My latest novel is a horror. I wanted to write a horror story so bleak, stomach churning and pitiless that it will redefine the meaning of the word. And so, I would like to introduce you to The Waters of Life.
Perhaps the best way to make this introduction is to allow you to actually read a little bit of it. I must warn you that it’s definitely not for the squeamish. So here you’ll find the book’s prologue.
This prologue is set in the Tenth Century, but the rest of the novel is in modern times. There are a few little clues and pointers tucked away in the prologue which indicate the types of things which ultimately remanifest and cause terror over a thousand years later. All is not always as it seems…
Please be aware that this is a work in progress and not yet thoroughly edited.
“Unclean! Unclean!” The weak, throaty voice rasped its hoarse warning as its owner shuffled laboriously along the dirt track, ringing a mournful note on a bell to reinforce the warning.
Peter the leper had very little to be thankful for in his life. He felt grateful that the damage to his nerves meant that he could not feel the agonies of the rot that gnawed at his body, the flesh that sloughed from his bones. But that was about the only blessing he could count, until the day when his loathsome disease might finally extinguish his tormented existence.
Peter always kept moving. It didn’t do for a leper to remain in one place for too long, the local people gave beggars money and food so they would go away. Those who dared linger for more than a day or two would be driven off with sticks and stones, as people’s fear of the disease took hold. But here, at the monastery at Scratchbury, he had always been made to feel welcome for a few days, on the orders of Abbot Wulfred. The Abbot was a saintly man, who fed, clothed and sheltered the children of the local poor families, and who always had a warm fire and a comfortable bed for a passing leper to use. He had always left the monastery feeling stronger and well fed, with a sack full of food. But not this time.
It took Peter three months to do his regular circuit of the villages in the region. This time, when he arrived at the monastery and knocked upon its great doors, they had only been opened a fraction. The monk who peered out had crossed himself and regarded Peter with undisguised revulsion. He had been told that Abbot Wulfred had died and that the monastery no longer had anything to offer the unclean. If Peter did not move on immediately, he would be driven off with staves.
The night was cold and windy. A storm was brewing, Peter knew that the rain would soon start falling. What had happened to so harden the hearts of the monks after Wulfred’s death? Now Peter’s only real rest and comfort was lost to him. The other unfortunates who crawled from one town or village to the next in search of alms would be in the same sorry situation. Wulfred’s hospitality could literally be a life saver at this time of year. But now he was gone, and the spirit of charity had died with him. Perhaps now Peter would finally die too and his suffering would come to an end?
“Unclean! Unclean!” he called out his feeble warning again to inform any others foolish enough to be out walking on this stormy night that they should not draw too close. He rang his bell, which was tied to his wrist, for his remaining two fingers and thumb were too swollen and numb to grip it.
The wind blew harder and the rain came with it, lashing Peter’s rags and drenching him in seconds. He knew the cold would be better. He had no feeling at all in his extremities, the nerves completely dead, but his diseased flesh would suffer the predations of frostbite nonetheless, accelerating the creeping rot which had already claimed some of his fingers and most of his toes, twisting his limbs and reducing his face to a featureless slab of sick meat. If he lost any more toes, he would no longer be able to walk, and would have to crawl or drag himself along on a low cart like some of the other lepers did, or those who had lost their legs in the incessant wars. Please, he begged, please, just let there be an end to it.
The dirt track, which was now reduced to mud in the driving rain, was approaching the shore of the lake. Peter looked blearily ahead. His vision was blurred, he knew that he would become blind before long, and he struggled to discern what the large, square bulk was that loomed to the left of the path. He drew closer, squinting hard, then he recognised it. It was the vault where the monks buried their dead. Usually, it was concealed in the trees, but winter had stripped away the foliage, leaving it exposed to view. A thought struck Peter and he shuffled unsteadily closer.
He rounded the stone structure until he reached the door and he tried the latch. Yes, it was open! Abbot Wulfred must have been laid to rest here and the monks had not yet chained the door closed after the funeral. Sobbing with relief, Peter heaved the portal open and scrambled down the dank stone steps, pulling the door closed behind him. The sound of the howling wind and lashing rain was muted now.
Peter stumbled down the steps until he stood on the earthen floor below. The bones of most of the monks were placed in alcoves around the walls, but a stone sarcophagus had been placed in the centre of the floor. Perhaps this was where Abbot Wulfred now lay in his final sleep? Regardless, the good Abbot had unwittingly extended his hospitality to Peter one final time, giving him shelter from the storm that raged outside. Peter leaned back against the sarcophagus and curled himself up as best he could, until sleep took him and his mind was able to escape the prison of his wracked body for a few merciful hours.
Peter slept late and his dreams were peaceful. When he awoke, he could hear the faint sounds of bird song from outside. Sunlight shone around the edges of the door. The storm had evidently passed.
He struggled awkwardly onto his elbows and knees, then levered himself upright. Standing up was difficult without proper use of his ruined hands. The bottom of his rags slapped wetly against the sarcophagus and the filthy strips wrapped around his misshapen feet also squelched as he staggered forward. Perhaps the rain had got into the vault, making a puddle? He struggled up the steps, opening the door wide to let the light in, and looked back down into the vault’s interior.
He could see water on the floor, reflecting the sunlight, but it was not a puddle, it seemed to be moving, a shallow stream. He shambled back down the steps to investigate and saw that the water was pouring out of the sarcophagus. A small crack was in the stone base, from which the little stream flowed. The sarcophagus must have been placed over an underground stream, which had perhaps risen and flowed into it as the rains fell overnight. The stream crossed the floor and spilled through a second crack beneath the wall.
Peter examined the water. It continued to flow steadily and it seemed very clear and clean, sparkling in the light that shone down into the vault through the door. He was very thirsty, so he lowered his head and drank deeply. The water was very cold and seemed to seize his spirit and body in a chilly grip. He straightened up, droplets falling from the flat slab of his face, his eyelids fluttering. He could feel his heart palpitating, hear his sick blood pumping in his ears. Something strange was happening. He couldn’t …
When Peter awoke, the light was no longer angling down into the vault, though it was still daytime outside. That meant the sun must have moved a fair distance in its course. He must have slept for several hours and it was now afternoon. He placed his hand flat on the earth floor to lever himself upwards and then stopped and stared in absolute shock. His hand was whole and healthy, with its full complement of perfectly formed fingers! His right hand had been missing two of its fingers and the others were mere useless twigs, bags of skin filled with pus. But now his hand was whole again. He spread his fingers, feeling the rough, but yielding sensation of the soil beneath his hand. His nerves had regenerated too: he could feel again!
He scrambled to his feet, and found it easy to do so. He checked his other extremities, his mind awhirl. They were all whole and blooming with health, ruddy-complexioned and fair to behold. His twisted limbs were now straight and strong. He raised a hand to his face and felt features that had long since been gnawed away by his sickness: he had nose, lips, cheeks, all full and fair. His eyesight was clear and sharp.
“My God!” he exclaimed, his voice shaking but hearty, “I have been healed! Blessed Abbot! I am whole and clean again!” He threw himself to the ground and prostrated himself in prayer before Wulfred’s tomb, blessing the waters that flowed over the old saint’s remains, which had brought him such healing.
It was late afternoon when Peter ran into the village square at Scratchbury. He greeted the beggars, showing them his unblemished flesh. “My friends, I have been healed!” he cried. “See, my sores have gone, my body is renewed.”
They squinted at him and looked at each other in puzzlement. Could this really be Peter, the disease-ravaged leper who dragged himself from town to town?
Peter was making quite a commotion in the square and quite a few people were beginning to gather around, although they all kept a distance from him, wary. When he tried to enter the village inn, a sturdy fellow with a staff blocked his way.
“Where do you think you’re going?” the man demanded.
“Forgive me, friend,” blurted Peter, grinning happily and spreading his hands to show his perfect body. “There is no reason to fear. See, my leprosy has left me. I drank of the water that flows from Abbot Wulfred’s tomb and the good saint has washed away my sickness. I am whole once more!”
“You still can’t come in here,” the man insisted, shaking his grizzled head. “The leper’s bell still hangs from your wrist and the taint of the sickness must linger on those rags you wear.”
“Does he claim a miracle, then?” asked another man, a travelling apothecary. “Hold out your arms, man, and uncover your face.”
Peter did as he was bade. The apothecary edged closer, examining him and sniffing deeply. “His flesh seems sound and I cannot smell the rot,” he said. “This man was a leper, you say?”
“He was,” said a woman in the crowd. “He would arrive here begging every season, we would give him food and money to send him on his way. He was thick with it, the flesh hanging from his putrid bones, a terror to our children.”
“Aye, and we let him and his kind linger here too long,” shouted another woman. “We showed them charity when we should have driven them hence, for so many of our little ones have fallen sick these last few months.”
“Then it would appear that a miracle has indeed come to pass,” said the apothecary, “for this man has no leprosy upon him now. You may be right about his garments, though, they are filthy and the disease may cling to them. These he must burn. Fetch him some other raiment and let him remain here while one of you fetches the priest.”
Peter was tossed a smock and hose by the innkeeper’s wife and was forced to change there and then, in front of all. He then gathered up his old rags and bundled them onto a fire.
By this time, the village priest had arrived and stood at a distance, regarding Peter through anxious eyes, uncertain of what to do. “You claim to have been miraculously healed, my son,” he stammered. “Tell me, how did this happen?”
“I sheltered from the storm in the vault by the lake last night, where the monks lay their dead,” explained Peter. “When I woke this morning, I saw a stream of water trickling from a crack in Abbot Wulfred’s tomb. I drank from it and fell into a swoon. When I recovered, I was completely healed, just as you see me now.” He spread his arms, letting the priest see that his body was clean and whole.
“Do you claim that the Abbot is a Saint, then?” demanded the priest.
“I do not know,” said Peter. “I say only what I have experienced. But why should the Abbot not be a Saint? He was a kind and charitable man in life, perhaps God has blessed his remains in death?”
The priest shook his head. “This is too hard a matter for me to decide. I must ask the Bishop for his judgement, and he will no doubt require the advice of the monks. You, fellow, must be held in the church until they have decided this difficult matter.”
This was good enough for the villagers. who prodded Peter into the church with their staves. The priest locked him in a storeroom and gave him food and water, but they would not release him nor speak to him further.
On the fifth day of his confinement, Peter heard the key turning in the storeroom lock and a solemn, brown-robed man with a shaven head entered the room. He appeared to be one of the monks from Wulfred’s monastery.
“Tell me your story, fellow,” said the monk in soft tones.
Peter told his story once again, leaving out no detail. The monk nodded solemnly throughout.
When Peter had finished speaking, the monk sighed deeply and raised his eyes as if in prayer. He stood motionless for a few moments, then fixed Peter with a penetrating gaze and said, “I believe you. That water has indeed healed you of your leprosy, for I recall you visiting the monastery when afflicted. Such deformities cannot be disguised, therefore your cure is undeniable. However, we cannot allow others to seek a cure for their sicknesses in that stream. Such would be a terrible thing. We must decide what is to be done. God be with you.” He then left the room, locking a confused Peter inside again.
The next day, the storeroom was opened and two villagers entered. They shackled Peter’s wrists and ankles, touching him with scarcely concealed revulsion, then they led him to the village hall.
The interior of the hall had been set out like a court room, with the village headman and priest sitting on the right of the Bishop. To his left sat two monks, their hoods drawn low to conceal their features. Peter was placed standing before them, then the villagers holding him retreated.
The Bishop looked at Peter with sharp eyes that held a slight suggestion of regret. “We have considered the case of this man and the manner of the departure of his affliction,” the Bishop said. “Upon the advice of the monks who knew Abbot Wulfred, and through the guidance of God upon my soul, I declare that Wulfred is not a Saint and that this healing does not come from God. If not from God, from where? I say, from the Devil. This man has sought the aid of foul sorcery. And since the Devil’s works are illusory, his appearance of health is but a phantasm. He is still afflicted with his disease, which he has brought among us all, the Devil’s purpose being to afflict us all in our turn. By the grace of God, we are alert to the enemy’s wiles. He must be taken from this place and burnt.”
The Bishop turned to the head man, passing the execution of judgement into the hands of secular authority. “Take him to the stake!” ordered the head man.
The two villagers who had brought Peter into the hall now dragged him out into the market square. To his horror, he saw that a wooden stake had been raised in the centre, with straw, kindling and larger logs piled under it. He was hauled to the top of the pile and his shackles were fastened around it.
The priest was standing to one side, reading verses from the Bible, but Peter was too panic stricken to even register what he was saying. The villagers were all gathering around to watch. As he struggled and pissed himself in fear, someone daubed his smock with flammable oil.
The priest finished reading and there were a few moments’ silence, during which Peter could only hear the blood pounding in his own temples and his whimpering panting. Then one of the monks stepped forward and thrust a lit torch into the kindling.
As the flames caught and began to sear Peter’s feet and legs, he wished that he had never been healed, that his dead nerves had not been regenerated only for him to feel this agony through them. Then he could think no more, he only had wit enough left to scream.