The full moon hung high in the sky, bloated and swollen as if it had gorged itself on stars in order to fuel the sickly yellow light that bathed the land. Harvey Webbinger didn't care about melodramatic poetry, though. The stablehand was more interested in practical affairs, such as the fact that he didn't have to blunder about in the dark. That was important when a man had been up to the Black Dog for a wee drop of gin, and fully intended to drink a few more wee drops from the bottle he was taking home. One time it had been so dark that he'd stumbled right off the road, fallen in a ditch, and ended up passing the night in the muck. No, when a man's senses were slightly impaired he appreciated a good, bright moon to show him the way home.
Harvey crossed over the wooden bridge that marked the edge of Calvert lands. Technically the farms and even the village were part of the baronial holdings, but the land across the bridge was what went with the manor, the border between what belonged to the family and what belonged to the title. The legal subtleties tended to escape people like Harvey, but they knew that the boundary was significant.
He'd gotten a fair distance up the road when he heard the howl. The sound slashed through him like a cold blast of wind, driving out the alcoholic fog. Though he'd never heard it before, he knew at once what it was--anyone in the district would. Terror, stark staring fear, gripped him like a devil's claw. Harvey stood, trembling, unable to advance or retreat, as if his feet had been nailed to the road's surface.
Until he saw it.
Jet black it was, its shoulders as high as a man's, muscles rippling beneath the sleek, glossy pelt. The only color about the thing was the brilliant white of its teeth and claws and the dull, sorcerous red glow of its eyes. Those eyes stared at Harvey, and a deep, rumbling growl emanated from the monster's throat.
The terror that held the stablehand broke then, shattered by the gut-wrenching fear of immediate danger. He took off at a dead run, sprinting pell-mell down the road towards the manor, imagining the beast's claws scraping the road and its hot breath on his back the whole way.
"The Beast of Beaufrere? Are you serious, Tom?" asked Geraldine Collins. Seventeen years old, fresh out of seminary and ready to make her debut next Season, she was fond of the Gothic novels she and her school friends would read aloud by candlelight. She shivered deliciously at the name her brother had reported.
"Cross my heart; that's what the innkeeper said while I was arranging for our rooms." Baron Thomas Collins shared his red hair and fair skin with his sister, but otherwise looked quite different; where she was elfin and petite, Tom had strong, square features well-suited to a country sportsman, which was exactly what he was. "Apparently, it nearly had a stablehand from up at the Hall for a snack last night. On his way home from this very establishment, he was."
"And no doubt full of this establishment's ale or gin," remarked Cassie Sirop. She was a woman of indeterminate age: her short brown hair, pince-nez spectacles, and shapeless dress tended to blur any such judgments, though if one looked closely she would not seem much older than Collins. "Pink elephants are the usual of course, but why not black beasts?"
Ordinarily the six guests in the Black Dog's dining room would not have been seated together, but the tavern was not really a proper coaching inn and lacked a private parlor. The Collinses had been en route from their estates to the capital and had stopped for the night. Miss Sirop actually had been a passenger on the public stage, which had broken an axle and been forced to stop for the night. Beauregard Jolais and Grigio Pine had already been guests, while the sixth member of the company, Dr. Slivovitz, had come to the Black Dog solely because of the inn-wife's talents with a joint of lamb. With a deluge of the Quality, the innkeeper had, with a keen appreciation of the social classes (and their relative ability to pay), ushered the ordinary village clientele into the taproom and set the dining room aside for the use of the others, creating a kind of impromptu dinner party.
"But what is this Beast supposed to be?" Pine asked. "Our host talked like it was common knowledge." He was a wiry man with thinning hair and nervous, fidgety mannerisms. His speech held that odd combination of arrogance and servility that came with a man being placed in temporary authority over those who outranked him, perhaps as a schoolmaster or tutor.
"Only a local legend," harrumphed Jolais. He and the doctor were both within a few years of fifty, one way or the other. Unlike his contemporary, who was running to fat, Jolais's build was solid and fit. "Hardly worth your time."
"But it sounds so exciting!" Geraldine protested. "Back home there are supposed to be all sorts of lurking dark shadows but they're just stories. No one ever actually says they see our ghosts."
"I wonder if it has anything to do with the name of this inn?" Pine mused. "Black Beast, Black Dog..." He pointed to the painting that hung over the mantel. It showed a hound that appeared more monster than animal, with blazing eyes and foam-flecked jaws, standing on a tor beneath the full moon.
"Thank you, Mr. Pine; that certainly would explain the source of the man's hallucination," observed Miss Sirop.
"Or maybe the painting is of the same thing the fellow saw," countered Tom.
"I am afraid there is no escaping it," the doctor spoke up. The fleshy lips framed by his salt-and-pepper beard and moustache curved in a smile as faint as the traces of a foreign accent in his voice. Despite his size everything was orderly and precise about him, from his immaculate grooming to the cut of his clothes to the fastidious way he ate, dissecting his meat as if his steak knife was a scalpel. "The majority have had their say, is it not so?" His eyes twinkled at Jolais.
"Damned lot of nonsense," the man said. "Black beasts--devil dogs--rot, all of it!" Yet there was something about how he said it that lacked the casual dismissiveness of Miss Sirop. Jolais's denials were too forceful, too personal. In short, he was trying too hard. The more perceptive among his dinner companions began to get the distinct impression that there was something about the story of the Beast of Beaufrere that Beauregard Jolais distinctly did not like.
"Oh, do tell us the story, Dr. Slivovitz," Geraldine asked, clasping her tiny hands and looking at him pleadingly in a way that never failed to excite the sympathy of the male target. Tom reflected that it was a good thing the doctor seemed willing to tell; his sister could be quite the insistent devil when she had the bit between her teeth.
"It is more the place of Mr. Jolais to be our raconteur, I think."
"Oh? Why is that?"
"Because," Jolais put in, "I happen to be a cousin of the Calverts."
The announcement made Pine flinch in surprise. Miss Sirop and the doctor both glanced at him, surprised in turn by his sudden nervous reaction.
"So, it's a legend of the Calvert family, then?" Geraldine pounced.
Jolais snorted huffily.
"Idiocy. All nonsense spread by people with too much time for tittle-tattle." His eyes flicked to the painting over the fireplace again. "Pure nonsense," he repeated.
"I like nonsense," Miss Sirop put in unexpectedly. "It makes for a better story when narratives can be tied off neatly. Real life doesn't wrap up with a happily-ever-after and a moral."
"Oh," Pine stammered. "Oh, yes, I see what you mean."
"And she is quite right," Dr. Slivovitz said, his enigmatic smile back again. "There is no neat end to the story of the Beast of Beaufrere."
"Damn it all!" Jolais cursed loudly, slamming his fist down on the table and making the plates and cutlery rattle. "Must you all go on and on about this? Can you speak of nothing else?"
"Well I say!" Geraldine snapped. "I think you're being frightfully rude, Mr. Jolais. If it's only a story, then what harm can there be in telling it? We're most of us strangers here, and a chance to hear a local legend sounds fun. I'd certainly be happy to tell any of our ghost stories if you'd come to visit us!"
Jolais swept the table with his eyes, then reached for his glass and gulped down what was left of the indifferent house red it contained.
"Fine, then!" he shot back. "Do as you like, but don't expect me to tell the tale." He glanced at the doctor. "If you're so eager for everyone to hear, Slivovitz, then you tell it."
"If the young lady insists," he assented. "But let us wait until after dinner, hm? A good meal and a good story are both worthwhile things, but they go better in sequence rather than together."
Geraldine smiled winsomely at him.
"Oh, no, that's quite all right," she said. "Besides, the sun is almost down, and ghost stories are always better by night!"
This eager statement made Miss Sirop and Tom share an amused look, one because she'd been that age herself once and one because he knew his sister all too well.
"Not quite what you expected from your holiday, is it, Mr. Pine?" Tom offered affably.
"Eh, what?" Pine said quickly--too quickly.
"Well, you're here for a few days of quiet rest in the country, isn't that right? All of a sudden, here's an impromptu dinner party and rumors of ghostly forces at large."
"Oh, y-yes, that's true."
"Diabolic," the doctor said, before taking a mouthful of lamb.
Dr. Slivovitz was not to be rushed; he chewed and swallowed before he answered.
"You said ghostly forces, Baron Collins. In truth the matter of the Beast of Beaufrere is rather darker than one of mere ghosts."
Jolais's hand clenched tightly on his knife so that his knuckles turned white. Geraldine gasped, Miss Sirop's eyes narrowed, and Pine trembled in his seat.
And no one said anything else until the dinner was cleared.
The innkeeper had removed the supper dishes and served a selection of fruit, cheese, coffee, and brandy to the guests' taste. Only the latter was of indifferent quality; though the Black Dog was only a country inn, its owner took pride in the table he set for his customers. Baron Collins sipped from his glass, the candlelight lending a faint glow to the amber liquid.
"Well, Dr. Slivovitz?" his sister asked eagerly. Geraldine and the medical man were the only ones who had abstained from spirits; Jolais, Pine, and somewhat surprisingly Miss Sirop had all taken brandy.
"Quite so," he said. "I shall put you off no longer. The Beast of Beaufrere, or as you rightly anticipated sometimes called the Black Dog of the Calverts, is a demonic creature said to stalk the Calvert family on the nights of the full moon."
"Last night was a full moon," Pine said somewhat fatuously.
"As is," the doctor replied, "tonight." He rubbed his big hands together with something akin to relish. "A suitable evening to recount the tale."
Jolais bit savagely into an apple as if to vent emotions that might otherwise seek a different, violent outlet.
"As you may be aware, the Calverts are a noble family of long standing. The current Lord Calvert is the fourteenth baron in the line. Many of the family have served with distinction at Court or in the military. However, it is also undeniably true that from time to time there have been intimations that the Calverts have been involved in the practice of unhallowed arts. One younger son was actually burned at the stake for witchcraft a hundred and fifty years ago, and rumors and legends have persisted stubbornly even into our modern day, with our more enlightened attitude towards magic."
The eyes of the other four diners were drawn inexorably towards Jolais, but the big man did not speak up brashly in defense of his family. Instead he shifted uncomfortably in his seat, suggesting that even from the point of view of a family insider he had heard the rumors, and perhaps knew that there was something more to them than just gossip.
"The legend of the Beast is said to date from the time of the fourth baron, MacAdam Calvert. He was a hard man, a harsh one who considered the land and its people to belong to him and extracted every scrap of value from it. He was also an ambitious man, who wanted to be a grand lord in the style of the great dukes and marquis. It was this trait that led him into trouble."
The doctor took a sip of coffee to wet his tongue.
"Lord Calvert was riding his estates one day, calculating in his head the how this piece of land or that stream might best be exploited to the greatest value, when he realized that he was constantly addressing the same issues: he would save a penny here and another there, but those were the stakes of his life. He was a petty noble in a country filled with them, a man with the will and determination to make himself great but--as he saw it--thwarted by the lack of opportunity. Overcome by this frustration, he bellowed that he would give his very soul for the chance to prove what he could do. It had been a careless oath, and he was very surprised to receive an answer.
"A soft voice almost like a cat's purr said, 'That is a very dangerous thing to say, milord.' Lord Calvert jerked back in his saddle in surprise, looking around for the speaker, and he realized that there was a man standing in the road where he'd have sworn there was none before."
Geraldine shivered with excitement and clutched at her brother's arm.
"The stranger was dressed in the brown homespun robe of a friar, with a rope belt, but his face held all the beauty of a classical sculpture, showing both the perfection of line and curve and the aristocratic bearing, a pride of place most unusual in a friar. The man's sudden appearance, his looks, his voice, all these things unnerved and disquieted Lord Calvert, but the baron was a hard-headed man not given to what he would see as womanish fears. 'Hold your tongue, monk,' he bellowed. 'It's a man's right to go to the devil in his own way.'
"This brazen declaration only made the friar smile. 'Indeed it is, my lord, indeed it is. And is ambition your way, then?'
"Lord Calvert glowered down at the too-beautiful friar. Part of him wanted nothing more than to raise his riding crop and drive the man from his lands, yet something held him back. It may be assumed that that something was not the respect owed to a man of the cloth."
The doctor smiled faintly as he sipped his coffee, inviting his listeners into the spirit of the joke.
"At last, then, as if compelled, he answered the friar's question. 'It is not ambition, is it, to seek out one's natural place? I have it in me to rule, so why shouldn't I?'
"'Why indeed? You see lesser men set above you, are forced to endure their stupidity and their apathy. So why shouldn't you take from them what they clearly are not fit to hold? Is that what you are saying?'
"'Yes, damn it, that's it exactly!' Lord Calvert slapped his thigh with a sharp crack. 'But it's impossible as things are. If I am to climb to the heights then I need a foothold, a grip to start my climb with!'
"Once again the friar smiled at him, his eyes glittering. 'And would you truly give your soul for that, Lord Calvert?'
"'When I say a thing, I mean it!' Calvert roared. 'Do you, then, claim to be the devil, offering such a bargain?'
"The friar laughed, the sound rich and musical. 'The devil? Oh, not I, not I...but perhaps when you talk to me he can hear you?'
"'In that case, I need not waste my time with you!' snapped the baron and turned his horse. The friar stopped him with a word.
"'That is as may be, milord. Ride on if you will, but remember this. If the chance to seize your destiny ever presents itself, look for me and I will insure that it comes into your hands...if you are willing to pay my price.' And with that he smiled enigmatically, folding his hands inside of his sleeves. Lord Calvert stared at him, not knowing what to think, but at last he snorted and set spur to his horse's flanks. Angry with himself for being shaken by the friar's manner, he vowed to put the encounter from his mind--but as things turned out, he was unable to do that."
"What happened?" Geraldine asked.
Dr. Slivovitz smiled at her.
"Circumstances--or perhaps something more--contrived to set temptation in his path."
Miss Sirop toyed with the stem of her glass.
"That does happen more often than one would suspect." She glanced at the nervous man next to her. "Wouldn't you agree, Mr. Pine?"
He flinched in his seat, startled.
"In this case," continued the doctor, "the temptation took the form of a Royal Messenger. It was three days after Lord Calvert's encounter with the strange friar when the man arrived. He was a typical fellow of his sort, at least to the baron's mind--a courtier from the capital, more used to palace life than the practicalities of reality. The nobility of the robe, as it was called, rather than the nobility of the sword, more skilled with a dinner knife than a weapon. In arrogant terms, he demanded shelter for the evening with the authority of his position. He was equally arrogant at dinner, where he inflated his own ego with tales of how important he was, of the trust placed in him by the powers of the kingdom.
"Lord Calvert, of course, was by no means impressed with the messenger's airs. To him it was merely more proof of his own belief in his own self-worth, that he was suited to far more than his petty holdings while men such as this carried power and influence. Truculently, he scoffed at the messenger's claims, calling him a glorified errand-boy. Predictably this raised the man's ire; he drew himself up haughtily.
"'You stupid fool,' he said, 'hiding out here in the wilderness, with no idea what affairs of moment may be going on right under your nose.'
"'So you say.'
"'Yes, Lord Calvert, I do. Why here,' the messenger said, tapping the bag at his waist, 'I carry with me His Majesty's appointment of the new sheriff of this district--yournew overlord.' He smiled cruelly at the baron, not unaware of the other's scorn.
"Perhaps it was the encounter with the monk that afternoon, or merely the messenger's arrogant manner, but Lord Calvert found himself unable to hold his feelings in check. He fumed, he raged, he gnawed at his liver in frustration. The position of sheriff was not precisely that of a liege lord or a provincial governor, but it was close enough: it was responsible for overseeing the local military, drawing upon the resources of towns and landholders for the king's armies. In other words, it was yet another person to draw upon Calvert's holdings and deny him their use.
"This frustration so worried at Lord Calvert that it unnerved the messenger. Even so insensitive and pompous a man as he could tell when, for whatever reason, he had pushed someone too far. Therefore, he announced that while he appreciated the baron's hospitality, his duties were pressing and he could not afford to stay the night, but had to ride on. The instincts, you see, of the bully and coward were working strongly in him, and he scented danger, a reason for him to leave at once."
"And he was right, wasn't he?" Geraldine asked excitedly.
"Most definitely he was," said the doctor. "The messenger had his horse saddled and departed the manor, but in his wake he left a man stewing in wrath and envy. Discontent ate at the baron; everywhere he cast his eye he saw nothing but evidence of his own failures, his own weakness. He saw table settings and wondered why they could not be of silver. He saw armorial trophies and wondered why they should not be from glorious conquests. He saw the manor walls and resented that they were not of a mighty chateau.
"Within half an hour of the messenger's departure, Lord Calvert was in a fever of rage. He called for his horse to ride and clear his head, but instead found himself pounding down the road on the messenger's trail. At full gallop he ran down the man in under twenty minutes. The messenger spurred his own horse at the sight of him, seeing his death in the baron's crazed eyes. It was too late for him, though. Lord Calvert's sword shone in the moonlight as it swung, and then it shone no more, bloodied with the gore of its victim."
Jolais's features twisted into a scowl, no doubt displeased at the story's slur on his ancestor's character.
"Almost as soon as the deed was done, the scales dropped from Lord Calvert's eyes. The emotion ebbed at once, as if the murdered man's blood had washed away some enchantment. He looked down at the body of his victim, no doubt aghast at what he had done but primarily, as he was a practical man, concerned with how he could escape punishment for what was not only a crime but a treasonous act.
"Which is when he heard that too-beautiful voice again, and looked up to see the friar standing by the side of the road, as if he had just emerged from the wood.
"'I see, milord, that you have wasted no time in seizing your opportunity,' he said, and his laughter rang like the chiming of bells at a funeral."