Friday, December 23, 2016

Vol 7: Tales of Vengeance, Book I: Winter of the Wolf, Chapters 3 & 4

Chapter 3: A Wolf in the Fold

Once they were back inside Soissons, Jacques suggested a drink to celebrate their second victory over the wolves and the group returned to the Two Saints Tavern for drinks and a hot meal. While Jacques oversaw ordering a flock of chickens for roasting, Norbert and Mel went to the Market to meet Yvette. After the drinks and snacks at the tavern, Norbert was late and he had become concerned that the daylight wolf attacks would make the trip too dangerous for Yvette. In turn, Yvette was worried that the people at the farm where she lived would worry if she didn’t return and she was concerned that they may even go out looking for her in the dark. Norbert persuaded Yvette to stay in town, telling her that he would go to the farm to tell the family that she was staying in town. But once they returned to the tavern and Norbert had arranged for a private room for Yvette, the sun was beginning to set. Jacques warned Norbert that his horse was not yet recovered from its wounds. So Norbert told Yvette that he wouldn’t be going to bring word to the farm tonight. Upset, she began crying and went to her room without eating. Norbert ordered Mel to stay outside her room as a guard. Claude asked “Who’s gonna get the girl’s meal?” He then volunteered to eat Yvette’s chicken so that it would not go to waste.

After dinner, Father Signoret returned to the Cathedral Rectory. Brother Crispin told him that the townspeople believed that Soissons had been cursed and that they blamed Governor Labrousse. Signoret asked why. The monk told the Jesuit that the governor was infamous for his cruelty, rapaciousness, and lust. He frequently has had his way with attractive young local women. Last year, the beautiful daughter of a woodsman was coveted by the Governor but she resisted his advances and badly scratched his face. In revenge he had her put out of the town on a cold night shoeless and naked – “since she has the manners of a wild beast, she should run with the beasts.” When her father protested, he was struck down by the Governor’s guards then shackled and publicly whipped in the town square. The Governor instructed that the town walls be locked and that none should aid the maiden on penalty of death. And so she disappeared into the night. Her father was imprisoned in the dungeon beneath the Chateau. The townspeople never saw the woodsman again and believe that both he and his daughter are dead. 

In the middle of the night, Father Signoret was awakened by shouts and pounding at the rectory door. He hurriedly dressed and went to the door where he learned that Lieutenant Trudeau, the commander of the Governor’s guards, had been attacked in his bedroom and that he needed a priest and a healer. Father Signoret and Brother Crispin hurried to the guard barracks. There they found Trudeau murdered, the room sprayed with blood and his throat torn away as if by the huge claws of a bear. Examining the scene, Signoret learned that the heavy bar to the outside door had been snapped in two and the door to the bedroom had been shattered into a hundred of pieces. Trudeau had fired both his pistols before his throat was torn out. Signoret found a bloody claw print on the door jamb at the height of a tall man’s hand, and a strange clawed footprint in blood in the hall and again on the ground outside, but the frozen ground did not easily show prints and he could not follow the beast any farther. 

Gaston and the Red Guards arrived. They had been informed of the attack on Lieutenant Trudeau. Gaston took charge of the Town Guards ordering them armed and patrols, led by his Red Guards, to check the walls and gates. One of the patrols returned with news that a wall sentry had been murdered. They went to the site where they found the guard had been decapitated and eviscerated. Outside the wall, near where the guard was killed, Father Signoret found the same strange clawed footprints in the snow both coming and going. Gaston led a patrol so the Jesuit could follow the tracks. Signoret found that after about a hundred yards the strange prints joined a group of half a dozen wolf tracks and both sets of tracks continued towards the hills southwest of Soissons.

The next day, Father Signoret suggested that they try to follow the beast tracks to its lair before it snowed. Gaston informed him that although he had given the Town Guards orders last night in an emergency, he did not have the authority to command them and that he would need Governor Labrousse’s permission and authorization. Therefore Gaston gathered his force, had them brush off their red tabards, mount their horses, and ride to the Governor’s Chateau. With a squad of the Cardinal’s elegantly dressed Red Guards at his back and a Jesuit Priest next to him, his threat to have the guards arrested and hung for treason unless they immediately admitted the party resulted in prompt action—the gates were opened. 

Inside, Gaston, Signoret, Norbert, and Jacques were admitted to the Governor’s hall. Labrousse was seated on a throne-like chair. Along the sides of the hall stood eight guards armed with musket and halberd. Standing on either side of the Governor were his brother Armand, a noted duelist, and his silent, hulking servitor, Odo. As they had agreed, Father Signoret did most of the talking while Gaston, flanked by Norbert and Jacques, added a mixture of gravitas and menace. 

Signoret told Governor de Labrousse of the recent wolf activities, including the death of Lieutenant Trudeau. Then the Jesuit suggested that Gaston be placed in command of the Town Guard to combat the menace of the creature and its wolves. In response, Armand de Labrousse glanced meaningfully at Gaston as he whispered something to his brother the Governor, who agreed to appoint Gaston to a temporary command, but he vehemently insisted that the unusual wolf creature be captured alive so that he could determine the source of its vital energy. 

Signoret warned Labrousse that the wolf creature had already killed several people, but the Governor airily replied that “The lives of peasants and commoners are of little matter compared to the chance of increasing human knowledge.” His words and manner led the Jesuit to conclude that the Governor was some sort of demented alchemist in search of the vital essence and possibly the elixir of life itself. 

Gaston said “Their lives matter to the dead…excellency.” But even this did not dissuade Labrousse from his desire and in the end Gaston accepted the appointment and agreed he would do his best to capture the creature alive.

With the Governor’s authorization in hand, Gaston ordered both the Red Guards and the Soissons Town Guards to prepare for a wolf hunt at first light. He ordered the town blacksmith to construct a stout iron cage to hold the beast. Jacques offered to help the blacksmith. With orders given and preparations begun, Gaston and Father Signoret mounted their horses and used the remaining daylight to follow the tracks from the previous night to a cave in the hills southwest of Soissons. They returned to town well before sunset and finished making their plans for the next day’s hunt which would begin after Sunday mass.

Chapter 4: Trail of the Wolf

While Jacques and the blacksmith worked throughout the night to forge a stout cage for the beast, others slept. But Mel got little sleep. At Norbert’s orders he was once again bedding down in the hall outside the door to Yvette’s inn room. The cold drafts from the windows at either end of the hall made it difficult for him to stay warm. He was awakened from a half doze by the sound of breaking glass from the window by the stair. By the light of the single sconce he could see a shambling, hulking bipedal figure, its breath rumbling like the low growl of some savage beast as it slowly moved towards him.

Suddenly, the Beast attacked. As it leapt towards him, Mel saw that the creature was a combination of man and beast. Although it walked on two legs, it was covered in fur and had huge clawed hands, pointed ears, and a great gaping maw filled with fangs. An icy thrill of terror ran down Mel’s spine. The Beast swiped at him and its claws drew a bloody line across his chest as its powerful arm smashed him into the outside wall of Gaston’s room. The Beast howled as it smashed open the door to Yvette’s room[i] and leapt inside. From within, Mel heard the young woman’s piercing scream. 

Mel dragged himself to his feet and raced to the door, pistol in hand. He saw Yvette lying in bed, the blanket clutched in her hands as some futile shield. The wolf crouched over her and she fainted. Sensing Mel’s presence behind it, the Beast turned. Mel’s knees shook, “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph” he said as he leveled the pistol and pulled the trigger. His shot hit the creature in the heart catapulting the Beast through the window. Gaston and Norbert raced into the room weapons in hand. Mel muytely pointed in fear towards the window. Below the two cousins saw the dark outline of the shattered window frame and the sparkle of broken glass in the moonlight…but no body.

Norbert ordered Mel to see to Yvette then jumped out the window to the ground below. The snow was cold on his bare feet. He shouted up at the window, “Mel, bring me my boots.” But Mel ignored the second command and stayed with Yvette who had woken and clutched his arms tightly in fear. Mel tried to comfort her. Meanwhile, Gaston shouted at his men to arm and dress. He quickly returned to his room to retrieve his boots, a pair of pistols, and his cloak. He hurried downstairs ordering one of his men to stay with Mel and guard the girl. Then he joined Norbert outside. 

Norbert had found blood sign amidst the broken glass and a pair of clawed footprints. Gaston sent one of his men to fetch Father Signoret as he and Norbert, accompanied by the remaining three Red Guards, tracked the Beast through town to the market. There Norbert lost the trail. But they were soon joined by Signoret and a fourth Red Guard. The Jesuit called for a lantern and then examined the location where the clawed footprints mysteriously stopped. Gaston suspected an ambush. He drew his weapons as he realized there was only one possible location for the creature to hide. He looked up just as the beast leapt out of the rafters at him fangs bared. The split second of warning was all Gaston needed to use his rapier to parry its fangs but the force of the creature’s strike knocked the soldier off his feet and sent him rolling across the hard packed earth of the market until he crashed into a support post.