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What You Left Behind
They say that the strongest are the ones who will survive, but who am I to understand what strength truly means? Is it the physical prowess, the vigor invested in a woodcutter’s burly arm? An old soldier’s bedtime tale? Or is it something more than that, like the unbroken will of a saint scouring through a world of sinners? Of this, I know not.
My beloved Asher has taken ill. I fear for what shall become of him, as this plague has swept over many of my people, all of whom perished beneath its influence. Before it struck, I had longed for more thrill in life...but now? I can only worry. Will Asher too, succumb to this pestilence as the others? Nay, it cannot be so. The heavens could never be so cruel to one such as he. ‘Twas but half a fortnight ago that Asher was up and well, caring for his father who had come down with the same ailment. Bless his soul, the man has already left this sunken earth. On what grounds would God be so unkind as to take Asher too?
Shivering, he smiles at me weakly as I look at his body, once a mass of muscle, now soiled with sweat from his raging fever. Just a moment ago, he was gritting his teeth in agony. It makes me cringe to think of him, hiding his pain from me. I smile back, grateful that he sees nothing amiss in my eyes.
“Aurea...?” He beckons, somehow still flashing his emerald eyes.
I glance up, wishing I could fall into those eyes, be with him forever.
“What’s the matter,” he coughs, “Do you keep away because this body is handsome no longer?” That playful grin on his face, at a time like this, gives me hope.
I shake my head, unable to stop a tear from escaping its prison.
“You know that isn’t true.” I shuffle closer to his bedside and lay my hand on his cheek, engulfed in flames. Suddenly his emeralds spark as he regards me tenderly, sincerely.
“If anything happens to me,” he brushes the tear from my cheek, “Take the coins from my wardrobe and leave this infested place.”
“Don’t say such things.” I run my hand over his brow and force another smile, hoping it masks my true doubt.
I have only just returned from my household chores; I cannot bear to leave his bedside for worry that he should need me. On a dry day such as this, it’s a relief that Asher lies deep in slumber, free from such a blistering hot day. The disease continues to fester within him. Already, I see a few large, swollen bumps blistering his flawless skin.
Ever since the plague befell him, I can only think of how ill my fortune has become. We were betrothed, to be married within the month. My parents and Asher’s had given their consent, as did our lord. If Asher was only well enough, we would be rejoicing. If only...
Earlier today, before I came to see him, I bent my knees down before God. If there is any force that can save England from this disease, it is Him. Perhaps Christ will rise once more and return to us salvation. Powerless, I feel, since I cannot do anything but pray for those who are ill.
In the marketplace, I gathered news of the war. My father is still gone, as I heard from the people, but it seems France has some witch by the name of Joan who will lead their army. I cross myself. God have mercy on our souls.
I must finish my chores while Asher is fast asleep.
Asher stirs from his sleep. I bring forth the fresh water I just fetched and dip a cloth in it. Moments from awakening, he will feel the disease’s pain again as it feeds upon the life in his veins. I sit by his bedside, murmuring prayers and gently pressing the cold rag to his forehead. Christ, let my beloved be well once more.
He groans like all the others through the physical burden of the sickness. The sound doesn’t break my heart. It makes it bleed.
“I will not die,” he whispers in a trance, “I’ll wait here for you.”
I visited the market today in search of more news. The plague is still claiming the lives of many, and our soldiers have yet to return from the war against France. I bought the supplies my lady told me to and passed by a merchant who was selling charms to ward off the illness. This sickness has spread too far. Will it never cease?
Asher continues to fall deeper into the disease; his cheeks have sunk in and he vomited this morning. I’ve already fallen into trouble for avoiding my chores, but it matters not to me. Every moment I am away from Asher, I feel guilty of leaving him to perish. He needs me now more than ever. After all, Asher was the one who cradled me, kissed my sorrow away after my mother passed away a month ago.
I look up at the sound of his voice, moaning as he clutches his stomach as if to throw the organ out. Immediately, I rush to his side, trying so hard, desperately to cure his pain as he once did my sadness.
“Shhh,” I soothe him, caressing his face as I hum a melody softly into his ears.
“Is there any news of Tristan?” The words fall from his lips like a plea as I bite back the sobs from my voice. Tristan, his younger brother, had courageously gone off to war; it was only today, while I was at the market that I learned of his death. I will not break Asher by telling him this.
“I heard that the war is almost over. Our army has captured Joan of Arc!” A look of relief crosses over him for a moment. It eases my heart.
Asher winces, again from this hellish illness.
“Aurea.” His eyes pierce right through me as I meet them. “You know that I love you, right? I’ve always loved you, even before our friendship blossomed into this affection.” Kissing his pale face is all I can do in that moment as he musters the strength to stroke my hair. Fear of the disease does not ward me off; nothing will keep me from Asher.
“I feel alive when you’re beside me.”
My eyes widen as he stops my heart.
Yesterday, after Asher had given in to sleep, I spent all of the night crumpled on the floor praying to God, to Jesus, to Mary, in hopes that my love would be miraculously cured. By dawn, fatigue had slumped me down by Asher’s bed where I awoke but a few minutes ago. He remains asleep as I prepare more medicines for him. It seems they have been to no avail, for his condition has only worsened with each passing day. He withers away like a blossom beneath frost in the winter. Now, I am constantly caught between hope and despair. Before he wakes, I quickly stew some broth for him in the kitchen. By the time I return, Asher has awoken.
Kneeling by his body blemished with crimson bumps, I try to pour water into his throat. His eyes are terribly weary and he coughs violently, spitting up blood. I wait a few minutes until he is at ease. Then, I slowly feed him the broth I made. Asher always loved it.
When I believe he’s eaten enough and taken my remedy, I set the bowl aside and lay my face just a stretch away from Asher’s. Those emeralds have faded, I notice, as they try so hard to focus on me. Somehow, I pour every drop of my love for him into a melody, singing to soothe him. I know he is far too exhausted to speak, but I stop at the sound of his familiar voice. Moments slip by, but I wait, attentively listening. His every word is a treasure to me.
“I...will...not die,” the words are faint and he struggles for breath, “when...you’re beside me.” Silently, I weep beside my Asher. When my tears have subsided and I have regained control of myself, I uncage the feelings I’ve locked inside since his sickness.
“You always meant the world to me. You know that, don’t you?” I’ve gotten so used to his shallow breaths that I can no longer hear them. My eyes search for a response from his, but they don’t flicker to me.
“Asher?” I sit up, calling out to him. “Asher?”
“Asher!” My heart screams his name as I shake his cold body. “Asher!” Each and every nerve in me blazes with fear, horror, hysteria. His name, that beautiful name of his becomes muffled and lost through my uncontrollable sobs. I can’t stop weeping. The other girls and the cook come to see what all the commotion is about. They try to tear me from Asher, but I refuse to budge. I swore that no one, nothing at all on this earth would keep me from Asher.
Dearly beloved, this is what you left behind.