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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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