Huddled around the campfire built in the center of a clearing among the trees, Lieutenant Robert Lescoux and the nine soldiers from the garrison stationed at Fort George shifted about nervously with every howl of a wolf that came from deep within the surrounding woods. In the darkness of a moonless night, as snow flurries lashed at their faces, they peered into the tall pines, unable to see beyond the trunks and branches of the nearest trees. Buffeted by the brisk, icy winds, the flames from the fire cast dancing shadows in every direction, adding the semblance of lifelike movement to every stick and stone. The tin cup filled with hot rum that each man grasped in their gloved hands did little to warm their innards or diminish their anxiety.
It had been a difficult ride from the outpost on the outskirts of Windsor because of the harsh weather while on the rugged road that cut through the forested terrain. Halifax was about two days ride away, but in the bleakness of the wintry night, to most of the men it felt as distant as their homes across the Atlantic. They had delivered the needed medicines to the soldiers stationed at the outpost, only to find that most of those men had already died from the scarlet fever that had overtaken Windsor. Fearful of catching the fever, Lieutenant Lescoux and his men left the dead to be buried by those who would soon follow their countrymen to the grave. Without even uttering a prayer for the sick and deceased, the contingent from Fort George left the outpost with the same hurry that they had arrived. A half mile from the road they had planned to rest for the night in the peace and quietude of the forest.
Seated on a fallen log beside Lieutenant Lescoux, Private William Hudson, just a few months shy of his seventeenth birthday and the youngest among them, took a sip of his rum while he peered over the lip of his cup searching for the shadowy movement he had seen among the base of the trees; a movement so swift and silent that he doubted seeing it at all. But whatever he saw had eyes that glowed fiery-red like burning embers. Unconsciously -- or maybe not -- he pressed his shoulder against the lieutenant's and wished he had sent his parents a letter and told them that he had joined the Army before he had left London. But in the nights before boarding the ship bound for Nova Scotia he was too busy carousing with his fellow recruits in the ale houses and whorehouses along the docks to be bothered with thinking about his mother and father.
A wolf's baying resonated from a distance nearer than any that had preceded it.
The horses tied to stakes just beyond where the men sat, stirred uneasily, pulling taut the ropes that kept them in place. They snorted almost in unison, exhaling from their noses small clouds of frosty air and scratched at the frozen earth with their hooves.
William glanced over at the pistol inserted the lieutenant's belt and wished he had been issued more than just a knife, but their mission was peaceful and simple: deliver the medicines and then return. He sloshed the last of the rum around in his cup and then gulped it down. When the eyes among the trees became distinct, motionless and staring straight at him, he dropped the cup and jumped up. "There's something in those trees," he called out, his voice muted by the fear that gripped his throat.
The lieutenant and several of the others jumped up, but seeing and hearing nothing, they chided William and sat back down.
"You've let your nerves get the best of you," Lieutenant Lescoux told him, giving the young man a hearty thump on the back.
"I'm telling you I saw something," William protested.
The lieutenant downed the last of his rum and tossed his cup to Corporal Bowmore. "Put that in my haversack, Corporal, and then you and our hysterical Private Hudson can take a walk around the perimeter of this clearing. It may soothe young Hudson's nerves."
Corporal Bowmore, never happy to be ordered to do anything, especially when his thoughts were on his young wife and newborn child living in squalid conditions in the poorest section of London, stood up, and then carrying his and the lieutenant's cups, headed toward the lieutenant's horse.
"I'm not being hysterical," William muttered as he followed the corporal.
Lieutenant Lescoux watched for a moment as the men walked away and then looked up at the sky when a hawk's screech drew his attention to the bird as it flew over the clearing. The ambient light of night offered only a brief glimpse of it. The hawk's call reminded him of the same shriek he heard by a man he had shot in the eye during a duel fought over a married woman both men were having an affair with. The man lived but was permanently blinded, but the result was that Lieutenant Lescoux's family demanded he enter the Army as an officer or forever lose his substantial inheritance.
A chorus of wolves' howls that came from every direction beyond the clearing made him whirl around as his men around the fire jumped up,
Sergeant Bonn, the oldest of the men, hardened by years of fighting the Zulus in Africa, drew his knife from its sheath with one hand as he grabbed a burning branch from the fire with his other hand. "They wolves are coming for us, Lieutenant," he shouted.
The other men did the same as the sergeant, forming a circle, with the fire at their backs.
Irritated that the sergeant and the other men had taken a defensive stance without his order, Lieutenant Lescoux was about to order them to get into proper formation when he glanced over and saw Corporal Bowmore and William facing three large wolves whose fangs were bared and the hairs on their hunched backs were bristled.
In that moment, except for the crackling of the camp fire, the silence was overwhelming.
And then one of the wolves leapt onto the corporal knocking him down and then bit into the corporal's neck. Blood spurted from the man's wounds.
William screamed, sounding in that moment of sheer terror much like a young lad at a cricket match and not a soldier. Just then a large pack of wolves came out of the woods from every side. They encircled the lieutenant and the men positioned around the fire. Snarling and growling as drool dripped from their mouths, the wolves cautiously closed in on the men.
"Your pistol. Use your pistol, Lieutenant," the sergeant shouted.
Frozen in place, Lieutenant Lescoux was unable to tear his sight away from watching the corporal being torn apart by the wolf. His hand was grasped so tightly onto his pistol his fingers ached.
Several of the horses broke free from the stakes and rushed into the woods, followed by howling wolves.
"Help me," William screamed as the wolves that had cut him and the corporal off from the rest of the men started toward him. He had his knife in one hand and jabbed it at the direction of the nearest wolf, keeping it at bay.
As if awaking from a ghoulish nightmare, the lieutenant was suddenly alert to what was happening. He glanced at the men around the fire, to William, and then back at the men. He could see the sergeant's angry expression and the contorted faces and mouths formed into the shapes of the men yelling at him, but he didn't really hear them; they were lost to him already. His training had not prepared him for an attack by vicious wolves. He rushed across the clearing, knocking aside a wolf that lunged at him, leaving a bite in his right forearm. He grabbed William's knife from the private's hand, quickly cut the rope that held his horse to the stake, and then leapt up onto the saddle. As he rode off into the woods he looked back to see the wolves descend upon the men, ripping them apart, and William being dragged away, screaming.
* * *
Two nights later the lieutenant dismounted from his horse on the outskirts of Halifax just as the animal collapsed from having been rode continuously at the highest speed a perilous journey through the dark woods would allow. Panicked and unable to find the infrequently traveled road between Windsor and Halifax, Lieutenant Lescoux had ridden blindly eastward not allowing the horse to stop for even a moment. Its sides were sliced from cuts from branches and thorns were stuck in its legs from it hooves to its shoulders and stifles. Lying on its side, the horse neighed softly several times and then died. The lieutenant took his haversack from the saddle, placed it around his neck, and stumbled across frozen fields toward the light that shone like fireflies in the windows of the nearest houses.
It wasn't until he reached the first cobblestone street at the entry into the city that he stopped at a water trough, broke through the layer of ice that had formed on its top, removed his coat, and splashed icy water on his frostbitten face and wolf bite that throbbed with pain. A few minutes later an open carriage with four men riding in it came to a stop behind him.
"I've seen less ragged-lookin' bilge rats," one of the men said with a gleeful laugh.
"Aye, but judgin' by his uniform he's a member of the British Army," another of them said. "Maybe he's a deserter."
"I've been . . . I've seen . . ." the lieutenant stammered. He pointed listlessly toward the woods.
"So, it speaks," the first man said, "but not as quick with the tongue as most Army officers, is he?"
The three other men laughed uproariously and then they jumped out of the carriage, leaving just the driver still holding the reins to the horses. They circled about the lieutenant, poking and prodding him. The stench of ale, mixed with the scents of cheap perfume, a fragrance commonly used by the prostitutes in Halifax, wafted from their clothes.
"Strong but a bit on the scrawny side," said one of them. "But he'd fetch a good price."
"A bite of some kind on his arm, but nothing that time won't heal," said another.
"What be your name?" another one asked, his hot, stinky breath blown on the lieutenant's face.
Trying to gather his wits and not understanding what was happening, the lieutenant stood as straightly as he could and said, "I'm Lieutenant Robert Lescoux of . . ."
The man behind him hit him on the head with a club tossed to him by the man still in the carriage. The lieutenant fell to the ground, on the edge of unconsciousness. The men tied his hands and ankles and gagged him with one of his gloves. They slipped a burlap sack over his head and loaded him into the carriage.
It wasn't until he heard the sounds of waves slapping the pylons of the piers, that Lieutenant Lescoux realized where he was being taken, to the docks on the ocean side of Halifax. The bell ringing from a buoy cemented his thinking. He struggled against the ropes that held him bound and kicked at the legs that he lay against on the floor of the carriage. As much as he chewed on it and tried to shift his tongue about, he was unable to dislodge the glove that was shoved deep into his mouth, partially obstructing his breathing. The fear that he would die from suffocation made him put aside his rising panic and concentrate on the air entering and leaving his lungs. It reminded him of the time when he was a young boy and almost drowned while swimming in the Thames. In that instance, and this one, remaining calm was intuitive.
When he was lifted out of the carriage and carried up a gangplank he heard the thudding of the boots on the wooden plank by the men carrying him. On the ship he was dropped onto the deck, where he lay inert, but fully conscious of what was happening to him. He had heard of men being kidnapped to work on ships when men were needed but couldn't be found otherwise, but he never thought he would be one of them.
* * *
The ship rocked back and forth, leaning far on its port side and moments later tilting just as far on its starboard side. Empty barrels used for gathering rain water that had broken loose rolled across the deck, colliding with the railings that kept them from going overboard. The smokestacks that belched out clouds of coal dust groaned with every pitch of the ship. In the darkness of the ship's hold filled with coal and barrels of fish in brine, water that fell like heavy rainfall through knotholes in the deck's floor splashed around the hammock where Lieutenant Lescoux tried to sleep as his hammock swung back and forth. In the hammock nearest to him, Johnny Aster, a fellow kidnapping victim from Halifax, was violently seasick and vomiting non-stop.
"Hang in there, Johnny," Lieutenant Lescoux called out to him.
Johnny was twenty years of age and an apprentice butcher who had been clubbed on the head while returning home at night after seeing his fiancée and brought to the ship. He had ended up sleeping in the hold with the lieutenant because he too, like the lieutenant, refused to work in the engine room shoveling coal into the furnaces. Like the lieutenant, he had been whipped by the ship's captain with a leather strap. The welts on his back had quickly become infected and even before the storm had begun he complained to the lieutenant about feeling feverish.
"You must have the ship's surgeon treat him," the lieutenant had demanded of the ship's captain, Captain Sharp, but received a slap in the face for his "insolence" as the captain called it.
Lieutenant Lescoux hadn't been told where the ship was going, but in the weeks since leaving Halifax, two of which he had spent in the hold, he could tell by watching the position of the sun and stars that it was headed almost directly eastward, toward Britain.
Captain Sharp had threatened he would throw the lieutenant and Johnny overboard if they didn't work, but each day went by with only more threats.
Although no one knew he had returned to Halifax from Windsor, the lieutenant threatened the captain with "My disappearance will be looked into. The docks are the first place they will start looking and if you're found out to have kidnapped an officer of the British Army, you'll be hanged."
The crashing sound and sudden impact of a large wave washing over the bow of the ship made him set up. He threw his legs over the edge of the hammock and tried to steel his nerves. He heard crew shouting in the corridors beyond the hold but couldn't make out what they were shouting about. The occasional light that shone into the hold told him that the moon was out and brighter than in the nights that had preceded it, but for the most part the storm clouds were blocking its beams.
The ship rose sharply upward and then dropped, knocking him off the hammock and at the same time tossed Johnny onto the floor. As the lieutenant leaned down to help Johnny up his olfactory senses suddenly filled with the aroma of Johnny's flesh; not the stench of dirt and sweat that covered it, but the scent of skin and the blood that lay just beneath its surface. The smell of Johnny's skin was so overpowering that the lieutenant opened his mouth and would have bit into the fleshy part of Johnny's neck if the doors to the hold hadn't burst open and several of the crew rushed in.
"All available able-bodied men on deck, even you two," one of the crewmen yelled as he grabbed the lieutenant's arm and yanked him away from the delirious Johnny who was dropped back onto the floor. The crew dragged the lieutenant from the hold, leaving Johnny behind, and ushered him up several flights of stairs to the deck. There, the violent lurching of the ship had snapped the chains that helped stabilize one of the smokestacks leaving it tilting precariously port-side.
As waves washed over the deck and around the lieutenant's feet he glanced up at the full moon that he briefly glimpsed through a break in the clouds. Driving rain pelted his face and quickly soaked his clothes.
Captain Sharp was standing nearby and shouting orders to the crew.
Shoved from behind, Lieutenant Lescoux stumbled to where a dozen crewmen pulled on one of the chains attached to the smokestack, trying to reattach it to the hooks in the deck.
Before reaching where the line of men were positioned, grasping the chain and pulling on it, the lieutenant fell on the deck, his entire body suddenly afire with searing pain. Almost every bone in his skeleton began to break and reshape, ripping apart his skin that quickly reformed anew over his rapidly mutating body, and shredding his clothes. His teeth grew into that of a canine's, with sharp fangs. Dark gray hair sprouted from his skin, covering him from his newly formed head to the jagged claws on his four paws. Pointed ears formed on each side of his head as his nose transformed into a snout. When the changing ceased, he lay on the deck for only a moment, and then he jumped up, looked up at the moon beginning to be lost behind the clouds again, and began to howl.
Only Captain Sharp had witnessed the change of Lieutenant Lescoux from man to werewolf, and he was so stunned that he was unable to speak or shout or even point at what he was seeing. When the werewolf Lescoux leapt on Captain Sharp and with his razor-sharp teeth ripped the captain's Adam's apple from his throat, the captain died without even uttering a sound. Unseen by anyone, his body fell over the ship's railing into the turbulent waters.
And then the werewolf Lescoux began the slaughter of the crew that was on deck, savagely ripping them apart, one after another, chasing those who tried to escape him by running toward the bow or stern and tearing them apart as they begged for mercy.
He then went below decks and entered every cabin and compartment, killing any crew member he encountered. Finally he entered the hold where he had been held and found Johnny still lying on the floor. He sniffed and pawed the young man's body and then bit into Johnny's shoulder, leaving bloody teeth marks. As the light of sunrise fell on the ship and the ocean calmed, the werewolf Lescoux crawled into his hammock and fell into a deep, but troubled, sleep.
* * *
A month later in the light of a full moon, werewolves Lescoux and Johnny Aster jumped from the lifeboat they had used to escape the lifeless, drifting ship on which they had been hostages, onto a rocky beach. They hunkered down, raised their heads and sniffed the air, trying to catch scent of any of the inhabitants of the small town whose lights they had spotted while still a good distance from land. They had turned from men to werewolves only hours before and the pain from the mutations still lingered in their bones, but their senses were acute. They heard the wheels of a carriage on a nearby road before seeing it. When it came into view, with the driver sitting high on a bench at the front of an enclosed carriage and steering the horses, they rose up and rushed after it.
Spooked by the sudden appearance of two large wolves at the side of the road, the team of horses rebelled against the reins held by the driver and stampeded. Having not seen the werewolves, the driver held on as best he could, pulling hard on the reins and shouting for the horses to stop. Inside the carriage, Lord and Lady Britt were tossed about, yelling and screaming. The werewolves bounded after the carriage, quickly catching up to it as the horses veered off of the road and began running across an open field. Lescoux caught up to it first and jumped up on the back of one of the two horses. The werewolf sunk his claws and teeth into the horse's skin and tore away chunks of hide and muscle. Seeing the attack, the driver panicked and let loose of the reins. He was thrown from the carriage onto the ground where Johnny pounced on him and quickly ended the man's life with a fatal bite to the right jugular vein.
Lescoux leapt from the mortally wounded horse to the top of the carriage where inside Lady Britt had fainted from the violent motion of the carriage as it bounced across the field, pulled by the team of fear-stricken horses. Lord Britt held on tight to the grips beside the window and tried to look out to see what was happening as the recognizable landscape of the Britt estate flashed by.
When Lescoux crouched down, leaned over the edge of the roof of the carriage and looked into Lord Britt's face, it took several moments for the man to comprehend that he was staring into the eyes of a wolf. He recoiled in shock, and being portly and in bad physical condition, he suffered a heart attack and died instantly. The team of horses came to a stop not far from the Britt manor. The werewolves got into the carriage and spent until just before sunrise feasting on Lord and Lady Britt.
They then entered the Britt manor, slew and ate the staff, and found places to sleep until sunrise.
* * *
The ride from St. Ives, where they had come ashore, to London, where Lieutenant Lescoux was determined to go was going to be about a day's ride by horseback. Johnny hadn't adjusted to the idea of living the remainder of his life as a werewolf and flew into moments of rage at Lieutenant Lescoux for turning him into one, but resigned himself to it when he was reminded by the lieutenant that he could have easily killed him as he had everyone else on the ship. More than anything else, Johnny hoped to one day be reunited with his fiancée in Halifax. The two men rested several days before beginning their journey. Wearing clothes that best fit their physiques taken from the closets of two groomsmen whose meatless skeletons lay in the beds in which they had been devoured, and with a great deal of money that Lord Britt had been carrying with him when he died, the lieutenant and Johnny started off in one of Lord Britt's open carriages early in the morning when a layer of foggy mist hung a few feet above the ground.
They rode through several small hamlets where flocks of untended sheep milled about in the roads between the cottages and chickens scratched about in the yards before stopping for pints at a pub on the first floor of an inn that had just opened for the day. They were the only customers and sat at a table near the fireplace and warmed themselves while waiting to be served by the comely young woman with long red hair that hung in braids down her back who was busily preparing a tray of food.
"I'll be with you shortly," she called out to them. "The bloke upstairs requires his breakfast on time or he throws a fit the likes of which isn't worthy of any gentleman."
"Who is he?" the lieutenant asked.
"He says he just newly arrived here from Halifax," she replied, "but that's all he'll say."
Johnny jumped up from his seat. "Perhaps he's looking for us and we should go tell him we're here!"
The lieutenant grabbed Johnny's arm and pulled him back down. "How then do we explain how we got here, the ship, and how we're alive?" he asked, harshly, but hushed.
The young woman rested the tray on her shoulder and carried it up the stairs.
Rising, the lieutenant said, "We have to leave this place at once."
They rushed out of the pub, climbed into the carriage, and swiftly rode out of the hamlet and down the long road that wound through fields and meadows. As evening fell, the towers, steeples and roofs of the city of London came into view. They rode into the city as the streetlamps were being lit and the streets had begun to empty of pedestrians. They parked the carriage at a livery stable, paid the owner of the stable to care for the horses, and walked several blocks until they found a small, shabby hotel.
When they walked through the doors, Johnny grabbed the lieutenant's arm. "Now, will you tell me why we've come to London?"
The lieutenant yanked his arm away. "I plan to exact my revenge for why I'm in this predicament to begin with," he answered.
They walked up to the check-in desk and got two separate rooms.
* * *
Over the next few weeks Johnny spent most of the time in his room, going out only for meals with Lieutenant Lescoux whom he began calling Robert instead of Lieutenant out of caution that should anyone overhear the lieutenant being called by his rank but being out of uniform might bring unwanted attention.
Robert became more sullen and morose with each passing day. "I come from French aristocracy and have been reduced to this," he complained during each meal as he picked at the meager and poorly-prepared food they ate at local ale houses and restaurants that catered to the lower classes who barely had the money to spend on going to a restaurant to begin with.
Each evening, while Johnny read books he purchased from street vendors, Robert hired hansom cabs and paid the drivers to take him to the gates of Hothwell Manor that sat on a plot of well-tended ground known for its lush gardens not far from Buckingham Palace, where he had grown up and where his parents lived. He would remain in the cab and stare at the regal-appearing manor and imagine the reaction his mother and father would have when they saw him change into a werewolf right in front of them. That would be just before he tore them to pieces with his teeth and claws. He thought it was more than just random good luck that brought him all the way from the woods where he had been bitten back to his place of birth. He saw it as the will of his maker, God himself.
He anxiously awaited the coming of the next full moon.
* * *
The pounding on his hotel room door woke Robert out of a deep sleep where he had been having what was a reoccurring nightmare about seeing the corpses of the soldiers in his unit who had been killed by the pack of wolves dance around a campfire built in the center of a crowded London street. He immediately sat up, wiped the sleep from his eyes, and looked over to see the prostitute he had brought back to the hotel with him was still asleep in his bed. He jabbed her, hard, in the middle of her back with his finger. "Get up and get out," he snarled.
She swung her legs around the edge of the mattress and sat up. "Blimey, don't be a bloomin' arse," she replied. She stood up and shoved her thick head of blonde curls on top of her head. "Ya still owe me for my services," she said.
"It's on the dresser, now get dressed and get out."
There was another loud knock on the door.
He got out of bed, slid on his pants, and went to the door and flung it open. Standing there was Johnny whose neck was gripped by the hairy hand of a large man wearing a long, gray cape.
"Did you think you'd get away as easy as that?" the man said between clenched teeth. He shoved Johnny into the room, stepped in and slammed the door closed.
Trying to cover her nudity with her hands, the prostitute let out a squeal of complaint. The man grabbed her, twisted her head, breaking her neck, and let her drop to the floor.
"Who are you?" Robert asked with false bravado.
"I was once Henry Denchly of Halifax, but I'm now the leader of the pack you encountered in the woods. I've followed your scent all this way to take you back."
"Followed my scent?" Robert replied, astonished. "But how? The ocean, where we came ashore . . ."
"Some of it was skill, some of it pure accident, like you showing up at that inn where I had rented a room," he answered. "Now get dressed. We're returning on the first ship headed back to Halifax right after the full moon. Life as a wolf isn't as bad as you might imagine."
"Like hell I'll return," Robert replied. "I'm not spending the remainder of my days living in the forest with a pack of wolves." He turned to put on his shirt that lay across the foot of the bed. Henry jumped on him and pinned him to the floor. "If you'd prefer to die now I'll gladly accommodate you," he said into Robert's ear. "It goes against the code of the pack, but William Hudson wouldn't mind hearing that you're dead."
"William? I saw him being killed," Robert answered.
"He's now one of the pack," Henry said. "So what is it, are you returning with me or do I kill you now?"
"I have something I must do first," Robert answered.
* * *
From outside the gates of the Hothwell Manor estate, Robert, Henry and Johnny waited in the shadows as night fell and the full moon began to rise. The aching in their bones began.
With Henry and Johnny standing behind him, Robert reached into his coat pocket, pulled out a pistol and turned and aimed it at Henry. "I found this at a pawn shop and planned on using the bullet in it on myself, but no one, man or werewolf, tells me what to do anymore."
"A bullet will not kill me," Henry replied.
"A silver one will," Robert said. He pulled the trigger and smiled broadly, his growing fangs beginning to show. Henry fell back, clutching the bleeding hole over his heart.
"The pack . . ." Henry stammered as he fell to the ground.
"I'll form my own pack right here in London," Robert proclaimed. He kicked open the gates and as the moon continued to rise he rushed in, followed by Johnny, howling all the way to the doors of Hothwell Manor.
Article © Steve Carr. All rights reserved.
Published on 2021-02-22
Image(s) are public domain.