“It seems, my dear Lt. Colonel Patterson, that you have quite the reputation for the care and handling of maneaters.”
John buried his face in his hands, groaning. Helena allowed herself a moment to watch her husband, the way his hair was mussed from fingers running through it -- his and hers, at this time of day -- and the intelligence in his expression even at repose.
He reached for the letter lying on the table, then withdrew his hand before his fingers could touch it.
“Where would they have me come now?” he asked. He was only just home from six months in Egypt, finishing construction of a bridge, the first one in more than a year that had not fallen prey to the supernatural. Helena had been with him for awhile, then returned to England to see their dear boy settled at school.
“France. The bridge at Langogne has long been need of repair.”
John looked at her, expression soft as it was whenever his gaze landed upon her. It made her grow warm with pleasure and love, the admiration she saw from him each day. “I do not often repair bridges rather than build them,” he said.
“True, but even old bridges under repair can become a hunting ground.”
John shut his eyes for a long moment. She watched him gather himself, beautiful in the flickering firelight. Their house was quiet with their son off, and she was not terribly fond of the stillness. At least John had returned to her and brought with him stories and a breath of foreign air, a touch of foreign soil.
“And what, pray tell, hunts the bridge at Langogne?” he asked.
Helena waited until he looked up at her, eager not to miss a single twitch of his response. “None other than the great Beast of Gévaudan.”
John’s eyes widened. “Impossible. It was a story, and if true, more than one hundred years ago. Nothing could possibly live such a long life.”
Helena circled the table and stood before him until he opened her arms and leaned back so that she could perch on his thigh. She gathered one of his hands in both of hers; he pressed the other to the small of her back, warm through the layers of cloth between them.
“No natural predator,” she agreed. “No wounded animal turned maneater.” That was the second one they’d faced, after Tsavo and its lions that were not natural predators, not animals at all. Their second hunt was just that: a natural animal, wounded, unable to hunt anything more than soft human prey.
He pressed his lips together. “Is the bridge truly in need of repair?” he asked. She did not blame him. Twice he’d been called out for what they claimed would be short, easy bridge repairs, repairs that were perhaps needed only because they were overly cautious, only to learn, upon arrival, that the claim of repairs was merely a shadow story drawn over the truth: something hunted, and they needed help from Lt. Colonel Patterson, the great hunter.
All John wanted to be was a husband, a father, and a builder of bridges. Helena wished, at times, that he was to be allowed that peace. At others, though, she was glad for his reputation and the adventures it brought.
“I’ve always longed to see France,” she told him. It was not precisely a lie, but nor was it the entire truth. She did not care where they went or what places she saw. She cared only for him, and their son, and their work.
He kissed her arm then raised his head toward hers. Firelight reflected off his glasses. She plucked them from his face and set them aside on the table, then bent to kiss him. His mouth opened under hers, warm and familiar, and she settled into him. She touched his shoulders, his throat, his jaw. He clung to her, hands tight at her waist, shifting her more firmly in his lap until she could feel the length of him.
Helena drew back and smiled down at him, fondly. How she loved this man in all his intelligence and his desires.
“We shall make arrangements in the morning,” she told him and rose from his lap. She took his hands once more, and he followed her lead as she tugged him from the chair and off to their bedroom. The house was quiet, the fire would burn itself out, and she had even more interesting things to focus on than what great adventure awaited.
When they arrived in Langogne, it became clear that though the bridge was in some shape of disrepair, it had little need for the expertise of a military engineer. Still, John spent time with it and the workers who had been brought in for the repairs.
In time, they turned to the true reason that John had been dispatched to this foreign place.
They were brought to the home of Henri Coyer, the French gentleman who had requested John’s presence. He greeted them with more coolness than Helena had come to expect from the men who came to her husband for help, but once they were settled with a quality Bordeaux, he relaxed, and further still when his wife came to join them.
They exchanged pleasantries until the wine had warmed their bodies, and spoke lightly of Helena’s presence. She had a strong instinct for when she needed to play the demure wife with no knowledge of John’s activities, but Henri and his lovely wife, Delphine, had no such need.
Finally, Henri set aside his empty glass and sighed. “I wish better circumstances brought you to our home,” he said.
John gave a slow nod. “Tell me, sir, what plagues you?”
Henri glanced at Helena. She tucked her feet, crossed at the ankles, more firmly under her chair and folded her hands together in her lap; she met his gaze with a frank look of her own. He laughed, then, a hearty sound.
“You are quite the woman,” he told her. It might have fallen uncomfortably but for the way Delphine sat so close, leant forward, as interested in the conversation as Helena herself.
Helena inclined her head, accepting the compliment. “It has been bloody, I assume.”
With that opening, Henri straightened and fell into his story: Three months ago, in the dark of the night under a moonless sky, a man went missing. He did not hold his wine well and was often found asleep in some field or another. This time, he was not found for three long days, and when a group of children stumbled upon him, he brought them true terror. He was dismembered, pieces of his body strewn throughout the tall grass, and his face was eaten away.
Helena blanched. She had a strong constitution, but his matter of fact tone against the grisly details made her vaguely ill. She swallowed and focused. She was strong and would not be dissuaded from working at her husband’s side.
Even with the desecration of the drunkard's body, there was little to fear in one death. Perhaps he had fallen into slumber in the cold night and had not awoken again. Perhaps he had stumbled into water and drowned without knowing. Whatever the cause, it was not too surprising that animals would have set upon fresh meat.
The second disappearance was more difficult to explain. An old shepherd hired a young man to sleep with his flock. Three fully grown ewes had been taken by some wild creature three nights in a row and then a strong, dangerous ram on the fourth, and the old shepherd was determined to stop any more of his flock from being taken. He took his dogs to one section of the fields where the sheep grazed and sent the boy to another.
In the dark, cold hours before dawn, something set upon them, stirring the sheep but touching not a single one, nor the dogs. The old shepherd sat awake keeping watch and saw nothing of what upset his flock.
Of the young man, no trace was found but for a large swath of bloody grass and a ribbon of fabric torn from his shirt.
The next event occurred inside the village proper. A boy, not yet ten, taken from the street in the middle of the day. Witnesses described a creature not much like any wolf, a large beast heavy in the chest, reddish brown fur with a dark stripe along the back, as large as a donkey, as loud as a herd of horses. It did not howl the song of the wolf. Instead its voice rose in a strange undulating cry heard throughout the village.
As the attacks grew bolder, terror and anger spread throughout the region. Whispers began about the return of the great, dangerous beast. Gévaudan was no more, but the legend continued, and so too now the deaths.
John listened, quiet, throughout the story. He remained still after, fingers steepled together, fingertips just touching his lips.
Finally, he nodded. “I believe we can help.”
Henri lifted his wine glass. “Thank you, Patterson.”
Helena sat back, pleased. There would be much to do in the morning.
While Henri showed John the locations of the current attacks, Helena set to learning more about the historical ones. Delphine proved to be a wealth of knowledge.
“My family has owned this land for generations,” she explained as she and Helena sat with tea and an ancient journal of a distant relative. “The women have always been curious.”
Helena smiled. “Not always the easiest trait.”
“True.” Delphine’s return smile was warm. “And yet we persevere.”
Delphine’s relatives had indeed been curious and educated beyond expectation. Delphine read aloud, translating as she did, and Helena took copious notes, scattered about her leather-bound book, drawing connections and images in the open spaces. This disorganization helped her gather her thoughts into something that made sense.
Theories abounded. It was one beast, or some claimed two. An unusually large wolf, but the coloration was wrong, the teeth too large, the body too bulky, the smell too unbearable. It was a lion and the villagers did not know how to describe a creature they had never before encountered. It was the size of a wild boar, of a cow, of an elephant. It walked on four legs, it walked on two. It looked like a beast and talked like a man; it walked like a man and snarled like a beast.
It had attacked only humans, never cattle and domestic animals.
Helena marked that note. Deviations from the past could become the key to clarity in the present.
After awhile, Delphine came to the end of an account. Her voice had grown scratchy, and Helena suggested she rest it for awhile. While the tea was not as good as a strong cup of Britain’s finest, it was warm and sweet, and it soothed Helena’s frazzled thoughts.
“What was the truth of it, do you think?” she asked Delphine after some time of companionable silence.
Delphine lifted her shoulders in a shrug that was, somehow, elegant despite how she sat. “History says it was a wolf, shot down with silver and displayed at court after.”
Helena waited for her to continue. When she did not, Helena asked again, “And what do you think? Do you believe it was a single wolf?”
“No.” The answer came fast. “No single wolf brought that much death, that much pain.”
“What answer do you believe then?” Helena kept her voice gentle, her words light. She felt on the verge of something important.
“I had an aunt, many times great. She hunted when others would not. We’ve read her stories today.” Delphine fell silent. Helena sipped her tea. Waited. “She was not a superstitious woman.”
“You need not be superstitious to question a man’s truth,” Helena murmured.
Delphine laughed, a full, rich sound. “Just so. And question she did. History speaks little of her, but we remember. She did not believe it was a single wolf, or even a pack of them. It was no creature native to this land. Whether she believed it supernatural, she did not say, but she swore that the wolf killed by Chastel was not the beast. The killings stopped in Gévaudan, and people did not believe her, but she claimed, until the day she died, that somewhere it roamed still, and hunted, and killed.”
There was no sign of the beast that day or that night. The villagers were on edge, waiting. John was as well. He could be patient for her, and their son, and his beloved bridges, but not for the hunt itself to begin.
The second day, John took himself to the fields with gun and hounds and men, searching. Helena and Delphine returned to their studies. They worked late into the afternoon before they stopped to eat.
“What will your husband do if the beast does not show itself?” Delphine asked. Helena rested her hands in her lap and gave it real thought.
“He will wait,” she said, “and search. He will set traps and lures. He will draw out the beast.”
“And if it does not come?” Delphine pressed.
Helena shook her head. “I do not know. We have found something, always.”
Delphine bit her lower lip, silent for a moment. “There was a story,” she said, “of a mother who leapt upon the beast when it attacked her son. It took the child’s head in its great mouth, but she was not afraid. She flung herself onto its back and shoved her hands into its mouth, pushed her fingers past its terrible teeth. They say she wrenched her child from the jaws of death, from the mouth of the devil himself.”
Helena’s heart quaked at the thought of her own sweet boy. “Did he survive?” she asked. Her voice shook but a little.
Delphine’s expression was complicated. Unreadable. “No.”
There were no children there, in their warm, welcoming home. Helena wondered at it, but did not ask.
“I feel like the mother and the village my child.” Delphine’s voice was low but steady. “I would keep them safe, but I do not know how.”
Helena reached over and covered one of Delphine’s hands with her own. “Nor do I,” she said, “but we will find our way.”
The third day dawned with no disappearances and no deaths. It was a good thing, all told, but John’s impatience simmered, and Delphine paced after breakfast while John and Henri decided where they would go that day.
“Come,” Delphine told Helena. “We will visit the village. Perhaps someone will have seen something more.”
It was a beautiful day for a walk, the sky clear, the sun bright. Helena kept her parasol to hand, but did not open it, and instead enjoyed the light on her face. People knew Delphine and greeted her warmly. They were polite to Helena herself, a pleasant surprise after all she had heard about the cold nature of the French people.
They were nearly to the bridge that John would not be repairing when they heard the first scream. Helena gathered up her skirts and ran, heedless of the danger. For all that the villagers buzzed and moved, she could not tell if anyone came with her.
At the riverbank, she found exactly what she feared: a bloody child, a great hulking beast, and a mother beating at it with a large stone. As Helena darted toward them, the beast dropped the child and turned fast, knocking into the mother and sending her flying.
Helena gave it no thought at all when she raised her parasol and threw herself at the monster, jabbing toward its face. She caught it just beneath its eye, gouging open a jagged line down its snout, and drew back to lunge again.
It came for her then, too fast, and she fell backward as she tried to dodge. She kept her wits about her and the parasol up. The beast dove in, jaws wide, saliva and blood dripping, its hot, fetid breath filling her senses. She cried out, wordless and angry, and shoved the parasol forward even as the beast came.
It ducked its head, coming for her throat, and she adjusted the angle of her weapon, and her grip. The beast’s speed and weight was its own demise; it impaled itself on the sharp tip of the parasol, straight into its eye, and its momentum carried it forward, driving the strong metal base of the parasol into its brain.
Helena collapsed beneath the beast, surrounded by hot fur and blood and a choking stench. For a long moment, she could do nothing but lie there and shudder. Adrenaline drained away, leaving her horrified by how close she’d come to death.
Delphine’s voice rose, shouting directions, and soon, though not soon enough, the creature was lifted from Helena. Delphine knelt next to her and helped her sit up. Helena looked herself over, and it was the bloodstain down her front that made her eyes burn with tears. It wasn’t even one of her favourite dresses, but it was ruined and it was a safe release of her emotions.
“You are an utter fool,” Delphine told her, voice low and shaky. Her hands were steady when she brushed Helena’s hair back out of her face. “And the bravest person I have ever known.”
Helena offered her a smile. It trembled, and her legs shook. Weakness dropped her arms to her side. Her hands felt empty without her parasol, and she wanted, very much, to bury herself into John’s arms for awhile.
“Come, dearheart.” Delphine called a man over to help Helena stand. “Let me take you home.”
Helena was bathed and tucked snugly into bed by the time John and Henri had been found and returned to the house. John came rushing straight to her side and, propriety be damned, drew her into his arms right there in front of their hosts.
“I’m fine, my love.” Helena stroked his hair, ran her hands down his back, let him tuck his face against the side of her throat. “I am only bruised.”
He kissed her cheeks, the tip of her nose, her forehead. Helena blushed, but held him close.
“We will have dinner sent up,” Delphine said, and Helena could not miss the amusement in her voice. “Rest tonight. We will meet for breakfast in the morning.”
When they were alone, John burrowed into her, burying his face against her stomach and putting his arms tight around her waist. She rubbed his back, spoke soothing words of no importance at all, just let him hear her voice.
“I could not bear to lose you,” he murmured into the fabric of her nightgown.
“Oh John.” Helena slid her fingers into his hair until she could press her nails lightly against his scalp. “You will never.”
He clung to her like that well into the night and her heart swelled with love.
Breakfast was a celebratory affair and after they settled in Henri’s warm and welcoming office once more.
“A hyena!” Delphine’s eyes sparkled. “It is a long way from home.”
Helena sat very near to John so that he could touch her arm, her knee, her shoulder. He was loathe to let her far from his side, and she did not mind the closeness. “Indeed.” She turned to John, who knew more about African animals than any other person she'd met. “Do you agree with the identification?”
John absentmindedly bit at one end of his glasses. “I’m not sure,” he admitted at last. “What I saw could have been, I suppose, but -- the body is not as large as I had pictured from the witnesses. It does not quite match what they claimed to see.”
“Witnesses are often confused,” Henri said. “Especially when they fear for their lives.”
“Perhaps.” John squeezed Helena’s shoulder. “Even so, I would enjoy your hospitality a little longer, if you will have us. A precaution, nothing more.”
Delphine nodded. “Of course you are welcome,” she said. “I’m happy to show Helena the village without the veil of terror on it. And it is better to have you here if…” She trailed off.
“If it is not the end,” Helena said, putting their fears into words.
“Yes.” John squeezed her shoulder again, then lowered his hand to hold hers. “If it is not.”
“And if it is?” Delphine asked. “Or if not now, once it is the end? What will you do?”
John lifted their joined hands until he could kiss Helena’s fingertips. “Perhaps we will travel. See more of France.”
“More than pastures and maneaters,” Henri said, and despite the serious nature of what had been done, he laughed, and they with him. He turned talk to bridge building, then, and what else might be done in Langogne.
Helena looked to John. His eyes were bright, his cheeks slightly flushed, and he leant forward as he talked, gesturing with his glasses to underline certain points. She loved him in all ways, but she particularly loved him like this, in his element, and took great pleasure in his joy for his work.
She squeezed his hand and allowed herself to enjoy the moment, new friends, her first successful solo hunt, her husband in all his glory. Soon, they would travel and then return to their home and their son, and in time, another adventure would call them away.
Perhaps this beast truly had been merely a hyena, fed to grow large and then escaped from a menagerie. Perhaps it was not so simple a thing, and it was something supernatural wearing the skin of an animal. Perhaps it was not the maneater at all, simply a predator caught in the wrong place. They would stay, and they would examine the body of the beast, and they would see what else might need to be done.
John looked over and smiled at her, as warm and bright as the day they wed and all the days in between, and Helena knew, more than anything else, that she was truly loved.