It seems Peg Fair is lost and Edmund along with her. Can he save Frances before she is lost too? To read all previous instalments, see 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, twenty eight and twenty nine.
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.
Rising above Peg was that blackness, though it was more than a shadow in the night, more than the absence of light before the coming dawn. It was a hole in the world, an absence of kindness, a sucking, wrenching gateway to another world, a place damned eternally.
I stared into the void. I glimpsed an icy sea – frozen, yet in constant agitation – crashing against rocks of iron that bled red rusted water, flaked their crust like scabs. And creatures moved upon the rocks, haunted creatures, soulless eyes, deep and empty and without end, their pitiless claws scraping and grasping at the rocks, at each other.
But worse than all of this wretchedness was the feeling of hopeless anger, of hatred, as if every ounce of kind humanity had been stripped from that place, those creatures, ever to be forgotten.
And then the void closed, the pale grey light of dawn returned and with it a solid form, a form like and so unlike a man.
And I knew if I had not before, that all who were touched by this beast were doomed. That the creatures I glimpsed in that other realm were not of mere imagining, but real. That Frances and Samuel and myself would one day join them. Bereft of love. Of hope.
‘Edmund,’ said the Beast, sweeping a low bow. ‘You have returned as I knew you would. And you have brought something with you.’
With one smooth movement he scooped Peg up onto his shoulder, as effortlessly as if she was a poppet discarded after a child’s game. And as he did, she groaned. She was pale as ash, her head bruised from the fall … but alive.
With wary, bloodshot eyes, Slatina shot a glance at the rising sun. ‘Let us within. Make haste.’
It was perhaps the first time I had seen the man look any less than comfortable or furious and I took that small uncertainty in him and puzzled over it.
Slatina hurried inside, Samuel close on his heels. My brain turned feverishly. I had to get the girl from the house to safety, but how? In moments, she would be taken to Frances, submitted to an ordeal I could not bear to dwell on and then I felt a cold stone forming in my heart, a dreadful certainty about my future and my love’s that the dreadful vision of Hell had given me. Frances was damned. There was no saving her soul. If I saved her life now, more death would ensue, more innocents drained for Slatina’s puppets.
And I held my hand to my chest, made a pledge to the hammering of my own, feeble heart – no more shall die because of us.
If I was to keep my oath, I had to act quickly. Slatina was already striding up the stairs, nimble as a grasshopper, the girl’s head flopping up and down like a ragged doll. In moments they would be outside the chamber door. Moments more and Peg would be … I could not allow myself to think it.
I raced after the demon, catching his coat tails just as he reached the sick room.
He stopped, a momentary irritation crossing his features, before his face relaxed into a sly smile. ‘Of course, my friend. You wish to deliver your prey yourself. The hunter proudly home.’
He dropped Peg to the floor and it was all I could do to stop from wincing at the sound of her head hitting the floor. He gave a bow then, so low and long I felt the mockery of it deep within my bones.
‘The prize is yours to give,’ he said.
As I made to carry the girl within, he took me roughly by the shoulder, squeezing so hard I believed I might snap under his grip. ‘Do not think to best me, Edmund.’ His breath came hot against my cheek. ‘You are weak, a worm in human form. You will never best me.’
And so, with his words of sure defeat echoing in me, Peg and I entered the room.
The stench was too dreadful to describe. It was the stink of a decay, of a body someway to putrefaction and it was with a dread weight of fear upon me that I laid Peg gently upon the hearth rug and approached the sick bed.
The curtains were pulled to, shutting out the day, the room lit by just a single candle stub on the night stand, spilling its meagre light on the head of the occupant. I could not believe my senses as I drew near, for such a change had come about my dear girl, I could hardly reckon her for the person she had once been.
Her lids were closed, the skin so tight against her eyes, it seemed they might no longer be capable of opening. The cheeks were sunken, yellowed hollows, the lips pale and thin. All vigor and colour had left her and her flesh seemed to have shrunk about her skull, as of her life’s fluid was leaking away. I sat beside her, taking the bony hand in mine.
‘My Frances,’ I whispered and at the sound, the lids did lift a little, the lips part in an attempt at a smile.
It is my conviction that she uttered my name then. It may be a delusion on my part, but if so it is a happy one that sustains me in this darkest of places and it is one which I have no desire to find corrected.
I leaned in low, then, hoping that she might yet hear me. ‘I hate to see you thus. I wish with all my heart, with the very essence of my being that I might have saved you. But I cannot see another die for this evil curse which has befallen us.’
I knew what I must do – believed it was the right thing, the decent thing, the Christian thing – but still there was a part of me, a selfish part that yearned for her to live in any way possible, that could not bear the thought of the world without her. I squeezed her hand as much as her frailty would allow, praying she would understand.
‘I must save this girl if I can. And in doing so, I must leave you. Frances. Do you hear me?’
It was too much to hope that I might have her blessing, that she might send me hence with a full, loving heart. For we both knew what my departure would mean for Frances herself. She smiled a little more I think and all I could hope that this was understanding, a sweet assent at our parting, at her own departure from the Earth.
I could not leave her. But more so, I could not stay and with every moment that passed, Slatina would grow more impatient and I might be discovered. I bent low then, pressing my lips to hers for the last time in this mortal form, wishing, praying that we might yet be worthy of mercy and be reunited in the next life.
Pulling away from her, I left her hand to drop to the counterpane. Lifting Peg from the rug, I turned my back on Frances.
I must write this last, reader. That through all these long days and nights she has never – and will never – be far from my mind.