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Authors: Mercedes Lackey

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Granny's Cottage was at least as old as the oldest building in the city, but rather than showing its age, what it displayed was just how comfortable and cozy one could make a little building when one had several hundred years to improve it. The thatch was probably as thick as Bella was tall, the tiny windows all had glass in them, the floor was closely laid slate covered in cheerful rag rugs. There were four rooms, opening into one another: Granny's bedroom with a canopied bed big enough to sleep four, a workroom and stillroom where she made her medicines, the kitchen and a sort of parlor. The gray stone walls had long ago been sheathed on the inside in lath and plaster. Pretty little bits of embroidery had been framed and hung on them. The settle in the parlor where Bella sat was piled with cushions and draped with crocheted and knitted blankets made up of a motley assortment of odds and ends.

Granny herself was of a piece with her cottage: tidy, compact, efficient; a little shabby, but one should never equate
shabby
with
dirty.
She had snow-white hair piled up under a spotlessly white cap, a white apron over her patchwork skirt and brown linen shirt. She moved lightly, and surprisingly quickly.

“Oh, that wretched, beastly man,” Granny said, arranging honeycakes on a plate, putting the plate on a tray with two mugs and pouring tea into the mugs as Bella stretched out her feet to the fire. “Why Duke Sebastian continues to keep him, I do not know.”

“Well, he tried to maul me at the Wool Guild masked ball last night,” Bella replied crossly. “He didn't know who I was, of course— I imagine he thought I was a servant in my mistress's castoffs. I managed to give him bruised ribs and an equally bruised foot. If I hadn't been at such a disadvantage in the snow today, I would have given
him a black eye to match. Hasn't anyone ever complained about him?” she continued, still flushing a little with anger.

“He frightens people too much,” Granny replied, handing her a cup of tea in the thick, white-glazed pottery mug. “And of course, most of those who come out here to me are poor. Who would listen to them if they complained in the first place? And in the second, in order to lodge anything, they would have to take their complaint to a Royal Court, since the complaint is against one of Duke Sebastian's chief servants. You know what that would entail.”

Bella snorted. “First an endless wait, which means a day or more of lost wages, to see the King's Sheriff. Then you would have to persuade the Sheriff that the complaint was valid. Then, when the complaint was accepted, you would have to come back to Court for days and wait in line for your case to be heard—”

Granny settled into her rocking chair, and picked up her own tea mug.

“But why not take the complaint directly to the Duke?” she wanted to know.

“Because no one has seen the Duke since he came of age,” Granny replied with a shrewd look. “In fact, the only one of his servants I have ever seen is the Woodsman. Which would make it a bit difficult to complain. You must remember, Duke Sebastian's father died when he was young, and the Woodsman has been acting as his Guardian. And even though the Duke reached his majority a few years ago, he has remained in his Manor, and let Eric continue to oversee his lands.”

“No wonder Eric's got above himself,” Bella growled. “I've half a mind to go through the complaint process myself. I was insulted, he tried to lay hands on me and he implied he intended indecencies on my person. And
I
have time no servant or farmhand can afford to spend on the process.”

“Think it through, first,” Granny advised. “Just have a honeycake and think it through.”

When Granny took that tone of voice with her, Bella generally did as she advised. So as the rosy-faced, white-haired old woman rocked gently and sipped her tea, Bella considered the implications.

If she went through the usual route with the King's Sheriff, the very first thing that would happen, once the complaint was actually brought into the Court, would be that her word would be pitted against Eric's. Eric could, and certainly would, claim that it had been she who had been forward with him, or that she had been mistaken, or that it had never happened at all. It would be a case of her word against his, and it would be next to impossible to find any other women he might have molested or men he had bullied to bring their own complaints forward to bolster her case.

Even if she was believed, there would still be doubts by some. She was, after all, considered to be an aging woman, a spinster, and he was a handsome man. Some would look at the situation and be sure that she had gone running after him, then made up the story out of revenge for being rebuffed. Genevieve would certainly wash her hands of the situation, and Bella's reputation would suffer in some quarters.

And what would she gain if she won against him? The worst that would happen to him would be that he would be publicly reprimanded and perhaps ordered to apologize just as publicly. He might be watched carefully for a time, but no one could dismiss him from his post except the King and his master. It didn't sound likely that Duke Sebastian would dismiss someone he relied on so heavily, and this was no matter for the King to get involved in.

“Bother!” she said aloud, crossly, knowing that Granny had already come to the same conclusion

Granny nodded, her gray eyes full of sympathy. “Now, what
can
you do?” she asked. Her expression turned sly and knowing. “Now might be the time to make use of the busy mouths of those twin stepsisters of yours.”

Bella blinked, taken aback. “I never thought of that—” Suddenly, given a new direction, her mind hummed. “Now, that
is
an interesting thought.” She could actually count on their discretion not to use her name—because they wouldn't want any sort of shadow to fall on their own reputations. But this was too good a scandalous story not to share.

She could tell them what had happened to her at the Wool Guild Ball—and what had happened in the woods—and let their indignation do the rest. She could almost hear it now. “I can't tell you
who
it was, of course, because the poor thing would be
mortified,
but did you hear what that horrible Gamekeeper Eric Teller tried to do to a girl
in the middle of the Wool Guild Ball?”
Pearl could even add, with absolute truth, “My sister Bella saw it with her own eyes!” That would be even better for everyone's purposes; Genevieve wouldn't care that Bella was at an open Ball, it would deflect any suspicion that she had been the one so insulted and there would be no suspicion that the
twins
had been at the Ball without Genevieve knowing.

Oh, the scandal! Everyone loved scandal. It would spread like wildfire. It would certainly reach the ears of the Sheriff a lot faster than her complaint would—

Now, what that would bring was not a reprimand, but a great deal of scrutiny. Scrutiny was better for her purposes. Someone would probably be set to watch Eric and see if the rumors were true. Eric was in the employ of Duke Sebastian, and the Duke would be called to answer for anything he did.

That someone would almost certainly be a member of the City Guard. And a quiet word in Ragnar's ear about Eric… Again, she could count on his discretion, although he would probably let a few
people know that she was the one who had been accosted and insulted. But they would all be friends of hers, and she could count on them to keep it to themselves. So when the City Guard was told to watch Eric, they would already be primed.

If he knew he was being watched, he would have to mend his ways. If he didn't realize it, he would be caught.

Granny smiled. “I can almost hear the thoughts buzzing in your brain,” she said.

She smiled. “It is exceedingly manipulative,” she pointed out.

Granny laughed. “What's magic but manipulation?” she pointed out. “Or politics, or diplomacy for that matter?”

“A point.” Bella mulled it over. “It will be more effective than anything else I could do.”

“Now, you know this can backfire if you are just looking for revenge for what really was a petty insult,” Granny warned.

Bella shook her head. “You've told me that before, and while I might have lost my temper with him out in the woods, I've got it under control now. And I just can't bear thinking about what he must be doing to poor girls who
don't
have powerful papas. I can't even imagine what he does to people he's actually caught poaching…” She clenched her jaw. “I can't allow someone like that to go on as he is. He is going to become more abusive, not less, the longer he can bully people unopposed. I don't matter—it's not as if he actually hurt me, and I suspect he is still stinging from what I said to him. That's revenge enough. But others will not be so fortunate if he is not stopped.”

Granny nodded with satisfaction. “All right, then. Shall we get to what brought you here in the first place, now that your head is clearer?”

“Please!” she said eagerly, and Granny put down her mug and got up from her chair.

She returned with an enormous leather-bound book, and opened it at the place they had left off.

This book was an extensive compendium of the medical knowledge—especially herbs—of at least ten generations of Grannies. The binding had been cunningly made so that pages could be inserted anywhere, and when something new was learned about a plant, the information could easily be added. Each entry had a dried specimen, a decent drawing of the living plant and everything that had been learned about it, even if all that anyone had left was a notation saying “sheep fodder.”

“I didn't remember that,” Granny mused, her finger on a line that said that “the root of Sheep Sorrely, when roasted and ground, can be used to make a tasty hot beverage.” “This is as useful for me as it is for you. I don't believe I have looked this closely at the book in years.”

But something had been nagging at the back of Bella's mind ever since the discussion of the Woodsman, and finally, it solidified into an actual thought. “Duke Sebastian,” she said aloud. “You said no one had seen him since he came of age—”

Granny closed the book. “Not quite true,” she admitted, “but close enough. No one outside the Court, at any rate.”

Bella waited, hands folded in her lap, eyes fixed on Granny expectantly. Granny laughed. “I know that look! Your turn to brew the tea. There should be just enough time to tell the tale before you must be getting back.”

Bella was more than willing to brew the tea in exchange for what promised to be more than mere Court gossip.

When she returned with the two mugs full, both sweetened with a touch of honey, Granny had built up the fire again. The two of them put up their feet and Granny took an appreciative sip of her mug. “Well,” she said, “not much of this will be in the broadsheets.
Sebastian may be a Duke, but he is not one of the truly wealthy ones.”

Bella settled into the chair and nodded. Wealth was as important as rank in the city, and a blindingly rich commoner, like the Master of the Goldsmiths Guild, was more important to the gossips and often within Court circles than a Duke of modest means and little or no political ambition.

“Sebastian's mother died when he was very young. His father, the Old Duke, was gray-haired when Sebastian was born, so it was no surprise when he died when Sebastian was sixteen. Sebastian inherited these woods and lands enough to support him comfortably, but not so much that it excited anyone's greed.” Granny chuckled. “So I was told.”

Bella wondered who had told her. Granny was hardly the simple Herb Woman she pretended to be, but from the way she was talking now, it seemed as if she had
some
contact with people within the King's Court.

Or— Well, perhaps not. Her sources could simply be the King's servants, who probably knew as much about what was going on as their masters.

“At any rate, failing a Guardian or Protector being named in his father's will, he was left to the care of the King and was brought up at Court until he was eighteen.” Granny took another drink of tea. “I'm told he was pleasant enough to look at and pleasant enough as a person, but neither he nor his inheritance set any hearts on fire. Then when he turned eighteen, he came into his own and moved onto his estate, but for the first few months, until he was about nineteen, he continued to turn up all the time at Court. Daily, sometimes.”

“Daily?” That surprised her.

“Redbuck Manor is not that far from here,” Granny pointed out. “I
would see him ride by on the road down there two and three times a week. Then something happened. He stopped going into the city every day. I stopped seeing him ride by, stopped hearing the horns of his hunting party in the woods. He withdrew, and no one knew why. And that was about five years ago.”

Granny waited. Bella's mind raced.

“He hadn't any sweetheart, so it couldn't be that. He hadn't any close relatives left to shock him by dying, so it couldn't be that. It wasn't some accident or other?”

Granny shook her head. “I'd have been called. Not accident, nor illness. In fact, I can think of only one thing that would cause someone to shut himself up on a lonely estate like that.”

Bella waited.

Granny paused portentously. “A curse.”

3

BELLA CONSIDERED THAT. “IT'S POSSIBLE, OF COURSE,”
she agreed. “But this is one of Godmother Elena's Kingdoms. If someone had been cursed, wouldn't she do something about it?”

“Should she?” Granny countered. “He's not at all important. And not everyone gets happy stories.”

Bella gave her a mock scowl. “Really, that's cruel of you, Granny. And I don't know—I don't know anything about the business of being a Godmother. But
you
have said that it's not a good thing to have curses floating about at random. They tend to be like tarred brushes—everything they get near ends up with black, sticky marks on them.”

“So you were paying attention that afternoon. Good.” Granny put her empty mug down; Bella just then realized she had been clutching hers, and set it down, as well. “It's possible that it's a very complicated curse, and she still hasn't worked out how to lift it. I wasn't telling the whole truth about Sebastian being shut up inside the walks of his own Manor. He
does
come out, rarely, and only for those social events he really cannot avoid. He's still eligible and
handsome, and yet he stays on the outskirts of society and is quite isolated. It's quite the mystery.”

“But why put all your trust in a
Gamekeeper?
” she blurted, then blushed. “Good heavens, Genevieve's snobbery is contagious.”

“No, that is a perfectly legitimate question. And there is one tiny bit of ancient gossip that might explain it.” Granny raised an eyebrow. “It's said that Eric von Teller is the image of the Old Duke in his prime.”

“Eh?” Bella replied, then, “Oh!”

“It's only gossip,” Granny said warningly.

That would certainly explain his arrogance,
Bella thought. In fact, it would explain all of Eric's behavior. He swaggered about the place as if he thought he was entitled to it, and that might have been because he
did
think he was entitled to it. And with Duke Sebastian being so reclusive, he might just as well be the master of the place.

“Well, then, I shall have to give him an apology if I see him again,” she said out loud.

“I don't follow,” Granny replied, tilting her head to the side.

“I told him he needed to be put in his place, or something of the sort,” Bella admitted. “I was wrong. If he really
is
the Old Duke's son, even on the sinister side, he outranks me.”

Granny made a rude noise. “I wouldn't waste an apology on that one, and even the bastard son of a King gets only as much rank as the King permits. He should count himself lucky that he has the position that he does.”

Bella looked up at the tiny windows and realized with a start that the light had the distinct reddish tinge of sunset. She realized to her chagrin that she and Granny had spent at least two or three hours over the book, and then far too much time talking about the Gamekeeper and the Duke. “Bother. I'll be going back in the dark now,” she said, with a twinge of irritation. “On the other hand, at
least I know more about the Gamekeeper, and I should be able to give him something to think about besides tormenting servant girls.”

They both got up; Bella collected her cloak and the empty basket, and Granny saw her out. “At least there will be a full moon,” she pointed out. “And it's due to rise a little after sunset. You should have no problem seeing your way.”

Bella kissed the old woman on the cheek and shooed her inside before she caught a chill. It was with no little regret that she turned away from the warmly glowing windows of the cottage and headed into the darkening, cold woods. She rather wished she could stay the night, and Granny would have put her up on the trundle bed if she asked—but if she did, it was odds-on that she would return in the morning to find quarrels in the kitchen and everything behind time.

She pulled her cloak tightly around her and snugged her scarf around the hood at her neck. There was a bit of a wind picking up; the fire in her room was going to feel very welcome.

When the moon rose, it was a lot easier to see. The silver light poured down through the bare branches and reflected off the snow, and if it hadn't been so cold and lonely, she would have stopped more than once to admire how pretty it was.

However, it was tremendously cold; already, despite the two pairs of socks over her feet and the fleece of her sheepskin boots, her feet were like ice. She wished she could run, but the snow was deep enough that running was a bit difficult.
But I could run a bit, then walk awhile—that would warm up my feet, too—
she thought, vaguely.

But her thoughts were shattered by the howl of a wolf.

All the hair on the back of her neck tried to stand up, and an instinctive chill went down her spine. No use trying to tell herself it was a dog, for no dog ever sounded like that. She remembered
what Ragnar had said about “hungry beasts” coming down into these woods.

She stopped on the road and listened, hard, hoping to hear others respond to the first howl. She knew, thanks to Granny, that she had nothing to fear from a pack. Wolves in a pack were strong enough to take down their normal prey; they might go after sheep or even cattle, but they would avoid humans.

But there were no answering howls, barks or yips. This was a loner—and loners were dangerous. Old, diseased or the wrong-headed young males that refused to fit into a pack, they could feed themselves well enough in spring, summer and fall on mice and rabbits and other small game, but when winter came, they began to starve. Something had to be wrong with a wolf if a pack wouldn't allow it to at least hover at the fringe and glean scraps. A lone wolf in winter was generally a wolf with an empty belly, and a wolf with an empty belly forgot he wanted nothing to do with human beings.

She lurched into a trot, just as the wolf howled again—

Nearer.

She had to fight herself not to run. Right now, running wouldn't do anything but get her exhausted and make her easier prey. Instead, she dropped the useless basket and scanned the snow on both sides of the road for a fallen branch of manageable size. What she needed was something like a weapon.

The wolf howled again, nearer still. Clearly he had her scent. She couldn't tell if that was a hunting howl or not, but it probably was.

Fear overcame sense for a moment and she ran a few steps before she got control of herself again. She had to look strong. A weakened wolf might hesitate to try to take down something that looked able to defend itself.

She spotted a club-size branch sticking out of the snow and made for it, pulling at the exposed end. It proved to be attached to a big
ger branch, but a sharp tug fueled by fear made it yield a bit, and a second, two-handed wrench brought a satisfying
crack
of wood, and she found herself with a decent, sturdy cudgel.

She trotted onward, but then movement out of the corner of her eye made her freeze.

She looked up at the top of the ridge.

There, black against the moon, was the wolf, looking down at her.

He didn't look old, or ill. He looked huge, and in good health.

That was
not
good.

A big, healthy, single wolf had probably been driven out of his pack for aggression. Maybe cub-killing. Granny had told her about one such beast that had eventually required a Champion to come kill it, since Prince Florian's father, King Edmund, had been too young and his father too old to hunt it themselves. Granny wouldn't tell her
why,
which was curious, but she claimed such beasts attracted a malignant magic toward themselves that made them bigger, faster and, above all, much smarter than ordinary creatures.

She could feel its baleful stare, and she had no doubt that Granny was right.

Stand and threaten?
she wondered, more chills creeping down her spine.
Or try to run?

At that moment, the wolf gathered itself and leapt, and her body decided for her. It ran.

The wolf had miscalculated. It landed in snow deeper than it was tall; as she glanced back over her shoulder, she saw it was floundering.

This made no difference to her terror, of course.

She thrashed her way down the road, heart pounding and mouth dry, expecting at any moment to be leapt on from behind. One hand still clutched the stick, while the other flailed at the air as she fought
to keep her balance. She was running as fast as she could, and getting nowhere, and she could almost feel the wolf's hot breath on the back of her neck.

A glimmering of sense fought its way through the fog of fear. There! Up ahead was a huge old tree, something of a landmark for her on the road to Granny's. If she could just get her back against it, she might be able to fend the beast off!

She put on a burst of speed she hadn't known was in her, and reached the tree just as she heard panting and growling practically on her heels.

Instinct, not reason, made her duck, and the wolf soared over her head to crash into the trunk of the tree. A shower of snow shook down on them both as the tree limbs above them rattled with the impact.

She paused for a moment. He rolled onto his feet, but slowly, shaking his head and staggering. She realized that he must have been stunned. She had a moment of relief, but the tree was no shelter now, for he was between her and it. She shook off her indecision and ran on, trying to think of another place where she might make some kind of a stand.

Then she remembered. Not that far past the tree was a cluster of boulders. There was a nook there that she might be able to wedge herself into. The wolf would only be able to come at her from the front, if she could manage that.

She peered frantically up the road, searching for it among the shadows as she ran, and her breath burned in her throat and lungs. She sobbed a little from the fear and the pain of her side, then shook her head to clear it of sudden tears, and when she could see again, finally spotted the boulders. The sight of that shelter gave her another burst of strength out of nowhere. She flung herself at them, floundering through deeper snow to reach them. Then the drift
gave way to no snow at all, and she felt blindly along the surface until her hands hit nothing at all and she fell into the gap.

The next thing she knew she was wedged into the nook, staring out into the moonlit snow patterned with the shadows of branches and gasping in huge, burning breaths. And that was when the wolf appeared again.

This time he wasn't running. With his head down, ears back and fur bristling, he stalked toward her. She grasped her club in both mittened hands and waited, the sweat from her run cooling and making her shiver with more than just fear. He wasn't gray; he was dark, black maybe, and bigger than any canine she had ever seen except for the mastiffs used for hunting boar and bear.

He gave out a low, rumbling growl that she answered with a strangled whimper.

She saw him tense, and knew he was going to leap again. Just as he did, she hunched down and thrust her improvised club blindly forward and up. She wasn't strong enough to knock him down, and didn't try. She felt the end of the club hit—something—and she shoved with all her might as he sailed over the top of her again, assisted by her blow.

This time she wasn't lucky enough for him to have another accident; he didn't go headfirst into the boulder. Instead, he reacted to what she had done instantly. She heard claws scrabbling against the stone above her head, and then he was gone. But a moment later he leapt down from the top of the boulders to land in front of her again in a cloud of loose snow.

He eyed her, breath steaming in the moonlight. She shrank as far back into the rock as she could.
All I can do is make it too hard for him to drag me out,
she thought, through the fog of panic.
If I make him work too hard for his meal, maybe he'll give up. Why doesn't he just give up and go after a nice fat sheep?

He growled, and paced nearer. No leaping this time; his muscles were tensing in a different pattern. Then he moved; fast and agile. He lunged at her and snapped.

She thrust the splintery end of the branch at his nose, not his jaws. If he managed to get hold of the stick, she would never be able to hold on to it. She had to fend him off without losing this slender defense, because there was nothing between her and him but her cloak if she did.

He jerked away, but it was hardly more than an irritated wince as he went back on the attack and continued to lunge and snap. She alternated poking with frantic beating of the end back and forth between the walls of her nook—not trying to hit him, just trying to make it harder for him to reach her. His growling rose in volume and pitch, filling her ears.

Her arms and legs burned with fatigue; her feet felt like blocks of ice. She tried to shout at the beast, hoping to startle it, but she couldn't even manage a squeak from her tight throat.

How long had he been trying to get at her? It felt like hours. Clearly he was not giving up.

His eyes glittered blackly in the moonlight. They should have been red, a hellish, infernal red.

Suddenly he backed up, studying her. She held her breath. Was this it? Had he finally decided she was more trouble than she was worth? Or was he figuring out some way to get past her stick?

A moment later, the question was answered as he lunged again, his jaws closing on her stick.

He backed up, digging all four feet into the ground, hauling and tugging. She held on for dear life, breath caught in her throat, violently jerking the stick from side to side, trying to shake him off, bashing his muzzle against the boulders. As she felt her feet slip
ping, felt herself being pulled out of the crevice, in desperation she kicked at his face.

Moving too fast for her to react, he let go of the stick and his teeth fastened on her foot, penetrating the sheepskin as if it was thinner than paper.

A scream burst from her throat as the teeth hit the flesh of her ankle.

BOOK: Beauty and the Werewolf
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