The Gong-Farmer's Daughter
by Kat Otis
Only a few fading splotches of paint remained on the rotting townhouse's front door, but
whenever Lidea Stockwell saw them, she couldn't help remembering how the door had looked
the day she and her family were sealed inside to live or die as God willed. The dull red of the
quarantine cross had reminded her of drying blood, while the prayer written above it made her
want to scream to the heavens. Lord have mercy upon us. Plague had been ravaging London for
over a year, ever since old Queen Bess died and a Scotsman took the throne. By now, it should be
clear to everyone that God had no mercy in his heart, not for them.
Lidea paused outside the door and scratched away another few flakes of paint. She had
been working to erase the cross, bit by bit, every time she passed by. The childish part of her
half-hoped that when it was finally gone, she would wake and discover the past year had been
erased with it. The part of her that was fourteen--almost a woman grown--would settle for just
having her father re-emerge from his own grief. Unfortunately, the one was no more likely to
happen than the other. Sighing, she steeled herself against the coming arguments and opened the
It was dark and dank inside, and the stench of death lingered everywhere. Lidea wasted
no time in hurrying up the stairs to the third floor, trying her best to ignore the emptiness of the
chambers she passed along the way. While she and her father had survived, the house's other
tenants all died with her mother and brothers. No one had yet been desperate enough to take
leases in a former plague house, especially not one with a resident gong-farmer.
Her father was where she had left him, sprawled across his lumpy mattress. The rest of
the eel pie she'd bought from the chandler's sat untouched on the table, but he'd apparently gotten
up long enough to acquire a jug of beer so strong she could smell it from across the room.
"That's not small beer, is it?" Lidea demanded.
"Ish good beer." Her father took another swig from the jug. "Veeeeeery good beer."
Lidea snatched the jug from his hands, dismayed to find it was almost empty. He grabbed
after it, clumsily, but she evaded him and fled to the window, where she pushed open the crooked
shutters and dumped out what little beer remained.
"Blood and nailsh!" Her father lurched to his feet and staggered towards her. Within two
steps, he'd thrown off the effects of the beer enough to find his balance again. Three more steps
and his hands were steady enough to snatch back the now-empty jug. "That was expensive!"
"Well, then you're throwing our money away!" Lidea shouted. Spending their precious
few coins on beer was a waste. One of their long-ago ancestors had gone to the Holy Land and
returned blessed so that his four bodily humours would always remain in perfect balance. No
drink could intoxicate him for long and no disease could kill him, not even the dreaded plague.
That blessing had passed down the generations in an unbroken line of fathers to daughters and
mothers to sons, ending with her father and with her.
"I was trying to get drunk!" Her father turned the jug upside down, seeking in vain for a
few last drops, then flung it onto the bed in disgust.
"You're done trying for now," Lidea said, scowling. "We have a job tonight--a house
near Gray's Inn."
Her father matched her expression. "There is no we. I have a job."
"You don't even know which house it is." Lidea went to the chest where she'd stored her
dead brothers' clothes. Nicholas's breeches still fit her well enough, though she had to wear them
with one of Richard's larger doublets. "Besides, I've seen their cesspit. It's practically
overflowing. You can't clean it out alone." He'd more likely drown himself. And while that
would certainly end his troubles, she refused to lose the last parent she had.
"You're my daughter," her father said, firmly, as if that ought to end the discussion.
Lidea began pinning up her hair, the better to hide it under one of Thomas's old hats. "I'm
all you've got left. Now are you eating your half of that pie, or should I finish it off?"