First off, we’d like to thank everyone who has supported us in our fight against Facebook by signing and sharing our petition. After sending them Lynx’s passport and demanding the right to use our pen name, Facebook caved and let us back on, under our pen name. We won! Though we’re still keeping the petition going so others don’t suffer our fate.
Anyhoo, next month we’re hoping to release our plague doctor novella, The Malignant Dead. We’ve loved working on it and are excited to release it. In the meantime, here’s the first chapter. Enjoy!
1645. The year Scotland died.
Glazed eyes of the dead watched the cloaked figure creep through Edinburgh’s cobbled streets, his beaked mask casting monstrous shadows that slunk along the crumbling walls. People edged away, whispering ‘Doctor Death’. Where he walked, Death followed.
Rotting bodies lay entangled in the alleys; the June sun and north wind conspiring to poison the air with the foul odour of decay. One body groaned as black rats investigated her. Although her flesh had decomposed, she was still alive.
Dirty white rags dangled from windows, like hanging men left on gallows for the city to witness their shame. Retching coughs and screams smothered the pitiful moans. Death no longer loitered in the shadows, veiled beyond people’s nightmares; he prowled the streets, taking people where they stood. There was nowhere left for them to hide.
The figure stopped at a door. Red paint dripped like blood from a mortal wound.
May the Lord have mercy on our souls.
The words scrawled above the foot-long cross filled McCrae not with hope, but dread.
McCrae touched the cross. “There is no mercy here.”
He wiped the paint on his leather cloak, leaving a scarlet smear. He must be mad. He wasn’t a doctor. He was yet to cure an infected wound, yet he hoped to cure the plague. He could not even see out of the damn mask. He adjusted it then leaned down to tuck his leather breeches into his boots.
He beckoned a watchman, who crossed the narrow wynd and unlocked the door, his pipe clamped between his teeth. McCrae stepped inside the tenement. Gloom swallowed him, the smell of putrefaction lingering despite the herbs hanging in the window. Smoke infused the air from the brimstone burning by the hearth.
The stench of Hell.
Mrs Calhoun emerged from the bedroom, her haunted eyes revealing Death had visited her home. McCrae nodded and entered the small room. Rancid odours stirred his stomach. A man lay on the bed, blankets clutched in his decomposing fists. A shrivelled rabbit’s foot dangled off a leather thong around his neck. His mouth hung open, as though Death came before he finished his scream. Pus from the burst bubo in his armpit trickled down his blackened, festering skin. Flies crawled over his face. The buzzing of their wings became the music to die to.
McCrae stared down at him, gripping his bag. His hooded cloak felt heavy on his shoulders.
“I had hoped you could help me.”
McCrae unrolled the man’s nightshirt sleeves then picked him up.
“Don’t do this.”
He turned. Mrs Calhoun blocked the doorway, fingering the heart pendant around her neck.
“I cannot leave him to rot. The infection could spread to you, if it is yet to take hold.”
“Don’t undertake this role. It is not worth it.”
“The Guild of Surgeons and Barbers’ apprentice fee is forty shillings. I cannot afford that on a market trader’s wage. I will quit once I have cured this pest and settled my debt with my friend James.”
“John did not see a penny of the wage the council promised. He ‘did not live long enough to earn it’.” She gestured towards her dead husband. “Do you know how long John was the plague doctor? A week. How long have you been the plague doctor?”
McCrae glanced at the man in his arms. “Doctor Petrie is my first patient.”
Mrs Calhoun’s eyes brimmed with pity. “How old are you?”
“Do you know what awaits you?”
“I have read about the treatments.”
“You won’t find the cure amongst the pages of a book. All John’s superstitions – the chicken tail feathers, plague water and frogs’ legs he gave his patients – could not save him. That lucky charm around his neck could not save him. Nothing could have saved him. Not even you. His parents died three days ago. He could not save them. Next week, the new plague doctor will put you on the cart while your betrothed weeps at your bedside. Tell me then it is worth the money.”
Mrs Calhoun walked away as McCrae carried his predecessor to the door. He knocked. The watchman opened it and McCrae stepped into dying sunlight, where a cart waited. He laid John on the bodies then followed the cart. John’s glassy gaze fixed on him, as though forewarning him of the horrors to come. McCrae looked away.
A carriage jolted past, heading for the Flodden Wall, burdened with a family and their belongings. The mother averted her eyes and hugged a bairn to her, as though the mere sight of McCrae would infect her.
“You cannot outrun Death.”
The wheels of the next death cart rolling behind him drowned out the fleeing carriage.
A man staggered along Cowgate, weaving between the cattle before falling to his knees in the filth. He vomited; blood spattering his hands, the street, and the dead bairn he embraced.
McCrae’s cloak creaked as he knelt and reached for the bairn.
“No!” The man scrambled away, cradling her to his chest. “Yer the devil!”
“I’m yer only hope.”
McCrae eased the bairn from the man’s arms and placed her on a barrow between two dead women. The wheels trundled forwards, the death bell tinkling, the bodies’ limbs flopping with the cart’s jerky movements.
“Bring out yer dead!” echoed through the street.
McCrae helped the man up. “Where do you live–?”
William shuffled along Cowgate, which ran parallel to the High Street, and turned right into Borthwick’s Wynd. He stopped at a door bearing a scarlet cross. McCrae ushered William inside, motioning to a watchman down the street. He locked the door from outside. McCrae’s eyes slowly adjusted to the dim room, lit only by the hearth.
“I’m McCrae.” The large beak muffled his voice. Sweet herbs, dried flowers and bergamot oil masked some odours but nothing concealed death’s putrid perfume.
“You cannot help us, yer no doctor. Go back to yer market stall where you belong.”
“I’m the only one willing to help you.”
“Until the council’s money runs out. I want John.”
“John is dead. I can fetch his corpse from the cart if you wish but he will be as helpful to you as my family’s linen would be.”
Laboured breathing rattled from the bed in the corner. An elderly couple slept in another bed.
“Why do they lock us in?”
“Because if they didn’t, more folk would die.”
McCrae moved to the writhing fire and laid a poker in the flames. William wheezed, his legs buckling. McCrae crouched, removing a lance and a rag from his pocket.
“I’m sorry, this will hurt.”
He unbuttoned William’s shirt and pierced the apple-sized bubo in his armpit. William hissed as blood and pus burst from his decaying flesh. McCrae dabbed the weeping wound with the rag, swallowing the vomit threatening to choke him. Would he get used to the sights, the smells of this wretched disease? Would he live to see it cured? Or would he become just another corpse rotting in the pit while the city died above him?
“Why has this happened? We stopped bathing because Pastor Matthews said the dirt would keep the pest away and that God would punish us for our pride.”
McCrae examined William’s blackened fingers and green nails. “God punishes murderers, not folk who bathe.” He collected the poker.
William flexed his fingers. “What’s happening to them?”
“Yer body is dying around you.” McCrae wiped William’s brow then slipped a stick into his mouth. “Bite.” He thrust the glowing poker into the bubo, the rancid smell of burning flesh tainting the air. McCrae heaved, clenching his jaw to stop himself vomiting over his mask and his patient.
McCrae’s medical books and cadavers had not prepared him for treating the living dead. Corpses didn’t scream.
McCrae ran to the door, pounding on it like a still-warm body begging to be released from its grave. The watchman opened it. McCrae fell to his knees and tugged off his mask, vomiting into the dirt. He rested his hands on his thighs, gasping in the warm air. William’s decay festered in his nostrils. He heaved and spat.
The watchman chuckled. “They don’t smell like linen, do they laddie?”
McCrae wiped his mouth and shot him a contemptuous look. “They’re infected – what’s yer excuse?” He stood, pulling on his mask, and entered the tenement.
“Is anyone else infected?”
“My wife, Agnes.” William coughed, blood streaking his chin.
McCrae patted his shoulder with his gloved hand and approached the bed. The rough breaths of the dying had silenced. A woman on the straw mattress cradled a five-year-old lad. At the foot of the bed, an eight-year-old lass lay curled up, clutching a doll.
McCrae brushed the lass’s damp hair from her face. A small bubo lurked behind her ear.
She shrieked and wrenched back. “Mammy!”
“I’m a doctor,” McCrae whispered.
She gripped her doll, crying as he lanced the swelling. He examined the lad. Red roses covered his pale, sweaty skin. He hugged his mother, his eyes wide.
McCrae nodded. Tears trickled from William’s red eyes. McCrae checked Agnes’s pulse then lowered his head. “I’m sorry.”
“No!” William pushed McCrae aside and hugged his wife. “Agnes!”
McCrae grabbed the bed. His heart ached at the thought of losing Katrein this way. William collapsed, pulling Agnes into his lap. He sobbed, kissing her face.
“Bring out yer dead!”
“I’m sorry William. I must take her.” McCrae prised Agnes from William’s arms and carried her to the door. He knocked. The watchman opened it, covering his face.
McCrae whistled and the cart stopped. He laid Agnes in the back.
“You must be the new fella. You’ll get a reputation for killing yer patients.” The barrowman chuckled. Grey sprinkled his dark hair, like stray ashes had fallen from the sky from the remains of the witches Scotland had burned. Even with the black rag covering his mouth and nose, McCrae recognised Hamish Reid.
McCrae patted the grey pony, Bran, who shied away. “That’s why they call me Doctor Death.”
“McCrae?” Hamish peered through the beak’s round glass eyeholes. “Samhain’s not until October. There’ll be no begging and celebration this year.”
“There’ll be plenty of spirits to welcome.”
“You should see him without the costume,” Hamish’s twenty-year-old passenger whispered.
“How are you, Hamish?” McCrae asked.
“Better than my passengers. They’re a wee bit quiet today.” Hamish jerked his thumb towards his cart then elbowed the woman beside him. “Though Katrein’s broth is trying to kill me.”
“Every day it fails,” she replied. Hamish laughed.
“Katrein!” McCrae circled Bran, who nipped at him.
“Are you trying to frighten yer patients into their graves, Alex?”
“Some say evil spirits caused this, and the mask frightens them away.”
“You believe them? For shame. I thought you were a man of science, not superstition.”
McCrae helped Katrein down. She wore her black nurse’s habit, her soot-coloured hair escaping her cap.
“Why did you not tell me you had accepted?” she asked.
“You’d try to stop me.”
“I don’t want you to die. The thought of riding in Hamish’s cart with you dead in the back terrifies me. But you’ll be a wonderful doctor. Even if you look like a monster.”
“Folk will never accept me as a doctor. The way they would not be happy if the flescher became king.”
“You do not accept the role you were born into. Folk cannot understand that.”
“At least they don’t have to worry about you becoming king.” Hamish laughed. “Yer manners and fists would see you on the gallows, not the throne.”
McCrae smiled, though they could not see it. He stroked Katrein’s hair. “Stop riding in Hamish’s cart. The dead could be contagious. I don’t know what causes the plague, how it spreads. I refuse to believe this is an act of God.”
“Witchcraft,” Hamish said.
“It’s a disease, not a curse.”
“Just because you cannot see the world beyond this one, does not mean it’s not there. If they were not witches, why did the council burn them?”
“If this is caused by witchcraft, why did it not stop after Agnes Finnie was executed in March?”
“She’s not the only witch in Edinburgh.”
Katrein smiled at their exchange. “I’m treating a woman’s broken ankle in Grassmarket. Hamish is taking me.”
McCrae groaned. “Will you ever obey rules?”
She stood on her toes and kissed his mask’s cheek. “If you wanted someone obedient, you would not be marrying me.”
“Each one of my grey hairs is caused by trying to control this one,” Hamish said.
Katrein hitched her skirt and climbed into the trap. “If my broth hasn’t killed my cousin, the pest won’t kill me.”
Hamish leaned over and tugged McCrae’s beak. “Yer not putting me in the back of my cart, birdman.” He flicked the reins and Bran walked on. “Bring out yer dead!”
Katrein blew McCrae a kiss.
Searchers entered tenements, scouring for the dead, the dying and the diseased. One searcher emerged, her face grim as she painted a crimson cross on the door and hung a white rag from the window. McCrae sighed, each cross a stain on his soul. Paint dripped down the wood, bleeding into the words.
May the Lord have mercy on our souls.