What has become of Edmund? Is he alive or passed onto the great beyond? Read on to find out and it if you’d like to catch up on his previous trials, 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, twenty nine, thirty. and thirty one.
As more blows fell and more, I knew I was to die. As I sunk into the pain, there were but two thoughts that haunted me; that I had failed to save the girl.
And that Slatina yet lived.
Darkness took my hand.
Time passed, a kaleidoscope of light and darkness, harsh voices snatching me from unconsciouness merely for me to plunge back into that dark silence. I had a sense of movement, of the city’s streets, gables close above me, but Frances was by my side throughout, by some miracle returned to full health, her smile radiant as the sun at Midsummer. I reached for her hand but she was ever beyond my reach, dancing ahead of me, a May fly on the breeze.
You’re home, Edmund, she whispered, sliding beyond my reach, slipping away from me as my eyes slowly opened.
It took a moment to realise, I was indeed home. The same dark curtains, pulled tight across the shutters. The same scent of beeswax and dust. And a shadow beside me, straight shouldered, the waist slender and tapered, fingers working a needle into a circle of fine cloth. There she was, my girl, my Frances. God had looked upon that ghastly sickroom, at the depraved state of that house and the deeds committed there and he had seen there was one deserving of his mercy. He had plucked my love to safety.
I made so many vows in those few moments – to keep her ever safe by my side thereafter, to always protect her, to never allow a single harm to befall her as long as I was fit to do so. And even if the Lord should take me to him first, to protect her with my spirit through the years of her ageing until we were reunited beyond.
All this I promised through fevered, grateful tears … Until the young woman beside me raised her head at my weeping and I saw with true eyes that the fair hair was of a darker hue, that the hands were roughened by work, the shoulders narrowed and hunched by poor diet. That it was not Frances at all, but Peg Fair who sat vigil over me.
Is it possible for a broken heart to break anew? If so I believe mine cracked further still in that moment, that a fissure widened inside me, threatening to tear my frame in two. I wept.
Sleep must have taken me, for when I next woke, a candle was alight on my nightstand, the shadows long and threatening across the chamber walls, the clenched fists of a storm beating the house. A figure was seated in the chair beside me, but this I could not mistake for Frances. Samuel sat, gaunt and hollow eyed, his face a mask of fear and exhaustion.
‘I did not know whether to stir you,’ he said. ‘You have been two days in a fever which I feared might take you. And all the while they beat at the door.’
Only now did I realise, the noise I heard upon waking was no storm, but fists threatening to break through the wood and crack the hinges. A mahogany clothes press and a blanket box, a heavy chair that usually remained in the far corner by the window, all furniture of weight had been placed against the door.
Samuel sunk his head into his hands. ‘I could not think where else to bring you where you might recover. Now I have doomed us all.’
‘Who is without, Samuel?’
Peg stepped from the shadows of the window into the candlelight. ‘It’s those red devils, sir.’
With some difficulty I pulled myself upright. ‘The Red Men? It is the Red Men who beat at the door?’
But of course, who else would it be but those blank, soulless creatures. Had I been lying there senseless for days, the Red Men scraping like hounds after the fox as I slept?
‘Where is Slatina? Where is their master?’
Samuel merely shook his head. ‘No sign of him. Just the interminable knocking.’
My exhausted mind struggled to make sense of everything. Slatina must know that Samuel would have brought me back to the house and if he did not I was sure the Red Men would have sent a message alerting him to our presence. Why, then, was Slatina not the one hammering at the door? How was it we were all still alive?
It was then the words of Old Noah came to my mind… Know who you are. Embrace it, no matter how dark, no matter how squalid … I had to know the full answer to a question which had battered at my mind, that I had tried to push to the darkest corners of my soul.
My fingers gripped the locket about my neck. Trembling, I opened its metal doors and gazed upon the likenesses there. Still the Earth Angels shone, bright and beautiful as stars. ‘Tell me truthfully what the potraits in the locket signify.’
Samuel gave me a look of the utmost misery. He clutched his own locket as he said, ‘Slatina gives one to each of his subjects to remind them.’
It pained him to tell me, but I had to know. ‘Remind them of what?’
‘He says we must always remember what we are. That we must not delude ourselves that we are decent.’ He swallowed, looked me full in the eye. ‘They are likenesses of our first kill.’
Had I known it all along? On that night of the ball, the night I buried the Earth Angels, was there some part of me that remembered my part in their deaths? I felt it now. Felt my mind, intoxicated by that night of debauchery, of the shedding of civilised conduct, overwhelmed by the most horrifying needs. Had I been under Slatina’s influence when those two young women died? Yes, of that I was sure. But perhaps all he had done was reveal my true self. Set free the killer hiding within.
Then it was as if the whole house shook beneath the hammering of a giant fist. Glass shook and shattered in the casements, glittering to the floor, the furniture barricade shook, fell, wood splintering under the impact. The bed quaked beneath me, Peg stumbled, cried out, falling against the wall and to the rug. Just as I felt sure the house would break apart around us, all was still.
I heard weeping and saw Samuel was on the floor, curled tightly upon himself, body shuddering with sobs. This was the only sound, as a voice reached through the chamber door.
‘Enough of this, Edmund.’ Slatina, his voice calm. ‘You hold no high moral ground here. You are no better than Samuel, pathetic as he is. No better than I.’
The sound of movement told me he drew closer to the door as he said, ‘We are killers all.’
It was true, but still I could not succumb, would not sink beneath the black waves of the life Slatina wished for me.
He must have guessed my thoughts, for then he said, ‘Perhaps someone closer to your heart can persuade you.’
Then came another voice, familiar and yet one whose distance in recent times had plunged a dagger of yearning in my chest.
‘Edmund. Come to me.’