Michel and Aralyn had been looking forward to the Summer Solstice celebration for some weeks, ever since Scaliger had organised the event. Such festivals were becoming rare. Michel’s grandparents had related the meaning and tradition of over a 100 of the older festivals to him but most of these had been disappearing rapidly over the last thirty years.

Jean, one of his grandfathers had said "It’s particularly the feminine festivals associated with the Earth and Nature that have gone. These are ones the Church and the industrial merchants in the bigger cities frown on. The Church is particularly disturbed by those which involve fertility rites as is the case with the Midsummer Solstice festival. The industry owners just want less holidays. "

The participants of Scaliger’s gathering could not call it a celebration for it sounded too much as though they were planning a pagan ritual. Scaliger always referred to it in public as a vocational requirement, a meeting of doctors and pharmacists to gather the herbs they needed for their medicine.

He was exploiting a weakness in the Church’s prohibition. The Church did not like any group gathering on the Summer Solstice but the difficulty for its hierarchy and officials, including Inquisitors, was the conflict between their own needs and their edicts. It had always been the practice to gather special herbs at this date because the power of Earth and Heavens was then evenly balanced and the herbs were given their greatest strength. To deny doctors and pharmacists this right could possibly jeopardize their own health. It was for this superstitious reason that Scaliger’s Bishop would turn a blind eye to what he was doing on this, the seventeenth of June, 1536.

So it was that on this particular day Michel de Nostredame with young son held in his arms and Aralyn, his wife of eighteen months, set out from their small house in Agen to walk the short distance to Scaliger’s chateau. Aralyn was pregnant once more but wanted to walk, so they took it easy as they walked the narrow trail on the banks of the Garonne. The trail was in good order for it was part of the private estate of the Bishop who prided himself in his management of both his and the church lands. They did not expect to see the other guests for most would take the longer wider route to the house, the one built on flatter land for use of horse and cart.

To get to the chateau the trail swung away from the river and up into gently graded hills. This of course meant greater effort. Although it was the middle of summer on the longest day of the year it was that sort of benign day which makes it pleasant to walk and which enriches the beauty of the countryside. It was not a difficult climb but Aralyn’s condition slowed their progress.

As they paused at the crest of one of these hills they saw a small, scattered group coming towards them. Soon Jean Poinceau and his family reached them, slightly puffing but glad of a chance to take a rest. Jean was the new operator of the mill closest to Agen. The Poinceaux operated a fortunately placed mill sitting on a constant, even flowing stream. It was one of the mills built many centuries earlier, which explained its prime location. It was being adapted from a corn mill to a fulling mill to meet the needs of the flourishing textile trade in Agen.

Jean was a special guest of Scaliger even though he had limited interest in herbs and herbal medicine. He was also a surprising selection because he had no classical training. Scaliger was particularly scornful of the intellect of those unable to speak Latin but in the case of Jean Poinceau it seemed not to matter.

Jules Cesar de l'Escale de Bordonis or Scaliger as he was more widely known did not really organise this event merely to gather herbs. He was keenly interested in plants and as a physician he of course needed the herbs at their best. The gathering was a social event to bring together some of the people he knew and the old herb gathering festival allowed him to do so. Scaliger was always on the lookout for bright minds and at such a function he could bring together a wide variety of people who would not normally exchange ideas. To ensure sparkle in the debate he had carefully chosen his guest list. They were mostly ‘men of the robe’, physicians and a judge but there were pharmacists and even a few of the more intelligent unlettered locals like Jean.

Antonio Rovera, Scaligers’s bishop and patron had also been invited but hopefully would not overstay his welcome. A few of Jules’ private patients from the second estate, or nobility, were also included, amongst them Aralyn’s parents. The nobility was the only group where factors other than their skills or training determined their invitation. The rest were bright, intelligent Catholics from south-western France.

Before his family joined the Nostredames, Jean had been busy telling his oldest son what they would be doing that day. He had even tried to point out a few herbs they would be gathering but this task would mainly be left for Jules who was a renowned expert in this field. As they approached the seated Nostredames, Jean was talking about a plant they had just seen, the fern, the one plant they would only be able to gather shortly after midnight on this one evening. And if they touched it with their hands it would vanish.

This story made Michel chuckle. He had heard the same tale from his grandfather when he was just a youth. It was an ancient tale but the boy would probably never know whether his father actually believed it himself when he told the story on that Midsummer Day.

They were now near the chateau and animals excited by extra human presence barked and cackled in alarm. At the front they could see the collection of wagons and in the retaining paddock, horses grazing, steam slowly rising from their still perspiring flanks. To the rear of the chateau near the old wood barn they could see a marquee and tents with people seated on timber benches. All of this lay in the shade of an ancient oak tree. There were very few trees of this size left in this part of France and Scaliger was proud of it. In the rest of Europe, including Agen, nearly all the large old trees had been commandeered for use in ships and buildings but the previous owners of the estate and then Scaliger had refused to let this one be cut down.

It was still a good ten to fifteen minutes walk to the rest of the group and Michel introduced himself to the Poinceaux. "I am Michel de Nostredame, physician, we live in Agen. Where are you from?"

Jean’s wife Michelle interrupted her husband’s reply. "We’ve heard about you. Even in Toulouse, where we lived until last month, they talk about you. You’re famous. All those towns you saved from the plague. Like Bordeaux and Carcassone."

Michel said: "That was a few years back, four years in fact. Fortunately the plague has been a bit quiet for the last few years."

Jean said: " I heard of you much longer ago than that. It must have been ten years ago when I first heard of your work in Narbonne, Carcassone and Bordeaux. People used to say the plague didn’t seem to frighten you, unlike most in your profession"

Reluctantly Michel acknowledged this claim. "You are right. I was also involved in treating the plague about that time and in the same towns." Michel wasn’t keen on talking about this topic to a man who was obviously deeply in awe of his achievements so he sought to bring the talk to a more balanced topic, life in Agen.

Michel introduced Aralyn and added her to the benefits he had found in Agen. "A bewitching woman, a friend like Scaliger, a bishop like Rovera, a town as elegant and prosperous as Agen, that is what this town has given me. I can only rate these last two years as having been something special."

Michel had to be careful to whom he described his wife as ‘bewitching’. The Inquisitors might twist such a phrasing to the disadvantage of a person betrayed by personal enemies. In this case Michel was at ease for there was no one to overhear them and act as a corroborating witness to witchery.

Besides it was apparent what Michel meant. Their presence together enhanced each of them. Just the way their eyes traced the others movements suggested deep emotional longing. It was apparent they enjoyed being physically close for their hands would entwine and he was never far from her side. As they walked his nearness and her unbalanced gait would frequently cause their hips and bodies to touch, which neither seemed to mind. But there was even deeper evidence of their feelings for each other. They enjoyed each other’s words and thoughts. They smiled with unaffected warmth whenever their eyes united and it was apparent that in the other’s laughter there was reciprocal attraction.

The Poinceaux then told the story of their past few years as millers in Toulouse. They had operated a mill at the La Daurade dam for the Society du Bazacle but weren’t happy working for such a large corporation. When Scaliger and the Bishop had offered them the mill at Agen they were keen to accept, especially as Jean’s interest in astronomy and mathematics could be enhanced.

They had now reached the main group. The Bishop had already arrived and was talking to Scaliger. They were was easy to pick. The flamboyant clothes of the Bishop were in brilliant contrast to the pragmatic clothing of the other men but perfectly in keeping with the overstated dress of the many wives gathered in small groups around their chosen tents.

The Bishop’s florid face was more red than usual in the fullness of the sun and his animated speech was causing his very ample frame to shake, as it tended to do whenever he was roused. He was berating the loss of his most able workers and craftsmen to Spain and the stupidly high rates of pay the Spaniards were offering as inducement. "Too much Peruvian gold in too many hands, that’s the root of the problem." he could be heard bellowing at Scaliger.

The Bishop was well regarded by the people he had gathered under him. Patrons are not always so esteemed but then most do not deserve such loyalty. Scaliger and Nostradamus were physicians. Many years ago Scaliger had been brought from La Garda, Italy to act as the Bishop’s private physician. Two years ago Scaliger had invited Nostradamus to join him in Agen because Jules enjoyed the stimulation he received whenever the two conversed. Scaliger was over forty and Nostradamus thirty years of age.

A physician and a rich patron are almost always in tension. The one wanting more out of life whilst the other’s need is to ensure a longer life. A physician needs sick people around him if he is to be usefully employed. His greatest hope is for either a continuously sick patron or one that will allow the physician other pursuits despite the patron’s well being. But the patron wants a physician that will treat his most trivial ailments as well as his genuine illnesses. In many cases he does not want or expect a cure, just comfort. On the other hand it was not unknown for unscrupulous physicians to play two roles to increase or maintain their position. Some by subtle poison, infection or plots would be both their patron’s healer and his source of medical dependence.

None of this applied to the Bishop of Agen and his physicians. Antonio de Rovera allowed his physicians freedom and even encouraged Scaliger in activities that would not deprive him of Jules’ skills at his time of need. He let Scaliger attend other nobles but, to balance this, encouraged him to bring Nostradamus to Agen to assist with the private clients. Antonio was of noble birth, a third son who was sent to university and then found a suitable position within the church. He was keen to bask in the glory of being Jules Scaliger’s patron for Jules was famous as a botanist and mathematician. However the Bishop was somewhat less keen on Scaliger’s virulent attacks on the poetry analysis of the highly regarded Erasmus.

Both Scaliger and Nostradamus were grateful for such a patron. Physicians although of high social standing were not the most highly paid of men. And the payment they received depended on those with ample money. Consequently they mostly tended the clergy, and the better off families of the nobility. Physicians also gained income from the more affluent merchants, freeman farmers, mill-owners and professionals, all of whom had come into their wealth in the last few generations. However these people paid on a casual basis without any ongoing retainer. Income from many of these sources was uncertain and therefore a wealthy patron who retained the physician’s services was highly prized. Without a patron even the feared plague had its benefits for to the physician it offered continuous work.

Scaliger and Nostradamus had different backgrounds, for Jules had only dealt with the Bishop and private patients, whilst Michel had even treated the poor. Mostly the poor could not afford a physician and relied on the craft-wise women as in older times. These were women who learned the old ways of herbs and charms given potent powers under the rites of Earth and Nature. And these were the women upon whom the Church was most severe having for two centuries persecuted and burnt them as witches. Increasingly the poor had no assistance unless their illness also affected the rich.

The plague was one occasion when the poor did receive help from the physicians and Michel had been involved in this way. In times of plague the merchants and nobles might band together to get one or more physicians to cure the ill amongst them and the townsfolk. Of course the physician was rarely paid the full amount promised. The promise is made under the shadow of death but payment does not fall due until the threat has gone. The value system is dramatically different under these two different climes as physicians learnt to their regret. Some physicians compensated for this expected deceit by using the opportunity presented to them. They could rob the dead with impunity, even cause their death to gain the victim’s wealth and none would be the wiser. Michel had come out of both epidemics in which he was involved with an untarnished and highly successful record.

Michel and Aralyn went separate ways as they approached the marquee. Aralyn wished to greet her parents and set out for their tent to the right of the barn but Michel did not follow. He knew he would not be welcome and it is only a man with a mission that will willingly place himself where he is not welcome. There once was a mission that had taken him to meet her parents but that was fulfilled fifteen months earlier.

Michel had met Aralyn in Agen. Scaliger had introduced them when both physicians went out on one of Scaliger’s near town visits. Aralyn’s parents were impressed upon meeting this famous doctor but somewhat alarmed at their daughter’s interest as Michel was not of noble descent and had Jewish grandparents. There was also a large difference in their ages. He was 31 when they met but she was only 18 years of age. However Aralyn’s family fortune, like many noble families, was at a low ebb and it seemed this famous doctor would quickly rise to a strong, well remunerated position. The only son in Aralyn’s family was a sickly man and impotent. It was therefore agreed the pair could marry and a dowry would be paid. This included the couple’s Agen home. There was a catch however, the entitlement to retain the dowry would rely on the pair having produced a healthy male heir at a time set at five years after their marriage.

Michel joined a group of physicians he already knew. These were men from as far afield as Bordeaux but most were from closer towns such as Marmande, Condom, Montauban and Lectoure. Even here he was not totally welcome. A group or institution is built to serve a purpose and to that purpose its members duly and dutifully comply. All groups therefore tend to attract as members those most suited to their current purpose. There is usually like-mindedness amongst them and a resistance to those who dare to be unorthodox.

Michel was both unorthodox and strong-minded. In completing his Doctorate five years earlier his differences were the subject of close examination by the University. He was able to meet that challenge because it was a rational debate but here he would be unlikely get the time to establish his ideas were other than heretic. All these people knew was that he had cured people they feared, people with the plague. He had used his own medical preparations and had succeeded. He did not bleed his patients or use near-boiling hot water baths as they would do. He apparently showed no signs of fear and even seemed to relish the challenge of dealing with the disease.

Michel was also aware of another difference. Like all the people he met these people stank. Over the years of his life he had seen the society’s hygiene change. Driven by the Church’s moral objections and its obsession against the feminine sensual aspects of life, laws had been passed banning mixed bathing. This had forced many public baths to close for they were no longer profitable. And attitudes had changed so much that in the new court of Versailles the builders and architects had included very few public toilets or baths without an outcry.

In this time many people did not bathe or wash themselves from one year to the next. Even their bedding went unchanged. The straw or hops they used as mattresses contained whatever its inhabitants brought to it, including the fleas from black rats that commonly lived inside houses. Most houses Michel went into had litter inside and out and the foulest smelling mess was only moved to a point where its more powerful odour did not surpass the lesser stench of daily life. And all this mixed with the smoke from badly built open fires. Smoke that choked its occupants many times on most days and nights. Smoke that for all its foulness still counteracted and purged much of the evil from poor hygiene.

Successful as Michel was as a physician he was not a popular person for people do not welcome those who challenge their manner of life. His unpopularity was not just amongst other physicians for the servants and other household members of those he cured resented cleaning out their master’s house, remaking bedding and fetching water from a more distant, fresher spring.

So amongst physicians and many others Michel’s healing works did not win him friends. However these physicians were here to gather herbs and his remedies were of grudging interest to them. They ceased their discussion on the ideas of Copernicus. They stopped talking about the revolutionary concept that the earth went around the sun and talked about rose petals, sulphur and herbs.

It was not long before the Bishop left and the gathering was then placed into small groups and directed where to go on their search. Scaliger had samples of the plants in order to show the younger members what they were seeking. Aralyn joined Michel to one side of this group while Jules gave his short demonstration.

Scaliger showed them the Camomile, Geranium, Thyme, Rue, Chervilseed, Giant Fennel and Penny-Royal and explained they were aromatics to be thrown on the fire they would light in the evening.

There was also the purplish stemmed Mugwort and yellow flowered St Johns’ wort they should look for. And a whole list of ferns that he wanted everyone to note but not pick. He stressed the searchers were to note their location very carefully because they would be picked in the dark.

Aralyn would normally have joined Michel on this search but because of her pregnancy she would go back to her parents’ tent and await his return. Michel and Jean Poinceau were to join Scaliger. This was the last group to leave.

Scaliger had very similar interests to Michel. He was a physician with an interest in astrology, astronomy and mathematics. Scaliger was aroused by these topics but not as deeply as his friend. It was poetry that was the strongest link between himself and his visitor and although of some interest to Michel it was not his driving passion.

Jean Poinceaux interest was mathematics and astronomy and through his brother he had an interest in poetry. His older brother was in the salt business and just returned from Norway. French salt was rated as the best in the world and Norway was emerging as an important customer. Jean’s brother had passed on some books on Norse poetry he had picked up for Scaliger and Jules had translated parts of these Latin texts to Jean.

There was therefore a set of common interests that bound this group in earnest discussion whilst they rambled the fields in search of herbs. Several hours later, having covered a wide variety of topics, they were surprised to see the low position of the sun indicating it was time to return.

Their search finished in the old wood near the ruins of a pre-plague village. The ruin was two hundred years old and almost vanished but the wood was much more ancient and alive. It was one of the few areas untouched by the massive clearing operations of the last five hundred years and some of its trees were countless centuries old. It contained many rare species of fern and fungi and for that reason Jules had chosen it for himself and Michel.

Their route had been circular so it was only a short walk back to the chateau. Scaliger was pleased to find all searchers had returned safely although some told stories of minor mishaps caused by falling or fallen branches. The buckets of gathered herbs lay alongside in brilliant coloured testimony to a successful day. He was also delighted by some of the reports of ferns and by the descriptions given was able to say which were most valued. One searcher had cut several Hazel branches and those he did not want for himself he gave away. These were highly prized by the recipients for cut on this Midsummer’s Eve the branches would have special divining powers relating to the search for water or treasure. A superstition such as this the Church did not condemn and the ownership of a divining rod would attract no attention from the Inquisitors.

Aralyn soon joined Michel and they watched the house servants lighting four small fires. These together with the already lit spit-fires formed a small ring. On this fiery ring a sheep, a pig and several pots of vegetables including peas, beans and onions were cooking. Upon completion the fires would be made into a single pyre that would burn well into the night.

Aralyn and Michel joined the Poinceaux at one of the many tables. Their baby was with its grandmother but the Poinceaux children were chasing amongst the benches joining in the games with squealing, giggling pleasure. For an hour they talked and the children played while the tantalising scent of cooking food drifted around them on the slight wisps of evening breeze. As they talked they drank liberally for wine was plentifully supplied. Scaliger’s estate had several small vineyards and he reserved some of his medium quality vintage for occasions such as this. Louder, more frequent adult laughter revealed the wines increasing effect upon the gathered group. Even the children were affected. Their sly sips of wine taken from unguarded goblets caused the games to be more energetic with louder shouts, squealing and shrieking as accompaniment.

The food when cooked was welcome. It was tasty and plentiful but difficult to get into the mouth without using dirt-grimed fingers. Although they had rough wooden bowls they did not have proper wooden spoons. Those who wanted a utensil had to make do with pieces of chunky clean bark specially placed in an old wine vat. This however, gave the meal a special zest for the bark’s aromatic scents strengthened the tastes within the warm food. As they cut and poured, scooped and ate the sun began to set. The orange orb of the sun was now receding, highlighting the few clouds with deepening crimson underglows.

Scaliger and one of his servants had sorted the gathered herbs and placed several tubs containing the aromatics near the fires. Whilst the guests ate the servant united the fires into a single pyre placing many large branches into a heap at the new fire’s centre. And these branches burst into roaring, crackling flame shooting embers and great fiery tongues into the sky much to the excitement of the children. They now were encouraged to take the aromatic herbs and cast some into the flames. Other herbs like mugwort they wove into chains to place around their heads and bodies.

But not all of them were so engaged. Jean Poinceaux son was standing apart, next to his father who was pointing out the stars as the sky darkened.

Jean pointed out a star saying "That smallish star there is the North Star. If you find it hard to find look a little to the right. You see that set of bright stars up high. That’s the Great Bear. Its stars are some of the most important in the sky. Recently a whole book of navigation was written based on them alone. Sailors use them to tell the time of year and how far south or north they are from the equator. The two on the left are called the pointers and show where the North Star is. Follow it down to just above the chimney on the house and you’ll see the polestar. The North Pole is just alongside it but that’s an imaginary point so you can’t see it."

He also showed his son the few constellations that were visible in the lower part of the Southern Sky. "That’s Libra due south and there’s Leo. Those two bright stars in Leo are planets. The brighter one is Saturn and the red one above it and to the left of it is Mars. In about two hours those two will set and we will have to wait another two hours for a really bright star to rise. That star is also a planet, Jupiter. When it rises it will be midnight and then we can collect the ferns. That’s what we are waiting for."

Michel was very familiar with this information for it was his strongest interest; astronomy or astrology.

The nearness of Saturn and Mars was interesting but it was a frequent event unlike that at the time of his birth in December 1503. He had been born on a day when the three planets Mars, Saturn and Jupiter were extremely close together. He knew such a set of close conjunctions was extremely rare and this was amongst the closest for several millennia. Not that it meant much. Probably one in forty people were born under that conjunction because it lasted several months due to the retrogression of Mars. There would be ten thousand Parisians who were born during that time and millions worldwide so it did not make him feel particularly special.

The trails of sparkling flames were now reaching high into the darkened sky and the young and energetic were beginning to dance and chant in circles round the blazing fire. Their elders, young mothers and babies and those disinclined to join such revelry watched, sipped and talked amongst themselves, their inhibitions also slowly ebbing.

Wine and the company of women dictate terms of conversation different to that when men gather alone. No longer Copernicus, botany and herbs but life, real life and death, ever present death these are now the threads and themes of the talking groups.

And at Michel’s table it was the same. Michel however remained quiet for long periods at his bench. It was not that he was uninterested in the topics discussed but more that he enjoyed hearing and watching Aralyn speak . Her words often pleasantly disturbed him; her unusual ways of thinking, her unique insight into human behaviour causing ripples of silent mirth within his aroused mind. This was why he didn’t speak but his thoughts played along with both the flow of wine and hers and other people’s words.

The conversation around him and the dancing groups focussed his thoughts on these disappearing festivals. And this gathering was becoming a festival, a Midsummer’s eve festival, not as it used to be but more restrained with hints of that which caused it to be banned. Wine and dance, rhythm and chant, linked hands and eyes and sensual movement. Sensual movement, sensual arousal, increased wine increasing lust. The mood was moving to that which was its purpose, this festival of the Solstice.

This was the festival to pick the people’s King and Queen. Fertile King and Fertile Queen chosen for this one night when heaven and earth are in balance. And they are easy to choose in wine, dance, rhythm and chant.

The Royal ones are those whose eyes linger unfulfilled. Lovers yearning, unsated and aroused. Held apart by good reason of distance, marriage, feud or woman’s cycle. Not young inexperienced youth but well versed lovers held in check. Held apart ‘til lust abounds, lust that must be contained. And with this wine, chant and rhythm that which was hidden begins to show. Her daring nearness to him unchallenged and his own desire now apparent. Their sharing laugh, their focussed world dwelling one upon the other, these are signs that help in choosing, choosing King and Queen. Their bodies’ rhythm revealing, concealing the fullness of this emergent sex arousal. Her body’s ryhthm concealing swelling of responsive breasts and lips. Lips that open moistly scented releasing yearning ache of primal sense. His chant and energetic dance showing hardening he would better hide. Throbbing, pulsing, engorging lust bringing glistening pearl upon this swollen head. A lust that all can know and see when choosing King and Queen .

A King and Queen then released from bonds, given sanction for fulfilment on this one night, Midsummer’s eve. Released to race into the fields to lie amongst the earth and grass. Released to feel the eagerness of lust at last able to be sated. To feel the union of their hips in long and slow rhythmic motion; taken bodies feeling ached-for presence. Vital energy of deep-felt lust, this is the rite’s proper course. This is the building of the rhythm that passes deep between them. Prolonged release also needed. Release of seed filling nature’s need. Slowly dripping to the ground, sinking merging; seed, lust, earth and grass; the earth is offered her rightful dues. The fertile earth shall be renewed.

Michel knew that the festival was not yet truly dead. For much the same reason that they were allowed to hold their gathering, farmers and their lovers would be in their fields tonight. Farmers, like bishops with their vital herbs could not take the risk. Catholic, Protestant or whatever, tonight on Midsummer’s eve their lust would be absolved by need. Next year’s crops must be assured.

It is easy to understand why the masculine Church was opposed to this sexual festival and in the plagues it found the means to achieve its end. Sex was to become an object stripped of sensuality, an inhibited mindset making intimacy taboo.

The plague, the cursed plague, gave the Church its means, motive and ends. People were changed, structures were different, nothing plague affected would remain the same. Plague had shaped all at this 1536 gathering, changed the way they thought, increased their innate fear and shaped their lust for life.

Michel de Nostredame knew the plague’s history well. This disease dominated his life. Friends and relatives struck down at intervals by the plague. The fear of plague within all those close to him. The emphasis placed on it in his University course and then for his doctorate. And of course his own work with plague-ridden towns, his own remedies and defense of his methods. All this knowledge and experience meant he knew more than most of the disease’s history.

He restrained himself from correcting some of the myths being stated in the conversation around him. He knew it was not just Europeans being punished by God for recent libertarian practices. Rather he thought it was the other way around and libertarian practice arose out of the fear of plague. Libertarianism and its opposite arising out of fear but not just because the plague was deadly, more because it kept on coming back. His mind dwelt on the arguments and his proofs as those around him debated the cruelty of a God that would kill and keep on killing both the innocent and the sinful.

Michel was aware it was late summer in 1349 that the Black Death first came to Agen . A year earlier it had come to Marseille and the whole of the Mediterranean Basin. It had started in Asia and had been passed from there into the trade routes by the movements of these eastern people This was common knowledge amongst the medical profession. But he had other thoughts to add to this.

Over 50% of people died during that first epidemic but the death rate was not the factor that changed the way men thought. The Black Death had run its course by 1351 and survivors could have, would have adjusted. But the plague came again and again at irregular intervals of about seven years. Every seven years between one in seven and one in ten would die. For two hundred years this remained the way with little change in its pattern. By the sixteenth century it was particularly severe amongst the young and the nobility. It was as though those who had survived a previous epidemic were slightly less at risk from plague’s deathly grip.

It was the repetitious cycle of death that changed people’s lives. They now knew the threat to their mortality and the chill of it divided, destroyed and built anew. Many were more superstitious, more deeply religious, fervent in their way of life. The rest were more given to taking pleasure while they could. Like Nostradamus, wanderer for much of his life, people did not dare to seek stability or leave unfulfilled, lingering desire. Travel, adventure, risk and pleasure all the more compelling when you might shortly die.

Always life and death are linked but in normal times man can quell the fear; there is no constant reminder, there is hope that youth and vigour will allow fulfilment But with death-locked plague randomly taking victims every seven years these assurances disappear. Each person knows it could strike whilst they bask in the fullest richness of their life.

There was no known escape or means of lessening this most terrifying risk. Uncertainty and mortality filled the minds of those lucky enough to survive each bout of plague.

The mental turmoil gave the Church its chance. Sensuality became sin; sex a function only, performed out of must but never lust. Arousal and satisfaction no longer a natural part of language but a forbidden sinful art. Michel de Nostredame was a member of that Church but on this night, restrained in the fulfilment of his own desires by pending birth, aroused by wine and circumstance he gave his mind free reign.

Behind him Michel could hear a youthful voice stating loudly. "There it is! There’s Jupiter!" People now stopped dancing and those who planned to pick the nearby ferns went about their preparations, selecting beeswax torches, gloves and light woven baskets. They would travel in small groups for many held a great deal of fear regarding ghosts hidden in the darkness of this moonless night. Each would carry a torch but only one would be lit at a time so as to light the way. As they moved off the remaining groups, including Aralyn de Nostredame, settled down to continue their drinking and discussions. Some of the more mature youths and maidens and some of the older people had disappeared, probably into the barn where the forbidden part of this festival was most likely bearing fruit.

Some of the others were again gathering around the fire and one young couple began what was once a common part of this Solstice rite. They stripped off their shoes and stockings and prepared to dance upon the glowing coals. She climbed upon his back, her legs around his waist. In silence those around waited while he chose his spot and then with deliberate stride walked straight onto the fiery earth. As he crossed cheers broke out causing those within the tents to emerge from their retreats.

Now other intrepid youth and older members stripped and tripped in bare foot form across the sacrificial fire.

At last they were done and settled down in amorous groupings awaiting the return of the long-gone fern gatherers. Those who had emerged to watch the foolhardy fire-walkers returned to their tents in full expectation that this was the time to strew the straw, settle down and sleep.

The night was rent by a chilling cry, a wailing sobbing cry. A woman emerged from a tent, a woman holding a tiny bundle. "The baby’s dead. The baby’s dead."

" The plague! The plague! The baby’s dead’ Aralyn’s mother wailed and sobbed to this now attentive, silent audience. Her cry an awful mind-chilling, wailing, rending of summer’s nighttime stillness. A chilling sound of death bewailed; a death out of keeping with the moment.

Death, an infant death; amongst physicians’ gathering herbs. A sudden death where these physicians’ herbs and art lie uselessly untried. A death that strikes whilst at the start of life. A death built syndrome that sees all plague as death, every death as plague.

"He’s dead. Aralyn’s son is dead. Nostredame’s first-born child has died."


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