Fortuna: The Coupling

 

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Introduction

night·mare (nīt′mâr′)

n.

1. A dream arousing feelings of intense fear, horror, and distress.

2. An event or experience that is intensely distressing.

3. A female demon or spirit once thought to plague sleepers.

 

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1. The Vision

The cantata of Carmina Burana held him transfixed at the wheel. It was a potent spell cast by the medieval chorus reverberating its tale of the Goddess Fortuna.

The full beam of the racing car’s headlights penetrated the blackness of the night and animated the ancient woodland enclosing the winding road. Amidst the trees, a nocturnal creature tracked the journey of the speeding predator through the dark dominion. Flashing golden eyes reflected the dazzling lights of the silver E-Type Jaguar as it screeched round the bends and roared into the straights.

Every turn of the wheel, the veiled beauty of fortune shadowed him—serpentine and capricious in nature, bestowing pleasure or pain at whim, and enslaving mankind to her fancy.

He tore his eyes from the road ahead to glance at the dashboard clock; it was a quarter to twelve.

The Médecins Sans Frontières fundraiser at The Savoy in London would be drawing to a close for carriages. There, he had time only to consume a single flute of champagne and a caviar canapé before he was summoned away as a matter of grave urgency by a message from Chaplain Belby.

The heir apparent was now about to cross the border into Saxton Town and would arrive at Saxton Manor by midnight.

He inhaled deeply through the nostrils and exhaled slowly through the mouth in an effort to maintain his composure for what was about to come. This homecoming had bided its time for a decade: restless and gnawing at his subconscious.

He was tired, so very tired, but he could not give in to the threat of sleep.

He had barely moved an inch from the rigid driving position throughout the four-hour motorway journey, and now his tall, lean, muscular physique was craving release from its confinement in the metal cage of the sports car. With a deft movement of his tan leather-gloved hand, he unfurled the black bow tie and unbuttoned the starched white collar. He massaged his stiff neck, tense shoulders and aching back against the cream leather seat and stretched out his numbed arms against the steering wheel.

He put his foot down, hard. The V12 engine immediately responded to his demand for more power with a breathtaking burst of speed, which cut through the sheet of rain like a bullet.

A roll of thunder and a fork of lightning interjected his private thoughts. He was driving into a storm.

The windscreen wipers laboured like a pair of frenzied metronomes to clear his vision for what lay ahead of him, but this landscape was indelibly marked on his psyche. He could readily anticipate its twists and turns and trickeries, for he had charted this dénouement in his dreams.

He changed gear down to second to take the irregular bend, slipped through third, then opened her up to top gear and thundered into the open stretch.

And there before him—caught in the headlights and descending from the night—he saw the spectre.

Like a great black bird of prey flying at the windscreen, cloaked and hooded with fiery eyes and burnished mane, its bloodied lips stretched wide in a shrill, piercing cry.

In an instant, he slammed on the brakes. The windscreen shattered. Blackness engulfed him.

***

May Day 2013, Midnight

The intoxicating scent of lily-of-the-valley seeped into his senses: a sickly-sweet smelling salts luring him back to life.

Through blurred vision, he beheld the black figure upon him—its blood dripping onto his face and the hooded cloak shrouding all but the blazing eyes burning into his. The beguiling amber eyes . . .

‘Lily,’ he whispered.

Waves of copper-red hair tumbled over lily-white skin and framed the face, the neck and the breasts in a portrait of haunting beauty. He devoured the image before him: the translucent flashing eyes mirroring his own, the glossy cupid bow beseeching his kiss, and the graceful contours of the neck and shoulders that led his gaze down to the fulsome orbs and inflamed buds of the breasts.

‘I felt the surge,’ she uttered in a voice hoarse with arousal. ‘I’ve come for you.’

Overcome with the need to touch her, to feel that she was real, he reached out into the darkness. He stroked her silken hair and caressed her downy skin. He covered her rosebud lips with his and kissed her, first tenderly then ravenously, capturing her tongue in his, drawing her in to him.

Their desire was visceral; it flashed in their eyes, flamed their cheeks and scorched their throats.

Confirming her to be in the flesh and not another apparition, his heart raced and his spirit soared. He broke away to feast his eyes on her once again. ‘I dream of you day and night,’ he confessed to her. ‘You’re my madness.’

Her sweet lips parted to bare her creamy-white fangs, and she smiled at him with the same expression of hunger in her eyes as in his; her eyes locked with his.

‘Mind, body and spirit,’ she said.

He placed his strong hands around her slender neck, wantonly and possessively gripping her and pulling her to him, holding her at his pounding chest.

She nuzzled into his throat, her lips caressing his skin, her nostrils and tongue savouring his masculine animal scent, and her incisors grazing his flesh.

‘I want you!’ he demanded. ‘I need you.’

The sensual assault of soft mouth and sharp fangs sucking and biting him sent shock waves coursing through his body, searing his flesh and jolting his bones. Pressing her blood-red lips to his, she nourished his parched mouth with a taste of the crimson elixir. He felt the life-blood surging through his limbs and erupting in his loins. He could feel the draw, the marked flesh, and the bite of love. He groaned. His eyes rolled.

Astride his muscular thighs, she tossed her mane and arched her back. She cried out to the night: ‘Forlorn so long—waiting for you, listening for you, searching for you.’

Her glistening golden eyes were fixed upon his face as he unhooked the silver clasp at her neck and dropped the black velvet cloak from her shoulders to reveal a white gossamer gown. Ripping the silk bodice from nape to navel to expose her bounteous breasts, he then cupped the mounds and sucked the tender flesh into his mouth: imbibing on the rosy nipples, feeding on her raw beauty.

Blood-red talons clawed at his white shirt and slashed at his black trousers, scoring the skin of his chest and thighs with the mark of her desire. With his hands encircling her hips, and her sex positioned at his, together they plunged into the forbidden.

She yielded to the penetration with a scream of pleasurable pain that echoed through the woodland. Riding the bucking stallion between her legs, she held on tightly with her talons embedded in his neck and shoulders. With each and every rampant thrust that forced his sex deeper and deeper within hers, she tore into his flesh.

The rain poured, the thunder roared, and the lightning struck the motorcar over and over again, illuminating the wet, naked, writhing flesh inside. The coupling was fierce: a carnal revelry of thrashing bodies and shrieking voices piercing the night like wild beasts in fight.

Finally, his head thrown back, mouth agape, he cried out her name as he lost all control and relinquished his life force to her; and she drained him of every last drop of his potent offering. The seed was sown.

They collapsed into each other—spent, bathed in perspiration and desperately panting for air.

‘I can’t let you go,’ he professed. ‘I love you.’

She shook her head. ‘It cannot be.’ A tear fell down her flushed cheek. ‘It shall destroy us.’

‘On my life, I swear to love and protect you,’ he vowed. ‘Please, don’t leave me, Lily. Stay with me, always.’

Limp and bloodied, they sealed their lips together to steal the last breath of a kiss before the blackness engulfed them once again.

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2. The Awakening

White light enveloped him.

He battled against the firm grip dragging him away from her, restraining and stifling him. He was emerging from the clasp of the nightmare seduction.

‘Wake up! Open your eyes,’ a woman’s voice called out to him. A hand slapped his face to bring him to. ‘It’s over. Come on. Come back.’

He tried to open his eyes but the lids were so heavy the effort exhausted him. He could just make out the ghostly forms in blue and white hovering over him, one to his left and one to his right, surrounding him.

The room was too bright and too loud. It seemed that the thunder and lightning were trapped inside the building with him, banging doors and breaking glass. Physically, he felt as if he had been beaten about the head with a hammer and thrown down the stairs. But his immediate need was not medical; it was to be left alone to sleep, to dream, and to have her again.

He swallowed, and then he flicked his tongue over his parched lips. He could taste the metallic tinge of blood. He could feel the sting of the torn skin and the ache of the bruised flesh spreading over his body. And, above all else, he could smell the sickly-sweet scent of her lingering in his nostrils.

‘Can you hear me?’

‘Mhm,’ he murmured.

‘I’m Matron Armitage. You’re at Mortshire Infirmary.’

He groaned at the revelation of his predicament. A silent film of images of Mortshire Infirmary played in his mind: the provincial red brick edifice with its interior of brown glazed tile, long echoing corridors, heavy swinging doors, linoleum flooring and metal-framed beds. It was an establishment in which disinfectant, tapioca pudding, and enemas prevailed. Although it had been built and bequeathed to Mortshire over a century ago by Saxton charity, it was not the type of institution in which he would choose to be incapacitated.

He opened his eyes to the blurry yet familiar round face of a starched vintage nurse topped off with a stiff white cap pinned over her neat and tidy greying bun. Leaning over him with a dour expression; a stethoscope was hanging from her ears, and she was listening intently to his chest. On the other side of the bed, a young nurse with a blonde bob and a sweet smile stood holding a clipboard, diligently taking notes as dictated by the senior nurse.

Matron Armitage removed the headset from her ears and made a pendant necklace of the stethoscope. ‘What’s your name?’ she asked the patient.

‘Edward,’ he mumbled. ‘Edward Saxton.’

‘Good.’ She nodded.

‘I’m a doctor,’ he added.

‘Very good, Doctor Saxton.’ She smiled.

Edward Saxton flinched as Matron Armitage shone a penlight into his left eye; he flinched again as she repeated the procedure at his right eye. The appearance and pupil dilation response was abnormal, as she expected. She turned away from the malformed eyes, but the striking image remained with her: the ice-blue iris scarred by the black keyhole-shaped pupil eating into it. In a hushed voice, the senior nurse shared her knowledge with the junior nurse. ‘The patient has an eye condition—a coloboma of the iris—which is bilateral. I’ll explain in more detail later, but for now, that’s spelt c-o-l-o-b-o-m-a, Nurse Holmes.’

‘C-o-l-o-b-o-m-a, Matron,’ Nurse Holmes replied, carefully writing the eye details in the patient’s notes, alongside the other particulars of Edward Saxton—thirty years of age, six foot three inches in height, ash blond hair—as described by Matron Armitage, a stickler for registrar detail.

The senior nurse omitted to declare the superfluous observations that came to mind in assessing this particular patient: words such as handsome and chiselled and elegant, even with the cuts and bruises marking his strapping physique. She mentally chided herself for even considering such things at her age with her matronly curves straining at the girdle. Nevertheless, she did allow herself a wry smile at the alluring sight of the naked body and the quality of endowment of the man lying before her, only partially covered by the crisp white bed sheet.

It had been well over twenty years since Matron Armitage had last set eyes on the Saxton boy, as the townsfolk still referred to him, and she was pleased to see that he had grown up to be a fine figure of a man, and a doctor too. Of course, splendour and status were the birthright of the Saxton lineage: his father the High Court Judge, his grandfather the British Army General, his great-grandfather the Viceroy, and so on, for generations. At the stroke of midnight and old Lord Saxton’s demise, this patient of hers had inherited the title, manor and rights of the estate; and overnight he had become Lord Saxton, an extremely rich and powerful man indeed. Though in all honesty, Matron Armitage wondered whether it was a blessing or a curse to inherit the Saxton legacy, its history being one of misery, madness, and murder even, according to folklore. But Matron Armitage was also mindful that it was the coffers of the Saxton legacy that had built and bequeathed Mortshire Infirmary, and she was thankful for that and her place in it.

‘Do you know why you’re here, Edward?’ she asked him.

‘Storm, crash,’ he answered groggily.

‘And what date is this, Edward?’

‘May first, two thousand thirteen.’

‘How old are you?’

‘Thirty.’

‘Where are you from?’

‘Saxton Manor.’

Clapping her hands, Matron Armitage announced with a broad grin: ‘Welcome back, Edward Saxton of Saxton Manor.’

The patient coughed painfully, his throat dry, his ribs sore. ‘So we meet again, Armitage,’ he responded through gritted teeth.

‘It’s Matron Armitage now, if you please, Lord Saxton,’ she retorted in her best telephone voice and with a sly wink.

‘Welcome home, Milord,’ Nurse Holmes said in a broad Mortshire accent. She was blushing and smiling shyly, and trying not to stare at his mesmerising blue-black eyes.

‘All in all, you’ve the luck of the devil, Lord Saxton,’ Matron Armitage said as she proffered a glass of water.

‘Cheers!’ the patient replied. He emptied the glass in a couple of swallows.

‘Not too much too soon,’ Matron Armitage ordered. ‘You can have another in a little while.’

‘Mortshire Temperance Society, indeed.’ Edward Saxton muttered the comment that caused the senior nurse to raise her eyebrows at him.

The junior nurse placed the empty glass next to the pitcher of water within his reach on the bedside cabinet. ‘Your bag’s here, Milord.’ She pointed to the vintage Globe-Trotter portmanteau with the initials ES embossed in the oxblood leather, sitting at the side of the bedside cabinet.

He noticed that its hide was watermarked but the lock was still in place. He mentally listed its contents: wallet, passport, iPad, set of clothing, toiletry bag, aviator glasses, blue contact lenses, medication, and the Glock 17 pistol.

His eyes travelled up to the sealed plastic bag, which held the broken pieces of his iPhone, atop the bedside cabinet. His wristwatch sat beside this. It was the irreplaceable Daniels London chronometer tourbillon wristwatch in eighteen-carat gold. He registered its disfigured face and the time that had stopped at midnight.

Matron Armitage continued with the medical checks, shaking a glass thermometer and gesturing for Edward Saxton to open his mouth. Popping the mercury-in-glass bulb under his tongue, she instructed: ‘Hold still, three minutes,’ and timed this by her silver fob watch. Precisely three minutes later, she extracted the thermometer, and Nurse Holmes added the result to the patient notes. Matron Armitage then wrapped the blood pressure cuff around his left upper arm and pumped the rubber bulb to inflate it while she monitored the blood pressure gauge, and Nurse Holmes duly noted that result too.

‘And exactly how long have I been in this state-of-the-art medical facility with all of this cutting-edge technology?’ Edward Saxton asked with a provocative smile.

Matron Armitage tutted. ‘Impertinence!’

The junior nurse tried but failed to suppress a girlish giggle.

The senior nurse frowned, and then she answered his question in her more usual manner, formally and concisely. ‘You were found on the Saxton Estate at a quarter past midnight, unconscious in your motorcar, crashed in the storm. The ambulance brought you here at one thirty-seven a.m. precisely. You have been in our care for approximately one hour.’

Edward Saxton saw that the electric clock on the wall opposite his bed had stopped at 01:37.

His attention was diverted by the entrance of an orderly wearing a rubber apron and latex gloves. In a medical waste sack, she carried the remnants of a gossamer-silk white gown, and a black velvet cloak lined in blood-red silk bearing the faded nametag of Lily T. Ward. Edward Saxton watched the orderly collect his ripped and bloodied dinner suit from a bin, and she placed this too in the plastic sack. As she did so, a roar of thunder set the surgical steel instruments rattling on a nearby metal trolley, and a bolt of lightning clawed at the windowpane. Startled, the orderly dropped the sack on the floor.

Nurse Holmes instinctively grabbed hold of Matron Armitage’s hand for security.

The senior nurse rolled her eyes and removed the junior nurse’s hand from hers. ‘Pull yourselves together, ladies,’ she warned them. ‘It’s thunder and lightning, not the work of the devil.’

‘Sorry, Matron,’ the nurse and the orderly responded in unison.

‘Now, Edward, do you have any of the following symptoms?’ Matron Armitage read carefully from a list and paused between each word to allow for a response from the patient. ‘Nausea? Headache? Dizziness? Drowsiness? Double vision? Slurred speech? Weakness or numbness in your arms or legs?’

Edward Saxton shook his head in the negative throughout, keeping to himself the symptoms he was actually experiencing as listed by the senior nurse. His immediate concern was above and beyond his transient physical state. He stared through the nurses, beyond the confinement space, and into a world outside the four walls of the room, searching for her in his mind’s eye.

The overhead lights flickered, went out for a few seconds, and then came back on again. A monitor in the room flashed its lights and beeped a red alert.

Matron Armitage shook her head and sighed. ‘That’s the emergency generator playing up now. Would you believe it?’ She looked to the heavens above in a silent prayer for both strength and mercy.

A fire alarm wailed danger in the corridor outside.

With a gasp of exasperation, the senior nurse turned to the orderly. ‘Fire safety checks, please. Clinic and wards, Dawson. The caretaker covers the rest of the building. Report back to me.’

‘Aye, Matron,’ the orderly replied, and then she left the room with the sack of contaminated clothing.

Matron Armitage walked over to the monitor and pressed a series of buttons on the machine, but the flashing and beeping continued. ‘For goodness’ sake!’ she yelled, hitting the top of it with the flat of her hand. She unplugged the machine from the socket, but the flashing and beeping continued nonetheless.

‘The equipment’s gone haywire, and that bloody fire alarm is driving me up the wall.’ She held her head in her hands in frustration. ‘I can’t even hear myself think!’

Nurse Holmes retreated at Matron Armitage’s outburst. Anxious and tense, her eyes darted about her. She was nervously anticipating the next assault of thunder and lightning.

Matron Armitage put her hands to her forehead, massaging her temples, thinking aloud, and praying for divine intervention. ‘We’re a skeleton staff on the graveyard shift in the middle of nowhere trying to contend with the worst storm in living memory, so help me God.’

The lights went out again.

Through gritted teeth, the senior nurse counted aloud: ‘One blackout, two blackout, three blackout—’

The lights came on again.

‘Other than the switch to the emergency generator, which we’ve already done, we don’t actually have an official policy for dealing with a power outage on this scale.’ At a loss to know what else to do, the senior nurse threw up her hands in resignation and finally made the announcement: ‘We’ll have to transfer to another hospital.’

Nurse Holmes gasped.

The patient was now sitting up in bed, alert and watchful and heedful of every word and gesture.

‘Yes, that includes you, Lord Saxton,’ Matron Armitage confirmed.

She quickly counted patient numbers on her fingers. ‘We have nine patients—three on the men’s ward, four on the women’s, and the two here in the clinic.’

Nurse Holmes nodded ever more rapidly at Matron Armitage’s words while wincing at the lightning stabbing through the chinks in the window blinds.

‘Staff-wise, we have our good selves, along with the orderly, the caretaker and the chaplain,’ Matron Armitage stated, as the mental cogs whirred to put together a plan of action. ‘Is Detective Ellis still here?’

‘His car’s outside,’ Nurse Holmes replied quickly.

Matron Armitage allowed herself a smile at that factor. ‘Good. The more the merrier. We’ll need all hands on deck if we’re to evacuate Mortshire Infirmary tonight.’

Edward Saxton bristled at the mention of the final name on her register.

The lights went out, came back on, went out, and came back on again, as if there were an invisible hand manipulating the power switch.

‘We need to carry out immediate checks on all patients, and any electronic equipment in use,’ Matron Armitage reasoned, with an emphatic gesture to the nurse. ‘You make a start on the women’s ward. I’ll join you shortly.’

A clap of thunder rattled the window’s metal frame, prompting the nurse to scurry from the room. The senior nurse tutted and followed after her. She could be heard reprimanding the junior nurse in the corridor, having to raise her voice above the drone of the fire alarm. ‘Walk, don’t run, Nurse Holmes. This is an infirmary, not a playground. I expect you to behave in a professional manner at all times, and especially so in a state of emergency.’

‘Aye, Matron. Sorry, Matron,’ Nurse Holmes answered, fast-walking along the corridor.

Matron Armitage returned to the room, shaking her head in dismay. ‘Now, Lord Saxton, where were we before the end of the world interrupted?’ Picking up the clipboard of notes from the bottom of the bed, she continued the consultation with her patient. ‘I’m told the car’s a write-off, but I’m pleased to say that you’re in much better shape. Lacerations and bruising to the upper and lower torso, we can patch up. At least that’s what a preliminary examination has revealed thus far, but I’m sure you’ll let us know if we’ve missed anything.’

The patient acknowledged her comments, but his attention was focussed elsewhere, as the nursing sister had deduced from the moment he had first opened his deviant eyes.

Matron Armitage’s demeanour and tone suddenly changed, and she spoke softly and carefully. ‘Lord Saxton, may I call you Edward?’

He nodded indifferently.

‘Lily is in the room next door, Edward.’

Edward Saxton’s eyes darted from Matron Armitage to the door and back to Matron Armitage.

‘She’s in a stable condition, but she has suffered a head injury.’

‘Lily?’ he repeated.

‘Yes. You’ve been calling out for her.’

‘Lily,’ he whispered.

Matron Armitage paused to check her notes. ‘She has a distinctive burn mark on her neck—forked—as if she’s been struck by lightning.’

Lost in thought, Edward Saxton shook his head in disbelief, unresponsive to the questioning tone of the senior nurse.

‘Well, you’ll be able to see her soon enough, but for now you have to rest, if you can.’ She groaned, referring to the onslaught of the violent storm and the screeching alarms.

‘Thank you, Matron,’ he murmured absently.

‘Would you like something for the pain, Edward?’

‘No.’

‘A sedative, perhaps?’

‘No, thank you.’

‘Do you need medication for anything else, Edward?’ she asked cautiously, her eyes buried in the notes but not reading them.

‘I said no, thank you, Matron. I have it all under control,’ he replied curtly. An uncomfortable silence passed between them. ‘I don’t expect it to be mentioned again,’ he added.

Matron Armitage was taken aback at the sting in the tone of his voice. ‘Right, well, I’ll leave you for now then,’ she said, poised at the door. ‘Oh, but Chaplain Belby’s waiting to see you,’ she remembered. ‘Should I send him in now?’

‘Yes, do, Matron.’ Edward Saxton nodded. He was fully aware of the news that would be forthcoming but he recognised the need to follow protocol nonetheless. He shifted awkwardly in the bed and grimaced. His ribs cried out for morphine, but he needed to keep a clear head to keep his wits about him.

Chaplain Belby was seated at reception, his head lolling on his chest, a spindly pair of wire-framed spectacles hanging precariously at the end of his nose, and snoring, despite the blaring company of the fire alarm.

Matron Armitage called out to him: ‘Chaplain!’ She paused to wait for signs of life, and then she called out again, even louder and with more authority: ‘Chaplain Belby!’ When that failed, she ripped a sheet of paper from her clipboard, balled it up, threw it at him, and caught a glancing blow at his head.

The result of which was that the chaplain awoke from his stupor with such a start and in such confusion that he drew his walking cane and swung it about as if it were a sword fending off an assailant. Then, spotting Matron Armitage beckoning him come to the room, Chaplain Belby made an effort to compose himself: smoothing down his sparse white hair and dusting off his black frockcoat. Shakily, he bent down to the floor to retrieve his fallen biblical property, and then he set off for an audience with the latest Lord Saxton.

As she held the door ajar for the chaplain, Matron Armitage considered the pallor of Edward Saxton. ‘If you need anything at all, you just pull on the red alert cord at the headboard, and a nurse will come,’ she told him.

The booming echo of a roar of thunder caused such panic in Chaplain Belby that he dispensed with his cane and increased his speed so swiftly that it appeared as if he were being blown along the corridor by a bomb blast.

Matron Armitage rolled her eyes. ‘Failing that, scream blue murder.’

‘The clock’s stopped,’ Edward Saxton said. ‘What time is it?’

His nurse lifted the silver fob watch at her bosom. ‘It’s just shy of three o’clock.’

When Chaplain Belby finally reached the door, he was leaning heavily on his walking cane, his breathing was laboured, and he was mopping at his brow and mouth with a rumpled handkerchief. Matron Armitage caught a whiff of alcohol on his breath and the unsteadiness on his feet as she guided him in. She was well aware of his regular worship at the hipflask and she had addressed his deteriorating condition in a recent administrative meeting. His severance from Mortshire Infirmary Chaplaincy was imminent, but he was there that night in his role as Chaplain of Saxton Manor Chapel, and that was beyond her jurisdiction.

Chaplain Belby was a figure dressed head to toe in black but for the white dog collar of office. A tall and thin man in stature, now frail and stooped in deportment; he was eternally grave in manner. He stood at Edward Saxton’s bedside, wearing a mask of piety and pity. ‘’Tis a miracle, indeed,’ Chaplain Belby declared in his best sermon voice. ‘Merciful Heavens, you are spared, my dear boy.’ He performed an inept sign of the cross over the hospital bed.

‘Father is dead, I presume,’ Edward Saxton stated, matter-of-factly. He was in no mood for pleasantries, formalities or prayers.

‘The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away,’ Chaplain Belby proclaimed. He kissed the Whitby jet cross at his neck. ‘Your dearly departed father was taken from us at midnight. The trumpets sound in Heaven now.’ He performed another inept sign of the cross and recited: ‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.’

‘Did he have any last words?’

Chaplain Belby noisily cleared his throat of phlegm, and then he answered in a solemn manner. ‘Your father asked for forgiveness for his sins, and for those of his forefathers.’ Furtively, the chaplain moved in closer to Edward Saxton in the bed, and his top lip quivered as he added: ‘And for the sins of his only son and heir—especially the sins of the flesh.’

The old man’s stale breath caused Edward Saxton to avert his face. ‘Very considerate of him,’ he replied disingenuously. ‘Anything else?’

‘No,’ Chaplain Belby confirmed. He then quickly corrected himself: ‘No, Milord,’ and he lowered his gaze reverentially.

‘Then that will be all, Belby,’ the latest Lord Saxton said. ‘I’m sure you have an epic eulogy to prepare for the funeral, so I won’t keep you. I’ll be returning to Saxton Manor at dawn today, and later, in the afternoon, we’ll make the appropriate arrangements for the funeral service.’

‘As you wish, Milord, and may God bless you.’ Chaplain Belby bowed and departed with as much haste as his wobbly legs could muster, for it deeply disturbed him to look into yet another pair of demon eyes. As his tremors worsened, he had an urgent need to seek sanctuary in Mortshire Infirmary Chapel, in which to take some blessed relief in the medicinal spirit. He craved the company of the bottle to help ease his torment, for Chaplain Belby had sold his soul to the devil, as had his father before him, and so on, for generations. He carried the great body of guilt in his heart and mind as if he were carrying his own corpse in his withered arms.

And with a final genuflection at the door, the hoary crow, as the Saxton boy had named him, was gone in a flurry of moth-eaten black cloth and a sprinkling of dead skin.

In the blink of an eye, Edward Saxton had come to terms with his father’s demise and consequently his newly acquired title and role. The past would soon be buried, and the family fortune would be his: the money, the misery, and the madness, all wrapped up in the title to Saxton Manor.

Finally alone, Edward Saxton—now Lord Saxton—closed his eyes, and in the darkness of his mind, he called out the name of his beauty of the night: Lily. The thought of having her was all-consuming. His desperate dreams had come true, but he would have to draw on all his mental and physical reserves to preclude the recurring nightmare of the Saxton legacy.

He spoke his thoughts to make them real: ‘Lily is in the flesh, in my world. I shall claim her, and keep her with me, always.’

The storm raged on—within him and without him—thundering through the grounds and battering the edifice.

The lightning attacked the lead flashing of the roof, sending sparks flying like exploding fireworks in the night sky. The rain penetrated the vulnerable fabric of the walls and windows, bleeding in through the cracks in the masonry, metalwork and woodwork to drip and pool on the floor. And the wind forced entry via the ventilation shafts, howling its plaintive cry down the deserted corridors, gusting open doors and searching from room to room in cold draughts.

‘Lily,’ Edward Saxton mouthed, and then he licked his parched lips.

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3. The Fugue

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4. The Homecoming

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