Holy Fire

Matild the cobbler’s wife stood in the torchlight of the courtyard, face red and sweaty, frizzy corkscrews of hair escaping her wimple. She was the screamer. Men with pitchforks and lanterns had already gathered, as well as a string of squealing maids. The lord and lady had not yet come—presumably they were still eating in great hall—and they were all powerless to quiet the shrieking and find the reason for it.

Jevan and Cecily stood separate in the shadows, neither thinking of the other, as they watched the chaos and heard the screams increase. One of the pitchfork men coughed and Matild collapsed in a heap of sobs and skirts. Jevan stepped forward and pushed through the growing crowd. “Who is this woman? What has been done to her?” Woman, why are making this ungodly racket?”

Flaming torches by dan taylor
Flaming torches, a photo by dan taylor on Flickr.
Matild shut her mouth and stared up at the man, then took a hard gulp and gasped out a few words. “It’s my boy, Elstan. And the Spichfat girl. They’re twistin’ and writhin’, and sayin’ dreadful things, and my boy,” she ground her fingers into her eyes.

One old hag said, “Oh, aye, I’ve seen this afore. It’s the holy fire, sure enough. Evil stuff. I had three cousins all come down wid it when I were but a girl. Nearly got me it did.” Then in a loud whisper, “If it don’t kill you it leaves you half-witted, often as not.”

Master Auvray knelt and pried away Matild’s hands, waiting until she could look him in the face to ask, “What about your boy?”

“He tried to strangle me. He’s gone mad, sire. Elstan would never do that—he’s a good boy, a good boy. Somethin’s the matter the matter with him sire. I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what to do!

“Is there anyone else? Just this boy and girl?”

“Oh, there may be others by now. I thought I heard summat over at the Lockton’s cottage.”

Jevan saw Cecily stiffen and he rose to face the crowd. “Something is plaguing the village. Perhaps a kind of illness. Someone—no. I will ride for the surgeon in Camberton. Man, get my horse. Would someone,” his eyes flicked toward Cecily, “bring this woman to wherever the sick will be?

The men parted to make a path and Cecily ran to Matild, gathering her up in her arms and guiding her toward the gate while Jevan left for the stables.


“Where’s Cessy? Does anyone know where she is? Cessy!”

“I’m here, Gracia.” Cecily entered the chapel half carrying Matild, going slow with her burden. Gracia ran to pull the woman onto one of the low beds that had been set up in a makeshift infirmary.

“Cessy. They’ve just brought your mother in.” They both heard the painful sound of retching.

“Mum? Mum!” Cecily saw a neighbor cover Alis with a blanket and wipe the spittle from her mouth. Two seconds later she was beside her mother’s bed, holding her and smoothing her sweaty hair. “Mum, it’s me, me, Cessy. Come, have a drink, there. You’ll be all right. There are people, herbs, medicine here to help you. We’ll help you. Don’t worry about a thing. It’ll be over soon, don’t worry.” Alis cried out that she was being bitten, burned, and scratched, then moaned and turned over on her side. The room blurred into just so many dark splotches and Cecily buried her face in her apron. No no. Not now. Not today. It can’t be happening. God why?

“Come, lass, give your mother a drink.” The vicar put one hand on Cecily’s shoulder and with the other offered her a cup of ale. She fumbled for the cup and held it to her mother’s lips.

That was the first night. Sleepless, painful, sharp in memory forever like the stab of a cramp in the ribs. Two beds were set up in the chapel for Elstan and the Olive Spichfat, another for Alis, and two more for the rest who were sure to come. Matild, Olive’s parents, Cecily, Gracia, Bess, and the vicar were the first vigil, watching the victims as they struggled under their covers, convulsing and crying out horrible things—they were being cut, pinched, burned, frozen, and drowning in blood. Bess kept one hand on the girl’s forehead and that seemed to keep her calm, but Matild and her husband had to tie Elstan to the bed with cords after he jumped up and almost broke a window. His mother finally exhausted her tears and sat rocking in her seat, deaf to everything.

Cecily tried to speak with her mother, asking if she had gone anywhere or done anything strange. Perhaps she and the children had discovered some kind of poison, a dangerous plant she’d never heard of, or maybe something had frightened them out of their wits. “Mum? Can you hear me? Do you know who’s speaking to you? What’s gone wrong? Mum, can you tell me what you did today?” Alis only shuddered and lifted her hands in the air, twisting them as if an invisible person were bending and cracking the fingers. Cecily grabbed her hands and her mother let out a shriek.

“Cold! Cold! Help! They’re coming.

Everyone counted the minutes, then the hours, until the surgeon’s arrival. They couldn’t be sure that he would even come. A few cotters might not be enough to get him away from his supper table, or out of his warm bed, but they all helped that the persuasion of an earl’s heir would put speed to his feet.

Gracia came back from her house carrying a vial of brown liquid that she said would calm the sufferers. She moistened towels and dabbed their foreheads (eliciting cries of “Mum! The water, I’m drowning...”), then poured the noxious potion down their throats. An hour later they were no calmer, and neither did Gracia. Everyone had a painful, unacknowledged anxiety—perhaps even the Camberton surgeon would be of no help. It might be what the old hag said: holy fire. A plague with no cause and no cure, striking in random spots like a blind old man trying to whip a horse.

The night grew longer, still without a surgeon. Men and women came through the chapel to see the strange sight and worry the watchers. Cecily fought off the idle spectators (“Give them some peace! Give them quiet!”), but was unable to drive away the clusters of friends and family weeping noisily around the beds.

so sick by rachel_titiriga
so sick, a photo by rachel_titiriga on Flickr.
After midnight another victim came to the chapel: Madge Surlaf. She was bent double from a pain in her stomach and complained that her fingers and toes had gone numb. Alis readied a bed and Gracia prepared a strong-smelling poultice.

Cecily fell asleep in her chair several hours later, waking only when the chapel doors banged open and Jevan Auvray entered, leading a hunched old man she guessed was the surgeon. The whole company watched as the surgeon examined the four, conferred with Gracia, and spoke to Jevan in low tones. Jevan’s shoulders looked squarer, his back straighter, and his chin higher than they ever had. He beckoned this one and sent away that one, inquired and advised. Cecily watched him as much as she dared without drawing attention to herself, but imagined that he looked at her once or twice.

Just before leaving, he came close by Alis’s bed as if on inspection. “How is she?” he murmured.

“Very bad. Does the surgeon not know what the matter is?”

“That will take some time, I’m afraid. I’ll let you know If I find out anything.”

She smiled and touched his hand ever so briefly, then turned to soothe her mother’s restless twitching. 

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Constructive criticism is welcome! Please remember, though, that nearly every excerpt posted here is my first rough draft.