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 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 once 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.

 

 

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 : The hare-cursed girl

Edmund has been south of the river to visit a disreputable old friend who gave him a mysterious piece of advice. Will he continue along the dark path he’s chosen or is there some point of light ahead?

To read more of Edmund’s adventures through misfortune, read 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 and twenty eight.


Noah pressed close to me, his breath of aniseed and clove bathing my face. ‘You have fallen into the darkest company, Edmund. I felt you lost before, but now …’ He shook his head. ‘All I can say is this. Know who you are. Embrace it, no matter how dark, no matter how squalid. Only then will you triumph over this terrible evil.’

He pushed me away then, my mind spinning with his words, lost as to their meaning.

The journey back to Frances was dismal in the extreme. My senses were taut as bowstrings, every plop on the great, sluggish expanse of the Thames sounded out loud as a shot, every splash of oars like a blow on a bare skull.

In the wherry Samuel hunkered low, a shadow only keeping to himself. The waterman and the girl were likewise silent, the only life being the movement of the oars and the boat lamp’s flicker. I might have been cast adrift on the Styx for all the warmth and feeling travelling with me that night.

We retraced our journey back to Samuel’s villa and as we did so it seemed to me an altogether different journey occurred too. For as we walked, each of us drifting in our own thoughts, I turned over the night’s events, what burden would soon lay heavy upon me and it was as if tenterhooks drew at me, pulling at my heart, my stomach, stretching me until my meat would surely snap. For if I did not give that poor hare-shotten child over, Frances would surely die and if I did …

I had not spoken to the girl since leaving the Dog and Bear. There was some part of me that did not wish to know her – not her name, not her history or how she had come to serve bad ale for Old Noah. For the more I knew the more difficult it would be to do what must be done.

But as we drew into Samuel’s district her silent melancholia slipped away, replaced by an agitation as if she was somehow aware that all was not well. She began to walk more slowly, drawing away from the deepest shadows, clinging to the rare pools of light cast by the dim glow of candles as we past one house and another.

‘My Ma was a shocker.’

The words came clear in the still night, though I was unsure to whom they were addressed.

‘Free with her fists. Free with a club too when the moon was on her.’

We stumbled on, neither Samuel or I speaking a word.

‘I was not meant long for this world.’

There was no self-pity there. Merely a statement, a truth uttered spun with trepidation.

‘That was what Ma said. Cursed by a hare, caught with one foot in this world and one in the other. She said I should never walk in the night alone, that if I did the Fair Folk would claim me. But I been far – from Dorsetshire to London and all the way to Suffolk one time – and I never saw sign of magic in this world. Only people doing good for others and doing bad for their own sake.’ She spoke quickly, as if she meant to say her piece before she could no longer speak at all. ‘Have you seen the Fair Folk, sir?’

The girl had been walking ahead of me a few paces. Now she stopped, turned her eyes to mine and for the first time I realised what a kind face she had, what a clear, trusting expression.

A bolt of lightning might have struck me through from pate to boots. This girl was so  young, no older than Frances when first we met. She was no Flitting sister, no thief or vagabond, only a poor man’s daughter caught in the South Bank’s web of drink and fleshmongery. And I was to give her over as one might a lamb to the knife?

‘Peg Fair, Old Noah called me,’ she smiled a twisted little smile. ‘Though not on account of the Faerie. He was teasing on account of my lip, the thing that snatched from me what beauty I might have owned.’ She was so slight, her shoulders so narrow and they shivering in the chill of early morning.

And at that I knew all was lost. For how could I give her over? Peg. Poor, lost Peg, cast off by her family, taunted by a dead old man, left to die at the hands of devils. I loved my Frances. I loved her with all my heart, my soul, my marrow. But she was ever kind and I could not believe she would have ended this girl for her sake.

At last I was pushed to action. We were but fifty paces from Samuel’s door, fifty paces from that demon made flesh Slatina. Any closer and Peg would be lost. If I was to save the child I must do it and quickly.

I gripped her hand, pulled her to me. ‘You must flee. Return to your mother, to the countryside. Anywhere.’ I felt the pockets of my coat, pulled free a handful of coins. ‘Take this. Do not return to the Dog and Bear.’

Either she had not seen the coins or had not heard the urgency of my words, for she pulled against my grip, her face a mask of terror.

‘Hush, child. Hush.’ I whispered. I could not risk Samuel hearing, for I knew not whether he would aid or hinder my endeavours. ‘Hush!’ I exclaimed.

My harsh tone must have alarmed her, for she screamed then. I pulled her to me, tried to cover her mouth, to stop the sound from escaping. But she fought and fought, terrified of this evil man who had captured her.

I saw Samuel turn, saw him walk towards me. In my fear I made one last attempt to pull her away. But though she was slight she was clearly used to fighting and she clawed at my face, at my eyes and in my shock I released her. 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.

 

The Devil of Moravia: Knee deep in fields of horror

Floral China teacups and plates

Image : Pixabay

Will Edmund do the right thing for Frances? Can he tell what the right things is anymore? See below to read more about Edmund and his unlucky journey to Old Noah’s door.

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, and twenty seven.


 

‘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.

Pipe smoke, spilled ale and the rotting flower stench of jenever spirit caught in my throat as I entered, the floor catching at my boots. Rushlights flickered in their holders, the glow barely enough to reveal the board walls, the wrecked hulks of the patrons hunkered over their filthy brew.

It was quiet in there yet, for the Dog and Bear never truly grew into its own until the deepest hours of the night,  when decent men had scurried to their beds, leaving the river mists to swirl alone.

I made towards a long low table of rough wood, its burden of stone bottles and seeping firkins. A young woman stood behind it, the sleeves of her smock rolled up to reveal arms thin as a child’s. A hare-shot lip puckered her face into a sneer.

‘I need to see your Master,’ I said.

With a bob she ducked behind a tattered flag which hung as a makeshift curtain from a rope behind her.

Samuel was at my side once more, his breath coming short and sharp. ‘I beg you, Edmund, let us go now before that repulsive individual appears. No good shall come of renewing this acquaintance. Have you forgotten all he is?’

‘Hush, Samuel.’ The voice was low, soft, hardly more than a hiss. ‘You must not speak ill of the dead.’

I took in the keeper of the Dog and Bear, from the length of tawny silk bound about his head, to the gown of braided velvet that skimmed the toes of his curling slippers. ‘You still believe yourself a dead man, Old Noah?’

He shrugged. ‘Look about you, Edmund. Has the Saviour returned, bringing his Kingdom to renew mankind? Does that filthy snake of a river burn with cleansing fire? No? Then I am still dead, still awaiting the day of my resurrection. But dead men may still be hospitable. Come in. A jug of gin warms on the fire.’

We passed beneath the curtain as the hare-shotten girl crossed back into the inn and found ourselves in a parlour just large enough for the three chairs huddled round a small grate within. Old Noah motioned for us to be seated as he arranged cups of cracked china for the gin.

In truth, the man was as damaged as his porcelain. I heard tell he was once a soldier who fought bravely, flinging himself into every fray and cannonade, emerging unscathed even when all about him fell. Battle after battle he fought, Death ever his companion but never claiming him. One terrible day as he walked knee deep in fields of horror, his shattered mind came to understand that the bullets could have missed him so entirely only because he had no earthly form, that he must have died years before and only now understood the nature of his immortal form.

I took the proferred gin, the heat small comfort in that squalid den. ‘We need something of you, Old Noah.’

He nodded. ‘All who come here want something of me. It is the nature of the dead to intercede on behalf of the living.’

All the journey through I had not wondered at what I would say when the time came to ask, believing that necessity would frame the words for me. But now, faced with such a dreadful task, I faltered, my lips drying like parchment.

He handed a cup to Samuel, then climbed onto his chair, kicking off his slippers, tucking his feet beneath him.

‘We need … We want …’

He held up his hand to silence me. ‘Whatever it is, you shall have it.’ I made to protest but he would not hear me. Instead he said, ‘Something moves about the earth, something old beyond time, yet a creature unknown before. It is a forerunner, a creature hailing the End of Days. My wandering shall soon be at an end and so shall yours, that is certain. What we do along the journey – that is the only question left to answer.’ He shot Samuel an uneasy look. ‘Some souls are already eaten, leaving nothing but the shadow of the man that once was.’ He waved his hand in the air, as if Samuel was a mist to be dispelled. ‘But some yet cling to life.’ He took my hand then, gripping it so hard, I feared the bones might crack. ‘Use what is left to you wisely.’

He stood then, gesturing towards the curtain, towards the inn and the world beyond and as if knowing why we came he whispered, ‘Take the girl,’ he said. ‘She will missed by no one.’

Evidently disturbed, Samuel hurried from the parlour, leaving me alone with the curious old man.

Noah pressed close to me, his breath of aniseed and clove bathing my face. ‘You have fallen into the darkest company, Edmund. I felt you lost before, but now …’ He shook his head. ‘All I can say is this. Know who you are. Embrace it, no matter how dark, no matter how squalid. Only then will you triumph over this terrible evil.’

He pushed me away then, my mind spinning with his words, lost as to their meaning.