A man stood by the well on the village green. This was not an unusual sight in itself. After all, wells provide water, which everyone needs, and a small village isn’t going to go through the effort and expense of digging two wells when one would do just fine. Thus, all the villagers, and many from further out in the surrounding fields, visited the well at least once a day. It was better than the long trek to the distant river.
This particular well was quite large, with a winch that the local blacksmith maintained and kept well-oiled, and two buckets, one for hauling up the water and another for getting out of the way of the next person. At most times, there were quite a number of people standing about the well, some fetching water but most hanging about to chat about the daily drudgery, the latest on Mrs. Tilden and the tax collector, and the results of the last jousting tournament. A combination of sloshed water and constant foot traffic had long obliterated the grass around the well, leaving a muddy verge that never quite dried under the English sun.
At this moment, however, there wasn’t a soul to be seen in the village except the lone man by the well. This wasn’t unusual, either. On the Lord’s day, all men were commanded to rest and worship, and at this particular time in the late morning, the villagers were attending services in the church built of black river stone that was barely visible past the cobbler’s shop, down the road that led out of the village toward London. In fact, an observer, if there had been anyone there to observe, might have wondered why the man was there at all and why he wasn’t at Mass himself, as all good men should. They might conclude that he must not be particularly good, but they would be wrong. That particular descriptor was entirely correct; it was the latter word that didn’t actually apply.
From a distance, the most remarkable thing about the figure by the well was that he was clad entirely in white, from the hose wrapping his fine calves, to the cotehardie that hung to just below his knees, to the hood from which his boyish, beardless face peeked. Only his shoes and the purse that hung from his waist appeared to be a leathery brown. He shone so brightly under the summer sun that our theoretical observer would assume he was a lord who could afford to import fine Bruges wool, as well as the laundering of said wool.
As he approached the man, however, the observer would notice that he wore a finer, lighter cloth than wool, one that shimmered and kept him cool and comfortable, rather than scratchy and hot. In fact, he appeared to almost glow, and that subtle luminosity was fashioned in the shape of clothing. The observer would also notice that he did not stand in the thick mud by the well. Rather, he stood on the mud, or at least did not sink into it. He seemed to have an adversarial relationship with dirt in general, as not a speck of it sullied his shoes and apparel, though it wasn’t clear if he shunned the dirt, or if the soil chose not to touch him. He carried himself with the air of a kindly uncle, and the observer could imagine him politely requesting the dirt to look the other way whenever he was around.
If our intrepid observer got close enough to smell him, before being swatted at, he would notice that the man’s odour was quite odd as well. Apart from obviously bathing more than twice a year, unlike everybody else, he had a sweet, earthy scent, like bread baked from fine wheat with a chocolate overtone. Not that the observer would know what that scent was. It was a mistake the man was prone to make all too often, going out after a nice cup of cocoa. Cacao, of course, was native to the Americas and he really shouldn’t, but whenever his job sent him overseas, he couldn’t resist bringing some back to sit hidden in his cellar next to his stores of tea. Perhaps someday these excellent drinks might find their way to England and, if he could dream, become popular, and he could partake of them openly.
Aziraphale, for that was the man’s name, stood quite straight, his shoulders square and his back so rigid that our observer’s spine might ache in sympathy. He clasped his purse in both hands, fiddling with it as it rested against his belly, as if he was unused to leaving them idle and itched to employ them in honest work. His eyes, youthful though creased from frequent smiles, twitched back and forth as he noted every detail of the quiet village, though he most often peered down the road past the cobbler’s shop.
Aziraphale waited. He was proficient at waiting, having had plenty of time in the past to perfect patience. Good things come to those who wait, after all. Evil things also saunter in if you stick around long enough; this he knew very well, and he was counting on it.
When the first parishioners appeared on the road, heading toward the centre of the village after the service, Aziraphale smiled, then bit his lip to stifle the smile and glanced around as if reconsidering something clandestine. He jerked straighter even than he had been before and nodded to no one in particular, then turned his gaze back to the villagers.
Four young men, strong labourers, walked together, chatting and laughing. Aziraphale looked them over, considering them carefully. Behind them was the miller, his wife, and their five children. “No”, muttered Aziraphale to himself. “Not children. I can’t. Not directly.” He was assessing a knot of older women just past them when he noticed one of the labourers looking at him, brow creased with suspicion.
Aziraphale lifted his hand, two fingers extended, and with a graceful wave, drew a tiny circle in the air in front of himself. The labourer’s eyes slid off him and locked on the tavern across the green. He nudged his nearest companion to urge them all for a drink, the strange shining figure by the well entirely forgotten.
Aziraphale had noticed, as the years had passed, that humans had gotten quite a bit more nosy than they’d been in, say, the seventh or eighth century. Time was, he could stop in a village for quick blessing or appear on a convent doorstep to help in the hospital without even a single raised eyebrow, but now it seemed everyone demanded to know the intimate business of every passerby. Normally, he encouraged curiosity - if you didn’t learn, how could you make choices, after all? - but when it came to curiosity about him, well, he liked his privacy and it certainly made getting things done a trifle inconvenient. Moving unnoticed among the humans made things so much easier. He just always forgot to turn it on.
“He’d be good, for a start,” he murmured. “And going into a tavern to boot.” He raised his two fingers again. The labourer stopped to cough before pulling open the tavern door and inviting his friends inside. Aziraphale settled back with a happy sigh. The first one was always the hardest.
In five short minutes, he’d completed his task. He’d chosen thirty people in total - plenty for a village this size- including the labourer mentioned previously, the weaver and his wife, the deacon, and select members of the local lord’s retinue as they rode past on their steeds. “That should be sufficient,” he announced to himself, preening a bit. “A good day’s work.” He faltered, the smile drooping for a moment. “A day’s work, anyway,” he corrected himself. “Now, we wait and see.”
. _ . _ . _ . _ .
Demons were once angels. They are just as powerful, and they know just as much as angels do. They just tend to disagree on a lot of it.
Crowley was a demon, of the rank and file. Not a Duke of Hell, or a Prince of any particular sin, or even a middle manager toiling away over performance reports and compliance forms. Still, a rank-and-file demon is nothing to sneeze at, unless you’re looking to be fed your own entrails. In the grand scheme of things, a common demon still ranks among the most powerful beings in the universe.
Crowley was a bad demon, which was exactly what he should be. He went where he was told to go and did what he was told to do, though he cut corners whenever he could. Corners are sharp and edgy, and Crowley, loving comfort and ease as much as he did, took pains to eliminate them. He was convinced that his superiors wouldn’t mind shortcuts, as long as the work was done, and demons couldn’t be expected to be completely obedient, could they? That’s what angels did. He did, however, work hard. He had, since the creation of the Earth, lived among the humans and bent them toward evil, made trouble as he’d been instructed to do. He executed his assignments with diligence, but admittedly, it didn’t take much effort or thought, and he certainly didn’t feel powerful or knowledgeable or clever.
There was one thing he did know, however, a fact of which he was completely certain. He knew that if today was indeed his last day on this Earth, he didn’t want to spend it riding a horse.
This particular journey had begun over three hundred miles earlier, in a muddy, bloody field in the southwest of England. Whilst lazing in his London flat, counting the seconds until this insipid century would finally pass, Crowley had received an urgent papyrus (Ligur had never been good about keeping up with the times) directing him to incite a revolt in a particular fiefdom in Cornwall. Upon his arrival in the market town, he’d immediately set about his business.
He had spent the next two weeks with the serfs, whispering over ales in the tavern such insurgent, seditious ideas as “our taxes should be put to good use, like education and healthcare” and “don’t you think everyone should have a say in how this place is run?” He’d always found that these evils were the most seductive to men’s hearts, and indeed, the peasants quickly organised a revolt and were massacred in short order by the rightful lord’s soldiers.
Thus, Crowley had found himself standing among the butchered corpses of the serfs, having performed to great success and dreading the punishment looming on his horizon. The problem was that he’d already had another assignment in Suffolk, a quick nip up from London to spread a bit of plague where it hadn’t gone yet in time to expose the monarch passing through the village. It was an easy enough task from home, but from Cornwall? The revolt had taken too long and he’d missed the opportunity, two days past. Even riding all night, he couldn’t make it before the king departed.
“That’s the problem with having a dotted line to another demon,” he had snarled as he jumped onto his black stallion and spurred it on eastward. “Left hand doesn’t know what the right hand’s doing,” he yelled down at anyone who might have been listening whilst simultaneously hoping that no one would hear, “and leaves me holding the bag!” Crouching low over the neck of his steed as he slapped its flank, he sighed. “Might as well try. What’ve I got to lose?”
Crowley had ridden for the rest of the day and well into the evening, a galloping streak of black malice charging through towns and past men with bent backs toiling in the fields. As he rode, he clung to the faint hope that he could arrive in time to perhaps insinuate himself into the king’s company and perform some direct temptation and suggestion to recover a sliver of honour, but as the worn road turned into yet more worn road, he couldn’t keep it up. A horse was the fastest transportation available, but not nearly fast enough to save Crowley’s hide.
His preferred solution was flying, soaring high over the land, not bruising one’s buttocks on the back of a slow galloping animal with no shock absorbers. He hadn’t used his wings in nearly five thousand years and longed to take them for a spin, especially one that would save his life, but it was forbidden. “Abzolutely not,” Beelzebub had stated when he’d asked centuries earlier. “You’d be zzeen.”
“Humans wouldn’t care,” he’d argued. “In fact, it’d only help. Great big ol’ demon in the sky, spreading fear and fomenting discord. Can’t beat that for blackening men’s souls.”
Beelzebub’s sigh had communicated her opinion of his suggestion. She slumped even further on her throne and idly twiddled a buzzing fly around her finger. “Not zzzem. The other zide. Can’t have you ztirring zzem up before it’z time.”
“Of course.” Quite aware he shouldn’t push a Prince of Hell, Crowley had withdrawn after a low bow and gracious smile whilst inwardly cursing her ignorance. There was only one angel on Earth. The rest - they didn’t even watch. They didn’t care. They were up in Heaven preparing for the end of the world. Beelzebub didn’t know this because, like the angel, there was only one demon on Earth as well. Hell, too, was absorbed in its own works.
“What’s the point of having wings if you’re not going to use them?” Crowley had muttered against the neck of his horse, who had no opinion on the matter and preferred to dream about the pile of rich oats and the nice rubdown it was sure was waiting at the end of this run. The tall, lithe two-legs with the red mane always rewarded his hard work, even as it complained about its unpadded backside.
When full darkness had fallen, crushing what was left of his misplaced optimism, Crowley decided that the only way to face eternal torment was to do it stinking drunk. It might take four or five hours of cheap swill to do the job properly, he thought as he leapt down from his steed in front of the stable on the edge of the village he'd just entered, but it would make the rest of the journey tolerable.
“A stall for one animal,” he called out as he entered. He held up a coin that hadn’t been in his hand a moment before and wiggled it at the stablehand who’d emerged from the shadows. “Four hours. Shouldn’t need more.” He flipped the coin at the man, who caught it and pocketed it as he slipped by to bring the animal in.
“Oh, it’ll be more’n that, sir,” he cautioned as he looked it over. “Runnin' him too hard, have you? He c'n barely stand. Shouldn't move him afore mornin’.”
“What?” Crowley walked up to his horse and pulled its head down, patting its shoulder as he blew gently in its ear. “Nonsense. Fresh as a pony, isn’t he?" The horse perked up, shaking off its exhaustion, then nuzzled the two-legs with a contented whinny. "Maybe a bit hungry. Here.” He tossed another coin to the confused man. “Give him the best you got. Hay, oats, whatever, and the freshest water. Now, don’t bother me. I’ve my own thirst to tend.” And with that, he swaggered off toward the tavern.
. _ . _ . _ . _ .
Crowley pulled his mount to a stop and hopped down, then soothed it as he had done the night before whilst he assessed the situation. There were no kingsmen among the townspeople, though it would stand to reason that if the king were still here, he would be at the local lord’s castle and not in the village proper. The gathering itself and the leisure of the people suggested that either the king was expected to arrive soon - which would be a gift from, well, someone, thought Crowley - or that he’d just departed, which was the more likely scenario. Taking his steed’s lead, he loped to the nearest little group. As they turned to meet him, he pulled down his hood, revealing his lean face, eyes hidden behind a strange contraption of darkened glass plates set in a metal frame.
“Nice village you got here,” he hissed through a toothy grin. “And quite a party. What’s the occasion?”
"His Majesty King Edward come by, he did," supplied a wrinkled old woman, a dirty, wide-eyed child latched onto her skirt. She hacked a wet, painful cough right into the middle of the gathering, showing off a half-mouthful of stained teeth, blotted her lips on her sleeve, and continued. "Never seen such a to-do, not since I was a little girl an’ the army o’ the old king stormed by, on their way to Scotland. Hunnerds of’ horses an’ knights, I’m sure, oh, an’ the mess they made o’ the fields, just at plantin’ time, too -”
"Fascinating," interrupted Crowley with an irritated wave. "But you said King Edward was here? In the village?"
"Well, to be sure, it was mostly his retainers. An’ his soldiers, muckin’ up the tavern all night. The king stayed up at the castle. Too good fer us, he was."
"And where is he now?" the demon asked with forced patience.
"On his way back t’ London, I reckon. Left just after Terce. Well, a bit after. Took some time, linin’ up all those men an’ horses, some o’ them still in their cups. The men, that is, not the horses…”
Crowley wasn’t listening. Frowning as he bit his lip, he peered up at the sun. “Terce,” he muttered. “I can never keep them straight. That’s early morning or mid-morning?”
“Mid-mornin’ prayer, o’ course. Jus’ a bit ago. Why? D’ye want t’ see ‘em? Fine horse like that, catch ‘em up in no time.”
The demon deflated. “Nah. Too late now.” A flash of white caught his attention and he whipped around to stare at the tavern, its door swinging closed. “I think… I think I need a drink.” Tugging on his horse’s lead, he left the woman babbling about the best beer the tavern had, hidden in the back and only served to friends, though if he told them Maeve sent him…
By the time Crowley had quartered his horse in the stable and strolled to the tavern, he’d convinced himself that he’d imagined the glimpse of shining white cloth and that he’d simply given himself an excuse to start drinking before noon, not that he personally saw anything wrong with doing so. The moment he opened the door, however, his eye was drawn to a familiar figure, clothed in the luminous garment he’d seen earlier, sitting at a table with an empty bowl in front of him and grinning happily at him. With a sigh, Crowley shook his head, then whirled and stalked off, letting the door slam behind him.
It didn’t take long for the man in white to find him slouched against the wall behind the cobbler’s shop. “Crowley!” Aziraphale beamed at him, though to be honest, he couldn’t help it. Anything he did was bathed in radiance. “Good to see you, I must say.”
Crowley scanned the angel up and down, then tipped his glasses down his nose to get a better look. He squinted, then snapped the specs back in place. “You’re looking good.” He paused. “Shiny. You’re looking shiny.”
Aziraphale glanced down at himself, patting at his cotehardie self-consciously. “Yes. Well. Gabriel insisted. It’s something called a ‘dress code’, said we have to ‘act the part’, as it were. Sets customer expectations and all that.” He brightened, if that could be possible whilst wreathed in glowing white. “It’s a great motivator. Feeling good about yourself gives you energy and drive.” He managed to say the words whilst only sounding a tad like he’d read them off a cue card.
“Seems a bit dodgy to me. How are you supposed to concentrate on doing your job when you’re worrying about how you look?” Crowley looked down at his own attire, black on black, then shrugged. “I suppose it saves you spending on candles at night.”
“The tavernkeeper is bit testy about it. Says you can see the scum on the tables now.” Aziraphale glanced around, then leant closer. “To tell the truth, I feel a bit exposed like this. Everyone’s always looking. And I’ve gotten quite a number of enquiries about my tailor. Though,” and he grinned at the thought, “we do get to wear whatever we want on Fridays, as long as we keep to variations on basic white.”
“How generous.” He pushed off the wall and crossed his arms, sneering at the angel. “Aziraphale. Why are you here, of all places you could be?”
“Well, I do have sources, you know. Eyes and ears everywhere.” Aziraphale straightened his frock with a self-satisfied grin, like a child who had finally managed to keep a secret from his mother. “I’d heard plans to bring the Black Death to Suffolk, and I figured there’s really only one demon who’d get such an assignment.”
“So you came here to stop me,” Crowley groaned and threw his hands up in frustration. “I told you before, angel, we’re wasting our time here. Cancelling each other out.”
“Oh, I don’t think so.”
Crowley paced off then doubled back, ranting at the sky. “Well, you make sure you tell Gabriel and Michael and whoever that you stopped another of Hell’s great schemes. It’ll look great on your centennial review. Though this time you would have won if you’d stayed home. I was supposed to be here days ago, by last Sunday at the latest, so that the king would be exposed to it when he passed through today. I’m days late.” He kicked bitterly at a rock poking out of the dirt. “I think Dagon’s been itching for a chance like this to chain me down in Abaddon until the end times.”
“But you see, that’s why I came here -”
“To wish me a nice incarceration?” snarled Crowley. “‘Hope your conflagration’s warm and toasty?’ That’s lovely.”
Aziraphale waved a finger. “No, no. I did your little infection for you, on Sunday, just as they asked.”
Crowley whirled, unable to believe what he’d just heard. “You did?”
“Oh, yes,” the angel confirmed with a proud smile. “Well. You see, I’ve been thinking, about what you said in Wessex, and just now. We are wasting our time, aren’t we? It doesn’t help anybody if we’re just undoing what the other one does. And, well...” Aziraphale shut his mouth. He didn’t want to admit out loud that he’d known Crowley would be punished for this failure, mostly likely in a horrendously painful and eternal way, and that he couldn’t stand the thought.
For his part, the demon took the angel’s sentence where he thought it wanted to go. “And you want to set up an arrangement?”
Aziraphale jumped on the suggestion. “Yes! I believe so.” He ticked off the points on his fingers so that he didn’t have to look the demon in the black lens. “Stay out of each other’s way, help if it’s needed, and, well, make sure everything just goes along smoothly.” He leant in and murmured, “I knew you wouldn’t be able to extricate yourself from that peasant revolt in Cornwall in time for this, so I… well, I covered for you.”
Crowley stared at him. “By introducing the plague to this village.”
“Well, yes. Just a handful of cases, really.”
“You do know that it won’t stop here,” growled Crowley. He pointed out at the village. “It only needs a start. In a few weeks, everyone will be dead, and it’ll travel on to the rest of Suffolk.”
Aziraphale shook his head, still looking rather pleased with himself. “Oh, no, I don’t think so.”
“You don’t think so? This thing is already ravaging the rest of Europe!” The demon gaped at him, appalled. “Angel, what have you done?”
“Very little, actually. You see, it wasn’t the Black Death at all. Just a highly contagious form of influenza.” Leaning out, he peered around the corner of the shop at the gathering on the green. “It’s already spread quite well from the few cases I started. The whole village’ll probably be down in a few days and then done with it, and your King Edward may even have caught it. I made sure to get a good lot of the lord’s men.”
Crowley turned to follow his gaze. “That’s not good enough. My instructions were to bring the plague.”
“Just tell them you brought A plague. You needn’t specify exactly which one. As you’ve said, they won’t check.” He mimed writing on a clipboard, ending with a stylish swoop. “‘Brought plague to Suffolk. Exposed king.’ If your paperwork is anything like ours, there’s not enough space in the little boxes to write much more.”
Crowley smiled, the kind of smile with which a cat favours the bird caught in its claws, filled with sharp teeth and malicious pleasure. “You’re getting the hang of this.”
“I am not,” the angel insisted, turning his nose up at the suggestion. “I just have to be a little… well… creative, to fill out those reports adequately. Needs must when the…” Aziraphale swallowed the end of his sentence. “Well, we have to do what we have to do.”
“I won’t tell if you won’t.” Crowley nodded toward the tavern. “Lunch?”
“No, I don’t think so.” The angel seemed rather miserable to turn down the invitation. “I’m to be in Leeds by tomorrow morning, so I should get started now. And, honestly,” he leant in to confide, “I don’t think I could take much more of the food here. Three days now of watery stew and stale milk. I do hope the food on this island improves in the next few centuries.” He smiled. “Next time, perhaps.”
“Perhaps,” the demon mimicked.
“Goodbye, Crowley.” Aziraphale excused himself with a bow and stepped past. Crowley leant back against the wall, watching him as he walked back to the green and disappeared beyond the shop.
“God be with ye, angel.”