Hungry Like the WolfbyJukeboxEMCSA©
Morning came to Carstairs Manor on June 10th in the year of Our Lord, 1873, but it was not a happy one. The sun rose sluggishly, barely managing to displace the swollen moon from the sky, and despite the time of year, a cold fog hung over the moor in the early morning. Inside, James Cromwell, Lord Carstairs ate a tense breakfast served by an anxious serving staff.
"Sire, I am afraid I have unfortunate news to report," said Bidwell, the butler, as he brought the morning paper. "Three of the maids appear to have left during the night. I believe them to be staying with family in the village, if you would like me to dispatch someone to fetch them."
Lord Carstairs let out a derisive snort. "Deserters and traitors, the lot of them. Send along a boy with their last day's wages and tell them I have no room for cowards on my staff."
Bidwell nodded, his mouth set in a thin line. "Very good, sire. However, this does leave us with a decided shortage of staff. The events of recent months--"
"Are nothing more than a few idiots wandering about on the moors late at night, running into a pack of wild dogs, and managing to frighten other idiots with their fatal bout of stupidity, Bidwell. Nothing more, nothing less, and I'll not have it said otherwise. Not in my house. Do you understand?"
Bidwell bowed slightly at the waist. "Naturally, sire, and my humblest apologies if I give you any other impression. I merely meant that the...crazed rumors spread by the villagers have made it somewhat difficult to acquire staff. They believe it to be...unlucky...to be a member of the household on the nights of the full moon."
"Frankly," Carl Cromwell, heir to the estate, said as he slouched into the room, "I find it unlucky to be a member of the household any other night. Father, you simply must do something about the staff. How am I supposed to find a bedwarmer if all the maids keep leaving?" Carl chuckled at his own double entendre. The entire household knew that Carl enraged his father on a daily basis with his dalliances with the female staff, but none of his father's fury seemed to hold him back. With saturnine good looks and what seemed to be an insatiable sexual appetite, Carl spent whatever time he wasn't spending hunting or drinking with fucking.
"Take a lesson in self-reliance, boy. Warm yourself up for a change." Lord Carstairs scowled. "There's your answer, Bidwell. I can believe that the women of this house are scared of a wolf in their midst, but I think he's sitting at my table scarfing down sausages."
Bidwell managed to diplomatically indicate appreciation for Lord Carstairs' joke without implying moral sanction on the part of his son, a maneuver that required careful arrangement of his facial features. "In any event, sire, should the draining of the household staff continue, we shall have to look further afield to replace them. Especially should any...idiots...find themselves suffering a...fatal bout of stupidity...tonight, Sire." Lord Carstairs' face took on a thundery expression, and he was about to blast Bidwell with another tirade about superstitious idiots and the full moon, when a footman entered. "Excuse me, Sire. It appears my attention is needed." Bidwell strode over to the footman with an efficient gait, and conversed with him for a long moment.
Carl poured himself a cup of hot coffee and stared out the window at the moors outside, still shrouded by fog. "Wild dog or werewolf, father, it's certainly made hunting dashed difficult. Six months now, and I haven't bagged a single pheasant. It's as though something's scared off every bit of edible game on the estate."
"Werewolf. Next you'll be telling me the estate is under a gypsy curse."
"Well, Father, you did turn away those gypsies seeking to pitch their tents on the estate for the night."
"I also turned away the Temperance League, the parish priest, and those idiot friends of yours who wanted to spend a week out here 'fox-hunting'. That doesn't mean I've got the first ever sober, blue-blooded Protestant werewolf out there stalking me!"
"Excuse me, sire," Bidwell said, returning from his consultation with the footman, "but you have a visitor. Captain Horace Arkwright, the explorer, and his ward, Emma. He claims to have heard something about the recent...difficulties with wild dogs...out on the moor, and offers his services as a tracker and big game hunter to find and kill whatever it is that has caused the recent spate of deaths."
Carl stood up, suddenly white with anger. "Now see here!" he said. "I've been out there every day the last six months, and I assure you, if I can't find whatever killed those poor men and women, I'll be deuced if I'm going to let some jumped-up cowboy wander in here from Darkest Africa with his pet strumpet and give it a try. Father, tell these people to leave."
Lord Carstairs smiled coldly. "Bring them in. I could do with a laugh."
"Very good, sire." Bidwell departed soundlessly.
"Oh, look, Father, we've been through this. The ground is such a wet mess at this time of year that no 'big game hunter' could track prey in it. I looked myself. Just a mess of big paw-prints and human footprints, girls being chased down and struggling with a..." he ended lamely, remembering the tracks that must have belonged to an animal the size of a person, "...wild dog. Just send the fool home, tell everyone to stay inside tonight on penalty of gruesome death, and that will be that."
"That most certainly will not be that," an imperious voice rang out through the massive dining room. A broadly-built, tall man with penetrating gray eyes, dark hair, and a carefully-waxed mustache strode across the room, with a slim, doe-eyed beauty with honey-colored hair trailing in his wake. Behind them, Bidwell struggled to keep up.
"Er...Captain Arkwright, sire," Bidwell said, putting on a last burst of speed.
"A pleasure, Lord Carstairs. This is my ward, Emma Masters. Her parents were dear friends of mine, died in the Congo. I pledged to look after the girl. Now, I must say, your young son is wrong. This 'beast of the moors' has tasted blood. Six times now, from all I hear. Ask any of the Tutsi tribe, they'd tell you that on the veldt, when a lion eats the flesh of a man...or woman...it gets a taste for it. Becomes a man-eater. An animal like that, it gets bolder. More cunning, more fearless. I think you'll find that this has happened before. Ever hear of Basingstoke Hall? Seven months, that beast preyed on the household. Luckily for them, they retained my services. The next month, I lay in wait for the creature, shot it through the heart, and Lord Basingstoke and I watched its lifeblood pour out onto the hearth. It slunk off to die, never to be seen again."
"And were we in the veldt, being menaced by a lion," said Carl, "I would no doubt suggest to Father that we call upon your expertise. But this is England, and apart from enhancing the scenery," he drank in a long look at Emma's delicate features, "I fail to see why you are here instead of rounding the Cape of Good Hope."
"I am here, sir, to warn you that the creature that hunts you will grow bolder as the months pass. The last murder in Basingstoke was within the Hall itself. The creature broke through a window, lunged in, and dragged one of the maids out by the throat. This thing will grow bolder, crueler. Do you wish to wake up one morning to find your son dead?"
Lord Carstairs scowled. "I suppose that should I contact Basingstoke Hall, I would find that you saw this beast off out of the kindness of your heart and the nobility of your spirit, with no thought of recompense and reward?"
"Not at all. But a drowning man can scarcely choose which offer of help he accepts. I tell you, I can kill this beast which menaces you. Can and will."
"And what of Lord Bromsley?" Lord Carstairs asked. "Do you offer him as a reference?"
Captain Arkwright seemed taken aback. "I..."
"He called you a rogue and a scoundrel, a mercenary, a brute and a confidence trickster to boot. Said you came to him some ten years ago, raising money for an expedition to Africa. It turned out to be a fraud. The ship you mentioned turned out to be a derelict, and the money was never seen again."
Captain Arkwright lowered his head. "That was a long time ago, sir, and a young fool can change."
"Yes," Lord Carstairs said, a cold glint in his eyes. "He can become an older fool. Your reputation precedes you, Arkwright, despite all your attempts to get ahead of it, but I think you'll find a very different reception here at Carstairs Manor. My household has more than enough protection without whatever dubious help you can offer. Bidwell, get this man and his 'ward' out of my sight." Carl smiled triumphantly.
Captain Arkwright held up a hand. "Just let me stay for one evening, my lord. One night, and we'll see if you feel any differently about my advice or the beast the morning after the full moon."
Lord Carstairs looked impatiently at Bidwell. "Do we have any rooms to spare for these two?"
Bidwell took the matter under consideration. "There are no guests staying with you at the moment, sire, which means that we have seventeen free bedrooms, six free staterooms, and the White Parlor free for entertaining. We will be having roast turkey tonight, sire, meaning that there should be sufficient extra portions for at least two people--I assume Ms. Masters eats sparingly. As to the morning--"
"So I can't turn them down because we're full up. Ah, well." Lord Carstairs waved a hand negligently. "Go ahead and stay the night, Arkwright. I'll be kicking you out good and early tomorrow, so don't sleep in." He turned back to Bidwell. "Assemble the staff, tell them to make sure to stay indoors tonight. I don't want any bloody fools wandering off..."
Arkwright turned on his heel and left, Emma trailing behind. His eyes hooded, Carl watched them go.
Emma let out a deep sigh as she watched 'Uncle Horace' continue to pace. Back and forth down the length of the room, like a caged tiger, not saying a word all day. He seemed like every muscle was tensed to spring, just waiting for...she looked out the window at the setting sun. Waiting for moonlight. He'd turned down dinner, preferring to wait in his room. Emma's own stomach was far too unsettled to eat. The whole bloody business to come left her decidedly uncomfortable, much like it did at the last few places they'd visited in recent years. Emma felt like her life had become one great round of chasing wild animals around, ever since she became Horace's ward. She'd been fifteen then, she was twenty now, and she felt like she couldn't remember a time when her "Uncle" (not her actual uncle, of course, not by blood, but certainly the nearest thing she had left to family) wasn't taking her to hunt a wild animal that was menacing the nobles of Britain. She supposed he was being very noble, but she just felt scared and miserable.
"Uncle," she said, "perhaps you had best begin your preparations for...for the hunt." She felt a slight catch in her throat, nerves at the thought of some vast, terrifying beast out on the moors. "You haven't gotten out a gun, and the sun has nearly set. If you're going to hunt the beast--"
Captain Arkwright stopped dead in his tracks, and spun to face Emma. "Oh, but Lord Carstairs doesn't want me to do any hunting tonight, Emma. You heard the man--the blasted, confounded, insolent, arrogant man! How did the bastard hear about Bromsley? Oh, I'll see to him. teach him to go blabbing my name around the country..."
Emma sighed, and went to her guardian's side. "But Uncle, we can't just let this creature kill some poor thing! There'll be other chances to hunt for money--we've already visited three estates, saved three nobles, collected three rich purses for our troubles...do we really need this man to give us anything? Surely you can kill the beast just to save a life, just this once."
Arkwright clenched his fists in barely restrained anger. "And if I do, then word will spread of that. The next time we make our visit, they'll be filled with scorn and mockery, expecting a handout. Laughing at me to my face, and expecting me to save their lives? Is that what you want to see, Emma?"
Emma placed a placating hand on his shoulder. "Of course not, Uncle. But--" she looked over to the last sliver of the setting sun. "But I'm frightened," she whispered. "We are on the ground floor, our rooms overlook the moors. It is almost night. What if the beast should attack us?"
Awrkwright smiled, a smug and cruel smile. "I'm not worried." He pulled out a thick strap of leather, folded over itself twice, from his pocket. "I have this."
Emma gaped at her guardian, who seemed to have gone utterly mad. "It's just a piece of old leather! How do you expect that to save you from a slavering, wild beast?"
"Simple, my dear." He held out his hand, letting the leather unfold. A bright, shiny silver buckle hung from the dangling end. "I just hold it like this."
Emma looked at the...belt? No, it was too small to be a belt. She looked at it intently, trying to figure out what it was and how it worked. "And what does it..." The silver buckle glinted in the fading sunlight. "What does it do?"
"You're a bright girl, Emma," he said, holding the strap a little higher. "I'm sure you can figure it out if you just look a little longer."
"I..." Emma stood there for a long moment, staring at the buckle, the way it seemed to swing just a little, sway and twist in ways that caught and reflected the light. She wished she was taller, just a bit--the buckle hung a little above the level of her eyes, and she felt a strain as she was forced to look up at them. "I don't...understand..."
"Of course you do, Emma. Just keep looking at it, and try to remember the last time you saw it."
She'd seen it before? She gazed at the bright, shiny, silvery buckle, and tried to cast her mind back. The buckle seemed to help. It gave her something to focus on, as she just let her mind drift back through the last few weeks, trying not to think about anything except when she might have seen it before, ignoring her surroundings, ignoring her guardian's voice, just thinking back to the last time he held out the same collar...collar! It was a collar. "ohhh," she said, in a voice of sudden, dazed comprehension.
"That's right, Emma. You've seen this before, haven't you?"
Emma nodded. Now that she remembered, how could she forget? Every month, when the moon was full, Horace showed her the collar. It meant so much to her, she didn't understand exactly why she'd forgotten it. He'd shown it to her every time the moon was full these past six months, while they were camping out on the moors, keeping clear of people. He'd shown it to her the first time they met, when she was an orphan girl on the streets of Liverpool. He'd told her that he was going to take care of her from now on, that she was going to remember being his ward. He'd shown it to her a lot those first few years, every day for weeks on end, sometimes. He'd taught her so many important things about how to be a good, proper lady, and she'd accepted it all so easily, and some things she remembered all the time, like the story about being the daughter of his good friend, and some things she only remembered when she needed to, like right now. When he showed her the collar. On the full moon.
"And you remember what you need to do, now, Emma, don't you?"
Emma nodded again. Vacantly, her hands worked at the buttons and stays of her dress. She needed to be naked now. That was very important. Sometimes the clothes sliding over her head obscured the sight of the buckle, but it was always present in her mind's eye. The collar was always there, always in her mind. Even when she wasn't wearing it, she was wearing it.
Emma finished undressing, stood naked in front of her guardian. Five puckered scars stood out in the valley between her breasts--the fourth one was already fading, the fifth one barely visible. She couldn't remember how she got them, but she knew it wasn't important. They only hurt a little, even at the time. Right now, she just needed to stand there, stare at the collar, naked, not thinking of anything in particular. She didn't mind being naked in front of him. A part of her mind understood that she was naked for him many nights, and that the knowledge just slept in her mind until she was supposed to recall it. But it meant something different when she stood before him, naked, on the nights of the full moon.
She wasn't sure how long she stood there, just staring at the collar. Time wasn't important. Horace knew how long it was. He knew best in all things. She knew that if she ever thought about disagreeing with him, she could just remember the feel of the collar around her neck and those disagreements would go away. He knew best in all things. He knew how long he needed her to stay there, just staring at the collar.
When the moonlight gleamed off the collar, she understood what he had been waiting for. She felt it long before anyone could see it, felt the blood course through her veins faster, stronger. The scent of the leather went from a barely definable odor to a thick haze in the air. Her pulse quickened, and she felt her muscles thicken and knot, growing strong and powerful.
She felt the change accelerate, growing physical now. Her bones bent and lengthened. It looked painful, but her moans were those of pleasure, not pain. It didn't hurt. It felt like...coming home. The hair grew, thick and long, a pelt of honey-blonde fur. She dropped to her haunches, feeling the scent of prey all around her, everywhere in the air. She wanted to run wild, now. She felt it, in the instant that the change came upon her, the moment of pregnant possibility. She could do it, she could almost tear her eyes away from Horace and his collar, and run wild for the moors. He'd never be able to catch her there, and she could pour out her howls of passion to the moon, race all night long. She would catch rabbit and pheasant--who needed to eat humans, humans who screamed and whimpered and begged? She understood. Her will was stronger in this wolf form, she could do it this time, she could break free of Horace...
But the collar came nearer, now. The buckle passed over her head, dizzying her for a long moment as her eyes tried to track it out of instinct. Too long. She could feel the collar now, wrapping around her neck. She tried to struggle, but it was weak, half-hearted. Horace knew best in all things. She understood that. She couldn't forget it, because every time she remembered the feel of the collar around her neck, she remembered that she couldn't disobey. And the collar was on her neck, right now, so she couldn't not remember it, she always remembered it, she couldn't forget, she couldn't disobey. He knew best in all things. Emma got down on her haunches in front of him and whined softly.
"Good girl," Horace said. "Now, we're going to take a little walk. We're going to go see that snot-nosed little twerp, and tomorrow, we'll see if Lord Carstairs isn't a little bit more willing to rid himself of that beast when he sees his son's blood cooling on the bedroom floor, eh?"
But Carl wasn't in his room. It was empty. Emma sniffed around, but he was in the house so much, it was impossible to tell which scents were fresh and which were stale. She prowled the corridors, Horace following her, trying to find the young man so she could...so she could follow commands. That was all. That was all she needed to think about. She wore the collar. She had to obey.
She smelled him before she saw him. Her night vision was excellent, but scent didn't depend on light at all. His outline was still just one patch of darkness against another, but the scent of him stood out like a beacon. Emma crouched down into a defensive position, her fangs bared, a low growl rippling up from her throat.