An Unclean Legacy: “Manfred on the Road”

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It was in Manfred’s home, laying on his couch as he carved apples at his table, that Sophie first realized that her father was damned.

“His soul’s already in Hell,” she said.

“Eh?”

“That’s what it means,” she said. “To be a twin. Baltasar had their soul. He made a mistake. The demons took him down to Hell, and their soul with him. So he’s already suffering the torments of the damned, and when he dies, they’ll get worse. That’s why Daddy had to tie up the Devil, I think.”

Manfred pondered that.

“He should tie up the Devil again,” Manfred said. “And also wrench his soul back from Hell, cleanse it with the power of the little gold men, and send it up to Heaven.”

“Huh,” said Sophie, thinking about that. “… Yes. I wish he would.”

//We do not know how Montechristien Gargamel came into his power. His origins are a mystery. How such an ungainly, strange, and immoral man could rise so swiftly to prominence puzzles even the greatest scholars of our time. Of his life once established in Castle Gargamel, however, certain facts are known.

He took to wife the Lady Yseult Gargamel, one of the great beauties of his day; and though many a rival pressed for evidence that he’d bewitched or stolen her, none was ever found. They had and loved six children of their flesh, until the seventh, Elisabet, killed Yseult with the complications of her birth. Each of these children was a prodigy, possessed of astonishing talents. When at last Montechristien stumbled towards the grave, the talents of his children turned against their siblings, every hand against the other, until at last they could dispose of the matter of their legacy.

This is the fifteenth installment of the story of that time.//

Sophie runs.

She has left Manfred’s cottage for the night. It is after dark. The shadow is on the road. It is heading in her direction, blindly questing towards Manfred’s home.

In a blur of bounding shapes Sophie darts into the trees. When she passes the shadow she is barely hitting her stride. She lands beside the road as a greyhound, lean and long, and she runs.

It does not see her. She is silent as she passes. But it smells her. And it turns.

Sophie, it says.

The shadow is in the shape of Baltasar Gargamel, her uncle, but it moves unnaturally and its eyes are red and black.

“No time,” mutters Sophie, in moments of human shape between each bound.

You are beautiful, says the shadow. You will serve me.

The voice is like honey and ice cream to her. It is beautiful and it is sweet. And the shadow reaches its claw after her, stretching across the yards between them.

Sophie is a gnat. She whirls between its fingers and away.

Dead Baltasar lifts his arms against the moonlight and eight shadow-limbs weave a web to catch the gnat.

Sophie is a hare. She tears through the web and runs, her back legs pounding.

Dead Baltasar drops to his hands and knees. He takes on the aspect of the hound. He is chasing her, his fingers clawed, his head extended, baying in the fashion that the Devil bays.

//“You should stay,” Manfred said. He looked out at the setting sun. “If you head home now, you’ll meet the shadow on the road.

“No worries,” Sophie said.//

Sophie is a horse; a stag; a gazelle; an antelope; a tiger. She shifts with each footstep, finding the shape best suited to that moment of the road. She is gaining on the shadow.

Then the aspect of the Devil burns around dead Baltasar, and he grows great and fiery, and he tromps after her on great elephantine legs, and the forest shakes and shudders with the pounding of his feet.

Sophie, you have no soul, but I can see your heart, and it is worthy of me.

“You won’t catch me tonight,” Sophie says.

She is the lightning, arcing madly forward from tree to tree.

//“What if you meet the shadow?” Manfred asked.

“Then I will run and run and run,” Sophie said, “until the dawn.”//

To take form as lightning is tiring and dizzying, so she does not move forward quite so quickly or for quite so long as she would like. She falls from that shape and rises again and she is a hummingbird, an eagle, a falcon, flying upwards towards the clouds and the moon.

Behind her there is the terrible swarming sound of bees.

//“I do not like you taking such a risk,” Manfred said.

“I am used to it,” Sophie said.

“But if it should catch you—” Manfred said.

“Yes?”

“Then it would taint you,” Manfred said. “It would work its miasma into your flesh and bone. You’d be lost to us.”//

Sophie is a thrashing cloud-runner. She is a winged unicorn, its skin as black as pitch. She is a spreading murder of crows.

Dead Baltasar, mounted on an iron pestle, is gaining on her.

“Damn it,” Sophie mutters. “I’m distracted tonight.”

//“I could resist,” Sophie protested. “I could stay clean.”

But Manfred thought back to the night of the shadow, and the temptations that he has overcome only by virtue of the shackles on his arms, and he shook his head. “No. You couldn’t. No one could.”//

Then Sophie is tumbling down as a spear of sunlight to the earth. She realizes her mistake too late. The bracken below her is Devil-twisted. It is raising its claws as she falls to snatch her. She changes into an owl and tries to pull herself up but she is falling far too fast.

This will be one of those nights, Sophie realizes bleakly, when she is caught before the dawn.

An Unclean Legacy

Manfred on the Road

Manfred’s dreams are tormented by lust and confusion and the desire for Rachel Saraman. He wakes convulsively, in the middle of the night, sweating, tired, and hot.

In his mind an intention forms.

So he puts on his armor, clean and white. He looks back at Santrieste’s stable, but he does not wake the unicorn.

He walks out onto the road.

The sin of Gargamel is moving on the road that night, as every night. It is painting the sky red and black with the light of it.

And Manfred walks.

“Where do you go, this night, with your armor and your binding?” Manfred’s devil asks.

And Manfred walks.

“Turn back,” says Manfred’s devil.

But he does not.

“I need to talk to Sophie,” he says. “I need her advice.”

And on the road he meets dead Baltasar, and Sophie whimpering quietly amidst the heath. And Manfred looks slowly from one to the other, processing what he sees.

“Where do you go this night,” he asks the shadow, “with your corpse-like flesh and the evil in your eyes? Why do you walk these roads and bring trouble to my family and to me?”

I hunt her, says the Devil. From the sunset to the dawn.

And Manfred looks at Sophie. And suddenly his eyes blur with tears.

“Is that why you are about?” he asks.

And, hoarsely, “For how long?”

Each night, the shadow says, For seven years and seven days.

“Not tonight,” says Manfred.

And he steps forward and seizes dead Baltasar in his arms. And as the Devil struggles Manfred drags him down onto the road and holds him fast.

And fingers of shadow wrap around Manfred’s throat. They are cold. They are choking the life from him.

With every strength that Manfred possesses he squeezes Baltasar’s corpse. The bones of it crack. The flesh of it turns pustulent and black. In the hollow eyes of it Manfred sees the shadow’s rage, and fire burns him.

But he does not let go.

Spider-arms wrap around Manfred. They draw tight. They convulse, as if to break a lesser man’s back. But Manfred only says, “Uff!” and still he holds.

Sophie is unconscious now. She lays there sprawled with drool dangling from her mouth.

And Manfred frees one arm with his weight upon the body of dead Baltasar and he uses his fingers to burst its carbuncle eyes. And he tears from the Devil’s shoulders the spider-limbs of shadow that Baltasar’s arms cast forth. And there in the twisted flesh of dead Baltasar Manfred can see at last the Devil’s heart, that even the magic of Montechristien Gargamel was not strong enough to crush; and he reaches his hand into the hollow of the creature’s chest and lays his fingers upon it.

But there is a magic binding upon him, and even the Devil is not without his innocence.

So Manfred does not kill.

He holds the Devil there instead, bloody and tired and short of breath, until the dawn.

Will the shadow succeed in tainting Sophie?

Will Manfred marry Rachel?

Manfred’s history approaches its terrible conclusion tomorrow in “Abandoned!”

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Categories: An Unclean Legacy, Hitherby, Legends