Arren walked alongside the old mare, as she pulled a dilapidated cart--containing foodstuffs, salt, and unfinished wool--down the overgrown dirt road. His elderly friend, Berten, stood on the other side of the cart and used reins to guide the horse along the trail.
Except for a couple of prosperous farmers, the villagers in Arren's small town of Right Hand were poor. They eked out a living from the earth and from their skill with the loom. Every fortnight, Berten and Arren would take the finished cloth to market in the provincial town of Ergaster. They would return with some needed materials for the village along with raw wool for the weavers.
Arren, who was 13, had been accompanying Berten on these journeys for four years now. The youth usually looked forward to these trips, as they allowed him to escape-for one day anyway-from the backbreaking toil that came with living in a poor farming community. However, today he was preoccupied with worry. Arren had heard that thieves were stalking the road for the first time in living memory, but that was not the source of his concern.
Turning in the old man's direction, Aaron said, "Berten, do you worry about catching the spotted hand disease?"
Berten replied, "Nah boy, we haven't been to Ergaster in over two months for a reason. The spotted hand disease has passed. The clothiers we spoke to said as much. The last victim died almost a week ago. Did you see anyone that looked like he was daydreaming, or that had spots on his face and hands?"
The youth said," No, but I'm still worried Berten. Jergus the tailor said that half the children and a quarter of the adults died. The disease hasn't hit Right Hand yet, but…"
|Wagon - Microsoft Office|
Arren replied, "Berten, you are only around 60 summers, right?"
The old man laughed, but his eyes carried a mixture of anger and sadness: "Ah, to be young and naïve. I forget exactly how old I am, but it doesn't matter. How many people in our village make it to 60? One out of 100? Some of the wealthy folk may live past 60, but few of us poor farmers ever see that age. I have to deal with a hundred little aches and pains that come from old injuries. You've seen me in the field boy; I can barely manage to do a day's work anymore. No, my time is near."
Arren looked shocked, "Don't say that Berten! You're as healthy as ever!"
Berten did not reply immediately. The mare had slowed down considerably and was again veering off the trail. Berten busied himself with slapping her side while pulling on her guide rope to get her moving in the right direction again. He then responded, "Nah, I'm about done, and none too soon I say. My life is full of pain, both physical and emotional. As you know, my wife and children are all dead. I miss them. And I no longer derive any joy from things like the feel of the wind in my hair or the sound of the birds in the trees. My days are filled with toil and sorrow. I'll be glad when it's over.
But I won't let it end just yet! I have an obligation to the village, and to your late father, to make sure that our weaving trade remains strong long after I am gone. I would as soon be confined to the Four Hells before I let anything happen to the…"
Berten was interrupted by the mare, who stumbled. He slapped her side in frustration with one hand while pulling on the reins with the other. "Stupid, old horse! Boy, you'll carry on with these trips when I'm gone. Ask Yarrow or one of the other villagers to help you. Any of them would be willing to lend you a hand. At least you'll be able to head to town with a new horse. Two more trips and we'll have enough money to buy a nice, young horse to replace this old mare. Just two more trips…"
Neither of the men noticed the dark spots that had formed along the mare's flanks and around her face.
-- Anthony Hopper
#disease #fiction #flashfiction #shortstory #story #fantasy