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Beast30

The farm where Father Secours had been raised, and which was now occupied and operated by his cousin with his wife, daughter, and son, consisted of a two-story stone cottage and a one-story low, wide barn and attached stable. Louis did not pay much attention to the layout, as it was dark and late. The priest instructed him to tie Modestine near to the door of the home, which he did, and they both knocked.

It opened slowly to a young, pale face. This was Gilles. He had dark eyes and hair, and his lip bore the determined efforts of cultivation, though the mustache was a little thin. Louis sympathized and pulled at his own painstakingly established facial hair.

“Victor!” shouted Gilles. “Sylvie! It is Victor!” He yelled back into the home while swinging the door wide to let the travelers inside.

His wife, round in belly with what looked like several months of gestation, swept through the room and embraced Father Secours. The priest made the introductions, and the couple brought forth their children—or, Sylvie’s children from a previous marriage—Martine, her twelve-year-old daughter, and Thierry, her nine-year-old son. Louis smiled and greeted them both, who, like all children, regarded him with some naïve suspicion.

Sylvie insisted on making them coffee, so she and Martine disappeared into the kitchen, while Gilles and Thierry excused themselves for a few moments to make sure the barn and stable were secure.

“Thierry can take care of your ass, Monsieur Stevenson,” said Gilles.

Merci, mais non,” Louis replied, then looked at Father Secours.

“We have some things to discuss, cousin,” said the priest. “I’m afraid we need to keep a close eye on the donkey.”

Gilles nodded and smiled, and then hurried with his stepson out into the night.

“It is an uncommon arrangement,” Father Secours explained. “But he loves them like his own, and she is a good woman.”

“There is nothing to explain,” Louis said, thinking of Fanny and realizing that he could have, indeed, told Father Secours of her—their—predicament. “I am charmed.”

The priest smiled gratefully. Soon, the women of the house brought out a pot of coffee and a plate of digestive biscuits. Sylvie glowed with joy.

“Victor, it is so good to see your face,” she said as she served the beverage. “It has been too long, and, as I’m sure you know, in recent days, every good turn is a blessing.”

“I’m afraid that is why we are here,” Father Secours said. “But it is late. When Gilles returns, you will tell me your news, and tomorrow, after we’ve slept, we will tell you why we are here.”

* * *

With Clémence occupying the family’s extra guest bed, Father Secours assembled a cot in the family room, and Louis insisted he sleep in the stable to better watch Modestine. There were some protestations from the couple, but Father Secours saw Louis’s reasoning and asserted that it would likely be best as well.

Gilles accompanied Louis to the barn to stable Modestine, and set down a bale of fresh, clean hay for him to make his bed on. Then, making sure there was nothing else that Louis might need, the farmer disappeared into the house again, and Louis watched the windows go dark.

The barn was constructed of stone and inside contained a number sheep, plus some goats and two cows for milk and cheese making. The stable in which Modestine and Louis lodged was a wooden structure built onto the side of the main stone building. She nibbled on some of Louis’s bed, and he left her to graze and then sleep while he updated his chronicle. He took and lit a small lamp outside the structure, leaning his back against the wood and, placing his inkpot where he could see it, he scribbled with his journal propped against his knees.

Now and then, he would look up and out over the property. The house stood black against a dark, but starry sky. The gravel yard between the house and the barn was a sheet of grey under the small moon, and the shadowy trees beyond—in the direction from whence they came—swayed gently. The only sounds were the soft wind through the distant leaves and the haunting duet of two barn owls murmuring to one another.

Much to his surprise, Louis felt calm. He supposed he should be nervous, perhaps even a little afraid, but despite that things were at last coming to a head, he was rather relaxed. The night was tranquil, and spending the late evening with a family, who could—in another country, with another woman—be his own, gave him hope. The hope was, obviously, for his future with Fanny, but also the potential of being a father to her young son, Lloyd—a prospect he hadn’t fully considered. He and Lloyd had gotten along like mates, but to be a father? The last couple of hours certainly made the idea seem quite welcome.

Gilles and his adopted children interacted as if the same blood flowed through their veins, and although Louis could not picture Fanny being quite the pleasant hostess as Sylvie—she was suspicious of his friends and often too coarse for polite company—he believed there was a sliver of hope that something like this picture could be painted. If she’d let him.

This hope spilled over into his more immediate and dismal situation, not that it had much right to. Logically, Louis knew this, but he let it sweep over him anyway, feeling his spine loosen and his chest relax. He didn’t believe that the cloaked man would come this close to the farm, to their home base. Sleeping out here with Modestine was just a safety precaution, but he fully expected to sleep full and long until dawn.

Louis tossed down his pen and almost upset his inkpot, as he jumped up and threw himself into the stable, startling Modestine as he did. She had lain down in the hay and snorted at Louis while he rummaged through his sleeping sack. Not finding what he was looking for, he dumped everything out onto the dirt stable floor, just beside hay and the quizzical donkey.

After moving everything about and making sure he wasn’t overlooking anything, he sat down hard beside Modestine and sighed deeply. He knew there had to be something to the molestation of the donkey’s pack while they were on the cattle path.

The cloaked man’s weapon was gone.

Louis went back outside, lidded his inkpot, gathered his journal and pen, and put out his lamp. Then, in the dark, he arranged his effects in some reasonable manner and spread his sleeping sack over what remained of the hay. Modestine—lying on her side like a dog—had taken up half of it, so he crawled inside the sack at her back and laid his head upon her neck.

With one ear, he listened to all the muffled, internal donkey noises that muttered up through Modestine’s fur, and with the other ear, he listened to the owls hoot poignantly their hollow, wooden calls. As he drifted into sleep, to the rhythm of the dueling sounds, his thoughts flowed back and forth between the pleasant image of his potential future family and the decidedly unpleasant business closer at hand.

 

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Beast29

Luckily for Louis, the night had taken on a chill. Not cold enough for a fur hat and muff across his face, but it would have to do, for he did not want to be recognized by the cloaked man as they entered the town. Father Secours, who would not be known to the killer, drove Modestine. They hoped that if they were seen, the cloaked man would not be looking for a priest-driven donkey and a fur-capped stranger.

Florac was the largest town Louis had passed through yet, being like a second capitol next to Alès. It had two churches, dozens of shops, a few inns, a mill, and a functioning, non-ruined chateau, which sat in the southwest part of town, across from the Vibron River, a tributary that ran through the center of Florac and joined with the Tarn to the north.

As they entered the city proper, they spent a little time walking along the esplande. Under other circumstances, Louis would have tied Modestine nearby, as would be socially correct, and enjoyed the company of the interesting, educated French men and women promenading happily back and forth. But tonight, he didn’t want to risk leaving her alone and unguarded. And there would be no happy mingling here tonight. The area was filled, not with well-to-do socialites looking to impress but a smattering of wary-looking townspeople, huddling in groups and talking about the recent murders. It was clear that some of those who stood there in the crisp night air, smoking cigarettes, had been personally affected—their daughters, their uncle, their sister. Someone they knew had died, their cold corpses waiting in the church—of whichever faith they claimed—for absolution and burial.

They walked all round the promenade once, intending to eavesdrop a little and see if anything about the cloaked man could be established, but Father Secours’s face was like the face of every man and woman’s brother, and he was too often greeted with a smile and a handshake or embrace, despite their grief. They had decided, though, not to ask outright about the cloaked man, for they didn’t want to put any more innocents in harm’s way if they could avoid it.

As they came back to where they began, they moved left past a 12th-century tower-house and made another immediate left to head down la rue principal, where they would head southwest again, near an old nunnery. Father Secours’s aunt Adèle and mother Colette lived in a small flat across from the walls of the convent. They tied Modestine in as shadowy a corner outside the flat as they could find and entered the home.

“Victor!” both old women shouted together, and they descended upon the priest, throwing their skinny arms about him and kissing his cheeks. Louis removed his fur cap and muff now, wiping the sweat from his forehead and neck.

Qui est-ce?” Colette asked when the reunion jubilance faded a little.

Maman, tatine,” Father Secours began, “this is my friend, Monsieur Louis Stevenson.”

Bonsoir.” Louis made a curt bow.

“Louis. He is French?” asked Adèle.

“Oh no, Madam,” Louis replied. “Scots.”

She looked slightly disappointed, but rallied.

“Ah, but it is a good French name,” she smiled with crooked teeth.

“Come,” said Colette. “We were just about to sit down to a late repast. Sit, sit.” She motioned for the men, whom were but boys to her, to sit along one of two benches that flanked their modest wooden dining table.

“After my father passed,” Father Secours explained, as his mother crossed herself, “my mother moved here to the city. I did not grow up within the town limits, but just outside on a farm, passed from my mother to my cousin Gilles and his family.

“Gilles.” His mother spoke as she piled food onto plates—beef, potato, and turnips. “They brought that poor girl here first.”

“Clémence?” Father Secours asked.

Oui.”

The priest’s aunt banged the heel of her palm against the table, which made barely a sound, she was so frail. Then she rattled off an angry diatribe in French, so fast Louis only caught every other word, but was impressed with this old woman’s fire.

“How could they, Victor? How could they? There was no more innocent a family in that town.”

“I know, tatine,” Father Secours reached across the table and put a soothing hand over her thin wrist. “An evil man roused the passions of an ignorant mob. It is a simple enough explanation, and sometimes that makes the loss even harder to bear.”

Fine tears fell down Adèle’s wrinkled face and Louis recalled that, not only was Clarisse lost and Clémence injured and orphaned, this poor old woman had lost a brother and a sister-in-law.

“What evil man?” she inquired through her sniffles, dabbing at her nose with a well-worn handkerchief.

At Father Secours’s insistence, Louis retold his tale, from Monastier to this very night, to the rapt, angry old women. When he finished, it was quiet save for the sound of utensils against plates. The men waited for a response and Louis took up his fork, as he had not begun eating yet for it was rude to eat and speak. As he brought the loaded fork to his lips, Adèle erupted.

“So, you killed Alphonse? Did you burn down my brother’s house? Was it you who killed my family?” She was up off the bench and coming around to beat her small fists in a rage against Louis, but Father Secours caught her just as she stood up and she melted into his arms, weeping.

“It wasn’t like that, tatine,” he whispered to her. “It wasn’t like that.” He looked at his mother over Adèle’s grey head, who only looked back at him sadly.

Louis had set his fork down and sat still and silent, his eyes downcast.

Colette went to her son and sister-in-law and gently separated them, taking Adèle by the shoulder and looking her in the eye.

Ma sœur,” she said softly. “We both know Alphonse could not control himself. It has been a long, long time since any of us have had to deal with the heartache of what the change makes of our bébés. We forget that it is ugly and brutal.”

She looked at Louis, who was now watching her and listening.

“Monsieur Stevenson,” she said to Adèle. “Louis. He was only protecting himself and his friends.”

Then she took Adèle into her own thin arms and rocked her to and fro until her sobs subsided.

Eventually, Adèle pulled quietly from Colette, placed a weary hand on Father Secours’s arm for a moment, and then turned to the fire that was burning in the fireplace, keeping the un-served food warm. She took the handle of the pot with a towel, walked it over to Louis, and plopped another serving onto his plate, although he had yet to begin to eat. Before she left, she set her free hand on his shoulder for a moment, and then returned the pot to the fireplace and resumed her place opposite him on the bench.

Louis looked to Father Secours who gestured that he should eat, and so, hungry, he did. There was then a not uncomfortable quiet in the room, as Louis ate and everyone retreated to their private thoughts.

“Clémence,” Adèle began after she’d recovered, “was brought here.”

“But she is not here now,” Father Secours said.

Non,” said Colette, who now sat down beside her sister-in-law. “She was close to the change and behaving unpredictably.”

She wrung her hands on the table, watching her pale, old skin wrinkle and her blue veins roll over the bone beneath. She looked from her son to Louis.

“She is traumatized,” she said. “She’s such a good girl, she would never hurt a living soul. But in this state, we cannot be sure she could . . .” She paused to find the words she needed.

“She might not be able to control herself as well as she could in other circumstances,” Father Secours finished. His mother reached over and patted his hand, nodding gratefully.

“Gilles took her to the farm,” added Adèle.

“That makes sense,” Father Secours said.

Louis had cleaned up the two servings and set his fork across his empty plate, leaning back and feeling bloated, but satiated.

“Good, eh?” Father Secours asked, smiling. “No one can cook like ma maman et ma tatine.”

“Indeed,” Louis managed to wheeze out, smiling. He rubbed his belly, which on his slight frame bulged.

Non!” said Adèle. “You cannot be full.” She stood and brought from the buffet a board covered with a cotton towel. She set it on the table and removed the covering, revealing a stack of cream and berry tarts. Louis moaned.

The tarts were served and Louis took a deep breath before digging in. The four relaxed a little more, moving away from the immediate crisis for just a little bit. Father Secours brought his family up to date with the various goings-on of Cocurès and, when asked, Louis told the women how wonderful his own mother was.

Until, eventually, there came a knock at the door.

Father Secours motioned for Louis to follow him and brought his finger to his lips, a gesture aimed at his mother and aunt, then led Louis to the small room upstairs.

Once they were safely up the steps, Adèle yelled at the door.

Attendez! Nous arrivons!” And she shuffled over to the door, paused a moment, and then opened it a crack.

Bonsoir!” a man’s voice said.

Bonsoir, Madame Secours!” said another.

She opened the door and two men entered, one large, one small.

“Yves! Honoré!” both women cried.

“How nice to see you,” said Colette. “Will you have a tart?”

Louis and Father Secours perched at the top of the stairs trying to angle their view down to see who it was, but could only see feet—one large pair and one small. From the direction of the voices, Louis paired each voice with the feet. The large man was Honoré—a local merchant, Father Secours informed him—and the small man was Yves, a policeman.

“Ah, non, “said Yves. “We have just come from my wife’s table.”

“And she is such a fine cook,” said Colette.

“Indeed,” said Honoré.

Yves stepped forward and brought his voice down to a gentle tenor.

“Mesdames Secours,” he said. “We have stopped by to offer our condolences.”

And now Honoré also stepped forward. Louis imagined they were grasping the small hands of the old women, and he appreciated their effort to console.

Oui,” said Honoré. “And if there is anything—absolutely anything at all—that we can do for you, you will tell us, yes?”

The ladies wept again, not so much for the loss, but at the kindness of their neighbors, and while they insisted there was nothing anyone could do right now, they asserted with equal fervor that they were the most considerate men in all of Florac. The men stepped back to their original places and turned shy, swatting away the praise.

“Please, Mesdames,” said Yves. “You give us too much credit.”

The conversation moved quickly into small talk—the men asked after Father Secours, and Colette repeated to them what her son had just told her over dessert. Soon, they prepared to make their leave.

“But, oh,” said Honoré. “I meant to ask. Whose ass is tied outside?”

There was a moment of silence, and then Adèle spoke up.

“Ah, the ass in mine!” she said and laughed. “It was a gift from my son, Gilles, so I could ride her to the farm and back when I visit.”

“Such a nice gesture,” Honoré said. “She looks like a good one.”

“I hope so!”

With that, Louis and Father Secours watched the feet of the people downstairs—the men’s feet followed by the small feet of the women, as they shepherded them out the door.

They listened to the men’s footsteps and voices retreat from the flat and down the street, and when they were sure they were gone, Louis and Father Secours descended the stairs.

“They are gone,” said Colette, “but they are good men.”

“I have no doubt of that, maman, but we must be careful. Even an accidental slip could give away our whereabouts.”

“This man,” said Adèle, “he is following you.”

“He is in, or just outside of, Florac, Madame,” said Louis. “We fear not so much for ourselves, but for you, your family.” He turned to Father Secours.

“In fact,” Louis continued, “I must say, I feel less confident that Modestine should be tied up out there.”

“Agreed.” Father Secours thought for a moment. “Tatine, would Gilles mind a few more boarders?”

“Of course not,” she replied.

“So then we should be off, to the farm,” he said.

“But it is so dark,” cried Colette.

“We came in under night, maman. It is not ideal, but it is not impossible. We will be alright.”

Both women crossed themselves and fussed about Father Secours, and Louis, to only a slightly lesser degree. They tried to pack them some food, but it was only from a need to be of some comfort and help, for the farm was not very far and they had just eaten to bursting.

Louis made his heartfelt thanks and said his goodbyes, and then moved outside with a chunk of bread to feed Modestine while Father Secours made his longer, more nuanced familial au revoirs.

The donkey stood blinking at Louis as he palmed the bread for her. Her lips grabbed at it and her teeth tore off bits; she chewed indifferently.

“Hurry up,” he said to her. “We’ve got to go, and soon.”

He looked around the street, which was quiet. A few windows glowed with their inhabitants turning down their beds, or perhaps finishing up a late supper, as they did. The convent walls were plain and high, concealing God’s harem behind them completely. Louis stroked Modestine’s ears as she finished up her dinner, listening vaguely to the muffled titters of the old women behind the door. For the first time in a while, his mind was blank, and it was good—a pleasant respite.

Soon, the door opened and closed—out came Father Secours.

“I’m afraid I might have gotten off on the wrong foot there,” Louis said. “I’m sorry.”

Father Secours handed him a small parcel wrapped in a clean, blue handkerchief.

“All must be forgiven,” he said. “They packed you two extra tarts.”

Louis smiled, placed the parcel snuggly into his sack, pulled his fur cap on over his head, and untied Modestine. Then he flipped the reigns back over her head, handed Father Secours the goad, and pulled the fur muff up over his mouth.

“I will follow you,” he said, and Father Secours led them south, back down the street, bearing right and across a stone bridge that spanned the Vibron. Another right and they were heading toward the Château de Florac—a 13th-century castle that had been refurbished in the 17th century. Now, it operated as a prison.

Their path was past and around it, further to the southwest. In the dark and under the thin moon, Louis could make out its wide stone wall and the evenly placed windows, small and barred, that dotted the surface.

“Perhaps,” he said to the priest, “this is where we will eventually find him.”

“God willing,” Father Secours replied, but neither sounded as if they had much faith in the cloaked man’s apprehension by the law.

They rounded a hard bend and the castle disappeared behind a heavy copse of trees and bushes. The road they set out on quickly became a path soon after they reached the city limits, as it was not one of the main trading routes to and from the city. Father Secours explained that it was used mainly by farmers and herders, and so didn’t require the kind of upkeep demanded by the merchants that moved in and out of Florac.

“The tread of a million hooves every year does enough to keep the surface compact,” he added.

They spoke little as they walked, for they were both vigilant of ankle-twisting fissures, and more importantly, anyone else who might be traveling before or after them.

The cattle path wound into a new valley, away from the rivers and the timid activity of Florac. On either side stretched grassy meadow that turned into forest. The trees that covered the sloping hills loomed black in the distance, a menacing, misshapen mass hiding the night’s creatures. Louis wondered if they harbored their cloaked man.

“Don’t you know, messieurs,” a voice spoke crisp and clear from their left, “that it is dangerous to travel abroad at night?”

Louis grabbed Modestine’s bridle and brought her to a halt. Father Secours froze.

“Who is there?” Louis shouted, knowing full well that it was the man they sought, and who, right at this moment, was in a much better position than they. He reached into his waistband and freed his revolver, griping the handle hard.

“Shouldn’t you be holed up at the inn, making your notes, writer?” the voice asked.

Frustrated and angry, Louis exploded.

“Enough!” he shouted and darted off into the night toward the sound of the voice. Father Secours called after Louis, but followed almost immediately.

Off the path, Louis became disoriented. Father Secours found him and grabbed his arm.

“Show yourself!” Louis yelled. “Coward!”

“Louis, this is dangerous,” Father Secours hissed through nervous teeth, and Louis realized that the priest was right. He had lost his head, tired of being too well known to this unknown killer. He could no longer endure the fact that this monster knew who he was, what he did, and probably why he was there, and Louis knew nothing of him except that he was a slaughterer of innocents.

“Come,” said Father Secours. “Let us find our way back.”

Just then, Modestine brayed loudly and they could hear the pounding of her little hooves against the packed clay of the path. They ran in the direction of the sound.

When they came to the donkey she was flustered, her eyes wide, and they could hear the intruder’s footsteps padding against the earth, fading with distance. Louis’s pack lay open and his things scattered on the ground.

“Damn it, straight to the devil,” Louis grumbled, and then turned to the priest, half-agitated, half-ashamed. “Pardon.”

Father Secours just looked at him and then motioned to the sack. Louis gathered his things, bundled them, and rearranged the pack on Modestine’s back while the priest soothed her by scratching her neck and petting her long ears. He kept his eyes in the direction the footsteps had gone, looking for any odd shadow, any moving thing.

When Louis was finished, they continued on their way, frustrated that their cover had been blown and their presence was now known, which put them at a severe disadvantage.

“Never mind,” said Father Secours. “Let us get to the farm. It is not far now.”

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Beast28

Cocurès was situated delicately within a stretch of orchards, vineyards, and meadows. The limbs of the fruit trees sagged heavy with shiny red globes. On the road, they had passed the Château de Miral, which stood stately above two rivers—the Tarn and the Runes—that joined frothily together below. The 13th-century castle was built for the family of Malbosc-Miral, the Lords of whom lost their heads during the Revolution, a fact the old man offered to Louis good-humoredly.

The inn was clean and quaint, run by a man—a stonebreaker by trade—and his young sister. As he ate, Louis was pleasantly distracted by conversation with the host and hostess—as he tidied the room and she processed chestnuts for the coming winter—and with a schoolteacher who had heard there was a Scot in the village and wanted to stop in and practice his English. They passed a half-hour amiably and Louis began to relax. Although he was tired from such a restless night, he was happy to have such attention.

Soon, the old man in the brown nightcap returned with the priest, and the schoolteacher politely excused himself after many thanks for the practice.

“This,” the old man said, “is Father Secours. He is the pastor here, but he is from Florac!”

Louis and the priest shook hands. He was a young man, clean shaven, with a mop of light, sandy-colored hair atop a well-shaped head. His skin was pale and unblemished, like that of a child, and his cheeks flashed an innate rosy hue, as if he’d just come in from the cold, or they’d been squeezed recently by an overly-affectionate auntie. His eyes were small and friendly.

“I’m afraid I must take my leave,” the old man said. “My granddaughter is still learning her trade and if I do not keep an eye, I will be less two sheep and one goat.”

Louis thanked him profusely and they wished each other well, then parted.

“A good man,” Louis said to the priest by way of making conversation.

Oui,” said Father Secours. “I am from a family of shepherds, mainly. My father and he would trade between the two towns when I was a boy. He was always very kind to us.”

“I am not surprised.” Louis smiled and motioned for the priest to sit beside him.

“So, I am told you would like to know about Florac,” Father Secours began.

“Indeed,” Louis said, pushing his empty plate away and taking out his tobacco pouch and papers. “Do you mind?”

The priest waved his hand to indicate he did not, and Louis proceeded to roll a cigarette.

“I heard what has happened there,” Louis said. “I hope this has not affected your family.”

“As of yet, no,” Father Secours responded, “but whatever is doing the killing has not seen fit to stop.”

Louis stared at the priest.

“Two more have been murdered. A woman and a child.”

After heaving a deep sigh, Louis placed the cigarette in his mouth, struck a match, and inhaled deeply. He exhaled in the opposite direction of the holy man.

“This has to stop,” Louis finally said. “It must be stopped.”

“You speak as though you know something of it,” said Father Secours.

“I’m afraid I think I do.” He rose and motioned for the priest to follow him.

Louis took another drag from his cigarette outside the inn and then crushed it under his boot before he led Father Secours to Modestine. He had unburdened her of the pack, but had merely set his belongings in a corner behind her on the hay as he was too tired to carry it inside. Rifling through it, he eventually found the cloaked man’s clawed weapon and held it up for the priest to see.

Father Secours took a step back and eyed Louis apprehensively.

“How would I know—?” the priest began.

“I slept last night in an orchard between Pont de Montvert and here, as your old friend can attest as he met me walking the road this morning.” Louis stood and looked at the priest. “It is not I.”

He continued: “This I found on the ground outside Our Lady of the Snows, near to the murder site—slaughter, I should say—of a friar there. The talons matched his wounds. Two nights ago I saw a man holding the brother to this horror raise a mob and burn to death a family.”

“I had heard,” Father Secours said and lowered his eyes.

“There was nothing to be done,” Louis said, “though I wish with all that I have that there was.”

He handed the weapon to the priest, who took it and turned it over in his hands, examining it.

“So, the killings in Florac—” Father Secours began.

“—are not the first,” Louis finished. “And I don’t think they’re going to stop. Not until I can make it to Florac.”

“Are you hunting this killer?”

“I wasn’t,” Louis answered. “I was under the impression he was hunting me, but now I’m not sure. In any case, too much blood has been spilled. Something must be done.”

“You have a plan?”

“I do not,” Louis sighed. “He eludes me. But the killings in Florac lead me to believe he is escalating. I cannot live with what has happened up to this point, surely I cannot allow him to move into the next town and the next town, killing more and more. No. Something must be done.”

They stood in silence for a few minutes, the priest still handling the weapon, both men lost in thought.

“Come,” Father Secours finally said, and handed the thing to Louis, who packed it back amongst his things and followed the priest out into the sun.

The two men meandered about the center of town, near the inn and church. As they spoke, the priest often raised a smile and hand to a passing peasant or merchant who greeted the pair, wishing them a good afternoon.

As requested, Louis explained everything up until this day, to the best of his recollection. When he was finished, Father Secours spent a few minutes in quiet reflection.

“This man is trying to lay blame of these atrocities on Le Famille de la Bête,” he said. “That much seems clear.”

“Florac is not far,” Louis said. “I’d planned to move on today after I’d fed myself.”

“I will accompany you,” the priest said. “Give me a moment to gather a few things. We will stay with my aunt in town.”

“Father, please.” Louis tried to decline the good man’s offer. “I assure you, this man is unhinged, and he has no difficulty killing a man of the cloth.”

“I am not afraid,” Father Secours said. “Or, I should say, I am more afraid of what might happen if something is not done. This,” he said, gesturing around to the village, “is my parish, but those in Florac; those are my people.”

Louis nodded and Father Secours disappeared into the parish house. He emerged ten minutes later with his own knapsack.

“All is ready,” he said. “I said I would return in a few days. Now, let us fetch your ass and be off.”

Louis added Father Secours’s knapsack to Modestine’s pack, so they both walked free from any burden but the one that weighed on their souls. The donkey didn’t seem to mind and walked a brisk pace a few steps ahead of the two men, prodded only occasionally with the goad.

Their route continued along the Tarn, and until they were clear of Cocurès they spoke little. On a bend that cut through the valley, flanked on both sides by a gradual incline of paddock that, at a distance, curved up into the tree-covered hills, Father Secours broke the silence.

“I feel you have been honest with me, Monsieur Stevenson,” he said, watching his feet along the road. “It is only fair that I am the same.”

Louis looked at him. If this information was deliberately being withheld until this point, he grew nervous at what it could be.

“Where I am from,” the priest continued, “the stigma is minimal, but I have travelled, and I have learned that not everyone is quite so accepting.”

He smiled weakly at Louis, who listened intently. The sound of their footsteps mingled with the babble of the river, and the effect of the combination was soothing. Perhaps, otherwise, Louis might have run away.

“I am of that family,” Father Secours finally said. “La Bête. My community knows, and accepts it, but my church is unaware. The council only knows that I am from Florac.”

Louis could only look at the man, noting a passing resemblance to Clarisse, in the eyes and complexion.

“I hope,” the priest continued, “this does not put you off.”

Louis thought of the beast that attacked them at Our Lady of the Snows, but the vision easily transmuted itself into the image of poor Alphonse, dying behind a stone in a wood, pale and naked. Louis stopped walking.

“I owe you an apology,” he said. “I may have killed your cousin.”

Father Secours held out his hand and Louis took it. The priest shook it kindly in both hands.

“There is no blame in that,” he said. “What else could you do? Besides, you tried to help my two other cousins—to whom I am, was, much closer—and that more than erases anything in the past.”

Louis’s chest tightened a little and he patted the priest’s hands on his as a comrade.

Merci,” he said, and they walked on.

Father Secours went on to explain the relations between the families in Florac, and how, over time, the other townspeople had come to grow rather protective of his people.

“It’s truly a wonder of human decency,” he said. “The people of Florac are of a special breed, I think. While religious hatred has ravaged this region for centuries, and its intolerance has lingered like a scar on the landscape, in Florac, we Protestants live in harmony with our Catholic neighbors. It is that sense of acceptance—the true application of Christ’s teachings—that I believe also forms the bonds between my family and the others in the area. I am not saying that all is perfect and that disagreements never occur. They do as in any other place, I presume. But on a deeper level, the people of Florac are . . .”

“Better?” Louis guessed.

“I hate to say that, but in a way, perhaps,” Father Secours smiled. “Suffice to say, the evil that occurred at Pont de Montvert? That would never happen in Florac.”

“I should hope not,” Louis said.

They made their way around the confluence of rivers and continued in a southerly direction along the Tarn. Florac was not far now, and they bandied about various scenarios that may or may not transpire once they reached their destination. Nothing could be nailed down for certain, but the main aspect of their loose and tenuous plan was that they would attempt to keep their presence there a secret for as long as they could manage.

Once they determined at least that much, their conversation turned to other things. Louis told Father Secours about his friends and family, but declined to bring up the subject of Fanny, what with her still being married and the tentative state of their relationship. Father Secours told Louis about his own family—his father and mother made the change, but his brother did not. He failed to say whether or not it was his own affliction, but Louis assumed it was not, for he could not imagine how one might make his way through seminary with such a secret.

“Has there been any word on the condition of your surviving Pont de Montvert cousin?” Louis asked hesitantly.

“I had only heard the news in Cocurès, like everyone else,” Father Secours said. “But I suspect there will be more news in Florac. Their father and my father were brothers; my aunt, our fathers’ sister, also lives there. I am sad to say my father passed a few years ago, which is why we will stay with my aunt, with whom my mother now resides. They will know what is happening with Clémence.”

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Beast27

Cocurès, Florac

He moved about the world, through time, from body to body of every age. He was in Edinburgh during his college days giving a paper at The Spec—Two Questions on the Relationship Between Christ’s Teachings and Modern Christianity—only all the faces in the audience were that of his father, looking pained and annoyed. Next, he was but a boy, coughing and coughing, his small frame shaking with every sputter that tore at his lungs, his nursemaid, Cummy, at his bedside, holding his hand, but in fact, it was not Cummy but his mother, who in reality had never been there. She shocked him into a new body and time with the words, “Smoutie, what’s that burning?”

Then, he was as he is now, twenty-eight years old, but naked amongst an eternity of trees. He heard a dog bark and he ran, but as he did he realized that he didn’t just appear there, he’d woken up there. Every part of his body ached and when he looked down, his hands were blood covered. Finally, he was older than he is now, much older, and barefoot on the bowsprit of a schooner. He could smell the ocean and taste the salt on his teeth, the wind yanking at his hair as they traveled full speed ahead, until the wood beneath his feet gave way and he plunged down into the sea.

He came to at Grez, awash in a salty ocean of sweat in his sickbed. Fanny looked to him from a chair across the room and simply shook her head.

*

He awoke exhausted to a melancholy morning and the sound of footsteps. His heart in his throat, he stretched to peer around the tree’s trunk only to find, much nearer than he’d expected, a peasant. The man trudged up a hard footpath that Louis had not noticed the previous day and passed without seeing him. Once the man was gone, Louis leapt from his sleeping sack and readied himself as quickly as possible. The workers were out to harvest and trim back the trees.

As he did, a man and a boy made their way down the incline, heading straight towards his encampment. They called to him, and he tried to respond cheerfully as he rushed around dressing. By the time they’d reached him, he had his boots on and was pulling on his gaiters when the man spoke.

“You have slept here,” the man stated rather than asked. The boy stood a little behind him, looking at Louis suspiciously.

“Yes,” answered Louis. “As you see.”

The man’s eyes scanned Louis’s camp and fell upon the revolver that lay upon the sack, in the open.

“Why?”

“My faith,” Louis sighed. “I was tired.”

“Where are you going?”

Louis pointed down to the road in the direction of Florac.

“What have you eaten?”

Pardon?

The man repeated his question, undeterred. Louis realized he was keeping track of his crop.

“Oh, I ate a meal from my pack.”

C’est bien,” the man said, more to the boy than to Louis. And, without another word or gesture, the pair walked two trees away from where Louis had camped and began to prune.

Louis stowed the revolver into the waist of his trousers and after collecting Modestine and packing up, they were once again on the road. The morning light played prettily across the valley and the road dipped gradually to become level with the river. Here Louis made his toilet and Modestine slurped upstream from Louis’s sudsy ritual. As he shaved, he determined that he would ask every soul he met between here and Florac if they’d seen his cloaked man. Surely, he left the scene at Pont de Montvert before Louis, for he could no longer find him there.

When they were finished at the river, they continued on while Louis snacked on a piece of chocolate with one hand, and fed the donkey bits of black bread with the other. He’d passed several working men and boys heading up the road to where he’d slept the night before, all moving to their day’s work. Louis made his inquiry to each of them, but they’d either never seen such a person, or they’d seen far too many to discern the man he was looking for.

As he came around a bend, Modestine trotting briskly along, Louis stopped cold in his tracks. Ahead along the road, nearest the cliff side, was a hooded figure.

Louis stared at the form, whose head was lowered and whose feet shuffled along the edge of the road. He stuffed the chocolate he’d been carrying into a fold in Modestine’s pack and rested his now-empty hand on the butt of the pistol in his belt.        They started forward again slowly, Louis pulling the donkey to the riverside, giving the stranger—who still didn’t seem to see him—a wide berth. But suddenly, as if operating with an additional sense, the person lurched toward Louis.

He gripped the handle of the gun and was about to pull it when the figure’s hood fell back just enough for him to see that it wasn’t a man at all, but a woman. She was a beggar, her clothes shabby and her hair knotted.

She said nothing, but motioned for alms. Louis let out a heavy breath and unhanded the gun quickly, happy to not have to use it. Then he dug around in a breast pocket and fished out a few coins for the woman. Before he handed them over, he spoke.

“Pardon me,” he began. “Have you seen a man—maybe your age—wearing a cloak of a dark grey color? Heading this way?” He pointed in the direction she was coming from.

The woman shook her head and held out her hand.

“Are you sure? He came this way.”

Still the woman shook her head, her eyes on the coins in his hand.

Then it struck him.

“His cloak was probably stained with blood.”

Her eyes met his and grew wide. Then she pointed back down the road, in the direction Louis was heading.

“Florac?”

The woman nodded and Louis gave her the coins, which sent her shuffling along her way, perhaps a little faster than she had been before.

Had Louis asked every peasant along the way if they’d seen a man in a bloody cloak, he suspected he’d have gotten a few affirmations. He and Modestine moved on, only to be overtaken a few minutes later by an older man, followed by a little girl driving a goat and two sheep. For a few steps, Louis was in line with the girl and feeling a little awkward, but the man slowed his pace a bit and positioned himself beside Louis.

Louis saw that the man’s face betrayed a mature age beyond what he initially thought, and he wore a tea-colored nightcap as a hat.

“You are going to Cocurès?” the man asked, smiling.

“I will get breakfast there, but then I will move on to Florac,” Louis answered, returning the smile. It was good to see a warm, welcoming face.

“Ah,” the man said as his eyes darkened. “There are bad things afoot.”

“Oh?”

“Two nights ago, a family was killed, horribly, by a crazed mob, and last night, from what I’ve heard, mysterious murders have begun at Florac.”

Louis stopped and everyone almost went on without him—Modestine, the man, the girl and her wards. But the man also stopped and came back to him, and so they all stopped.

“What do you mean, in Florac?” Louis asked the man, and they slowly began walking again, eventually regaining their pace.

“A traveler told me early this morning that they had found the bodies of three villagers past the outskirts of the town. All unrelated.”

Louis listened. Somehow, the cloaked man had made it to Florac, perhaps before Louis had even bedded down in the chestnut orchard last night.

“Terrible. People torn limb from limb.”

“Wolves?” Louis asked quietly, not knowing what sort of answer he might get.

“We in this region know wolves. This was no wolf. Nor was it the family of la Bête.”

“But how do you know?” Louis stunned himself by falling so comfortably into this conversation, as if he were a local peasant, as if he believed in werewolves. But he did. He must. He saw what he saw. And this man didn’t lose a breath.

“We know because the people of Florac are different. La Famille de la Bête live peaceably, side by side with their neighbors.”

Louis eyed the man, reluctant to ask what he felt compelled to ask.

“The members of,” he paused, “la Bête family; they manage their condition?”

“The families of this area who are cursed with the change, they raise their children, before they even begin to show the signs, that to kill is wrong. And if they begin to make the change, they get a special education.”

“And you are not of this family.”

Non, I am not, but I have many friends of that family. All good men and women.”

They walked without speaking for a moment, listening to the bleating of the girl’s flock and the tiny tinkling of their little bells.

“I know that, in the north of the mountains, the feelings for this family are very different. And the family also recognizes that not all members have adopted their way of living.” The man shrugged. “It is what it is. There is a priest in Cocurès that I will introduce you to. He knows more about this than anyone.”

Louis winced and nodded. He thought to ask about the cloaked man, but then remembered that this fellow had come from behind, from the direction Louis had come, and so wouldn’t have seen him.

“Tragedy, what happened at Pont de Montvert,” the man thought he was changing the subject, when in fact, he was not.

“I was there.”

This time the old man stopped, but then, catching himself, started up again and trotted to regain his place.

“You were there?”

“A boy was killed. A man riled up the townspeople,” Louis explained. “It didn’t take much and once they were going, there was nothing anyone could do. I know; I tried.”

The old man patted Louis on the back and nodded.

“You were good to try,” he said.

“I’m afraid that does little to console me,” Louis replied. “But tell me, did no one survive?”

The old man sucked on his teeth and watched the ground move under his spritely feet.

“At first, both daughters had somehow made it out. The older was badly burned, and she died later that night.”

“Clarisse,” Louis said softly.

“I am sorry.” The old man’s eyes teared up at the realization that Louis knew the dead girl in some capacity.

“Her sister?”

“Alive.”

Louis nodded. That was, at least, one small saving grace, but his heart still broke when he thought of how she might go on without her mother and father, without the kinship of her sister. And had Louis not passed through? Had he not led the cloaked man straight to them? They would be having breakfast right now.

The group walked on in silence, save the sheep and goat, the rest of the way to Cocurès, where Louis ordered breakfast after stabling Modestine for her own, and the old man went off in search of the priest.

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Beast26

The night sky was clear and Louis was able to trace a discernible path as the roads were new and the moon, though small, was assisted by the stars. They walked until the sun appeared grudgingly from the horizon, Louis’s pace as slow as Modestine’s when their journey had first begun; so slow, in fact, that the donkey sometimes stopped, as she loved to do, to munch on some patches of grass.

For the first few hours, his brain played the night’s events over and over—the shouting, the screams. As much as he didn’t want to, so long as he could smell the smoke from the burning house, he couldn’t help it. The stink followed him to Pont de Montvert and beyond—it poisoned the air. Even after he was out of the deathly miasma, the stench clung to his clothes and to Modestine’s mousy fur. It was more time still before the wind had cleared the odor from them. Only then was he able to distract himself.

The sun was up and they were well into morning proper. Louis walked, eyes to the ground, tapping his leg with the goad.

He had expected to arrive in London—his next stop after this trip before heading home to Edinburgh—a new man, a changed man. In this, he was not wrong. A new and changed man he would be. He shuddered to think of the impact all of this would have. He was not built for this sort of death. A kind of death, certainly. His periods of illness had conditioned him to believe that—of his friends—he would be the one to lead them to the grave, many, many years before their time. It was something he’d come closer and closer to accepting, to the extent that the prospect didn’t incite the fear it once did.

But outright murder? The killing of innocents? This was not something he’d ever become accustomed to, surely not if he could help it. But it had been done now. He could not reverse it. Its effects were already being felt in the way his mind reeled when he thought of Clarisse and their conversation in the inn’s kitchen at Pont de Montvert, in the way his stomach lurched when he thought, not of the live, burning figures on the ground, but of the very acts of the mob. It wasn’t the visceral verity of the flesh, but the sickening debasement of the crowd; people he had so recently dined with and enjoyed the company of. Louis did not know if he could ever trust the character of anyone ever again.

How on earth could he ever explain any of this to his people? How would he describe this to Fanny? Because if he couldn’t, how could he give himself to her completely, of which he had—still had—every intention of doing. Fanny had seen so much more of life than he had. Married, had children, lived and survived along the American frontier. She rolled her own cigarettes and was a better shot with a pistol than himself. He had thought, just a short time ago, that they could go a lifetime together and he would never catch up to her in terms of experience. But he doubted that she’d seen a family burned to death in their own home. And while she might have taken the odd pot shot at some dubious native in the West, he doubted she’d ever taken aim at such an unholy beast, a werewolf. This morning, walking along a dusty French road in the Highlands, he wondered how he might explain what had happened to him in a way that would allow her to catch up to him.

But perhaps there would be nothing to catch up to, for she may just laugh and send him on his way. And he wondered if that might be a better blessing to her. For him, though, it might just be the blow that did him in.

Louis was abruptly stopped by Modestine’s ass—he’d walked right into her. She snorted and he looked up. The road they traveled was sandy and ran about halfway up from the Tarn twisting in the valley below. Above there were cliffs edged in ash trees with its lower gradients covered in Spanish chestnuts. It was a beautiful day, and the river called up to him with its rugged, throaty roar. On the breeze floated the trees’ scent as autumn worked its way around the perimeters of their green leaves, dappling everything in russet.

According to his map, they would be in the valley for some time still, and his reverie had cost them daylight and kilometers. Although it would be some time before the sun set, it was already making its way out of the gorge, leaving them in the tall shadows that grew like the trees themselves.

As they walked along, it dawned on Louis that the terrain was not changing—a road: on one side straight down, and on the other, straight up. There would be no making the next town by nightfall, and his only condolence was that he’d neither seen nor heard another human intonation or footstep for most of the day.

He scanned the cliff wall to his right, looking for more gentle inclines, which would still prevent his sleeping on them, or else he might roll down to the road, or worse, over the road and down to the river. Eventually, his eyes fell on what looked to be not one ledge, but three—the first about sixty feet up, the next about the same distance from the first, and the third still further up.

Louis goaded and pushed Modestine up to the first ledge, picking their way around the chestnuts and occasionally leaning on them for a rest. Once they reached the plateau, it was barely big enough for the both of them, so Louis unloaded Modestine and pushed her further up to the second ledge, that had just enough room for her to lie down, should she want to. He then left her with an early dinner of black bread.

He stumbled and half-slid back down to his own ledge and made his camp behind the shelter of a reasonably wide tree, sweeping as many fallen chestnuts from the path of his sleeping sack as possible. So long as Modestine stayed quiet—as she generally was prone to do—they should stay all but invisible up here. Louis arranged everything he might need nearby and resolved to be in his sack and ready to fall asleep by the time the sun went down. He would not light a lamp, or fire. He would only strike a match to light a cigarette. Until then, he had a few hours to update his journal with the latest goings on, as much as he hated to revisit them.

Before he knew it, he was straining to see his words on the paper before him. The day was making a hasty retreat far beyond the cliffs, he imagined, over fields and meadows, over cities and towns, over warm inns and burnt-out homes. Over the living and the dead.

The valley was still warm and would stay that way for most of the night. Soon, the trill of frogs from the Tarn below rose up to sing Louis to sleep, and then a wind picked up, swaying the boughs above him and reminding him, uncomfortably, of the nightmares he suffered as a child. Storms upon storms, the wind howling at every eave of the family home, blowing and blowing. He closed his eyes and without much more of a thought, he was asleep.

The night was a seemingly endless succession of waking and dreaming. First, there was a scrambling in the leaves near his head, once, twice, then three times, before he sprang up to find nothing but suspected rats. Then there was the biting and tickling of the ants crawling about his person. After that, the buzzing of mosquitoes investigating the orifices of his ears and the flapping of bats swooping down from the trees.

Between these episodes—and Louis thought likely caused by the ongoing actions of these pesky creatures as he slept—his unconscious was awash with images, voices, colors, shapes, and faces.

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Beast25

The woman alternately hugged the boy close to her chest and then shook him feverishly, wailing all the while. Her clothes, like his, were soaked with blood. The crowd formed around her, but Clarisse hung back. So did Louis.

“Where did he come from?” Louis asked. “The boy. I saw him in the fields today. Who brought his body in?”

Clarisse stood on her toes to look over the crowd.

“If you’re looking for your cloaked man,” she said, “he’ll be hard to find.”

It was night and the air was chilled—many members of the crowd wore hooded cloaks. Louis stood on his toes as well.

“Blasted!” he said, and the mourning mother’s cries seemed to take on a new life, hoarse as they were.

“What’s happened?” The mustachioed Norman was at his side, still in his day clothes. Louis assumed he’d meant to sleep in them.

“Boy’s dead,” Louis answered.

“Oh dear, that’s horrible,” the man said. “How?”

But Louis’s mind was elsewhere. He turned to ask Clarisse what the cloaked man’s name was, but she was gone. He craned his neck around, trying to see behind him, and then in front of him, amongst the assembly of gawkers. There were a number of lanterns carried, and even a few torches, but the light they threw only carried a few feet from the source and Clarisse didn’t seem to be near any of them.

The people mumbled to each other in hushed tones, the mother still wept, and a few women pulled close to her, wrapping their arms around her in the solidarity of grief.

“This boy is dead!” a cry went up.

The crowd’s murmurs fell silent and everyone looked around to see where the voice had come from, to see to whom they were supposed to be listening.

“Nothing can bring him back!” the call went again.

On the other side of the throng—which was at least thirty-to-forty head by now—someone had jumped upon the edge of the community well. Louis stood again on his toes, but so did everyone else, and it helped little.

“And I know who perpetrated this terrible crime!” the voice rang again. The entire crowd had turned toward the man clinging to the well. Louis tried to position himself better to see, first left, then right, and finally, his eyes locked on the cloaked man. Many of the peasants had now pushed back their hoods to better see within such close quarters, but this man—who perched with one foot along the edge of the well and clutched the beam that held aloft the roped bucket with one hand, while the other waved in the air above him—this man wore his hood and wore it low, and still Louis could not see his face. His cloak was bloody, for it was he who had brought the boy in from the field.

“And I believe that you also know who perpetrated this unthinkable crime!” he yelled.

Louis attempted to push his way through the crowd to the front, but it was locked tight, and his shame would not allow him to too roughly jostle the women therein. There was no going around, as the mass filled the narrow street.

La Famille de Loups!

And with that, fists flew into the air and yells erupted all around Louis. Lanterns waved and torches were swung about above the heads of the people as the cloaked man continued to stir their frenzy.

Then, to their left, the stable door flung open and the chestnut mare came bolting out, Clarisse astride and whipping the horse into a firm gallop past the mob and out of the village. All heads turned and watched while the cloaked man’s waving hand pointed to her and he yelled.

“And she is one of them! This must be stopped, tonight!”

As he signaled after the escaping Clarisse, his cloak opened at the breast, and though his face was still hidden in his cavernous hood, Louis glimpsed—for but a brief moment—a wooden handle protruding from his peasant’s belt. From this handle sprung four steel claws. And just like that, the cloak closed and it was gone.

Louis had been right; it had been a pair.

Suddenly, the crowd lurched forward and Louis could hear the yells of the people, crying out for blood and for vengeance. The cloaked man had come down from his position on the well and Louis could see the stricken mother close to him, cradling her small boy, whose limbs sagged like wilted flowers. She had stopped crying, stopped wailing, and now her face set grimly, her eyes filled with crimson murder.

The mustachioed Norman beside him moved ahead to join the rabble, and Louis grabbed at his sleeve.

“What on earth are you doing, man?”

“They say they know who the murderer is,” the man said. “There is justice to be had tonight.” And he shook free of Louis’s grasp and disappeared into the mass of fury.

“For God’s sake,” Louis said out loud, but only to himself. “It’s a damned mob.” Being a Scot and a historian from that bloody city of Edinburgh, Louis knew well the ravages of an angry mob. He watched the crowd as it moved away, and in it, he recognized the hairstyles of the two literature-loving sisters, and nearby, their cousin, all raging against something they had no idea of. This he half-expected. But when he located the good face of his modest luncheon neighbor, her neat hair covered in a simple nightcap, her once mousey voice raised against a foe she could not name, Louis wept.

He sat on the stoop of the inn with his face in his hands, knowing there was nothing he could do. Once the mob had disappeared, though their yells could still be heard, he went upstairs and grabbed his fur cap. In the stable, Modestine slept, and he woke her with the saddle on her back. He was glad they both had rested that afternoon, for tonight they wouldn’t.

Once she was ready, he led her out and down the street, toward the faint sound of the bloodthirsty horde. He knew there was no measure he could take to prevent what was going to happen, whatever that tragedy would be. He only hoped that Clarisse had convinced her family to run, flee the region for their very lives.

The night was dark, but Louis could see a faint path, recently tread by dozens of angry feet, by the slim light of a crescent moon. Ahead, he could see the glow of the lanterns and torches, and he nudged Modestine forward, if only to be a witness.

When Louis found the mob, they were closing in on and surrounding a two-story farmhouse about a mile out of the village. Some people were already busying themselves letting the livestock loose. Their faces twisted with their shouting, made all the more grotesque by the light and shadow thrown about their features by the wavering flames of the torches.

Louis tied Modestine far back from the house and small outbuildings, to avoid some mob member mistaking her as belonging to this family and making off with her and his effects. He walked slowly around the jeering bodies, as close to the house as he could safely get. People yelled terrible things to the occupants—for much to Louis’s horror, there wereoccupants. Clarisse, perhaps, had come too late, or maybe could not convince them of the danger. They were a good family; they didn’t kill their fellow citizens. Why, he could almost hear her old mother ask, would they want to harm us?

A faint light glowed in the upstairs windows, where he presumed the family had retreated. A group of men attempted to batter down the front door with a fence rail they’d pulled from the ground, and with every slam of wood on wood, there came the screams of two women from upstairs. Louis imagined them to be Clarisse’s mother and sister. Clarisse, he suspected, was holding her own, as she’d struck him as rather sturdy for her age.

Finally, a window upstairs opened and a man stuck his head out—he was an older man, perhaps the father of the family.

Qu’avons-nous fait?” he yelled down. He repeated this question—What had they done?—but there was no way for his voice to break through the cacophony of the bloodthirsty people below. They pelted him with stones until he pulled the shutters back over the window and withdrew with his family.

Louis caught site of the mustachioed Norman at the edge of the crowd, and he went to him.

“Sir, please,” Louis tried to yell above the din. He pulled at the man’s sleeve, but it was yanked out of his grip and he was duly ignored as the man put up his own shouts.

“You don’t even know these people,” Louis tried again. “They are strangers to you, all of them!”

The man turned to Louis with a withering glare and Louis took a step back. The man’s eyes blazed with murder. Again, Louis was horrified—not just for this poor, innocent family, but for all of humanity. If all it took was one life and the instigation of a madman to rouse peoples’ blood to killing, then the species itself was rotten from the core.

Louis turned away and headed towards Modestine, when he heard another voice—this one sailing above the noise of the people, or, more precisely, the people quieted enough to hear the voice speak. He looked back to see the cloaked man standing on the front stoop of the house, elevated slightly over the mass of maniacs he’d produced.

“Children of God,” he cried, “hold your hands. Let us burn this house and its wild dogs!”

With that, a clamor of approval rose up into the night joined by a single panicked scream from the house. The people moved as one, parting to allow torchbearers access to the corners of the house. In no time, it was on fire, burning from the bottom up. A few people managed to get inside the first floor, but made no attempt to climb to the second, for their only mission now was to help the house burn faster. They set fire to the things inside and then ran out victoriously to the cheers of their accomplices.

Louis could not seem to move. As much as he dreaded watching what was unfolding before him, he could not tear his eyes away.

The flames licked ever higher, eating away at the planks and beams. The autumn blooms that hung in pretty baskets from above the windows wilted and curled. The terrified whinnies of the now-loose horses combined with the whine of the inferno peeled in Louis’s ears, and still he could not move. And then, another scream.

From a side window of the second floor, someone leapt. A woman, the mother or sister, perhaps even Clarisse. The screaming continued and Louis realized she was injured. Adrenaline finally pushed him to run toward the sound, but he was too late. The crowd had, upon seeing the woman fall and hearing her scream, shifted to engulf her and were now in the process of beating her. Another scream from the open window—the young sister. Louis saw Clarisse pull her back, and so it must have been the mother this mob was now beating to death.

Louis considered for a moment his pistol, though he knew it would be next to useless with a mad crowd such as this and would likely only end with his own murder. He wanted merely to end her searing misery.

Now, a man burst from the front door, his limbs all in flames. He managed to rush around the side where his wife had fallen, and the crowd parted easily for him. They either recoiled in horror or for self-preservation; Louis guessed the latter. As the man reached his wife he was a ball of flame, but the anguish of his cries were those of grief and not pain. He fell to his knees beside the unmoving woman and then toppled to her side, wrapping his burning arms around her. Then, he stopped moving. They both did.

A cheer rose up in the crowd.

Louis paced back and forth, tears streaming, wiping his eyes, and looking to the house, trying to craft some sort of saving plan, but there was nothing. The first story was engulfed, as the poor father had proven in his effort to get through it to save his wife. There couldn’t have been another access from the second floor, or the woman would not have felt compelled to jump. And now, all there was to do was watch these two women—girls, really—die an agonizing, terrible death.

Knowing there was nothing he could do, he suddenly remembered the cloaked man and looked desperately for him amongst the swarm of fanatics, but he was nowhere to be found. Gone, again.

Louis turned and staggered back to Modestine, untied her, and pulled her back along the faint path, back to Pont de Montvert. When he got to town, he spared no time looking about; he stopped for nothing but just walked through to the other side and away.

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Beast24

After lunch, Louis claimed a bed upstairs by tossing his fur cap upon it. He’d waited until Clarisse made to serve one of his fellow travelers and took the opportunity to run up. Similarly, he waited until he couldn’t see her golden corkscrew ringlets below before making his getaway. He took his sack out to the stable where he hunkered down beside Modestine with his journal. She was paired with a chestnut mare, who chewed oats in a sack. He was only passing the time, but he might as well keep an eye on his companion, as he was feeling more vigilant than usual here in Pont de Montvert, despite nothing seeming particularly out of the ordinary.

The donkey chomped on some hay and gazed languidly at her driver as he scribbled away, catching up on his entries in as much detail as memory would allow. Then, Louis lidded his inkpot and stowed his materials. From his vantage point, he could see the comings and goings of the inn, and now he watched the two sisters and their cousin exit laughing and make their way into the street, going off to see whatever sights the village offered. He thought he should be doing the same, but felt that if he made one wrong move, it would result in some horrific, irreversible tragedy, and so he opted to make a few moves as possible.

Soon after, his modest neighbor from the table also left the inn; she walked directly over to the church, and Louis smiled. Then, to fill the space of time, he produced his sketchpad and proceeded to make a study of Modestine.

Throughout the afternoon, Louis lay in the hay beside his donkey, drowsing, as the inn occupants came and went. Eventually, he fell asleep, and when he came to, it was coming on twilight. He woke with a start, unsure of where he was, and only aware that he was supposed to be on guard. It took a few moments to return fully to the present but when he did, he put his things back into his sack and scratched Modestine’s ears.

“You were supposed to wake me,” he said.

She looked at him.

“Go to sleep.” He left the stable and returned to the inn, just in time for yet another meal.

It was almost an exact repeat of the mid-day meal, with the noted difference of the absence of his modest neighbor. That seat was now filled with a mustachioed Norman, who spent the duration charming the sisters and annoying the cousin. Though Louis was glad to have the attention taken away from his book writing, he found it difficult to eat being situated as such, in the middle of a raucous conversation that often bordered on sizzling debate. He was still full from lunch, and he ate little, but drank more wine than he knew he should. And the sisters still fussed about him, though a little more tamely—perhaps their cousin had had words with them. All the while, Clarisse hustled around the diners, replacing this and that, refilling that and this. She was particularly attentive to Louis’s glass and kept it full at all times.

The more Louis drank, the more he talked. The more he drank and talked, the easier it was to lose track of time. Soon, it was late and most of the diners had gone to bed, save the two sisters, who seemed about as drunk as Louis, the cousin, the Norman, and a few more additions to the boisterous group. They laughed and talked loudly, occasionally hushing themselves so as not to keep awake the other patrons, only to then laugh themselves louder, until . . . there was no more wine. And Clarisse had gone.

“Allow me,” Louis said, dramatically pushing his chair out and rising, which prompted a smattering of applause, presumably for not falling over. And he disappeared into the kitchen to see if he could find either another bottle of wine, or Clarisse, whichever came first.

The kitchen was confined, compared to the dining area, and it didn’t seem like the amount of food that came out of it could have fit in the first place. There was a stove, a basin, a table, and a large wooden cupboard. Louis looked around, but the place seemed bare. As he was about to open the cupboard and investigate, he heard a noise behind him.

Vous êtes ivre,” said a woman’s voice.

“I am not drunk,” Louis said as he turned around.

It was Clarisse. She had not gone to bed like he’d suspected, and was in fact still wholly dressed.

“You are,” she argued, and then walked around him and stood in front of the cupboard. Though she looked nothing like Fanny—she was taller, her hair yellow, her eyes blue—her plumpness reminded Louis of his American love, and all of a sudden, he found this girl attractive. Or, it might have been the wine, but he was in no condition to make such a call.

Clarisse crossed her arms and leaned against the cupboard. It took Louis a moment to understand he was being blocked from the last of the wine, so crossed his own arms and half-sat on the edge of the table.

“Come,” he said. “Just one more.” The sound of laughter spilled in from the dining area, and he motioned to the door, as if to say, see?

Non,” she said. “And shouldn’t you be more careful?”

“Careful? Careful of what?” He was seized with an almost uncontrollable urge to wind a finger through one of her curls.

“Aren’t you hunted, as we are?”

“Hunted?” His hip slipped from the table and he barely caught himself, reseating once again on the table’s edge.

Clarisse made a claw of her hand and thrust it at him.

Hunted,” she said again.

The blood washed from Louis’s face.

“My cousin is dead,” she said and looked at her feet.

“What? I’m sorry, how?” Though his body wasn’t necessarily following, his mind was sobering rather quickly.

“You shot him; you killed him.”

Louis stared at the girl in disbelief as she reached into the collar of her blouse and pulled from it a small bell. She clinked it once or twice and looked at Louis knowingly.

It was the slaughtered foal’s bell.

Louis gasped and was about to back away when Clarisse swiftly moved around him and now blocked the door to the dining area. Another wave of laughter came from the next room.

“Maybe you didn’t,” she said. “But you surely did not help.”

Louis struggled with a response. The drunken attraction had dissipated quickly and he now wanted to be anywhere than alone with this girl.

“Fouzilhac,” he stuttered. “The man from Fouzilhac.”

“His name was Alphonse.”

“He was a beast when I made the shot.”

Clarisse sighed.

“I know.” She continued to toy with the bell and its clapper ticked dully against its sides. “He gave this to me.”

“He may well have murdered the wearer of that bell,” Louis said.

“He may well have, if you can call killing a horse murder.”

“Some might.”

“It doesn’t matter. He didn’t do that either. And by ‘either’ I mean, he didn’t kill your priest.”

“I know,” Louis said. “I found the weapon wielded for that definite case of murder.”

As if confident he wouldn’t now go running from the room, Clarisse walked to the table he leaned against and poured a glass of water from a pitcher. She handed it to him and he drank.

“You can’t say, though,” he continued, “that your family hasn’t killed.”

“I won’t say that then,” she rejoined. She leaned against the table next to him and crossed her arms. “Oui, my family has killed. But not all of us. We are not all loup-garou.” She shrugged her shoulders. “Some are, and some are not. Alphonse was; I am not.”

“But the killing is wrong,” he said.

“I didn’t say it was right.” Clarisse fidgeted with her sleeve. “But it is not . . .” She searched for the right words. “It is not always in one’s control. Not when the change happens.”

“Some,” she went on, “with much practice have trained themselves. They’ve mastered their animal time, like becoming conscious while inside a dream. And they’ve satisfied the hunger with deer, or other animals. But others, like poor Alphonse, could never manage it.”

“But you are not one,” Louis said.

“I am not.” She shook her head and her curls bounced. “My father is. And he does not kill. Nor does my sister. We have been taught right from wrong. Still, we mourn our poor cousin.”

“I am sorry,” Louis offered, for he truly felt it, and he felt his fear of her retreating slowly into the seemingly bottomless well of sympathy he carried inside himself. Again, she shrugged.

The laughter had died down in the next room and the sound of chairs sliding indicated that the party was breaking up, probably leaving Louis for drunk on the kitchen floor.

“How do you know about the cloaked man? ” he asked.

“Is that what you call him? We know him. We know his family. Do you know the story of la Bête du Gévaudan?” she asked.

Louis nodded and she continued.

The cloaked man, she said, was a descendent of the first hired hunters of la Bête, just as she, and Alphonse, were the descendants of la Bête himself. Jean Charles Marc Antoine Vaumesle d’Enneval and his son Jean-François had been hired to hunt the monster, to stop the killing, but they had only turned their hounds loose in the wood, and fired their guns at anything with a pelt. Many wolves were killed, but no beast was caught.

“They were being paid by the day,” Clarisse said. “They had no incentive whatsoever to actually do what the villagers hoped. And, of course, my ancestors could not stop the killing. The change was new to us then.”

In the end, the father and son were replaced by the King’s man who took down one beast, and then another local hunter took down the second. Then the politicians became embarrassed, everything was hushed, and Clarisse’s ancestors continued to kill.

“But don’t think we did so without conscience,” she said sternly. “Our curse has many faces, guilt not being the least.”

Louis nodded and tried to understand.

“All this time,” she continued, “we have tried to be good members of our communities. And while not all of us have been successful, many of us have been. That does not, though, stop this family from hunting us.”

“Why?”

“This man that follows you—he’s not the first. His father hunted us, and his father’s father, but there seems to be a difference with this generation. While the men before him seemed to hunt us because they wanted to stop the killing, this man doesn’t seem to care. This man also kills. And unlike my cousin—who had his faults, I will not argue—this man has no conscience.”

“But if he didn’t want to stop the killing, what does he want?”

“Are you asking me?” She asked him, as if doubting her own opinion on the matter.

“I am,” he said.

“You are a writer?”

Oui.”

“You are famous.”

“Oh, well, non,” he said, and found himself blushing and a little flustered as to how to respond. “No. I have a book. I’ve written some articles and essays, some histories, but really . . .”

“It is only my opinion,” she said. “Kill a peasant and no one cares but the peasant’s family and friends, however, kill a famous writer—”

“But, really,” Louis held up his hands. “I am not a famous writer.”

Louis wanted very much to be a famous writer, but he was glad, at this moment, that he was not one.

This time Clarisse waved her hand.

“Whatever the case,” she said. “You should truly stay your guard.” She tipped the glass of water he was holding to his mouth. “And don’t get drunk.”

Louis laughed and took several long gulps.

“Is there more bread?”

With that, Clarisse disappeared into the dining room for a moment and returned with a small basket of rolls. Louis grabbed one and piece by piece swallowed it. As he worked to soak away what wine was left sloshing around in his belly, and Clarisse went to clear the dining table, he thought.

This man—the cloaked man—could not possibly want to use Louis’s fame as a writer, for he had none. But he was killing: first the poor foal and then poor Father Apollinaris. But were they the first? The man had fashioned himself a specialized weapon, in the form of a massive wolf’s claw. Louis thought about the carnage wreaked upon the friar’s body and tried to imagine a man inflicting that level of damage. Indeed, Louis thought, he may have fashioned at least two, one for each hand—all the more to imitate that of a wolf-man. He only lacked teeth, and for that he made up in tenacity.

Louis tried to form an image of the man—in those glimpses he’d had of him—and he could not remember him being exceptionally large. Average, at best. Even a little stooped. In trying to understand and fully command the facts Clarisse had given him through the drunken haze that was already dissipating, it hadn’t occurred until now to ask the girl what the man’s name was.

He slapped his forehead and made to leave the kitchen and join Clarisse in the dining room, when there came from the street a blood-chilling scream. It was a woman’s scream, throaty and anguished, and it repeated itself over and over, with hardly a pause for breath.

Louis ran through the kitchen door. Clarisse was already moving through the front door of the inn and some of the male patrons were making their sleepy way down the stairs. He ran ahead of them, behind Clarisse. On the street, people gathered slowly about a young woman, in whose lap laid the limp body of a small boy. Louis recognized him as the boy who waved at him this morning from the fields before the village.

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Beast23

When Louis woke again, it was still dark, but the whisper of dawn played upon the horizon. The sky was deep blue, anticipating morning proper, but the woods that sheltered the two travelers was still heavy with night. The stars had diminished considerably and the moon hung far over, ready to begin its journey to the other side of the globe.

Louis rose and noted the wind had picked up, passing cold over his weary limbs. The branches above and around him swayed as he fetched water from the natural faucet nearby. He shielded his lamp and boiled a sufficient quantity for a thin chocolate drink. While not rich, it was comforting.

Modestine stood chewing on some grass. Louis gave her a hunk of bread for breakfast but declined more for himself than the chocolate. He listened but heard only the growing sounds of daybreak—birds shrilled wakeful, flitting through the still-dark forest. Soon, he would hear the ox-carts moving uphill to fetch their quarry of wood for the winter, and wanting to avoid them, he hurriedly packed his things and the two continued their upward trek.

Though the path would sometimes reward their diligence with a respite of level ground, it never lasted very long and up, up they were again sent. Eventually, the path beneath their feet disappeared and they tread upon a simple terrain marked only, again, by the standing stones for winter travel. Small birds hopped from stone to stone, and it seemed to Louis that they were the same birds for miles, following him along, his destination theirs. It was warm and Louis had removed his coat, walking in only his knitted vest, his shirtsleeves rolled to his elbows.

Finally, they reached a summit that distinguished itself from the smaller peaks they’d rolled over. Even if one closed one’s eyes as they breached it, one would sense its majesty. Le Pic de Finiels, about which Louis had heard so much, stood 5,600 feet above sea level. From here, through the hazy afternoon, Louis could make out lower Languedoc all the way to the Mediterranean.

It was spectacular, but Louis was tired. And he did not relish that his next stop, probably for the night, was the dreaded Pont de Montvert.

He goaded Modestine, who had stopped, assumed he’d want to spend more time, and made for the nearest grassy spot for a snack. She huffed a disappointed sigh and shuffled on, down this time. A little while later, the standing stones they’d been following disappeared and Louis stopped to look around.

Not far down, he could see a trail begin—it looked very steep and seemed to spiral down the slope.

“Are you ready for that?” he asked Modestine, who only blinked her answer in return.

Down they went. The path turned so tightly and so vertically that Louis insisted Modestine go first, for if she started to roll, she’d surely crush him despite her tiny frame. She took the lead happily enough, almost trotting, and while it had looked like a rather long drop from above, it was only a matter of a few minutes before they spilled from the corkscrew onto a straight, flat plain. First Modestine, and then Louis, separately and in opposite directions, jogged to a dizzy stop before halting to collect their balance and rejoin one another on the path.

Oddly, or so Louis thought, the path continued along the trickle of a brook, with the waterway flowing zigzagged back and forth over the walkway, so that as they progressed, Modestine refreshed her tired hooves in the water while Louis sure-footedly stepped over. They found themselves in a green valley dotted abundantly with rocks. In due course, the path grew into a road and the trickle grew into a stream, which diverted to the side. Their course advanced over a slight, but regular rise and fall through the vale, flanked by a forest of oak on either side.

With each step, the watercourse they raced grew bigger and bigger, soon a foaming tributary eager to throw its contents against stones, the banks, and itself. Rapids formed as its width expanded to eventually become the strong-flowing Tarn River.

Just under the raging, babbling current, Louis heard a sound, and looking up and forward to a break in the valley walls that spread meadows left and right, he saw a little boy, who waved enthusiastically to Louis. This was the first sign of le Pont de Montvert.

* * *

As they came into the town—over a stone hump-backed bridge that took them across the Tarn and ended on the other side with a medieval tower—it struck Louis that it had been exactly a week since he’d left Monastier. Pont de Montvert was all bustling with the Sabbath post-church activities—people buying a day’s or a week’s worth of necessities at the vendors that gathered loosely along the main thoroughfare, lined with one- and two-story stone houses.

Louis peered about them suspiciously, looking for a familiar face, listening for the singing voice that harassed him in the night amongst the trees of Mont Lozère, but there was nothing. Citizens moved about, jostling him, Modestine, and each other, an undulating sea of ruddy faces and muted color, though the eyes and mouths smiled at a day’s rest.

They made their way to the nearest public house, where Louis planned to hole up for the day and night, until events either played themselves out or enough nothing happened to warrant a feeling of safe passage. But Louis did not expect his stay to be without incident, and so he left Modestine in the stable with strict instructions to the stable boy to watch her carefully, then headed into the inn to wait it out.

There was a considerable crowd at the table for the mid-day meal, at least a dozen, including himself. The server called herself Clarisse—she was a buxom young woman: her hips and bosom ample, her face round, her eyes and nose small. She had curly yellow hair that spiraled over her shoulders, her cheeks were naturally rosy. Clarisse moved about the crowded dining area deftly, despite her size and the speed at which she went.

Louis took an empty space between a middle-aged, well-dressed man and a dowdy, timid woman of roughly the same age as his other neighbor. Across from him sat two women who chatted animatedly to each other. They were both handsome, which Louis counted as a special treat as he swore he had not seen a beautiful woman since leaving Monastier, and even then, he could remember no female face from that village aside from the pamphleteer’s ancient mother he’d endlessly sketched. The remaining travelers beyond this immediate group held no interest for him.

The two lovely women, as it turned out, were sisters—both married—traveling with the man to Louis’s right, a cousin. They were meeting their husbands—railroad surveyors currently in Chasseradès—in a few days, before moving on to another town to spend a few weeks with their widowed mother.

“I know them!” Louis exclaimed. “Well, that is to say, I passed a magnificent evening with them just two days ago.”

“They are well, then?” one of the sisters asked.

“Oh, indeed,” Louis said, “very well.”

Stoneware plates were filled with stewed vegetables, beef, and bread. Cutlery clicked together and against teeth. Clarisse moved about the room, plate to plate, and rested by the stairwell in the corner until her service was again required.

“Are you familiar with the village, sir?” the man to his right inquired.

“This village? No, I am not. Though I mean to be. I am writing a book.”

And the conversation followed as such. The sisters fawned over Louis—having discovered a writer in their midst—and they all asked for the details of his travels so far. Louis did his best to leave out anything grisly—anything related to wolves or murder—and largely succeeded. This pleasant exercise gave him hope that his journal notes weren’t all for naught and that he might—if he made it to Alès alive and back into the arms of his friends and family— still have a book from all this mess.

Clarisse suddenly appeared beside him, heaping a second helping of beef upon his plate before he’d even half-finished the first, and she was gone again in a flash. Louis hadn’t had this much sensory excitement in weeks. Perhaps months.

“And, so the brothers of Our Lady of the Snows,” a sister began, “there is no vow of silence?”

“Ah, no, see,” Louis explained, piling the beef onto itself. “It is merely an economy of words. Nothing unnecessary nor impractical.”

He saw his shy neighbor to the left had drained her cup and he neatly refilled it without losing his thought.

She tried weakly to refuse, but then acquiesced for the sake of good manners and presented Louis with a wan smile. She styled her dark hair parted concisely down the middle and combed back in a low bun; she wore a small, modest cameo taut on a humble ribbon around her neck. It had a look about it that spoke of something handed down, possessing significant personal value. She was clearly not of the party immediately surrounding them.

“Where are you going to, Mademoiselle? Where are your people?” he asked warmly, trying to help her feel included.

Her face reddened with the attention. She smiled and tried to wave it away, but he persisted.

“Florac,” she finally answered. “To see my sister.” Louis had to lean close to hear her, as she spoke barely above a whisper, and this caused her to blush further.

“If your sister is half as lovely as you, Mademoiselle . . .” he began.

Clarisse now appeared to his other side, laying down another roll, though his sat yet untouched. And, again, gone.

“Have you published other books?” one of the sisters across the table interrupted, and the little mouse to his left looked more relieved than spurned, so Louis turned his attention back to the beautiful women.

“I have had a book out this past spring,” he answered, and then opined appropriately on An Inland Voyage, which had met mixed reviews.

The sisters gushed, and Louis noted that they wore fairly low-cut chemises, with hanging necklaces that drew attention to their busts, quite unlike his easily embarrassed neighbor. He took an opportunity to offer her more bread, which she declined. He got a closer look at her.

Her eyes were almond shaped and her brows neat and even; her face was the shape of her eyes and beginning to show just the first faint lines of age. Her mouth was not overly cheery, nor was it too firm. Louis judged her to be about as old as Fanny, about ten years his senior. In fact, once one tallied the merits of this woman’s features as a whole, she was actually rather pretty.

He again turned to the laughter of the sisters in front of him and joined them in their joviality, but also reexamined their virtues. Their hair—tawny and blond, respectively—was curled and set with pins. Their cheeks blossomed with what he believed to be a powder of some sort. Their lips were also tinted.

They tittered on about the novels they were currently reading, which Louis should have been keen to hear about but was instead lost in a reverie of his own conclusions. He thought perhaps his modest neighbor could just as easily be as bland as the women before him, in character and in taste, that is, but she didn’t open her mouth enough for that judgment. The sisters, however, exhibited a veneer that promised interest, when, in fact, they overflowed with tediousness in every breath. They were also both closer to his age, and if Louis had learned nothing else of his own inclinations in his short life, he learned that it was a mature voice that held his attention.

He was about to turn his mind back to his modest neighbor when the sisters’ cousin started up.

“I’m in the quarry business,” he said. And while the man talked of the astonishing difference in stone and their application, the woman to his left presently finished her meal and quietly excused herself from the table to no one in particular.

Louis pretended to hear the man, nodding when it seemed necessary, and focused most of his attention on his plate, systematically filling his thin frame with the stuff. When he ate as much as he could and pulled his napkin from his lap, he excused himself. As he looked up, his eyes happened to fall across the room to Clarisse, standing beside the stairwell, hand on her hip. She was staring at him.

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Beast22

Louis rifled through the sack and found his revolver. There was no use in pushing the donkey further and Louis, now seeing the reason for her stubbornness, felt badly for forcing it. He let her wander off the path, reluctant to tie her off in case either of them needed to run in a hurry, and once he was sure she wouldn’t just head straight back down the way they’d come, he moved cautiously forward to see how far this trail of blood went.

From where they stopped, the trail continued on for thirty or forty more yards, deeper into the wood where the trees became denser. There was still room to maneuver a small donkey with a strange-shaped pack, but it certainly darkened the further Louis went. The terrain still traveled upwards, though it also rolled, and here and there a large boulder sprang from the ground, between trees. It was behind one of these stones that the trail eventually disappeared, and although Louis mostly expected that it continued on after, he readied himself for anything the rock might hide.

As he gradually inched his way around, a naked foot came into view, and he cocked back the hammer of his pistol. The foot didn’t move, nor did the leg, or any of the body that revealed itself as Louis moved better to see.

On the ground, half-propped against the back of the boulder was a naked man, bone white for blood loss, as there was a vicious wound to his side and what looked to be a puncture of some kind in the opposite shoulder. His back, Louis noted, was a mass of thick, black hair that ran up the stern of his neck and blended into the hair on his head. His forearms were equally wooly and it traveled all the way to his first set of knuckles.

He could not tell if the man was dead or not, so he took a few more careful steps, snapping a small twig as he went. At once, the pale man on the ground jerked his head up and his torso around a little, though he winced and grunted as he did. Louis gasped.

It was the unhelpful man from Fouzilhac, his single, thick eyebrow lying inert over a pair of sunken black eyes. He seemed to recognize Louis and he smiled dimly. His bluish lips pulled apart, sticky with blood, and his teeth were stained red.

“You are hurt,” Louis said and lowered his revolver. The man had refused to help Louis to cross a darkened landscape safely, and had even thought the situation amusing. But Louis was not a man to refuse another help, regardless of the wrong done. When he took a step toward the man, the pale thing growled and snapped, and then fell back limp against the boulder. His head and eyes rolled.

A distinct signal emanated from the man on the ground, so strong that it belied the man’s status as human being—it was the feeling one got from a wounded animal. No matter how powerful the desire to administer care, the sense of danger was so overwhelming, one recoiled, helpless. He would lash out, like an animal does, as if his understanding of what was happening had been compromised.

Louis backed up and leaned against a tree, at a loss as to what to do. Why was he so far from his little hamlet, and where had the man’s clothes gone? There was little blood pooled around him, so much of it must be soaking the ground from here all the way back to—

“I would say you are a good shot, but I could see it was luck that you hit me at all,” the man wheezed.

Our Lady of the Snows.

Louis raised his revolver again.

“No point in that,” the man responded, one hand curling around the wound in his side, as if to pull the flesh back together like one would a sweater in the cold. “I am dead.”

“Who are you?” Louis demanded, realizing that this might be his only chance to get answers. “Who is the man with the cloak? What has any of this to do with me?” He took a few steps forward, now perfectly prepared to threaten this dying man.

The man from Fouzilhac pulled a breath in through sharp teeth and released it slowly and silently, his eyes sideways on Louis. They seemed to shimmy back and forth in his head, looking more and more glassy with each painful breath.

Je suis désolé,” the man said, weakly reaching a hand to Louis. It shook like an old man’s and was covered in blood and golden pine needles. Louis recognized that hole in his shoulder as the wound made by the only bullet he’d ever fired from a gun.

Je suis désolé,” the man said again. “But it is very dark, you see . . . très noir . . .” Then, the man on the ground laughed softly, laughing the very last breath from his lungs, until he folded slowly on himself and his chin met his chest. The life was gone from his eyes, and although Louis brimmed with frustration, he saw that at least this man’s suffering was over.

He spent the next half an hour pacing the stretch of ground between Modestine and the dead man hiding behind the boulder, thinking. Trying to see the point of all of this, except maybe to brand his soul for life, he occasionally kicked a loose stick or rock. What good did it do anyone for him to see this—to change the recent events in his mind from his having shot a wild beast to his having murdered a man? And was this a man at all?

As his pacing took him back to the boulder, he rounded it, stared at the corpse for a second, and then continued. He looked like a man, hairy back and hands or not. Louis had shot and killed a man, and still he was no closer in understanding anything around him. In fact, he never felt further from reality.

And he’d have paced that space all night had Modestine not walked into his path and blocked him. It was then that he realized the day was getting late and he was no further along this mountain than he was two hours ago.

Now that the animal energy emanating from the wounded man was gone, along with his life, Modestine found no trouble continuing through the trees. As they passed the boulder, Louis glimpsed the naked, white foot, but the donkey merely sniffed the air in that direction and moved on. Soon, Louis’s guess with the shortcut paid off and they emerged from the wooded area. The ground was soft and there was no discernable path or road, as Louis had expected, but there were the familiar standing stones to indicate the way in winter. He steered Modestine along them. All was quiet around them, save a lark that flew from one stone to another, marking their progress with his song.

They passed a man driving an ox cart up the side of the mountain they were now coming down and Louis was momentarily struck with a fear that the body of the man from Fouzilhac would be found. But it wasn’t along a marked path and wasn’t on the road—it might be months or even years before someone wanders across his bones. Then, Louis was shocked by the unexpected wave of guilt that followed. Having killed the man was bad enough, but having left his corpse unburied certainly compounded the situation.

But maybe it wasn’t his bullet that had killed him, Louis reasoned. It was more likely the ugly gash of Brother Roland’s edger that did him in, after a painful day and a half of running and bleeding out. And he did not have time to bury the man, nor did he have the means to.

Louis became lost in his own thoughts and blindly goaded Modestine on through the hollow valley and finally off the incline of the mountain. They traversed a series of open fields spotted with sheep and poplars. Even the sound of the sheeps’ bells did not break Louis’s concentration, and they walked straight through the town of Bleymard and some ways past it before he came to himself. When he did, he couldn’t tell Modestine what he’d been thinking, for he couldn’t remember. He could see, though, that they’d made a good way up another incline and the ache he suddenly felt in his calves and knees told him it was too far to turn back.

After looking at his map once more, he goaded Modestine on up this section of Mont Lozère, having some idea where they might make camp tonight. Although he didn’t like the idea and he chastised himself for being so stupid as to pass right through their best bet at a safe bed, the revolver—now that he saw what sort of damage it really could do—made him feel a little safer. However, he did not expect to sleep much this night.

As they ascended the vague, stony path, they passed a number ox-carts descending, laden with the winter’s fuel—long, thick pines. Each cart conveyed one, its top hanging off the edge of the cart and bouncing along the ground behind it. To avoid them, Louis turned Modestine left and followed a loose trail along a spread of pines until they came upon a small, grassy glade. There, a tiny rivulet fell from a rock, creating a kind of spigot and small basin before spilling out into space over the ridge. The clearing itself was surrounded by thick, new forest growth.

Louis looked around, then around again, and arrumphed to himself satisfactorily. He could not have lucked upon a better campsite, and as campsites went, this was as close to a private hotel suite as one could find. On three sides, the trees were like walls. On the forth, there was a drop that looked out upon miles of hilltops. And with his own personal bath, who could complain? As dusk gathered around them, he stripped Modestine of the pack and saddle, and went about settling in. The donkey, once free of her burden, spent the time until the sun went down nibbling here and there on the lush patch. Similarly, Louis ate a dinner of sausage, bread, chocolate, and a brandy-water mixture. When they were both satiated, Louis tucked himself into his sleeping sack, and Modestine, whom Louis had judged a standing sleeper, curled her little legs beneath her and slept lying down.

Louis put out his lamp and rolled a cigarette in the dark. He smoked it, then drifted off.

In the wee hours of the deep, dark night, Louis awoke.

The air was mild, the sky clear. Around him, the trees cast shadows darker than any cave, though their silence—save the resonance of innocuous night insects—allowed Louis to relax. Nothing in particular had woken him.

He rolled another cigarette, then lay back in his sleeping sack, propping his head up a little under his makeshift pillow with his arm. He had woken, he thought, in the same way shepherds and peasants had been waking for centuries, long before the gas light and its lamp-lighters drew our days intolerably long. Not so very long ago, though it seems so primitive—to wake in the night was preferable to unbroken sleep. It was during this time that workers too tired from the day’s toil would feel refreshed enough to take on any number of chores, or games, that he’d be too exhausted for before his first sleep. He would chat with neighbors, he would pray, and he would, if he were lucky, confer with his wife.

At this thought, Louis expected to follow his mood down some lonely corridor, thinking of Fanny so very far away. But, he didn’t. He thrust it forcibly from his mind and dragged on his cigarette, deciding it was the best cigarette he’d ever had—here, in this small sanctuary that nature provided, the glittering glow of constellations overhead, the sound of a caressing breeze through the mighty, swaying tree tops, and he preparing his mind and body for the wonderful second sleep to follow this enchanted period of wakefulness. Louis thanked whomever there was to thank that he’d joined his ancestors in this long-tested tradition of broken sleep.

After finishing his cigarette, he tucked his other hand beneath his head and gazed up at the sky, thinking his thoughts, none of them terrible. He lifted himself successfully from his troubles, both near and far, and heartily enjoyed every moment of it, when, distantly, he thought he heard something.

It was a tune, he thought, but for some minutes had almost convinced himself that it was merely his mind’s twisting of some night bird’s song. But as it grew louder and more pronounced—and presumably closer—he could, indeed, make it out as some human refrain. Finally, the silence of the night being so full and therefore empty of any other distraction, Louis could hear the sound of footsteps crunching on what parts of the rocky path the traveler’s boots traversed. He listened, holding his breath.

Whoever the voyager was, he played a flute. Louis relaxed, for it was only a fellow adventurer making his way over the mount, unafraid of the dark, and certainly unencumbered with Louis’s rightful fears. He made the most of his isolation from the sleeping world and made merry with his instrument, which caused Louis to smile. But as the flutist drew closer—as he was about to pass by the section of woods that enclosed Louis—Modestine’s ears pricked up, and Louis placed the tune. It was the same air he’d heard the little girls singing in Lestampes.

He thought that perhaps the traveler was also coming from that village, but then, he was sure it was a song that most villagers—certainly the children—knew in this region. And then the flute stopped and the traveler took up the song in voice. He sang:

Let’s stroll in the woods
while the wolf is not here.
If the wolf was here
he would eat us,
but since he’s not here
he won’t eat us.
“Wolf, are you here?
Do you hear?
What are you doing?”
“I got my rifle. I’m coming!”

Louis had not listened to the words the little girls’ had sung, but he listened now, translating deftly in his head, without effort, and his blood ran cold. As the refrain ended, so did the footsteps, and the night was again still.

Louis strained to hear any small sound from the other side of the short wood, but there was nothing. He pulled one hand from beneath his head and, in a manner so slow it agonized, he reached for the revolver he’d placed beside his sack. Once he gripped its cold handle, he brought it to his chest and debated himself as to whether he should cock the hammer, or raise himself to a seated position first.

He decided that having a ready weapon trumped whether he would shoot lying down or sitting up, and he warily drew the hammer back, fearing the sound of it and hoping it would be unheard.

The hammer clacked noisily into place and Louis winced, trying harder to hear what the singer’s reaction might be, but he didn’t have to. After a second or two of painful silence, the singing traveler on the other side of the trees broke into a hardy laugh that sent ice through Louis’s veins and almost made him cry out.

Retour à dormir, écrivain,” the voice sailed through the branches to Louis, and then the flute’s whistle followed, playing the child’s tune over and over until it gradually grew softer with distance and Louis could no longer hear the man’s boots along the path.

When all sound had diminished, and the night returned to itself, Louis found himself still gripping the readied weapon, pulled tight to his chest. He was in the grasp of two minds—numbing fear and insufferable anger. Finally, he leapt from the sleeping sack and paced the glade as Modestine snorted her disapproval.

Louis wanted to yell his frustrations, fling them from the precipice and out onto the hills of Mont Lozère. He scorned himself a coward and demanded a good reason as to why he didn’t run through those woods and confront his tormentor.

Because, he was afraid. His mind went to the claw-like cultivator now polluting his own possessions; he remembered how the wooden block beneath Father Apollinaris’s chin sank into his torn, cold flesh. Gun or not, Louis could not guess what this maniac was capable of. He thought, indeed, he had less fear of the half-man, half-wolf he’d watched die in the wood in the hills by Lestampes.

He stopped and listened. The cloaked man was gone. Far gone enough that it was pointless for Louis to follow him, not now. And far enough away for the pair to return to something like sleep.

Retour à dormir, écrivain! Go back to sleep, writer!

Louis hoped he could. After rolling and smoking one last cigarette, Louis crawled back into his sleeping sack, cradling with him the uncocked revolver, and prepared to enter his second sleep. As he drifted, he wondered if he’d ever be able to enjoy anything again, thinking of the meditative mid-night waking he’d been so thankful for just moments ago. Was his existence now only a series of terrifying episodes, one after another? Louis finally did sleep and when he did, it was fouled wholly by the noise of that flute, and the sound of the man’s laughter, echoing retour à dormir, retour à dormir . . . .

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Beast21

Louis handed Modestine off to the son of the innkeeper, unstrapped his sack, and, without a word, entered the inn. It was like most of the others he’d encountered—rustic and spare—but the company he’d hoped for before and never quite received finally sat itself around a large table in the kitchen, eating a hardy meal and laughing. Five men who were in the area making a survey for the projected railroad welcomed him. For a brief moment, he thought to wave off the amity and continue with his sack to his bunk, making an early sleep for an early departure. The sooner he reached Alès, at this point, the better. But the smiling faces—as boisterous as his four French friends in Monastier—were too inviting a comfort, and Louis had always been an optimist at heart.

He tucked his sack in a corner and squeezed himself into a place at the table, where the hostess sat before him a sizable plate piled with beef, fish, parsnips, and bread. Louis put his hands together and gazed up at the crude wood ceiling—whomever it was that received his thanks had finally seen that he was at the end of his tether and surely must have sent this night as the cure for the malady that ailed him. He almost wished he could pull Modestine into the kitchen so that she could also partake.

As the walk was uneventful, the evening before bed was as well, in the sense that nothing in particular pulled at his heart and no one was killed. While there was not sufficient wine to be drunk, everyone got on so well that it didn’t matter. Together, they managed to solve all of France’s problems in the matter of a few hours, and all agreed on how to go about it. A rare occasion, indeed. The six men howled and occasionally gave way to hysterics, until at length, someone noted the time and they all scuttled off to the four beds in an upstairs room, snickering and stumbling up the narrow stairway.

Louis, clutching his sleeping sack, followed the group, feeling as much a part of it as he half-expected to begin his new occupation as a railroad surveyor the following morning. Courteously, the five men somehow managed in three beds, leaving Louis to have one to himself—each donned a nightcap, and Louis being without one, substituted his fur hat. The six friends chuckled themselves to sleep.

Louis woke on his own well before the sun threatened to spill over the hill.

Hé, Bourgeois; il est cinq heures![1] came the call through the open window. He stretched inside his sack and counted the five nightcaps lined up at the ends of the other beds. One or two stirred and Louis smiled. Whether weighed with the heaviness of a previous night’s drunk or not, the most satisfying follow-up to a night of good company and good fun is a long and glorious morning of sleep. Not so for these men, who must be up and about soon to get on with the company’s work. Nor for Louis, who swung his legs out of bed and dressed.

The previous day and night had been so unexpectedly without incident that Louis felt perhaps he’d insinuated more into the unfortunate events than was warranted. Whatever was going on—and whatever rules of truth had been broken—was tragic, no doubt, but chances were that it was out of his hands and completely unrelated to him.

He worked to make this new vision more substantial as he packed up. Rolling up his sack into its more convenient wiener shape and securing inside it his myriad effects, he worked through the incidents that had so unnerved him and discharged them as being, frankly, none of his business. As deflating as his life had been prior, it was, he realized, significantly preferable to the death and misfortune he’d stumbled into. Louis did not care that he was picking and choosing what to recall and what to dismiss. He did not concern himself with anything that might ruin his new vision of his experiences, which, as far as he was concerned, were not even his. He was, he told himself, merely a bystander witnessing events that had nothing to do with him. And now, he must only move forward, onto the next town—on through les Montagne du Goulet, through Bleymard and Villefort, to the Pic de Finiels, through . . .

Pont de Montvert. And here his decision to ignore all that had happened ruptured and bled out. For Louis could not reach his final destination without passing through the place his “friend,” the cloaked man, said he would meet him.

As Louis readied Modestine, he tried to save his fantasy by insisting that Father Prior had been wrong and that Louis hadn’t been the only writer in residence at Our Lady of the Snows. The man could easily have been referring to someone else. And Louis did not know this man.

As the sun rose just above the horizon and dawn rolled into full bloom, Louis and his donkey bade his hosts farewell. A few of his surveying friends, now awake, waved with smiles from the upstairs window. Louis smiled and waved back, although his thoughts still heaved against each other, trying to find the right combination of reason and whimsy that would relieve him of any responsibility to anything but himself. The two worked their way from town, Modestine requiring a few early-morning pokes to get her going, and as soon as they rounded a bend that put them out of sight of Chasseradès, Louis stopped and threw the goad to the ground.

“Damn it, damn it, straight to the damned devil with all of this,” he yelled. He picked up the goad and threw it down again, this time stomping on it with his boot. Modestine took a few steps away, eyeing him at an angle.

Louis continued to swear and throw down the goad, sometimes kicking it and running after it to kick it again, until he grew tired. Then he sat down on a nearby rock and stared at the ground. The donkey saw the storm was over and proceeded to find a tasty patch of grass to work over.

Whatever had happened had happened. It was what it was. Why he was involved somehow, he did not know. But he was. And regardless of the present respite, Louis felt deeply that it was not finished. He knew not where the assurance came from, and after having witnessed the beast on Apollinaris’s road, where it came from mattered not. Call it, stupidly, intuition. Fanny would call it second sight, the gift of which she wholly believed she possessed. If only it was a clear picture of what was to come and not just a nagging, sickening feeling of foreboding.

“The devil with it,” Louis muttered and he rose, picked up the goad, and pulled Modestine back on track. He resolved to think about nothing but the book that would eventually come from this voyage and so he set himself to memorizing every detail of everything around him.

They moved across another long plateau like the one before Chasseradès and moved through a number of tiny hamlets set steeply into the Chassezac valley walls. The houses and their presiding church clung perilously to the outcropped ridges; their chimneys sent dissipating trails of smoke that rose to join the high-off clouds. Louis wrote his notes in his head—and would later transfer them to his journal—every blooming broom flower, every hollow, every beech and every birch. He set to memory every corner and every gully until they finally came ascending into the village of Lestampes.

The tight street was packed with sheep, which slowed their progress considerably. Although Louis showed no signs of caring, Modestine snorted and gave the occasional bray. With his hand on Modestine’s bridle, Louis shuffled through and let his eyes bounce evenly from one wooly back to another, the din of their bells forming an ocean of sound that could be pushed into the stern of one’s mind. To bring himself out of his stupor, Louis found one black sheep amongst the field of white and focused on it until they reached the other end of the herd and could continue through the village. As they passed that black sheep, Louis bent and let his fingers trail along its back; it bleated a response that floated over the sound of the ringing bells. He thought, this must be some sign of either good luck or bad—run your hand down the black sheep’s back . . . . Maybe some French folklore he’d never heard of, or better, the legend of some far off Pacific island. Someplace he’d never been.

Louis wondered vaguely if there were sheep in the Pacific and he held the sound of the black sheep in his thoughts until the bells diminished behind them to a faint tinkling. Resetting his stride beside Modestine, he tapped her rump with the goad.

In the village, they passed two men in a tree, pruning the branches. Three little girls danced around the trunk of another nearby tree. One of them sang:

Promenons-nous dans les bois
pendant que le loup n’y est pas
si le loup y était
il nous mangerait,
mais comme il n’y est pas
il n’ nous mangera pas.
“Loup, y es-tu?
Entends-tu?
Que fais-tu?”
“Je prends mon fusil. J’arrive!”

Louis heard the tune, but didn’t translate the words, and so he hummed along as they passed. He waved at the men and they waved back.

The road that ran through Lestampes bent itself before and after, with a straight-away through the center of the village, all of it inclined up and up. As Louis made his way to the end of town, ready for the winding to begin again, the girls’ play song faded and was replaced with the sound of cocks crowing to the air of a flute. It was played by someone Louis did not see, but the sound helped to push the bleakness from his soul. The flute-player could be anyone—the village priest, a talented milkmaid, or maybe a country schoolteacher. Whomever it was, they filled this late day with song and Louis was glad for the player’s leisure. The somewhat shapeless melody structured itself around the song of the children dancing around the tree, and Louis was cheered by the confluence of experience.

Even uphill, Modestine picked up her step a bit and although Louis was reluctant to leave the joyful music of Lestampes, he knew she was right and they’d better keep moving. As much as these small moments lightened the load he carried, and as much as the surrounding countryside warmed his heart —finally made pleasing with good weather—it could not completely erase the solemn sense of dread.

Soon, they were treading past the last few houses and out of the range of the flute player, up and up still, following the road as it twisted and turned past boulders and their companion rocks, and around the occasional ancient tree whose trunk rivaled the width of the road. Higher still they rose until they finally stopped upon a flat to rest before moving ever upwards.

The constant incline was bad enough, but that it snaked back and forth—likely doubling or tripling the length of the walk—was worse. For the first time, Louis was required to consult the map the pamphleteer in Monastier had left him, that previously-silly Beast paraphernalia. He was determined not to think on it, and instead sought a short cut, but there wasn’t one. There was no route but this exhausting upward winding path to breach the summit, and Modestine climbed slower and slower.

Louis rolled a cigarette and smoked it. He examined the donkey’s legs, which were healing well, and dug into the sack in search of the ointment he’d been given in Cheylard. Finding it, he slathered some onto the pink donkey flesh and then stowed it away again. Now, they were ready to continue.

The two moved slow but steadily, Louis’s eyes always searching for another way, when finally they came upon a section not rockily walled in—to their right, the land moved off at a gentle slope and he could see a reasonably straight path through a wood of dwarf pines. He steered Modestine in that direction, but she immediately became stubborn, which was not unusual at first.

He manned the goad, but to no avail. He thwacked her a few times, but, again, nothing. She snorted and reared. This was worse than usual. Louis shouldered her behind and pushed, but she brayed back in retaliation. Little by little, Louis managed to move her off the road and into the small wood, every inch of it a struggle. She wailed and kicked, screeched and bucked with every step, so that Louis was forced to hold the pack onto her back so as not to lose it. A few times she came close to toppling over backwards, so much did she fight on the incline. At one point Louis thought to just give up and lead her back to the winding road, but her obduracy only fueled his own, and from that point on it was a sheer battle of wills. Louis vowed he would rather camp another night on the ground, forgoing the safety of an inn, than give in to this impious little brute.

Still in the wood, Louis went around front and grabbed Modestine’s bridle with both hands, set his boots firmly, and pulled as hard as he could, swearing between clenched teeth. Drops of sweat fell from him and landed on his arms, so profusely he glanced up to see if it was raining. But the sky through the branches was clear. As he continued to pull, he directed his gaze down, where, amongst the fallen and exploded drops of his own sweat on the carpet of pine needles were blood drops of similar size.

Louis stopped pulling so abruptly that Modestine almost fell back head over hooves. He immediately searched his hands and then around the donkey’s bridle. Finding nothing, he re-examined her forelegs, and again found naught. Finally, he looked all about the both of them, trying to locate the source, but they were unscathed. After a moment’s thought, he looked back over the path they’d made and then forward in the direction they’d been going. They had been inadvertently following this trail of blood, which Louis did not notice but Modestine apparently had. Or, she sensed the spring.

[1] “Hey, middle class, it is 5a.m.!”

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