New England, 1878
The rushing feet could be heard; the wood cracking on each black step accompanied the hands of the large clock that stood eight feet high in the dining room. The long box made of mahogany was shaped like a carved tab where the high stopwatch sat on a sturdy square base. Daphne hastily climbed up with the fresh sheets. Soon Mr. Ormand would return. All the servants hurried to prepare the dinner and the bath. Every Wednesday of the week, the same routine had to be followed by all. Except that it was bath day today.
Daphne reached the top of the stairs, speeding to the large black double door at the end of the hall, where Mr. Ormand’s quarters were located. No one wanted to go in there, only Daphne dared, as she had no choice but to do so, or she would have been kicked out. And that was something she could not afford. Her younger brother, James, who would soon be eighteen, was in poor health, and she was the only person in the world he had left.
The girl finally entered the room, her eyes once again running wildly through the walls. Hundreds of crucifixes were hanging on the grey walls. The white candles were to remain lit always. Otherwise, the evil spirits, or rather demons as Mr. Ormand calls them, would appear in between the shadows. The religious obsession of one of the most respected church members in the village was not unknown to anyone.
Many were still afraid to enter his rooms, and she was no exception. The only difference was that she had to keep her job, without protest, without giving any opinion that could harm her.
Amid candles and crucifixes, she began to prepare the bathroom adjacent to the main bedroom. The dirty sheets were replaced by the clean ones she had brought. As she finished, she couldn’t help but notice the gloomy place again. Each crucifix hung next to the other, together, rosaries scattered on the dresser and bed. Daphne’s eyes fell back on the tortured object that caused Mr. Ormond’s screams twice a week.
The brown-skinned whip lying on the floor beside the large high bed stretched out with light-colored duvets was already lying idly, waiting for its owner to return to make use of it. Everyone knew the reason for the whip perfectly. Mr. Ormond, burdened with guilt, tortured himself after returning from Mrs. Wallace’s house. A widow of at least thirty-eight years of age, almost twenty years younger than him.
Not being able to resist, Daphne picked up the whip from the ground. Scrutinizing it and thinking about how a person can inflict so much pain on himself just for the reason of freeing himself from a pang of guilt as absurd as that of carnal pleasure. Although she was unacquainted with even that vicious part of the world where pleasure could exceed reason, she did not consider herself to be as prudish as certain ladies. At the age of twenty-two, her reasoning had matured to some extent, understanding through the experiences told by other maids in the house that the merely sexual act is not as sinful as Mr. Ormand believed, and yet he was driven by lust.
Moved by her curiosity, her fingers caressed the torturer. Could it be that really through pain, Mr. Ormand could free himself from his remorse? How would it be possible to be able to take you to torture again and again without stopping? Enthralled by her own thoughts, she didn’t realize that heavy steps were approaching her. The door suddenly opened, and angry blue eyes on an aging face surprised her so much that Daphne gasped hard, releasing the whip.
Mr. Ormand looked down at the floor where the whip had fallen, his face growing even angrier with each passing second and in silence.
“I’m terribly sorry, Sir...” Daphne tried to apologize suddenly when she was interrupted.
“Sir, please spare me. I had no wish to...”
“I said, leave now!”
Despair was what Daphne felt now. With tears in her eyes, she fell to her knees, begging Mr. Ormand for forgiveness. A hand grabbed her arm tightly, dragging her across the floor, leaving her outside the rooms.
She was lost. Her only livelihood, which could support her brother, had just disappeared because of her wrongdoing. Why? Why did she have to take the whip from the ground? Why couldn’t she do what she always did? Without paying a bit of attention to Mr. Ormand’s belongings.
Daphne had just condemned James’s life.
With regret, she returned to meet James, who was waiting for her on the village’s outskirts accompanied by Agate. An old woman who, although a little strange, had been helping her for almost three years. At first, she didn’t understand why Agate intended to help her with her brother. It was not usual for poor people to help other poor people, and although Agate was a frivolous old woman, she never used a bad word or a rude gesture towards her.
Walking down the path to the hut in the forest, the dry leaves sounded as though Daphne’s footsteps were being pressed. The atmosphere was bathed in shades of orange and red, and the cold air hit her face leaving reddish marks on her cheeks and the tip of her nose. The further she went into the trees, the colder she began to feel.
She was trying to find new ideas on how to earn money. Maybe she could ask for work in Mr. Brown’s house, a man who, although he had a reputation of being cruel to those who were imprisoned, at least they said that he was quite decent, although his wife had a reputation of mistreating the servants.
She bore the responsibility of taking care of her brother and paying Agate for all those brews supposed to work on James. No doctor wanted to treat her brother for fear of contagion. It was believed that James had possible tuberculosis, and yet she had never been infected. Of course, no one ever knew about Daphne’s situation because she was afraid that no one would ever give her a job again once the news spread.
And it was precisely one day when she wandered around the town, asking about possible employment, that she encountered Agate. A lady who said she was at least seventy years old. Her grey hair was gathered in braids with grey shades, her eyes were brown, her hands were covered with freckles, and she had an eagle nose. When Daphne saw her for the first time, she witnessed how Mr. Brown and another of his henchmen shouted at her “heretic” and “witch,” leaving her lying on the ground without moving. Many still feared those words, for many still continued to tell the stories of the Salem Trials. She watched from afar, not wanting to be approached and associated with her. When she was about to turn around to leave, something inside her snapped.
How could she leave behind a poor defenseless old woman on the street? No one had any foundation to accuse her of being a witch. She thought at that moment of her mother, who had disappeared a long time ago, abandoning her and her brother. Without a trace, she just disappeared, and her father? Even she does not know who her father was.
Daphne approached Agate, pulling her by the arms and helping her to get up. Some curious eyes and others with disapproval watched her from a distance. Mr. Brown had already left.
“Are you all right?” asked Daphne.
The old woman’s eyes stared at her for long seconds. Daphne repeatedly asked if she was all right.
“I’m fine, thank you, child.” A smile reflected in wrinkled eyes looked at her again, scrutinizing her.
“All right, be well.” She proceeded to move on when the old lady suddenly grabbed her wrist.
“What do you call yourself?”
“Daphne Brooks,” she replied, looking cautiously at the old fingers locked in her skin.
“And how can I thank Daphne Brooks for such generosity?”
“No need, ma’am...?”
“Just Agate. I do not wish you to leave without me being able to repay you.”
“I do not believe you can help me...” She spoke to her gently without trying to sound rude.
“I do believe I can... Regana Damonish” The look on Agate’s face was strange.
“Excuse me? What did you say?” she asked, somewhat alarmed, she had not understood the last sentence the old lady had just uttered.
“If you need help, come and find me. I live just outside the village, in the woods”.
“Have a nice day, Agate.” Daphne hurried to say goodbye and left without looking back.
Agate had not yet moved from her place, watching as the young woman’s figure disappeared in the distance. A silent smile spread on her face. The Regana had finally shown up, and there was little time left for the Antequrom to appear again.
Daphne finally arrived at the Agate hut, where both she and James remained, stripping away all thoughts and making a gesture to enter. Her brother’s illness had not yet been cured, although the Agate brews eased his pain.
“Daphne, what are you doing here? Aren’t you supposed to be here in two more days?” James asked her with a furrowed brow and lying on the narrow bed. His brother was a tall, thin young man, his sickly pale skin always overshadowing his handsome face. Brown locks were falling down the sides of his face.
“You were thrown out of the house.” Agate turned from the boiling cauldron over the fire.
Daphne watched as James opened his eyes wide with concern. “What happened, Daphne? They hurt you?” James started to get agitated, trying to get up, but a loud cough made him back up. She hurried, and only when she saw blood stains on James’ palm did she notice the other pieces of cloth cornered on the floor dirty by blood.
She ran her hand over her beloved brother’s forehead, depositing a kiss on it. “Nobody did anything to me, James. It was me who made a mistake, and it cost me my work. But don’t worry, tomorrow I’ll go back to the village and see if anyone needs an assistant”.
“Daphne...” Agate’s worn-out voice shifted their attention to her. “I want to talk to you for a moment,” Daphne nodded and followed her out of the hut.
“What’s the matter?” she asked, sensing somehow the following words from the witch.
“James, he doesn’t have much time left. My medicines are not working on him.” Daphne was silent for a moment.
“But didn’t you say you could cure him? Wasn’t it you who boasted that you were a powerful witch and that you would help him?” she began to spit out words full of anger amidst tears.
“Daphne, remember what I told you when you came to look for me?” Agate spoke to her with a severe expression. Daphne could only cry. “I told you that I would help your brother to prolong his life as much as possible. Indeed, I am a witch child, and I thank you very much that all this time, although I have been paying my debt to you, you have decided to take care of me too. But I cannot save your brother. My powers have a limit. I cannot save a mortal soul that is already condemned”.
She fell to her knees, crying inconsolably. She could not lose James, her brother, her only family. Her hands were brought to her red face and bathed in tears. What would she do without him? What would she do in this world without her dear brother? Not hearing his voice anymore? Not see him smile?
“I can’t save him, Daphne, but I know who can,” the sobbing stopped abruptly. Daphne stood up.
“You knew about someone, and you’re yet telling me now? Who is that person? I will go and find him immediately,” she reproached her.
“It is not someone you can find easily. But...there is a price you will have to pay.”
“Whatever I have to do, I will do it.” Daphne just responded without thinking of the consequences.
Agate closed his eyes and began to recite some strange words. Her wrinkled, hunched fingers touched a ring with a grotesque black stone hanging from her neck.
“What do you want now?”
A male voice startled Daphne, who turned quickly.
Her amber-colored eyes met dark brown eyes and a Roman nose. The man who had appeared out of nowhere was indeed very handsome, although she felt that behind that façade, there was a dark aura. Something evil.
“I need a favor,” Agate started to say. “This is Daphne Brooks. She has a brother who needs help. She needs to make a deal.”
The man looked at the young woman from head to toe; although her plain gray dress left much to be desired, he stopped to look at her face. She was undoubtedly a lovely young woman. Small freckles stretched between her nose and cheeks, the amber color of her almond eyes highlighted her face, and her hazel hair was the perfect complement to an ordinary beauty.
“Who are you?" Daphne asked him. Something in her told her that this man was not to be trusted.
“He’s a demon,” Agate explained.
Daphne looked at her with disbelief, and a hysterical laugh exploded in her.
“Demon?” she said, and watched Agate, who remained severe, and then looked again at the strange man dressed in black and did not flinch at her apparent mockery.
“Do you want me to help your brother? Yes or no?” Rothvaln asked her with a sudden impatience.
“You... how can you help him?” Daphne's voice was almost a whisper.
“I can give him more years of life, but I must receive something in return.”
“I have no money...”
“Money is only an object of value to you mortals. I require more than that.”
Daphne didn’t understand what else she could give him? Perhaps she should give herself to him in body and soul? Give him her virginity? “I will give myself to you if... if that is what you wish,” she said with insecurity.
Rothvaln smiled at her, but it wasn’t one of those smiles of complicity or of something humorous. It was instead a sardonic one, full of secrets that only he knew.
“I like you, Daphne,” Rothvaln spoke softly, and her heart began to beat vehemently. Fear, that’s what she was feeling at that very moment. “Three centuries to your brother, and you will work for me.”
“For how long?”
“Half a millennium? but if one day you betray me or disobey me, your brother will cease to exist at that very moment”.
Many things went through Daphne’s mind. Her life was already doomed. Making a deal with a demon would not make her situation worse, but somewhat better, and more than that, James would live for many more years, no matter if it was not forever, the most significant thing was that he would live healthy for three more centuries and she would have enough years to share with him. Sell your soul? Give yourself to a demon? She would do anything to save James to share her time with him. She stared at Rothvaln and then at Agate.
For the first time since she met her, Agate looked at her with a smile on her face. Rothvaln did not miss that moment. It seemed very strange that knowing the nature of Agate Brevil, she decided to help this simple mortal. And for his misfortune, he could not refuse the old woman, not when she knew the greatest secret of the Kingdom of Demons and was bound by a pact.
“Deal,” Daphne finally said.