Prologue, Part I
A/N – "Garoul" (or Leu Garoul) is the Old French term for "werewolf", from which the modern term "loup-garou" was derived. French place-names are real, the story of the Beast of Gévaudan is an actual legend(though I've taken a few liberties with it), and Antoine de Beauterne was an historical-type personage. POTO and its characters belong to ALW and GL. The rest of the stuff I just made up.
Thank you, Polly Moopers, for being a wonderful and patient beta!
Lozère, February 1849
The strange, golden-eyed child had appeared on the grey stone steps of the orphanage at Mende with no warning nor any explanation; the sisters estimated his age at about five years.
Though clean, neatly-dressed, and in good health, he refused to divulge any information about his family or his place of origin. He was well-spoken, but his accent made it unlikely that he was from one of the local villages. He would only say that his name was Erik and that he had lost his parents. Though questioned at length by the sisters and by the Director of the orphanage, Monsieur Guillaume, he would give neither a surname nor an explanation of how he came to be there.
He was a baffling mystery. It was finally decided to accept him as a charity case; since he had nowhere else to go, was able-bodied, and willing to work for his keep, it was no hardship. There were beds to spare. Besides, as Sister Marie-Thérèse pointed out, they could hardly turn him away in the cold.
"You're much too soft-hearted," Sister Bernadette told her.
"Charity is a Christian virtue," said Sister Marie-Thérèse mildly. "Besides, 'Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.'"
"Hebrews 13:2 notwithstanding, he's more likely to be a devil than an angel, if you ask me," Sister Bernadette said, tartly. "Who walks abroad more in these times? The forces of good or the forces of evil?"
"One has to hope for the best, Sister."
"Yes, and plan for the worst."
"His looks are certainly angelic, though, aren't they?" Sister Marie-Thérèse asked, ignoring the jibe. "Such regular features; that smooth skin, those jet-black curls! I've never seen such eyes – that pale golden-brown, the color of honey! And his hands – he could be a surgeon or a musician with fingers like those."
"They say the devil was a handsome man," Sister Bernadette commented.
"Really, Sister, you seem to know entirely too much about the devil," said Sister Marie-Thérèse, nettled at last.
Sister Bernadette professed to be shocked.
After a few months, Erik certainly seemed to have a full helping of both light and darkness in his character. His looks, as Sister Marie-Thérèse had pointed out, were stunning. There was no doubt of his charisma, either – he could have charmed the birds out of the trees, had he wanted to. His singing, too, was heavenly; he possessed a clear, hauntingly beautiful voice that made the choir director weep to think of its inevitable change once the boy reached adolescence.
His temper, however, was mercurial at best, and devilish at worst. He was periodically subject to inexplicable black moods and uncontrollable fits of anger, during which he was liable to destroy things that he himself had carefully made only moments before. He was also curious and willful, traits the sisters tried in vain to curb, always wanting to find things out for himself and asking questions that ought not to be asked.
Sister Marie-Thérèse thought he must have been mistreated. Sister Bernadette thought he had probably been abominably spoilt. M. Guillaume would only furrow his brow and say that the boy was certainly a puzzle.
"He really doesn't seem to care how others see him," M. Guillaume said.
"Is it that he doesn't care or that he doesn't know?" Sister Marie-Thérèse was pleading his case again, as usual. "He is only a child."
"A very curious child," M. Guillaume said.
"They say in the village that his family is well-to-do, but abandoned him because they were unable to deal with him," Sister Bernadette put in.
"I trust we all know better than to listen to village gossip," said M. Guillame, but he looked thoughtful.
Sister Marie-Thérèse clasped her hands together and said a small prayer for Erik, for the hundredth time that day.
Though his looks and charm had attracted the other children to him at first, one by one they drifted away from him when faced with his temper and indifference. He cared only for a chosen few, most notably Sister Marie-Thérèse and a rather biddable boy called Georges.
As Erik grew, the routine of the orphanage adjusted and grew around him, as nacre grows around an out-of-place object in an oyster's shell. The sharp edges of his differences were blunted by time and familiarity, though his nature was largely unchanged. When he had been in the place for five years, his oddities had become just another aspect of life.
Lozère, April 1854
The walk from the orphanage to the village chapel was only about a mile in length, but covered a varied terrain in that short space.
The children were always made to walk in double-file and to hold hands when passing the bit of the Forest of Gévaudanon their route, though they were free to go singly when skirting the marais, which was arguably just as dangerous. No explanation beyond "for safety's sake" had ever been offered for this inconsistency. The nuns seemed afraid of the forest, and reluctant to speak of it.
On the way back from Chapel one Sunday, Erik developed one of his strange and sudden fascinations. He had passed the small shrine with the lighted candle which stood near the edge of the treeline hundreds of times, but it seemed to him that he had never noticed it until now.
"What is that?" he whispered to Georges, his partner.
Georges stared at him. "It's the shrine. It's always been there."
"But why is it there? What is it for?"
Georges only shrugged, clearly disinterested.
Erik scowled, then broke rank and ran to Sister Marie-Thérèse, who gently scolded him and shooed him back into line.
"Donkey," hissed Georges.
Erik kicked him on the ankle.
"Fine. I'll tell you about it tonight after lights out, if it means so much to you!"
Once the boys had all been put to bed, Erik would not allow the subject to drop. Georges, though reluctant, finally relented.
"You have heard of la Bête du Gévaudan?" he asked.
Erik shook his head, his eyes shining in the strong moonlight coming in through the high window.
"Everybody knows this story! Everyone around here, anyway. Well. Not even a hundred years ago, a terrible beast roamed that forest that we were walking by this afternoon. Some who caught sight of it said that it resembled a giant wolf, other that it resembled a half-beast, half-man. A truly terrible and bloodthirsty monster!" Georges began to warm to his tale.
"It killed livestock, people – any living thing which was unattended. Sometimes it consumed what it killed, but at other times it killed for sheer sport.
"Finally, the king sent the two best wolf hunters in all of France to kill the monster. They came with a grand retinue and eight trained bloodhounds, but they too were defeated. At last, the king sent Antoine de Beauterne, his chief huntsman and Grand Louvetier of the realm. The Great Wolf-Hunter." Georges paused.
"He went into the forest bravely, but when he came out, his weapons were missing, and his hair had gone completely white. He said that this was no ordinary wolf, and that a priest was what was needed, not a wolf hunter!"
To his shock, Erik laughed aloud, causing exclamations of sleepy disgust from the other boys.
"You're a fool to laugh," Georges told him. "They say it was the devil's work."
"You don't really believe in such things!" Erik exclaimed. "A werewolf? Those are fairy stories for children."
"Of course I believe it, and you should too. People were finding half-eaten arms and legs in their fields every morning! …Stop laughing, I tell you! When they got the priest, he said the proper prayers, and a terrible, unearthly howling was heard all up and down the Margerides. The priest directed several small shrines to be built, and candles to be kept burning at all times in all of them. The candles power the prayer and keep the beast at bay."
"That's stupid!" Erik protested, still grinning.
"It's not! Look – every time a candle has gone out, there have been attacks during the next full moon. It happened at Malzieu, it happened at Langogne." Georges crossed his arms, irritated.
"And at La Besseyre-Saint-Marie! Ask the sisters if you don't believe me."
"There's a full moon tonight," Erik said. "You mean if I crept down now, went outside, ran to the shrine, and blew out the candle, a great beast would come and eat me up?"
Georges gripped his arm. "You mustn't. Say you won't." In the moonlight, Erik could see that the other boy was sweating. His hand felt clammy.
Erik shook him off. He got out of bed and began to dress himself, quietly. Georges watched him, mouth agape.
"Tell anyone where I've gone," Erik said, "And it will be the worse for you." Something about the look in those eerie golden eyes made Georges disinclined to disobey.
Erik slipped off into the dark, silently. He was expert at not being seen or heard when he wanted to be.
Georges sank back into his bed. Perhaps Erik was right. Perhaps nothing would happen. But he pulled the covers over his head all the same.