Edmund’s fate is chasing after him. How much longer can he outrun it?
To read previous instalments – from quiet beginnings, through a debauched middle, heading for a blood soaked crescendo, search 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, thirty one and thirty two.
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.’
Did I slumber still? Was that sweet, clear voice reaching to me through the veil of my consciousness, worming inside to pluck at the very root and core of my manhood?
‘Edmund, my love. Open the door.’
I looked about me, from Samuel to Peg, to the broken window glass and the fallen furniture. This was no fantasy, no wishful dream. My dear girl was outside the door. Oh, to gaze upon that face! I made to rise, but Peg Fair was by my side in a moment, restraining me.
‘Please, sir. You mustn’t go.’
Despite wearing only my nightgown, I pushed back the covers, shrugging Peg aside. It was as if my fever was still upon me, fizzing in my brain like strong wine, pushing me onward when the lucid part demanded me to stop.
‘You do not understand!’ I bellowed, dragging the blanket box aside, tripping on my gown, only to rise up and set to clearing the door. ‘Frances needs me. She has been unwell.’
Peg’s voice, calm, insistent, pressed against my certainty. ‘You have been unwell, sir, or you would understand what happens here. Your lady is not your lady.’
‘Do you hear me, Edmund? Come out to me. Come out to your Frances.’
What nonsense Peg spoke. For that was my love’s voice. The same, sweet girl who had twisted daisies in my hair, had laughed like a child to see me look so foolish. The same girl who had loved me more than I ever deserved to be loved.
I had to reach her. The need grew inside me, gnawing at my heart, pushing me on. I had dragged the blanket box away, but still had to move the chair, the clothes press, tall as a man, heavy as two. Splintered wood covered the floor, sweat broke out on my forehead, my back, but still I pressed on, had to press on.
‘Lord Samuel, please, sir!’ Peg went to the stricken man. ‘Please. You know the sense of it. You told me yourself that the Devil might bring the lady. Sir! You must tell what this means.’
I stole a look at the curled shell of a man that had been Samuel Longmire Gordon. But there was little to see but a spine circled on itself. Little to hear but weeping. I returned to my work.
A few scarce seconds and the chamber door would be clear. I would see she who held my heart. I knew so clearly that all would be well, I scarce considered Slatina, the Red Men, the putrid scene of ill used flesh at Samuel’s home. All I knew was her, that soon we would be reunited, never more apart.
Now Peg walked beside me, shadowing my fevered moves as if she was a reflection in a twisted glass. ‘Sir, you are not thinking what the lady’s presence here signifies.’ She spoke in a quick, hushed voice, as if keen to tell me all, keener still to keep her words from passing through the chamber door. ‘There was a washer woman back home, lived in the swell of the stream below the mill race. Babbie Peckford was her name. Sweet natured as a doe, soft as a leveret’s pelt, though soft minded with it. She was wed to Nat Marten, though he’d first set his mind to another. A fine wife, Babbie made. Never slacked at her work, not through seven pregnancies and five births. Perhaps tis why the Fair Folk came.’
The door was almost free now, with only the press to move. Still, Peg talked.
‘They took her, sir, to care for their young as well as she had cared for her own. Poor Babbie Marten, Peckford as was. But the Fair Folk never just take, for they think that bad dealing. They leave a body behind, you see? A Changeling. A body who looks the spit of she who has been taken but is not her. Is different as any can be in temperament and nature. Tis what they left. A hollow woman instead of Babbie.’
I had shifted the press aside a little, almost enough. Almost enough to swing wide the door and let my lover in. But something stayed my hand. Something in Peg’s words rang a true note. My body damp from effort, I asked her, ‘What happened to the washer woman?’
‘To the true Babbie? She never saw her children more.’
‘And the … the Fairy woman left in her stead?’
‘She would not wash. Would not cook. Would not care for the little ones. She walked the woods searching for a Fairy Ring, a crossing place to take her home. She was found in the mill race on St Stephen’s Day, blue as forget me knots.’
The fevered energy had left me now, leaving in its stead only exhaustion and pain. ‘You think Frances a Changeliing?’
Peg shook her head. ‘I think she is nothing so sweet as that. Only that love blinds us from seeing what remains when evil has had its way.’
A voice reached us from near the bed. Samuel. ‘If Frances is here, it is because she has fed. Your Frances has been swept away by blood.’
Those words hammered into me, a nail piercing all hope. It was the truth, I felt it. There were but beasts beyond the door, creatures of death and trickery, willing to inflict any pain, to break any will.
‘Edmund.’ That voice, so like my girl, yet now I listened close, with a flash of steel running where Frances was only ever laced with gold. ‘Edmund. I grow cold without you. I suffer such pains.’
Now the spell was broken, I could not believe I had come so close to opening that door, to throwing myself upon her untender mercies.
‘But how can we survive this? Surely, there is nothing to be done.’ I felt suddenly so weakened, my knees buckled under my own weight.
Samuel and Peg exchanged a glance before Samuel went to staring at the floor once more.
‘What is it?’ I said.
‘You are weak,’ said Peg. ‘You have not eaten.’
It was true, I could not think of a morsel of food that had passed my lips in days.
Peg began to roll up her sleeve. ‘If you were stronger, perhaps we might fight the Devil.’
Uncomprehending, I gazed at her forearm, at the fresh red welts that wept there. I was suddenly gripped by a terrible hunger, an overwhelming thirst the like I had never felt before. It gripped my stomach, pulling it tight as a drum.
Unable to pull away, unable to make sense of the horrible drive that befell me, I stared at Peg, helpless, speech a stranger.
She smiled, sweet and sad. ‘Time to accept who you are, sir.’