After the disposal of bodies last week, Edmund’s fate is tangled ever more closely, ever more inextricably with Slatina. Where will all the bloodshed end?
… I was exhausted beyond words, but the thought of those angels under the ground, kissing the earth with barely parted lips, sent such a sudden shiver of fear pulsating through me, that I hurried to snatch up my own candle, my own coat and spade and with Slatina striding ahead, the shadows chased me away to my chamber where I slept little and dreamed much.
Over the following days and nights my physical self kept once more to my chamber, though my mind roamed ceaselessly through the house and through time, revisiting the evening of the ball, that endless shift of flesh and morals. The scenes I had witnessed deformed further into nightmare, rendered even more grotesque and ugly than they had been in life. The music slipped into drunken, mocking ballads, the dancing into a contortion of limbs and lewd motion, the collapse of bodies towards the end … I tried not to dwell on, for even my jaded senses flinched at the debauchery of it.
Through these devilish nightmares of both waking and sleeping hours, still I shied from the crypt, as if the ball was boon and comfort to me compared to that.
Often I drew close, imagining myself walking the hallway as I had that night, Slatina’s narrow back leading, the globe of candlelight hovering as a Will-o’-the-Wisp before us, forever watchful, forever retreating. We would slip through that door into the narrow, web-strung stair and my back would grow stiff beneath the low ceiling, my legs weak with walking. The stairs seemed to progress forever – downward, downward – growing more chill by the moment until pearls of frost began to form on the webs, ice crusted treads threatening to end my suffering with a snapped neck.
Finally, we would reach the bottom. In my dreams the door to the crypt was always locked and that hook, that ominous hook that had so filled me with foreboding, grew big enough to skewer three pigs – or a man. Slatina would vanish, leaving me to shudder alone in that crooked shadow before the candle guttered out.
I am not in the habit of interpreting dreams – my mind is of the common sort, too simple for philosophical examinations of any kind – yet I knew the meaning of this. For of all the sins I have committed in my life, the cramped journey down that narrow stair was my own path to the frozen depths of Hell and that twin burial was as good as a hook, a snare that will keep me cursed long past the day Satan claims me as his own.
Then one morning, two occurences of great significance.
It was early, the sun still too pale to quest through the heavy drapery at the window, and even the Red Men were not yet about their work, leave alone their Master, for Slatina was a man of late habits, both on retiring and on rising.
Yet in that dawn stillness, some agitation passed through me, some knowledge that a thing of import was about to occur. I rose from my bed, leaving off my dressing gown to pace the room. This I did for a few minutes together, my feet padding from Turkey carpet to floorboards with hushes and whispers. Then a further knowledge descended upon me – that I must search.
And so I took to opening drawers, turning the clothes onto the floor, lifting carpets and looking beneath the bed. The room was frustratingly dark, so I rushed to fling back the curtains, pulling free several rings in my haste, so that the fabric hung in a loose bundle. I continued my search, growing frantic as I turned over the same pillow, opened the same drawer. Finally, I collapsed to the windowseat, staring disconsolately out at the cool, mist-heavy day.
It was then I saw it hanging from the catch, turning in the breeze that sneaked through the casement. It was a locket, the dimensions resembling the smallest imaginable prayer book, a gold frame decorated with leaves and tendrils of ivy surrounding a body of some unfamiliar dense metal. The body was etched over with leaves, but also nesting birds, butterflies, even a unicorn tangled in the boughs and all the most exquisite work I had ever seen.
I touched it, the little thing swinging gently. Lifting it free from the catch, I prised it apart with shaking fingers.
It opened on a central hinge revealing two panels, two tiny images painted in the most delicate hand with a brush as fine as a hair. The sight of these images made me gasp. For one was of a young woman dressed in pink satin and facing her another dressed in blue, both with the golden hair of cherubs, both staring out from their frames … at me.
It was as if my earth angels had returned to ensure I should never forget them. I watched, waiting for them to come to life, to speak, to gesture, condemning me for my act of desecration. But they did not move. They did not speak. They remained two painted, perfect creatures, staring from the wings of a beautifully wrought locket. And though it was not truly a jewel designed for any man, still it seemed right I should wear it, carry my crime close to my heart and I was sure God had put the thing there for me to find.
A hammering at the main door jolted me from my reverie. My nerves disarrayed beyond description, I tried to ignore the noise, believing it to be the butcher’s boy or the vintner come to settle his bill. Still the banging continued, incessant, unceasing, disturbing.
Finally, I could take the noise no longer and rushed from my chamber, hurrying down the stairs and to the hall. I flung wide the door, ready to curse whoever stood before me. But the sight stoppered my mouth, choking my words so I could do nothing but stare.
Frances Kindley stood on the step. She was much changed – her hair was tangled about her shoulders, her dress stained to the knee with filth from the street. The collar and one cuff of her dress were torn and she had a reddish blue mark on her cheek which I took to be the beginnings of a bruise.
‘Edmund,’ she whispered through cracked lips. ‘Please.’
At those words every hurt that had passed between us melted away. I was powerless to do anything but take her hand and lead her inside.