dead, we’re cremating the bodies in the boiler rooms.” She gave a wry smile at the girls’ horrified expressions. “Yes, the dead are keeping us warm. The plague has peaked here – we’re losing more than we’re admitting so I can get some sleep at last. Look at these lights - the power stations are starting to shut down as there are not enough workers to keep them going. All the street lights were turned off weeks ago so they could keep the essential services going but we’ll have to rely on our generators soon.” She stood up and swayed a little. “I hope you don’t mind but I’ll be sleeping in the spare bed over there tonight.”
Mara, a tall dark-skinned girl of Bedouin ancestry, suddenly convulsed and vomited wretchedly leaving a foul black mess on the floor. “I don’t feel good,” she groaned as they helped her into bed. Fria found a mop and cleaned the mess up – the other three would never stoop to such a task – as Cerys checked Mara over.
“You have the plague,” Cerys said, placing a hand on Mara’s forehead. “May God in his Glory have mercy on your soul; may Mary take your hand and guide you into the Light. Amen.”
“I’m still here,” Mara said defiantly. “So don’t read me any last rites. You have it and you seem fine.”
“I’ve taken huge doses of anti-viral drugs but they’ve run out. We kept them for the staff to keep the hospital running but the plague is everywhere now. Nobody is coming because they’re all dying out there. The rats and dogs are starving so they’re eating people even if they aren’t dead yet.”
“If there are bodies lying everywhere then the rats will multiply like crazy,” Mara said as tears streamed down her cheeks. “It means my parents and brothers are in our house being eaten by rats and probably our house dogs as well!”
“And my parents too,” Fria sobbed.
Cerys checked their temperatures. “You’re all infected except for Fria but it’s only a matter of time, dear heart, unless a miracle happens. Keep warm – I’ll be back after my rounds with some food. All the other children are infected but you four are the last. This plague has a one hundred percent infection rate so it can’t be natural. What possessed them to do this? I hope they all rot in Hell,” she hissed, baring her teeth and bleeding gums.
She left them to watch the television again as the evening light faded and the strip lights flickered ominously. At nine of the clock, a haggard unshaven announcer with bloodshot eyes appeared on the screen. “Good evening,” he said sombrely. “The Government today has sent out the last of its troops to surround the Great Abbey of the Order. Great-Abbot Schimrian will be executed for betraying both God and humanity because the Order has just announced that they created this plague! They’ve told us that their ‘Revelation Virus’ is lethal with ninety-nine percent of the human population already infected with at best two to three days to live.”
“There are only six of us – hack! – left in the studio and we are all in the terminal stages and all our loved ones are dead. May God have mercy on all your souls and may the Devil take this Order and all its vile Abbots, Fathers, Brothers, Sisters and Novices into the deepest pits of Damnation to suffer for all Eternity! The last of the power stations are shutting down and we at His Majesty’s Britannic Broadcasting Agency bless you all and hope at least some of you survive this vile and incomprehensible treachery.”
The camera pulled back then five people sat alongside the announcer and opened bottles of spirits. Solemnly, they poured themselves large glasses and raised them in toast at the camera. “This is Sol Magnusson bidding you all a long good night. We are praying for you and hope that you are praying for us. Farewell.” The screen inexplicably showed a few seconds of a famous soap opera before going blank forever.
The strip lights buzzed and failed for a second before the generators kicked in and restored the power. The girls went silently and numbly to bed then Nurse Cerys returned at midnight, checked them over and gave Mara some strong opiates to help her sleep before taking some herself. Fria awoke in the early hours to find the lights dimmed and someone at the foot of her bed removing her charts and name tag. “Who are you?” she hissed.
She recognised the postulant who immediately came to the side of her bed. “Be silent,” he whispered urgently, placing a finger on her lips. “The Order has killed the last of the soldiers and they are now searching all the hospitals for the Children of Exodus. You’re one of them but I won’t let them take you! There’s ether on this pad,” he said, displaying it. “I’m going to cover you with blood and vomit from the other wards. I have to do this because when they come looking for you – you have to look as good as dead, understand? If you don’t, they will kill you!”
“Why are they doing this?” she demanded, grabbing his robes.
“Revelation,” he said simply and pressed the pad to her mouth and nose. “You’ll have to sleep as one near death to fool the Inquisitors,” he whispered. “If I can save one innocent soul by sacrificing one close to death then maybe Jesus, the One True Lamb, will search my heart and forgive me.”
She struggled but he was much stronger than her and she knew no more until she awoke with a pounding headache and a putrid stench assailing her nostrils. She gasped in horror as she saw the girl in the next bed had vanished, her sheets strewn across the floor. She staggered across the ward to wake Nurse Cerys only to find her cold and lifeless with bloody foam about her mouth and, weakened by plague and opiates, Mara had gone the same way.
Bethwin was still alive but her eyes had filled with blood so she was sat up in bed, shivering and whimpering in terror. “Someone came in the night and took Cora!” she cried out, clutching at Fria for reassurance. “She was too ill to fight them and I was too ill to save her – they just laughed at me and now I’m blind. Everything is red and black. Why is everything so quiet? Where is Nurse Cerys? Mara? Mara!”
“I’m sorry, Bethwin, but Nurse Cerys and Mara are dead.”
“Oh, my Merciful God!” Bethwin gasped several times. “May Mary guide them into the Light!” She calmed down a little in Fria’s arms. “Fria, ugh, you smell of vomit and blood. Please tell me you haven’t got this plague as well.”
Fria found it hard to disengage herself from the older girl’s clinging embrace despite the mess on her night-clothes. “I’m fine,” she said as the rumble of a distant explosion made the windows rattle briefly. Through the windows she could see countless palls of smoke smearing the blue sky – the hospital was on a hill overlooking the whole of Crawcester where many homes and factories were still ablaze. “I have to go down to the kitchens to get us some breakfast before the generators fail.” She made Bethwin drink a glass of water and gave her one of the larger stuffed toys to act as a comforter. “I’ll be straight back,” she promised.
That journey to the kitchens remained engraved in her memory for the rest of her life. The only sounds were from the hum and alarms of machines that were now monitoring corpses. The lower corridors were strewn with rows of makeshift beds upon which the dead lay, their faces contorted in their death throes yet the frail and trembling eight-year-old girl somehow found the strength to press on and bless each one with “May the Virgin Mary guide you into Light,” whilst making the sign of the cross over them.
She passed a lift full of bodies slumped against its blood-stained walls with the doors opening and closing automatically like some grotesque carnival peep-show. She reached the kitchens which were mercifully empty and crammed a trolley with bottled water, drinks, tins, cutlery and can-openers. Food was already rotting and maggot-infested; matching the stench in the wards and corridors. She vomited twice before she could place four ready-meals in a microwave oven and heated them up knowing that she could not face returning again. On an impulse - having watched an apocalypse horror film on the ward television - she added tea, coffee, washing powder and two long carving knives to the trolley and wheeled it towards the small service lift.
It only had one corpse - that of the janitor lying next to his sanitation trolley. The lift was still working so she endured the foul odour and horror as it rose to the top floor. She wheeled out both trolleys into the corridor and turned to bless the dead man before the doors closed upon him for the last time. She realised that like Nurse Cerys, he’d died doing the job that he loved…
She comforted Bethwin who had been making an animal-like howling noise as she rocked back and forth in grief and despair. She helped her to eat her breakfast but as they finished their meal, the untended generators failed and the hospital finally died. “There’s no light, Bethwin,” she said fearfully. “All the machines are dead. I think we’re the only ones left alive.”
“I don’t want to die, Fria,” Bethwin sighed. “But I don’t feel too bad - I think I might actually survive this foul plague.”
“Yes, dear heart,” Fria said, copying Nurse Cerys’s tone of voice. “I won’t leave you - I’ll help you get over this.”
“Bless you, Fria,” Bethwin smiled as she lay back onto her bed. “That food was lovely but what is that dreadful smell?”
“It’s not just me – the floors downstairs are full of corpses and they’re rotting. There are rats and blowflies down there too.”
“So they’ll be up here soon,” Bethwin groaned. “Are you sure no dogs are downstairs? I definitely heard something yammering while you were gone – or was it me?”
“It was you, dear heart, you were in a lot of pain.”
“It’s funny but I felt as though I was drifting away from myself,” Bethwin said, flexing a hand. “Apart from my eyes and the pain in all my bones, I feel stronger than I’ve ever been.”
“Maybe you’re somehow fighting the plague.”
Bethwin frowned suddenly. “Hmm, despite the stink on your night-clothes, you don’t sound ill and I can tell by the way you move that you have no pain in your joints.”
“How can you tell? You can’t see.”
Bethwin turned her red eyes to stare blindly at her. “It’s strange but I can sense everything about you. I can hear your heartbeat speeding up as you look at me – I must look terrible!”
“Your eyes are all red so it’s upsetting me,” Fria confessed candidly. “They might clear if you keep fighting the virus and my father told me once that when people lose one sense, all the others sharpen up to compensate.”
“Yes, that’s it,” Bethwin said brightly. “I can hear the screaming on the wind and everyone dying in the city but we’re safe here - if we can keep the rats and dogs out of this ward.”
“I hear nothing out there nor do I want to,” Fria shuddered. “We have to get Mara and Nurse Cerys into the next ward and seal the doors before they start to smell and attract the rats and blowflies - but I don’t know how to move them.”
“You daft gnome,” Bethwin said kindly. “The beds are all on castors – just unlock them. I can’t see and I hurt all over but I’m sure I can help you push the beds.”
They managed to heave the beds into the ward next door so Mara and Nurse Cerys were left to rest amongst a dozen dead children. Disgusted by the smell and blowflies buzzing around the corpses, Fria sealed the doors with duct tape. She checked all the other wards and found snacks and apples still edible and sealed those doors as well. Finally, at Bethwin’s insistence, she sealed the doors to their ward and the ventilation grills then killed the dozen or so blowflies inside using the janitor’s insecticide spray.
There was a small shower in a bathroom attached to the ward and Fria found that the huge hot water tanks were still full and savoured what she knew might be her last ever hot shower. Without power she knew that the boilers would not be able to heat the tanks even if they were still going so she steered Bethwin into the shower and helped her to wash her long black mane. “Your back is covered with fur,” she noted running a hand over Bethwin’s skin.
“What? Me hairy, never!” Bethwin retorted. “It feels itchy and sore though. It must be a side effect of the plague.”
“It’s not too noticeable,” Fria assured her. “But when you recover, having to wax your back will be a small price to pay.”
“I hope that’s all there is,” Bethwin said as Fria towelled her vigorously and helped her into some fresh night clothes.
And so they began their weeks alone together. Fria watched her companion recover slowly but Bethwin was changing and slipped into occasional fevers from which she emerged altered and day by day, Fria’s silent despair and concern for her grew…
The city fires died out but the smell of smoke still hung heavy on the air and occasionally the fine ash of distant conflagrations rained down from the southerly breeze as it grew hotter and more humid by the day. The janitor’s transistor radio and the spare batteries were a godsend – whenever Bethwin was well enough they huddled together and listened avidly to it but only a few stations remained on the air and one by one their frantic calls for help ceased. They retuned to one foreign station after another then the fainter and fainter signals from the Japanese Empire until one day all that was left on the wavebands was static.
“We’re the last ones left alive,” Fria said bleakly.
“Don’t think so - Order lives,” Bethwin said, forming each word with difficulty. “Wish could speak better. Get harder to make word sound each day. Not feel. Cannot think. Head funny. Face feels funny. Smell you fear of me. Fria fear Bethwin now?”
Fria sat behind Bethwin and threw her arms around her to draw her close. “The plague is changing you, dear heart, but you’ve survived without vaccination, Bethwin, you’ve survived! Even the blood is going from your eyes.”
“Bless little gnome-elf Fria,” Bethwin sighed gratefully. “Now she smell good. My teeth still grow long?”
“Yes, your canines and nails are really long now but at least the fevers and the nightmares are over, blessed be Mary.”
“Eyesight start good slow now but no red green. All grey but more good than dark. Mirror?”
“You can see clearly again?” Fria asked apprehensively.
Bethwin turned to regard Fria who saw clearly how little humanity now remained in that face. The jaws had elongated and changed shape slightly to resemble a muzzle and the pupils had started to become cat-like. “See shape!” Bethwin yelped but the words were barely discernible amongst the dog-like noises she was making now that she was agitated. “Why no mirror? Why not in bathroom? Why Fria smell of fear? Bethwin beautiful!”
“I’ll get a mirror but your face has been affected badly by the plague while you were ill,” Fria said carefully. “You’ll have a terrible shock when you look into the mirror but I’m used to it – you are still beautiful Bethwin to me…”
Trembling, Fria brought the transformed Bethwin the mirror she’d hidden whilst keeping the two knives carefully concealed behind her back. She was exhausted from nursing her alternately lucid and raving patient and being powerless to stop the changes to Bethwin’s body and the erosion of her reason and speech. “See, dear heart? It’s not too bad,” she said with a forced brightness.
The mirror smashed against the far wall. “Liar!” Bethwin screamed “All weeks you lie. I see you kill! Fria bad! Bad!”
All Fria heard was a bestial growling as Bethwin advanced upon her. She was moving with a fluid grace with her hands outstretched showing her sharp and thickening nails - the intent to rend her limb from limb clear upon her brutish features. Despite her fear and sense of loss, Fria adopted a fighting stance she’d remembered from a martial arts film and reluctantly pointed her knives at her transformed and demented friend.
Bethwin stared over Fria’s shoulder with a look of hope and surprise then she sighed deeply and dropped to her knees. She swayed a little with her eyes closed before falling sideways onto the floor where she curled up, seemingly fast asleep, with a contented smile upon her ravaged face.
Fria almost fainted with fear as an aged hand was laid upon her right shoulder – the door had been sealed but this old woman had entered without making a sound. “Be at peace, Child of Exodus,” the old woman said in a surprisingly clear voice. “I am not of the Order but I am come to claim this poor soul.”
“Who are you? How did you get in here? Why aren’t you ill?”
“Bless my heart, so many questions,” the old woman smiled. “This black staff should tell you what I am, child.”
“You are a Mother; a witch of Nature!” Fria gasped, her eyes widening. “My mother told me of how you dressed in men’s clothes and fought against the Order for centuries…”
“Indeed and I have the gift of seeing things yet to happen,” the old woman nodded, gazing down upon Bethwin with tears in her eyes. “You will meet two others in Crawthane Street and in time you will find nine more Children of Exodus and together you will fulfil such a dark, dark destiny.”
Fria suppressed a yawn. “What dark destiny?” she demanded, indicating the dead city beyond the window. “Isn’t it dark enough? Everybody out there has been killed by the Order.” She felt a huge wave of exhaustion overwhelm her and she could not resist as the old woman gently disarmed her and then led her to her bed. “Why can’t I control my body? Why are you taking Bethwin?”
“Shhh, you are wounded in both heart and soul and you need to sleep the deep sleep of the righteous,” the old woman smiled down at her. “You have done well and endured so much yet Bethwin is lost to you; her mind and body have been taken by the virus. She is now a Feral; a Child of Night. A storm is coming, Fria – bringing with it a world of endless rain and terror – but when that storm abates, you must find your new companions in Crawthane Street. There you must survive until I can find you again.”
“But I’m so lonely,” Fria protested. “Take me with you… why can’t I move my body? What have you done to me?”
“I am Mother Moss,” the old woman said, drawing the sheets to her chin. She placed a hand upon Fria’s forehead and strange soothing pulses coursed though her tired limbs. “This is a healing Wiccan thrall – magic if you will. I cannot take you with me for I must collect all those like Bethwin and search for a cure but I promise I will find you again. Rest well, Fria of the Long Knives, for your journey is just beginning...”
…Fria looked down upon the familiar pattern of the picnic blanket upon which she sat. Her parents were sat either side of her and together they enjoyed the sun upon their skin, the tang of salt sea breezes as they watched waves break and ships pass beneath the wheeling of the gulls. She knew she had a question upon her lips but for the life of her, she couldn’t remember what it was…
Paul D.E. Mitchell 2012 - 2013
Archived comments for Chapter 18: Fria and Bethwin
Mikeverdi on 14-06-2016
Chapter 18: Fria and Bethwin
Your skill at story telling is growing with each chapter. I'm enjoying this more as we go on. In the end you will go back, edit, prune, curse and re write portions. For now this is great for me...thanks for the read.
ps. I'm going back to Webber to look again, it's been a while.
I've already gone thru it eight times and this is for a second edition so not much will change as everything in the story thus far comes together as the battles start and this tiny band of Scatterlings plot to storm the stronghold of the Order! Glad you are enjoying it. Webber? What be that?