When I got up this morning, Johan didn't wake up. I didn't care though. He had been quite drunk when he got home last night. So I ate quickly by myself, got dressed and went out. The streets were empty. There was no stinking smells coming from the butcher's shop. No scream coming from the pier. Not even a rat crossing the roads, their red little eyes glistening in the semi obscurity of the early morning. In fact, the only thing that felt real was the sun on my skin and the sticky mud under my shoes. Growing anxiety came upon me as I entered the castle. I was supposed to work in the kitchens but I had the nagging feeling that there would not be anyone to welcome me there either. When I found myself in front of the stone stairs, breaking my usual habit of obeying without a word, and never drawing attention to myself, I went up instead of down. Maybe I shouldn't have. I probably shouldn't have. Maybe if I went down, things would have gone back to normal. But I went up. I went up. And each and every of my steps on the cold floor resonating under the high ceilings. There was no one in the corridor leading to the lord's bedroom. There was no one and all I could think about was that I shouldn't have come up. It wasn't my place. But there I was, in front of the wooden door to the lord's room and there was no one to stop me.
As I pushed the door tentatively, finding it unlocked, I remembered this old story my mother used to tell me when I was but a little kid. It was the tale of a young maid admired by all for her beauty. One day, an old witch jealous of the maiden's beauty cast a spell on her and everyone in her castle and everyone fell into a deep sleep. Well it's how I remembered it. It felt like that. Like the world had just gone to sleep and I was the only one awake. Or maybe I was also asleep and this was just a dream. Gathering the remnants of my wavering courage, I pushed the door open. The room was so much bigger than the little place I shared with Johan. There was a great bed in the middle of it, draped in red velvet. A carved chest at the end of it probably held the richly embroidered clothes of the lord and his wife. There was also a sculpted fireplace but there was no fire burning in it. The room was cold, as if the furniture itself was asleep. Again, the only thing that felt alive was the sunlight coming from the high windows and glistening on the polished stones of the floor and the walls. It seemed to be dancing, enjoying the stillness of it all.
I approached the bed quiet as a mouse. I wanted to see the lord's new wife. They had gotten married only a few days ago and I had not seen her closely yet. I wanted to know if she was the kind of fair maiden witches curse in the stories. Well strictly not a maiden anymore but still. She was fair headed indeed but she wasn't that pretty, I thought. She didn't have rosy cheeks, and was so pale she was almost livid. Morbidly so. She was a bit puffed up and her skin seemed saggy to the touch. I realized then that I was touching the skin of my lady while she was sleeping. I withdrew my hand as though I had been burnt. But she didn’t move. And the lord next to her didn't move either. He seemed livid too. The nagging sensation that something was wrong came back at me. I drew the sheets away a bit. And then I saw it. The black protuberance under her skin, on her neck. They weren't asleep, were they ? Nobody was asleep.
I didn't have time to think. I ran. I'd heard about death coming and reaping everyone they saw. I saw the dead bodies piled up far away from the village before they were burnt. I remembered the smell of rotten flesh turned to ashes. The doctors couldn't do anything in the cities, I heard, and here there was no doctor anyway. Maybe the priest had survived, I thought, heading for the castle's chapel. But I remembered that the bells hadn't rung once since I got up that morning. Why did I get up that morning ? Why did I even wake up ? Why was I alive ? I realized I wasn't running away from a childhood's tale gone wrong anymore. I was running away for my life. If death had come, death could come again. And this time she wouldn't spare me. Why did she spare me ? The sun was now high in the sky and I still ran. I knew now there was nowhere in the village where I would be safe, but the city was only twenty minutes away. The sun was laughing at me, I felt its light hit my back like a million of little daggers. It was the only thing alive in a world that was dead. It was God's golden eye contemplating the apocalypse he had unleashed on the world. I ran.
And then I saw the city's walls in front of me. It was still quite far away, but I could see the walls, and the high tower of the cathedral. I saw the golden light hitting the roofs, and it was fate showing me the way to salvation. I ran even faster. There was sorrow in my heart for Johan who wouldn't ever wake up anymore. For the little lordling, the son of the lord and his first wife. He would make a sad orphan. No. Not an orphan. He was probably dead too. Dead in his little cradle, empty gaze looking at the ceiling. I had to chase away the tears that filled up my eyes as I continued running. I never had more strength and yet I never felt so weak, so incredibly mortal.
"Where are you running to, woman ?"
I stopped dead in my tracks. In front of me on the road was a tall man draped in a black cape, a mask over his face, ending in a long white beak. I knew there were plants burning in the tip of the beak to protect the man from the contaminated air. His voice was shadowed by the smoke he inhaled each time he opened his mouth.
"What are you running from ?"
He added, before laughing bitterly.
"There's nowhere to run to, woman. Only places to run from."
"I want to go to the city" I said, realizing just at that time how out of breath I was. My legs hurt for running that long. Every part of my body was tingling unpleasantly, still trying to wake up from this nightmare.
"There is no city" he said.
I pointed vaguely at the walls of the city, still trying to recover from my fleeing. And then I saw. The man with the white mask and the long beak. The burn marks on his cape. And the golden aura hovering above the city that wasn't golden anymore. It was fierce red, and blood crimson, and a dashing yellow that blinded my eyes. It was no message from God. It was fire, rejoicing on the deaths of the dead bodies in the city. It was fire dancing hand in hand with the Black Death. If you looked closely, you could even see her, the Disease, in the black smoke entwined to the flames. And I cried because the city was no more. I screamed because there was nowhere to go. And nothing answered back but the silence. The man in his cape had continued his journey, leaving me behind. There was no one. No one but me. Me and the dancing flames, the laughing sun, the golden eye of God still looking at me.
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