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