The Devil of Moravia: Nothing but his fetid breath

Grotesque stone relief

Image : Pixabay

Last time we saw Lord Edmund his fortunes seemed to be on the rise and he had made a new friend. But what does this friend expect in return for his favours? With Halloween fast approaching, there’s no better time to find out. See here for installments one, two, three, four and five.

Slatina and I sat by the fire and I listened to the footsteps, the busy comings and goings of Slatina’s men as that so named gentleman poured yet another glass of wine.

‘So, Lord Edmund,’ he said. ‘You see what help I can be to you?’ His finger slid round the top of the glass, skin squeaking and catching, the sound making me shiver. ‘Now. Let me say what little service I may ask in return…’

A log snapped in the flames, loud as a gunshot. I flinched, wine shuddering in my own glass, Slatina merely smiled widely and began to talk.

Sitting as I am now, surrounded by cold stone, my last sunrise shining greyly through an iron grille, I struggle to remember the details of the words, the persuasiveness of his argument, though at the time he made the most perfect sense, filling me with such confidence and assuredness at the rightness of where life was leading me. I felt such gratitude that he had saved me from destruction and though it may sound like blasphemy, I felt he was a Saviour, not only for my own weak soul, but to all those who would meet him in the weeks and months to come.

Indeed by the end of his speech, so grateful was I for his intervention in my disgraced existence, tears welled in my eyes and my chest swelled with love for him. To speak of such things now, after everything, after all the destruction that came after, revolts me to my very core. However, I have sworn to be truthful in this account and so I tell you this is how it was.

At the end of his speech, Slatina said, ‘So it is agreed, Lord Edmund?’

He took a sharp step forward, offered me his limp hand which, my senses being dazed by wine, dazzled by my change in circumstances, I took on instinct. His skin felt cold despite the room’s heat, the texture clinging like wet chamois leather. Quickly he released me, though the damp feeling stayed for some while after.

Slatina looked most pleased by our agreement, pin sharp teeth shining red in the flames. ‘Come, come,’ he said, clapping his palms together, ‘let me not keep you longer. Your room is readied and I fear you are dearly in need of rest.’ And so it was he hurried me from my own study like a school master dismissing a reluctant pupil.

The house was still ablaze with candles, servants scurrying to and fro, splashes of red in the light, each bowing low as I passed. When I finally reached my room I found the most wonderful sight – a grand fourposter bed draped all around with the finest burgundy velvet, gold thread shimmering. There was a fine walnut wardrobe filled with clothes, the dusty floorbords invisible beneath layers of Turkey carpet.

The sight was dazzling, although I did not see it for long, as the day’s exhaustion came the better of me and I collapsed full length on the coverlet, falling instantly into a deep sleep.

I wish I could recount that the sleep was long, sweet and dreamless, but it was not. I was plagued by nightmares, every shadow filled with tormenting spirits, every corner bristling with phantoms.

Just before dawn I was woken by the worst of them.

A weight was pressing on my chest, pushing the air from my lungs and on opening my eyes I found a beast – cloven hooves, blood-slicked claws, fangs sharp as daggers – sitting on me, knees pinning my arms to my sides, his face no further than a hand’s width from my own, hot breath enveloping me until I could inhale nothing but his fetid air. My lungs burned from the heat, popping and sizzling like meat dropped onto hot coals and though I was in the worst of agonies, I could make no sound.

I woke suddenly, greasy with sweat, sunshine pale as wheat creeping through my curtains. I wondered if I had dreamed Slatina along with the horrifying beast, but on appraising my chamber, I spied the new set of clothes that had been laid out for me the night before, I felt the rich red velvet between my fingers and despite my poor night, my spirits soared. For it seemed I was indeed saved and at that moment I did not care how or why it had come about or what price was to be paid for the saving.

Soon I had risen, washed and dressed and made my way to the dining room led by the scent of devilled kidneys. On the long table, lain on a crisp white cloth were dishes of kidneys, mushrooms, steak so rare it leaked blood on the salver, thick sliced bread, a pot of coffee and one of hot chocolate, rosy apples, oranges and even a pineapple, an object that had not graced our table since my father’s day. I lay about the feast with alacrity.

Toward the end of breakfast, Slatina entered the room. In daylight the man was paler, more drawn than he had been in the night and now I looked upon him closely I saw veins of the deepest purple running through his temples, his cheeks, the backs of his hands – everywhere his skin was visible. His lips seemed redder than I remembered, the colour bleeding into the flesh around his mouth like ink on blotting paper.

‘You slept well I trust, Lord Edmund?’ he said raising a black brow.

I nodded, the fine breakfast having vanished away all thoughts of fiery demons. ‘Most well,’ I said, moping up the blood on my plate with a wedge of bread.

‘Good,’ he said. ‘Now, when you are ready, you shall make for me my first introduction.’

I paused in eating just long enough for a splash of red to fall to the snowy cloth. ‘I don’t understand.’

His smile widened. ‘You must remember, Lord Edmund. Your promise.’

The evening’s speech turned over in my mind, though the details still eluded me.

‘Our agreement,’ he said, a hint of steel in his voice. ‘Introductions to all the great families of your acquaintance. All the noble young Sirs and Ladies. All those of good breeding – good … blood.’

At the word blood, a great cloud seemed to cover the day, blocking all warmth and light, turning me cold. ‘But,’ I began but got no further.

‘An agreement, Lord Edmund,’ he said. ‘You gave your word.’

And so it was my fate was sealed.