The smell of death hung heavy and pungent in the air. Sickness touched the skin and covered it in a dewy glow that in any other situation could have been attractive.
Castellan held a scented handkerchief over her nose as she walked through the village to the church.
There were many people already on the steps by the time she got there but they did not jostle for front of queue. None of them even stood within arm's reach of each other. All their eyes focused on the closed doors, Castellan's included.
A small square recess in the wooden door was covered with a sliding piece of metal that opened from the inside.
At last came the familiar grating noise.
A pair of watery blue eyes, paled by near-blindness, looked out from the hole.
"No medicine today."
The wood slid shut and the crowd dispersed.
Castellan made the treacherous journey every morning. Her own good health risked by a wayward cough, not properly covered or a frightened child clinging to her hand and skirts. But it had to be made. If ever there was a chance her dear Mandolin could be saved, she had to risk it.
She reached her front door, heart hammering. A yellow ribbon hung from the knocker. She longed to tug it down, to have a bare door, a healthy household. But, alas, she would be killed by the Lawsmen if they found out.
The four of the other five houses in their Clump had yellow ribbons. The last one had took their yellow ribbon down and replaced it with a blue one.
Poor Dontagne, thought Castellan. Months ago she would have cried for the passing of an old friend. Months ago, the plague had only just started with a sick travelling merchant who took refuge inside the Inn for a few days until he got better.
The Inn closed down first when the barkeep died. The church next. The market did as best as it could but with no supplies coming in they soon ran out of things to sell.
As many died from the plague as did starvation. Now, at least, the farm has enough food to support the survivors until the next crop.
Castellan pushed open the door. Herbs and scents burning on a small stove filled the house with a sickly smoke. Mandolin lay on the sofa in a stained blanket. His face looked pale and sweaty.
He grunted. His voice had gone a long time ago. It disappeared to a hoarse whisper for a while before it went altogether. Castellan had come to guess for him what he meant.
"Not today, my love. Maybe tomorrow."
Not tomorrow. Or the day after. Each day Castellan watched more and more of her beloved husband slip away. She longed to hold him and comfort him as he passed but she feared getting sick herself. She wondered about getting sick with him so that she did not have to be on her own after he was gone. She said that to him, in the early days but he had fervently forbidden her to get ill.
She obeyed him as she always had. Loved him from afar. Grieved for him though he had not yet gone. Each day she hoped the church would have an answer. Each day the doors remained barred and she was left to fend for them both herself.
A knock came at the door the evening before Food Day.
Castellan stared hard, disbelieving her own ears. No one ever knocked on the door of a yellow ribbon. Even blue ribbons instilled fear in would be visitors in case the sickness was still in the air. As far as Castellan knew, there were no visitors anywhere. People stayed in doors and hoped the plague would move on.
The knock came again.
Castellan pulled on a pair of leather gloves and dipped her handkerchief in warmed lavender oil and held it over her nose and mouth before she opened the door.
On the step, battered by the chill wintry winds, stood a dark-haired lady in a bright red travelling cloak. Her eyes were orange with vertical slits like a cat.
Castellan knew to distrust those eyes. The church forbade any consort at all with her kind. Castellan pushed the door shut but it met resistance before it closed.
"Please," asked the lady. "I can help you."
"Help me what?"
"You have someone in there who is sick. Or are you sick yourself?"
Castellan put more force behind the door. "Leave us alone."
"I can help you. I can smell you are using herbs already. You just need the right ones. With the right application. I can help you."
Castellan knew her use of herbs had been shunned by her neighbours. She was dabbling with child's games. But her Mandolin had survived longer than any of the others. She knew, though, her herbs were not saving him, only prolonging his pain. Letting him go was unthinkable.
The witch pushed the door all the way back and dropped down her hood as she stepped inside. Castellan caught the sight of her neighbours peering through their windows at her before she could close the door again. She hoped they would not inform the Lawsmen.
The witch worked through the night. She replaced the water on the stove with her own mixture. She rubbed a thick, gloopy oil under Mandolin's nose and over his lips. She rubbed a different oil over his chest, so pungent it made Castellan's eyes and nose stream. Finally the witch poured a sweet smelling liquid into Mandolin's mouth and forced him to drink.
Then came the spells.
Castellan left the room. She could not bear to listen to the guttural songs of the witch. It was unnatural and blasphemous. Castellan had already condemned herself to the law by having a witch practising in her home. Listening to the words might condemn her also to whatever gods were watching her good husband suffer all the way to his grave.
When the witch was done she made to leave.
"I believe you know my fee well. I will be back to collect in a week."
Castellan nodded. Witches usually collected blood for their troubles so that they could continue their blasphemous bloodmagic elsewhere. How much blood the witch expected Castellan did not know.
Miraculously, Mandolin improved. Day by day he regained a little of what he had lost. By the time the week was up he was aware enough to understand that a witch stopped by to collect a substantial amount of blood from Castellan. He was furious for a moment but relieved that he had survived the plague.
After another week had passed, Mandolin had improved so much that Castellan decided to take down the ribbon.
Her neighbours were astounded and even came out of their houses to see Mandolin stood on his own doorstep looking as thin as a skeleton but with a healthy rose in his cheeks that had not been there for a long time.
That night the witch made several more housecalls.
Word spread throughout the village. A cure.
Bloodmagic was whispered too. Mostly by the church.
It could not be argued though that it worked. The witch had saved them.
Three weeks after the witch had come to visit Castellan, she sat at the dining table with her husband. They ate bread and vegetable broth. They talked and laughed as though it was their first meal together when they were courting.
Castellan felt shy when they went to bed. It had been so long.
Sometime in the night after they had fallen asleep, exhausted, Castellan woke to find the bed empty except for herself.
The house felt still.
Castellan moved through the silence as she called out for her husband. From the top of the stairs she could see that the front door was open. Winter blew in and chilled the house.
She grabbed her warmest coat from the rack at the bottom of the stairs and went out into the night.
Castellan passed several houses. They all looked empty. The windows were dark, no one moved. Ribbons danced in the breeze stretching out to touch Castellan. She shrank from them and hurried her steps, not sure which way to run.
A woman's scream and a child's crying pulled Castellan towards the direction of the church. The houses were larger here.
A few had lights on. Faces pushed up against the glass. No body else had come out to see who was screaming.
Castellan turned a corner and saw the source of the screams. She realised then that the screaming had stopped, and so had the crying.
A woman's body lay in the open doorway to a house. There was no child. A man knelt over the body, brushing hair away from the woman's face with all the tenderness of a new lover.
Castellan slowed as she got nearer to the house. The man looked up. Tears dripped onto his cheeks.
He picked up her lifeless hand and pressed it to his mouth to stifle the sobs.
After a while the sobs abated enough for him to say "that thing took my boy".
"The ... man ... thing."
As if in answer someone else started to scream.
The man looked up, his eyes full of terror.
"He's doing it again," he said and dissolved into sobs.
"Aren't you going to look for son?"
Either he did not hear or he ignored Castellan.
Another scream. Castellan's feet made her mind up for her and she was running.
That time she got there in time to see a naked man holding a child up by the throat. A woman clung to the man's arm, screaming for her child's life. The child looked dead already to Castellan. Another child stood just behind the man, head bowed.
The naked man clobbered the woman around the face, knocking her to the ground. Then he took the dead child in his hands, tore off its head as though it were made of paper, and dropped the body on top of the unconscious woman.
The man handed the head to the child behind him who dutifully placed the head inside a bag strung over his shoulders. The child staggered under its weight. The bag looked nearly full.
How long has this been going on for?
The man walked across the gap to the next house. He hammered on the door until someone answered it.
Castellan recognised her, she lived alone.
The naked man dragged her by the hair and pulled her to the ground. As his body twisted Castellan cried out.
He looked at Castellan but she saw no recognition in his eyes. In fact, she saw nothing. His eyes were two black orbs with blood red pin pricks in the centre.
Castellan heard laughing. She turned and saw the witch who had saved her husband not three weeks ago.
"You did this!"
"I did. Just think how many I saved after they saw how your husband recovered. Just think what will happen next month when they all rise up to bring me the heads of their neighbours' children."
Castellan looked at her husband whose face was red with blood and then back at the witch.
Laura Ellison is a fantasy writer living in a small part of England called the Black Country. She has been writing ever since she was big enough to hold a pen. She graduated from Bath Spa University with a degree in English Literature but her true passion lies in creating new stories.