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The Lady Maria

‘Mister Proie?’ Meera asked, she glanced up at the man she thought to be Gerhard Proie. He was tall, stocky and wore dirtied clothes that were covered in grime.

‘Yes, who are you?’ He asked, crossing his arms over his abnormally large chest.

‘My name is Meera Sauver; I’m the Paranormal Detective who received your letter.’

Almost immediately Gerhard glanced around Meera and then ushered her inside.

The inside of Gerhard Proie’s house smelt thickly of cut wood and garlic salt. The cabin was what Meera would typically expect from a secluded woodsman; a large padded chair sat in front of the fire which was burning brilliantly in the hearth, small intricate carvings of woodland animals littered the sides, and one or two pictures sat on the mantle.

Meera heard the door click shut and the twist of the lock as Gerhard secured his home. Grace, the small girl, was playing on the rug with several small, wooden ducks. ‘You have a lovely home,’ Meera said, attempting to start of what she expected to be a long conversation. Gerhard merely grunted in response.

‘You aren’t here to compliment my living arrangements.’ Gerhard crossed the room and dropped into his padded chair by the fire. ‘Have a seat.’

Seeing nowhere but an old rickety stool on the far side of the room Meera dragged it over to the opposite side of the hearth and sat carefully atop it. She laid her folder of research on her thighs. ‘I couldn’t help but do some of my own research after your letter,’ She said, ‘what you want me to investigate has a very interesting history.’

‘I doubt all of what you read was correct,’ Gerhard muttered, reaching over to a small table and taking a shot glass filled with liquor. He swallowed quickly and brought the glass back down to the table. ‘These reports are almost always inaccurate.’

‘In what way?’

‘In every way.’ Gerhard said, his eyes glazing over. ‘Those buzzards are only after a story, not the truth.’

‘And what is the truth?’

‘I don’t know!’ Gerhard snapped, ‘I wouldn’t have requested you if I knew. But although I don’t know there is a story behind everything.’

Meera thought back to the newspaper clippings she had glued into her research folder. Brutal murders of fifteen children over the past fifty years. All of them under twelve years old, not even teenagers. The police had taken one man into custody but he committed suicide before they could charge him. The case was closed because they believe only a guilty man would commit suicide when caught.

‘I heard that they acquired one man,’ Meera said, ‘A Leonard Stoke?’

‘Pah! Leonard Stoke indeed!’ Gerhard said, laughing bitterly as he finished his sentence. ‘Yes, I remember. A guilty man they called him, but they were wrong, they are always wrong. Never trust the police, I say.’

‘If I may, how do you know they are wrong?’ Meera asked, undeterred by the scrutinizing gaze of Gerhard Proie.

‘I’ve lived in this town many years, young lady. Just like my father and his father before him. I had known Leonard Stoke many years, he was strange yes, but guilty of murder?” Gerhard paused and glanced over to the hearth where several pictures stood neatly framed and gathered a small layer of dust. “No, Leonard did not murder those children Miss Sauver, which is why I have called you.”

‘You said there was a story behind everything.’ Said Meera, ‘There are a few articles scattered around, but any solid information to work on was difficult to find. Exactly what do you mean when you say, story.’

Gerhard sighed and glanced at Meera. ‘I mean a ghost story, Miss Sauver. But you knew that already. After all why would you travel all this way if you didn’t sense something paranormal?’

Meera bit her bottom lip. A habit when she thought. It was true that when the letter arrived in the post, shoved in a small brown envelope and her name scrawled across the middle, she knew this was what she had wanted all along. When she touched the tattered edges of the paper, reading the slightly blotted ink, there was a small jolt of something that could be described as nothing less than lightning, propagating through every fibre of her being. She knew the story Gerhard Proie was talking about, she had read the documents sitting in her folder so many times she knew each version by heart. It was nothing more than a child’s story, something to make them behave and at that moment Meera wondered which version of the tale Gerhard was going to spin before her eyes.

‘You have heard the story, have you not?’ Gerhard asked and Meera simply nodded. ‘Indeed. But I guarantee you have not heard the truth. You see small minds tend to bend and manipulate the truth for their own gain, to get small children to behave for example. The version of the story I will tell you is as close to the truth as you will get.’ Gerhard glanced down at Grace who was still playing on the floor with her dolls. She held a small wooden woman in her left hand, whose dress was made from blue silk; her black string hair was tied into a loose knot. ‘Gracie, go to your room and play.’

‘Yes, papa.’ She said and left obediently, closing a door to a room off to the left behind her.

‘She does not need to hear,’ Gerhard mumbled and turned back to face Meera.

‘The Lady Maria has always been depicted as a very beautiful, talented woman.’ Gerhard began. ‘If you ever visit Ivywood House and I doubt that you will, you would see how magnificently the artists have painted her. She was not always a Lady nor was she always wealthy. She came from a small family on the edge of Peurton Abbott. Her father, Edwin Farth was a cobbler in the centre of the village. Her mother, Marjorie helped her husband at his shop. They had three daughters: Maria, the eldest, Ida who unfortunately fell ill with the fever and passed early, and Anna the youngest. It was around the time that Maria was just blossoming into adulthood that a rich merchant and his family moved into the mansion at the top of Popes Hill.

Reginald Ivywood was a known traveller around these parts but he’d left the merchant world after his wife had died giving birth to their second child. He, his son and daughter as well as various housekeepers moved in over the summer months, there was a lot of gossip especially among the young women in the village, as the merchants’ son, Robert, was known to be extremely handsome. Over the months Ivywood House was made to look magnificent and on Mid Winters eve, Reginald hosted a party for all in the village to attend. This is when young Maria, at the tender age of seventeen, caught the attention of Robert Ivywood. The two were married the following autumn and shortly after Maria gave birth to their first child, Patience. In the years that followed Maria bore two more of Robert’s children, Florence and Thomas. The family were adored amongst the village. But as you may have guessed, their tranquil, comfortable lives were not meant to last. In the spring of 1857 Roberts father was found floating in the river. He’d been shot three times in the chest. Months later grief took Robert’s sister.

The family were torn apart by anguish; Robert took to drinking and began to drive Maria away. He locked himself away in his study, drinking day and night. His only solace was his children, and sweet Maria could not bear to see them hurt in this way. In the dead of night she fled the house with her three children and found asylum at the church knowing that her husband would not think to look for them there.’ Gerhard sighed and glanced into the burning embers of the fire.

‘He found them, didn’t he?’ Meera asked, averting Gerhard’s far off gaze back to her.

‘He did,’ he said solemnly. ‘The grief and the addiction had drove him mad. Days before he found them he had been seen wandering the village, muttering nonsense about salvation and God. Everyone dismissed it as the ramblings of a drunkard. The day he found Maria and the children he seemed a changed man, he begged her to come back to the house and that he would change and he couldn’t bear to live without them. Fearing for his life she agreed and they moved back to Ivywood. Weeks passed, the villagers didn’t see much of the family, but housekeepers whispers spread like wildfire. Robert had reverted back into what seemed to be insanity and many times Maria had threatened to take the children away. One night in the winter Maria put her children to bed, believing that Robert would stay locked up in his study she returned to her chambers to get some sleep. That night she was woken by the screams of her children.

She found Patience first. Her eldest daughter lay on the floor covered in her own blood. Her throat had been slashed. Little Thomas, who was the spitting image of his father, was found by his mother in the hallway of the first floor. He too had his throat cut. Maria held him in her arms as the blood spilled onto her nightgown. But it was the death of her middle child, Florence, which drove Maria to do something that no one thought she would ever be capable of. Stumbling down the hallway, Maria reached the staircase that dropped off into the entrance way. There she saw eight year old Florence, standing in front of her father, shaking and crying, the blood of her siblings drenched her clothes. Robert, in all his madness, stood in front of her holding the silver letter opener that had sat idly on his desk for months. Maria screamed out at Robert, pleading with him to spare the life of her child, her last child. He turned to her, nothing but pure malice in his voice for the woman that he once held so dearly and said “You will not take my children,” as Maria flung herself down the stairs, Robert grabbed hold of his child and pierced her heart three times. In that moment when Maria had lost everything that she had held most dear to her, she wrestled the letter opener from Roberts hand and with the blade glinting white in the light of the chandelier, she sunk it deep into his chest screaming for the lives of her children as she did so.’ Gerhard paused and Meera, feeling the tremendous heartache of a woman who lost everything in moments, wiped a tear from her eye.

‘What happened to her?’ She asked.

‘The police found her the next morning. They had been alerted by the housekeeper who found Maria cradling the bodies of her children, bathed in their blood, at the entrance foot of the stairs. She was singing to them and as they carried her away from their bodies and the body of her husband her screams resonated around Peurton Abbott. Miss Sauver, do you know why the tree in the center of this village is called Mourir?’

Meera knew why the tree was called Mourir. It was the centre point of Peurton Abbott and as such it was the place where those who had been accused of the simplest to the most heinous crimes were sentenced. Over the many hundreds of years the tree has stood and watched the trials and punishments of hundreds of villagers. The most common of which was hanging. ‘It was a hanging tree. Mourir means “die” or “perish” in French.’

‘It was,’ said Gerhard. ‘The next day Maria Ivywood was trialled and convicted of the murder of Robert Ivywood and their children. She was sentenced to hang by the neck until dead in front of the village. Her body was left to hang for days to remind those who may oppose the law that there was and is a price to pay. Eventually when the buzzards had eaten most of her flesh away it was said that she was buried at the foot of the tree. And that Meera Sauver is the true version of events that have led to me contacting you.’

Gerhard stood from his chair and crossed the room. He pulled a glass bottle of whiskey from the cabinet on the wall and poured a tot into a small glass. He replaced the bottle and raised the glass to his lips.

‘Every few years three children go missing from this village. They disappear and are never seen again, until the dogs happen to dig up some bones or a shoe washes up on the river bank.’ Gerhard knocked back his whiskey and slammed the glass on the side making Meera jump.

‘Just two weeks ago a small child named Penny disappeared from the front garden of her home. Her parents haven’t seen her since. There are only so many children in this village Meera. One of them is mine. I am no longer going to stand around while priests and townsmen tell me that this is a copycat killer and nothing more while something out there is taking our children.’ Meera glanced over at the door which Grace had disappeared behind earlier. Gerhard turned back to her, a cold glare on his face. ‘I have asked you here to help me; this is no teenage parlour trick that you are used to. There is no filter on this camera lens. This is real, and if you are what you say you are, Paranormal Detective, then you will save our children.’

In that moment Meera felt an icy shiver run down her spine as if she had been touched by Jack Frost himself. She felt that same jolt of electricity run through her veins as that day she opened Gerhard’s letter. But this time it was pinched between shadows of fear that she had not felt in years, and she was ready for it.

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