"Tell me about your life," the Angel said.
The old woman lay mute, disbelieving her own eyes - rheumy and aged though they were - at the sudden appearance of the Angel at the foot of the bed. The heavenly creature had just appeared; one moment, nothing, the next, a figure clothed in white stood at the foot of her bed, with nothing except the softest of pops to announce her manifestation. The visitor was dressed in a loose-fitting robe that made it clear enough that the figure was female. There were no wings visible, no feathered extrusions from her shoulders, unlike those in the pictures that sparsely decorated the alcoves in the village church. But there was no doubt that she was a genuine Angel, for a nimbus of pure while light hung in the air around her, lighting up the dark, somehow alive with movement but only when caught from the corner of the eye.
The old woman could barely summon the strength to open her mouth as confusion and fear fought each other in her mind.
"There's no need to speak, not aloud," the Angel said kindly, her voice soft and musical, "Just think the words you want to use. I can pluck them from your mind. Although it's not something I would normally expect to do," she added, an expression of obscure distaste flitting briefly over her astoundingly beautiful face.
"Like this?" the old woman thought, forming the words in her mind with the same care she used when she wrote a letter with parchment and quill to a bereaved relative, or a last will and testament for one close to death.
"Yes," the Angel nodded, smiling encouragement, "Just so."
The old woman in the bed and the young-looking Angel filled the tiny bedroom under the eaves, which itself occupied most of the space under the rafters, save for a dry-store which was by now nearly empty. The thatch was still mostly dry even after these years, the straw bent and cut by the thatcher’s skill around the single window, now firmly shuttered against the chill of the dark autumn nights and the impending winter. Outside, the wind bent the fir trees and rattled the back door, the front one having been sealed tight with wrought iron nails and stout timbers when the old woman's husband, his head separated from his body, had been carried in his coffin to his final resting place.
Now the Goodwife herself did not expect to see the spring. She knew she had long been thought a witch or, more charitably - at least to her face - a wise woman. Every day for the larger part of her life, she had dressed properly in widow's black, living alone; without husband, without children, her siblings long gone to the grave. Yet she kept herself busy, each day unlike the next. She spent her time tending to other people and their animals, and cultivating her own little plots of plants grown for food and herbs grown for medicines. Some of these plots she kept hidden in the woods, perhaps not even recognisable as a garden to the casual eye: the roots and foliage and fungi too dangerous to the careless and ignorant to allow them to be identified. Other times she offered careful advice and metered wisdom, not always ignored, to the sick and needy, and the rich and influential. She was herself wise in the way of hiding the full extent of her insight, her intelligence and her knowledge; keeping under a close guard the wisdom which would otherwise frighten the credulous or threaten the powerful.
How could she explain all this to the Angel? She was dying, she knew, her remaining hours, perhaps minutes, were just too short to do justice to all that she knew, all that she had experienced.
"You are thinking, perhaps, that you cannot describe your life to me," the Angel said gently, her blonde hair - cut like that of the pre-pubescent choirboys in the city cathedral - spilling forward as she spoke, "You think your life is too complex, too subtle, or perhaps there is just too much experience to impart in too little time."
The old woman's eyes grew wide at the perspicacity of the Angel's insight.
"I can assure you that you do have time - all the time in the world," the Angel went on, "Or, at least, all the time that you need. Besides, I have been watching you, as well as watching over you, for a great many years."
"So why do I have to tell you, then?" the old woman demanded, whispering through her mouth despite the imprecations earlier.
"Shh," the Angel chided gently, like a mother to a tiny child, "Oh, I have seen your life, in some detail. I know more about what you have done, what you have achieved, in your lifetime than perhaps you realise, or perhaps even remember. But I have not experienced your life through your eyes, not understood your motivations, your desires - at least, not fully. So I need you to tell me."
"So we do have free will, then? On this earth?" The old woman managed to remember to speak without speaking this time. It was even easy to do so, easier than forcing her tired body to bend to her commands once more.
The Angel shook her head, her blonde mop swaying, blonde highlights reflecting the unearthly glory which surrounded and illuminated her. Her smile took on a wry aspect at odds with her heavenly origins.
"No one, um, Above, shall we say, controls your destiny. Or anyone else's. With a very few exceptions." The Angel's face drew grave, "So, I ask again, tell me about your life."
"Do you have a name?" the old woman asked suddenly.
The Angel laughed aloud, a silvery musical tinkle with a hint, a not-so-hidden undertone of worldly understanding.
"My true name is long and complex," she said at last, "But you can call me Kitzean Mso."
The old woman thought for a long moment. She had studied the religious texts, the bibles and prophecies, the books and scrolls with great assiduousness, once upon a time; both those of her own religion - or at least the one she had been brought up with, perhaps even believed in, before she started to question such things as a matter of course - as well as those of several competing sects, schisms and doctrinal divisions, and even some of the Elder beliefs that the young Rector or the old Pastor would have regarded as heathen or, still worse, pagan. That name, to the best of her recollection, appeared nowhere in any text she had studied.
"And my name is..."
"Aneme. I know," the Angel called Kitzean Mso interrupted, "Goodwife, now Widow, Aneme Crossmaddows, nee Thresherson."
Aneme, Mso knew, meant The Named One. An unusual choice in this time and place. A name that had been out of fashion and out of common use for several centuries. She wondered exactly what it was that had prompted Aneme's parents to select such an outmoded name for their only daughter.
The old women nodded her acknowledgement of her own name.
"Where shall I start?" she asked.
"Wherever you like," the Angel replied, "Pick a moment, an incident in your life. Something good, something bad; doesn't matter."
"My husband," the old woman breathed, "Jeremias."
"Ah," the Angel responded, looking down with her serene and beautiful face suddenly full of sadness and pity.
It was a halting, stumbling rendition; one which Mso might have struggled to follow had she not already been intimately familiar with the tale. Nevertheless, she listened intently, sympathetically as the Widow Crossmaddows told the first of many stories of her life.
"My husband was a farmer; I can see you know that already. He was not rich, but lucky enough to be able farm his own land. Oh, yes, the leasehold for some of it was inherited from his own father, Jeremias being the only surviving son. But he worked hard and managed to save a few coins, even after the tithes to the Manor and the Church were made. So there was money left over and, after a few seasons, he was able to persuade the Duke - or his Factors and Overseers, at least - to lease him a little more: half an acre here, an acre there."
"When I first got to know Jeremias as an adult, he was already a big strong man, broad in shoulder and muscled like an ox. He worked hard and lived alone, save for his aging mother. He was known in the village as one who rarely visited the public houses and was a much more regular attendee at the church, although I would later learn this was more because his mother expected it."
"But, for all his brute strength, he was a gentle, caring man, unfailingly polite, charitable and neighbourly in his manner. Some thought him dull, stolid, even moronic: the bulk of his body, and the slow and deliberate movements he adopted out of habit - and out of inherent gentleness, too - suggesting a slowness to his thoughts. Even so, there were several maidens in the village who had set their cap at him - all, I would judge, much prettier than I would ever be - and at least one of which I thought to be an out-and-out gold-digger interested in his wealth - such as it was - rather than his mind or his body."
"I had an advantage, one which, I fully admit, I did not hesitate to use to the most advantage, however cynical that may sound. Few knew that Jeremias was one who had come late to his full size and strength. When I first knew him, more than a decade before, he was a sickly little boy, skinny and undersized, ignored by his older brothers and sisters, and - I sometimes wondered - by his parents as well."
"Our paths crossed infrequently as young children. Our parents were distant neighbours, living in cottages at opposite ends of the straggling group of hamlets along the valley. But we could sometimes be found playing in the copses and lanes; simple games with sticks and stones, sometimes a ball made from old rags and twine."
"But the younger Jeremias had a tenacious interest in the world around him and everything in it. He could be distracted by the tiniest thing: the song of a bird, the movement of ripples in a stream or the leaves on a tree, the buzz of a dragonfly as it caught an insect on the wing. He tried to interest me in such things, to show me the delicacy of the world and all its wonders, the astonishing variety of plants and animals living all around us. I slowly learned to see the world though his eyes, to understand the slow changes of the seasons and the frenetic life of the Dayfly. To him, all things have their place; birth and death part of the great cycle of existence."
"As these things do, I grew older and the freedoms of childhood receded. I was required to help in the cottage scullery and kitchen garden and, yes, in the fields too at harvest-time. My leisure-time became infrequent and I rarely saw Jeremias, even at a distance. I was, for a time, nearly convinced that he had forgotten all about his little playmate, and I was saddened by that thought."
"When I encountered him again, entirely by design, I already knew I wanted him for a husband and a mate. Later, when our courting time was over, the wedding banns read, and the ceremony a pleasant and not very distant memory, I moved into his father's house or, I should say, his mother's house, his father having been dead for several years."
"There is always a tension when a woman moves into another woman's house but Jeremias' mother welcomed me as if I was her own daughter. She was already bed-bound: a woman of strong mind but failing body. She knew she was dying but she was determined not to let that tragic inevitability dampen the spirits of the young couple who had moved into her abode. I was taken with her, too, and happy to help her with the physical needs of an invalid and to converse with her over tea. She died only six months later; but one who was happy that her youngest son was finally married off to a woman who loved him, and who would undoubtedly bear him many children in due course."
"But it was not to be. It was, as I would discover only too late, a time of plague in the land. Some bundles of clothes, cast-offs and hand-me-downs, were dispatched to me from a sister of my husband who was in the service of the grand family resident at the Manor house some sixteen leagues away. It was contaminated, riddled through with the spores of the infectious fever known as the Zombie Plague, the walking death."
"In later years, I always envisioned the plague as a great Dark Angel, with a shadow cast over all the lands under its black wings. Her wings spread over our loving household and touched both my dearest Jeremias and myself. All too soon, Jeremias was far gone in the fever, already stirring and twisting in the bonds I had placed at his wrists and ankles and waist. He would break those bonds, I knew all too well, and very soon, to become a menace to my acquaintances and neighbours, my friends and family in the village."
"I had to make a hard decision, a terrible decision: to still my husband while I could and save the lives of others, or to hope against all hope that he would somehow survive. His great strength, even after the debilitating effect of the Zombie fever, would have become a danger to others, and especially to me. With my own body already trembling with the fever's touch, I took the heavy sharp axe, the axe normally used for felling trees and splitting logs for firewood, and separated Jeremias' head from his body, turning away as his blood stained the pillows of our marriage bed."
"I too was a threat to the neighbourhood, but by this time my neighbours had barred me in my own house, for their own safety, of course. I could not leave, I could not even move. I expected to die, in agony and in danger, as I lay on the bed already soaked with the blood of my dead husband, his head and, separately, his body inches from my own."
"But I did not die. The fever broke, after three days, three days and nights of endless agony: the thirst that could not be quenched, the cravings for blood that could not be satisfied. But, after a time, I recovered, the putrescent swellings of the fever receding and fading away. Many self-inflicted lacerations left scars on my body and aches in my head, but I finally emerged, breaking out of my own house with great effort and appearing to my neighbours as a miraculous recovery."
"I often wonder if I did the right thing. After all, death comes to everybody. I wish he too could have survived. But I think I could see, in his eyes as the axe fell, a degree of recognition; a thankfulness that I had found the strength to end him, dead as he already was. I could see in his eyes a look, from when we were children, an admiration and a thankfulness for the wondrous variety of the world."
After a long time and many, many words, the old woman fell silent, suddenly unable to form a single coherent thought in her head. Tears glistened in the corners of her eyes. She was, Mso imagined, reliving times in her past which she had tried, ultimately unsuccessfully, to forget for so many years.
After a while, the old woman's eyes opened again slowly and focussed on the Angel at the foot of the bed.
"Often have I wondered if he could yet have been saved," she said, once again forming the words with great care in her thoughts, "Whether I really had to deliver that final blow, whether my own judgement was so distorted by the fever in my own body that I did not know what I was doing. I hope, I truly hope, I made the right decision."
Mso shook her head in sadness. She knew for a certainty that the so-called Zombie Plague was caused by a mutated form of a common bacteria, one endemic to human bodies in this world. The infection was transmitted from bloodstream to bloodstream by bites - from fleas, from rats, or from humans - and, once infected, people had less than a one-in-fifteen chance of survival. She also knew that higher standards of public and personal hygiene might have helped but, without knowledge of microbiology, nobody on this world would have known that. Even the invention of simple optical microscopes, which would begin to open up the hidden world of microscopic organisms, would have made a difference, but that was a technology likely to be several centuries in the future.
"I think you did the right thing," Mso said slowly, "And thank you for your trust."
She paused, then went on, "But perhaps you should tell me more of your life."
The Angel had listened patiently throughout the old woman's discourse, very occasionally asking a question, or guiding her answers by a subtle raise of an eyebrow. Finally, Aneme's précis drew to a halt.
"So, is that enough, Angel Kitzean Mso ..." the old woman began.
The Angel laughed again, interrupting her, this time a rich throaty laugh entirely at odds with her heavenly appearance.
"Oh, I'm no Angel," she said, "Quite the opposite, as you will quite possibly discover. But I'm offering you the chance to find out for yourself how angelic or otherwise I am, in quite some detail. I will probably surprise you, astound you, even frighten you. But, I can promise you, you won't be bored. I can find you something useful, a great many useful things, to do with your, err, life."
"So, I'm not going to die?"
The Angel smiled once again.
"Oh, but you are going to die. Soon your breath will stop, your heart will cease its beating, your body will grow cold. You will be found in your bed by your neighbours, mourned and cried over just a little, as befits your status in your society. You will perhaps be remembered by one generation, maybe two, but after that soon enough forgotten."
She leaned forward conspiratorially, taking the old woman's wizened and arthritic hand in her own perfect fingers.
"Or at least this body is," she whispered, "I can take your, well, your soul away with me, give you a new body, a perfect body, to live a new life amongst the stars."
The Angel placed the old woman's hand back on the coverlet tenderly, then stood up straight, adopting an austere, formal pose as if she were on a stage, playing to an invisible audience.
"But you have to say yes," the Angel said.
"What do you mean?"
"You have to agree to it, you have to give me permission to do so. I can't steal your soul right out of your body."
The old woman thought for a moment. She was good, she knew, at making the correct decision, the decision that would save a life or change a destiny; decisions that might not be popular, decisions whose true import was not understood by others but were always, somehow, right. How she performed this feat, she could not say. It was a gift, a calling which marked her out as a witch, in some quarters; it was a magic which she could not entirely control and one where she genuinely had no idea how it had been invested.
There was, she admitted to herself, a possibility that this creature, this self-professed not-Angel who had materialised at her deathbed - she knew all too well that she would not be arising from the bed in this lifetime - was not all she appeared to be. It could be a trick, but by whom and for what purpose she could not imagine. Perhaps she was even an agent of Below, a handmaiden of the Adversary himself. She could not possibly know for sure. She appealed, one final time, to that internal sense of rightness that had permeated and guided her life ever since she could remember.
"Yes," she said in a whisper, aloud, summoning the strength to reply, the breath coming hard and sticking in her throat, "Yes, I will come with you."
The Angel smiled, straightened her back further.
"Thank you," she said warmly, "I think you will find that was the right decision. Now, I doubt you'll remember anything more after ..."
A roaring darkness enveloped Aneme, took her to places and experiences as yet unknown. With certainly, unknown to herself. At least, this herself.