06 Jul The Poor Shepherd
“The Poor Shepherd”Written by Seth Paul Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available
⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 12 minutes
It was a small village, a hamlet far off of the beaten path of the major towns and cities, but the people there were hard-working and friendly. They never required walls because there was nothing to guard against. They had nothing of value, there was no military strategy to conquering them, and they never bothered anyone.
That all changed when the soldier came stumbling down the road.
He wore colors of an unfamiliar army, emerging for the early morning mists, holding sword and shield, stumbling on the road as if drunk. Harald first sighted him, a farmer tilling his fields, who ran, calling for aid. The doctor was not available, having not arrived in over a month, so a handful of young lads went out with food and drink to help what was believed to be a wounded or weary man.
They found the soldier face down in the mud, unmoving and rolling him over. Finally, they discovered the real truth. The sores, the decay of the fingers…it was a plague, and no doctor was needed to tell them that.
They had heard tell of the plague, but when they had heard of it from travelers, they had been isolated enough that they had never needed to protect themselves from its effects. Instead, they took to prayer, worked their farms, and took the medicines prescribed by doctor Gilead when he came. Thus, when the Great Death finally appeared to recede, they remained healthy. Gilead was a kindly soul to those he spoke to, but he did not work without price, and as one could only carry so much grain and dried meat with him at any one time, he could only offer his services every so often.
Now, when he was truly needed, he was not here.
The shouts of the plague from the young men roused the villagers to attention, but the first to heed the call was Matthias Gruner. Matthias was one of the few from the village who had traveled beyond its borders. He wished to join the Teutonic Knights and march with Christendom. He returned only a few years later, a scar over his eye and his foot a ragged stump. Though in body he was young, in spirit he was greatly aged, and of his journeys, he said very little, except that his distaste of the outside world was great.
As the shouts of plague grew louder and closer, Matthias jabbed his walking stick into the muddy ground.
“Come no closer!”
At this, the young men stopped in their tracks, stunned, looking at each other.
No longer addressing the young men, he turned to the other gathered villagers. “It is too late for them. They have breathed the air near the body. They cannot return to us, not ever.”
A mother, overcome with grief, reached out to her son, but Matthias held her back. “You do not know what this pestilence brings. I saw its ravages but once and from a clear distance. I will not allow it to come here.”
He turned again to the young men. “Go, you are now dead to our village. Seek treatment elsewhere, if you can, but know you cannot return. This place will not be driven mad with plague.”
And so, the young men set out on their own. They left the body of the soldier as they headed away.
Matthias turned to the other men in the village. “The body shall remain where it lies.”
There was an outcry, a sacrilege to leave a body, let alone a soldier, to rot in the mud. Matthias shook his head. “He would not be the first to do so…and whatever this man may have done, the love of the Lord left him long ago. He shall remain where he is to spread his filth no further.”
Days passed with no further incident, though the stench of the corpse began to roll over the village. Villagers wondered if the miasma coming from it would make them ill, but Matthias told them they were safer at a distance than they’d be approaching it. So, not wishing to doubt his words, they did so.
Then, another traveler appeared. This one, seeing the body on the road, recoiled but kept on his approach. Harald, the one who had seen the soldier originally (but had been thankful not to have been among those who went to provide aid), was the first to see him as well and went to rouse Matthias for his advice.
Matthias went to the edge of the road, armed with their pitchforks and reapers with several others. Upon seeing them, the man stopped well short of the village and called out.
“Hullo and well met! I come from the north for aid! We need strong men to help us with an outbreak of plague to remove the bodies, as well as women to help wash and tend to others!”
Matthias held out his staff. “No one here can provide aid, nor can they be sent off to die for others. So our people shall remain here.”
“But we are in desperate need! We have lost many of the able-bodied to the disease, but Dr. Gilead believes he has ways to combat it if we only had a few more that could provide aid while he gathers the necessary items! The plague is not as strong as it was those many years ago, he thinks, and with some help, we could keep it from spreading further!”
“I know of a perfectly fine way to keep it from spreading…and it involves you turning around and leaving our village alone. Who knows what damage you may have inflicted already?”
The man tried to plead his case further, but Matthias would hear nothing of it. When he finally left and his head disappeared beyond the horizon, Matthias turned to the others. “This will not be the last incursion. We must gather our supplies and build a wall around the village. We must not let anyone through, from any direction.”
The construction of the wall began. Despite the few available, Matthias insisted it be grand, large enough to surround all the homes, with a gate only available to allow passage to the fields for farming. With fewer hands available to till, several fields grew fallow, and some mutterings doing so would cause a lack of food for the upcoming year.
When these mutterings reached Matthias, he remained adamant. “I have seen the ravages of the plague. We can always recover lost grain or attempt to regrow it elsewhere. But once this rot takes hold, there is nothing we can do to stop it. So be thankful I am here and have seen these things, for you are unaware of the costs.”
The wall, a solid barrier made of strong tree trunks, fifteen feet high, lashed together with rope and buried deep in the ground, would probably have not held off the ancient Roman armies but would stop a mercenary force in its tracks. Perhaps it was providence that no travelers came until they had left to complete was the heavy wooden gate, and even then, it was one they recognized.
The horse rode up carrying the aged but still strong of body, Dr. Gilead, who looked up at the recent fortifications in surprise, and disgust at the body, still decomposing, up the road some ways. “Why do you put up walls, my friends? It is I, the doctor, here to speak with you! I bring good news!”
Many came forward to hear Dr. Gilead’s news, but Matthias waved for silence and pushed forward, right to the edge of the door. “What news, doctor?”
The doctor held out his hands in a gesture of peace. “Am I no longer welcome among you?”
“Plague, doctor. What of the plague?”
“But that is the news I bring! I understand that you had refused to give help, and believe me, I know that there were risks involved, but the people have recovered! Only a few have died, and while it is regrettable, it is far less than we believed! They do not carry the dreaded buboes, and thus I do not think this is the same plague that caused the Great Death among us those years ago. Therefore, I invite you, please tear down these walls and rejoice, as your fears are no more!”
As the doctor came to offer his hand, Matthias pulled his own away. “Why does a friend of all these years come bearing these lies? I have seen the plague. There is no cure. Those who catch all die or suffer grievously and wish they had, forever disfigured and wretched. And why would you invite us to tear down these walls? How much of the disease do you carry, doctor?”
Dr. Gilead frowned but held out his arms and spun in a slow circle. “Do you see any evidence of it on me? I tell you, it is gone, and you may come and go freely once more.”
A clamor of those behind Matthias rose, eager to believe the dread disease was indeed gone and that the walls so recently built would have no need after all. Matthias heard it and slammed his walking stick against the wood, making a thunderous rattle that silenced the people.
“Charlatan!” Matthias pointed his walking stick at the doctor, threateningly, steady despite only having the balance of one foot. “You think your clever words can deceive us? I do not know how you hide it so well, but there is a sickness within you, perhaps even the sickness of the devil himself.”
“The devil does not cure those who pray, Matthias! Why do you speak so harshly to me?”
“Because only we can fend for ourselves. Only we can keep the sickness at bay…without your help.”
Dr. Gilead frowned, and though some people began to object, none wished to challenge the authority of Matthias. After all, it was his wisdom that had kept them safe so far, and if they could not trust him, who could they trust, indeed?
Dr. Gilead then mounted his horse, looking back sadly, and rode off. After that, he was never seen again.
With the gate constructed and put in place, the mood of the village changed, growing somber, desolate. There were no walkways to patrol the top of the fence, not even a small slit in the door to see through. There was no glimpse of the outside world except for when the gate was open, and the fields were being worked. Music was heard less often, storytelling even less than that. However, Matthias seemed to be the only one unaffected, remaining his stern, somewhat distant, but authoritative self.
“We are safe in here from it. It cannot affect us here. Only horror and madness lie out there.” There were times when the people couldn’t tell if Matthias spoke of the plague or the world beyond their borders.
One morning, one of the villagers awoke to find one of their children had gone missing. The gate had been shut, and there was no visible damage to the wall. The village was searched heavily, but no one could find anything until the granary was examined. Bags were pulled aside from the back wall, revealing that holes had been made in the wood from rats. A hole big enough for a child to pass through had been weakened by the chewing and then forced the rest of the way by the child’s hands.
Matthias called for the gate to open. He exited, on his own, limping his way into the fields.
Many looked through to see him approaching a spot, a little way north, where the missing child was playing in a field. The stench of the fallen soldier had long passed, leaving only his skeletal remains, but the child played nowhere near him.
Matthias went into the field and grabbed the child, who giggled and laughed, and asked only that ‛Uncle’ Matthias join him out there.
The watchers fell aghast as Matthias threw the child to the dirt. He brought his walking stick down, over and over again. The horrible crack, and the twitching legs, sickened all who dared to watch.
When Matthias finished, he left the tiny body out on the road, returning to the settlement, pulling the gate shut behind him. He then broke the mechanism that opened and shut it, preventing the door from moving. “It is no longer even safe for anyone. If he has been in and out, he may have brought it with him. May God forgive what I had to do.”
Many began to mutter, thinking what harm a small child could do, but Matthias glared at them all, and the muttering soon ended.
They now existed on what grain had not been spoiled by the rats, and soon the village fell into a state of famine, under siege from an enemy they could not see and could not fight.
Through it all, Matthias burned with a fire that could not be quenched. As people complained that they needed to grow food, the cows needed sunlight and fresh grass, he told them that if they stepped outside the walls, they would not be allowed back in.
“Did you not hear the doctor? He spoke utter madness! There is no cure for the malady, and there shall never be. I am doing what I can to protect you from its effects, the wasting, the pain, the sheer horror. I alone among you all know what it has done, and beyond those walls, I cannot protect you. That none of you are sick is a testament to my abilities, and if you do not believe me, then go, but know you send yourself to your death!”
But despite his words, Harald, after only a month in isolation, collapsed, dropping a load of grain to the ground. He had complained of rats where he slept, but as many had been rat-bitten in the past, none found his complaints unusual, and he was unheeded. He moaned loudly as he was taken back to his home, and upon inspection, he had reddish blotches on his arms and chest, and his glands appeared swollen.
The people ran to Matthias to explain what had happened, but he refused to believe it. “None have come to our town. He cannot be sick.”
But when they insisted, he came to view Harald and witnessed the infection with his own eyes. He stayed with Harald for a few minutes, alone, but when he emerged, he looked upon those who had called him with rage.
“You call this plague? He has nothing of the sort! It may look similar, but it cannot be. The devil and his minions have bewitched your eyes and tricks made to play on them! We are safe behind these walls, I tell you, and there is nothing that will change that!”
But Harald did grow worse, and despite Matthias’ words, it did appear to be the plague. His legs and neck swelled, his fingers rotted, and soon, he was dead as a stone.
Matthias insisted that he be given a proper burial, including a service. But, though he appeared in death almost the same as the soldier, Matthias would hear nothing of it. “Why must you malign our dear brother with the filth of the outside? He was not plague-ridden; that is out there. We are in here. How many times must I remind you of it?”
But he was not the only one in the village to suffer. The ones who tended to Harald were the first to take ill, but others in the village, starting near the granary, also became sick. And through it all, Matthias insisted that it was a trick, that some devil was accursing their vision and making them believe what was there was not really what was there.
When the population dwindled to Matthias and twelve healthy souls, that was when the knocking began at the gate.
With no slit to see through and not enough footholds to see over the top of the wall, no one knew who knocked, but it began during sunset two weeks after the village fell ill. It started simply enough, a quick rap, barely noticeable, but it continued, day and night, seemingly without end.
It changed after Matthias limped up to the gate and rapped at it himself with his stick. “Plague-bearers and malcontents! You shall not harm my people, you hear me?”
The knocking stopped, but only for a minute, and then grew stronger, louder, more constant. Matthias, for the first time in years, fell back and appeared to be truly afraid.
The knocking began to expand out, going from the gate to the walls, eventually surrounding the whole of the village. Still, when anyone tried to see through the gaps in the wood to who might be making it, all that could be made out were shapes, indistinct, slowly adding to the growing cacophony.
No one could think of what was worse; the sickness within their walls or whatever pounded on their walls day and night. Matthias had not been seen for a few days, having retreated into his house.
While the knocking never stopped, it seemed to grow worse during the evening hours, making the gate rattle, unable to budge since it was broken, and a fine keening began to fill the air.
The remaining healthy succumbed, one by one, from either the disease, starvation or by smashing their heads in against the wall, trying to drown out the noise and end the madness.
Then, there was but one villager remaining. Matthias stepped out of his home to see his people lying all around him. All appeared to be sleeping gently, despite the noise.
Matthias laughed, his fingers bleeding and raw from scratching at his walking stick, having driven deep grooves into it during his sleepless nights. Dusk was falling, and soon the noise would increase in volume once more. It was hard to see how much worse it could get, with the gate constantly rattling as it was.
“You! You sought to take my people from me! But you failed! Look at them all, here! I wished only the best for them, and look now, how safe they are from you! I have kept them safe from your plagues, your wars, your famines! I offered them security, and they have it now! What shall you do to take them now? If it is me you want, then come! I am ready to face you, more than I ever have before!”
And as the last rays of the sun fell from the horizon, the noise fell silent. Then, with one final, terrific blow, the gate blasted inwards, knocked from its holders.
Matthias watched, wondering if the sun had set, what was creating the dazzling light.
Figures moved on the other side of the gate, but it was not men, not an army, not anything of this world. They were tall, almost the height of the walls that had kept them out for so long, and each of them glowed with radiant light. They carried nothing in their hands, but they wore glorious clothing, shields and swords slung upon their backs.
They were beautiful, but they glared at Matthias with a fire he had never seen. A literal fire, as it was, as their eyes were the color of flame, and their irises moved in a continuous dance.
As he crouched on the ground away from them, they entered the village, moving like a river, bending down and scooping up the bodies of those who lay there. But when they stood, the bodies remained; instead, in their arms, the figures held similar, glowing bodies, restored to health and wellness, smiling brightly as they lay like babies within the figures’ grasps.
Matthias watched, too, as two others stood outside the gate, staring in. One held the form of a small child. The other held a young man wearing military garb. Beyond them, he saw other figures holding other glowing forms, but they were too far away to make out distinctly.
As the last of the villagers were removed, the last figure turned, once more looking at Matthias. It held up a finger, and one more shape came from the ground, that of Harald properly buried, unlike the rest, who moved wordlessly and silently, leaving the ground undisturbed, and who ran to the figure in an open embrace.
With another flick of its finger, there was motion inside the walls. The decaying corpses of the villagers rose, sitting up, moving mechanically, stumbling, limping, approaching Matthias, then stopping, leaning over him, as if awaiting an order from him, what to do next.
Matthias looked up at all of them, then at the figure, and then began to laugh, his mind completely and utterly broken. He even continued to laugh as the gate, by some force, came back up into its proper spot, never to be reopened again.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableSeth Paul Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A