Corton

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Here comes the story of one of the most legendary criminals in the history of Hurst, and the loss of its most innocent and beloved citizen.

If there was a princess of Corton – the capital of Haldil – it would be Madeleine Delaney, the daughter of Axel Delaney, one of the wealthiest merchants in the capital, and a respected member of the Hurst Council.

Madeleine did not care for the politics in which her father was involved, nor the business her mother ran for him, but she was admired throughout the city for her sweet nature and charity towards children and elderly folk who needed a helping hand.

She was also at the pinnacle of high society.

There was no ball at which Madeleine was not the most desired dance partner, or the most eager participant. Mingling with the masses and being the centre of attention was Madeleine’s privilege as well as her duty. But what truly made Madeleine the princess of Corton was her beauty, which was measurable to none.

Her dark curls that fell so elegantly around her oval, innocent face, accentuated her blue eyes and pink lips against purest, pale skin. Her figure was healthy and appealing, and her manner of comportment was the very definition of grace and propriety.

She was the paragon of beauty in Corton, the most beloved daughter of the city. There was not a soul for miles who did not worship her as though she were the sunlight that bronzed their pastures.

But when the city found itself in a time of grief and hardship, not even the grace and goodness of Madeleine Delaney could bring comfort to the people.

Here is the story of the great tragedy that struck Corton so many years ago, and that is still spoken of to this day, in the dark alcoves of taverns.

It happened once, that the children of Corton slowly began to disappear. First the infants, followed by the vulnerable and innocent young children. Panic spread as none knew what was happening to their boys and girls.

The Council of Hurst held many meetings, where not only the five Councillors were present, but also an advisor and their protégé brought by each member. They endeavoured to learn what had happened to the children of Corton, and drew up plans for finding them, so they could be brought home safely.

Several teams were dispatched to scour both the waters of Blueshore surrounding the city, and the forest at the edge of the town entrance, where many a dark creature was rumoured to lurk.

None had any luck, and every Magical in Corton continued to live in fear that their children would vanish along with the rest.

And though only the young children had gone so far, many feared for their favourite daughter, Madeleine, for she was as innocent and kind as any child, and many feared she might fall prey to this curse that loomed over the city. Requests were made to the Council that she be taken into hiding for her own protection.

Her father brought this idea to Madeleine’s attention one evening, when the family was gathered around the fire in the evening room.

“Absolutely not, father!” Madeleine protested immediately. “I will not have you stow me away like a coward while the children of this town are suffering. It is my duty to help them and the grieving parents in these hard times.”

Her father looked at her fondly, but his brows were drawn in concern. “I admire your bravery, dear daughter, but can you not see how it would hurt the Magicals of Corton if you were to be injured?”

“I do not care,” Madeleine insisted. “I will not hide when I can offer aid.”

Her father thought for a moment. “What if you were taken somewhere together with the remaining children?” he offered. “You and a contingent of guards. They could protect them, and you could care for them. No harm would come to them under your supervision, surely; you would never allow it.”

“Indeed, I would not, father. Yes, that compromise is acceptable. I will not abandon those poor children.” There were tears in Madeleine’s eyes, and she dabbed at them carefully so they would not spill.

“Excellent, my brave daughter!” her father exclaimed. “I will make arrangements with the Council in the morning. We will scout out a safe place. Have you any suggestions?”

“Only that Mr. Erip must be in charge the guards. You know James is more reliable than any of your other men, father.”

“Indeed, he will be,” he replied automatically, for in his mind he was already working out the details.

Madeleine succeeded in hiding her smile until she retired to her rooms that evening. It was not long after she had changed into her night-gown that there was a knock on the door. She very nearly tripped over her own feet as she ran to open it.

“James!” she whispered as loud as she dared when she found Mr. Erip standing on the other side. He stepped through the door and she threw her arms around his shoulders, and his wound tightly around her waist.

“My love,” he whispered into her ear. “Am I too early?”

“Never, my darling.” Madeleine kissed his strong neck. “You are never too early. Another moment’s delay and I might have died.”

No further conversation was had between them as they began to kiss with the feverishness of passionate lovers, and words did not return until hours later, when they lay tangled in each other’s limbs on her bed with the sheets tossed loosely around them.

Madeleine burrowed her head against James’s chest and sighed happily. “I wish you would never go away,” she whispered across the beads of sweat on his skin.

“I have sworn to you I won’t,” he murmured into her hair.

“You go away each morning, James. We have no life together. Only nights.”

“It is not enough, I know; but until I make my way in this world, your father will not allow us to be joined. Nights are all we have for now. Unless you would like to give them up?” She heard the teasing smile in his voice.

“Never!” she exclaimed and kissed his chest, and then his throat, and then his chin, until she finally reached his lips, and their smiles mingled into a deep kiss. “I told my father to assign you as guard when I go into hiding with the children,” Madeleine told him once their kiss broke. “We will not be separated.”

“And I will protect you with my life,” James said as he gazed into the eyes of his love, and marvelled at how the most adored beauty in Corton was his, and his alone.

Later that same day, the Council unanimously agreed that a group of children would be placed under the care of Madeleine Delaney and a detachment of guards at a secure house at the edge of town. This way, the most precious innocents that remained could be protected in one location.

They were escorted to the safe house that very evening. Twenty-seven children, eight guards, and Madeleine. The kids were not as frightened as they should be in the face of such danger surrounding them; they laid their sleeping bags and stuffed animals and laughed at the stories Madeleine told them as they arranged themselves on the floor.

They delighted in dancing with her as she sang to them, and playing games as the guards inside cheered them on.

It was the magic of Madeleine that made everything better; so long as she was with them, they couldn’t possibly be afraid.

When night time came the children would otherwise be quaking in their own beds, afraid of the dark force that might slip in and take them away from their parents; here they felt safe in the presence Madeleine Delaney. Their guardian angel.

The guards were not so lucky. There was no sleep as they patrolled the house, blades at the ready, listening out for any encroaching presence. Only James Erip remained inside, keeping watch over the innocents they swore to protect.

And Madeleine was watching him.

She sat on her mattress and looked at the man she loved, smiling each time he glanced in her direction. She was making it very difficult for him to focus on his duty and not run to her side. When she raised her hand, beckoning him towards her, he had no choice but to obey.

She wrapped her arms around him and kissed him with too much passion for him to resist. While keeping his ears alert for a sounding alarm, James kissed his beloved Madeleine until the worries they faced seemed very far away.

Lost in this bliss, it was quite a shock when one of the other guards began to bark loudly from the outside.

James was on his feet in seconds, and the children were roused from their peaceful slumber.

“Madeleine, stay with the children; do not let them out of your sight!”

Before she could even reply, he had run out the door to join his comrades. There were more shouts, and the children all gathered around Madeleine. It felt like hours they sat there, waiting for word, when James finally came back in, and Madeleine rushed towards him.

“They have witnessed strange things in the lower town,” he explained. “A messenger arrived, relaying that the culprit of all this evil is attacking as we speak, not knowing the children are all here.”

“Then he could be caught this night!” Madeleine exclaimed. “You must all go and assist, or there is no chance.”

“I know, my sweet, but I am loath to leave you all alone.”

“If the culprit is there, and we are here, there is no danger,” she replied with confidence. “But I will take the children and head out of town, towards Westerland. Send riders to catch up to us once this evil has been vanquished.”

James stared at his beloved, marvelling in her courage, and kissed her one final time, embracing her as though he would never hold her again.

“I will protect them, James,” she vowed. “Now go out there and find this monster that has hurt our children for so long. I have faith in you, all of you. Now go!”

She kissed his cheek and looked at him with such love that he felt himself grow stronger and braver simply through her eyes before he headed out the door and rode away with the other guards.

Madeleine faced the frightened children. “Form a line, kids; take the hand of the person in front and behind you and do not let go!”

They did as she said, and followed without fuss when she led them all out and away from the safe house, towards the wide road that led towards the forest and Westerland.

“Where are we going?” the child closest to her asked, pulling on Madeleine’s skirt. She lifted the little girl up into her arms. “Our protectors are hunting for the bad person trying to take you away. We must run, in case they fail.”

“Are we going to die?” asked the little girl, and Madeleine wiped a tear from her eye.

“No, my sweet; I will take you someplace safe and let no harm come to you.”

She looked down at the other frightened faces around her, all staring up, waiting for her to save them. They put their trust in her, as children do, and followed her as she started to move once again down the dark road towards the woods, but instead of following the road towards Westerland, Madeleine led the children straight towards the trees.

It seemed like a long time later when they all stopped in a clearing in the middle of the forest. The children’s little feet hurt from the run, and everyone struggled against the wish to sleep; they wanted to appear strong in front of their leader.

Madeleine stood still on the edge of the clearing, illuminated by the full moon, and peered through the tree-line. Seconds ticked by.

“Skilly, where are you hiding?” Madeleine eventually shouted into the forest.

“Who is Skilly?” one of the older children asked.

“Someone who will help us and make everything better,” Madeleine said with her sweetest smile, and the children all breathed easy. Madeleine would make everything okay, as she always did.

She looked towards the dark trees, but still saw or heard nothing. “Skilly!” she called again, beginning to worry that her friend might not show, despite his promises. But her doubt did not last for long.

Soon, a low laugh was carried on the wind towards them, and not long after, a short man with a hunched back and lumpy skin stepped into the clearing, wearing a red coat and golden trousers. He bowed to the lady and children.

“My lady Madeleine Delaney,” Skilly said, voice hoarse and creaky like an old tree in a strong wind.

“You’re late,” she said to him. The children all found the little man frightening, but Madeleine spoke to him with such authority that they did not run.

“There are quite a few men searching for me, as you well know,” Skilly replied. “I had to make sure they were far away.” He looked towards the children. “Were you followed?”

“Of course not,” Madeleine said. “Should I not know how to do this by now? How many children have I saved for you?”

The children were filled with hope – Madeleine had brought this man children from the village, and he protected them from the evil that was trying to take them!

“Dozens, my dear; do not think me without gratitude.”

“It is not your gratitude I want, Skilly. Let’s get this done. Here’s twenty-eight for you; that ought to produce a good, long lasting outcome, should it not?”

He looked at the children again and licked his lips in delight. “Indeed, indeed. A very good outcome indeed! Plenty for us both!”

“Wonderful,” Madeleine smiled and turned to the confused children. “Come, young ones; step over to Mr. Skilly so that he can help you.”

The children looked between each other. “How will he help?” asked another older child. “What will he do to protect us?”

“I told you, he will make everything better. Come now, don’t be shy; go to him.” Madeleine waved them towards him with encouraging smiles for all the children, and the youngest were convinced and walked to Skilly’s side. The older ones followed, though still confused. Skilly did not look as though he wished them well at all.

“Good children, very good children! Always listen to the pretty lady.” Skilly rubbed his hands together and looked over them all, smacking his lips loudly.

“Will you get on with it?” Madeleine demanded; her voice suddenly harsh and angry. The children looked at her, but she did not offer reassuring smiles to them now. Instead her eyes, that had always been kind, glared at them with disdain and malice, and the children were afraid.

“What the devil is going on here?” a voice called from the other end of the clearing, and James stepped out from the trees. Madeleine turned and stared at him, then threw a look over her shoulder at the children and Skilly. She turned and ran towards her lover.

“James!” she yelled. “Oh, James, I am so glad you are here!” She threw her arms around him, and he hugged her as he observed the scene in the clearing with the children standing behind the little man, all terrified.

“He took the children from me, James! There was nothing I could do!”

James released his hold on his beloved, and looked into her blue eyes. “I watched from the forest, Madeleine,” he whispered. “You told them to go to that man. Why did you do that? Who is this imp?”

Madeleine gazed into his eyes for a moment, so glazed with innocence and love. But soon she realized there was no explanation to be made that would satisfy him.

She took a step back, and the love in her eyes turned to pity and mockery. “Oh, James,” she said softly, with a little laugh. “I do believe you are too clever for your own good. Never would have guessed that.”

“What are you talking about?” he gaped in confusion at this sudden change in the woman he loved. “What has happened to you?”

“Nothing at all, James, dear. I had but shed the façade. And I swear, I have never felt such relief.”

“What façade?” he asked. “I don’t understand!”

“Of course you don’t. No one does, and no one would.” The malicious laugh was still there behind her words. “Why do you think I had to play this silly part in the first place? Do you think I enjoyed it? I won’t deny it’s been amusing at times, but for the most part it has been unbearable.”

“We do not have time for this!” Skilly yelled towards them. “Finish it, Madeleine; we have

We have work to do?” James stuttered, pale as a sheet.

“What did you think was happening to the children, James? Did you really think it was some mysterious beast? Nothing so banal, I’m afraid. You know how children love me, don’t you?” She laughed merrily. “It has been almost too easy. Do you know that when I tell them to come with me for their protection, or to play, they just believe me? Isn’t that pathetic? It makes me think they deserve what comes next.”

Horror-struck, James looked between his beloved and the short man with the children. “No,” he said, “I don’t believe it. He must have put a spell on you, done something. This isn’t you. I know you! You could never harm a child, or anyone at all.”

Madeleine placed a hand delicately on his cheek. “Sweet James. You only ever knew the person I allowed you to know. Do you think the people of Corton would have held such love for me if they knew who I truly was? Do you think I could have gotten the respect and power I now hold? No, James. The things I really want… The people of Corton would never love me for that. So I played a part. And I played it perfectly.”

“Why? What is it you want that would make it so impossible for us to love you? For me to love you?”

“What I want is beauty, James. And life. I want to be young and beautiful for all time; I want to be the most beautiful creature in Hurst; I want to be worshiped for it, I want people to fall to their knees at the sight of me! I want to be loved without lowering myself to smiling for the rest of my days, and acting oh, so very innocent, ever again. I could rule this world, and no one ever knew it. No one ever guessed.”

“This isn’t you, Madeleine,” James whispered. “I have known you all your life. Loved you for half of it. You are not shallow or vicious; you’re good and pure and kind! This isn’t you, it cannot be.”

“This has been me for as long as I can remember, you fool. I have simply been clever enough to hide it.” Madeleine marveled at the shock and sorrow in his eyes, and heard the children crying behind her. It was all too amusing to bear, the relief of revealing herself was too great; she began to laugh.

She had never felt so happy in her life! The truth was out, in front of the one person she had to hide from the most!

It was true, in her heart she had sometimes wished he might love her for who she truly was, but she had realized the impossibility of that many years ago. And now that he knew the truth of her, something had to be done about it.

“Lady!” Skilly yelled again, filled with impatience. “Be done with him and come finish this with me. The others will find us soon enough, if he managed it.”

Madeleine sighed as she looked her beloved in the eye. Not that she really loved him. But it had been so much fun to pretend. To twist him around her finger. She might actually miss him, when he was gone.

Even now, knowing the truth, the man was still too sentimental, too confused and too foolish to see what was coming in time to stop it. When she smiled her true smile at him – one filled with loathing and contempt – he only stared, not daring to believe his own eyes.

It made it so easy for Madeleine to pull the dagger from her skirt.

He did not even look down at the blade as she brought it towards him and slowly into his midriff. She had to push hard to pierce the skin, but she felt the ease with which it drove through the soft organs and tissue beneath, through gut and lung. James made a gurgling sound as his eyes widened and blood began to spill from his mouth.

Madeleine pulled the dagger out slowly, feeling it catch on the skin as she did, and lowered James onto the ground. Blood oozed onto her light blue dress, but she did not much care for that.

She watched as James writhed in agony from the slow death of such a grievous wound.

Perhaps it was the love that was still lingering behind his shocked eyes that made her show mercy. She sat down on top of him and held her dagger above his heart. She caressed his chest in an old, familiar way, and then leaned down and used all her strength to push the knife deep into his heart. Blood pooled over the wound, her old lover passing before she removed her dagger.

She wiped it clean on his coat before she stood and walked back to Skilly and the children without a second glance at the man whose bed she had so often shared.

The children cried out in fear when they saw the beautiful woman they had worshipped mere minutes ago, approaching them with evil in her eye, her blood-stained dress gleaming in the moonlight.

“About time,” Skilly complained. “Let us get this done, agreed?”

“Agreed.” Madeleine walked up to the oldest boy in the group and knelt before him, wiping a tear from his cheek with her thumb, smearing traces of James’ blood on his face. She smiled at him, but it was not the sweet, kind smile she used to give.

“Don’t be afraid, boy,” she said to him. “You will be the first. You must show the younger children that there is nothing to be afraid of. You need to be brave. Do you understand?”

The boy nodded, too afraid to do anything else. And he did want to be brave in front of his younger friends, but his body still shook. Madeleine led the boy towards Skilly, and sat on her knees beside him..

“Ready to be saved, boy?” Skilly asked in his creaky, old voice. The shaking boy shook his head, too terrified to speak. Skilly smiled, showing his crooked teeth. “You’ll be saved either way, boy; I do not require your consent.” Skilly placed his hand on the boy’s chest, just above the heart, and closing his eyes he began to chant in an ancient language.

The boy’s eyes widened in shock for a moment before the screaming begun. Tears fell down his small face as a chorus of torture sang from his throat. His white night-shirt became dotted with red as Skilly sucked blood out through his skin, through his pores, until he was empty and collapsed onto the ground.

The other children cried and wailed, but did not have much time to be afraid before Skilly moved his powers towards them. The little man held up his palms and continued his chant, and soon there were screams enough to fill the entire forest, to wake even the sleeping trees around them as blood leaked from their little bodies.

The screams of the children slowly faded as blood soaked into the ground, creating a pool of mud and bodily fluids for their little bodies to tumble into, the earth splashing as they fell. Screams turned to whimpers, whimpers to silence, and Madeleine stood beneath the moonlight and smiled at the glorious sight.

“Are you ready to end this, my lady?” Skilly asked, sounding giddy at the prospect.

“Oh, yes, my friend!” Madeleine laughed merrily, making her look monstrous and beautiful all at once. “I have always been ready. I surrender to your powers.”

Skilly reached his arms up to the sky and begun to chant once again, and Madeleine stretched out her own arms and revelled in the sensation of magic that enveloped the clearing.

Soon, the blood began to rise from the ground, spiralling up into the night sky like a surging, red river; it hovered over Skilly for only a moment before it came rushing down towards Madeleine. It coiled round her like a python, binding her as she laughed with glee. Skilly’s incantation grew louder; the power Madeleine felt inside her was pure pleasure, and she could feel it working!

Youth, beauty, strength; she felt it all, and it was glorious. In that moment, Madeleine knew that she could never again act weaker than she was.

When the blood began to penetrate her skin, burning her body and infusing her with magic and youth, the pain felt more fabulous than anything – even gritting her teeth, she knew the pain meant she was winning. As she began to cry out in agony, she knew she was winning.

After what felt like an eternity, the pain slowly began to fade, feeling returned to her limbs and the aching in her bones gave way to a vibe of freedom and power that she could never have imagined. Now that she tasted it, she would never give it up.

Skilly ended his chanting at last, and once the forest grew silent, Madeleine smiled as she stared at herself, at her arms, her hands, her skin. It was even more soft and smooth than it had ever been.

It was perfect.

“Thank you, little friend,” she said to Skilly, who bowed down and grinned.

“My pleasure; I got my fair share out of it.”

“Indeed. Do you know how frustrating it was luring all those children away to the forest for you? Every week, more children. They get tedious, you know; always asking the same, silly questions, always so naïve.” She glanced towards the body of James, feeling nothing. “It was pathetic, truly.”

“But our work is now done, and we may go our separate ways. Our partnership has been fruitful.” Skilly bowed again, and Madeleine curtsied, but just as they each turned their back on the other, a loud cry rang out from the edge of the clearing, and all the soldiers and fathers of Corton seemed to spring out of the trees with their blades held high. Madeleine did not see her own father amongst them, however.

They stepped around the little bodies on the ground, their eyes widened with horror. Some dropped to their knees, sobbing as they found their own children in the pile.

The two conspirators were surrounded in moments, and one of the Council elders stepped closer to Madeleine with haunted eyes.

“Miss Delaney…” His old voice shook with grief and rage. “How… How could you?”

Madeleine could not help herself – she laughed at the old man and his shock. It was so liberating to not have to hide who she was anymore! She would never hide again.

“You would be surprised how easily one can lure little children out of their homes, sir. I assure you, it wasn’t any trouble at all.”

His eyes grew wider still, and men with blades begun to close in on her – their fury rose like smoke from a roaring fire, burning stronger with every word she said.

“We trusted you! We gave you our children to protect!” screamed one of the men.

“That wasn’t very wise of you, was it?” Madeleine said easily. “Foolish men. When you see beauty, you stop looking further. A pretty face can get away with anything because no one ever tries to see what lies beneath.”

“You’re a monster!” cried one of the fathers cradling the dead body of his little girl.

“Indeed,” Madeleine said with a smile. “And it is far more satisfying than being a damsel in distress.”

That seemed to be more than the men could take. Finally, they charged. Before anyone could get near him, Skilly disappeared in a puff of smoke. That didn’t matter so much – it was Madeleine Delaney they truly wanted. The innocent girl who betrayed them.

They charged, craving her blood on their sharp, oiled blades. If only they hadn’t been so blinded by their anger and grief. Perhaps they would have stopped to think – think that all this death had been for a reason; think that reason had everything to do with the blood and magic that had been thrust into Madeleine a few moments earlier.

She did not even raise her arms. Didn’t even turn to look at any of her attackers. She simply stood there, in her light blue dress stained red, shimmering in the moonlight, and she smiled. And when the first blade swung towards her, she used her new power as though it had always been a part of her.

With nothing but her will, she sent them all flying back, tumbling to the ground. Some of them landed atop the bodies of the children, or in the boggy pools of their blood. It caused enough confusion that Madeleine could have walked away right then, and they would not have been able to stop her.

But Madeleine knew what fury and grief could do to a person when it was left to fester and grow. These men would hunt her until she was dead, and the rest of the city would follow.

The only way to keep that from happening was to assure that they were all too afraid to retaliate. So she didn’t walk away. With a thought, she froze them all in place.

She knelt by the man closest to her and placed her hand delicately on his cheek. As he stared at her with wide eyes, she dug her fingers into his skull, through the skin, crushing the bones beneath with her newfound strength, until one of his eyes popped out of its socket and life faded from the other. She dropped him to the ground like an unwanted doll, and moved to the next one.

The other men saw what was happening, but though they tried to move, Madeleine’s powers were holding them still, incapable of doing anything but to watch.

The next man, Madeleine wrapped her arms lovingly around him, and squeezed until she felt the ribs crack and shatter inside his chest, pricking holes into his heart.

The next man, she kissed gently before wrapping her hand around his throat and crushing it in her grip.

The one after that, she slid her hand gently down across his chest before she plunged her fingers into his gut and ripped out the innards as soon as she clenched. That one took longer to die.

Madeleine moved around the motionless men who all stared in horror and anticipation, and she killed them with kind gestures that turned into violent murder. With each kill, she felt herself grow just a little bit stronger, and it was glorious.

The men could do nothing but die by her hand.

She had all the power; and she thrived.

The men who awaited their death by her hand looked at Madeleine Delaney as she circled the clearing beneath the moonlight, and most of them managed to hold only one, horrifying thought; that death could look so utterly beautiful, yet be so cold and merciless.

Because she did look beautiful, even as her hands and clothes were covered in blood and entrails. There was no denying that she was still the most glorious creature any of them had seen in their lives.

When finally Madeleine reached the last man, she knelt next to him and took his face between her hands. She released him from her hold so he could move, but though he tried to scramble, to reach for his sword, her strong hold on his fragile head kept him in place.

“You’re very special, do you know that?” Madeleine purred. “You alone will survive this massacre. You will go back home and tell my father what I’ve done. You will tell the tale of what happened here. And you will make sure that no one ever dares to come looking for me. You will make sure they are all too afraid.” She gently rubbed her thumb across his trembling lips. “Can you do that for me?”

The man could only nod, too frightened to speak, too terrified to deny her. Madeleine smiled, and softly kissed his lips. Hers tasted of blood, and the man shuddered.

“Thank you,” she whispered, her breath warm on his face.

Madeleine Delaney stood up and slowly walked out of the clearing, never once looking back at the death she wrought in pursuit of infinite beauty and power.

She would never regret her actions, and she would never be forgotten.

 

Hurst Corton