Book One: The Solitary Sparrow


London, England

February 1349


So many dead. Yet no one knew when—or if— the dying would end.


Death is upon us. Come quickly.


Margaret stared at the letter, turning it over in her hands, as if the motion would make her choice easier, as if the stars had not already determined her destiny. She shook her head and allowed only the briefest of smiles. The good people of St. Michael’s Mead must have been scared indeed to swallow their pride and beg the Devil’s Daughter for help. Years ago as callow, brutal children they had been suspicious, even frightened of her. Now they were grown men and women with children of their own. Though they implored her to save them, she could not. She could give them comfort—if she chose to return to St. Michael’s Mead—but when it came to the Pestilence, it killed without rhyme or reason.

The letter, slipped beneath her door this morning with only a brief knock announcing its delivery, contained a plea for help written in Latin. Mors in nobis. Veneris cito. Death is upon us. Come quickly. Scrawled at the bottom were the words St. Michael’s Mead. Out of habit, she touched her left cheek. The misshapen cheek bone and drooping eye, disfigurements of her birth, were so accepted by her many patients and the royal family that she scarcely thought about her appearance anymore. Still, the notion of returning to that place of hateful memories made her face burn and it seemed, although impossible, that her eye sagged even lower.

Death is upon us.

Indeed Death was upon the entire world. It spared no country, not even England with its safe removal from the continent and the wide English sea acting as a protective moat.

She should stay away from the village. Ignore the cry for help. And yet . . .

She walked to the window overlooking St. Osgood’s Lane. Below her, the lane was deserted although that it was market day. Before the Pestilence, it would have been crowded by daybreak, noisy with good folk from the countryside carting chickens and pigs to the butchers in the Shambles. But the butchers, like all the merchants in London, had abandoned their stalls. A group of drunken gravediggers staggered down the lane looking for yet another corpse to dump in the new burying ground at East Smithfield. Once a wasteland beyond the city wall, the graveyard now held hundreds of dead, five deep in places, thrown one on the other as if an acquaintance with Death provided enough reason for strangers to meet.

Come quickly.

Anger flared and burned her heart. How dare they command her as if she were a lowly street rayker. How dare they think that she could turn her back on the thousands suffering in London for the wretched few in St. Michael’s Mead.

She coughed to loosen the tightness in her throat and shook her head as snatches of memory filled her with hatred. Bile rose in her gullet. Let the Pestilence take them all, she thought. Send them to the depths of Hell! I’ll shed no tears for that accursed village. With a strangled cry she threw the letter into the fire and watched as flames licked at the edge of the parchment. Fires burned throughout the city to ward off miasmas that carried the Pestilence, but Margaret knew it was a hopeless gesture. If Death wanted to find you, nothing would stop it.

And then she remembered.

No one in St. Michael’s Mead could read or write except Father Fitzhugh, the village priest. She hadn’t seen him in twenty years, and hoped never to see him again. He must be desperate indeed to send a message to her.

Margaret sat slowly on the edge of the bed, moaning as if she had grown old overnight.  Whether she liked it or not, her past and future were intertwined with the people who lived and died, worked and complained, celebrated and fornicated in that little village. She bore the heavy burden of their care like a coat of chainmail across her shoulders. She sighed as the letter burned to ash.

In truth, she had no choice. If her soul was to rest untroubled, she would have to go.

She packed her leather bags with medicines, food and water, and ate a small meal before falling into a troubled sleep. She awoke before daylight and, as the first grey ribbon of dawn caressed the beleaguered city, she left London with a heavy heart, sure that she would never see its great spires again.