Since boyhood I have enjoyed taking the horses and hounds into Mendelov woods. The bounty of animals to hunt there is wide and varied. It is a tradition passed to me by my father that the meat and fur we find there be shared among the people as much as possible. The nights can be long and cold so the kingdom appreciates the warmth.
Today was different though. There were scarcely any animals to be found save one rabbit which the hounds slaughtered for their own supper. There was a fire in the distance. Some celebration of sorts seemed to be happening in the nearby village. Singing and chanting filled the air. I had just about given up hope of ever finding a deer or elk. The noise had most likely scared them off. I was preparing to turn away when I stumbled across a clearance. My bow was prepared. My straining arms had all but fired a shot. I was startled. Before me was the most beautiful woman my eyes had ever beheld. She was seated upon a white horse. Her long black locks were so dark they almost shone blue in the fading light. Her skin was as white as the freshly fallen snow.
“Aren’t you frightened?” she asked me. Why, in all my heart and soul, would I be frightened by an image so fair? That was when she did the strangest thing. She threw to me a trinket, a macabre symbol. I held the skull of a cat in my hands.
“It will help aid success in your hunts,” she explained. Her voice trailed from her lips like fine silk threads.
Her name was Francesca. She was from a village far from here but I would scour the known map to find her again. I know nothing of this woman and yet I know I will have no other as my queen. I can’t erase her presence from my mind, nor her voice from my ears. I can’t explain it. We have met only once and yet I will offer her everything I have.
It has been done. I have left it all behind. The last sight I had of my kin was of them burning, begging for the pain to be ended. Even after it all those who could still pleaded for me to stay with them.
The man with the black eyes still claimed be me to as his love until I removed his heart from his chest. The blood was still warm as I devoured it. Great was my fury that they tried to stop me and greater was my horror at what the love of Roman has made me see.
The eternal child, was the last to speak. A curse she warned me of. That was laughable. Her power could never match mine for I was Queen of our people and none of them could match me. She quipped about a plague that would follow me to my new land and infect all those who crossed my path. My husband would be driven insane as images of my deeds flooded his fragile mind. Any children produced from the marriage would suffer from cradle until they begged for death. The girl doesn’t frighten me.
The village was reduced to ashes in my wake. The evil of its people banished. Annabelle followed me. My first reaction was to kill her too. She stared at me with those pitiful green eyes of hers. I’m not one to hold sympathy but she had been loyal to me. She is the only one who could rival me and yet she is too dim to realise.
On our way to kingdom, I on horseback, she on foot beside me, we came across one of the strangest creatures known in my black circles. We were met by a Hangram. It was creeping to the water, gasping for whatever pity the world could spare it. They are fierce yet wretched creatures. It’s finger tips flamed with the heat of redemption.
Annabelle and I knew the Hangram immediately but a ‘dweller’ may have been alarmed. Not many are seen by the dweller folk and fewer leave the unfortunate alive to tell the tale. It looked up at us from its contemplation over life and death. It approached. It recognised the blackness within me. It had softened since meeting Roman but still burned in my chest. Hanram are drawn to malevolence like thirsty men to a pond.
“You are evil, quite unlike any I have known and yet you roam this land without hinderance. Today is the day you answer for your evil,” said the creature.
“I am sorry for all I have committed!” I said knowing the proper way to address a Hangram.
“I’m not,” Annabelle interjected.
The flames from the Hangram raged. It’s eyes began to glow. Annabelle showed no fear. Truthfully she had little patience for such creatures and I wished to be on my way.
“Francesca!” the Hangram raged. “There is a special place in Hell reserved for you.”
“If you are waiting on my repentance I will not give it to you,” I told it.
The Hangram closed in on us. “I don’t expect contrition from the likes of you.” It’s burned face contorted into an unsettling smile. “You will have to find comfort on a bed of blades if you do not appease your conscience.”
This particular Hangram was not to be fooled. It knew me, although in its form I couldn’t quite place the haggard frame. I had seen so many Hangram over the years. “The kingdom do well for you,” it said. “The King’s love will save you but only if you accept the punishment you deserve. End your life here and now, save the kingdom and the generations to follow. There is not a sin so great that a single act of selfless sacrifice can’t save you from,”
Before I could make my response Annabelle stepped forward. She threw dust at the Hangram’s feet. The Hangram emitted a high pitched, pained shriek. The form began change in a swirl of black and red energy. The colours cleared. The body of a little boy of nine years old lay where the Hangram had been. I remembered him. His name was Dale and he had come from a village, deep in the woods. My brother Julian loved to toy with Hangram. There were countless of them wandering the land because of him. The soul purpose of these creatures was to seek out sin and evil and vanquish it. My people would absorb the energy left behind, strengthening our own macarbe magic. This was our way. When the Hangram had fulfilled its duty it would be disposed of. Formidable to the ‘dwellers’ but a mere pet – a blood hound in many ways – to us. To create a Hangram required the body of an innocent, someone who had led a pure life. This was often difficult to find in an adult so most of the time children served the purpose. Julian sought them out like an avid hunter. With his handsome face and bright, kindly eyes they flocked to him. Dale had been one such trusting soul.
Annabelle removed a dagger from her boot. She meant to cut his throat while he lay asleep on the forest floor.
“No wait,” I stopped her. I had been thinking of what the Hangram had said. I left him. When he awoke from his slumber he would have enough provisions to keep him until he found a way back to his family. When I left Vorelia Julian had burned with all the others so Dale needn’t fear him any more.
So here I am in the arms of the King, in the beautiful kingdom. The curse and all the others have been left behind. I will defy them, to be happy, to live.
There was no one sent to help him so he had to find the stables himself in the dark. His feet sank heavily into the mud. Mercy was still limping although the bold steed that she was, she never complained. As Edgar felt the warmth of the hay that he fed to Mercy he was in two minds whether to return to the house or settle down beside the animal and be off before anyone awakened in the morning. He even got as far as throwing his hat onto the ground before a shiver fired up his spine to remind him just how cold it would get.
When he returned to the house he found that the rear entrance was open. Had it been left open for him or had it been open all night? He didn’t know. The staff saw him approach yet he still politely knocked on the wooden frame of the open door. A man with a large protruding stomach tucked behind a well pressed white shirt zipped past him almost knocking Edgar back outside. He was among the household staff. Edgar had never had staff of his own but it looked like the staff were mixing with the guests far more than was socially acceptable.
“Miss Abigail has had a plate prepared for you, sir,” the rushing man called to him over his shoulder. When the only response Edgar could give was a vacant stare he placed the plate he carried down on a table and pushed Edgar from the kitchens with a firm hand on his back. Edgar spotted Abigail. She wasn’t sat in her place at the table but stood behind it. An empty seat was beside her with a fresh plate of stew awaiting the new comer. Hunger pangs gargled in Edgar’s stomach. He sat himself beside the Mayor’s daughter.
“Daddy!” Abigail rudely called across the conversation being passed back and forth. “This is the man who came to the door. Edwin…”
“It’s Edgar.” Edgar murmured beside her.
Abigail looked down as he found his seat. “I’m sorry,” she said. “This is Edward.”
The Mayor was a tall, slim man who still held a great deal of vitality despite his progressing age. His hair was snow white and he had a full white beard. “It is nice to have you with us Edmond. Enjoy the food. Perhaps you can tell us all about yourself. Where are you from? What brings you here? We don’t tend to get many passersby in these parts.”
It was too late to correct it now so Edgar went along with the name change. “I’m from Elgany,” he said. “I was travelling through on my way to the trading ports in Navaria.”
A man sat directly opposite him sneered down his thin pointed nose. “But you have nothing to sell!” he said noticing Edgar was empty handed.
All eyes now became fixed on the stranger among them. Edgar shuffled in his seat. “I was going to purchase supplies. I have my own trading post back in Elgany,” he said.
The man was relentless. He leaned forward on the table and affixed his beady black eyes on Edgar. His pointed elbows pushed his plate away from his looming body. “You decided to travelby horse? It would have been much quicker and much easier to sail down the coastline.”
Edgar’s gaze quickly surveyed the others and his surroundings before returning to the man asking him the questions. “It would have been but my horse – she’s out in the stables – was one of the things I was selling. She doesn’t like the water.”
“So what happened to you Ed?” asked the woman next to the man with the beady eyes. She was much more forthcoming. She had a rounded face and her hair hung close to her scalp in tight curls. Edgar assumed she was the wife of Mr. Beady Eyes, judging by their closeness and body language.
“Unfortunately on the road I was attacked by highway men. I had to divert and that’s when my horse was hurt.”
The man with the beady eyes raised his top lip slightly in a sneer. “There are no highway men about here,” he stated.
The woman patted her hand against his arm as though scolding a small child. “Now Bryan, stop giving the boy a hard time. He has been through enough.”
“I’m only trying to find out where he came from Martha,” Bryan ‘Beady Eyes’ complained. “I would only give a hard time if he had something to hide.”
Edgar affixed his most pleasant smile. “No harm done,” he said through gritted teeth.
Martha and Bryan returned to their own conversation leaving Edgar alone. The rest did likewise. Edgar stabbed a fork into the meat and had a small piece. He had lost most of his appetite and just wanted to sleep. He turned to Abigail to find she had rested her head in her hands on the table but her eyes were firmly closed and a soft wheezing was escaping from her nostrils.
Edgar managed to clear most of the food on his plate, just through politeness. When he wanted to excuse himself he approached the Mayor. It had been the first time since his arrival he had managed to have an audience with him alone. The Mayor had spent most of the evening dancing with the local women and singing bar songs with the men, including little ditties with the staff.
“I just wanted to thank you for your hospitality. I’m very tired from the journey now, if I could trouble you for somewhere to sleep for the night?” Edgar enquired politely.
The Mayor looked up at him, large white teeth made a wide grin. “The room on the first floor, second on the left should be vacant. Do you need someone to show you the way?”
Edgar shook his head the negative. He was just approaching the doorway that lead upstairs when Bryan called after him. “I am surprised the Hangram didn’t get you…”
Edgar turned back. His patience wearing to the thinnest it had been all evening, including when the robbers were behind him. “Excuse me?”
“The Hangram hunts down criminals.”
Martha smacked her husband’s arm again. “You are scaring the boy!” she exclaimed. “You don’t know he’s a criminal.”
In the midst of the conversation Edgar hadn’t noticed the music stop. Everyone was staring at him again. He had never before felt more like a stranger. Even Abigail had stirred from her slumber and was watching him with blurry eyes.
“What … The hell …. Is the Hangram?”
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