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.

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

The Devil of Moravia : Old Noah, via Dead Man’s Lane

River, lights, nighttime

Image : Pixabay

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


… ‘Fortunately, I enjoy the company of you and your friends and wish to keep it for a long, long time. So go and I shall watch your Frances. Take Samuel with you. I would not wish you to come to any harm and the man is so wonderfully useful in matters of violence.’

And so it was Samuel and I went forth on our dreadful mission. To entrap an innocent to their bloody fate so that my love might live.

Dusk was falling as we ventured into the street, and a fine rain was falling with it, misting the air with a warm dampness that soon gathered into glittering beads on our lashes. At first neither of us uttered a word, for there was an air about Samuel’s house, a shadow so black and fearful that it occluded all attempts at conversation. It was not until we had walked over half a mile that Samuel spoke.

‘I was ever a bad man, Edmund.’

This much of his character was self-evident, so I made no further commment.

He continued. ‘But I only ever took what others were willing to give. What was owed me.’

As this was so clearly a falsehood, I made no reply. He seemed about to say more, but then we heard the crowing – loud as a hundred dawns – from the cock pit at Whitehall and he sank once more into a festering silence. The Thames wallowed before us wreathed in vapours and when we reached the narrow flight that is Whitehall Stairs the treads were slippery with grease and rain, but I glimpsed the waterman’s lamp as we approached the jetty and we were soon boarded on a wherry, wrapped in blankets, scudding downriver, enveloped by the tang of the city’s heart.

No more speech passed between us as we eased into the pull and pause of the boat. But as we alighted at Tooly Stairs by London Bridge and watched the waterman ease away with his next fare, Samuel spoke again.

He laid his hand upon my arm, staying my progress from the river to the dark, matted maze of Southwark. ‘You have not asked me,’ he said.

There had been no linksman waiting at the Stairs. All I could see of my companion was what the night was willing to reveal to me and that was a hollowed man, a man of deep eye sockets and deeper sorrows.

‘What am I to ask you?’

He fussed at his neck with trembling fingers. ‘You know some of Frances’ tale, how you and she are linked. But I carry my own burden.’

It was dark, the only light was that which reflected from the river and its bobbing cargoes, but still I knew what he held forth in his fingers. A rectangle of dark metal hung upon a silver chain. I knew he wished to tell me all, to share the weight of his horrors with another soul who might show him a little of what Slatina never could – pure, human pity. It was all I could do not to strike the man where he stood, not to curse and spit on him for all the tragedies that now befell my Frances. For surely, if she had not fallen under his spell then she would not be lying in that bed, turning to a living shade.

I held up my hand as if to fend him off. ‘Do not speak to me. I will not hear it.’ I shook him off then, heading away from the water. ‘We must find Old Noah. He will have what we need.’

It is with shame I admit those low, dank streets are second home to me. Dead Man’s Lane, Crucifix Lane, Dirty Lane, all as well known to me as the flecks and markings of my own cheek, and any man who passes through the Borough wishing to taste its dubious delights must deal with Old Noah or else be washed up on the foreshore, a curiosity for the mudlarks to chuckle over.

We walked to the Dog and Bear through the pits and pools of the tanneries, our eyes stinging, throats burning from the stench and rot. Under the low, dripping eaves we passed, below a drooping thatch so blackened with smoke from the mills it seemed to weep ink.

On the threshold of the inn, Samuel took my arm again, the locket clutched tightly in his palm. He gave me such a beseeching look, a look of such worldly pain, I could not help but be moved.

‘Who were they?’

He shook his head sorrowfully. ‘I think perhaps the girl was named Esther. Though it may have been Sarah. I have it in my mind it was a name from one of the Testaments. The other …’ Tears welled in his eyes. ‘I cannot remember, Edmund. And when I am in my senses that thought pins me through more than any other. That I do not know his name.’ He looked about him.  ‘They were young, alone, unworldly. Innocents come to this ungodly hole. They wept, Edmund. Clutching at these hands, begging me for mercy. They were so afraid.’

‘What happened to them?’

‘What happens to all who fall in Slatina’s web. Death. What else is there?’

I thought of that cupboard with its terrible hoard. ‘How long … How often?’

He held up a trembling hand to silence me. ‘I cannot say how many have died for us. Only that I am too weak, too afraid of pain not to kill again.’ He gripped my hand then, pulling me to him. ‘Release Frances from this agony, Edmund. Leave her to starve, to die.’

He smelled of hung game, warm and meaty. I forced him away, pushing wide the door and walked into the inn.

‘Better to let her die,’ he called after me, ‘than for her to live with what she has become.’

But all I could think of was her hand in mine. Of somehow freeing her from her curse. Of killing Slatina.

 

The Devil of Moravia : Dreams forsaken, mocked and crushed to dust

 

 

Finally, Edmund is learning the truth about Slatina and tragically about his love Frances too. But can he save her and himself from the Devil of Moravia’s clutches?

Onetwothreefour, fivesix , seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelvethirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty one, twenty two, twenty three, twenty four and twenty five.


‘… But I can take take this puny clay and make it last at least a little longer than its usual span. Sadly, there is a price to pay for my generosity.’

The dead child, the locket that had hung so guiltily about my love’s neck – her sudden illness. Finally, realisation shattered through me. ‘Frances has become your creature.’

Again that laugh, parched as a sealed tomb. ‘Yes, Edmund. Frances is mine. Frances, Samuel … And yourself.’

Slatina slammed the larder door, sending the black specks flying into the air. He pulled a kerchief from his sleeve, wiping his hands as if keen to rid himself from any possible contagion.

Still my thoughts buzzed, flitting into confusion as if they were the same dots of rank insect life. There was so much I failed to understand. ‘What have you done to her? How can she be so close to death, when last I saw her she was so well?’

His lip twisted into a bitter curl. ‘It seems your Frances has had a change of heart. When first I met her, she had sunk so low, I believe I might have convinced her of any depravity and she would have leapt at it like a hound at the kill. But now …’ He scowled. ‘Now she has some fancy that she might still live a good and decent life.’

He stared deep into my eyes then and I held his gaze, I think seeing him clearly for the first time. The whites of his eyes were not pure white or even yellowed with age, but crazed over with red veins, the network so complex and knitted, one might say they were more blushed than not. The irises were not brown as I had previously believed, but reddish, the colour of an oft-used butcher’s slab, of liver, of ox’s blood.

Gripping my wrist, he pulled me close to him, I unable to resist. ‘Believe me, Edmund when I say – the lady has gone too far to return to needlecrafts and homemaking. She imagines running from me, does she not? I found her skulking about the house like a light fingered maid pilfering bread and blankets. She imagined she could slip in and out without my knowing. She imagines she can begin life anew – with you.’ He laughed then, low and rumbling like storm water through a culvert. ‘She. Can. Not.’

I confess the presence of the man – those liverish eyes – had left me for a few moments incapable of speech, robbed me of all fight and movement. But at his disdain, the open mockery of our hopes now crushed in his clawed hand, some courage returned to me. ‘Who are you to deny us our future? She is a free gentlewoman. She has a right to leave this hellish pit and come away with me now. In fact I demand it.’

He smiled then, his flaking lips stetched so wide I felt the skin were like to snap, revealing the flesh beneath. ‘Ah, Edmund. Your childlike hopes have been a pleasant distraction.’ The smile snapped closed, quick as a trap on its prey. ‘But they will be put aside. Hear me. Frances is a creature caught between two worlds. She is not a human woman anymore, neither is she made of eternal flesh as myself. You yearn to make her well again, to return the roses to those dear cheeks? She must do but one thing.’ His eyes flicked to the horrid larder and its festering contents. ‘Feed.’

One word. It was but one word. And yet in its utterance all my hopes shattered about me, falling as shards, each with a dagger point sharp enough to pierce my foolish heart. I had entertained escape, freedom, a future filled with love, sweet industry … children. All had been turned against me, each fancy pressing into my soul creating the most keenly felt of wounds.

I felt my body sag beneath the weight of my reality. ‘What must I do?’

The smile returned, merriment flashing in those offal-coloured eyes. ‘It is simple. Go out into the night and procure your love a fresh meal.’

‘How …?’

Finally he released me, smoothing my sleeves, picking specks from my coat. ‘You are of a class used to getting whatever you wish. You must know the stews, the boroughs, the narrow alleyways running with filth where a gentleman may hire his fancy for the night.’

I dropped my head in shame, for of course he was right on every count.

‘Go forth into London and find meat.’

‘What of Frances? How I can I be sure …’ I dared not voice the dark thoughts that had begun to boil in the back of my mind, but I did not need to. It was as if he could read them imprinted on my face.

‘You think I would hurt her while you are trawling the squalid haunts of the city?’ He raised his finger. ‘Edmund, I could kill her – I could kill you all – with one touch of my finger. You live through my indulgence.’ The room seemed to heat then, as if a furnace had been lit beneath our feet. In the deep wells of his eyes seemed to burn coals, red hot, sparking with the potential for destruction, for the destruction of the whole world. ‘Your every breath, your every movement is permitted because I wish you to exist.’ The coals dimmed a little then. ‘Fortunately, I enjoy the company of you and your friends and wish to keep it for a long, long time. So go and I shall watch your Frances. Take Samuel with you. I would not wish you to come to any harm and the man is so wonderfully useful in matters of violence.’

And so it was Samuel and I went forth on our dreadful mission. To entrap an innocent to their bloody fate so that my love might live.

The Devil of Moravia : Shedu, Asura, Vetalas, Shaitan

Upside down spider on a web

Image : Pixabay

Frances is gravely ill. Are Edmund’s dreams of happiness to be snatched away before they’ve had a chance to flower into reality? Read on.

And if  you’d like to catch up with the story so far, please do here and happy reading.

Onetwothreefour, fivesix , seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelvethirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty one, twenty two and twenty three.


 

Samuel was hunched in the corner of the room, a brandy bottle clutched in his hands. ‘Coral Flitting was not refined or genteel. But she was a kind soul. Ever willing to laugh.’ He sobbed, the saddest, most desolate sound imaginable.

With a heart of lead, dreading the answer, I asked, ‘What happened here, Samuel? What has become of Miss Flitting and this poor child?’

He merely stared at me, as if lacking in sense or comprehension. Then he said, ‘When I was a child I read tales of creatures who could bewitch a man, take his life hostage and twist his mind until the threads of it spun apart like a rope undone. I never believed such tales, Edmund, even as a child.’ He fixed me with a desperate, haunted expression. ‘Now I know such creatures move among us. That they are closer than I ever considered -‘

I went to ask him what he meant by this, but he looked up suddenly. Slatina had crept, silent as a corpse to stand in the doorway. Samuel shot me a look then stared at the bottle in his hands.

Suddenly terrified at Frances’ poor state, disturbed by Samuel’s slump into self pity, I leapt towards the Moravian. ‘I demand to know what has happened here.’

His lip curled into a cruel smile as he said, ‘You are the most pathetic of men. You bluster and shout, believing you have a right to things you do not.’ His face set hard as he said, ‘Every thread of clothing you wear belongs to me. Every coin in your purse. The bed you sleep in. Every part of your life you enjoy at my indulgence. Do not fool yourself otherwise.’

He was right, of course. I had gambled away my own fortune and almost my every possession had appeared since Slatina’s mysterious arrival.

Still, my heart was breaking to see how frail Frances had become and all I could think was how I could possibly save her. Swallowing what little pride remained me, I said, ‘I beg you, allow me to call a physician to see to her.’

He laughed then, a hard, cold, mirthless laugh that sliced at my heart.

‘This ailment cannot be cured by leeches or bloodletting or any ridiculous tincture to balance the humours. This ailment can be cured by Miss Frances alone.’

I grew suddenly furious at the man’s insensitivity, for it was clear Frances was but hours from death. ‘You are a beast!’ I cried, lunging at him. ‘A man not fit to live in her sight.’

I rushed at him then, my hands raised to take him by the throat. I did not care what happened to me, my senses had fled clear away. All I thought was to choke the life from the heartless animal that mocked the passing of such a beautiful, faultless creature, that the world would not miss me in it and would be far the better for the hole that Slatina would leave behind.

As I went to grab him, something extraordinary happened, something I have dwelt on through long, sleepless, tortured nights since, a thing that makes no earthly sense but happened all the same. For as I drew within reach of him, Slatina leapt upwards, his body twisting as he jumped, his arms bending backwards to a sickening, unnatural degree until he gripped the ceiling. I lost my footing, falling to the floor and there I stayed, helpless to move, unable to tear my gaze from the abomination occurring above me. For like a spider, Slatina crept across the plaster as if it were the ground, holding himself aloft with the merest touch of hands and feet.

None who I have told have believed what I saw to be true – not the constable, not countless physicians employed to judge the state of my shattered mind, not my own barrister. But I swear in this final testament that what I say is true – that Slatina crept across that ceiling as easily as a fly grips a window pane. As easily as a serpent crawls on its belly.

For this is the truth – he was not human. He was not of this world.

Having traversed the room from one corner to the other, he dropped to the carpet onto his feet, light and agile as a cat.

I regained my tongue only enough to stutter, ‘What kind of creature are you?’

Smoothing his hair, he smiled. ‘Some have called me Shedu but I have many names –  Asura, Vetalas, ShaitanJinn.’

‘Demon!’ hissed Samuel.

Slatina’s smile broadened further as he bowed graciously. ‘Another world, another name.’

I could hardly swallow, could hardly breathe as I said, ‘What do you want here?’

He stepped forward then, pulling me to my feet with a force so strong three men could not have withstood him. ‘To live, Edmund. That is all. Come, walk with me a while.’

He tried to lead me to the door but I resisted, gazing at Frances, her eyes now closed, her breath laboured.

As if reading from my mind, he said, ‘You may yet save her. But first you must understand what sickens her.’ He held me at arms length, staring deep into my eyes. ‘Though I warn you. Once you know the truth, you may not wish to save her.’

I dismissed his words as ridiculous. For I loved her so purely, with such a passionate heart, I could not imagine her capable of anything so awful I would not forgive her in a moment.

It was all I could do to nod, to allow myself to be led from that dark chamber and once more onto the hall beyond.

As if we were old friends reacquainted after a long absence, Slatina laced his arm through mine. ‘Allow me to tell you how I met your love.’

 

 

 

 

The Devil of Moravia : Every light must dim and fade to darkness

Source : By Hugh Thomson (1860-1920) – Lilly Library, Indiana University, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9473460


 

Apologies for Edmund’s absence. This was enforced by travel – mine, not his! – and computer issues. Let’s return to see how he’s faring after the latest unpleasant piece of news – namely that his love, Frances, has chosen the worst scoundrel in London over him.

Onetwothreefour, fivesix , seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelvethirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty one, twenty two. and twenty three.


 

Now the servant paled, his voice dropping lower still. ‘A bad man, sir. A gentleman by name but not by reputation.’

It was like a thunder clap crashing over me, like lightning striking my head, my shoulders – my heart. For I need not be told who this ‘gentleman’ was.

Frances had thrown her lot in with the Devil. She was with Samuel Longmire Gordon.

I spent that night tramping the open fields of Hampstead, too dazed, my senses too shattered to face Gordon or indeed Slatina. For it seemed to me that between them they had somehow conspired to relieve me of all that had once been mine, from my home to my once and only love, Frances.

At some point I must have collapsed to the ground with exhaustion, for as the pale sun rose over the far haze of London I opened my crusted eyes, stretched limbs contracted by cold and the hard ground. I broke my fast with ale and what little remained of the food, gazing out over the confusion of grimy spires and rooves, the clogging smoke of countless chimneys. What a hard and thankless town it was, filled with cruelty, determined to debase every soul that entered its sooted walls, no matter how pure of heart, how noble. I would shake off its fetters, work my way to the Americas, to some far island of spice and rainbow plumed birds. After years of toil and hardship, I would lay my broken heart to rest in foreign soil.

And so with a determined step, I raised myself from the ground and set off back to the city, heading for the docks and fresh adventure.

I have known this blackened, filthy town of thieves and pickpockets, drunkards and assassins all of my life. I have wandered its streets through the best and worst of times, committing the nonsensical pattern of its neighbourhoods to memory just as a man will recall the mysteries of a lover’s face long after they have parted ways.

So how it could be I found myself not amid masts and sails, the ruined dockside inns, the quarrel of gulls, but by a web-strung holly tree, staring at Samuel Longmire Gordon’s front door, its grotesque knocker in my hand.

I let the knocker fall once and waited. No thoughts passed through my mind as I waited, none of logic or reason in any case. All I saw was the sweet, weeping face of Frances as we parted, all I felt was her fear, all I knew was that in that moment in the drawing room she had needed me, that her need had been real and that she might want me yet.

When finally the door swung open, it was not the tiny scrap of a child standing in the hallway as I had expected but a full grown man. A man of near my height, of pale complexion save for the tributaries and confluences of veins beneath the skin.

‘Slatina.’ I was not surprised to find the man there, for I had begun to feel his dark presence, a thread of evil running through my life.

He smiled, bowed and for the first time I saw that action for what it was – a mockery of myself, of my class.

Before he could speak, I said, ‘Take me to Frances.’

He bowed again, stepping aside that I might pass. The door slammed shut behind me, the bolts sliding home.

The hall was little changed from my last visit – the same shards of broken glass lay about the floor, the same stink of filth assailed my senses. The only change was the quiet. There was no sound of a fiddle playing, no frantic dog barking to be free and every room I passed was deserted, furnished with nothing but shadows and my own memories.

I made for the room I had visited before, but Slatina said softly, ‘Upstairs, Edmund. You will know where.’

If I had been less exhausted, more in my own senses, perhaps I would have been more careful, would have stopped to arm myself. I might have considered my ease of access to that place a trap. But all I could think of was Frances.

A broad staircase swept before me, the gilded metalwork now tarnished, the marble steps thick with candle grease and dirt. Although the morning was half over, the city’s filth overlaid every window, turning the sunlight grey and gauzy, making the way dim. At the head of the stairs the light was darker still, every door wreathed in shadows deep enough to hide a man. I walked breathless along the hall, stopping at each door, listening for signs of movement but found none.

Finally, there was a door a little ajar, a pale light falling through the gap. A glint of gold caught my eye and then was gone. Heart in my mouth, I took another step. There was the glint again, a bright shimmer by the door handle. I reached out, felt the fine chain in my fingers, the weight of Frances’ locket in my palm as I lifted it free of the handle. Pushing wide the door, I stepped inside.

The room was hideously familiar from my own youth – the drawn curtains, dim light, the frousty, closed in smell of human bodies and waste. A sick room. I drew close to the figure in the bed, not wanting to see who lay therein, already knowing but dreading to witness the fact with my own eyes.

The hair was the same, though tangled and damp with sweat, the skin waxy, eyes bulging beneath taut lids.

‘Frances?’

The lids flickered and she saw me, her expression a mix of relief and sadness. ‘Edmund,’ she whispered.

How was it possible she had come to such a sorry state since our last meeting? I knelt beside the bed, took her hand in mine. Her bones were light as tissue and there was a smell about her breath, a sign that Death was even now creeping over her, waiting to clutch her heart. She gestured to the locket, hanging from my fingers.

‘Open it,’ she breathed.

I placed her hand gently on the counterpane and with trembling fingers, opened the locket. It took a moment for me to realise that I knew both of the figures depicted therein. One was a woman and from the various tiny marks on her face, one afflicted with vile diseases. The other was a child, a boy no more than six years of age. He wore a powdered wig and a coat of blue velvet. It was the poor, sad waif who had opened the door to last time I had visited that very house

‘And so even the brightest light must dim and fade into darkness.’

Samuel was hunched in the corner of the room, a brandy bottle clutched in his hands. ‘Coral Flitting was not refined or genteel. But she was a kind soul. Ever willing to laugh.’ He sobbed, the saddest, most desolate sound imaginable.

With a heart of lead, dreading the answer, I asked, ‘What happened here, Samuel? What has become of Miss Flitting and this poor child?’