Your Majesty, I do not mean to interrupt.
I do know that today is a day of celebration. That this feast you have thrown has been in my honor. But I bid you give me the floor.
For there is no cause for celebration. You celebrate today for the death of a beast, and yet I aim to make amends.
For you see, the beast lives on.
I can see by the look on your face that you are confused…and perhaps you feel you are owed an explanation. If it pleases Your Majesty, I will give you just that.
It all starts with her.
She was always a quiet one. Withdrawn, I guess you could call her. She spent her days in the archives; the old stone library on the edge of her village. Her charming little nose buried in some book or another.
She was different – not quite like the other women I had come across in my travels. They were all so preoccupied with finding husbands, starting families. She loved research – Guidobaldo del Monte, Leonardo da Vinci, Michel de Montaigne…these were only a few of the endless trends in her studies.
The world is changing, she had told me once. Women were no longer prizes to be won. They were human beings…equal to any man.
…I was never a well educated man.
It was for that reason that it came as no surprise to me that she showed little in regards to my advances. She seemed destined for greatness, whereas I…
Well, as you already know, I am a hunter – as my father before me.
It is a noble profession…
After all, people need to eat. Being able to track has other benefits…often I found myself employed even by yourself, Your Grace. You have always been generous, paying me well…to track criminals, or, sometimes, to take care of wild beasts.
And so when there came tells of that foul creature stalking and killing villagers, livestock, and traveling merchants in the shadow of Le Crêt de la Neige in the Jura Mountains; this troublesome fiend that had taken to traveling from the peak into that quaint little village…
Because winter had been harsh and the townspeople couldn’t really afford to have such a meddlesome creature preying on their livelihoods – and, indeed, that’s what it had been doing. Because they had petitioned you – pleading you to save their town…to save them…
Because they had sent many of their own to kill the beast and found no success. You, once more, turned to me. As you have in the past.
And for four weeks I waded through frozen streams and snow. I remember it well. L’année sans été – that’s what the townsfolk have taken to calling it. Food prices had risen further than I have ever seen them. Tales of catastrophe spread throughout the continent – famine, death, riots. One traveler I crossed paths with spoke of an ice dam high in le Val de Bagnes giving way – killing hundreds.
T’was a grim time, indeed, but I digress.
Even through this terrible winter without end…I tracked that creature down. Encountering it first near on the road to Thiory – near an overturned carriage. The sky was alive that night – lit up by the light of the moon. It was so bright that I didn’t need my lantern for my travels. So bright that I didn’t need my lantern so see the overturned coach and horse that lay slain…to see the creature muzzle deep in that poor soul’s stomach.
I approached the brute from downwind – my Modèle 1777 at the ready. I had the creature in my sights – the musket buried deep into my shoulder. I gently squeezed the trigger. The crackle of my musket should have been the last sound that beast ever heard – its head should decorate the mantle above my fireplace.
But I missed, or so I convinced myself. I had to have…the creature didn’t waiver. It didn’t fall. Instead, it looked up at me – eyes burning like yellow embers in the night.
It let out a fierce, guttural sound…shifting its head skywards, it howled. Slowly, it leveled its eyes…across the snowy plain and it locked them on me. It let out a bone chilling roar – and, for a moment, I felt the cold chill of death creep down my spine, twisting my innards into knots. Even in the chill of the night air, I broke a sweat.
In that moment – I knew that the bell tolled for me. And yet…Your Grace, it did not charge. Electing instead to turn towards the mountain peak – it dashed. In massive strides it covered the distance of the frozen field – a solid forty meters – in mere seconds.
Never looking back, it disappeared into the underbrush. No bear that I have ever seen could move as it did. The agility – the magnitude – of its being overwhelmed me.
I regained composure and started towards the mountain, and as I did I felt my skin begin to crawl. My blood ran colder and colder, the hair on my neck stood up. Every fiber of my being warned me – should I give chase, I would not live to see the sun rise upon morning brow.
Never before had I ever seen anything like it…and I swear to you now, that I wish I never had.
In that briefest moment of folly, I wanted to give chase. Yet, that voice in the back of my mind demanded me flee. You are weary from your travels, the voice told me. The creature will still be there come the morn. So, I elected to continue on to Thoiry – I needed to prepare; I needed to rest; I needed supplies.
I needed a drink.
I wish I had followed the creature instead…perhaps it would have killed me…but I would not feel this burning – this emptiness – in me that I do feel now. To have on my hands the blood that taints them so is unforgivable.
Two days it took me to reach Thoiry. And it was in that tiny village that I first cast gaze upon her. A girl of about twenty – with flowing auburn hair that stretched to her lower back. She smiled as I approached her; a smile that I was sure could melt away the frost that so stubbornly clung to the ground in mid-June. Her eyes were the softest I had ever seen – the warmest – a brilliant shade of amber. She wore an elegant blue gown with a dark cloak. She kept the cloak high over her head, although it could not shield the radiance of her being. There was scarcely a cloud in the sky – and, despite the cold, the sun shone brightly. Yet, even still, it was the second brightest thing to decorate the world that afternoon.
She smiled, and oh, that smile. She smiled, Your Grace – but not at me.
In her hands, she held a book. Leather bound with a red ribbon neatly tucked away in its pages. She read from that book, swaying through the stone streets of the village, scarcely looking up from its pages – and, even when she did, it was only long enough to evaluate her route. She danced around passersby – dodging carriage, man, and animal alike.
I found myself mesmerized by her sway – and I fell in line behind her as she ambled about.
I followed her until she reached a dilapidated old house. She stopped briefly to knock on the door – then, without waiting for a reply, she let herself in.
I waited a moment or so before approaching the door. With hesitation, I forced myself to knock. She did not answer, to my chagrin – or, perhaps, to my relief.
She did not answer, but another did.
A stern looking young woman – perhaps in her mid twenties. She looked me up and down, a ravishing glint in her eyes.
“What have we here?”
“Madame,” I answered, “I do hate to be a bother – but ‘tis such a cold night. I am weary from my travels…I thought I might inquire as to whether or…”
“Papa!” The girl called out, looking over her shoulder. “A man is here…”
Over her shoulder, I could see the warm embrace of a fireplace – shadows from its flames danced across the room. A man leaned forward, very briefly, and gave me a once over. “Come in,” he said cheerily, falling back into the chair, “…come in.”
The girl smiled at me as I passed her, my cap twisted in my hands – pressed against my chest – and my musket slung over my shoulder.
The man was well past his prime – bald, save the sprouts of silver hair that decorated the sides of his scalp, just above the ear. His face was clean shaven and his eyebrows thick and dark, and he furrowed them as he studied me quietly.
“And who might you be?” He asked, after a long silence.
So we made introductions – he told me his name, and I mine. Then he introduced his daughters to me – three in total. The youngest of which was the young beauty that I had followed throughout the winding streets of Thoiry.
She paid me little mind then; stretched out on the floor before the fireplace, reading from that book.
The man was eager to take in my history and travels – for he had once been a wealthy merchant who had sailed the Baltics so long ago. He had lost his riches to the sea many years prior to my visit. His two eldest daughters – who had become accustomed to the lavish treatment that wealth funded, proved to be most bitter about such misfortune. But his youngest, he said, never seemed to mind. Even during his recount, she scarcely looked up from the pages of her book.
Until her father asked me what brought me to Thoiry.
“I’m a hunter,” I told him. “King Louis XVIII, himself, has appointed me to track, hunt, and kill a rogue brown bear that hunts these woods.”
The old man seemed discontent, but feigned approval – nodding accordingly. “Of course, of course…”
“I encountered the creature en route to town,” I told him. “There was something off about it…”
He clammed up a moment, his eyes scurrying from my being and towards the dancing shadows that the fire cast.
With a puzzled look, I raised my brow.
“He’s talking about it,” one of his daughters whispered to the other.
“It?” I repeated.
It was then the young woman looked up from the pages of her book. “Him,” She corrected.
“I didn’t get close enough to determine the creature’s sex…” I admitted.
This made the girl smile, but she did not comment further – instead, she returned her gaze upon the sullen pages of that old book.
“Tell us about your other travels,” The old man suggested. I could see the family was uncomfortable talking of the beast, so I obliged. And I talked of my time in the war. For hours and hours I talked, before finally the old man yawned. The young woman, noticing this, made her way to her feet and kissed his forehead.
“Father, you really should get some rest tonight…I’ll see the gentleman out.”
“Nonsense,” he chimed, smiling at me. He bade me to stay the night – though the house was small and barely fit for those living in it. The young woman made off – insisting she must return home. I learned from her father that she had been betrothed to the town Magistrate. You might know him, Your Grace, Charles Duvillard?
In any case, the old man had accumulated a great deal of debt since his bankruptcy. Some years ago, he had received word that one of the trade ships he had chartered had survived the storm that sent him spiraling into debt – he had used the last of his finances to travel from their home in Paris to Marseille. Upon arriving, he found his possessions seized.
Penniless and heartbroken, he began the long journey home. No longer able to afford the cost of living in Grand Paris, he and his daughters were forced to relocate. Fate saw fit to bring them to Thoiry…where he was offered a small plot of land on which to farm and this house. In return, the old man promised Dullivard the hand of his fairest daughter – which, as it turned out, happened to be the young lady I had become so infatuated with.
Again, I find myself distracted though.
The house was barely fit to be called a home…three rooms and a bath. Each room smaller than the last. The bathroom was little more than a closet – and the master bedroom was, perhaps, three square meters. This room, he offered to me. His bed was sully – bits of hay bound by twine, over which he had spread a thin blanket. Despite the squalor the family lived in, the house was devoid of mice, roaches, or any other vermin. I suspect, in part, this was due to lack of sustenance. The old man had to sell what little they were able to grow on the land to accommodate the wasteful lifestyles of his eldest daughters – who wore extravagant dresses and evening gowns even now.
Not like his youngest – who dressed rather ordinarily. The old man told me that, upon his journey she asked for but a rose…picked by his hand.
It was not without difficulty that I found sleep that night. The next morning, I set out once more to track the beast. Its trail had long since been covered by falling snow. For seven days I searched, with no fortune – and so I returned to Thoiry.
My frosted feet once more found their way to the house of the old man. In part, I like to believe, because he had shown me great hospitality. But, in truth, I knew it to be because of her. Just a sliver of a chance that I might see her again filled me with such delight.
She visited the old man every day or so. She always brought elaborate gifts for her sisters – gifts from the Magistrate. She brought food and coin – enough to see them through until her next visit. As the old man could grow no crops – had she not helped him as she did, they could not have survived the relentless winter that beat on their doorstep.
I began to hunt – bringing in any game that I could find to help the old man for his hospitality. The meat served to feed his family – and the pelts he would sell. I took no profit for myself, for he put a roof over my head and had bestowed upon me the greatest gift any man could ever desire.
Her, Your Grace.
She would come and go – and I would long for her. I found myself anticipating her visits more so than even her father. Yet, she seldom spoke more than a few words to me. When she did, she seemed dismissive. This only served to increase my desire for her – though I knew she could never be mine.
When she found that I could not read, she taught me so.
When she found that I could not write, she taught me so.
She taught me the ways of the philosopher – the teachings of Descartes, Kant, Locke, and Hume. And when she had finished those – she introduced me to the Greeks, for – she said – she must always end with the truth.
Three months would pass before I would meet the creature again – though it seemed to surface on the outskirts of town every few fortnights. It was the coldest night in recollection…early September. The old man had taken ill – and I had gone to the tavern to fetch his ale. The night was peaceful…cold, but peaceful. The sky again alive with the radiance of la Luna, herself.
I paced along rather leisurely, watching my breath as it escaped my lungs. I had nearly made it back to the farmhouse when I heard it – that familiar howl.
I was unprepared. It stood between the farmhouse and myself; perched just before the stoop – its yellow eyes burning into my soul.
The creature looked closer to a wolf than a bear…but was far larger than any wolf I had ever seen. Red-brown fur covered the entirety of its being. It lowered its head to the ground and let out a low, raspy growl – taking several paces toward me.
My body instinctively inched backwards – my eyes locked on to its, my legs ready to bolt at a heartbeat’s notice.
I could hear it breathing – I could see the steam rising from its lungs: clouding the air in front of it. Long deep breaths. Not the shallow breathing of a wolf. The creature was studying me. Waiting for me to make my next move. It flicked its tail – a heavy thud filled the air with every swing.
Then, the unthinkable happened…the old man, no doubt believing the thumping to be the knock of a visitor, opened the door. The creature, startled, turned and pounced. It had the old man pinned to the ground. He let out a horrified scream – his face contorting with pain.
I lunged forward as fast as my legs would carry me – throwing all of my weight into the creature. It toppled back, but did not fall. Regaining composure, it looked at me again – then to the old man – but only briefly. It raced out into the night, disappearing as quickly as it emerged.
Hoisting the old man over my shoulder, I carried him into the farmhouse and stretched him out onto his bedding. The creature had severely injured him – lacerations decorated the entirety of his body. Some several centimeters deep. It had locked its teeth around his shoulder, near the throat.
As he lay there, he looked at me – wide eyed, coughing up blood and bile. His daughters had long entered the room – their terrified cries filling my ears. He reached out, grasping my hand.
“I will slay this beast,” I swore to him.
He swallowed, struggling to speak; but words would not find his lips that night.
His daughters retreated into the streets – seeking the town physician. By the time he had arrived, the old man had lapsed into a coma.
His youngest daughter came to visit him the next day. Distraught, as any daughter should be.
“What happened?! What have you done?!” She screamed, her tiny fists swatting my cuirass. I did not answer her. I could not answer her…for I knew that it was my fault.
The beast had never ventured so far into town…and it could be no coincidence that it found its way to the old man’s farmhouse after my arrival. It had tracked down the man who had emptied his musket into it on the road those months ago. The man who had been combing the mountains for its lair since.
“Your fault!” She screamed – over, over, and over again. She screamed and she swiped until she could do no more. Then she collapsed into my arms, her amber eyes finding their way into my own. “How could this have happened?” She asked me.
My heart sank for her – wept for her. “He breathes still,” I tucked my hand beneath her chin. “He is a stubborn old man…and he has so much to live for.”
“The beast did this?” She asked, her voice shaking.
Her lip quivered again and she buried her face into my chest – her tears saturating the leather of my cuirass. I could feel her body convulse with every sob.
It pains me to admit it…and perhaps it makes me a terrible man…but at the time, I could not help believe it was a blessing in disguise. Because the first time I held her, Your Grace…I knew that I loved her. That I would love her until the day my heart stood still.
The Magistrate permitted her to stay with her father during his time of need. She took care of the house – of her father; while her sisters rarely lifted a finger.
My thirst for the hunt renewed, I set out again. And again, and again. But, as the countless times before…I could not find its lair. It was if it had vanished. Leaving no trace of its existence.
And, as I could not find its lair – I began to investigate the town. The creature had to be somewhere…I could not find it, but others before me had tried. Perhaps they had found more success.
The townsfolk were rife with rumors. Some claimed the beast to be the hound Cerberus – unleashed from his cage – while other claimed the creature to be a manifestation of the deity Nodens. The stories were boundless and each more outrageous than the next.
My patience had all but reached its limits when I stumbled upon an old woman outside the tavern.
Covered from head to toe in white and yellow cloths; her clothes, ragged and torn. Hair black as a moonless night – wrapped in a red headband; her skin bronzed and wrinkled. A scar ran from just above her brow to the base of her chin – the eye it covered was as the eye of a corpse, shallow, blind, and lifeless. She looked at me with her one good eye and let out a rasping sound.
“Un blustem,” she whispered. She tilted her head to the side. “Varcolac.”
She looked me up and down – a sly little grin on her face.
“The beast…” Her words were strained, few and far between, “you seek…Varcolac.”
“Varcolac?” I repeated. “I am not familiar with this animal.”
She laughed, a grating sound – the sound of crackling embers in a fire. The occasional hiss of saliva; juices seeping from red meat, sizzling on the red coals below.
“A gift. A curse. A solemn rose in a garden of despair, he loses all that he held dear…”
She pointed a long, bony finger – decorated in silver and gold. “A man devoured by greed and sin. Wickedness pouring from his being – turning away those who cannot give back to him tenfold. Devourer of wolfsbane, under the light of the full moon…it…” she took a breath, “changes you.”
“You speak riddles, hag – I’ve not time for you.” I stepped forward, attempting to push her aside – but as I did, she caught my wrist, her bony fingers wrapping tightly around me.
“Be warned hunter! For your time draws near – you shall pursue the beast, and though you shall stand tall when the sun rises, you will lose all you hold dear! Becoming the very thing you set out to slay!”
I found myself lost in her gaze – unable to speak, unable to move.
I next came to the young woman shaking my shoulder – calling my name.
“Are you alright?” She asked. “Come, we must get you inside…” She undraped her cloak and wrapped it around me – escorting me to her father’s abode.
We sat before the fire – once more, the flames cast dancing shadows across the room. An iron cauldron dangled from a rusted hook at the front of the mantle. She dipped a rag within, softly pressing the warm fabric to my flesh.
We sat in silence for a long time. Then she spoke: “Thank you.”
“Thank you. For…for saving my father. For helping with the farm.”
I swallowed – discomfort slinking across my being. “It is only to…to return the hospitality your family has shown to me.”
“Only?” She paused, twisting her lips into a ball.
Another wave of nausea.
“Still,” she continued, finally. “A debt is owed…and paid.” She reached into her cloak, withdrawing a small, tarnished silver mirror wrapped in the finest silk fabric. “My beloved…he gave me this. He told me it was enchanted. That it would protect me…” She sat the mirror on my lap and her eyes found their way to mine. “He said, so long as I had this…the beast could do me no harm.”
I pushed the small object towards her – “Then perhaps you should keep it for yourself. I could not bear anything to come of you.”
“Nor I you…” She was on her knees, her soft hands grasping either side of my face. “And yet this cannot be…you must promise me. Do not leave the house on the morrow…you must not stray from town.”
She let her gaze fall groundward – through the soft light of the fire, I could see the tears treading down her cheek.
“You saw her tonight, didn’t you? The old woman?”
The old gypsy.
“What did she tell you?”
“Nonsense,” I assured her. “Superstitions. A curse on a man devoured by greed.”
“Wolfsbane on a moonlit night…”
I furrowed by brow. “Yes…”
She looked back up at me – her eyes screaming for relief. “The Magistrate…my husband. The curse is his to bear.”
“Curse? What are you talking about.”
She leaned in close, devouring my lips with her own. When she drew back, her eyes again pleaded with me – “You must promise me.”
So I did.
We made love that night – and when I woke the next morning, she was gone.
My mind raced and my head pounded – each moment offered a dull thud, breath struggled to escape my lungs. My vision blurred and the room spun. What did it mean? I asked myself time and time again. What did it mean?
I retraced my quest thus far – encountering the beast on the road and again on the night it struck her father.
Why was the beast there? For me? For me? But why?
And like clockwork it would surface by the light of the moon…
The full moon. This was no ordinary creature.
Born of a curse – his curse. The Magistrate.
Again, my mind raced – my vision spun. The creature hadn’t come for the old man. It hadn’t even come for the man who hunted it – it came for the man who longed for its beloved.
I was the reason the old man lay dying in bed. I was the reason my love felt such despair.
All of this…was because of me. But I would atone for my sins.
I gathered my supplies.
Shortly before dusk, my love came by – very briefly; once more seeking assurance that I would not venture out that night. I swore to her I would not.
A necessary evil. For it was the night of the full moon – and I knew the beast would be on the prowl.
With my supplies, my musket…and, for luck, the mirror she had bestowed upon me…I set out.
I made haste – heading towards the Magistrate’s estate…and there, I found the beast. Prowling the courtyard just south of his mansion. Again, it locked eyes on me – and I returned its gaze. But this time, I was prepared. I raised my musket and fired – a fierce sound of thunder echoed throughout the valley. It turned to flee, but I would not let it escape me again. Without hesitation – I gave chase. Deep into the woods, it ran – with myself on its heels, loading the musket. We climbed and climbed…all the way to the peak of Le Crêt de la Neige.
It had nowhere else to run – and so it turned, letting out a guttural growl. I could not miss from here…so I aimed…and I fired.
It stumbled back and roared again, but it did not fall.
A truly cursed creature indeed…I dropped to one knee, desperate to reload my musket.
That’s when it pounced – knocking me backwards and to the ground. My hand gripped tight around its neck as it snapped, its massive jaws closing inches from my face – drool spilling from its mouth and into my own. I used my free hand to struggle with my hunting knife – and I pierced the creature in the abdomen with the full length of the blade.
It did not bleed.
And in that moment, I knew that I would not survive…but, nor would I fail. So, with all my might, I heaved to one side and we began to roll down the mountain – crashing into brush and stone alike. The creature let out a fierce yelp and I felt its body relax.
When we stopped rolling, I struggled to my feet. I was triumphant. I could see the creature lying mere meters away – the hilt of my love’s mirror piercing its flesh, tarnished silver and glistening blood in the moonlight. The creature looked up to me – the burning yellow ember of its eyes dying out.
I marveled as – before me – it began to change. Back into the cursed man I knew it to be.
No! Not a man!
The creature twisted and contorted, its bones snapping and cracking and its form changing…into that of a woman.
Into that of my love!
Dropping to my knees, I cradled her – her amber eyes looking up at me with no slight or shame. She smiled and she brought her hand to my face. “Thank you,” she whispered…
Those were her final words.
“Belle!” I cried, pulling her body close to mine. I held her there in the snow long into the night…well into the morning.
As the sun broke night sky, I realized what it was the gypsy meant. For I had murdered the one woman in this world that I have ever loved. Thrice I had encountered the beast…and thrice it had made no attempt on my life. She had pleaded with me to let it be…and I had betrayed her.
You see, Your Grace? For this reason, I am the beast. For betraying a love so pure.
I buried her on the mountaintop – and I traveled far and wide to find a single rose to rest upon her grave.
So celebrate if you must; if you would celebrate the death of the most beautiful creature to have ever graced this planet. But do not celebrate until the true beast has been slain…until the heart in my chest stands still.