Edmund has been south of the river to visit a disreputable old friend who gave him a mysterious piece of advice. Will he continue along the dark path he’s chosen or is there some point of light ahead?
To read more of Edmund’s adventures through misfortune, read below.
One, two, three, four, five, six , seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty one, twenty two, twenty three, twenty four, twenty five, twenty six, twenty seven and twenty eight.
Noah pressed close to me, his breath of aniseed and clove bathing my face. ‘You have fallen into the darkest company, Edmund. I felt you lost before, but now …’ He shook his head. ‘All I can say is this. Know who you are. Embrace it, no matter how dark, no matter how squalid. Only then will you triumph over this terrible evil.’
He pushed me away then, my mind spinning with his words, lost as to their meaning.
The journey back to Frances was dismal in the extreme. My senses were taut as bowstrings, every plop on the great, sluggish expanse of the Thames sounded out loud as a shot, every splash of oars like a blow on a bare skull.
In the wherry Samuel hunkered low, a shadow only keeping to himself. The waterman and the girl were likewise silent, the only life being the movement of the oars and the boat lamp’s flicker. I might have been cast adrift on the Styx for all the warmth and feeling travelling with me that night.
We retraced our journey back to Samuel’s villa and as we did so it seemed to me an altogether different journey occurred too. For as we walked, each of us drifting in our own thoughts, I turned over the night’s events, what burden would soon lay heavy upon me and it was as if tenterhooks drew at me, pulling at my heart, my stomach, stretching me until my meat would surely snap. For if I did not give that poor hare-shotten child over, Frances would surely die and if I did …
I had not spoken to the girl since leaving the Dog and Bear. There was some part of me that did not wish to know her – not her name, not her history or how she had come to serve bad ale for Old Noah. For the more I knew the more difficult it would be to do what must be done.
But as we drew into Samuel’s district her silent melancholia slipped away, replaced by an agitation as if she was somehow aware that all was not well. She began to walk more slowly, drawing away from the deepest shadows, clinging to the rare pools of light cast by the dim glow of candles as we past one house and another.
‘My Ma was a shocker.’
The words came clear in the still night, though I was unsure to whom they were addressed.
‘Free with her fists. Free with a club too when the moon was on her.’
We stumbled on, neither Samuel or I speaking a word.
‘I was not meant long for this world.’
There was no self-pity there. Merely a statement, a truth uttered spun with trepidation.
‘That was what Ma said. Cursed by a hare, caught with one foot in this world and one in the other. She said I should never walk in the night alone, that if I did the Fair Folk would claim me. But I been far – from Dorsetshire to London and all the way to Suffolk one time – and I never saw sign of magic in this world. Only people doing good for others and doing bad for their own sake.’ She spoke quickly, as if she meant to say her piece before she could no longer speak at all. ‘Have you seen the Fair Folk, sir?’
The girl had been walking ahead of me a few paces. Now she stopped, turned her eyes to mine and for the first time I realised what a kind face she had, what a clear, trusting expression.
A bolt of lightning might have struck me through from pate to boots. This girl was so young, no older than Frances when first we met. She was no Flitting sister, no thief or vagabond, only a poor man’s daughter caught in the South Bank’s web of drink and fleshmongery. And I was to give her over as one might a lamb to the knife?
‘Peg Fair, Old Noah called me,’ she smiled a twisted little smile. ‘Though not on account of the Faerie. He was teasing on account of my lip, the thing that snatched from me what beauty I might have owned.’ She was so slight, her shoulders so narrow and they shivering in the chill of early morning.
And at that I knew all was lost. For how could I give her over? Peg. Poor, lost Peg, cast off by her family, taunted by a dead old man, left to die at the hands of devils. I loved my Frances. I loved her with all my heart, my soul, my marrow. But she was ever kind and I could not believe she would have ended this girl for her sake.
At last I was pushed to action. We were but fifty paces from Samuel’s door, fifty paces from that demon made flesh Slatina. Any closer and Peg would be lost. If I was to save the child I must do it and quickly.
I gripped her hand, pulled her to me. ‘You must flee. Return to your mother, to the countryside. Anywhere.’ I felt the pockets of my coat, pulled free a handful of coins. ‘Take this. Do not return to the Dog and Bear.’
Either she had not seen the coins or had not heard the urgency of my words, for she pulled against my grip, her face a mask of terror.
‘Hush, child. Hush.’ I whispered. I could not risk Samuel hearing, for I knew not whether he would aid or hinder my endeavours. ‘Hush!’ I exclaimed.
My harsh tone must have alarmed her, for she screamed then. I pulled her to me, tried to cover her mouth, to stop the sound from escaping. But she fought and fought, terrified of this evil man who had captured her.
I saw Samuel turn, saw him walk towards me. In my fear I made one last attempt to pull her away. But though she was slight she was clearly used to fighting and she clawed at my face, at my eyes and in my shock I released her. She made to run and for a moment – one sweet, short moment of hope – I thought she might yet escape.
Then something fell from the sky and the world was blackness. There came a sound like a flag snapping in the wind and the black resolved into a man. I saw a pale hand reach out, grip Peg’s wrist and she fought no more.