The Devil of Moravia : I could not leave, I could not stay

 

 

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.

Onetwothreefour, fivesix , seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelvethirteen, 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.

Slatina.

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.

‘Slatina!’

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.

 

 

The Devil of Moravia : Old Noah, via Dead Man’s Lane

River, lights, nighttime

Image : Pixabay

Edmund has a race against time to save Frances … and endangers his very soul to do so. To read his previous adventures, see below.

Onetwothreefour, fivesix , seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelvethirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty one, twenty two, twenty three, twenty four, twenty five and twenty six.


… ‘Fortunately, I enjoy the company of you and your friends and wish to keep it for a long, long time. So go and I shall watch your Frances. Take Samuel with you. I would not wish you to come to any harm and the man is so wonderfully useful in matters of violence.’

And so it was Samuel and I went forth on our dreadful mission. To entrap an innocent to their bloody fate so that my love might live.

Dusk was falling as we ventured into the street, and a fine rain was falling with it, misting the air with a warm dampness that soon gathered into glittering beads on our lashes. At first neither of us uttered a word, for there was an air about Samuel’s house, a shadow so black and fearful that it occluded all attempts at conversation. It was not until we had walked over half a mile that Samuel spoke.

‘I was ever a bad man, Edmund.’

This much of his character was self-evident, so I made no further commment.

He continued. ‘But I only ever took what others were willing to give. What was owed me.’

As this was so clearly a falsehood, I made no reply. He seemed about to say more, but then we heard the crowing – loud as a hundred dawns – from the cock pit at Whitehall and he sank once more into a festering silence. The Thames wallowed before us wreathed in vapours and when we reached the narrow flight that is Whitehall Stairs the treads were slippery with grease and rain, but I glimpsed the waterman’s lamp as we approached the jetty and we were soon boarded on a wherry, wrapped in blankets, scudding downriver, enveloped by the tang of the city’s heart.

No more speech passed between us as we eased into the pull and pause of the boat. But as we alighted at Tooly Stairs by London Bridge and watched the waterman ease away with his next fare, Samuel spoke again.

He laid his hand upon my arm, staying my progress from the river to the dark, matted maze of Southwark. ‘You have not asked me,’ he said.

There had been no linksman waiting at the Stairs. All I could see of my companion was what the night was willing to reveal to me and that was a hollowed man, a man of deep eye sockets and deeper sorrows.

‘What am I to ask you?’

He fussed at his neck with trembling fingers. ‘You know some of Frances’ tale, how you and she are linked. But I carry my own burden.’

It was dark, the only light was that which reflected from the river and its bobbing cargoes, but still I knew what he held forth in his fingers. A rectangle of dark metal hung upon a silver chain. I knew he wished to tell me all, to share the weight of his horrors with another soul who might show him a little of what Slatina never could – pure, human pity. It was all I could do not to strike the man where he stood, not to curse and spit on him for all the tragedies that now befell my Frances. For surely, if she had not fallen under his spell then she would not be lying in that bed, turning to a living shade.

I held up my hand as if to fend him off. ‘Do not speak to me. I will not hear it.’ I shook him off then, heading away from the water. ‘We must find Old Noah. He will have what we need.’

It is with shame I admit those low, dank streets are second home to me. Dead Man’s Lane, Crucifix Lane, Dirty Lane, all as well known to me as the flecks and markings of my own cheek, and any man who passes through the Borough wishing to taste its dubious delights must deal with Old Noah or else be washed up on the foreshore, a curiosity for the mudlarks to chuckle over.

We walked to the Dog and Bear through the pits and pools of the tanneries, our eyes stinging, throats burning from the stench and rot. Under the low, dripping eaves we passed, below a drooping thatch so blackened with smoke from the mills it seemed to weep ink.

On the threshold of the inn, Samuel took my arm again, the locket clutched tightly in his palm. He gave me such a beseeching look, a look of such worldly pain, I could not help but be moved.

‘Who were they?’

He shook his head sorrowfully. ‘I think perhaps the girl was named Esther. Though it may have been Sarah. I have it in my mind it was a name from one of the Testaments. The other …’ Tears welled in his eyes. ‘I cannot remember, Edmund. And when I am in my senses that thought pins me through more than any other. That I do not know his name.’ He looked about him.  ‘They were young, alone, unworldly. Innocents come to this ungodly hole. They wept, Edmund. Clutching at these hands, begging me for mercy. They were so afraid.’

‘What happened to them?’

‘What happens to all who fall in Slatina’s web. Death. What else is there?’

I thought of that cupboard with its terrible hoard. ‘How long … How often?’

He held up a trembling hand to silence me. ‘I cannot say how many have died for us. Only that I am too weak, too afraid of pain not to kill again.’ He gripped my hand then, pulling me to him. ‘Release Frances from this agony, Edmund. Leave her to starve, to die.’

He smelled of hung game, warm and meaty. I forced him away, pushing wide the door and walked into the inn.

‘Better to let her die,’ he called after me, ‘than for her to live with what she has become.’

But all I could think of was her hand in mine. Of somehow freeing her from her curse. Of killing Slatina.

 

What pegman saw : All’s quiet in the Brazen Head

Dublin courtesy Google Maps

Dublin courtesy Google Maps


 

‘Will you sit, Tom?’ Pat was there as arranged, toying with his pipe, filling the bowl with threads of chestnut tobacco.

Tom nodded, chose the stool beside him. Both men wanted their backs to the wall.

Pat worked the pipe, tamped and lit it, drew the smoke deep and long before exhaling. A slattern wiped dregs of ale from tables and benches with a filthy cloth. An old man was slumped at the bar, snores rumbling through the wood. Too quiet for Tom’s likiing. He preferred a crowd, a melee to be lost in.

He felt something brush his knee, felt the package in its oil cloth wrappings and his pulse raise with the holding of it.

Pat winked. ‘Mind how you go.’

With the package under his coat, Tom stepped back into the hive of Lower Bridge Street, back into the melee.

 


Reading more about the Brazen Head, I learned it has been a meeting place not only for thinkers and writers but also revolutionaries, so I thought I’d conjure a couple of the latter.

Written for What pegman saw, a prompt using Google Streetview. See here to join in and to read the other tales.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Friday Fictioneers : A mournful song of home

PHOTO PROMPT © Jennifer Pendergast

PHOTO PROMPT © Jennifer Pendergast


 

Moonlight broke into a thousand bright strips on the rolling ocean. The lamps had been lit, the smell of burning whale oil mixing with pipe tobacco and brine. From somewhere came the rasp of a squeeze box, a mournful song of home.

‘Do we have a heading, Mr Harrison?’ Captain Nash looked flushed even in the dim light, the smell of brandy seeping from him. A good man, if not a sober one.

Harrison stared down at the compass, broken in the storm. He shook his head.

Nash nodded and lumbered away. ‘Mr Guinea! Extra grog ration for every man.’

 


Written for Rochelle Wisoff-Field’s Friday Fictioneers. See the pic and write a story. See here to join in and to read the other tales.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A village spun in glass

Glass blowing

Image : Pixabay

 

Even the most generous hearted would describe John Allcott as a difficult man.

He was a bachelor, his cottage rundown, the thatch ragged as tangled hair and more than one argument was had over his overflowing cesspit which he refused to have emptied on account of an argument with the night soil man Henry Baddick over a spilled pint of ale and a ruined kerchief.

Yes, Allcott was a drinker, such a regular in his customary seat at the Bird in the Hand – tucked in the inglenook, back to wall, staring into his glass with such malevolent looks one would suppose beer was like bitter aloes to him – the landlord joked the building had been constructed with his crooked back supporting the beams, knees tucked beneath him, strong as a stone buttress.

He eschewed human company, the only words he passed were to his brindle greyhound Rab, a creature as gnarled and evil tempered as himself. Allcott snarled when greeted, tumbled curses on bonny newborns, beribboned newlyweds and crisp spring mornings. Nothing pleased him.

Yet though this most cliff-faced of men dispensed only loathing and dark ugliness in his manner, his hands could create untold beauty. For John was a glass worker and could spin the molten substance into such glittering, glorious bottles and goblets that the wealthy and noble from four counties would travel to the village to possess his work. And as examples of how fine his eye was, how elegantly controlled his hand, he had created a model of every villager in coloured glass which he displayed along the sills of his workshop windows, each figure extraordinary in its spare lines, encompassing the stance and outline of a person and making them instantly recognisable.

Even the night soil man Henry Baddick said of his own likeness, ‘Tis canny,’ this being the highest compliment the man could give.

In fact, it was through Henry that John Allcott’s secret was revealed.

For one day Henry was at his job as usual, cart blocking the lanes, stinking like a plague pit in the August heat, the next he vanished, his horse found wandering Church Road snaffling dandelion heads, cart behind it still half filled with waste.

A search was made, but no Henry was found.

It was only when the blacksmith Ben Tawdle visited his privy to relieve himself of the previous day’s steak and ale pie that Henry was found, head down in the little wooden shack at the bottom of a cabbage patch, drowned in what the Tawdle family had left behind.

And it was only the day after that a sharp-eyed child by the name of Natty Hawksmoor, whilst spying for her own glass form, noticed that the muddy brown figurine of Henry Baddick was gone, leaving only a circle of clean sill behind …

The Devil of Moravia : When death has chased away life

Grave stone skullls

Image : Pixabay

Dark deeds are afoot at Moorfield and Edmund is being sucked into something darker than he could ever imagine …

See here to catch up with the story so far – One, two, three, four, fivesix , seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelvethirteen , fourteen and fifteen.


 

‘They are dead.’ His words were plain, brutal in their honesty.

And so the spell was broken. The fairy princesses were banished to sleep eternal in their magical kingdoms but we remained, the Moravian and I.

In a crypt, in my home, two slain young women at our feet.

Slatina rose, black silhouette smothering all warmth and light from the candles. ‘We must think very carefully on this,’ he said.

‘Carefully?’ I was shivering, though the perspiration stood on my skin in proud beads. ‘You must send one of your men for the constable. No, no, it will take time to prepare a horse. Perhaps quicker to take one of the carriages and -‘

He laid a hand on my arm. ‘I say we must think carefully.’

‘We must act! Have you listened for their breathing? Perhaps, perhaps there is a chance -‘

His lips curled into a sneer. ‘You are a man not a child. You surely recognise when Death has chased away life.’

Of course I saw His bony hand at work. My mother, my father, three siblings – all had died in the chambers above our heads, all taken by fever or fits or as they slumbered and all had worn that same frigid mask.

My shoulders dropped, the weight of the catacomb seeming to press upon me. ‘But how …?’

Again, he crouched beside them, laid gentle fingers on the throat of the girl in the blue gown. I flinched at the sight. To think of touching her … The colour of his skin matched hers, the only thing telling them apart were the veins – those darkly twisting ropes of blood – that stood from the backs of his hands. He fussed a moment at her neck, then with the tenderness of a lover, nudged aside her lace choker to reveal a dark line. I stared at him uncomprehendingly as he rose, walked around the bodies then crouched beside the girl in the pink gown, revealing a matching line. I stood by, a dumb slab of a man, watching him at his careful work.

Finally, he gave me a pitying smile. ‘Bring your candle.’

I did as I was bid, kneeling beside him with the guttering flame. Light played on the sheen of her dress, made the skin under her chin flicker as if alive with a pulse.

‘Look again,’ he said.

A fine line – no wider than a hair – encircled her throat from one side to the other. I saw then an oval smudge, as if a thumb had been dipped in red ink and pressed against the flesh …

The candlestick fell from my grasp, the flame winked out. I fell, hit the ground, hands and feet scrabbling over the grit and stone, pushing me away until I fell on my back, winded, terrified, staring.

‘Murder.’ The word fell from my lips, the echo chasing me from column to arch to column, until it seemed a hundred voices called the word over and anew.

Jack Golding was slain a few days before, but that was an accident and he a thief whose fate had long been to die drowned in blood. The same could not be said for these poor creatures. Somewhere a mother would be watching the creeping of a clock’s hands, wondering what frivolities had kept her daughters so late from their home …

‘They must not be found, Edmund.’

I could make no sense of his words. ‘They have been found,’ I blustered. ‘You found them.’

‘Others must not find them here. Others must not know.’

‘But the constable …’ My hand rose shakily to my lips. ‘We must discover who has committed this dreadful -‘

‘And what will you tell your constable?’ A hardness had crept into his voice, a steel edge I had not often heard from him. ‘That they were killed in your home? While you and your friends were dancing and laughing and …’

His meaning hit me like a stone to the heart. All of it was true. Everything I had thought – hoped – I had dreamed was crushing reality.

He stood above me now, suddenly taller than I had thought him. ‘Such baseness will not go unpunished, not if this crime is uncovered. And what of yourself?’

My heart thumped in my ears. ‘What of me?’

‘Why, you were missing half the evening …’

An icicle of panic stabbed my chest. ‘No, no, I was in the ballroom …’

He waved a thin hand in the air. ‘None saw you. It was commented upon.’

And with that I knew I was ruined. A scandalous ball held at the home of a disgraced Lord, organised by a foreign prince, the result the murder of two beautiful young women … This time there would be more than creditors hauling away my belongings, clawing after the home that had been my family’s for generations. This time there would be gaol and a trial … The gallows.

I stared at the bodies, at that stockinged foot. I was lost, truly lost and perhaps that is the only small excuse for what I said next. ‘Help me, Slatina. What must I do?’

He scuffed the floor with his shoe. ‘This part of the floor is flagstones. But on other side is dirt. I shall fetch spades and we shall dig.’

‘Bury them here? Without ceremony. Without prayers?’ The thought was too awful, a fate befitting only the most wretched killers and suicides.

He shrugged. ‘You may say some prayers if you wish, but they will not hear them.’

He offered me his hand to help me stand, but still I could not take my eyes from them.

‘Do you know …?’ I could hardly ask, hardly bear to hear the answer. ‘Do you know who they were?’

‘What does it matter who they were?’ He grasped my hand, pulling me roughly to my feet. ‘Now they are empty vessels to be disposed of.’

And so began a night of the cruellest horrors.

 

 

The Devil of Moravia: Banished to sleep eternal

Cellar brick archesImage : Pixabay

Last time, Edmund was reunited with an old friend and lost himself in the pleasures of the Moorfield ball. But all is not well for our confused nobleman …

See here to catch up with the story so far – One, two, three, four, fivesix , seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelvethirteen and fourteen.


 

‘Edmund, you must come.’

Suddenly cross at the interruption, at the spoiling of my moment of triumph, I tried to shrug him off, but his grip persisted and something about his face made me pause.

‘What is it?’

‘There has been an accident.’

His voice dropped so I struggled to hear it above the clomp of feet.

‘A terrible accident.’

For a moment I seemed lost again, uncertain of what was reality and what fiction, my logical mind struggling with what I had seen and experienced. Under the hard gaze of a thousand candles, the finest flowering of London society had cavorted, pleasuring themselves with no more thought to their decency and reputation than lunatic swineherds and deranged milkmaids at a common bacchanal.

Now this dark Moravian had hold of me, his fingers like hot pincers nipping my flesh, and for the first time of our acquaintance I realised I knew nothing certain of the man or his supposed credentials as a Prince and nobleman. Could I even know if Slatina was his real name?

Still, his fixed scowl, his  agitated state – his very grip – impressed on me the urgency of the the matter and so I left the life and sparkle of the ballroom and followed him.

Soon we were away from the hubbub of guests, through the entrance hall, heading in the direction of the servants’ quarters, finally passing through a blank grey door which I did not recognise and could not be certain I had ever seen in all my years of living there.

From somewhere Slatina had procurred two candlesticks, one of which he handed to me as we reached the top of a dark, dusty stair. ‘Take care,’ he said, ‘the way is treacherous.’

And so it was. The treads were shallow – hardly deep enough to place the whole of one’s foot – the height of each step uneven, varying from one to the next to such a degree, that I had to bring my entire mind to bear merely on walking. More than once I tripped, thrust out my hand to save myself from falling headlong, the terror of taking Slatina with me, dashing out our brains on the floor below, all consuming.

The way was low and narrow, strung over with webs and crumbling, ashy mortar and I wondered again whether I was indeed asleep and in the grip of some fantastical dream. Finally, we reached the bottom, a flagged space just a few feet square and ahead a lime washed door.

Above us, casting a shadow like a crooked finger in the candle light, was a large hook, the type a butcher might use to hang meat. That hook disturbed what calm was left me, turning my head to thoughts of blood and pain and sightless staring eyes. It was with relief that we passed beneath it, through the door to the chamber beyond.

And now a most surprising thing, for we did not pass into the cramped and blinded cellar I was expecting, but into a vast space, the ceiling vaulted in great arches of stone and plaster with noble columns in every direction and all with the look of the finest Gothic undercroft.

For a moment, I was lost in pleasure at the sight, for someone had placed candles in the sconces so that walls and floor, arches and columns flickered, dreamlike. How, in all my childish wanderings, had I never discovered such a glory as that? I thought to share this with Slatina when I realised he was no longer by my side.

Then I remembered his sense of urgency, the seriousness of his expression and hastened to find him. There he was, standing a few feet away, staring at the base of a broad column that was as twisted as a cane of barley sugar.

‘Why have you brought me -‘ I followed his gaze, saw what had brought us to that place.

I discerned their faces first, heads tilted towards each other as if exchanging a whispered secret. Two sleeping princesses as in a fairy tale, their eyes closed, skin pale and waxen, fair, curled hair, ringlets intertwining. One wore a gown of shimmering oyster pink, the other was the pale blue of a duck’s egg, the cloth dusty but neatly arranged about their limbs. They were so alike, a glass might have been placed between them, only the colour of their bodices and over skirts showing one was not the reflection of the other.

My mind could not grasp the sense of the scene, nor why two young ladies should permit themselves to be lain on the flags, dirtying their attire. I was about to force Slatina aside, to offer my hands to help the fallen maidens to their feet … When I noted again the waxen tone of their skin, their stillness. One was missing a shoe.

‘Slatina.’ My voice was hoarse. It echoed oddly under the arches, seeming to return louder, hoarser still. ‘Slatina, what has happened here?’

He crouched, placing the candlestick on the flags by the barley sugar column. The flame danced over their faces, bringing a glow to their cold skin.

‘They are dead.’ His words were plain, brutal in their honesty.

And so the spell was broken. The fairy princesses were banished to sleep eternal in their magical kingdoms but we remained, the Moravian and I.

In a crypt, in my home, two slain young women at our feet.

Slatina rose, black silhouette smothering all warmth and light from the candles. ‘We must think very carefully on this,’ he said.