It was not really dread. Just a sinking feeling that slowly gravitated from his stomach to his legs which were tightly clamped against the donkey’s flanks. The type of feeling that sometimes takes hold at nightfall, when the moon is round and full and shrouded periodically in a dark mist shredded by the breeze. The nagging thought that he might never reach the safety of the dark, imposing towers whose shape he could just make out on a crag at the end of the road.
In an attempt to dismiss these foolish fears, Father Barnabé made the sign of the cross on his mantle, pushed back his cowl and stalwartly placed his hand on the silver dagger at his belt.
Reassuring himself with the prevailing silence and the two six-foot-high walls standing on either side of this stretch of road to prevent wolves from attacking travellers, he spurred on his tired mount.
“It’s here, my liege.”
François de Chazeron, lord of Vollore and Montguerlhe, slid down from his horse, looking disgruntled. He had been tight-lipped ever since his provost had sent for him that morning at the castle of Vollore. The latter, who handled all legal matters for him, did not press the point and dismounted too. On the road, a few yards away, two monks were muttering as they went about their business, surrounded by a growing crowd of gaping onlookers drawn by the gruesome discovery.
The provost did not need to use their small escort of soldiers to disperse the crowd. The arrogant, intimidating figure of their liege lord sent the blank-faced bystanders scurrying off, mumbling prayers under their breath.
Guillaume de Montboissier, Father Superior of Moutier Abbey, inclined his head in greeting, receiving a grudging nod in return from François de Chazeron. Things had been strained between the two men since the abbot had been refused the money he needed to build a new chapel, which François had dismissed as unnecessary and ostentatious. This still rankled with the abbot and the antipathy between the two men had not lessened. Pointing to the figure sprawled on the hard earth, the provost remarked sadly:
“That’s the fifth...”
“I can count, Huc!” François de Chazeron snapped, using his foot to lift the shroud that had been laid discreetly over the corpse.
“Obviously a wolf,” he concluded.
Huc de la Faye did not argue. The badly mauled corpse, its glassy eyes still staring in horror, spoke for itself. Still, he felt puzzled. He was sure that no wolf could have scaled the walls that had been hastily erected since the last attack, three months ago.
“Does anyone know who he was?” Chazeron asked.
“An exorcist priest from Clermont”, replied Guillaume de Montboissier. “We’d asked him to investigate these crimes, but he appears to have had as little luck as his predecessor.”
François de Chazeron gazed scornfully at the abbot of Moutier, but the latter’s grey stare did not waver.
“Really?” he said ironically, a slight smile hovering on his thin lips.
Huc de la Faye intervened:
“You must have heard the rumours, my liege. These strange happenings have only fuelled speculation and I have to admit I’m puzzled. Why only priests and always when the moon is full? I was sure that building these walls would put a stop to all the superstitious stories, but their ineffectiveness has only spawned more rumours.”
“Sheer coincidence”, François de Chazeron retorted, clearly irritated.
“But worrying, you must admit”, Guillaume added.
“Come now, abbot, you can’t be serious...”
“Look at that man, Messire de Chazeron”, ordered Guillaume, pointing at the dead man’s bloated face. “Look at that man who dedicated his life to driving out demons and tell me his expression doesn’t betray the greatest fear possible, that of coming face to face with Satan!”
Instead of studying the man’s face as the abbot had instructed, François de Chazeron’s attention was caught by the corpse’s tightly closed hand. In a stride, he was squatting down by the corpse, forcing open its fingers. What he found made him cry out in surprise. The dead man’s hand, its nails streaked with dried blood, held a tuft of grey wolf fur intermingled with several long, silky brown hairs.
Over the past few days, the temperature had dropped considerably although the forest blanketing the Auvergne mountains remained unchanged. The only evidence of winter was the odd patch of ice edging the potholes on the road between Clermont-Ferrand and Thiers. Despite the occasional sudden icy shower, the year of our Lord 1500 was drawing to a close in a mild December on Chazeron lands.
François de Chazeron had taken up residence at Montguerlhe to keep abreast of his provost’s investigations. Huc de la Faye’s alarming discovery had lent substance to the rumour that the authority of the Church was being challenged by a werewolf, a creature bound to be Satan incarnate. François was not at all pleased at the way this affair was escalating.
Arrogant, authoritarian and self-important, the twenty-one-year-old lord was far more interested in cutting an impressive figure before his peers, so as to obtain a more influential post and increase the standing of his fiefs of Vollore and Montguerlhe, than in losing any sleep over his people’s fears and uncertainties.
On this particular day, François de Chazeron was accompanying Huc on a visit to the farm at Fermouly where, just two weeks after Father Barnabé’s murder, an eleven-year-old girl had reported seeing a grey wolf prowling along the walls. As the farm lay between Thiers and Montguerlhe, not far from the site of the attack, the provost had been reluctant to rule out any theory, even though the statements volunteered by villagers had already proved to be no more than products of their fertile imaginations.
François had decided to go with him: this dubious werewolf hunt at least gave him the opportunity to be seen out and about on his lands, a duty he had completely neglected since the advent of the new century had opened up some fascinating new horizons for his work as an alchemist. For many months, locked away in a tower at the castle of Vollore, his alembics had been distilling alkahest, the philosopher’s stone that would change lead into gold and make his fortune.
He knew he was getting close, he could sense it and he did not care what it took to achieve his goal. The pleasure his experiments afforded him was worth any amount of sacrifice. It would not be long now before he was the darling of the French court and he was annoyed that this tedious business was keeping him from his priorities, his athanor and his profligate pursuits.
He was thinking about these frustrated pleasures when he strode into the farm at Fermouly where his tenant farmer, Armand Leterrier, was waiting to greet him. While the provost took a statement from the farmer’s youngest daughter, a little girl with steely blue eyes, Leterrier set about showing François the farm’s accounts.
This kept the lord of Vollore busy for some time until, glancing through the window, he saw a graceful figure flinging fatty scraps to the fowls in the farmyard. He felt a sharp pang of desire.
“Who’s that?” he asked the farmer without any preamble, interrupting a sentence full of figures that went completely unheeded.
Armand Leterrier followed his liege lord’s gaze and, proud of his sudden interest, replied guilelessly:
“My eldest daughter, Isabeau.”
“By Jove, my friend,” exclaimed François, with a brutal glint in his eyes, “she’s a pretty little thing. How is it that I’ve never seen her before?”
“You probably have, my liege, but she’s changed beyond all belief since your last visit. At fifteen, she’s the living image of her dead mother and she acts like a real lady. But she’ll be leaving the family very soon, because I’m marrying her to Benoît, the son of the cutler at La Grimardie, two weeks on Friday.”
“You’re marrying her off, you say. Without my permission?”
His voice was suddenly curt. Twisting the cap he had laid on his knees at the start of their conversation, Armand stammered:
“Nay, my liege, nay! Your late father solemnised the engagement of these youngsters two years ago and set their wedding date. I didn’t know I needed your consent as well.”
“My father’s consent will do”, said François more calmly, unable to tear his eyes from Isabeau’s gentle curves emphasised by a simple almond-green dress. “Still, you wouldn’t want to anger me, would you, farmer?”
“Of course not, my liege! We want for nothing on your lands and I wouldn’t dream of complaining. On the contrary, it behoves me well to praise you”, Armand hastened to add, only too happy to have escaped Chazeron’s wrath.
At these words, the lord of Vollore finally turned away from the window and directed his gaze at the poor man, who suddenly felt very uneasy. He took a leather purse from his belt and dropped two silver coins onto the table between them. Armand stared wide-eyed as they rolled to a standstill, jingling seductively.
“These will come in handy for the two lovebirds, my friend. Go on! Take them! Take them” insisted François, with a lewd gleam in his eyes.
Armand hesitated for a second then, unable to resist the temptation, seized the crowns, flushing bright crimson.
“Your Lordship is very generous to the youngsters.”
“Which is why I want your daughter to show me how grateful she is, farmer! I’ll be waiting for her at Montguerlhe castle as soon as the ceremony is over. It goes without saying that, for such a sum, she will still be a maid”, François added cynically, completely unmoved by Armand’s distraught expression as he turned the coins over and over in his fingers as if they were suddenly red hot.
“Forget the child, Lord François, or you’ll bring great misfortune on your lands”, murmured a cracked voice behind him.
Furious, François de Chazeron whirled round to see an old woman who, merging with the hearth’s darkness in her widow’s weeds, had escaped his notice when he had entered the kitchen.
“Who dares to question the wishes of her lord and master?” growled François, with scant respect for the wrinkled hands folded over an unfinished piece of knitting.
“That’s my mother-in-law, my liege,” said Armand apologetically. “Don’t pay any mind to anything she says...”
“Be silent, boy! Have you forgotten how much you owe me?”
In the space of a second, her voice had become grim. Armand trembled, as much frightened by the old woman’s authority as the evil glare directed at him by his master.
“I am Amélie Pigerolles, daughter of La Turleteuche and also known as La Turleteuche myself,” the old woman declared defiantly.
François de Chazeron raised an eyebrow. La Turleteuche had been a sorceress put to death by a worthy citizen in 1464, fifteen years before he was born. Although the culprit’s punishment had been a pilgrimage to Saint-Claude carrying a four-pound altar candle, the wretched woman’s curse had caught up with him several weeks later. He was found dead, an expression of terrible suffering on his swollen face. François had heard this story more than once during his childhood. He hated sorceresses and he hated anyone who opposed him. However, he forced himself to adopt a milder tone.
“Are you a sorceress too?”
“Not at all, my liege, not at all. All I inherited was the nickname. Still, you shouldn’t make light of an old woman’s ravings...”
François laughed unpleasantly. He only had to snap his fingers and this madwoman would end her days on a bonfire. He rose to his feet and planted himself between them, a harsh, arrogant look in his eyes.
“I want that girl’s maidenhead, farmer, and I will have it! For your family’s sake, it would be better if she gave it willingly and I didn’t have to force her!”
With these words, the master of Vollore strode briskly out of the room, passing Isabeau who was humming as she came inside. Although she bobbed a curtsy to him, he did not even nod.
Without a glance at her father, who had just shamefacedly ordered her to submit to their lord’s will, Isabeau buried her head in her grandmother’s lap, sobbing. Her grandmother’s frail hand stroked her long chestnut hair, gathered into a plait that fell over her firm, pert breasts.
“Don’t cry, little one,” she murmured, “God will save you from that devil.”
Although Isabeau believed in God and trusted her grandmother, who had raised her since her mother had died giving birth to her little sister, Albérie, she could not shake off this fear that bordered on terror.
On the morrow, she went in search of her betrothed, Benoît, whom she loved dearly. He was busy sharpening knives on the grinding wheel and was delighted to spot Isabeau accompanied by Mirette, her brown mongrel bitch. Seeing her tear-stained face and moss-green eyes brimming with yet more tears, he led her away from his fellow-workers. He was shaking as he listened to what she had to say. He remained silent for a moment, uncontrollable rage bringing tears to his eyes, then he took Isabeau’s hands in his rough, warm grasp. She felt comforted, but not for long, as Benoît took a deep breath, battling with himself for a minute, then said wretchedly:
“We must do as he says, Isabeau.”
She tried to pull away, as if scalded by his words, but Benoît tightened his grip and, despite the girl’s deathly pallor, continued gloomily:
“You know the custom as well as I do. It’s his right, Isabeau; it’s death to defy him. Death to defy him!” he repeated, as if to convince himself.
“I’d rather die, then!” retorted Isabeau dully. “He’s despicable and cruel. He disgusts me, despite all his airs and graces!”
“He’s our master, Isabeau. He owns us and we can’t do anything about it. We’re his serfs. I’ll make you forget him! Our children will make you forget him!”
“Our children, Benoît?”
Despairingly, Isabeau gazed into the cutler’s eyes.
“How can I forget him if I have to bring his bastard into the world and give suck to it?”
“Your grandmother would get rid of that devil’s child, if need be,” hissed Benoît through clenched teeth.
Isabeau burst into tears, again trying to pull away, but Benoît drew her close.
“I love you, Isabeau. More than anything in the world. But it’s death to defy him! Death!” he repeated again.
Since he was a boy, these words had been dinned into him. No serf should ever forget this fundamental motto, which meant total submission, the renunciation of all dignity, all personal desires. And yet, running counter to this was Isabeau’s distress, Isabeau’s beauty, her sparkle, her laughter which would probably be silenced forever, her lost innocence and, above all, her trust, which he would betray by handing her over to François de Chazeron and his depraved appetites. His lip swollen from biting back his anger, he said with a sigh:
“We’ll flee, Isabeau! As soon as the blessing is over, we’ll run away. I’ll save you from him, but we’ll be ruined!”
François de Chazeron was seething with subdued rage. He had been waiting for Isabeau, lasciviously picturing all the lewd acts he would make her perform. He had spent every waking moment thinking about her as time had been hanging heavy on his hands. The werewolf investigation had not turned up anything new for two weeks now. Tomorrow would be a full moon and his provost wanted to set a trap for the creature. Although François had been wary of dissuading him, he had warned that no one could make a fool of Satan and that he would be heading back to Vollore, whatever the outcome of this affair. So although he had brandished a torch and taken part in searches with his men-at-arms to take his mind off things, he had spent more time dreaming about Isabeau’s tender flesh than the pelts of wolves that were nowhere to be found.
He had been expecting her to come and kneel before him as soon as the church bells had finished chiming. He had even said she could spend some time with her family after they came out of the church to enjoy the banquet his money had paid for, but it was now three hours since he had blessed the couple and it was Huc de la Faye, not Isabeau, who appeared.
“They’re nowhere to be found, my liege.”
“Have her father flogged! He’ll tell us where his daughter’s hiding.”
“I think he was as surprised as he was frightened. He was the one who came to find me when he discovered the youngsters had run away. I think he’s too much of a coward to be involved in this plan.”
“Have him flogged anyway!” growled François, thumping his fist on a nearby table. “And tell him if I can’t find his eldest daughter, I’ll give his youngest to Montguerlhe’s guards. Go on! And don’t even think about questioning my orders. That little bitch is going to pay and if she doesn’t, then someone in her family will!”
Huc de la Faye made no comment, but he took no great pleasure in breaking his staff across Armand’s shoulders in the vast guardroom.
He had tried not to hit him too hard, but Armand did not get up. Huc took the corpse back to Fermouly and bowed respectfully to the old woman. She stared at him, her eyes devoid of any hatred. Perhaps she realised how much it sickened him to serve the unworthy offspring of the previous lords of Vollore with the same devotion, the same blind obedience.
“I have to take Albérie with me, but I’ll make sure no harm comes to her. You have my word,” he murmured, clearing his throat.
The old woman did not reply. She sat in the corner of the hearth without moving a muscle. Her time would come. The monster of Montguerlhe would pay.
Huc de la Faye took Albérie’s hand and gave her something to dry her tears. For a second, the child rebelled, her steely blue eyes burning with enmity for the man who had just murdered her father then, clenching her teeth and swallowing her anger, she let him lead her towards the imposing stone fortress.
They had started out on the main road to put as much distance as possible between them and François de Chazeron. They had both been trying not to think about what they were doing, intoxicated by the heady, if illusory, lure of freedom, buoyed up for two weeks by the slim hope they could escape his clutches. Benoît had reluctantly stolen his father’s savings and had prepared their small bundles, while Isabeau had endeavoured to throw her family off the scent. They were hoping to get to Lyon and had taken the farm’s best mules, which they had exhausted on the road. They then continued through the forest, undeterred by the threat of wolves and bandits or the fear dogging their every step.
For two hours, they felt as if they were the only two people in the world, hostages to their foolishness and their love, then Benoît heard the distant clatter of many hoofs. Abandoning their mounts, they left the road and plunged into the dense woodland. Isabeau said nothing. She did not complain, regardless of the brambles pulling her hair from her braid and scratching her legs or the broken branches tripping her up. Mindlessly, she kept on going, panting, her eyes wild. Her expression became even more panic-stricken when they first heard the baying of the dogs.
They quickened their pace, walking in the river to mask the scent of their sweaty bodies from the dogs, until Isabeau collapsed in exhaustion and began to cry, massaging her ankle. Benoît knelt beside her, gently kissing her dry lips.
“Save yourself”, she whispered. “I’m the one he wants. He’ll leave you alone.”
“Never. It’s death to defy him”, he sniggered humourlessly through a suppressed sob.
“Then don’t let him have me”, begged Isabeau, as the cries of the beaters grew louder with the baying of the dogs.
Benoît swallowed painfully, searching his beloved’s eyes for the slightest shadow of doubt, but all he could see was a reflection of the pure, deep love he felt for her.
“He won’t take either of us alive”, he promised.
He stood up resolutely and unsheathed the long knife he had forged with this plight in mind.
“Shut your eyes, my love,” he whispered.
Isabeau did so, but death did not come. When the ringing sound of steel on stone caused her to reopen them, Benoît was swaying on his massive legs, an arrow protruding from between his shoulder blades. Isabeau sprang to her feet, screaming. Behind Benoît, several yards away, a crossbow in his hand, stood the lord of Vollore, a cruel smile of satisfaction on his face.
She had stopped whimpering, stopped being afraid, stopped breathing and living despite the fact that her heart resolutely kept beating, her eyes kept seeing and her blood kept mingling with his.
Her life had stopped when they hanged Benoît, who was already dying, in front of her. As an example, François de Chazeron had trumpeted. No one defies their liege lord. No one refuses their liege lord his rights. Benoît did not put up a fight. He died wretchedly, defeated by his acceptance of his lot. Resignation had been bred into him from birth, passed down to him by his ancestors. It was only right that he should pay.
But Isabeau could not accept it, which is why she ceased to exist at the same time as he did. She had stopped breathing with the jolt of the cord. No trial, no justice. Just the law of the strongest. The law of the master. The ignoble law of pride.
After that, she had forgotten everything, everything and more. François’ anger, his perversity, his wild eyes, his hands on her, gentle and violent by turns, his raking, voracious nails. She had felt nothing, heard nothing, taken nothing in. She had died when Benoît looked at her for the last time.
“You wanted some bait for your werewolf! Cover her with a monk’s mantle and leave her in the forest at the foot of Montguerlhe’s towers!”
Huc de la Faye choked back the anger that had made his blood boil since he had walked into the room where for over an hour François de Chazeron had been torturing and raping Isabeau. Because she had not cried out, he had thought she was dead, but silent tears were coursing down her ashen cheeks. He thought of the beautiful, joyous girl she had been before this fateful day and he longed to take her away from here and tend her wounds.
He bowed his head and kept quiet. It was death to defy him. He too had understood the message. She deserved to fall asleep, never to waken, because he could not imagine anyone surviving what she had been through.
Walking over to the blood-splattered bed, he lifted the naked body in his arms. Isabeau’s swollen left breast, branded with the seal of the Chazeron family, taunted his cowardliness. He bit his lip to prevent himself from protesting and left the room, ashamed to the core.
After ordering his archers at the top of the watchtower to put Isabeau out of her misery as soon as a wolf came into sight, he hurried over to the outbuildings, where Jeanne, the formidable cook, was cradling a sobbing Albérie on her lap.
He gently pulled the little girl away and managed to convince her that he had to take her somewhere out of Chazeron’s reach, at least while he was still on the estate. He was about to take her to Moutier Abbey, when he was stopped short by a sudden thought. What about her grandmother? La Turleteuche, whom François detested?
Huc de la Faye suppressed a curse. He swiftly picked up the little girl and, while François de Chazeron kept watch over his victim’s shadowy figure from the top of Montguerlhe’s west tower, Huc galloped at top speed towards Fermouly to appease his conscience.
Once there, however, he had to face facts: the old woman had vanished without a trace, as if she had melted away in the corner of the hearth. When he found her knitting lying on the floor in front of the chair, which had been pulled away from the fireplace, he thought for a minute that François de Chazeron had arrived there before him. He soon abandoned this idea, however, as he was the only one who would have been entrusted with a job of this nature. Also, François had been much too busy punishing Isabeau to spare a thought for her family.
When asked, Albérie merely smiled scornfully, as if she were the keeper of an inviolable secret. Huc de la Faye did not press her. He was sure the old woman was somewhere safe. He could now concentrate on protecting her orphaned granddaughter.
Isabeau did not know when she first became aware of the cold. The brief, fierce sensation was painful, excruciatingly painful. She lifted her head. Haloed by the dark rain clouds that were gathering over the Auvergne, the full moon gazed down on her with alabaster compassion.
Isabeau realised she was lying on her stomach in a muddy brook, outside the grounds of the castle. All she could remember was François’ cruel eyes above her as he ploughed into her body, grunting.
It was the pain that revived her. At that moment, a flash of lightning split the stormy night, illuminating a crack in the side of the mountain. Almost immediately, the heavens opened and the pelting rain seemed to wash her wounds clean. She felt as if she were being shattered, broken and ravaged again, but she was past caring.
Crawling painfully through the mud towards the safety of the cave she had glimpsed, one word, just one, soothed her injuries.
François de Chazeron had been driven inside the watchtower by the rain but he rushed out again when he heard a savage howl. He peered eagerly through the darkness, but could see nothing except the forest battered by the raging storm.
He went back inside, feeling pleased that he had satisfied his whim. He would go back to Vollore tomorrow. He brushed down his soaking garments with his hand and stared wide-eyed. In his palm, along with some of Isabeau’s brown hairs, unsavoury reminders of his cruelty, lay a few grey wolf hairs, taunting him with their diabolical presence.