A Divine Madness
by Colin P. Davies & David Redd
Table of Contents|
Part 2, Part 3
Part 4, Part 5
appear in this issue.
|Part 1: London 1665|
Another time Diana would have been alert to the creature outside the cottage, to the scarred and bloody hands that clawed at the doors and shuttered windows, but she heard only the coughs of the woman who lay dying in the darkened room.
“Sssh, Mary. Don’t try to talk.” Diana touched a fingertip to her friend’s forehead. The young mother did not have long to live. “Simon is well. He’ll return soon.” It was a lie — a kindness. The seven-year old boy lay lifeless in a back room.
Diana scooped up more soft coals and threw them onto the banked-up fire. The air was thick and cloying. Londoners believed that tarry smoke might drive out the pestilence. Diana had been willing to try anything but found she could change nothing. Why did these people live only to die? For centuries the question had unsettled her. She had no answer.
The hour was early, and dogs scuttled about the street. The front door creaked. It seemed the wind was building.
“Diana...” Mary turned her face towards the fire. Flames gleamed in her moist eyes. She began to cough.
“I’m still here.” She would not leave Mary now. The humble widow had been so kind to Diana, taking her into her home three months before. No... she would stay till the end. “Don’t you worry. Try to rest.”
Again she felt the sadness. Poor short-lived people! Diana squeezed her eyes shut on her frustration. Poor helpless goddess! What use was her immortality if she could not help her friends? She bit her own hand until the pain forced warm tears to stream down her cheeks. She’d drawn blood, but knew that within an hour the punctures would heal.
The door creaked again — too loudly. Diana’s heart thudded. Some enemy was close. She peered through the gloom as the door shook against its slim bolt.
Mary grabbed Diana’s sleeve. “Listen,” she said. “Someone visits us.”
Diana watched the door. All was quiet, but she knew the visitor would try again, like a dog pawing to uncover a too-fresh corpse.
Mary tugged at Diana. “Someone calls.”
The door crashed inwards and dawn sunlight sliced through the curling smoke. A ragged, red-faced man scrambled into the cottage.
Diana snatched up a long poker from the fire-irons at the hearth and swung the weapon around, smashing through skull and brains and through the life of a creature almost less human than the starving dogs of the street.
The man fell to the straw-softened ground and lay sprawled, twitching briefly. Diana tossed the poker into the shadows. The intruder would not disturb her friend again. For a moment she felt pity. No doubt he had been normal once. Over the centuries she had killed many of the violent ones, and all of them surely started their lives without the madness.
Diana’s next action was inevitable. She brushed her finger across the wash of blood on his grubby cheek, then brought the tip to her tongue. The taste was the same as ever — metallic, unpleasant. Always she sampled the blood of her victims, unable to help herself, an executioner’s ritual. The act still dismayed her, yet was as much a part of her as was this affinity for crossing paths with these warped killers.
She had long ago stopped questioning her nature. She had read books and understood all about gods and goddesses with their mystical powers and divine missions. There was no doubt — she was a goddess. She had not aged for a thousand years.
The flames slowly settled and Mary’s eyes fell shut.
In the gloom, Diana regarded the corpse at her feet. It should not be in here with Mary. She hauled the carcass out into the rear yard and stood a moment to take in the morning air.
“Diana!” Mary called.
Diana ran back to Mary’s side... too late. With the gentlest brush of her fingertips, she closed the eyes of the dead woman. At last, it was over. Unlike herself, the plague made no judgements, taking sinner and saint alike.
Diana followed the escaping smoke out through the front door.
So many times she had suffered the pain and grief of the mortals, ever since the terrible days after her unwed mother had died of the pox — days over a thousand years distant, but still resonant in her memory. Yet now, with Mary gone, she felt detached and empty. And it was a welcome sensation. She did not want to feel — anything — ever again.
Perhaps, after all these years, she was changing.
Diana moved out into the street and stood amid horse dung where dirt-coloured sparrows hopped and scavenged. A cruel-beaked red kite swooped low through the smoky air, seeking prey. At the end of the narrow lane of sheds and cottages, the church spire gleamed astonishingly white in the morning sun; a symbol of misguided hope. She had returned to this island ten years ago, after a century away, and so little had changed.
Always relocating, always searching; often she had expressed her restless feelings in poetry, but no more poems would come to her in this place. Again, it was time to move on, and when her last duty to Mary and Simon was over, she would go.
Diana waited with the bodies till nightfall. This was all she could do for her friends now. In due time the plague cart arrived, and Diana saw its driver with his strange bird-mask, and she heard the wheels creaking and the bell clanging and above everything the rasping shout of “Bring aht yer dead!”
Afterwards, she gathered up her scrolled manuscripts, tucked them into a cloth bag, together with some remnants of a loaf, and left. She walked until lamp-lit cobbled streets dwindled to dark muddy lanes, and grim houses faded into trees. By midnight, with the moon laying a welcome softness over the hard surface of the world, she strolled through meadows, following animal tracks through swaying grass. Her time in London fell away from her, like the briefest of dreams. This was what she had always done; walking forward into a future that was endless and unknown.
She continued on into a countryside where lusting farmhands or imperious lords alike were equally dangerous to a beautiful woman alone. And Diana had no illusions about her beauty. She was tall, her face and bare arms darkly tanned, her black hair long and shining. But she had no fear of the foul instincts of some men. She’d seen it all before... and she was still here, while they were long dead.
Thoughts of beauty drew her notice to her clothes. Although, at present, her bodice was thin and frayed, her grey woollen skirt ragged, and her feet bare, she would obtain new clothing easily enough when she next chose to visit a town. She was no longer surprised by the generosity of strangers. It was one of the traits she most admired in the mortals — that and the capacity for love.
The dawn sunlight found her still walking. Diana followed a path to the summit of a grassy hill and gazed out over the misty beauty of England. She almost turned to look back towards London, but stopped herself. Never look back! Dwelling on the past was for mortals. Her destiny lay in the days ahead — of that she was certain. She had an absolute faith in the future that could not be explained, as though a part of her knew that much more was to come.
Diana walked on, avoiding cottages and what passed for roads. She slept under bushes. She ate fish or hedgepigs raw when she could not make fire. She drank from rushy pools where leeches would bite her and fall away dying.
In this fashion at previous times Diana had walked away from great cities stricken by the plague, from the Norman knights who had conquered the Saxons, from the Celts who had burned her villa. Always she had risen above these things, as a goddess should, and she had departed to leave people and past behind her. Now she would leave even love behind.
Her time with Mary and Simon had been the final proof that her purpose was not to involve herself in mortal matters, but to seek out and destroy the evil-possessed killers, those whose minds had been turned by some spirit of darkness. She had slain the madman in the cottage, and one day soon she would slay again.
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Copyright © 2006 by Colin P. Davies