"You've barely touched your meal, Bryn," Dr. Charles Bradley observed, his bluff, hearty manner edged with worry. "Here Mrs. Landry has all but outdone herself, and you've scarcely done more than spread laermaberry jam on a roll."
Brynna Morgaine glanced down with embarrassment. It was true that her host's cook and housekeeper had done very well by the two of them, with rashers of bacon, sliced fruit, vonde-grain rolls, and an assortment of condiments, to say nothing of the coffee which sent up fragrant steam from its silver urn.
"Do you feel quite the thing?" Bradley asked.
Bryn could have lied. She could have said that she was fine and Bradley would have let it go at that because his idea of gracious hospitality did not include extracting confidences from a guest who was reluctant to share. Perhaps it was that knowledge which, ironically, convinced her not to hold back.
"I...I am afraid I didn't sleep well," she admitted.
"Indeed? I do hope nothing was wrong with your room?"
"No, no, that was fine. The bed was comfortable and the room well-heated without being stifling. Only..."
Bradley said nothing, but merely watched her from beneath his heavy brows.
"Only I had dreams," Bryn finished at last.
"About the Rostoke matter?"
It had been over three weeks since the death of explorer and antiquarian Duncan Rostoke in his home near Tyler. The gruesome circumstances of the crime had swept up Bryn within them, but then she had been able to solve the crime and even kill the murderer in the final battle. In truth, "destroy" would be a more accurate word than "kill," since the creature responsible had not been a human of Parmanian or native Dezolian birth, but an undead horror that had truly died decades or even centuries past.
The experience, however, had left its mark. More often than not, nightmares would claw themselves up from the depths of her mind whenever she tried to sleep. It was as if Bryn had crossed some boundary somewhere in her subconscious that would not let her go.
This was one of the reasons, perhaps even the primary one, that she had accepted the invitation to spend a few days at the home of her friend and mentor. She just needed time, she thought, in safe and secure surroundings, to remind herself that the world was as it always had been.
The more she thought about it, though, the more she feared that the world "as it always had been" was nothing more than a facade, and what was showing through the cracks, the truth of Algolian life, was worse than anything she could have imagined.
"Yes," she said quietly, and did not elaborate. Blood and pain and fire that consumed one's mind from within were not fit topics for dining table conversation.
Bradley stretched out a big hand for a roll and munched contemplatively. Behind him, Bryn could see a light snow falling outside the windowpane.
"You've been sparing with details of the matter," her host began.
"I'm sorry, but I really don't want --"
Bradley held up a hand to forestall further interruptions.
"Hear me out, please. I know that the events of the Rostoke business were traumatic and horrifying, as befits the supernatural. I also know that whatever these events were, you dealt with them. You defeated the evil. You triumphed."
He reached for the coffee urn and poured himself a cup. Steam rose in swirling eddies as he added sugar.
"That is the Bryn Morgaine I know. Adventurer, trader, explorer, mercenary...you've always sought out excitement and danger the way I've sought knowledge or a priest spiritual harmony. Your adult life has been spent confronting violence, brutality, deception. Observe that word, confronting."
Bryn looked at him curiously.
"I'm not sure I follow you, Charles."
"Well, what was your reaction to the evil in the Rostoke matter? You fought it, did you not? Perhaps with bow-gun and knife, perhaps with techniques, or perhaps with some more creative method suited to the situation. That is your natural milieu for dealing with evil. This" --he indicated the room with a sweeping wave of his hand-- "is not. How do you fight a nightmare? How do you stab or shoot a memory?"
"So, let me see if I understand you. Your opinion seems to be that so long as I am here, at rest, I can never properly deal with my feelings?" The idea seemed absurd, and yet that kind of counterintuitive logic had held true more than once in the past. Nor could she deny that Dr. Bradley was generally right in these areas.
"Exactly. Bryn, the best way to deal with lurking fears is to confront them directly, by proving to yourself that evil is something that can be defeated. That's a good general rule for anyone, of course, in the face of fear, but for you I think it to be vital."
A knock at the door interrupt Bradley's theorizing. At the doctor's request, his hatchet-faced housekeeper entered, bearing a buff-colored envelope on a tray.
"A letter transmission for you, Dr. Bradley," the woman said, her pleasant voice quite a contrast to her harsh appearance.
"Thank you, Mrs. Landry."
"Will you and Miss Morgaine require anything else with your meal?"
"No, I believe we can manage. Thank you."
The housekeeper nodded once and left.
"I hope you don't mind, Bryn, but if someone is willing to pay the extra cost to send a letter by telepipe messenger it must be an important matter."
"Not at all."
He broke the green wax seal and took a letter from the envelope. It was a single sheet of paper only, and Bryn could see that the message was not a long one. Bradley read it over twice, his brows bristling flamboyantly as they did when he was chewing over something in his mind. Then he lifted his gaze to Bryn's.
"Ha! We state a need, and Providence gives us an answer. This," he declared, waving the letter, "is precisely what I was talking about. It's as weird a business as I've come across, and at the same time exactly what you need to set your mind back on its right course. What would you say to a day or two in the country, Bryn?"
The adventuress dropped her gaze. She was not at all certain that Bradley had the right idea. He was a doctor, and he'd been one of her tutors in the past, but that still didn't mean he had an open entree into her mind. He hadn't been there, at Rostoke Manor. He couldn't know the full truth, not without having experienced it firsthand. Bryn clenched her fists in her lap and kept her eyes lowered, afraid to meet the earnestness of Bradley's gaze.
"W-what does the letter say?" she forced out through lips that suddenly felt cold and numb.
"It's from a friend of mine, Dr. James Meade. We studied medicine together and have remained correspondents over the years. Where I chose the relative hustle and bustle of Meese, James preferred a rural practice. I've teased him in the past about the much more mundane kinds of cases he's exposed to in the country, but it seems that he's managed to get one up on me this time. Knowing of my interest in such things, he writes that one of his patients claims to have been attacked by a werewolf."
"A...werewolf?" Bryn asked curiously, raising her gaze. "I've heard of a werebat, in vampire legends. Is this supposed to be something similar?"
Curiosity was her besetting sin, some might have said. Her desire for adventure had not been thrillseeking, the joy of living on the razor's edge, but the constant demand for something new, something different to experience. It was perhaps the only emotion that could have so effectively drowned her fear.
"Only inasmuch as both are a fusion of human and animal qualities. The werebat is an undead creature, a corpse risen from the grave to feed on living blood and serve its vampire master. Lycanthropy, or werewolfism, is said to affect a living person instead. Sometimes it is spoken of as a curse, inflicting itself on a person against their will usually after being bitten by another werewolf. Other times it is a kind of black magic, where a person uses a talisman or potion to assume the werewolf state. Uniformly, the transformation beings some of the animal's characteristics--strength, speed, endurance, enhanced senses along with the bloodlust. Perhaps the best description would be to say that the werewolf is a projection of the bestial qualities we all possess without either human intellect or conscience or animal instincts to restrain them. The id given fur and claw, then let run wild."
"Can such a thing be real?"
The doctor shrugged.
"Who can say? There are legends and records of such things dating back for centuries, perhaps even millennia. You'd need to be a Dezolian priest or an Esper, I suppose, to have access to more specific data."
An Esper, Bryn thought, and with sick dread saw again the cold, dead eyes of the Esper at Rostoke Manor. A shudder passed through her.
"This Dr. Meade...he's asked for your help?"
Bradley nodded slowly.
"Yes, he has. He knows that I am well-versed in these esoteric legends and fears that the local constable would not be able to handle the problem without such knowledge."
"And he's a longtime friend of yours."
The doctor rose from his seat and came around to Bryn's side of the table so he could lay one big hand on her shoulder.
"He is a friend, Bryn, but so are you. I'll not lie and say that I do not want to assist James, for I do very much, both to help the man and out of interest in the subject matter. And it is as I said before I genuinely believe that field-work would be the surest cure for what ails you. But that decision is yours to make. If you do not feel you are ready, I shan't press you further. As for my own desires, I have already undertaken to help one friend, and it would be the worst of personal and medical ethics alike to abandon one matter for another."
Bryn was deeply moved by this speech, enough that she quickly covered her first reaction with humor.
"In other words, Charles, you wouldn't have any fun if you were to go werewolf hunting while feeling guilty over leaving me behind?"
He grinned broadly back at her, his fine white teeth against the heavy beard reminding Bryn of some predatory animal's.
"Exactly. Are you with me?"
"Yes, if...if you think I may be of use."
"In truth, I would be very glad of it. Werewolf or not, surely some dangerous beast is at large. Most likely any confrontation will be violent, and you have a facility for that I do not. I'd feel much better to have you there to cover my back."
"Then we'd better finish breakfast, so we can pack and be on our way."
* * * * *
"Charles! It's good to see you again, man, though I could have wished for friendlier circumstances."
As Dr. Bradley was adept with the long-range teleportation technique Ryuka and had visited Meade before, it was less than an hour since the receipt of the letter that found himself and Bryn on Meade's doorstep. Meade was a bit taller than Bradley, but he gave the impression of even greater height by his lean figure and long, narrow head framed by thinning gray-flecked violet hair. His dark clothing was immaculately neat and crisply pressed, a condition Bryn had found to be the exception rather the rule among bachelor gentlemen.
"And you as well, James. I hope you don't mind that I've invited Miss Morgaine to accompany me, but she has talents that may prove useful."
Meade turned his gaze to Bryn and gave her the careful, assessing look of the diagnostician. She'd dressed in a white shirt and dove-gray breeches, with boots and vest of black leather. A longknife forged from low-grade laconia hung on one hip and a case of bow-gun bolts on the other, while the bow-gun itself was slung over her back. Over it all she wore a heavy owlfeather cloak; Bryn followed the tradition of native Dezolian hunters in wearing warm garb that could be removed instantly for a fight instead of a bulky coat that would inhibit movement. The green-skinned natives knew the ways of the ice planet better than the Parmanian settlers. Her long, curled blonde hair was caught in a clasp at the back of her neck then allowed to fall free down her back to nearly waist-length. The outfit was practical, but she'd indulged her taste for flamboyance in the lace at wrists and throat, gold patterning on the vest, and the worked silver of her hair-clasp. Her only other jewelry, a plain silver ring, was out of sight under her black gloves.
"Miss Morgaine...yes, I believe Charles has mentioned your name in the past." He extended a hand to her.
"Hopefully not too harshly. And it's Bryn." She found Meade's handclasp firm but not particularly assertive.
"Bryn, then. I'm glad that you've come so soon, both of you. Mr. Renwood has been quite vocal in his claims. He's even gone so far as to call in the town constable."
"All the while claiming it's a werewolf?" Bradley asked.
"It would be foolish not to call in the constable," Bryn pointed out. "If there is a dangerous creature threatening the community, that makes it the law's business; if that creature wears a human face, even more so." Simply because it was the last thing she wanted to do, she forced herself to add, "In any case, standing here and speculating won't do any good. Let's go and see this Mr. Renwood."
Dr. Meade smiled thinly.
"You can tell she's one of your students, Charles. 'First-hand knowledge from primary sources!' was always one of your mantras."
"She's right, though. We'll hear the tale directly from Renwood's lips, after which you can fill in any pertinent medical details. You can give us the background on the man himself on the way there."
"Actually," Bryn corrected, "what I meant was that I'd hoped we could involve ourselves in the investigation as soon as possible. In my experience the agents of the law are fairly tolerant of those who are on hand before an official investigation, but have little liking if one wants to butt in after the fact. The latter case either seems like insult that the official law isn't trusted or that there's a private agenda to be acted on outside the law. Neither thought inspires confidence in the police mind."
Meade nodded several times in succession.
"Yes, yes that is a good point. Constable Easton is a good man but quite sensitive to challenges to his authority. He would not appreciate being shunted aside by foreign agents. You can leave your traveling cases here and we can settle you at the local inn later."
He must have noticed the glance of surprise that passed between Bryn and Dr. Bradley, because he rushed to explain.
"I would be glad, of course, to put you up, but I'm afraid that you'll be more comfortable at the Moon and Mirror, our local inn. I haven't even a proper guest room, you see."
"No trouble at all, James," Bradley assured him. "In our younger days I'd have taken the offer of a sitting-room couch gladly, but what with time and increasing girth"--he patted his stomach--"I've come to enjoy my creature comforts. Besides which, I was the one who brought Bryn along, and her presence creates all new issues."
"Yes, indeed. At the very least, I insist upon paying for your stay."
"James, that isn't necessary--"
"Nonsense, I'll foot the bill and that will be that. Now, if you will allow me to fetch my coat and overboots, we can be on our way."
The Renwood family, Meade told them as he led them through the village, had been well-to-do for centuries owing to a thriving estate, but their fortunes had declined in recent generations.
"The previous landholder was forced to sell off some of his acreage and herds alike in order to meet his debts and maintain the family home. Financial mismanagement and indulgence in the vice of gambling were too much for even the Renwood estate to bear."
Looking across the snow-covered ground, Bryn reflected that life on the ice planet was never easy for Parmanians. It was not their natural environment, and a single misstep could be ruinous.
"The sole scion of the family, Arthur Renwood, left the village to repair the family fortunes in trade. The estate is no longer self-sustaining; much of the best land was sold off by Renwood's father and overfarming and soil depletion have reduced the utility of what remains, making the holdings dependent upon external capital. Mr. Renwood has numerous investments in Meese and Jut, now, which permitted him to return to Naben two years ago, much to the delight of the locals."
"He's become a local benefactor, then?" Bryn asked.
"Well, he has put capital into the local economy through the refurbishment of his home and grounds, but mostly it is due to the typical village conservatism, I daresay. I've been here nearly twenty years and am still 'the foreign doctor' to many, for example. The people hereabouts like things to Stay As They Are, and that means among other things a Renwood as a kind of village squire."
The doctor led the way down a track that ran southwesterly from the village. It crested a rise, then descended again over an hour and a half's walk, so that Bryn could make out a house and outbuildings. Unlike the village homes, whose wooden construction and steeply gabled roofs mirrored native Dezolian building practices, the Renwood home was a sturdy two-story building of ruddy stone, almost cubical in shape, and capped with a gently-sloped roof pierced near the top with a row of small windows, no doubt to aid in the clearing of snow. It was clearly an older home, since the Parmanians had soon learned better building methods for Dezolis's climate, and the fact that it had stood inhabited for so long spoke of history and family pride. Looking at the Renwood home, Bryn could understand a little of why the villagers appreciated the squire's successful return to Naben.
A servant in dark green livery answered the door and showed Bryn and the two medical men into a high, paneled hall. Trophies of the hunt, once ferocious predators, glared down at the three from above their heads. Perhaps they represented Renwood pride in protecting their lands from threats, Bryn reflected. Less charitably, she supposed it could also be a display of Renwood power, pure and simple.
"Dr. Meade!" a deep voice boomed out. "Back for more of your quacking? And who have you got with you?" The broad smile on the red-haired man's face told them he meant no insult by his teasing. He rose from his chair and approached the new arrivals, leaning heavily on a laerma-wood cane. A long bandage obscured part of the left side of his face, suggesting that this was the injured squire.
Meade confirmed the impression by saying, "You shouldn't be out of bed, Mr. Renwood. That leg of yours needs rest."
Renwood laughed once, dismissively.
"I'll not lie abed while that thing is still roaming the snowfields. Besides, a few scratches have never kept me idle when there was work to be done."
Indeed, Bryn concluded, despite his injuries the squire looked the very picture of good health. Although close to her own height, he had the same broad-shouldered build as Dr. Bradley. His ruddy complexion and right eyes that sparkled with humor further emphasized the resemblance to her mentor.
"So, again," he addressed Meade once more, "who are the lady and gentleman? I can scarcely attempt to give them a proper welcome without their names."
"This is Dr. Charles Bradley, once a fellow-student with me, and his associate, Bryn Morgaine. They possess specialized knowledge which I hope will be of use in this baffling case."
"Hardly baffling, Dr. Meade; the facts are plain enough. But I'm glad to meet the both of you if you can help. I'm Arthur Renwood, as you no doubt were aware, and if you can run this fiend to bay, you'll have my thanks and that of everyone in Naben." Bryn found his grip firm and strong, in no way weakened by his injuries.
"Hardly a fiend," a dry voice echoed Renwood just as he had contradicted Meade. "That kind of thing is all well and good in a storybook, but I prefer a natural explanation, devoid of fanciful speculation. Mr. Renwood has just been telling me his story, and I think it can well be settled in the real world without ghosts or legendary monsters."
The guests had barely noticed the spare, graying figure, so firmly had the squire's personality captured their attention. Renwood, for his part, merely grunted rather than putting his thoughts into words.
"That's Easton, the local constable," Meade informed the others.
"I've been trying to get him to understand the truth, but he insists on putting all my testimony down to the shock of the moment."
Shrugging, Renwood turned back to his chair, one of several that sat before an oversized hearth in which a cold draft fought to a standstill against the leaping flames.
"Well, I'm sure Dr. Meade wants me off this leg, and I myself admit that walking on it isn't as pleasant as I'd like, so come and sit down with me and we'll see if minds from Tyler? Meese?"
"Meese," Bradley affirmed. "Bryn hails from Reshel."
"Two of the three largest Parmanian towns, then. Much better, I daresay, than village wit or half-wit," he added with a glare at Easton. "Unless Dr. Meade has already acquainted you both with the facts?"
"We thought it best to wait and hear the details from your own lips," Bryn said, taking a seat. The chairs formed a half-circle around a low table, and she picked one on the end, giving her the best vantage point to see the other faces.
"Indeed," Meade contributed, "were I to retell the tale, there is always the chance that I might omit some significant fact."
"A wise approach," said Easton. "If you do not mind, I shall remain as well. Perhaps," he admitted, though the twinkle of humor in his eyes suggested he considered it a remote possibility, "there's something in your account that I have missed."
"Undoubtedly you have," Renwood snapped, and lowered himself into the middle chair. Stay if you like, though."
Easton, Bryn noted, took the chair opposite her, presumably for the same reasons. It was unfortunate, his attitude towards Renwood's story, but at the least he wasn't openly hostile to Bradley and herself. That was a relief, especially given the squire's needling.
And after all, he wasn't necessarily wrong.
Bradley, meanwhile, was rubbing his big hands together in anticipation.
"I must admit, Mr. Renwood, that this exchange has quite whetted my appetite. I can only hope that your retelling proves as intriguing."
The red-haired squire nodded.
"I doubt you'll be disappointed."
He showed us a smile laden with irony.
"Though perhaps I'm a trifle biased in the matter."
Renwood cleared his throat, then began in earnest.
"For the past two nights, something has been setting up an accursed howling around this house. We presumed it was someone's dog, or perhaps an animal belonging to a tradesman that had gotten loose. Marianne was quite upset by the first night's noise, so when it started up again last night I decided to see what was making the racket."
"If it was a wild dog, that could have been dangerous."
Renwood patted the cane that lay across his lap.
"I'd thought of that, Miss Morgaine, and so not only did I bring along my stick but a set of throwing edges I'd become adept at in my travels. I also happen to be skilled at the Zonde technique, as I've found that sometimes the only correct argument with roughs is a solid jolt.
"In any case, I prowled around for about five minutes. The house sits in a valley, as I'm sure you observed, and everything within is open and flat, the trees having been cleared to about halfway up the slope. There was plenty of light from the moon, so I figured that I had a good chance of seeing whatever was making the noise. I was wrong, though; a cloud drifted across the moon and at once everything became so dark I could barely see more than a couple of paces. The cloud stayed in pace for a while, and when it finally cleared I could see a massive black wolf right in front of me, leaping for my throat!"
Bryn glanced at her mentor, wondering if he'd caught the same surprise about that statement as she.
"Its body struck me in the chest," Renwood continued. "The beast's weight and momentum knocked me onto my back in the snow. Still, its aim wasn't perfect. It may be that I twisted slightly as it leapt, or its efforts may simply have failed. In any case while the creature's fang ripped along my cheek it inflicted no more serious injury. More importantly, it didn't land full upon me, so I was able to roll free and start to get up. I reached for a blade, which I could use without leverage or a pause for concentration, but with cunning--"
"Or instinct," Easton interrupted dryly.
"Hardly," Renwood snorted derisively. "The wolf pulled my leg out from under me, its teeth closing in my calf muscle. I fell on my right side, my weight pinning my arm and the throwing edge beneath me in the snow. I thought that it was all up with me, but I lashed out with my stick as best I could."
The squire's face grew dark, his expression grim.
"I was by no means in a good position, and although I do possess a strong arm I landed only glancing blows with little force behind them. Still, the creature flinched away, not merely releasing its hold on my leg but turning and fleeing. I'm afraid that I'll win no prizes for what I did then, for instead of finishing the thing off, or at least trying my luck with a technique, I lay there stunned as the wolf fled into the night."
He bit nervously at his lip.
"Dr. Meade has been kindly noncommittal, and Easton thinks I was either delirious with pain or tricked by poor light, imagination, and shock, but I swear to you that this is the absolute truth: even as the creature was vanishing into the darkness, the last thing I saw was not the hind paws of a wolf, but a pair of booted human feet!"
Bryn flinched in surprise, but Renwood rushed on with his tale, not allowing anyone to interject their reactions.
"The sight seemed to galvanize me; I got up while summoning the power for a technique, but it was too late. The moon was hidden again and there was no sign of the beast, neither as wolf nor man. Using my stick for support I managed to drag myself back to the house, where I roused the servants and sent for Dr. Meade."
"I came at once, of course, and treated the worst of the injuries with the Res technique. He'd been hamstrung, and the bone cracked, so healing by technique was the only way to address the problem," Dr. Meade explained. "The remaining injuries will have to heal in time. He's lucky he didn't lose the leg."
"Why not just cure the existing wounds?" Easton wondered. "Res or monomate could take care of the surface injuries."
Bradley shook his head.
"Not without risking the leg. The most powerful healing techniques could cure all the problems at once, but if a doctor uses Res repeatedly he risks healing the wound but not the damage. It's like if you lost a hand, Constable Easton. Res would stop the bleeding and heal the stump, but it wouldn't help reattach the hand. By proceeding cautiously, James will be able to restore full function to the leg."
"Don't feel bad, Constable," Bryn chimed in. "I can never follow any of these medical explanations, myself."
"Well, given that Dr. Bradley understood it immediately, my layman's concerns are obviously misplaced."
"Very kind of you to say so, Constable," Meade noted.
"I may understand the course of treatment," Bradley continued, "but what I am not quite certain of, Mr. Renwood, is why you are convinced that we are dealing with a werewolf. Was that momentary vision of running feet the only cause?"
"Isn't that enough? Still and all, though, there's another fact that points in that direction. You recall how I mentioned that the blows that drove the thing off me were glancing and superficial? Hardly the kind of injury that would cause an enraged monster to loose its grip once it had tasted blood."
Dr. Bradley nodded, then raised his gaze to the adventuress.
"Bryn, you would know more about that than I would."
"Mr. Renwood is right," Bryn answered. "Generally a natural creature scares off relatively easily before the fight, but once it closes--especially if there's wounded prey--it's virtually impossible to get a predator to let go without killing it."
Renwood extended his wood-cane so that the firelight sparkled off the metal knob that formed its grip. The ball was crafted of the same substance as Bryn's knife, low-grade laconia. The metal had a more common name, as well.
"Silver," Bradley said. "You have some knowledge of werewolf lore, Mr. Renwood."
"I've heard many strange stories in my travels," he agreed. "Among them was the belief that silver is the one sovereign remedy against werewolves."
"So you believe that it fled either because it feared your silver weapon, or because the cane's touch caused it actual pain far in excess of that inflicted by the force of your blows."
Renwood inclined his head gravely.
"The latter, I think. If it was just fear, the best way to keep me from using the cane would be to try to keep on as the creature had." He smiled with leaden irony. "Dead men rarely make effective use of weapons."
In response the constable let out a low, groaning sigh.
"I cannot believe that sensible, educated persons could take such ludicrous ideas seriously!" Easton exclaimed. "You yourself said that you were lying stunned, Mr. Renwood, dazed from pain and shock. The mind plays tricks in such circumstances."
"I wasn't hallucinating, Easton. I saw what I saw!"
Bradley intervened before the argument could take full swing, raising one hand slightly.
"A point, if I may. The wolf is a Parmanian monster, not native to Dezolis. While I have heard of werewolves in stories and legends, I have never heard of such a thing as a natural wolf appearing on this planet."
"Neither have I," Bryn agreed. "I've fought many of Dezolis's native monsters, and I've talked with hunters and soldiers who have encountered many more. Parmanians and Dezolians alike, I might add. I'd never heard of a 'wolf ' until today, to be honest."
Renwood thumped his fist against the thigh of his uninjured leg.
"You see, Easton? Wolves do not just appear out of nowhere!"
The constable snorted, unimpressed.
"And yet you were able to recognize one at first glance?"
"I happen to be aware of what a wolf looks like, Easton. The library here includes many works on Parmanian biology, which I studied extensively in my youth."
"More likely you were right in your first assumption from before you ever left the house. There may be no wolves on Dezolis, but there certainly are dogs. A large dog, gone feral, could easily be mistaken for a wolf, particularly once you factor in the darkness, shock, and the witness's active imagination. No doubt it once belonged to some tramp or wandering trader, and fled your blows either because they reminded the beast of past harsh treatment or because it has injuries you weren't able to see."
"Blast it, Easton, I know the difference between a wolf and a dog!"
"Honestly, what is more sensible, that you made a mistake in judging the species of a large brute while it tried to tear your throat out, or that a supernatural creature is haunting Naben?" Easton snapped back in the squire's face, which was starting to match his hair for color.
Renwood drew breath for another angry retort, and it seemed likely that a full-fledged shouting match was about to break out. Bryn quickly stepped into the gap, wondering as she did if there was some ongoing grudge between the two men given the number of times a third party had had to intervene.
"Instead of arguing about it, why don't we check the animal's tracks?" she suggested. "I'm sure the books Mr. Renwood mentioned would include the significant features of wolf-tracks. There might be other evidence, too. Surely, Constable, if we were to find a line of animal tracks that suddenly become human ones, you would admit that Mr. Renwood's story would appear more credible. Likewise, if there's an unbroken line of dog-tracks fleeing the site of the battle, it would suggest the constable is probably correct in his assumptions. Wouldn't that be a more reasonable approach than arguing theories without having all the evidence?"
All three of the locals regarded her with glum half-smiles; it was Meade who put their feelings into words.
"You make sense, Bryn, and ordinarily you'd be right. The problem is that around three in the morning a heavy snow began and continued until after eight. Any tracks indeed, any sign of the attack were buried by six inches of snow."
"A bad break indeed," Bradley murmured. "When investigating the supernatural, as no doubt in the solving of crimes"--he acknowledged the constable with a nod--"and also my own profession, evidence must form the basis for one's diagnoses."
Renwood turned his furious gaze on Bryn's mentor.
"Then you're against me, too?"
Bradley raised one hand to forestall any further accusations.
"I neither said nor implied that." To Bryn's surprise, he turned to her. "Bryn, you no doubt have similar views to my own, and as one more used to drawing up plans of action in the field, you will most likely be able to better express them."
He gestured airily with his upraised hand, indicating that she should go on from there. Bryn felt more than a bit piqued by his manner despite his comment about her experience there was more than a little of the master calling on the student to recite her lesson in it but held back any waspish comments for later. Easton and Renwood had enough of a dispute going on between them without she and Bradley mixing in.
"I'll try. If it happens that I don't speak for both of us, then say so." She turned to Renwood. "It's obvious that you were attacked by something, that there's therefore a dangerous creature somewhere around Naben that needs to be tracked down before it does worse to someone else. The only evidence we have as to what attacked you is your own word. You know what you saw and are certain of it, but everyone here has, I'm sure, heard testimony before from people who were equally certain but turned out to be mistaken."
Bryn could see the squire's temper starting to build again, this time towards her, but she quickly forestalled it.
"On the other hand, your testimony is the only evidence we have so far, and it would be stupid to dismiss it out of hand just because your story is improbable. There's plenty of magic on Dezolis and the supernatural isn't always friendly. I've seen Esper magic at work, the arts of the native Dezolian priesthood, and other things too, things that can only be described as evil. If you say that there's a werewolf, then I'm going to make sure I'm ready to face one. We keep investigating, and we keep an open mind until hard evidence closes it for us."
The squire ran his hand back and forth along the length of the stick.
"Well, that's a fair way of putting it," he admitted grudgingly, "and as good a response as I'm likely to get from a pair of folks who don't know me." With the latter remark he shot a glance at Easton, no doubt to drive home the point that it was one who did know him that had judged Renwood's tale with greater bias. "I wish you and Dr. Bradley luck in catching the brute, Miss Morgaine. Until you do, though, I'll still be keeping this cane close by, and not just for support." He tapped one thick, square-ended finger against the silver knob.
"Good advice," Easton admitted, "regardless of which of us has the right of it." He rose from his seat. "Good day, Mr. Renwood."
"Good day, gentlemen, Miss Morgaine. You'll forgive me if I don't show you out."
"I would not forgive you only if you did," Meade replied with a quick humor that surprised Bryn.
Easton led the way from the paneled hall. The little foursome had just entered the main foyer when a woman called out to them from about two-thirds of the way down the large staircase.
"Oh, pardon me. I was just told that my husband had guests, and now you all are leaving. I fear you must think me a dreadful hostess."
Seeing the figure who could only be Marianne Renwood descend the steps, Bryn felt herself pulled back through time to the horrors of Rostoke Manor. This woman did not look like Laura Rostoke, for she was fair, with a pale, clear complexion and hair that shone like burnished gold in the light of the antique lamps. Her eyes were a pale green rather than cobalt blue, her figure graceful and slender rather than voluptuous, and she was in her mid-thirties as was her husband, a decade older than Laura Rostoke. Both women, though, carried about them the same aura, the same sense of overpowering allure that was more than simple beauty, an active force that one could feel, could all but taste in the air. She smiled slightly, and fine white teeth showed between the red lips.
"We have taken what information we can, madam. Our duty now is to lay hands on the thing that attacked your husband with as little delay as possible. His care and personal comfort we leave in the hands of those better suited to such tasks," Dr. Meade told her, surprising Bryn again. His gallantry, like his humor, was unexpected.
"Oh, yes, of course," she replied. "I should have realized that at once." She reached the base of the stairs and began to walk past the others towards the way they had come."
"A moment if you please, Mrs. Renwood," Bradley said before she left the room.
"Dr. Charles Bradley," Meade introduced him quickly, "and his friend Bryn Morgaine. They have come from Meese to consult on this dreadful affair."
"I see." She bit at her lip thoughtfully. "What can I do for you, Dr. Bradley?"
"I was curious if you could shed any light on these events."
Mrs. Renwood's gaze dropped to the floor.
"I am afraid that I know very little," she said apologetically. "Two nights ago, that dreadful howling gave me such a bad night that I barely slept at all. Indeed, I fear that it was because of me that my husband ventured out. If I had been braver, and not complained of my fears..."
"I wouldn't blame yourself over this, Mrs. Renwood," Easton said. "Your husband is hardly the sort of man to let a wild animal run loose on the grounds, threatening his home, without taking action. He'd surely have gone out in any case."
"Perhaps you are right, Constable. I certainly hope so. Nonetheless, I still regret that I can be of no use in catching the fiend that has done this."
"You did not hear the struggle or see anything?"
"No; I was so exhausted that Arthur advised me to take a sleeping draught before bed, to insure that I would have a night's rest. Unfortunately, this meant that I knew nothing of what occurred until this morning. Arthur had not even tried to rouse me; he said that it would have done nothing but make me suffer. By the time I awoke, Dr. Meade had already come, tended to Arthur's injuries, and gone again."
"I see," Bradley said. "Nonetheless, we are most grateful for your time, Mrs. Renwood. From past experience I know well how hard it can be to care for someone who is at risk but be unable to do anything but wait and hope."
"Your concern is a comfort, Doctor. But I must go and see to Arthur, if you will pardon me?"
She slipped from the room with the same liquid grace as she'd shown on the stairs.
"A remarkable woman," Meade said.
"Is she not," Bradley concurred.
Easton shook his head dismally. "Perhaps so, but of little use in finding the beast that attacked her husband. I questioned the servants, and they had little more to offer. The lighter sleepers among them and those whose duties kept them up late could testify to the howling, but none of them heard the fight or got a look at the dog."
"The dog? You are still firmly inclined to the natural explanation, then?"
"I am, Dr. Bradley. Ghosts and demons are outside my experience, and it will take considerably more in the way of evidence than we have thus far seen to convince me otherwise."
"You are a lucky man, Constable," Bryn told him, irony bitter in her voice.
"Eh? How's that?"
"To have ghosts and demons be outside your experience."
There was little he could say to that, so he turned instead to Bradley.
"Should I need to get in touch with you, I presume you'll be staying with Dr. Meade?"
"Actually, no; he suggested that we might find more comfort at the Moon and Mirror."
Easton tugged on his gloves.
"Probably good advice at that. Astwell keeps a good house." He sighed deeply. "No doubt I'll be seeing you again. Monster hunts are rarely simple; I doubt this will be over soon." He pulled on the rest of his outdoor gear and stalked off along the path while the servants were fetching Bryn's bow-gun and quiver. He was out of sight by the time the other three exited the house. The frosty air tasted bitter to Bryn, her imagination tainting the wind with the scent of blood. The scenery no longer looked starkly beautiful, but only desolate.
"Well, there it is," Meade said, "the whole business."
Bradley rubbed his massive hands together eagerly.
"An absolutely fascinating affair," he declared. "I must thank you, James, for asking me down. What do you think, Bryn? Supernatural, perhaps, and certainly outré."
She remembered, now, one of her mentor's more irritating habits. He would, occasionally, speak of life's events as if they were a stage play put on for his own amusement, without realizing how insensitive it sounded to others.
"I'm more concerned that the thing is going to kill someone," Bryn snapped. "I suppose it inhibits my enjoyment of the setting." She spun away from the men and took off down the path at a good clip. Tears of frustration stung at her eyes. What was she doing here? What did she think to gain by hurling herself into another devil's clutches?
Bryn had gotten some distance up the track before Bradley caught up with her. He'd had to run to gain on her smooth, quick strides, and his gasps for breath sent great steamy clouds of vapor from his mouth and nostrils. That and the rasping sound that accompanied each breath put Bryn in mind of an ill-tempered dragon. Her mentor's actual words, though, gave the lie to the likeness.
"Bryn? Bryn, wait a moment? Gah! Damn it, Bryn, I'm trying to apologize!"
"Charles," she said firmly, not even giving him the chance to begin, "I know that you love your work, that these little studies rather than medicine are your true vocation. There are those of us, though, who do not relish these problems the way you do. I was never all that keen on the magical and supernatural anyway, and after recent experiences any pleasure I got out of it is gone. I just want to get this done and get the hell out of Naben."
"You're right, of course. I have an aficionado's eagerness for this business. Even now, while I'm damned sorry for offending you, I'm still all afire for the chance to combat a werewolf in the field, to put a stamp of reality on the legend. It's hard to keep that out of my mind, but I have no excuse for not doing so. As a friend and as a doctor both it was nigh-obscene of me not to consider your feelings."
She laid a hand lightly on his arm.
"I wouldn't go that far," Bryn forgave her mentor, "but please try to..." Her voice trailed off, as she was unable to find the right words.
"Think?" Bradley suggested dryly.
"I suppose so, yes." She glanced back down the path. "I see James is remaining discreetly well back."
"Discretion was always one of his talents," Bradley said with a smile, "but in truth we are going separate ways when we get to the village anyway. I thought it best we get settled in to the inn before evening."
"A good plan. And since we have some time while we walk, why don't you put that enthusiast's knowledge of yours to good use and tell me more about what we may be up against? I gathered from the conversation that a wolf is something like a large dog?"
They started walking again, side by side ascending out of the valley.
"Quite. Apparently the dog was bred millennia ago from captured wolves. They are supposed to be pack animals, and while fearsome were not particularly vicious or aggressive unless injured or starving. Of course, these details are utterly irrelevant. There are no wolves on Dezolis, and as I suggested before, the evil of the werewolf is rooted more in our human fears and passions than that of an animal. Perhaps it was merely that the wolf was a symbol of bestial power in the mind of the man or woman who became the first werewolf or in the mind of whomever they wanted to frighten."
Bryn kicked idly at a clot of snow.
"And you can't say for sure whether a werewolf is an innocent victim of a curse, or someone who uses the power on purpose?"
He shook his head.
"No, as it varies by legend. I'm more inclined to the latter idea as a practical matter. Most other legends of black magic tend to imply an intelligent control, a malign will."
"Very true. From what I've read and seen, evil tricks or seduces you into joining it voluntarily. Of course, there are zombies, but they're dead, just physical matter that happened to once be a person. There's no mind there. The only thing close to it would be possession."
That thought hit far too close to home.
"I had not thought of it in those terms, but I suppose lycanthropy could be likened to possession," Bradley mused. "The idea is the same, that a foreign will controls the body."
"Ultimately, though, one cannot be sure. Either or both forms of lycanthropy might be real. The possibilities simply too varied to allow us to make assumptions."
"What about what Renwood was saying, about silver being the one sovereign remedy against werewolves?"
"Ah, now that is a near-universal facet of werewolf stories, the silver blade, silver arrow, or other silver weapon being the only way to permanently harm the creature."
Bryn patted the hilt of her knife.
"I'll keep that in mind."
"Actually, I suspect that it is a case of storytellers' imagination prevailing over the truth."
"I'll concede that it is likely that werewolves do have some form of magical protection, a supernatural resistance to harm. I merely doubt that only silver can harm a werewolf. After all, silver is only what we call low-grade laconia."
"Well, werewolf stories come from Parma, where laconia was much rarer than here on Dezolis. Here, true laconia weapons are extremely costly, but nonetheless can be had from certain merchants. Laconia was so rare on Parma, though, that a laconia weapon was sure to be a famous relic, with a legend of its own. Werewolves, on the other hand, are not legendary monsters."
"In the sense that they aren't the object of some Questing Hero's mission?"
"Correct. Now, imagine if you were telling a folk-tale about a werewolf and the hero had to wield, say, Elsydeon or the Axe of Odin to destroy it. It would be absurd."
"Well, from a storytelling point of view, yes."
"And it is from a storytelling point of view that these legends are handed down."
"So you think that it is laconia generally, not just silver, that is needed to harm a werewolf?"
"Laconia is, after all, the metal with the greatest affinity for magical forces. If it is necessary for a blow to disrupt some protective magic, it would be laconia that is most capable of doing it, although even the low-grade 'silver' is enough."
"Then what about other kinds of attack? Fire? Techniques, perhaps?"
"Who can say?"
Bryn thought it over.
"I've met creatures that are fire-resistant," she observed. "Likewise, most of Dezolis's natural wildlife is cold-resistant. I haven't met up with anything that is completely invulnerable to all techniques. Also, magical protections might be overcome with the mystic energy of a technique. It's worth trying if I get a shot at the thing at range, though until we know for sure I'll stick with my knife when in close." She didn't want to try a technique only to have it fail and find herself left exposed. "Are there any other weaknesses?"
"Only a Parmanian herb called 'wolfs-bane' in stories, but it doesn't grow here on Dezolis. Almost nothing from Parma could, in the endless winter."
"Too bad. Anything that could help us would be welcome."
Bryn squared her shoulders and picked up her pace.
"It won't be an easy hunt," Bradley agreed, "not if Renwood is right."
"Having to learn as we go is a bad thing."
"Then perhaps a hot drink at the inn would be indicated. Some time to stop and think would be valuable, and we will want to draw up some sort of plan."
Privately, Bryn wondered what kind of plan they could possibly develop to deal with something that was human and animal all at the same time.
* * * * *
The Moon and Mirror proved to be a typical example of the picturesque village inn. The sign hung over the door showed a crescent moon above an icefield in which the reflection was reversed, the missing gibbous moon shining instead of the horned sliver. The detail was remarkable, and the implications vaguely disquieting. The inn itself was a one-story building with the usual steep roof providing for plenty of attic space. The front door opened into a common room that no doubt doubled as the local tavern. Although there were a couple of patrons at the tables, and a man with a bushy green mustache behind the bar, the inn's registration desk was unstaffed.
"You two looking for Astwell?" the bartender called out.
"We are, if he is the innkeeper."
The bartender pulled the cork on a flask of wine.
"Yeah, that's him. He's around back, burying Rex."
"Good riddance," muttered one of the customers. No one else made any attempt to correct him. Apparently Rex had not been popular among Astwell's patrons. Probably it was a vicious brute of a dog.
Bryn glanced at Bradley, and he returned the look. If Rex had been the proverbial "terror of the village," had it also been Renwood's attacker? When they went back out it was with more questions than just the price of a room.
Astwell proved to be a broad-shouldered man in his late fifties with bristling gray side-whiskers. They found him tearing at the frozen soil with a heavy pick; he'd not only cleared the snow but managed to rip a three-foot-deep hole in the ground, a rough outline a bit larger than the burlap-wrapped form lying next to the grave.
"Mr. Astwell?" Bradley called.
The digger straightened up and leaned on the pick handle.
"Yeah; what do you want?"
"We are friends of Dr. Meade; he recommended the Moon and Mirror as the best place to stay in Naben."
Astwell shrugged and spat into the open grave.
"Right enough, unless you're a guest of Squire Renwood."
Bradley used this as an opening to turn the conversation in the direction he wanted.
"Odd that you should mention that. Dr. Meade has called us in to assist in finding Mr. Renwood's attacker. You have already heard the details, of course."
"News travels fast hereabouts. Can't say all I've heard is true, but there's something nasty in town, right enough. It tore up old Rex there"--he nodded towards the burlap-wrapped shape--"pretty dern well."
Bradley crouched down next to the remains.
"May I?" he asked, and upon receiving a nod of assent, drew back the edge of the sacking.
Bryn's gorge rose at what was revealed. The white fur was stained with frozen gouts of blood, so dark as to be nearly black. Worse than the ugly wounds on the flanks and the torn throat was a wrongness of the shape the muzzle, the body, the legs, all were ferociously distorted in a horrible way. Then observation replaced impression and Bryn realized that the dead creature had not been a dog at all.
"Snow mole," she said. "This was...a pet?"
Astwell snorted and shook his head.
"Not likely. Vicious brute barely tolerated me, let alone anyone else. I kept it chained back here to...discourage...people who might try to sneak out on their bill."
"I would think it would be a very effective deterrent," Bradley said dryly.
Bryn had fought snow moles several times in the past. They were nasty animals, their claws and teeth saber-sharp and their fur laced with needlelike quills. Some breeds could even shoot their quills at prey from a distance. This one had weighed at least a hundred and fifty pounds, she guessed.
"It must have been something savage that could kill a monster like this," Bryn commented. "No human hand made those injuries, with or without a weapon."
"A dog's bite, it looks like," Bradley said significantly. "Or, I'd suspect, a wolf's."
"Must have been one derned fierce dog, to take on a snow mole by itself," Astwell observed. There was no sign of regret at the creature's death in his voice. Then again, as he himself had said, it was hardly a pet. There were no ties of affection.
"Do you know what time last night this happened?" Bryn asked.
"Can't help you with that. I found it this morning, half-buried in the snow."
"Actually, that does help. At least we know it was before the snow finished falling. No tracks, I suppose?"
Astwell shook his head, then clambered up out of the grave.
"Enough gossip for now; let's hold off on the talk until you two have a roof over your heads for the night. Don't want to be out in the cold with whatever-it-is roaming around."
He led the way back to the inn, where Bryn and Bradley were duly registered in two adjacent rooms. Meade had had their traveling cases sent over, and these were installed in the rooms by a burly porter. From the similarity in appearance, Bryn took him to be Astwell's son.
"Now, then, will you be wanting drinks before dinner?" Astwell asked.
"A bit early, isn't it?" Bryn commented.
Astwell smiled thinly.
"Well, there's those who think so and those who don't, but as for my wife, she's set in her ways and wouldn't think of changing them. It's dinner at four, unless you're partial to leftovers."
Bradley chuckled heartily at the explanation.
"Your wife reminds me of my housekeeper. Meals are served at her whim, and if I do not care to eat at that time, well, Meese has its share of inns and eateries, does it not?"
The innkeeper's smile grew noticeably. Bryn had assumed he was a dour, hard man, but the smile changed his face drastically. A little thing, and yet he was now the convivial host, a friendly companion with whom to share a bottle.
"Women! They have their ways, and we men must learn them or come afoul, for they can't be changed. You'll find my Dina to be a fine cook, though; the food here is as good as in any fancy home and a sight more reasonable besides!"
Bryn wondered if that might be a kind of backhanded insult at the squire, a thought which kept her from responding as she might otherwise have had to the slur on her sex. Whatever Astwell's views of the Renwoods, though, he was no liar concerning his wife's culinary talents. The hike to and from the Renwood house and the fact that they'd missed luncheon had stoked Bryn's hunger, and she more than did justice to the roast fowl, fresh-baked bread, crisp shoots from one of the evergreen shrubs in the inn garden, and even an appetizer of deviled Dezolis Penguin egg. The wine was indifferent, which came as no surprise, but Astwell managed to unearth from his cellar a dusty bottle of fine brandy in Parmanian Royal fashion to accompany their after-dinner cheese and coffee. Bradley ate with equal gusto, and as if by mental agreement the two friends put aside all talk of werewolves, black magic, and bloody death so that the dinner formed for Bryn a bright spot against the grim events that had otherwise surrounded her since their arrival.
The mood could not last, though, and as Bradley leaned back, savoring the pleasure of a cigar rolled of Dezolian tabak, he broke the temporary moratorium on the grisly topic.
"I wonder whether Constable Easton knows about our host's guard-beast?"
"It wouldn't affect his theory. It does little more than confirm what we already know, that some fierce animal is prowling the vicinity. His wild dog could be responsible."
Bradley shook his head.
"I think not."
He took a deep puff from his cigar.
"Consider: Easton suspects an ordinary dog--large, perhaps gone feral, but ordinary. It roams the area near the isolated Renwood estate, attacks a lone victim, and so on."
The tip of his cigar glowed a bright orange. It seemed to beckon to Bryn's eye as he punctuated his speech with hand gestures.
"I don't see the significance, Charles," she said, somewhat testily. He grinned back at her, showing his teeth. Sometimes he had the irritating habit, she remembered, of dragging out the explanation of his theories. It played to his considerable ego, the priest or prophet offering revelation to his followers.
"With your experience, I'm surprised that you haven't reached the same conclusion as I have. Consider our surroundings, Bryn. We are here at the village rest-house."
"Which," she pointed out, "is situated at the edge of Naben, backing onto the woods. I noticed that the road out to the Renwood estate skirts the trees, but it is actually more direct to go through the forest and down the slope to get from here to there without having to go through town as you would to follow the path. And if," she continued, playing devil's advocate mostly on account of Bradley's smug self-assurance, "the attack here happened first, the wounds Rex inflicted might explain why Renwood's glancing blows hurt it enough to drive it away."
Bradley's smile grew even broader at hearing her suggestions.
"That isn't bad," he admitted. "But" he held up one finger "it ignores one key point. This inn, while on the outer edge, is nonetheless part of Naben proper. Now, the behavior of wild animals is not governed by iron-bound laws, but I submit that it is highly unusual for one to approach a large settlement, full of lights and noise, unless driven mad by starvation."
"And we know that wasn't what drove it," Bryn sighed. "It killed the mole, but having done so it didn't eat. And there's the question of why it howled at Renwood's home but not outside here."
Bradley tapped the ash from the end of his cigar.
"There might be something about the inn that made it necessary for the creature to come here. Or," he added, "to leave from here."
"Did you observe the man who ate in the private parlor?" Bradley inquired.
Bryn did recall the man; she'd seen him cross the common room to the parlor and later return. He'd been tall and lean, with midnight-blue hair and trim mustache, wearing a dark gray outfit piped with the same shade as his hair.
"It would be an interesting question, I think, to learn the respective positions of Rex's chain and the window of Mr. Ernst Reinhardt's room."
Bryn frowned. The chain of reasoning seemed more than a bit tenuous, and Bradley's fastening upon Reinhardt as a suspect seemed to have sprung from nowhere.
"Why him?" she asked bluntly. "By the way, how did you come to learn the man's name?"
"I saw it when I signed us in at the register, which was when I formed my first suspicions of him. He gave his residence as Tyler, and first arrived in Naben two days ago. When a drastic change occurs in an otherwise set environment, it is almost invariably the new element that is responsible, either as an active participant or as a catalyst."
"The howling was first heard at Renwood's the night after Reinhardt's arrival."
Bradley gave his companion a smile of approbation.
"Just so. Remember, also, that Tyler was among the places where Renwood visited in his travels. So, we have a foreign gentleman whose arrival corresponds in time with one of the strange events, in location with another, and about whom we can at least speculate a connection to the only human victim's past."
"I'm surprised this hasn't occurred yet to Easton. As a local man he'd certainly be aware of a stranger's presence."
"Undoubtedly, Bryn, the good constable does not care. He thinks strictly in terms of natural explanations. What connection can there be between Reinhardt's presence and an animal attack upon Renwood? Certainly, our host would be aware if Reinhardt was accompanied by a dog fierce enough to kill that savage brute of a snow mole!"
He drummed his fingers on the table. There was no need for him to repeat the word "werewolf"; it was fixed securely in both their minds. Bryn felt her hackles rise as she contemplated spending the night in the same inn as such a creature.
"Charles," she protested, more as a way to stave off the fear than out of any real disbelief, "this is all guesswork. There's no proof of any of it."
"Or to the contrary," he pointed out. "I think that unless conflicting evidence does arise, we would be well served by keeping a close watch on Mr. Ernst Reinhardt."
* * * * *
Bryn had little hope for a good night's sleep after the day's scenes of blood and violence, but her mind surprised her. Not only did she give way to sleep quickly once tucked into bed, but her rest was for the first time in weeks free of the dreams that had plagued her since Rostoke Manor. Perhaps, she thought later, there was something to Bradley's theory after all.
The respite was only temporary, though. Not long after she'd gone to sleep, she was jolted awake by the howling of an animal, not far off but close by. Perhaps it was the raw, elemental power of the thing's cry, or instead the reflexes of the trained fighter reacting to a threat, but she snapped fully alert without any of the usual transition between sleep and wakefulness.
Bryn went to the window at once; she'd slept in her shirt and pants in the expectation that Bradley would wake her; they were supposed to be taking turns keeping an eye on Reinhardt's room. As she looked out, she was only distantly aware of the knife in her hand.
There was decent illumination from the quarter moon reflected off the snow, and by its light Bryn saw what looked like a large dog pacing back and forth not twenty yards from the building. Every so often it stopped, raised its muzzle to the sky, and let out a bloodcurdling howl.
Bryn sheathed her knife and readied her bow gun, considering the feasibility of a shot. The problem was, she couldn't be certain the thing was the beast they were seeking. The damned brute might be somebody's pet with the bad luck to be out. A furious pounding on the door cut short her thoughts.
"Bryn, make haste! This is our chance!" Bradley called.
She stepped into her boots and threw open the door. Bryn followed her mentor into the common room only to be surprised by the slender figure of Constable Easton standing next to Astwell. Both men were armed, and not with the truncheons normally associated with police agents and taverners. Easton had a sword strapped to his belt, while Astwell's powerful hands were curled around the haft of a weighty broadaxe.
"Well, now," the constable greeted them wryly, "it seems as if I had the right idea in paying a late-night call. When I heard about Mr. Astwell's Rex, I decided to stay for a few more hours and see if the thing that killed it came back. You're just in time to join us, and I freely admit I'd be glad of the extra hands."
"Gladly, but let's be after it before it takes to its heels!" Bradley cried, all afire to begin the pursuit. He was the first one through the door, leading the charge into the night and around to the back of the inn. They found the beast waiting for them, its red tongue lolling between sharp, bright teeth and a feral gleam in its eye. It tossed its head in a mocking gesture, and even as Bryn raised her bow gun to her shoulder it turned and bounded away from the village. She snapped off a quick shot, but the animal was zigzagging and the bolt went wide of its mark. Next to her, Bradley loosed a Zan technique, but the swirl of wind he conjured up also missed, causing a shower of snow to burst up from the ground.
"Don't let it escape!" Easton cried, and the chase was on, the four people racing after the animal, hoping it would not simply run off into the night with its superior speed and ability to cross the fresh-fallen snow. Bryn didn't think it was an entirely vain hope, as thus far the creature had not behaved like any normal animal. She fumbled to reload as it ran for the cover of the treeline and darted into the evergreen woods.
Unlike in the open ground, where the snow reflecting the moonlight made it easy to see the beast even when far off, among the trunks and beneath the shading branches there was cover for the quarry and patches of darkness to vanish into. The brute flickered in and out of sight, sometimes disappearing only to emerge again, snarl a challenge at its pursuers, and lure them onwards.
It was after a few minutes of this, stumbling through the undergrowth and trying to draw a bead on the animal that Bryn began to get the sinking feeling that the word "lure" was not a metaphor but the literal truth. With its superior agility and senses, the creature could easily have escaped but had instead remained just close enough to maintain contact and draw them on. Four pursuers of differing ages and condition had chased into the woods after it, and they had naturally become strung out, separated from one another. In open ground this would be little trouble because they could see one another, but in the woods they were completely isolated.
Bryn stopped her pursuit at once when she realized what was occurring. Fear, cold and ominous, fluttered in her belly as she spun left and right, trying to locate the creature or her fellow hunters. Was it possible this was all part of a plan, that they had been challenged, baited into a trap?
"Charles!" she called out. "Easton! Astwell!"
She'd hoped for an answering shout from the others. What came instead was a hideous scream that rang out from somewhere behind Bryn and off to the north.
Heedless of the danger, she turned and charged in that direction at once. Bryn crashed through branches and undergrowth, limbs clawing at her cloak, until she could see the outline of the beast crouched over the fallen body of a man. With a shake of its head it worried at its victim's throat. Sensing, somehow, Bryn's approach probably hearing branches crack and rustle at her passage it raised its bloody muzzle and snarled. The sound grated across her nerves, seeming to distill bestial fury and vicious cruelty all into one, and she fired her bow gun. This time the arrow struck home, its bladed tip sinking into the meat of the creature's shoulder. Lacking the time to reload, Bryn dropped the bow gun and drew her knife, ready for close combat.
The monster, though, had other ideas. It gave another harsh growl, then turned and sprang away into the darkness. In moments it had vanished from sight. Bryn did not sheath her knife, though, but kept it in hand in case the creature had not fled but intended only to circle around to strike from another angle. She approached the fallen victim and crouched to see what help she could give, though she feared it would be too late for anything short of a miracle. Blood stained the snow, from the body and hopefully from the creature's wound as well.
Dr Bradley's eyes stared up at her, wide open but sightless in death. His face was frozen, not so much in terror as in shock; the beast's attack had been sudden and his reactions not quick enough to use either a technique or the thin silver knife that lay by the open fingers of his right hand. The slender weapon was stiletto-shaped, but from its design Bryn suspected that it was a paper-knife, not a combat tool. He'd gone out chasing a werewolf armed with a desk accessory.
His throat was a bloody ruin.
* * * * *
It was a somber group that returned to the inn, bearing the doctor's corpse on a rough sledge lashed together of pine branches. They'd been stupid, hotheaded fools to go chasing off like they had. Only Bradley had paid for it, leaving the others to regret their mistakes and cope with the thought that if one, even one of them had showed the voice of reason, they might have saved Bradley's life.
Of one thing Bryn was certain: it was no natural creature they were up against. It had showed cunning, a deliberate plan to draw out its enemies, isolate them, and strike only when all the advantage was its. She could see how the squire, knowing werewolf tales, had assumed that it was a lycanthrope they were up against. She wasn't yet willing to say that, but it was not so much a question of belief as one of labeling.
Her thoughts at once turned to Ernst Reinhardt, a man she hadn't yet spoken to and who might well play a central role in the tragedy. It was Bradley who'd been supposed to take the evening's first watch, to make sure nothing left from Reinhardt's window. Dead, he could not report his findings. They were denied even that one last clue.
It was so bitterly ironic that it had been Bradley who'd been so eager for Bryn to come here that she wanted to weep. Get out into the field again! Confront supernatural evil on its own terms! She'd done what he asked, and look what it had gotten him.
And yet in a way he'd been right. Fear was not gone, not with a murdering creature prowling the night, but it was the fear of death, of the very real threat that lurked in Naben. The soul-killing horror, the despair that such evil could possibly exist in the world, had been wiped away in the red tide of grief and anger. Bryn did not want to hide from what she feared, but find it and destroy it, take vengeance for her friend and mentor. The emotion galvanized rather than paralyzed.
The relief she felt at once again seeing the lights of the inn was shared by her companions; the emotion was written plain on their faces.
"We can put Dr. Bradley's body in the woodshed for now," Astwell suggested. "The cold will keep it until the undertaker can come for it tomorrow."
When that grim business was taken care of, they found upon the return to the inn that most of the staff was up and waiting for them no surprise, since they were largely Astwell's family and no doubt concerned for him. The white, haggard faces and bloodstained clothing of the three drew gasps of shock and alarm; the girl who'd been Bryn and Bradley's waitress at dinner gave a little squeal of horror. By far the loudest exclamation, though, came from Ernst Reinhardt.
"By all that's holy! What has happened?"
Even raised in surprise, Reinhardt's voice was still low-pitched and husky. He wore the same gray outfit as he had during dinner, but it was evident that he had dressed hastily: his hair was tousled as with sleep and his tunic's high collar was undone.
"The dogs are fierce hereabouts," Easton replied bitterly.
"Or the wolf," Bryn added in a quiet voice. "My friend, Dr. Bradley, is dead. Killed."
The color drained from Reinhardt's face and he took a half-step back, as if he'd been struck a physical blow. Was he just easily upset by temperament, or was there some other reason for his reaction?
"Please, you must allow me to buy you a drink, which I am sure you will need after your harrowing experiences," Reinhardt offered. His accent was strong, bearing out that he was indeed from Tyler, or at least was an excellent mimic.
"I won't say no to that," Astwell grunted. No doubt he'd have offered Bryn and the constable something anyway, but the opportunity to have someone else pay for it was not to be overlooked.
Bryn wondered if either of her companions shared Bradley's suspicions of the outsider. She and Easton joined Reinhardt at a table while the innkeeper shooed his family and staff back to bed, then fetched a bottle of whiskey and four glasses from behind the bar. Ordinarily Bryn wasn't fond of the raw spirit, but she accepted the glass without comment. It was Reinhardt who first broke the silence.
"The dogs, you said?" he began. "It was a dog that was making that awful howling?"
Easton nodded, and Reinhardt turned to Bryn.
"But you mentioned something else a...wolf? I did not know there was such a creature."
"There isn't!" Easton snapped. "It was a large dog, undoubtedly of mixed blood. That, or..."
He raised his glass to his lips and drained it in one convulsive movement.
"Or perhaps Renwood was right," Bryn supplied.
"You're saying you believe in werewolves, Miss Morgaine?" Astwell said. For a moment she wondered how he knew what the squire's theory was, until she realized how swiftly gossip spread in a small village. The word "werewolf" was probably on everyone's lips by now. When the news of Bradley's death spread...
"If you had asked me last night, I would have said no. Now..." She shuddered as the image of the creature hunched over Bradley's torn body flashed through her mind. "Now, I don't know. It wasn't natural, how it led us on. I just wish I knew where its cunning left off and our own folly began."
Perhaps it was easier, she thought, to believe in werewolves and therefore that it had been an intellect of human level that had cleverly deceived them, than to admit that their own stupidity had led to a man's death in the jaws of an ordinary animal.
Reinhardt, meanwhile, was looking oddly at the others.
"This Mr. Renwood, he actually believes that there is a werewolf here in Naben? He has said this openly?"
"He positively insists upon it," Easton said dryly.
Reinhardt stroked a finger along his jawline thoughtfully.
"How intriguing. In my home town, of course, there are many tales of monsters and evil witchcraft. We are close by to Ryuon, and so share our fears with the native Dezolians and they theirs with us. And life on this frozen world threatens to make beasts of us all, eh?"
If Reinhardt was the werewolf, he had a remarkable nerve, to be coolly discussing the legends with the survivors of his latest attack. That or a deliberate cruelty that relished drinking in their fears.
"Legend or not," Easton stated, "there's a murderous beast out there, and we're going to have to arrange a proper hunt for it--no more half-mad chases into the night, but a well-planned business. The creature must be tracked down."
"In that case, Constable, allow me to volunteer my services on your behalf. I've hunted often in my native forests, and am an expert shot. Besides," he added, spreading his hands in a kind of half-shrug, "I would not feel right to continue my travels and leave while the people of Naben are in such danger."
"A most generous offer," Bryn said. She was unable to keep a certain irony out of her tone, and Reinhardt favored her with a faint smile which might or might not have had deeper meaning.
"We all must do what we can."
Then, he rose smoothly from the table. His movement was agile, and gave the impression of strength.
"I do hope you will pardon me, but the hour is late and I must be returning to bed. I thank you for confiding in me."
"Of course, Mr. Reinhardt," Easton replied, probably to the first statement rather than the second. "Good night."
The traveler extended his hand to the other in parting. Bryn was the last to shake it and noticed that her impression of his physical strength was correct, his grip was firm and unyielding without apparent effort. When she returned the pressure, though, he winced slightly.
"Oh, I'm sorry," Bryn said at once. "Are you injured, Mr. Reinhardt?"
He shook his head quickly.
"No injury. A childhood mishap, is all. I broke my wrist in an accident and it never quite healed properly, you see." He smiled, showing fine, sharp white teeth, "Although my grip can be lacking because of it, I have gained a reliable indicator of coming bad weather in trade, so that perhaps I have come out evenly in the end."
When Bryn returned to sleep, she found that the earlier relief of dreamlessness had deserted her. Instead she found herself plagued by the image of the wolf limping away across a snowy field as she fired one fruitless shot after another in its direction.
* * * * *
The next day, Bryn paid a morning call on Arthur Renwood and once again found the local constable there before her. Easton was just finishing up the story of the previous night's events when she was shown into the gloomy, dark-paneled hall, and on the squire's face were the mingled emotions of concern and a grim satisfaction at having his own fears vindicated.
"Ah, Miss Morgaine. Easton was just telling me of Dr. Bradley's death. It's a damned shame; not many men impress me on first meeting, but he was one of the exceptions." Like the squire himself, his condolences were blunt and direct, genuine feeling shorn of artifice.
"Thank you; he will be missed."
With a sudden stab of guilt Bryn realized that no one had yet informed Dr. Meade, unless he had been called in for an autopsy or other post-mortem services. He'd known Bradley for longer than she had; they'd been good friends. He shouldn't have to hear of the death third-hand, or worse yet by having to perform some official function over the body. She resolved that Meade's would be her next stop, so that she could tell him the complete story.
The squire stroked his cane's silver handle as Bryn sat down. He watched her closely, gauging her reaction to her recent experiences, she supposed.
"So. Easton here"--he waved one big hand towards the constable--"seems to be coming around to my way of thinking."
"I wouldn't go so far as to say that, precisely," the constable replied at once, "but I did point out what we discovered last night, that the animal possesses more than just bestial cunning."
"Yes, there's definite intelligence there."
"So, then, what could explain that other than the supernatural?" Renwood demanded.
Easton leaned back in his seat.
"I can think of one theory that fits the facts. A werewolf is supposed to be both man and animal, correct? And it is certainly both man and animal that we are confronted with. But what if we face them separately, in different bodies?"
At first Bryn didn't understand what he was saying, but she quickly caught on.
"You mean, a man or woman with a trained animal?"
"That's it exactly. The animal is just an animal, but is under the command of its master. It performs specific 'tricks,' including attacking, in response to signals. Since no one has heard anything, the signal would be a supersonic whistle or something similar that is beyond the range of our senses."
"A trained wolf as murder weapon?"
"A trained dog, likely a mongrel, owlhound crossed with something," Easton corrected.
It was at least possible, Bryn judged. The Dezolian Owlhound had been bred for the specific purpose of assisting hunters to fight monsters, skytiaras, mistralgecs...snow moles. It would have been capable of the attacks. The creature from the night before had not matched an owlhound in appearance, hence Easton's suggestion of a cross. Still, the beast had been larger than any dog Bryn had even encountered, and she didn't know of a breed larger than an owlhound.
"That would be some damned precise training," Renwood pointed out. He certainly wasn't going to give up his pet theory without a fight.
"Ultimately, it doesn't matter," Bryn said. "Well, that isn't exactly true, but the most important thing doesn't change. There's human intelligence at work here, implying human motive regardless of the ferocity of the actual attacks. That means the methods we'd use for hunting down a marauding monster won't work."
Easton nodded solemnly, a grim expression on his long face.
"That is certainly correct. This house was not my first stop this morning. There's been no snow to hide the signs of last night's incident, so I went to check and see if I could find tracks, perhaps trace the beast to a fixed lair if it has one."
He paused as if waiting to be prompted, and the squire obliged.
"You found something odd?"
"I found nothing at all."
"That can't be," Bryn protested. "Dog or werewolf, the beast had to leave tracks." She could remember the spray of snow in the moonlight, kicked up by its paws as it ran. "It isn't an incorporeal monster, a ghost or haunt, to pass over fresh snow without trace."
"Nonetheless, it is exactly what I discovered--or at least, what I was meant to discover."
Renwood leaned forward in his seat.
"You do have a clue, then."
"I found, in two places, indications that someone had deliberately concealed tracks. There is only one explanation that fits the facts. After Dr. Bradley's death, some person, using tools, deliberately obliterated vital evidence. So you see, werewolf or not, it is undeniable that human intelligence is involved. We must consider this as a criminal investigation, at least from that perspective."
"Quite so," Renwood agreed.
"It tells us something else as well," Bryn said.
"If this is a werewolf, it isn't an innocent victim that unknowingly commits murder under the influence of a magical curse. The human knows what the beast is doing, and is willing to do whatever is needed to aid it."
Easton smiled thinly, but with traces of self-satisfaction in the expression.
"As I said, a human intelligence, not merely a beast's."
"That doesn't rule out the supernatural, though," Bryn told him firmly, "be it a werewolf or some other kind of unholy thing that can take an animal's shape. Evil is not limited to insane, killing rages. I wish it were, for that would make it much easier to deal with, but it is not. There is motive and purpose in what it does, not always an easily defined purpose by our standards, but nonetheless it is there. Indeed, it has to be. I'm no priest, but I'd say that you can't have 'evil' without will, without the need to harm."
Both men looked at her with almost frightened expressions. Perhaps because her initial disapproval had not been directed at him, it was Renwood who spoke first.
"You sound like one speaking from experience, Miss Morgaine."
She did not respond at once, and the logs snapping and popping in the fireplace made the silence deeper somehow instead of breaking it.
"I am. I've seen evil at work, before. Literal evil, not the evil of people like you or I who have gone wrong, or of insanity, but the real thing. The evil that doesn't spring from our own flaws, but from outside us, bearing chaos and horror. It's the reason Charles--Dr. Bradley--asked me along, not just because I'm experienced at hunting monsters but because I've fought and defeated such creatures before." She fixed the constable with her gaze, and to his credit he did not flinch away.
"Constable Easton, you keep trying to deny that supernatural or magical forces are at work here. There's nothing wrong with healthy skepticism, but all the evidence points towards the unnatural and none towards something more mundane. You are the voice of lawful authority here in Naben, and you need to start facing facts, or more people are going to be killed."
Now, he flinched away from her intensity, but did not deny what she said.
"A trap," Renwood declared firmly. "That's what we need. We can't hunt a werewolf like an ordinary monster. It can't be driven by beaters or run to bay with hounds. What's called for is some lure to bring it onto the killing ground."
"To make it come to us," Bryn echoed.
"Right. After all, we can't hunt what isn't there. We know only the wolf, and that vanishes when the creature wishes it to, totally out of our reach. Or for the constable's theory, and I'll allow it could be true for purposes of argument, we have the same objection. We don't know the thing's human face. It could be anyone."
It was the perfect opening to introduce Bradley's theory about Reinhardt to the two men, and Bryn used the opportunity at once. There was a great deal of guesswork in it and little hard evidence, but Easton and Renwood both listened attentively. One of the theory's significant points was that it established a possible connection between the inn and Renwood's home, the two locations where the creature had appeared.
"I can't deny it," the squire stated. "I admit that there have been losers in my business dealings. That's the nature of commerce. I made a great deal of money, repairing the family fortune, which means that someone had to lose some. I don't recall an Ernst Reinhardt, but that isn't conclusive. He might be using a false name, or he could be a third party--a fiancé of a business rival, or someone who had been dealing with one of those I'd done business with."
"Miss Morgaine," Easton said, unable to keep the incredulity from his voice, "are you saying that you believe a man has come to take revenge on Mr. Renwood for real or imagined wrongs, and that this man just happens to be a werewolf?"
When stated like that, she admitted to herself, it did sound silly. That wasn't the only way to think about Bradley's idea, though.
"I'm merely stating a theory," she said. "Still, if a werewolf has the intelligence to deliberately lure hunters into chasing it so it can turn the tables and attack once we were separated in the woods, then I'd think it more reasonable rather than less that it had a motive for its original appearance and attack on our host."
Easton rubbed his chin, thinking it over, and nodded.
"There's good sense in that. And Dr. Bradley had a good point that the coincidence of Reinhardt's arrival seems too convenient to just ignore. And there has to be a motive, as we were just ourselves saying, so why not revenge?"
"It would make more sense if the order of conditions was reversed, too," Renwood suggested. He seemed to be giving Bradley's theory a good deal of thought. "Let's say this Reinhardt did want revenge against me. Perhaps that led him into becoming a werewolf, so he'd have power to oppose me. Not coincidence, but cause and effect."
"It's certainly no coincidence that this house was the first place targeted," Bryn said. "I think we can at least be sure of that much."
Easton snapped his fingers.
"In that case, I think I have an idea for a trap that may work. I think the murderer will try again for Mr. Renwood tonight."
"Why right away, now that it knows it's being hunted?" Bryn wanted to know.
"Judging by last night's efforts," the constable told her with grim irony, "I am sure that the creature thinks we are fools, running about chasing the wind."
Bryn could feel her jaw clench with sudden resentment, but she said nothing because Easton was right. Besides that, he'd had the honesty to include himself in that assessment.
"Now, it has the advantage, but time is not on its side," Easton continued. "Eventually, we're going to learn from our mistakes and from any clues it leaves until we pose an actual danger. The first failed attack on Mr. Renwood, after all, began my investigation and brought you and Dr. Bradley down to assist. If I were in the killer's shoes, I would want to take care of business and move on as soon as I could. I say we station a party of armed guards here and as Mr. Renwood put it, let it bring itself onto the killing ground."
"I presume you'll allow me to be one of the party?" Bryn asked.
"You mean, despite your lack of official standing?" Easton said with some incredulity. He had good reason, Bryn realized belatedly, as her question had been foolish. "We are hardly, say, Jut or Zosa, with a formal police-force. I am the only official authority, and in time of need I draft such help as is required. I'd had no thought of leaving you out. Besides, I'll have to be discreet in selecting my guards, as a stray bit of gossip could put our man on his guard. I can trust you there, as well as with weapons."
"Some of this house's servants, if any have the correct skills," Bryn suggested. "You would know, of course, Mr. Renwood."
"Quite. There are two or three who would suit," the squire agreed.
"And I know others who can be trusted to keep quiet and who can be contacted without raising eyebrows. Dr. Meade, for one. It's too bad that I can't call in Astwell. He'd be a good man at our backs, and he has more than one score to settle with this thing, but his absence from the Moon and Mirror would raise too many questions. Especially if Reinhardt really is the man."
Renwood slapped his thigh with a sharp crack.
"It's settled, then! I'll see you both back here tonight."
It was a dismissal, and Bryn and Easton both took their leave. Once outside, he stopped her from heading off at once with a light touch on her arm.
"What is it?"
Their breath rose in soft clouds from their lips in the frosty air.
"About what you said inside--"
"I just wanted to say that I agree with you."
She looked at him suspiciously. Of the qualities she'd seen in Easton during their few meetings, self-assurance was one of those which stood out the most.
"I won't apologize," Easton continued. "Not that they come easy to me in any case, but I am a police officer, trained to look for criminals. Monstrous animals and tech-users are one thing, but supernatural evil is outside my experience and my purview. Still, I have an obligation to look at the facts without preconceived notions. What you told me needed to be said."
He'd stated that he wouldn't apologize, but in truth he'd just made a handsome one and Bryn recognized it as such. She'd been around many men of his stamp in her life and had found, almost exclusively, that they disliked reducing their feelings to words. It was an area where she differed from most of her peers--perhaps being female had something to do with it--but she also knew well how to listen between the lines.
"If you'll forgive me for saying so, Miss Morgaine, you do look all in," he went on. "We may have a late night tonight, and we need to be at our sharpest. Once I've finished making the arrangements, I intend to catch a few hours' sleep, and I'd advise you to do the same."
He had a point. She'd had a bad night, even from a purely mathematical perspective of hours of sleep, and that did not include the emotional strain of Bradley's death, or indeed of her own condition prior to her arrival in Naben. Bryn was physically tired but mentally exhausted.
"Rest can be more useful than any weapon," she agreed. "I believe that I will take your advice."
* * * * *
Bryn returned to the Moon and Mirror and was pleasantly surprised to find that the lunch hour had already arrived--apparently Mrs. Astwell liked all her meals early, not just dinner. She took a light meal in the common room, and was glad to note Reinhardt's absence; with her growing suspicions she would scarcely find him pleasant company. Each passing hour seemed to give Bradley's suppositions more weight in her mind. She found herself all but convinced of Reinhardt's guilt, that he'd killed the mole because even wolven agility had not been able to evade it two nights in a row, coming and going. In an extended conversation she might give away something of her feelings, and Bryn had had enough of mistakes and regrets already in this affair.
Surprisingly, her sleep was easy and undisturbed by dreams. Perhaps the fact that she and the others had set forth on a course of real, positive action had done it, but for whatever reason Bryn's subconscious mind chose not to disturb her with further visions. She awoke refreshed and with a firm, even eager determination to finish the business for good.
Once outside the inn, Bryn saw that the sun had nearly reached the horizon; by the time she completed the walk to Renwood's house it would be dark. The idea of meeting up with the creature while alone on the road was not an attractive one, and so the lean figure of James Meade was an especially pleasant sight.
"Ah, Bryn," he greeted her cheerfully. "I was on my way to fetch you. Easton mentioned how drained you looked, and thought you might sleep later than you intended."
"That's a rare event for me," she told him. "My body always seems to have a good sense of when I need to wake. Thanks anyway, though."
"I had a good idea of how you'd feel if you couldn't play your part tonight." Of course that was so; Bradley had been his good friend, too.
Though Meade had not been one of those who allowed him to be killed, as Bryn had.
"Well, we'd best be on our way if we don't intend to be late. Are you armed?"
He drew from his pocket a keen-edged scalpel whose blade shone silver.
"I fancy this will do for any werewolf that gets to close range. Techniques will be my primary weapon, of course. I'm in much better practice with them."
"That's good. Ranged attacks are a hunter's best friend when fighting something that uses teeth and claws. And if it is supernatural, techniques should work as well as silver."
"The majority of legends suggest so."
"I only hope that tonight I get to use either one."
The walk took them through the red-gold of sunset and the deep blue of twilight into the first minutes of true night, lit only by the ghostly radiance of the waning moon. The lamps glowing from behind Renwood's windows were a cheerful sight for them, and they hurried to the door.
For the third time in two days, Bryn found herself in the paneled hall, where Renwood, Easton, and three other men waited for she and Meade. The hunters gathered beneath the heads of skytiara, mistralgec, and gerotlux; Bryn wondered if these symbols of past successes in the hunt were a good omen, or if the dead eyes of the beasts held a glint of mockery at the sight of humans who had finally found their match in an even more rapacious predator.
Easton made the introductions. Two of the three new faces proved to be servants of the squire, his bailiff and a footman. Both, Renwood attested, were familiar with weapons and possessed an iron nerve. The third man was a villager, a hunter who was known to be an expert shot. He, too, possessed his own weapons, while Renwood made available his sporting collection for the use of his retainers.
The constable then laid out a rough plan of the grounds. The positions the six guards would take were chosen so that the beast could not approach any side of the house without coming into the field of view of an alert guard, and also so that each one was within sight of at least two others.
"That last is extremely important," Easton declared. "I don't want that thing to have any more opportunities to bring down a lone man."
Everyone understood that admonition, none more so than Bryn.
Easton then turned to the squire and said, "I knew that you'd like to be out there with a weapon in hand, too, but..."
Renwood smiled harshly.
"It's bad practice for the bait to be part of the trap," he stated. "Like we agreed, I'll be in the parlor, apparently reading. If our werewolf gets close enough it should be able to see me through the windows." He chuckled wryly and added, "Damned stupid, a bow window in this climate, just a waste of heat. The architect must not have noticed we're not on Parma anymore. Still, for tonight it should serve a purpose after all, and make me a juicy enough target to bring the creature into point-blank range."
"One last point," Easton noted. "This thing has been known to try and decoy its enemies away. Act only on what you see, and as a group. We'll pursue only if we actually spot it, and make certain to stay together."
He looked again at Renwood.
"As for me," the squire said, "Marianne is safe behind locked doors, as are the servants who have not joined us tonight. For my own defense I not only have my cane, but I'll be keeping this by my side." He showed a powerful bow-gun, larger than Bryn's. "Should our werewolf choose to pay me another courtesy call, I believe it will find my hospitality lacking."
* * * * *
Fate was not with the watchers in one respect, for not only was the moon one day dimmer in illuminating the valley, but the night was unseasonably warm, bringing with it a cold mist that lay across the land and reduced visibility even further. In another way, though, the obscuring mist helped, for it afforded the guards all the more cover than was offered by the shadowy bulk of the house. The creature certainly had better night-vision than the humans did, and it would not do for it to see--or scent--them and flee.
Not that Bryn thought it would.
In the stillness of waiting, Bryn's mind kept wandering off in a myriad of directions. She wondered if the beast had the same sharp senses as an animal, and was glad there was no wind to carry the watches' scent away from the house. She went over various plans of attack, sometimes wanting to use her bow-gun, other times thinking that techniques would be better, and yet again sometimes she thought she should rely upon the silver blade of her knife. Above all, she stared off into the misty blackness, her eyes straining for some sight of the creature she was sure would come.
Was it true, she thought, that a monster such as a werewolf could really exist? She remembered Ernst Reinhardt flinching as they shook hands, remembered too the way her arrow had struck the beast solidly. The skin-shifters were supposed to be able to heal such injuries quickly, she gathered. Certainly the wound had in no way greatly inhibited its speed in retreat. Perhaps after all techniques would be a better choice.
Bryn had been on guard for perhaps three hours, glad indeed for the warmth of her cloak, when she heard the howl again. The sound sliced through her with razor sharpness, and her grip tightened on her bow-gun as she awaited the sight or the signal that would follow. It was not long in coming, a shout of alarm followed by another howl.
It was Meade who had sounded the alert, they found.
"A clean miss, I'm afraid; I tried to use my Gelun technique to slow it down but the brute kept twisting and moving from side to side so I couldn't aim well."
"No surprise, in these conditions," noted the village hunter.
The howl rang out again, a note of mockery somehow injected into the mournful sound. It came from off up the valley, and they could just make out the black shape of the creature against the white of the snowy slope.
"He's trying to lure us out into another mad chase," Easton said, "so he can remove us one by one. We'll pursue, but spread out in an arc for maximum search area, and do not lose sight of the person next to you! Every other person use your lanterns, and whatever you do, do not go chasing off on your own! If we come to woods, we'll form up in pairs to keep after him."
As Bryn reslung her bow-gun on its shoulder strap, she wondered if Easton realized he was now calling the creature by a personal pronoun rather than "it." His subconscious, at least, had wholly come over to the supernatural theory. A flick of the Foi technique sent Bryn's dark-lantern alight, and she took it in her left hand while drawing her knife with her right. All the while the group readied themselves, the creature continued its taunting howls, as if impatient for the "fun" to begin. Raw hate boiled up in the adventuress at the sound, and it took all her control to keep from charging off after the murdering thing just as it wanted her to. It was only that knowledge that made her wait and proceed carefully, according to plan.
It seemed like they spent hours walking through the dark, the beams of their lanterns stabbing into the clouds of mist. The beast drew its pursuers onward, over the ridge and into the woods just as it had before, luring them with its howls, showing itself from behind the tree-boles for just a moment. The hunters did not lose their heads, though, and stayed together, under control. Easton came alongside Bryn, pairing up as they entered the woods.
Then it made a mistake, by running across a large clearing in the woods. Bryn raised her hand, pointed the tip of her knife, and unleashed her Foi technique. A jet of flame shot across the clearing and struck the ground at its feet, causing it to yelp in pain and gouts of steam to burst up from the flash-melted snow. A second Foi took it in the side and it fell, just avoiding a shot from Easton's bow-gun.
The two pursuers rushed across the clearing as best they could, but their boots sank into the snow and hampered their speed. Recognizing its danger, the creature hauled itself to its feet and lunged into the shelter of the trees. A long-range Foi was out of the question; the chance of starting a forest fire was too great, so Bryn reached for her bow-gun even as next to her Easton reloaded, but the monster had reached cover before either was ready to shoot.
"Damn!" the constable cursed. "I thought we had it there, for a moment."
"The technique seemed to have more effect than the arrow I put into it yesterday," Bryn agreed. "I hope that means silver isn't the only thing that can kill it."
"At least we've shown the creature that it won't have easy pickings in Naben from now on."
They'd gotten across the clearing by that point, and Bryn could see where the snow she'd melted with her first technique was refreezing into a crust of ice that glittered and reflected back the lantern-light. It almost reminded Bryn of the sign outside Astwell's inn, the ice-mirror.
"Oh, no," she whispered.
"What?" Easton demanded.
The idea hit her like a thunderbolt, springing full-born into her mind.
"What is it, Miss Morgaine?" repeated the constable.
"The creature...it isn't luring us out to attack us. It's luring us away, drawing us out from the house so that it can double back and attack before we can get there. It's much faster than we are, and if it gets us far enough away from Renwood's house, it'll have more than enough time to kill him and get away." There was more to it than that, but no time to explain.
"Damn!" Renwood may be armed, but if this was a deliberate plan..."
He called in the others and divided the party. He and Bryn were to return to the house, together with Dr. Meade in case medical attention would be required. The rest of the party was to keep up the pursuit, following the tracks left by the creature.
For the first few minutes, Bryn could still hear the occasional mocking howl from behind her, and she was afraid that she might be wrong, but soon the beast fell silent. They could not run effectively through the ankle-deep snow; a steady march was faster and drained less energy, but the pace galled her. Every moment it took meant that the werewolf might have struck and covered its tracks, escaped justice completely. When they got back to the house, they went straight to the front door. Bryn found it unlocked, and a sinking feeling entered her heart. None of them paused to discard their outdoor gear, but rushed straight through the darkened halls to the parlor where Renwood was to have waited.
"Thank Heaven!" the constable exclaimed as they burst into the room. Renwood, face pale, sagged back in an armchair, his bow-gun fallen from his right hand onto the carpet. He looked to be in shock, but he was alive.
Ernst Reinhardt, in contrast, was not. His corpse lay sprawled on the floor, an arrow buried nearly to the fletching in his chest. The shot must have been virtually point-blank, Bryn realized, perhaps a last, desperate chance.
The pooling blood still gleamed wetly in the lamplight.
Renwood's smile was a bit wan when he saw the party's pell-mell arrival, but it still held some of his usual acerbic humor, as did his voice.
"A bit late, I think, if only by a few minutes." He nodded towards the body. "Fortunately I was prepared for such an incursion, although not on two legs."
"We found the front door unlocked," Bryn told him.
"A serious oversight--or else the man had a skeleton key. Is this Mr. Reinhardt?"
"It is," Easton said. "Luckily the oversight did not prove fatal--except for our werewolf. And it seems that you were right about his identity, Miss Morgaine."
Bryn crouched down alongside the body.
"Dr. Bradley's theory, actually," she corrected absently. There was something under Reinhardt's coat that made it bulge oddly. She pulled out a shortbarreled shotgun.
"Is that a weapon?" Meade asked curiously.
"A collector's piece," she replied, "several centuries old. A shotgun, which fires either solid slugs or a cluster of needlelike shot." The adventuress's familiarity with such things came from her acquiantanceship with several weapon collectors. "This one is smaller than usual, not really a hunting or soldier's weapon but for close-range killing."
"A werewolf who carried a gun?" Meade questioned. "I've never heard of that in any legend."
"Exactly," she told him. "Who would expect it? And why should a supernatural evil deny itself the destructive power of science?"
Bryn broke the weapon open and checked the ammunition. It would go a long way towards verifying her theory.
"Too, using a weapon like this does not provide the authorities with evidence that the killer is, in fact, a creature."
She straightened up, closing the weapon.
"For example, had we found Reinhardt's body ripped and torn by a wolf's fangs as Dr. Bradley's was, we would have known at once that Mr. Renwood is our werewolf."
Easton froze in shock, but Bryn's eyes were not on him.
"Reinhardt could have told us that, except that he had good reason not to. He was here for revenge and intended to murder Renwood. Had he publicly denounced the squire, he would have only been laughed at--where was his evidence? For that matter, what legal recourse did he have? I doubt Naben has any laws against lycanthropy."
Renwood chuckled heartily.
"You are a fanciful woman, Miss Morgaine."
She ignored him, continuing to explain.
"Unfortunately for Reinhardt, while he was considering the best way to confront the squire, Renwood recognized him and thought things through much more quickly. He went to the inn in wolf form, but was in turn attacked and injured by Rex. That gave him the idea of turning the tables and framing Reinhardt for attacking him! The scene at the inn last night was staged for our benefit. Tonight, he merely had to lure us away from the house to rendezvous with his would-be avenger and kill him in apparent self-defense."
She nudged the body with her foot.
"I doubt our friend, here, expected to be confronted with a bow-gun instead of a beast."
Renwood scowled angrily at her, no longer in any way amused. The color had come back into his face, and she reflected that his shock had perhaps been real; even a murdering werewolf might have an emotional reaction to killing, especially without the power of the beast running through him.
"If you repeat these allegations again, I'll have you up on charges for slander!"
"Why don't you show us your injured leg, instead? If the wounds are still there, I'll take back every word and apologize besides."
The bearded man glanced at the constable.
"Easton, are you going to let her say these things in my own home?"
Bryn couldn't see the constable's face, and she wasn't going to turn, but his tone of voice told the tale.
"Dr. Meade is right here. He can verify that things are healing as they ought, and it can settle the point for good.
That was when Renwood lunged for Bryn, a feral snarl on his lips as he went for her throat, but she was ready. Reinhardt's pistol boomed throatily once to stop the charge, then a second time as the shotgun blew part of Renwood's skull away.
Dr. Bradley had been right, Bryn decided. This was where she needed to be, out in the field confronting evil. She felt none of the sick fear she had while in Meese, just a cold resolve. Bryn only wished he hadn't had to give his life to prove the point.
"Some corroborating evidence for you, Easton," she said, handing the constable the gun. "Silver bullets. Reinhardt came prepared."
Easton took the weapon mechanically, his eyes never leaving Renwood's corpse.
"I hardly think that additional corroboration will be required."
Looking at how the legs and hindquarters of the beast merged seamlessly with the clothing and torso of the dead man, Bryn supposed Easton had a point.
* * * * *
The morning of Renwood's funeral was a gray and dismal one, promising snow later in the day. It was appropriate, Dr. Meade supposed; death and its acknowledgment were always a grim business. Very few people were there, as most of Naben's citizens wanted to distance themselves from a man who had not only been a ruthless killer but something else besides.
Bryn Morgaine would have faced it directly, Meade knew, but she had left town the morning after Renwood's death, taking Charles's body back to Meese for burial. Probably it was better that way. Beyond the general inappropriateness of the man's slayer attending the funeral, the deed needed to be mourned by those who cared for them. Intellectually Meade knew it didn't matter to the corpse, but still the thought of anyone being put into the ground without anyone in escort chilled him. The final journey should not be undertaken without good-byes.
By rights he should have gone with her, but he had not. While Charles had been a friend, he had Bryn, while Marianne Renwood had no one. They'd had to show her the body, mutated as it was. He'd have spared her that, but Easton had insisted, that as Renwood's wife she deserved to see the truth, to be free from doubt. In retrospect he'd probably been right--at least she could live on certain that some horrible injustice had not been perpetrated--but the ensuing scene was not one Meade would remember with any comfort.
Even now the widow's long lashes glittered with tears, a testament to how deeply she'd cared. Then again, Meade could not deny that Arthur Renwood had been a brave man, a risk-taker. He'd had to be, to repair the family fortunes, and a strong character drew strong feelings. Even in murder he'd shown courage and will. To slip out of the house, taking the chance someone would see him--or would not see him if they happened to look through the window--then lure off his guards, risking injury, and slip back in time to meet Reinhardt all took boldness and daring.
These were qualities, Meade admitted, that he lacked in his own nature. Still, kindness, intelligence, and imagination were not without merit, and perhaps someday he could hope.
Marianne Renwood, too, was thinking of the doctor's qualities as the casket was lowered slowly into the grave at the conclusion of the priest's speech. His feelings were plain to her, and yet he made not even passing reference to them. She was glad of that; the widow did not think she could have borne it had he made some declaration of love. And she did appreciate his kindness.
She didn't so much as look at Easton, though. It was just too painful, although she bore him no rancor. He'd only been doing his duty as Naben's law officer. As Bryn had done hers, though that was much harder to accept. And she had lost someone close to her; Meade had explained that Dr. Bradley had been one of Bryn's tutors when she'd been beginning her life as an adventuress, and not merely a mentor but a long-time friend.
Meade had told her something else about Bryn, when at Marianne's insistence he had recounted that final scene. Unknowingly, she'd managed to cut into the widow's heart again when he repeated how she'd said that initially, Renwood had done nothing that was against Naben's law. Arthur could actually have gone to Constable Easton and obtained official protection from Reinhardt, who had after all come to Naben on a mission of murderous revenge...
Instead, Arthur had attempted to handle things ruthlessly and directly, and it had all gotten out of hand. Dr. Bradley's death, of course, ended any chance of a peaceful solution.
A werewolf seeking police protection from the one hunting it. The thought would have been comical had it not been so full of tragic regrets. But for all the pain she'd inflicted, Marianne could not hate Bryn.
That emotion she saved for Ernst Reinhardt. He had started it all, come to Naben with murder in his heart. Three deaths were ultimately his fault. The widow's only regret for him was that he'd died too cleanly. She hoped the priests were right about the wages of sin.
The first shovelful of dirt struck the coffin lid with a dull thud and she shuddered involuntarily at the grim finality of it.
"We should go," Meade suggested. "There's no need for you to remain for the end of this."
"Thank you, Doctor. Yes, you're right. It's over."
He offered her his arm, and she rested her gloved hand lightly on it. Marianne didn't want to accidentally be pulled off-balance by the tall man and let the medical man's trained eye see her wince as her burned side was stretched. It was hard enough to move about with it and conceal the pain.
Perhaps, she decided, she should do him the courtesy of letting him know soon that his suit was hopeless. It would be cruel to lead him on even by silence, and he would never be able to win her heart. It had already been given.
Wolves mated for life.