This is the fourth part in the story of Lord Edmund Spencer – look here to read parts one, two and three. Brought low by his gambling debts, Edmund is about to end his life, when he hears a banging at the door. There he finds a mysterious stranger.
He gave a bow, so low, so deep, it seemed his chest would touch the floor and as he stood he said,
‘My name is Niccolo Vintila de la Slatina. And the gift I have for you is myself.’
My first instinct was to laugh. There were many things of which I was in need – an over generous banker, a wine merchant who would allow me endless credit and never ask for payment. But an undernourished foreigner was one thing for which I had no use.
I believe he sensed my scorn and though part of me was beyond caring, longing only for the cold metal to press against my temple, the momentary scent of gun powder before the flintlock sent me to Hell, the other part of me was curious. Who was this man who walked the moors on the foulest of nights, with nothing but the clothes on his back, with no trunk, bag or money purse?
And how, moreover, did he know my name?
I had little to offer other than the lees of my sadly depleted claret, but he took it with a gracious nod, as if it was the finest vintage served in Murano glass.
‘Tell me Signore Slatina,’ I said. ‘What is it you believe you can offer me?’
He placed the glass carefully on the table, pulled at his cuffs – drifts of yellowed lace, that would have been out of fashion in my grandfather’s day – and spoke.
‘I learned that your fortunes had turned. I have skills which may be of use to you.’
I laughed. ‘Are you a conjuror? Can you cast a spell to return my lost goods, my sold lands? Can you bewitch my debtors into forgetting the bills of sale which I have forfeited?’
He smiled, shaking his head, the long brown curls swaying.
I waved my hand dismissively. ‘Then I fear you are of no use to me.’
The fire was dying in the grate and I had no wood with which to revive it. The shadows deepened, creeping from every corner, encrouching on me until the only brightness remaining was the halo of light about the candle, which itself flickered in a draft.
And so, it seemed this was my life – a pool of light ever shrinking, soon to be snuffed out.
Thunder cracked overhead, so close it shook soot from the chimney, dimming the fire yet further. Cold crept about me and I wished I had a blanket close by in which to huddle as an old man does when facing his final days.
My eyes drifted to the pistol.
‘You think it would be better to put the gun to your head?’
I had sunk so deep in melancholy, I had forgotten my guest. His soft, slithering voice made me jump to myself again.
I coughed, clearing my throat. ‘And would it not?’ I asked. ‘I have no wife, no heir. Such friends I had now cross the street when they see me approach, so shameful is my piteous state. Who would miss my passing except the men who want the coin I do not have?’
Slatina took a step toward the fire, crouching low before it, the last dull glow falling on his sharply angled features.
‘Have you been to war, Lord Edmund?’ he said, his voice no more than a hiss.
‘To my shame I have not.’
He tilted his head to one side, peering closely at me. ‘I have. Many times. I have stood on the battlefield, knee deep in mud as the trumpet sounds, as men stride into a hail of fire, are torn to bloody fragments by canon, cut by sabres.’
He leaned closer and only then did I sense it for the first time, the stench that I would associate with him ever after – the musty scent of the woods in Autumn, of mushrooms and moss. And rot.
‘When a canon ball hits a man he is no longer recognisable as such. A finger may remain a finger – a nose retain its bony bridge, a nostril its arch. But the man? The man who thought and breathed and laughed? He is so much meat.’
He leaned back, resting on his heels, fingertip on his temple. ‘And so it is with a pistol ball to the head. Your skull will shatter, your brain turn to posset. There will be so little of your face remaining, your wet nurse would not know you.’
He smiled, rising to his feet.
‘Let us leave such odious fates to warriors, Lord Edmund.’
I had the creeping notion then – and many times after – that Slatina had seen many corpses. He held out his hand to me, the lace sliding aside to reveal a wrist as slim and bony as a child’s.
‘Come,’ he said, gesturing for me to rise, to follow as he strode from the room back towards the hall and I, too tired to think, too dozy with wine, too slumped in my spirits to argue, reached for the candlestick, ready to follow. ‘We have no need of that,’ he called, leaving the room.
I hesitated, but did as I was bid, stumbling after him like a chick follows a hen.
As we walked I wondered at the strangeness of the night, for though the storm still raged above our heads and it was full dark outside, I was able to see everything about me quite clearly, where before all had been blackness.
At the door, Slatina stopped, turning that half moon smile on me once more.
‘Here is a promise,’ he said. ‘From this day on, I shall be ever by your side.’
With that he reached forward, turned the handle and flung wide the door.