“The Plague Maiden”
This is a story to be read around a fire with good company on a stormy night, by those who believe that life is no fun without a good scare. Those who are faint of heart be warned, however. Darkness dwells within these words, ready to pull you down into the abyss of your own soul.
Love…such a strange feeling…and dangerous. It makes us do irrational and illogical things to protect those who are bound to us through it, often at our personal cost. And it is with love, this story both begins and ends: the love of a father for his daughter and the love of a common fisherman for a high-born lady.
Our story begins in the island kingdom of Skellige, on Fyke island, home of Jarl Jon Belegson, renowned warrior, caring lord and good man. He made his fortune like most of his countrymen, collecting taxes from the traders and merchants sailing his waters, boarding and looting pirate ships and escorting treasure fleets. It was during one of those escort missions that he met Lord Vserad, a rather wealthy farmer from the mainland who had wed his way into aristocracy. During the voyage, the two became close friends and Lord Vserad offered the Jarl a job as his Master-at-Arms. He was unaware though that “Jarl” is a title of royalty in Skellige and was terribly ashamed after finding out. To his surprise, the Jarl accepted the invitation to visit his tower on the mainland, sinced he longed to explore the known world.
Soon after they returned to the mainland, war between the kings of North and South erupted. Being a Nord, Lord Vserad had his garrison trained by Jon and ordered Alexander, his mage, to prepare for anything. A secretive and eccentric man, Alexander. He had arrived at Vserad’s gates when the Catriona disease was taking out his subjects like flies in winter. He had offered his expertise as an epidemiologist in exchange for enough crowns to buy him a decent laboratory. Both men kept their word and as a precaution, Lord Vserad decided to keep Alexander as his mage.
The laboratory was built on the top floor of the lord’s tower, the safest environment for Alexander’s experiments on the corpses of those who succumbed to the Catriona, a disease he was planning to weaponise using rats as incubators. Rats…omnivorous with cannibalistic instincts and numerous immunities to toxins. The perfect infiltrators…and assassins.
The war went on for half a year and got progressively worse. More taxes on the common folk, criminals on the loose and fewer food sources-in general, hard times to be a lord. And harder still, if the lord’s daughter were to fall in love with a fisherman from the nearest village. Annabelle and Graham were proof that the seed of love can sprout and blossom even on a bloodied field. And if the war hadn’t made the villagers restless, they would have got their way.
One day, an armed mob sacked the keep, killed the lord, the mage and the servants and despite Graham’s efforts, tried to rape Annabelle before she drunk from a vial Alexander had given her and collapsed.
The peasants tore the tower apart and left Graham to mourn his beloved and her family. Word of Alexander’s work had reached his ears and out of fear for his life, he left the dead unburied, to keep company with the rats. Hours later, Annabelle awoke unable to move, a side effect of the sleeping potion she had consumed. The room was dark but she could see pairs of red eyes closing in on her.
A warm piece of meat placed on the cold floor was what the rats saw. At first, they nibbled at her to check if she was edible. Then, once they got the taste of blood in their mouths, they bit and clawed their way through her body, her skin, her gut and her skin again. They picked her bones clean in minutes and thanks to the potion, she could feel everything, from the first bite to the last.
Graham knew not of the potion’s true nature and thought his love had taken poison to escape the villager’s cruelty and so, he cursed them and their children to be unable to find peace after death. There has always been power stored in words and in those, there lay a dark seed that started stretching its roots throughout the stronghold , draining the goodness of the wandering souls and especially Annabelle’s, whose death had triggered the curse.
Anger, hatred, loss and a magic-bound disease. The new rulers of Lord Vserad’s stronghold, alongside a spectre unlike the others haunting the tower. She would dispose of any looter and bandit who would dare venture too close to the tower. She was a Plague Maiden or a Pesta, as some call them. Like all spectres, she could hover above the ground and move freely through all sorts of matter. Her body belonged to a woman who had died from famine, her skin flayed and bits of muscle still attached to her bones. And her tongue…as long as her thin raven black hair. Packs of mice and rats followed her and swarms of carrion flies nested in her ribcage. A witcher offered to hear her out and uncovered her former identity-Annabelle.
The witcher was hired by a sorceress to cleanse the tower and rid the villagers of the curse. His name was Geralt of Rivia and he was kind enough to reunite the two lovers. Before she had drunk the potion, Annabelle had seen Graham pushing the other villagers aside in order to reach her and was so hurt and furious when she learned that he hadn’t avenged her death. She thought he had forsaken her. When the witcher told Graham that Annabelle was more or less alive, he rushed towards the tower filled with joy, but he was not prepared for wht he saw. Graham thought that the curse was his doing and it could only be lifted if the Maiden was to be forgiven for her appearance. Graham crossed the boundary by kissing her, thus returning her to her original form. But the price they paid was great, since shortly afterwards, both their bodies hit the floor with a thud, lifeless vessels. However, the witcher knew that they could now live their love in the afterlife.
Panagiotis Stavropoulos Neon Aigina copyright 2015-2016