The Devil of Moravia : Aunt Gloria finishes her tale

Clock face and dialImage : Pixabay


For over a year and for nearly forty instalments, the story of the Devil of Moravia has slowly unfolded on this blog. Now the time has come for the very last part.

Special thanks to all those who have followed the terrible tale of Edmund William Spencer – thank you for sticking with him and with me. Very special thanks go to Joy from Tales from Eneana and to Amanda of Mandibelle 16 for their kindness and encouragement. And for being – as far as I’m aware and forgive me if I’m wrong – the only people other than myself who have read every instalment. Thank you so much, ladies.

So here is the final part. And we end where we began, with a very special Auntie and her very tall tales. See below to experience the Devil’s world.

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 eighttwenty ninethirty, thirty one, thirty two, thirty threethirty four , thirty five and thirty six.


 

‘Edmund died?’ My tongue felt gummed and gluey, as if I hadn’t drunk for days.

Aunt Gloria plucked another cigarette from the crumpled packet, twisting it into the holder, leaning towards me with an expectant air. I fumbled with the matches, taking two attempts before the tobacco began to glow and crackle.

Through a fug of smoke I saw Gloria shrug. ‘We all die, darling.’

‘I know that. I’m not a child. It’s just … Not in stories. At the end of stories evil loses and good triumphs.’

She stretched her legs out before her, wriggling her painted toenails. ‘The Devil was slain and Edmund did the slaying.’

Exasperated, I said, ‘But you hanged the hero. No one hangs the hero.’

‘Not much of a hero. Killing those two young girls.’ Taking a long drag she stared at me through squinted eyes. ‘Besides. In real life every story has the same ending.’

‘But I thought … Edmund and Frances …’

Her lip curled into a bitter smile. ‘True love conquers all?’ She pulled the cigarette from the holder, stubbing it into the full ashtray, her fingers coming away grey at the tips. She opened her mouth to say more, but the spark suddenly left her eyes. Pulling her knees to her chest she stared at the swirls in the hearth rug, both of us lapsing to silence until the back door slammed open and shut.

‘Fi! Where are you, Fi?’

It was my brother Fred, back from fishing, his face glowing from the fresh air.

‘Dad and I caught the biggest carp. Well, almost caught him. The blighter wriggled free before I could grab the net.’

The door went again. ‘Who has left muddy waders on my kitchen floor? Frederick Edmund Spencer, come here this instant!’

I looked up then, at Gloria, her chipped nail polish, her grey roots and smoke stained teeth. It was as if the story had changed me a little, as if my childhood was falling away and for the first time I saw what Gloria was – a rather lonely woman spending the summer where she wasn’t truly welcome or comfortable because she had nowhere else to go.

I avoided spending anymore time alone with her that holiday. Edmund’s story had been too dark – it seemed to stain the air between Gloria and I. And soon the summer was over and I was back at school and Edmund’s story – Gloria’s story – receded to the back of my mind, swamped by Geography lessons and hockey cups and English Grammar and Home Economics.

I thought of Edmund from time to time over the years, wondering how Gloria could know his story if his confession had really been burned, dismissing the Devil as a ridiculous fiction borne out of a lonely Aunt’s need to be liked. But still I searched The Clock every time I visited Gran’s, slipping my fingers between the cogs, scouring the panels with a torch. Perhaps that’s why Gran left it to me, why it stands now, a silent watcher over my own family.

Gloria died on the day my first marriage was annulled. I found her timing ironic – the eternal spinster aunt dying on the day I regained my own independence. She left a will, though the list of possessions made pitiable reading. Her flat was rented, the furniture rented too – even her furs were fake. She left an antique fishing rod to Fred which he sold to a friend at his club within days. He hadn’t fished since that summer I was twelve.

To me she left a large manilla envelope. Inside there were several sheets of a heavy paper covered with lines of sloping handwriting so dense the whole was more ink than paper. My fingers trembled as I flicked to the last page and read the inscription.

… Finished on the eve of his execution, the 5th day of May, 1799 …

The pages whispered as I straightened them, as if Edmund himself was trying to speak again.

Finally, I read the dedication on the envelope written in Gloria’s own thin hand.

For Fiona Frances Spencer. So you always remember your family’s brave past. 

And below, Old Noah’s words.

Know who you are. Embrace it, no matter how dark, no matter how squalid. Only then will you triumph.

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The Devil of Moravia : Death is terrible, tho’ borne on angel’s wings!*

 

Edmund’s story is nearly at an end. He has lost much, but perhaps there is yet something he can hold on to.

To read the other instalments in his tale, 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 eighttwenty ninethirty, thirty one, thirty two, thirty threethirty four , thirty five.

*William Blake, Kind Edward the Third.


 

‘What happened?’ I whispered.

‘I fear you are not strong enough to hear. And yet it cannot be long until the watchmen find us out. If you are to know, you must know soon.’

I felt for her hand and squeezed it. ‘Tell me, dear friend.’

And so she did.

She told me how the three of us had fed on Slatina, how that devil had shrunk beneath us, until he was little more than a husk, eyes wide and swollen in his cadaverous skull. How as we feasted she shivered under the bed, afraid to look, afraid in our blood lust she might be our next meal.

And how, when we were done and Slatina was naught but parched skin and powdery bone, she emerged from her hiding place to gaze upon the four of us.

‘I believed you dead, Sir, for there seemed little left of you to hold the spark of life. But as I stepped past, hardly knowing what was yourself, what your lady or poor Samuel, I heard a groaning. And then I saw the ash stir, rising in puffs from the floor and I knew – it was breath was doing it. You were yet alive.’

Somehow that kind soul gathered me up and helped me from that place, from the chamber where the Devil’s ashes mixed with those of my love and of my friend. Through the house were the remains of the Red Men – those soldiers of Slatina – whether true men or demons I shall never know, though all now fallen, unable to survive without the will of their master urging them on.

Peg flung about me a cloak, to shield my degenerated appearance from curious eyes and somehow we came, stumbling through the dark and twisted streets of London to a low room overlooking the docks.

The candlelight flickered on her troubled face and for a moment I felt the full weight of all that had gone before, of the passing of Frances, of all the death that had come since that stormy night when I first met the Devil of Moravia.

But something tugged at dear Peg. I tried to speak, but failed, so I squeezed her hand, urging her to finish the tale.

As if reading my thoughts, she nodded. ‘There is more and for my part in it I am humbly sorry. I only thought to help you, Sir, you must believe me.’

And so she told me of spying the locket about my neck, of fearing that if I were caught with the images of the Earth Angels upon my person, some soul might recognise them and I would dance at the gallows. And so she took the jewel, knowing she must hide it, knowing she had little time before some tradesman would call or the smell of burning alerted some passerby to the terrible sight within the house.

And as she looked about, her mind whirring, her senses alert to every noise, her eye alighted upon my old clock. With nimble fingers, she opened the case, stopped the movement and hung the chain within.

Her teeth worried her lip, gnawing at the flesh. ‘But the constables searched the house too well, too long. Word has reached the docks that the locket was found and Miss Frances’ locket also and Samuel’s too and they mean to lay all those dead souls at your door, Sir.’

That poor, sweet girl began to cry then, weeping so hard, her tears feel upon my broken skin, stinging like salt in a fresh wound.

I wished to speak, to say how grateful I was, how she had nothing to chastise herself for. That through her kind actions and her courage, she had helped save the world from the scourge of Slatina, had saved my friends from blackening their souls further, and myself – oh, yes, she had saved me too. For without her I might never have found the strength to battle the Devil without and the devil within.

But then there was a terrible shouting from outside, gulls squawking, a dozen pairs of stamping boots.

And all I could whisper was, ‘Go!’

With one last squeeze of my hand she vanished, the purest, kindest creature I have ever known. And I closed my eyes and waited for the end.

***

But as you see the end has not yet come.

I was discovered – what burned and broken flesh remained that might bear the name Edmund Spencer – and brought to Borough Compter gaol. Here I remain, the sole felon amid a sea of debtors. A bitter irony, for it seems I was always destined for goal, whether for debts or for bloodier crimes.

They have given my body time to heal and in that time I have written my account of these events so the facts may be told. I hear there are murder ballads sung about me, about the Black Hearted Lord, the Murderer of Angels and so even if none shall read it, I wished to commit my own version of the tale to paper. I have kept hidden a tinderbox and mean to burn this record once I am done.

There was a trial. I was accused of many killings. Of the Red Men, of Samuel, of the victims in the lockets, of an ‘unnamed man of slight proportion’ … of Frances. This false burden I carry willingly rather than have the world know the truth. The awful truth about my love.

I am visited often. Through the day the doctor comes to see I am well enough to hang – for what spectacle is there in a villain too sick to know his last day is upon him. And others come, those willing to bribe the goalers, who wish to be able to say they were yea close to a murderer of such stature. Most often they merely stare. Some spit curses. Some spit. But I write on.

But my cherished visitors come at night. Sometimes I turn from the page to find Peg Fair seated on my mattress and she will smile and tell me more of the Fair Folk, of her mother, of life in the rolling hills and sweet flowered dales of England. Samuel comes too – the old Samuel – a sparkle in his devilish eye – to share tales of a wench he has bedded, of a night of cards or a drunken tavern brawl.

And she comes.

Not the monster of lusts and yearning. But the girl I first met years ago, she I wish I had never let go. The girl with roses in her cheeks, with the kindest heart and a smile of summer and spring. Daisies twined through her glowing hair.

The darkness pales and my time is almost done. May God forgive me for all the evil I have brought to the world and when the time comes, I hope with all my wicked soul it is my love who comes to take my hand and lead me home.

 

Edmund William Spencer.

Finished on the eve of his execution, the 5th day of May, 1799.

 

 

 

The Devil of Moravia : To burn eternal

The end is coming, but who will be cursed and who saved? Can Edmund survive this last trial intact or will he lose his soul? Read on. And to catch up with the story so far, see the instalments 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 eighttwenty ninethirty, thirty one, thirty two, thirty threethirty four and thirty five.


 

‘There is always a choice,’ I said, walking towards the shutters, towards the drawn curtain, ‘For those prepared to sacrifice all.’

I looked at Frances for the last time, at the hollow woman she now was, a wax likeness of her old, sweet self. ‘Farewell, love.’

I reached for the catch, lifted it free and flung wide the shutter.

Daggers of sunlight stabbed the room, piercing every corner, leaving no inch untouched. It cut into my back, my head, my arms, a burning blade scorcing the skin from my body, slice after slice down to the bone.

The world had turned to red through my sun scorched eyes, Slatina a man of flame, an effigy of fire and I knew this to be his true form. Frances staggered under the glare, Samuel slumped, leaning against the wall for support, the clean, pure light of the sun too good and honest for us to bear.

And the Devil looked to me, inside me, through me, the strongest of us. But still he shuddered in the sunlight, every muscle quivering with the agony of that honest light. If I was to act it had to be now.

‘You think to defeat me with the sun?’ he bellowed. He was shaking now, the whole of his will turned to standing against the blaze. ‘I have stood for millennia. I have watched empires rise and fall, followed in the wake of conquering armies, seen nation lay waste to nation and that slain nation rise again to fight their victors. The world is a speck beneath me and I am its master. I am of the Creation and shall remain when the Earth is burned in fire and crumbled to ash and I shall eat the crumbs of its existence.’ He clenched his fists, flung back his head, screaming, ‘I am eternal!’

With all the righteous anger within me, I pulled myself up straight, punching against the pain of the heat, of my disintegration. And it was as if the sun was peeling away my every falsehood, my pretence, my shows of lying courage, ripping me clean. And with every dishonest action and thought gone, hope went also and love and charity and shame and selfishness until there was only the core of me, the hard nugget of what I had become. There was nothing now but my own true self. And I faced that full on, recognising me for what I was, accepting it, welcoming its new creation.

I was monstrous. I was a devil.

Without another thought, I leapt, felt his neck beneath my hands, dug my nails into the sinews of his shoulders, tearing, ripping at him, watching his flesh fall away. He lashed out, tore at my back, flaying me as I stood. His neck arched and I glimpsed fangs – longer than  a wolf’s, sharper than pins, curved as a new moon –  and he pulled back his head, ready to strike.

But my own body changed in response, my jaw widening, my own teeth changing, growing, pricking my lips and I was ready. I pushed with my legs with all my might, flinging my whole weight at him. He staggered, toppled, fell and me with him.

And as we fell I called, ‘Samuel! Frances!’ hoping that they would hear me, hoping that their instincts would overwhelm their pain and fear, that the monsters in them would take hold.

With the force of our falling I thrust my chin towards Slatina, felt my fangs hit his neck. At first there was resistance, an unyielding solidity. Then we hit the floor and I felt him puncture beneath the force of me.

I fed.

It was like dying. Centuries of pain, of horror, of death flowing from him into me. And I felt what he had felt, saw what he had seen – the fires of the Beginning, the rise of worlds, of people’s and his part in their destruction. I felt his pleasure at each life he had taken, how each soul was snatched by his hand and dwelt within him still, the chorus of voices screaming in an agony at all they had lost, deafening, their hopelessness so great I had to force myself not to pull away.

He bucked and struggled like a rabbit trapped in a snare, his throes threatening to shake me off. But then I felt others beside me. Samuel and Frances, scrabbling at their former master, finding space to feed. And for a while the three of us were side by side, united in Slatina’s destruction.

How much time passed, I do not know. But for a moment the four of us were one. One monster, four minds, weaving together, our histories shared, our lives overlapping.

As I sank into them I felt our horror, our destructive nature. But something more. I felt our solitude. The knowledge that even as we joined we were alone and always would be, never to know the comforts of home and hearth and family more.

The pain of it overwhelmed me and I succumbed …

***

‘Wake, sir. You must wake.’

I opened my eyes to see Peg Fair’s kindly face looking down upon me. My whole body creaked in agony, my skin a hard carapace, stiff and solid. I felt I heard my eyelids crack with each blink.

‘Peg?’ I tried to say the word, but my throat was so scorched it would not come.

Soft hands lifted my head, poured water on my lips, the liquid at once a sweet relief and almost more pain than I could bear.

After who knows how long, I found the strength to look about me. I was lying on a bed in a small, dark room, a tattered sheet pinned across the window. I could smell the Thames, a gull called, long harsh, solitary.

‘What happened?’ I whispered.

‘I fear you are not strong enough to hear. And yet it cannot be long until the watchmen find us out. If you are to know, you must know soon.’

I felt for her hand and squeezed it. ‘Tell me, dear friend.’

And so she did.

 

 

 

 

 

The Devil of Moravia : Shaking off the morbid shackles

Is Edmund the same man he was before Slatina stumbled into his life on that cold, desperate night so long ago? Read on to find out more. And see below to catch up with his story so far.

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 eighttwenty ninethirty, thirty one, thirty two and thirty three.


 

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.’

Once more, Old Noah’s words rang in my mind. Know who you are … no matter how dark, no matter how squalid. 

Finally, I felt the truth of all that had gone before. Slatina had led me to kill. He had led me to drink of others. He had led me to become something … other.

Mouth dry from yearning, I gasped, ‘What are we, Samuel?’

He shook his head in sorrow. ‘There is no name for what we have become. No name any would dare utter aloud. Only know that we are of an ancient evil. We shall be forever.’

‘Forever?’ Was this the truth? To live in horror forever?

‘There will be no forever if the now is not seen to.’ Peg extended her arm. The welts were fresh, barely healed. As if sharp teeth had dragged along the flesh.

My stomach rolled at the thought. But still I gazed on her. ‘I cannot,’ I muttered.

‘And yet you must,’ she said. ‘That creature may be the Devil himself and you his creation, but you are not him. You saved me sir -‘

‘I lured you from your home to die -‘

‘For love!’ She cried. ‘And though you put yourself in mortal danger, still you saved me. You are not him.’

I saw the truth in this. For despite the abhorrent occurences to which I had been witness, I had acted with more decency and courage in recent days than I had in the five previous years.

Peg Fair was now our anchor, our clear head amid the chaos and so it was to her I now turned. ‘Tell me what I must do.’

She smiled, such a sad, gentle smile that tugged at me. ‘You and Lord Samuel are weak. Samuel has fed but little these last days, you not at all. Feed. Find your full strength.’

‘And then?’

She stared at me with such intensity, the room seemed to drop away until there was only Peg and her pale eyes and her words, hard as granite. ‘Even the Devil must die.’

I think I loved her then. For her courage. For her sweetness. For her steel. For knowing what must be done and for not allowing us to shy away from it.

She pressed her arm under my nose, the scent of her exploding on my tongue, of hay and sweat and warm, soft evenings. I could hear her pulse, the rush of her blood in her slender veins, each pump of precious fluid forcing an extra layer of scent about me, until I felt I could trace her life – the acrid air of Southwark, the sweet wild flowers and grasses of her family home.

And as I imagined her mother and the washerwoman, the country smells of milk and animals and clear running water, somehow she was in my mouth, her skin salt on my tongue, my teeth pressing into her, a soft, sweet release of fluid inside me. And she tasted as I imagined, but better, bringing life and fire and heat into my heart, flowing through me until my pulse rang in my ears and it was hers and hers was mine, two strong hearts beating as one.

Suddenly, she pulled away. ‘Sir, I am weak.’

The blind pleasure of that moment passed away and I looked about me, dazed. Peg’s face was ashen, the only colour about her the blood greasing her arm. I could feel the wet of her smeared upon my face, rouging my cheeks, my chin, the world coloured red through gored lashes. I felt filthy, ashamed.

I glimpsed Samuel, greedy eyes watching me, watching Peg, knowing that he was hungry for her too.

‘Edmund.’ The Frances Demon’s voice reached me through the door, at once alluring and revolting. ‘Time to finish this.’

She was right, it was time. I signalled Samuel over, bade him put his shoulder with mine and together we finally moved the press aside. I took him by the arm when we had done, pulled him back a few steps away from the door.

‘Peg,’ I whispered, ‘get yourself away under the bed. Keep hidden. Whatever you hear – no matter what you hear – only come out when all has grown quiet.’ I took her hand . ‘Get away then. Somewhere far. Do not look back.’

Pale and weak as she was, she squeezed my hand, nodding her assent. I waited a moment for her to hide herself and turned to the chamber door.

‘Come in Slatina. We shall not stop you.’

And there he was, within the chamber, the door closed behind him as if he and Frances had passed through it without an opening or a closing. He seemed to glow, from his pallid skin stretched across his skull, his teeth, shimmering bright as pins, his eyes like embers. And Frances beside him, so alike in every devilish detail, she might be his twin.

I thought of all that had gone before, of the night of my first meeting with the Devil, of our visit to Samuel and the killing of the thief. I thought of the Earth Angels and Frances coming to me, our dreams of escape. Of the cupboard of horrors, of Old Noah and his wise words. All of this tumbled before me like magic lantern slides and at the end, as the light of my memories faded, there was just the four of us facing each other. And it felt right that we who had so closely tied ourselves together should be present at the end.

‘Edmund, Samuel.’ Slatina gave his most ingratiating bow. Before taking Frances by the hand. ‘All of us, together at last. You cannot imagine how much this pleases me.’

I smiled at the little man’s arrogance. ‘Pleases you?’ I said.

‘Why, yes,’ he said. ‘It has been difficult for you, I know. Shaking off the morbid shackles of human existence. But you see the truth now. There is no life for you but with us.’ He pulled Frances close, their faces turned together, meeting in the deepest of kisses.

I swallowed the bile gathered in my throat, blinked away the image of my own girl, gone now. ‘You assume much,’ I said.

He released her and looked at me with the most loving smile. ‘There is no choice for you, Edmund. You are mine.’ Steel glittered in his eye. ‘Forever.’

‘There is always a choice,’ I said, walking towards the shutters, towards the drawn curtain, ‘For those prepared to sacrifice all.’

I looked at Frances for the last time, at the hollow woman she now was, a wax likeness of her old, sweet self. ‘Farewell, love.’

I reached for the catch, lifted it free and flung wide the shutter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Devil of Moravia : The Changeling

 

Arthur Rackham, fairy tale, book illustration

Image : Pixabay

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.

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 eighttwenty ninethirty, 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.’

‘Frances?’

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.’

 

The Devil of Moravia : The killer within

William Blake [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


What has become of Edmund? Is he alive or passed onto the great beyond? Read on to find out and it if you’d like to catch up on his previous trials, 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 eighttwenty ninethirty. and thirty one.


As more blows fell and more, I knew I was to die. As I sunk into the pain, there were but two thoughts that haunted me; that I had failed to save the girl.

And that Slatina yet lived.

Darkness took my hand.

Time passed, a kaleidoscope of light and darkness, harsh voices snatching me from unconsciouness merely for me to plunge back into that dark silence. I had a sense of movement, of the city’s streets, gables close above me, but Frances was by my side throughout, by some miracle returned to full health, her smile radiant as the sun at Midsummer. I reached for her hand but she was ever beyond my reach, dancing ahead of me, a May fly on the breeze.

You’re home, Edmund, she whispered, sliding beyond my reach, slipping away from me as my eyes slowly opened.

It took a moment to realise, I was indeed home. The same dark curtains, pulled tight across the shutters. The same scent of beeswax and dust. And a shadow beside me, straight shouldered, the waist slender and tapered, fingers working a needle into a circle of fine cloth. There she was, my girl, my Frances. God had looked upon that ghastly sickroom, at the depraved state of that house and the deeds committed there and he had seen there was one deserving of his mercy. He had plucked my love to safety.

I made so many vows in those few moments – to keep her ever safe by my side thereafter,  to always protect her, to never allow a single harm to befall her as long as I was fit to do so. And even if the Lord should take me to him first, to protect her with my spirit through the years of her ageing until we were reunited beyond.

All this I promised through fevered, grateful tears … Until the young woman beside me raised her head at my weeping and I saw with true eyes that the fair hair was of a darker hue, that the hands were roughened by work, the shoulders narrowed and hunched by poor diet. That it was not Frances at all, but Peg Fair who sat vigil over me.

Is it possible for a broken heart to break anew? If so I believe mine cracked further still in that moment, that a fissure widened inside me, threatening to tear my frame in two. I wept.

Sleep must have taken me, for when I next woke, a candle was alight on my nightstand, the shadows long and threatening across the chamber walls, the clenched fists of a storm beating the house. A figure was seated in the chair beside me, but this I could not mistake for Frances. Samuel sat, gaunt and hollow eyed, his face a mask of fear and exhaustion.

‘I did not know whether to stir you,’ he said. ‘You have been two days in a fever which I feared might take you. And all the while they beat at the door.’

Only now did I realise, the noise I heard upon waking was no storm, but fists threatening to break through the wood and crack the hinges. A mahogany clothes press and a blanket box, a heavy chair that usually remained in the far corner by the window, all furniture of weight had been placed against the door.

Samuel sunk his head into his hands. ‘I could not think where else to bring you where you might recover. Now I have doomed us all.’

‘Who is without, Samuel?’

Peg stepped from the shadows of the window into the candlelight. ‘It’s those red devils, sir.’

With some difficulty I pulled myself upright. ‘The Red Men? It is the Red Men who beat at the door?’

But of course, who else would it be but those blank, soulless creatures. Had I been lying there senseless for days, the Red Men scraping like hounds after the fox as I slept?

‘Where is Slatina? Where is their master?’

Samuel merely shook his head. ‘No sign of him. Just the interminable knocking.’

My exhausted mind struggled to make sense of everything. Slatina must know that Samuel would have brought me back to the house and if he did not I was sure the Red Men would have sent a message alerting him to our presence. Why, then, was Slatina not the one hammering at the door? How was it we were all still alive?

It was then the words of Old Noah came to my mind… Know who you are. Embrace it, no matter how dark, no matter how squalid … I had to know the full answer to a question which had battered at my mind, that I had tried to push to the darkest corners of my soul.

My fingers gripped the locket about my neck. Trembling, I opened its metal doors and gazed upon the likenesses there. Still the Earth Angels shone, bright and beautiful  as stars. ‘Tell me truthfully what the potraits in the locket signify.’

Samuel gave me a look of the utmost misery. He clutched his own locket as he said, ‘Slatina gives one to each of his subjects to remind them.’

It pained him to tell me, but I had to know. ‘Remind them of what?’

‘He says we must always remember what we are. That we must not delude ourselves that we are decent.’ He swallowed, looked me full in the eye. ‘They are likenesses of our first kill.’

Had I known it all along? On that night of the ball, the night I buried the Earth Angels, was there some part of me that remembered my part in their deaths? I felt it now. Felt my mind, intoxicated by that night of debauchery, of the shedding of civilised conduct, overwhelmed by the most horrifying needs. Had I been under Slatina’s influence when those two young women died? Yes, of that I was sure. But perhaps all he had done was reveal my true self. Set free the killer hiding within.

Then it was as if the whole house shook beneath the hammering of a giant fist. Glass shook and shattered in the casements, glittering to the floor, the furniture barricade shook, fell, wood splintering under the impact. The bed quaked beneath me, Peg stumbled, cried out, falling against the wall and to the rug. Just as I felt sure the house would break apart around us, all was still.

I heard weeping and saw Samuel was on the floor, curled tightly upon himself, body shuddering with sobs. This was the only sound, as a voice reached through the chamber door.

‘Enough of this, Edmund.’ Slatina, his voice calm. ‘You hold no high moral ground here. You are no better than Samuel, pathetic as he is. No better than I.’

The sound of movement told me he drew closer to the door as he said, ‘We are killers all.’

It was true, but still I could not succumb, would not sink beneath the black waves of the life Slatina wished for me.

He must have guessed my thoughts, for then he said, ‘Perhaps someone closer to your heart can persuade you.’

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.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Devil of Moravia : Leaving hell behind

Dark, narrow, corridor

Image : Pixabay

Edmund has just made the most painful decision of his life, but can he save Peg’s life and triumph over the Devil of Moravia? See below to catch up on his story so far.

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 eighttwenty nine, and thirty.


 

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, 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.

I wondered for the first time whether Samuel had some hand in choosing that chamber. For I had visited the house during our previous acquaintance and knew there to be a loose wall panel beyond which lay a secret passage. Making my way along the wall, I pressed and knocked upon the wood, listening closely. Finally! The sound of tapping echoed in the space beyond. With some pressure the panel gave, releasing the cool scents of mold and disturbed dust.

Taking up the candle stub, I glanced upon my Frances for the last time. She did not stir. I could hear nothing of her breath, not the merest movement to show life still remained. I might have stood all day, frozen in that moment of longing for all that was gone … had not Slatina’s voice reached me from without.

‘Edmund? Has your greed overcome your manners?’

With one last glance of her closed and silent countenance, I dashed to the fallen Peg. She was stirring a little, making to stand. I slipped my arm under hers to support her. She awoke fully then, looking from me to the sickbed, eyes widening in alarm and I feared any moment she would cry out.

A knock came now, impatient at the door. ‘Edmund! You have had your fun. Time to share.’

At the sound of Slatina’s voice, Peg’s shuddered. If she screamed, the Beast would be upon us. But then she saw the panel, the gaping sliver of darkness beckoning. I saw she understood and with a wary nod of assent, she allowed me to help her through the entrance and into the passageway beyond. Closing the secret door behind us, I felt the future closing up before me also. For there was no future without Frances.

The passage was narrow, hardly wide enough for us to walk side by side, the walls rough with plaster, hung with webs. We had walked no further than a few yards when a terrible shriek echoed behind us, loud and piercing and filled with demonic fury.

We stopped, breathless, shivering with terror. It could only be Slatina. He had entered the chamber to find us gone. How long before he found the loose panel and came after us? Then Peg was tugging at me and we were shuffling onward, leaving the sounds of Hell behind.

The candle flame grew ever smaller as we walked, dancing light drawing the eye to alcoves cut into the walls. Such peculiar sights. In one was hung a buckskin coat and linen shirts, another contained nothing but a large mirror, the silver peeling and spotted. I glimpsed a jester’s motley, soiled brown about the neck, then a cat with skin bald and tight as a drum. The way was so dark and narrow, the sights so bewildering – here a card table laid with silvered wigs, there another with medical instruments of glass and the sharpest steel – that I wondered if perhaps we had not survived the sickroom but instead passed over to Purgatory without realising we had perished.

Finally, we reached a flight of shallow steps and I felt sure we must reach the ground very soon. The candle flame finally guttered out, plunging us into darkness, slowing our progress and leaving us to move with greater caution. Then my foot hit a step that felt wider than the others. With some exploration I realised it was not a step at all but a paved floor and feeling the walls with my hands, I found a door of pitted oak, a handle of good, solid brass. I gripped it hard and turned.

The handle would not move. I tried again. Nothing. Again I tried and again, finally putting my shoulder to the door, but the wood was like iron and would not budge. I hit the thing with my fists, clawing at it like a rabbit worrying at a snare. Had we come so far to be thwarted by a locked door?

Suddenly, Peg pulled at my hand. I ignored her, pushed her off in my desperation to find a way out. She took my arm, shaking me fiercely, hushing me. In the silence I heard what she had sensed before me. Noises, drifting from beyond the door – the scuff of fallen leaves, footsteps drawing ever nearer.

Peg’s grip grew tighter. We stood close, her breath fluttering. There was a grind of metal, the shudder of wood sticking. The door rattled open.

There was a light, white and hard, blinding in the former darkness. I thought to escape, but where? Only horror lay before us, a trap behind. If this was to be my last battle, let it be in open ground. I squared up to face my fate with what courage remained to me.

Like ice water trickling down my spine, a voice hailed us.

‘There is no besting me.’

I was battered to the ground, a moment later Peg was beside me, terrified face flickering in the lamplight. A kick to the head, dirt beneath me, stones cutting into my side, the smell of earth and rats. Another blow, piercing my ribs like an arrow. Mores kicks – to my face, my head, my body – countless, unending.

As more blows fell and more, I knew I was to die. As I sunk into the pain, there were but two thoughts that haunted me; that I had failed to save the girl.

And that Slatina yet lived.

Darkness took my hand.