Friday, 9 December 2016

The Hand of Glory



The night had fallen heavily upon the city. The sea fret had rolled up from the bay, reducing the light of the stars and confining the spill of lanterns. The air was cold and thick with it, deadening the sound of the tramping feet of the city’s nightwatch.

Emerging from the cloying darkness, the hooded figure slipped from shadow to shadow. He had chosen this night well. His grin was broad if there had been any to see it showing his teeth white against the burnt cork that blackened his face. Soon he would leave the sanctuary of the darkened slum quarter streets for the wider avenues of the villa district. An alley rat such as he would be fair game to any sentry or bodyguard who happened to espy him. He reached his hand into the folds of his cloak, to check he had the tools of his trade; dagger, crowbar, flints and… his hand felt the cold hand in its claw like posture, the fingers forming a cage into which he would fix the candle.

Hearing footsteps to the left he merged once more into the shadows, willing his breathe to be quiet. He couldn’t afford any mistakes, he had planned this venture for so long and it had cost him, in more ways than money. But it was an investment, he thought, a path to future wealth. He had been warned, it had said so in the Grimoire, the ancient text that outlined each stage.



***

The guard at the gallows had commanded a heavy payment of coin to look the other way as he purloined the felon’s hand from the swinging gibbet. Luckily the crowd that had gathered to watch the murderer’s demise had dispersed. Judging by the insults shouted at the condemned, and lack of mourners, the hanged man had not been a popular figure. He looked up and saw dead man’s face, its eyes betraying the horror of their last moments.

Working quickly, he had sawed through the wrist with his dagger, the blood already congealed and lazily dripping, although he had expired only an hour or so before. He had sung the words to the corpse, as he had worked “From one to another, brother to brother. Hand to hand, a Light in darkness grasped”. The hand would require draining as the blood had gathered from the arm. He quickly wrapped the grim trophy in rags to absorb the blood and slipped it into his bag, sheathing his dagger and concealing it under his cloak. Working quickly, he tied bandages about the stump over which he tied the letter cap, as if the hanged man had long been an amputee. He chanced a glance up at the hanged man’s face. Did he see the ghost of a smile? A glint in the eyes? He blinked and the eyes of the hanged man were as lifeless as before.

He was about to turn away and slip into anonymity but was stopped short when he felt the tip of the guard’s spear tickle his ribs. He looked up in alarm at the grinning soldier.

“Not so fast there, my fine fellow,“ the guard said, the spear point a hair’s breadth from breaking skin. “What would a man such as you be wanting such a thing for? For no good, I’d warrant.”
“That bastard owed me, he stole from me. I swore that I’d cut off his thieving hand. I’m going to feed it to the dogs.”

The sentry’s eyes narrowed, although his stance relaxed a little, he smiled. “Revenge is it? I can relate to that, but what of the bloody mess you’ve made? I have to clean that up before…”

The glint of a proffered gold coin caused the sentry to stop his speech. He snatched it from the man’s hand and tested it in his teeth. It obviously met his approval and he grunted, lowered his spear and signalled for the man to make himself scarce. Which he did, disappearing into the crowds that milled around the city’s market stalls, but only enough to be out of sight. He waited around the periphery of the gallows square, watching as the sentry washed the flagstones with water and covered the area with old straw. In all honesty the observer would have left it at that, if the sentry had not threatened him for more money. Thus it was that he followed the sentry when he was relieved, to the barracks and then followed him to the tavern. Next morning the sentry was found drowned in the river. Witnesses attested that he had drunk heavily that night and had left the tavern worse for wear. That his pockets were empty of coin was proof of it, although no one saw him fall in the river. 

Some money was recouped that night and if questions were asked about a handless corpse, well no face could be fitted to the culprit, although a line had been crossed; a thief had become a murderer. A price had to be paid.

***

The figure staggered into view. It was someone in a hurry, swaying slightly with drink as the sentry once had. The hidden observer read the signs, here was a man eager to get home, attempting stealth as badly as only a drunk can, to avoid the night watch and possible arrest. He was well-to-do from the cut of his clothes, no ale for this one but fine wines. No doubt he would still have coin on him. On any other night such an easy target, already half insensible with drink, would be too tempting to miss, despite the rapier that the man carried. But he had bigger and better targets than robbing a drunk; once more his hand strayed to the trophy he carried.

***

He had wrapped the hand in a shroud, squeezed it and drained it before burying the hand outside the city at a crossroads in an earthenware jar filled with salt, peppers , pigeon grass and saltpetre. Two weeks later, under the light of an August moon he dug up the jar and took it home. He waited until the eastern sky coloured with the coming dawn and as the first rays broke the horizon to herald the summer’s day he smashed the jar, releasing the grim contents as he sang, “From dark to light, from earth to air. A helping hand dug from sand let rich men yield their share.” The hand was pale and shrivelled, its wrist turning black. He worked the stiffened joints and knuckles and tied the fingers with twine so that the hand made a cupping gesture. In the window of his room, as the dog days sun shone strong and hot, he hung the hand to dry and mummify.

***

But such opportunities could not be passed up he decided. Silently he emerged from the shadows behind the staggering man. In mere moments the garrotte was around the neck, the knotted leather cutting deep into the exposed flesh and crushing the windpipe. Hands moved uselessly to try to hook under the cord. More pressure was applied. The victim’s mouth opened and closed like a fish out of water. The eyes bulged from the cheeks that turned deathly blue. The struggling ceased and the dead weight was hauled into the fog-clad shadows. Pockets were deftly rifled, rings were prised from fingers. The rapier and its fine scabbard and sword sash of fine leather was taken and slipped over the head and shoulder of the assassin. There was no time to dispose of the corpse, so it was hidden as best as haste allowed. He would be long gone by the time it was discovered after dawn. He slipped away to the grand house he had targeted.

A life taken, and so quickly. He would price his haul from the dead man later. The basketed hilt of the rapier felt ornate and expensive, such a weapon would command a good price, although he always fancied himself as a swordsman. Other alley rats, armed with daggers, would think twice when confronted by him, as the steel rasped thirstily from its scabbard. Better it would be his rather than being left with the corpse; much good it afforded him in the end. He grinned to himself.

Corpses, he had grown accustomed to such things, which reminded him; soon he would affix the candle and light it in its foul holder.

***

The candle; even thinking about its source almost made him retch, but the Grimoire had been unrelenting in the requirements. So it was that while the hand had been curing he embarked on the next stage. By night he went with horse and cart to the burial pit outside of the city.

He saw the recent excavations and set about it with a spade. Recently turned, he was able to make good progress and found the shroud cloaked corpse. The smell was strong and heavy in his nostrils. No other hanged men had been laid to rest in this unconsecrated ground that he knew of, but he had to be sure. He cut the shroud open with his dagger and the stench of a summer’s corpse almost overcame him. With an effort he carried on and lifted his lantern to look closer. There was the leather cap he had affixed to the stump. A morbid curiosity gripped him and he shone the lantern at the dead man’s face. The skin was drawn tight across the face, revealing the grinning maw of teeth between which the tongue protruded. The sightless eyes bulged too pushed put by the gases of putrefaction. The flesh was marbled as every vein and capillary showed beneath the green tinged skin. Appalled he threw the folds of the shroud over the face of the corpse and lifting the torso at the waist he tied a rope around it but as he set the body back down the shroud fell from the face. The head seemed to turn and look at him accusingly and from that decaying throat foul gas rushed out, “Woe.” it seemed to say.

The man jumped back against the wall of the grave and bit the back of his hand in fear, expecting the corpse to rise up from death, but no other words escaped that grinning maw. Dead it was and the soul it once held remained in hell.

With senses regained the man climbed from the pit of horror and hauled the corpse up out from its resting place. He placed it over the back of the cart and, after refilling the grave with its dirt, trundled up into the wooded hills to the old charcoal burners hollow.

There far from prying eyes he rendered the fat from the decaying flesh and cut off locks of the man’s shaggy hair, twining it into a wick. He mixed the fat with died horse manure and sang as he shaped it around the wick, “With locks of hair do I mix, an ever burning candle’s wick, to light my way unseen by all, upon which deepest sleep shall fall.”

The candle made, he threw the remains of the body on the fire. The skull hissed and steamed as it burned. Yet still the sightless eyes followed the man’s movement as they boiled, the mouth fell open as if in laughter, mocking him as he dug a hole to inter whatever remains survived. Come the morning light he would smash that grinning skull to dust. A heavy price was being paid, he felt it, and he knew it. The Grimoire hadn’t lied.


***
He checked up and down the road, listening for footfalls but there were none. He hurried across it and in the cloying darkness he felt along the garden wall of the house he sought. He felt for the ivy that he knew was there and he hauled himself up and over to land on the grass behind. The house loomed ahead through the fog. Turning his back to it he crouched down, hiding behind his cloak. He took out the terrible candle holder and placed the candle on the nail he had hammered through the mummified claw. With shaking hand he took his flint and struck it by the ghastly wick. Softly he spoke the words. “Hand of glory take the flame, hide the bearer from all blame, a light to guide, a light to see. Whilst cloaked in shadows all about me.”



The candle spluttered and the flame took, burning strong and steady with an eerie green tinged light. He held it high and it cast light around him. “Oh hand of glory cast thy light, lead us to our spoils this night.”

The light seemed to focus illuminating the ground before him; he followed the path it made. It led past the windows of the house. He cast a glance at them as he passed but the glass was black. He waved the candle in front of him, but no reflection was shown. He smiled as the path of green light brought him to the door. He held the candle before him and faced the barrier. He recited the spell he had learned.

Open lock, to the dead man’s knock. Fly bolt and bar and band. Nor move, nor swerve, joint, muscle or nerve. At the spell of the dead man’s hand. Sleep, all who sleep. Wake all who wake. But be as the dead for the dead man’s sake.”

He pushed at the door and it swung open, in he walked the light guiding him, showing the fine, polished  mosaic floor.  He passed the ticking clock that stood tall against the wall. He caught his breath when it chimed thrice. He held his breath but all was still, the charm of the Hand of Glory held. Three o’clock, dawn would be a rumour in the sky in two hours and he would need to be away by then. The light guided him to the stairs which he stealthily crept up, wincing at every creak that the wood gave out. On the landing he saw the guard, sat outside his lady’s chamber. The man was sat bolt upright but he didn’t turn to see him. The guard’s eyes were open and yet were unseeing, his sword lay across his knees.

The thief drew the rapier he carried, it felt exquisitely balanced. He bowed mockingly at the guard, as a dueling gentleman would and then slowly pointed the blade at the man’s stomach, he pushed, feeling the flesh yield to its sharp point as the blade bit deep, all the time he watched the guard’s face. It remained expressionless although he saw a tear well in an eye and slowly meander down the man’s cheek. He withdrew the blade, clicked his heels together holding the hilt up to his face he saluted him before returning the blade to the scabbard. He stood before the door of the chamber and opened the door.

He entered the lady’s room.  Candles burned showing the rich red and gold wallpaper and the dressing table that glinted with the gems and precious metals of her jewelry. The eerie green light led him to it. He grabbed the necklaces and rings. Rich he would be rich, no more the alley rat life for him. With a fine sword, fine clothes and wealth, a gentleman he would be. Wealth would buy him ease and respect. He smiled at the hand of glory, damn the price, it was worth it! As he grabbed an ornate necklace of pearls, that rattled as he stuffed them in his satchel, he heard a sigh behind him from the lady’s bed. She was a renowned beauty it was said, he could risk a look.

He held his light above him and advanced on her. Her skin was as exquisite porcelain. Her hair lay on the pillow in tumbling curls, he reached out and wound it around his fingers, she had rose bud lips. He was tempted to steal a kiss from them, but…

He looked down at her elegant long neck. He released her hair his fingertips brushing her smooth neck. Her renown was well founded. With the trappings of wealth he would have a wife such as this. Now what was he? Scum, mere scum, that’s what she would call him. This woman wouldn’t even cast a glance in his direction, oblivious to the grinding poverty her wealth made her immune to. His hand clasped around her neck and squeezed. Downstairs the clock struck five times.

Five o’clock? What was he doing? He withdrew his hand. He hadn’t meant to kill her, but there she lay, with no breathe of life. What had he become? He had enough loot, he had to flee, dawn would be close. He hurried out of the chamber, his satchel caught on the hilt of the enchanted sentry’s sword, it fell on the landing floor with a clatter. He heard the sentry gasp. He wasn’t dead, he had only wounded him! No time, no time, he must flee! He ran down the stairs to the open door. Already there was a ghost of light towards the east. He sprinted across the lawn. The candle still burned, only milk would extinguish it according to the Grimoire. He scrabbled up the wall laden with treasure, keeping hold of the hand of glory. He was atop the wall and risked a look behind. Staggering out of the house, a hand grasped to his wounded side he saw the sentry.

“Alarm! Alarm! Thieves and murder! My lady has been murdered!”

He saw light burst to life in the house as once sleeping servants and retainers were released from their enchanted sleep. He jumped off the wall and cried out in pain as his leg was cut by a sharp stone in the wall. He dropped the hand of glory as he felt his wounded leg crumple beneath him on the cobbled road. He heard a tinkling sound as some rings escaped from his satchel to bounce on the cobbles.  Down the road he heard a clamour and the running and clatter of the nights watch answering the alarm and raising a hue and cry, through the fog he saw the glow of torches. He stood up with an effort and reached down to his leg, feeling the blood that ran. He must go.  What of his lost treasure? Ignore a few rings; he still had necklaces and money in his haul. The Hand would afford him enchanted cover if he stayed in the shadows. But where was it?  He saw the green glow of the candle.  The index finger of the hand pointed at him, as if in accusation. He snatched up the hand and limped across the street just as the nightwatch appeared.

“Sir, look there’s loot on the road,” one voice called. “And blood sir, look a trail of blood,” said another.

With a curse the thief hurried as best he could down into the alley, the glow of torches behind him following his spoor. He turned a corner blindly. He only saw the young woman carrying the two buckets on the yoke when it was too late. He crashed into her.  She screamed as they both fell to the floor.

“You fool! You’ve spilled my milk! What can I sell now?“  she yelled at him in anger.

She could see him? How could she see him? He saw the hand of glory and the extinguished candle, the wisp of smoke curling into the morning air. He tried to stand only to be knocked to the floor by the butt of a musket. He looked up in horror as the night watch trained their guns on him.
“Got you, thief! Murderer! You’ll hang for this night’s work.”

He saw the hand on the ground beside him, its finger pointing at him, accusing.

***



The hang man had done his job. The city was well rid of the infamous practitioner of the dark arts who had robbed and murdered one terrible night. The crowds had hurled insults and curses at the murderer of Lady Greythorn and pelted him with rotten fruit. They had cheered as he was hauled up into the air to his death, his soul consigned to hell. The entertainment over, the crowds had melted away; a hooded figure sidled up to the guard who watched over the gibbet.

“This one owed me. How much for you to look the other way, while I take a memento from this hanged man?”

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