Dr. Slivovitz dabbed fastidiously at his lips, surveying the effect his story had thus far had on his audience. He was not displeased. The Collins girl was rapt, wide-eyed and eager for more, and her brother, too, seemed actively interested. Miss Sirop appeared attentive, yet faintly amused, so the doctor was certain she was enjoying the story but as a story rather than as an explanation of the creature recently seen in the district. Pine, on the other hand, shivered in his seat. Meanwhile, a scowl was firmly fixed on the face of Beauregard Jolais, but that was no surprise given that the legend of the Beast of Beaufrere began with a murder committed by his ancestor.
"It's all rot!" burst from the man, "A bunch of damned fool nonsense."
"Is...is the doctor getting the story wrong?" Pine asked, almost hopefully.
"Ye--" Jolais began to insist, then broke off, frowned, and shook his head. "No, in good conscience I can't say that. He's telling the legend according to how it goes, though embroidering in places."
"Dramatic license," Dr. Slivovitz responded with a thin smile.
"It's the story itself that's the problem. Accusing an ancestor of mine of murder and black magic. Bad enough that the people in this district tell the story among themselves..." His voice trailed off and he glanced aside, almost as if he wanted to say more but for some reason couldn't bring himself to keep on with it.
"So what happened next?" Geraldine asked excitedly.
Dr. Slivovitz glanced at his critic as if requesting permission to keep on, but Jolais said no more. Smiling again, the doctor resumed the tale.
"Lord Calvert stared at the friar in disbelief. He could scarcely understand what he was seeing, the sudden appearance of the man just at the moment he'd committed the murder.
"'You...you devil!' he gasped. 'It's you who did this! You put a spell on me, twisted my mind!'
"The friar only laughed at him. 'Is that what you believe?' he mocked. 'Were you so pure as the driven snow before? Or are you just a man who has seen where his destiny lies and was not afraid to chart his course?'
"'Where my destiny lies? This is murder! No one saw me do it'--for some reason he could not conceive of the friar bearing witness against him--'but even if I conceal the body so that it is never found, he was a Royal Messenger.' Now that the bitter hate that seemed to possess him had faded, Lord Calvert realized that the Crown would make searching inquiries into what had become of its minion. It would be discovered that he had stopped to dine at Calvert's manor--that there had been words between them--that the messenger had left when the expected thing would have been to stay the night--and most of all that the baron had himself ridden out after the man. It was not at all impossible that despite his rank he would find himself facing the headsman's axe.
"'Quite so,' the friar answered with a knowing look that made it seem as if he was answering Lord Calvert's thoughts rather than his words. 'Yet do you have a reason for murdering this man? What royal business have you placed your hand into, milord?'
"'He was carrying the appointment of the new sheriff of this district. Another leech to suck away what little I have!'
"'I see. How bitter it must be, for us to talk of ambition and then find yourself thwarted that very evening. But come, milord, you have not yet seen the spoils of your crime. Why hesitate now?'
"Lord Calvert wanted nothing to do with the body. To drag it into the wood and bury it in a shallow grave, perhaps, but certainly not to inspect it closely, to touch the dead flesh or rifle the corpse's possessions. And yet, that was exactly what he found himself doing. The friar's mocking eyes were like a compulsion, driving him on. They held out to him--what? Nothing so kindly as hope, surely. But something, for he opened the courier's packet, removed the document, and broke the seal on the folded paper. In the eerily-bright moonlight he read the name scribed there, and the hate began to rise in him once more.
"'Him!' the baron barked. 'By God, this is a travesty!' He slapped the paper, making it crackle sharply. 'That bootlicker! He can do nothing but grovel at his betters' feet for scraps! How could he think to defend the king's authority or control the fractious lords? With him as sheriff there will be strife within six months, if not open rebellion! What could His Majesty have been thinking? No, more likely the Chamberlain has rewarded his lapdog for yapping on command or fetching his master some treat.'
"'And you believe that you could do a better job?'
"'Of course I could! The position demands a strong leader! The nobles are too independent, to free to pass local edicts. They need a firm hand to keep them in line, but a cool head to insure that everyone benefits. A noble made wealthy by the status quo isn't likely to rebel against the throne.'"
Miss Sirop smiled wryly.
"So he says while standing over the corpse of a technically treasonous offense."
Dr. Slivovitz chuckled at her sally.
"I suspect that the irony of the situation escaped him in that moment."
He nibbled delicately at a piece of cheese before resuming the story.
"It was the friar who spoke, then. 'In that case, then would the perfect solution for your troubles be for you to be appointed the new sheriff of the district?'
"'That's hardly likely to happen now.'
"'Ah, but I mean for it to have already happened. The messenger visited you tonight. He handed you your appointment papers and seal of office. Then he left. Perhaps you rode out later, but what of it? Why would you follow him? You've had your good news from his hands. No doubt he was attacked by robbers, who then panicked and fled when they realized what their victim was. You, meanwhile, carry on in your position, the first step towards making the Calverts one of the great names in the kingdom.'
"Lord Calvert laughed mockingly. 'Yes, indeed--quite the elegant solution! Unfortunately, that is not my name written here!'
"The friar smiled, his face radiant with a hideous kind of joy. 'Milord, the only things that say you are not the newly-appointed sheriff are the words written on this document and the memories of the man who ordered it to be drafted.'
"'Oh, that's all.'
"'Indeed. Documents are forged and altered every day in the capital by mere skill of hand alone. As for the other, will you truly say that it is impossible when you yourself just accused me of enchanting you to commit murder?'
"Lord Calvert trembled. Was this man truly saying these things? He recited them so matter-of-factly that he made it seem almost possible. Yet assuredly there was a price, and after their talk that afternoon he was afraid that he knew what that price would be."
"His soul?" Geraldine breathed.
"That was precisely what Lord Calvert asked, and in response received a long, delicious laugh from the friar. 'Why milord, did you not say that it was every man's right to go to the devil in his own way? I would not dream of interfering with that right.' He laughed again. 'But to enchant a high official, that is not a small thing. Ah! I have it. As sheriff you will have personal control over certain properties on royal lands. There is one such property, a ruined abbey called Vasten. Legend has it, I believe, that it fell to ruin a century ago when one of the brethren into diabolic rites, until the locals rose against the monks' depravities and burned the abbey. I wish to make this abbey my home, and to reside there...unmolested.'
"Lord Calvert's gaze narrowed.
"The friar nodded. 'That is all.'
"'My life, and a position of prestige, in return for letting you haunt an ancient ruin? Fine, then. Consider it done.'
"'Then we have a bargain. Shall I offer a sign of my good faith now, before I leave you to address...this?' he said, gesturing at the corpse. There was no real point in refusing, so at the friar's direction Lord Calvert held the charter of appointment out in front of him. The friar extended his hand over the paper and whistled shrilly. A noise echoed it, a rustling as if of wings but somehow wet and pulpy as if those wings were splashing through water, and then a shape descended to alight on the friar's forearm. Lord Calvert's eyes did not seem to want to follow its outline; he took little impression of it beyond that it appeared to be black and winged. The creature, whatever it was, gave a cry that sounded much like a peregrine's but choked and gurgling as if it was drowning.
"Then, before the baron's astonished gaze, the ink which outlined his rival's name appeared to run and flow together into a liquid pool, which then separated out again into letters reading, 'MacAdam, Baron Calvert.' The creature launched itself upwards, vanishing into the night sky.
"The friar smiled and said, 'There you are, milord Sheriff. Do not forget your seal of office before you conceal the corpse. No doubt we shall meet again.'
"Lord Calvert bent to the body to remove the seal, and when he looked up the friar had vanished."
"What was he?" Geraldine asked. "A devil, like the baron thought?"
"More likely a sorcerer, Miss Collins," Pine suggested. "His remarks at the first meeting and the request for a residence made it seem like he is at the least human, and the creature was no doubt his familiar. It would have been some kind of devil."
"So what happened next?" Tom asked. "How does the black dog come into it?" He seemed almost as interested as his sister.
"Well, things went exactly as the friar had suggested. Lord Calvert buried the body with its valuables and possessions intact, then returned home. In the morning, he announced the alleged purpose of the messenger's visit and, leaving a bailiff in charge of the estates, took his family to the castle of Redmarch, the seat of the sheriff's authority. There his claim was unquestioned and he assumed the role. For nearly a month he was on tenterhooks, fearing discovery of his fraud at every turn, but as messages and correspondence went back and forth between himself and the capital without difficulty, he began to accept that the friar had done his work there."
"What happened with the messenger's murder?" Miss Sirop wanted to know.
"Eventually his absence was noted and a hue and cry raised. Lord Calvert, as sheriff, sent out search parties, but these found nothing. Inquiries were made concerning several of the messenger's distinctive valuables--a signet ring, a jeweled dagger--but no trace of them was found as they had been buried with him. His horse was likewise never located, because Lord Calvert had stripped it of its tackle and set it loose. Without any distinctive markings it had almost certainly been found running free and sold, its finder unwilling to speak up for fear of having to give up the money it had brought. Opinion remained split as to whether the man had absconded or met with some misadventure, with a minority of more lurid tales mixed in such as having him carried off by the fae or meeting the devil at a moonlit crossroads.
"Meanwhile, within a few months other rumors began to spread, rumors of a strange man taking up residence in the ruins of Vasten Abbey. At first he was believed to be a hermit, a holy anchorite, but this supposition was soon replaced by other, darker rumors, of strange lights seen at night and weird shapes flitting through the darkness. Some claimed he was the ghost of one of the abbey's fallen brethren. Others argued that he was a sorcerer who sold curses and maledictions to those of ill will.
"At first Lord Calvert simply ignored these rumors, pooh-poohing them as the delusions of the superstitious peasantry and not worth the law's time. After nearly a year had passed, though, the rumors had not died down with familiarity but had redoubled in strength until the clamors for action began to be heard from people of influence, from wealthy burghers and members of the nobility. Lord Calvert went to Vasten Abbey to confront the friar, to plead with him to leave the area, but he only sneered and told the baron that a price had been agreed upon, and the penalty for those who breached Hell's contracts was steep indeed. Lord Calvert was driven from the abbey, mocking laughter ringing in his ears."
"But he returned, didn't he?"
"Indeed he did, Miss Sirop. He returned at high noon in one week, with a troop of armsmen at his back. They rushed the camp and took the friar into custody, whether because his devils had power only in the hours of darkness or because he simply chose not to fight back or because he was taken by surprise--who can say? For whatever cause, they were able to capture him and destroy his grimoires and other sorcerous paraphernalia. He was then duly tried as a sorcerer and condemned to death. As sheriff, Lord Calvert was obliged to preside at the trial and execution, all the time prepared for the friar to indict him for his part, but the accused said nothing, merely smiling mockingly at him the entire time. It was only when the ashes were cleared that the words were seen, as if burnt into the hard ground: 'As you called on my aid by moonlight, so shall I call upon you.' There was nothing more--until the next night of the full moon.
"That was when it appeared."
"The Black Dog?" Geraldine breathed.
A faint smile played about the doctor's lips.
He folded his hands before him.
"A giant hound, as black as pitch with blazing red eyes, as monstrous in size as in visage--five feet at the shoulder. It was seen prowling the moors around Redmarch as if stalking something. Lord Calvert laughed these incidents off, pointing out that neither human nor animal had apparently suffered at the thing's doing--but his laughter was brittle, and from the first report of the beast's appearance it was seen that he was never outside after dark on the nights of the full moon." No member of the doctor's audience could restrain themselves from glancing at Jolais.
"For three months the baron avoided his doom. For three months the whispers grew. An accursed man is distrusted and shunned. Rumors passed through every hall. Was this the dead man's vengeance? If so, was there truly a tie between Lord Calvert and the friar? Speculation grew, until at last the baron could bear it no longer. His own court had become a prison for him, a prison of stealthy glances and silent thoughts. He drank more and more, trying to hide from the fear, but it did nothing to help him, until at last one night, whether from the courage of the bottle or the utter despair that kills even fear, he ventured out to face the beast. His torn and mangled body was found the next morning.
"And ever since, it is said, that when a particularly wicked member of the Calvert family arises, the beautiful monk's devil returns, to carry the sinner's soul off to Hell."
There was a long, silent moment after the doctor concluded his tale, broken when Jolais tossed off the last of his brandy, stood and tossed down a fistful of coins that rattled against each other.
"There! Since the entertainment was at my expense, why not let the dinner be as well?" He stalked from the room in search of his bed, more than one gaze following his progress.
"Was it the story that offended him, or our eagerness to hear it?" Pine speculated.
"Well, I think he's being very rude," Geraldine said. "I think it was a wonderful story, Dr. Slivovitz; I'm sure that every time I hear a howl tonight I'll imagine that it's the Black Dog of the Calverts and not be able to get a wink of sleep. He's just all puffed up because he's got too much family pride."
Her brother's gaze lingered on the door by which Jolais had departed.
"I wonder, Geraldine. I very much wonder."
The full moon's baleful eye glared down upon the quiet countryside even through the wispy cloudsthat now and again brushed across it, shining over the Calvert lands, the forest and the heath, the Black Dog Inn and the village beyond. The sickly light of the moon, however, was not the most fearful illumination. Less sweeping in scope but far more threatening was the dull, rust-red gleam emanating from the lines and symbols of a sorcerous Rune, a malevolent light like old blood, old corruption. The light flowed beneath the hood of the Rune's caster, turning the face of the cloaked sorcerer into a hideous mask.
The blazing Rune's fires ebbed, darkening to a fainter, more placid glow as the summoning completed itself. Shadows coalesced as the conjured devil took form, the massive shape of the Beast of Beaufrere raising its muzzle to the moon, a literal hound of hell.
"Now go, my beauty. Go to the manor house and bring doom to Lord Calvert!"
The giant devil-hound snarled deep in its throat, baring fangs that gleamed white.
"I thought as much."
The sorcerer swung his head around and saw a similarly cloaked figure step out from the trees.
"Let me guess. You let your barghest there play its creditable imitation of the Black Dog of the Calverts for a couple of nights, making sure it was seen by a few witnesses so that the credulous villagers would assume that the killer was a devilish legend. It's a ready-made scenario: the legends talk about a devil-dog, and that's what would kill the baron. Only instead of a family curse, sorcery summoned this particular creature. You even managed to rope in a few traveling witnesses tonight, when the tale came out, acting like you were afraid of the story even as you blustered and denied it to make sure it was cemented in everyone's minds."
The intruder pushed back her hood, revealing the face of Miss Sirop.
"Surprise!" she taunted. "Or were you expecting Mr. Pine, that silly tutor? No; he's just an ordinary thief who stole from his employers and now can't stop looking over his shoulder for the justice he expects to fall."
"You stupid bitch! You may not be a Calvert, but I'm sure that the Beast won't mind a light snack before his meal."
Miss Sirop smiled.
"Seriously, Jolais, did you actually think I'd come here and confront you and your pet devil without planning things out in advance?" she mocked. "Do I look stupid to you?"
Chittering shrilly, bells on their caps jingling, a swarm of imps burst from the trees. The tiny figures rushed towards the barghest, passing around Miss Sirop like a wave. The demon hound tore into them, ripping apart two almost instantly, while Jolais's Rune blazed up again as he tried to summon more help. His opponent, however, already had her reinforcements in place. Two hulking, horned and winged demons were the next things to emerge from the forest, flanking a black cat walking on its hind legs.
Jolais was a competent sorcerer. He could have summoned up such creatures himself for battle had he been given the opportunity, but it was his opponent who had prepared for combat while he had only prepared to do murder. All his experience did for him was to let him know what would happen next. The grimalkin pointed at the barghest and the hound dropped, incapacitated by the sleeping spell. The surviving imps swarmed it, slashing the sleeping beast with their claws until it dissolved into sulfurous black smoke. One demon tore down Jolais's Rune, while the other seized the sorcerer and bore him to the ground.
"Damn you!" he howled furiously. "Who are you? Why are you doing this?"
"I already told you who I was. I know we'd never met face-to-face, but still you really should remember my name."
I already told you, Jolais thought. She couldn't mean the name she'd used at the inn. He'd surely have recognized that, if it was somehow important. But the only thing she'd said to him other than mocking him was...
"Surprise," he murmured. "Margarita Surprise. The traitor! You were sent to the Tower to aid the Archmage's return! You failed and let Lillet Blan destroy him!"
"Well, technically, I didn't so much 'let' Lillet destroy him as I 'helped' her. Not that she needed it. I mean, seriously, I understand why even the most fanatical of you guys never got around to seeking revenge against her."
"Came here after you? Yeah, pretty much. And when I found that you were up to your eyes in this little plot to kill off your cousin's family and inherit the lands and title, that made up my mind. If you're just going to go around committing more acts like you did for the Archmage, then you have to be stopped."
"Wait! We could join forces! There's plenty here for us both to make a fresh start, wealth and authority alike! We could--" When the demon's hand rose, a scream of panic cut off the babbling pleas; when it fell the scream was stilled in turn by a sickening crunch.
"Besides," Margarita said softly, "there's too many of us anyway."
She had her summoned devils dispose of the corpse and its effects before dismissing them; it would, perhaps, be assumed that Jolais snuck off in the night to escape the inn bill. Perhaps over time his disappearance would be put down to the legend of the Beast of Beaufrere.
Margarita took out the small, leather-bound book in which she'd copied down the details of every one of her fellow remnants of the Archmage's minions. Perhaps these records should have been turned over to the authorities; all were technically guilty of treason, particularly those whose service dated back to the Archmage's lifetime. But she couldn't bring herself to do it. There were surely ones like herself as well, weren't there? She'd been saved by the remnants from being burnt at the stake by her arch-conservative village, even her own family. Certainly they'd wanted something from her, had used her in service to their own interests, and had encouraged her efforts in the dangerous and corrupting practice of sorcery, but they'd also protected her, supported her, gave her a place where who and what she was was welcomed.
She couldn't just give them up to the law. Not when there were those like her, who'd served out of obligation. Not when there were those who now sought only to live quietly without evil intent.
As for those like Beauregard Jolais, whose corruption had clearly been more than a merely political allegiance to Archmage Calvaros...
Margarita took the page with Jolais's name on it, deftly tore it out of the notebook, then burnt it in a puff of conjured flame. She raised the hood of her cloak once more, and slipped into the trees on her way back to the inn.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
A/N: Names from this story include:
Harvey Webbinger -- from the Harvey Wallbanger
Thomas Collins -- taken from the drink of the same name
Geraldine Collins -- since she's Tom's sister, they go as a pair...a "Tom & Jerry"
Beauregard Jolais -- Beaujolais
Grigio Pine -- taken from a brand of wine, Pinot Grigio
Dr. Slivovitz -- a plum brandy (Jonathan Harker gets offered a flask of it in Dracula)
Cassie Sirop -- sirop de cassis, a black-currant liqueur (favored by Hercule Poirot, incidentally, giving a ridiculously obscure clue to which character would be the heroine)
Lord Calvert -- after the brand of whiskey
Bonus points to anyone who caught Geraldine's reference to "dark shadows" at her family estate...since it's the Collins family. Tom Collins also showed up in the supporting cast of my "Life in a Bottle," while another relative of the Calverts has a part in "The Hollow Heart."