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The Plague Stone
by Kristy Kerruish



Late Summer, The High Peak.


Ladrian paused on the hill and looked over the escarpments of Kinder Scout, amber in the intermittent sun and scarred by broken shadows of the low clouds which promised brief sharp showers. The path worked its way to higher ground and was lined by flowers, the haunts of heavy bees and brindled butterflies. Not far from here the land rose and the crest of the hill marked the ancient boundary of the village.

Here on the higher ground Ladrian saw a low rectangular rock which, on closer inspection, appeared to have two deep square troughs deliberately carved into its top side.  Approaching it he saw that one of the carved troughs had filled with water. Something bright caught his eye and he squatted down and peered into the water to see two farthings glinting beneath the surface. It was curious to see such old coins. Without hesitating he slipped his hand into the cold liquid and drew one out. To his surprise the liquid was not water, but vinegar and its pungent smell rose to his face causing him to grimace and step back. Cradling the coins in his palm he looked at them quizzically. Ladrain knew a little about coins and these would have been currency in the late sixteen hundreds and were worth a healthy sum on the market.  He examined the coins with care. There was no doubt they were genuine. They were very valuable pieces and he was tempted by the possibility of profiting from the find. No one was about, no one had seen him take them. He pocketed the coins and strolled down the hill towards the old village.

Ladrian had never seen the village. It was a pretty spot. Looking for a place to sit and rest Ladrian opened the low gate to the graveyard. The graveyard was well tended but many of the stones had long since given up their claim to regular visitors and mosses had found hold on their uneven surfaces to vie with the creeping lichens. An old man was clearing away dead flowers from a recent grave. Ladrian threw him a friendly greeting and then thought to ask him about the strange stone. “Do you know the old stone on the fringe of the wood?”

“The plague stone? Did you notice the old plague cottages? You must have passed them on your way into the village. The plague came to the village in 1665. The people didn't understand the disease but they knew how easily it spread. They made a difficult decision – no one came in and no one went out. They kept the plague within the village boundaries. Food was left for the villagers on the plague stones in exchange for money which was submerged in the vinegar - it was believed to clean them from contagion.”

“These are the graves of the people who died?” Ladrian asked pausing by the older stones.

“All these graves were laid down in sixteen sixty five. Poor souls. May they rest in peace.”

Ladrian frowned and looked at the gravestones with their long-forgotten names. It was difficult to imagine the courage that had driven these people to sacrifice themselves to protect the neighbouring villages from such a terrible disease. “Many survived the plague did they?” he said searching the dates.

“A few. That grave there is the Widow Gray and her children. They survived the plague but died of starvation in one of the remoter cottages.”

“How could they starve?”

“Their supply of food stopped when they did not honour payments. The widow left her silver coins in the vinegar but someone must have stolen them. She claimed so at least but no one believed her and no one brought her food. They lost their faith in her.”

Ladrian looked at the grave with a strange feeling of unease. He turned the two coins in his pocket self-consciously. They felt heavy and cold. If he laid them back on the stone would the grave be gone when he returned? Would he find the village obscurely different because the widow and her children had lived? His thoughts spiralled with such a foolish notion, he chided himself for even contemplating it. The Widow Gray's misfortunes had fallen centuries earlier. Nothing could change the past. Yet as he walked away he felt the strangest sensation of guilt, as if the lives or the poor widow and her children lay upon his own conscience and would always do so.




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