Through the gnarled, thorn-ridden bramble, I saw her. A young girl smelling of ginger, with bright orange hair atop her head, no older than her adolescence, picking fresh wild strawberries from a bed of lilies.
She was humming a little war song from a long time ago and swaying her toes with the drumbeat, a beat she could not hum. Yes, a bit on the plump side. Maybe a screamer. But she would do; yes, she would do.
I stepped out from the bramble, crushing a twig with my foot. As expected, she twisted around to face me.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to frighten you,” I said.
“Mon Dieu! Do not creep upon a lady in her privacy, Englishman!” She spoke with a fire in her voice that only seemed to make her all the more enticing. “What on earth are you doing in the woods this early?”
“I’m not an Englishman, and I could ask you the same thing. It’s . . . dangerous.”
She opened her mouth to speak once more, but in the distance, I heard crunching, the snapping of branches, and the voices of two men. They were getting closer.
“Get down,” I said, pulling her hand. An arrow flew through the air and embedded itself in the tree behind us. “Stay put.” I ran ahead and leapt through the foliage, plunging my hand out and through a man’s skull. “La bête! La bête du gévaudan!” The second was too slow, his knife was sloppy, I saw it coming and I dodged, snapping the wrist and severing the arteries. Three seconds before losing consciousness, five if the whelp found his luck, but I didn’t bother sticking around to see the results of my conquest.
Stepping back out from the forestry, I approached the girl, now crouched behind a rock and clutching a branch. “Friends of yours? They chose to fight rather than run, and based on your reaction, I’d say you expected as much.”
She hesitated, eyes darting from my shoes to my face. “Oui… but how did you—”
I wagged my finger and hushed the girl. It was but a stroke of luck she didn’t see the escapade, nor my true nature, and I was not about to reveal it so soon. After all, virgin blood was the only kind I could subsist on. “What on earth did you do to attract such… unruly, attention?”
“I—” her hands gripped the skirt of her dress so tight, I almost thought she would rip it to shreds— ”I am a thief. I stole something very valuable, so they exiled me. Something, well, as valuable as a life.”
Her answer raised more questions than answers, but who was I to judge? “Very well, I’ll leave it at that. You know, I’m on my way to catch a ship to the United States. Home of the free and all that. It’s where I live. You’re… welcome to come along, if you wish.”
She thought about it, looking down. Then, her head rose back up with a smile. “To the States? With you? Oui!”
Turning to walk back, I feigned a look toward the sky. “Oh, it seems to be getting dark. I suppose we’ll just camp here. Wait till morning, then we’ll be on our way.”
The girl bit her lip but agreed. There was a certain thrill to camping with the plump girl, a thin barrier of foliage the only thing blocking the view of soldiers’ remains. Knowing all it would take, through the green, moss-soaked vines, the soft, fuzzy nettles, was a single wrong step, a single odd smell, and she would know.
She would know.
As we set up the tent, and she laid her head to rest, I watched the fire roar. The soft glowing of the flames struck out at the shadows around us, hissing a warm wind back toward the tent.
With the girl secured, I laid my head to rest, struggling to resist falling into torpor.
In my dream, a hazy screen of grey-blue clouds surrounded the forest at all sides. The girl was gone, the tent was different. I was clad in a blue coat, musket by my side, and started running. Shrapnel flew from the trees and sliced through the men around me. A bayonet found its way through my gut, and a pair of eyes watched me from above.
Gasping for air, I thrust my body from its spot and leapt forward. This was no longer a dream. Three more men, dressed much like the ones from before, surrounded the camp. My hands connected with the first’s neck and throttled it till the jelly oozed from his ears.
“La bête du gévaudan!” The second man plunged his spear through my sternum and twisted. So, so close to the heart. But his smell, oh god, his smell, like cinnamon, and ginger, and basil. A virgin. I snapped the spear and snapped through his windpipe, suckling on his sweet, sweet arteries.
BANG. An awful, stinging sensation filled my side. Silver shot, from the third man who I, oh so kindly had given a chance to escape. No matter, it would only slow me down. His legs snapped against my arms and oozed out the delicious marrow before he fell to the ground.
“L-la bête. That is what they called you.” The girl. How could I be so foolish to feast so openly right in front of her eyes? Her sweet, precious eyes. I turned to face her, the light of the flames illuminating the blood across my lips. “It seems to be one of many names I’m known by.” I wiped my mouth. “Do you know of it?”
Despite the blood across my face, across my lips, she showed only a slight uneasiness. “Yes. A creature from my home. They thought it dead, but have been chasing it ever since it made a reappearance. You are . . .”
“Not a beast, no. My condition is quite different. Come, back to bed. I’ll try to explain everything.”
I took her to my tent and explained what I knew. She seemed content with my answers and laid her head back to rest.
The following morning, we had taken the trail and arrived toward the dock. A massive wooden ship rocked against the waves, roped down against the wooden posts.
“Well then, here we are. The voyage to London.”
As I readied to board, she hesitated. Her toes curled in, shuffling against the ground. “I am a wanted girl. They will not take me.”
I laughed. “And they would take a creature, such as myself? No, dear, there are ways to board a ship. Ways that preserve me for my long torpor.” Carrying her by the hand, I leapt past the river bank and clung to the side of the ship, scaling it till I reached a port-side window attached to an empty supply room, and kicked through it, dragging the girl along behind me.
The girl rolled against the ground, panting. She sat up with a smile. “To the States we go!”
I stared at her for some time. I stood up, dusted off my suit, plucked a shard of glass from my brow and wiped the blood away, and swept back my hair. The longer I took, the faster her smile dropped. She stared and stared, and I stared, and I stared, and everything but this moment, she and I, froze.
“I. To the states I go.”
She stuttered a bit and fumbled her hands as if to ask what I meant.
“Dear, did you really think I’d let you go?” I laughed. “You know what I am. You know what I eat. Finding decent food in France is difficult these days. I need something to sustain me for the long voyage home. You understand, don’t you?”
She backed away, step by step, mumbling beneath her breath. She whipped her body around and buried her face in her hands, turning away from me.
“Darling, I can see you’re speechless. I’ll make it quick. I’ll be sure you get a proper burial, away from those men who wished to defile you.”
Her foot slipped and she fell, landing on her knees. She was still breathing heavy, just as before. Her veins throbbed, pumping in and out, stimulating all my senses with their viscous prize held away from me by just a few layers of skin. My hand gripped her shoulder, tight, to console her for her impending end.
Then, she laughed. Of all the things she could’ve done, crying, shouting, fighting, running, she laughed. “You never did ask for my name.”
She showed no fear. Her limbs didn’t tremble, her eyes refused to water. She turned to face me and on that face was the most distorted grin I had seen in all my travels.
“I can hardly remember it myself, but I know what they call me. They call me, la bête. La bête du gévaudan.”
Bones cracked and sinew snapped. Her eyes flashed an icy blue, and her gaping maw filled with teeth. Now I understood why she couldn’t stay in France. Now I understood why she had been alone from the very beginning. Everything was beginning to make sense. Now I understood the fire in her eyes, the enticement of her voice. The stories weren’t about me. They were never about me.
I took a step back, and her paw took a step forward. I saw a splinter of claw, a jet of blood. A fragment of bone, a fragment of skin.
A fragment of flesh, strewn about the boat.
Credited to Jason Quinn Kelly