Authors: Mercedes Lackey
somehow startled him, as nothing else had.
He let go as if her foot was red-hot, and backed away. She scrabbled back into the safety of the crevice, sobbing. Now, at last, she found her voice.
“Go away!” she cried out, her voice breaking. “Leave me alone!” Stupid, of course; the beast couldn't understand her. And even if it did, why should it leave such a tasty meal, when with a little more work, it would have her?
But the wolf backed up another pace, head down, tail down, ears flat, staring at her as if it hadn't until that moment understood it was attacking a human.
Now, rather than growling, it was eerily silent.
“Please,” she sobbed, “please just leave me alone!”
It stared at her. What was it thinking? She scrabbled to her feet again, stick at the ready, still weeping. Her ankle
and she didn't dare look down at it to see how badly it had been mauled. Surely there was blood-scent on the air now. Surely that would goad the beast into a final, fatal attack.
It backed up another pace, still staring. As she sobbed again, it finally made a sound, an odd interrogative sound deep in its throat.
And then, inexplicably, it ducked its head, abruptly turned away and plunged off, running into the woods. It bounded through the snow, a swiftly moving black streak on the white, weaving among
the shadows. A moment later, it was gone. Except for the burning pain of her ankle, the entire incident might have been a nightmare.
She waited, sure that this was nothing more than an incredibly clever ruse on the beast's part. Butânothing disturbed the serenity of the clearing. And after a moment, she pried herself out of the cleft in the rock, testing her ankle. It held under her weight, even though it hurt as badly as anything she had ever suffered, and only a little blood spotted the leather of the boot.
She broke into a limping run, moving as fast as she could for the safe haven of the city walls.
Behind her, a long, mournful howl drifted over the trees.
There was a great press of people getting into the gate, so no one noticed her state as she crowded in among them. The streets on the way to the Beauchampses' home, however, were quiet.
On the one hand, as she limped homeward, she wished desperately that she would encounter someone she knew, someone who could help. On the otherâshe knew what would happen the moment her father discovered what had happened. She'd never be allowed outside the city gates again.
She began to try to think how she could treat her own injuryâafter all, Granny had been teaching her this very sort of thing for years, now. But as it happened, Bella met Doctor Jonaton at the front door. She had completely forgotten this was his evening to attend Genevieve, and of all of her stepmother's doctors, he was the one she trusted the most. He was putting on his cloak as she stumbled inside.
“Bella!” he exclaimed, catching her as she overbalanced. “Good heavens, child, what is the matter?”
Her teeth were chattering so hard she could scarcely get the words out, but as he helped her in to sit at the fire in the empty parlor, she managed to get out the story of her narrow escape.
“Let me see your foot,” he demanded, and wouldn't be put off. He pulled the boot off her foot, and she suppressed a yip as he peeled the stockings off, reopening the puncture wounds. He examined the white foot, critically, shushing her as she tried to protest that it was nothing.
“Don't tell anyone what happened, please!” she begged. “Father is still at the warehouse, and Genevieve will have hysterics. No one has to know but us.” He frowned fiercely, and rang for a maid.
“Mistress Isabella has hurt herself,” he said shortly, when Marguerite appeared. “I want hot water and clean bandages.”
The girl's eyes were as big as saucers, but she ran off and returned in no time with what the doctor asked.
“Don't let Father know, please?” she begged him. “They'll never let me outside the walls again if you do! I was stupid. I should have known better than to go through the woods at night, but even Granny didn't think it was dangerous. I know it could have been horrible, but it all came out all right, didn't it?”
He didn't look up from his work, sponging off the wounds, which were no longer bleeding, then bandaging the ankle with salve and a wrapping of clean cloth. “I have to report a wild-animal attack like this to the Sheriff,” he said, with an unusually stern expression. “That's the law, Bella. If wild animals begin attacking humans, they need to be hunted down. What if someone else is caught unawares by this beast? What if it's a child?”
“But don't tell Father, please!” she begged. “I promise, I'll make sure that if I'm caught by darkness, I'll stay with Granny, and I'll do my best never to be caught like that again.”
“I would be a great deal more at ease if you would promise me never to go out there afoot again,” he replied, now looking up at her, his eyes worried. “If you had been ahorse, the creature would
never have attacked you in the first place. Your father can afford the use of a livery horse.”
“I promise,” she pledged fervently.
“And I am
happy that he is not to know about this,” the doctor continued.
Well, she wasn't happy about keeping it from him, either. “I'll tell him I was hurt, myself,” she saidânot promising to tell him
she was hurt, only that she had been. “He'll probably insist that I hire a horse himself after I do.”
“Stand on that,” the doctor commanded. She did; it hurt, but no worse than a sprained ankle. She said as much.
“Good.” He rang for the maid again. “Mistress Isabella needs to go up to her room and rest,” he told her. “Help her to bed, and bring her supper there.”
“Butâ” Bella began.
“I will be the judge of what you can do, young woman,” the doctor said sternly. “You've had a bad experience, and you need rest. The household can tend to itself for one night.”
With a sigh, she gave in and let Marguerite help her up the stairs, out of her clothing and into bed. But when she brought up a tray, Bella had recovered enough to write out orders for the household. Mostly, they were orders of who was to obey whom, with the Housekeeper getting official precedence over the chief of the manservants, who fancied himself a Butler.
Mathew Breman is to follow the directions of Mrs. Athern,
she wrote firmly and clearly.
Unless and until such time as Master Henri appoints him to the official position of Butler, Mrs. Athern is his superior in the household, and if and when that day comes, she is then his equal in all things except the handling of the plate and wine cellar.
She handed the letters over to Marguerite, with the strict instructions that they were to be delivered to the Housekeeper and Mathew.
she thought wearily, settling back to eat her long-
postponed dinner as her ankle ached dully.
With luck, that will keep things settled until I can deal with them myself.
It seemed strange that the doctor had been so insistent that he
to report the wolf attack. Wild animals attacked herds and flocks all the time, and although attacks on humans were not common, they were not rare, either. Such things were generally the business of gamekeepers and foresters; what on earth business could it be of anyone in the city? In fact, it was properly the business of Eric von Teller.
Really, it is about time he actually did something useful,
she thought sourly, as she hobbled over to the medicine chest she had compiled with the knowledge she had gotten from Granny.
If he is busy hunting that horrid beast, he won't be making decent people miserable.
Everything she needed was already in liquid form as tinctures. It wasn't going to be in the least pleasant to drink, but trying to sleep with an aching ankle was worse.
I just hope that there won't be any more fuss,
she thought as she drank down the vile-tasting potion.
Fine, the wolf is vicious and dangerous. But I have no intention of putting myself in danger from it again.
She had managed to fall deeply asleep despite the pain of her bitten ankle. She awoke to an incredible commotion downstairs.
Dawn was not yet on the horizon and she blinked in the dim light of the fire, listening in confusion. Loud, rough male voices, heavy boots stomping all aboutâ¦it sounded as if there was an entire troop of soldiers at the doorâ
Why would there be soldiers here?
Then came the sound of one man's voice raised above all the others, barking orders.
Then there was the unmistakable sound of boots on the stairs, and as she struggled to sit up and clear the fog of sleep from her
head, Marguerite opened her bedroom door, and was propelled inside on a veritable wave of tall, strong men in the King's livery.
“Are you Isabella Beauchamps?” the one with the most decorations on his cloak barked out. And before she could answer, continued, “Were you attacked by a wolf last night?”
Marguerite squeaked. Bella paid no attention to her. Howâ Whatâ
“Iâ” she began.
“Describe the attack!” the man ordered, glowering at her so fiercely that she found herself stammering out her story without thinking twice about itânor about the fact that her bedroom was filled with armed men, and she was huddled in the bedclothes in her nightgown.
He questioned her closely about the wolf itself, color, size and, most especially, behavior. Then he turned to Marguerite. “You will get your mistress prepared for travel, pack her clothing enough for a month and present her and her belongings downstairs in fifteen minutes,” he commanded. “This is by order of the King.”
But she didn't have any chance to ask for an explanation or even to protest. Marguerite was so terrified that she practically threw Bella's clothing onto her. No sooner had Bella struggled into her gown than Mathew and two more of the menservants, and Jessamine, another maid, were crowding into her room and bundling things into trunks. She and her things were rushed downstairs and into the hands of the King's men so quickly that she scarcely had time to catch her breath.
The chief officer didn't even let her limp her way out; he swept her up in his arms while more of his men dealt with the two trunks that the servants brought down, and carried her out the door, to be
dropped unceremoniously into a carriage. The doors slammed shut, and when she tried them, she discovered that they were locked.
She considered any number of actions, starting with screaming and kicking at the doors. But it was fairly obvious that neither would get her anywhere. This wasâmust beâon the King's orders. Doctor Jonaton either had not known what his report would mean, or
known and considered the situation grave enough to withhold the information from her.
So screaming and protesting would get her nowhere, and this carriage, while comfortable, was clearly built to confine whoever was in it quite securely.
She had no idea what was going onâbut she hadn't broken any laws, and clearly, this wolf attack meant
And that was when the answer struck her, and she sat, frozen in horror, for the remainder of the journey.
The carriage stopped. The door was opened from the outside. The King's officer waited as she blinked in the sudden light. “Can you walk, Mistress Isabella?” he asked with gruff courtesy.
“I think so,” she said in a small voice.
He handed her down; she winced as she put her injured foot on the pavement.
Now she looked up. She was in the courtyard of what was clearly a fortified Manor; a high wall surrounded the building, and the King's men were just closing a pair of massive metal-reinforced gates. The courtyard was paved, and swept clean of every vestige of snow.
The Manor itself, despite being constructed to withstand a siege, was surprisingly attractive. Part of that might have been the stone-work; cream-colored granite veined with faint pink. Part of it was that the narrow slits of the windows had rounded edges, as did the edges of the roof; in fact, there wasn't a sharp edge anywhere to be
seen, and the placement of the window slits conveyed a feeling of welcome rather than of a prison.
The King's men were carrying her trunks into the building, via the main entry. The officer gestured to her, indicating that she should follow them. Limping, she did so.
There was a very narrow entryway, clearly designed for defense, just inside the door. Stone below, stone walls, stone ceilingâand she thought she glimpsed murder slits in the walls and ceiling. With two more men with a trunk coming behind her, she limped as quickly as she could through it, and found herself in a room that offered the same welcome that the exterior of the building promised.
She had only been in two Great Manors in her life; both of them had what had been called a Great Hall just inside the door. This was a Hall indeed, but it was not, in size, anything like those rooms. There was a huge fireplace to the right, and another to the left; the room itself was wide rather than deep, and the expanse of floor that could have been cold, had it been made of stone, was instead of warm, light-colored wood. The benches at the fire were made of a similar warm wood, the stone walls softened with tapestries and the whole brightened with oil lamps.
In the middle of the Hall, opposite the entry door, was another door that swung open even as she stood there surrounded by four trunksâwhen she only recalled bringing two.
Through that door came a young man about four or five years older than herself. He was not exactly handsome, but with a kind and thoughtful face that inclined her to trust him. That he was wearing spectacles, and a sheepish expression, helped.
“Thank you, Captain Malcom,” he said. The King's officer saluted, and turned and left without saying a word, his men following him.