Copyright Lily Silver, 2014
"Where are you going?" she called after him.
"I'll be looking for tracks, sleigh tracks in the snow."
With that, he raced down the stairs again. He paused in the hall, and strode quickly to the back of the house, to the armory. He would need a weapon. Stephan unlocked the case and took out two rifles. He grabbed a handful of balls, and started to load the weapons.
"May I help, sir?" Jasper stood in the doorway. "Are you hunting the wolf?"
"I am. He's taken Miss Jennings."
"The wolf, sir?" Jasper's brows raised.
"Yes, the werewolf has abducted Miss Jennings and means to kill her."
Jasper made a face. His expression became grave. "And who might that be, sir?"
"Brisbane." Stephan had loaded the first rifle and set it aside. He started loading the second one.
"Ah, that's bad. Took the sleigh out, said it was for you and Miss Jennings." He reached into the cabinet and pulled out another gun. The old fellow started loading it, his face grim.
"I suppose you think me mad." Stephan remarked. "I thought I was, for a long time."
"No, no, sir." Jasper's voice was unusually calm. "You are entirely sane, if I might be so bold. But I doubt it's the same with your valet. He never seemed quite right in the head."
"You never mentioned it, Jasper." Stephan lifted his weapons and strode to the door.
"It wasn't my place to question your choice, sir." Jasper followed after him. "Just as it's not my place to question your claim of the man being a wolf-creature."
Stephan stopped, and turned to his old retainer. "You amaze me. You don't think I'm mad for wanting to hunt for a man who can change into a wolf?"
"No, sir." Jasper held his level gaze. "I've lived in these woods all my life. There be queer creatures here, master, all manner of unnatural things. A man that denies those things exist is lying, to himself and those he hopes to fool. There has been a beast of Lexford Woods for as long as I can remember, and longer still. Let's move, sir, the light is dying."
They hurried to the stables. As they arrived there, Stephan found his horse had been taken care of by Jasper. There was a strange howling in the woods. The kind of sound that makes men who know better shiver and tuck their collar up about their necks to ward off the sound of evil.
"That might be your wolf, sir," Jasper whispered. "Or it might be the howl of a banshee."
The sound of a horse coming round the drive caught their attention. Richard was coming, with Mr. Leeds clutching onto him from behind. "Stephan, you could explain before you raced away. We're two of us on this beast. We couldn't keep up. What's this, rifles?"
"Sarah is missing. Brisbane, I suspect, is doing mischief," Stephan explained as he moved to take the reins of Richard's horse. "Hurry down, I must go searching."
"Not with this beast, you won't," Richard said as Mr. Leeds hopped down. Richard swung his leg over the saddle and dismounted. "This animal is spent. We tried to catch up to you, but as you can see, we've exhausted the beast."
"The beast," Stephan murmured. "I can find them as the beast. You follow me, with Jasper and the guns."
"Stephan, is that wise?" Richard looked from Stephan to Jasper and back again.
"I cannot delay. Brisbane has taken her into the woods. He means to do her harm."
Richard's curse echoed in the silent courtyard. He took the rifles from Stephan. "Mr. Leeds, would you be joining Mr. St. John in the hunt, or would you rather accompany me?"
Leeds looked as if he'd swallowed a stone. "I'm not sure what you're saying, Doc."
"Yes, you are. Decide, we are off, follow whom you will. Jasper, horses?"
"We have Mr. St. John's horse, Hades, and this poor beast. Both are spent."
"Come man?" Richard hissed. "We have no horses to give chase."
Stephan stepped away from the men. He went into the stable, and into the tack room. His coat and shirt were off before he stepped inside the small room. As he bent and lifted one leg to remove his boot, a shadow cast over the door. Mr. Leeds.
"I am not able to control myself, not like you, sir." Leeds offered. "I'll come along, but I can't promise much."
"Trust your instincts as the wolf and follow me." Stephan removed one boot, then the other. He unfastened his trousers and let them drop. His small pants remained, but not for long. "The man we seek is a killer. He has taken my betrothed."
Leeds nodded, and started removing his clothing.
Jasper and Richard were surprised when not one but two large wolves came bounding out of the stable, ran past them and into the woods. The leader had russet fur, and a slighter one following had a sandy colored pelt. The larger wolf paused at the edge of the stable yard and turned back to look at Richard.
"We'll fetch lanterns and follow." Jasper told the canine, as if he knew who it was he spoke to.
Richard gave the old fellow a curious look, and then started trudging down the road with his rifle ready. He didn't get far before Jasper caught up with him and handed him a tinned lantern on a pole to carry over his shoulder.
Zara jostled and twisted, attempting to make herself fall back on the chair in the hope of breaking it. At least if she could get her arms free from the chair back, she might be able to tend the fire through the night. With any luck, St. John would search for her when he returned, or in at the very least, come the sunrise. She had to survive the night.
She tipped the chair backwards, and rocked hard. She landed with a thump on her side, on the hard ground. The chair didn't break. Now she was cold, as the cloak offered little protection from the hard packed snow beneath her. She uttered a curse under her breath. Just perfect, she would freeze faster now. She wiggled, and shimmied, and twisted.
The chair creaked. Her foot, the one bound up in that wooden trough contraption, was clumsy. She couldn't feel around her with it, and moving it brought pain. She was lying on her right side, with her right foot, the free one, beneath her.
The sound of wolves howling made her stop her struggles.
Alone in the woods, with no weapon. The fire might deter them for a time, but when it died, and it would within an hour, she would be helpless.
Think, Zara, you're a clever girl, think it through, her uncle's voice echoed in her head. How many times had he told her just that, told her to use her head to solve a difficulty rather than giving up.
Think. Ropes loosened, with work, they could loosened. She struggled to edge the ropes up her wrists, to the wider part of her arm, so they might loosen a little bit. They were old ropes, not new, not tight. It was work, and it was harder than she liked. Still, it was lie here still and quiet as she waited to freeze to death, or struggle to be free of either the chair or the ropes, hopefully both.
The chair back. That might be it. If she could roll onto her back again, and roll over it, her weight might . . .
Howling again. Closer this time. Her heart darted away like a fleeing rabbit. Zara lay still in the cold snow. She listened and held her breath. The woods were silent. Too silent. There were no noises of birds as before. There was only that awful silence that came with death in the forest. When a predator drew near, birds grew silent and squirrels hid in their nests. Mice and rabbits grew still, and the predator found its prey.
A rustling of leaves and snow below the hill told her that she was not alone. She gazed up lifted her head to see what was coming up the rise of hill. A wolf came rushing up the embankment, as she expected.
Not just any wolf. It was a russet colored wolf, one she recognized as it came to her side and sniffed at her with curious concern.
"St. John?" she whispered, shaken, but hopeful. "Stephan, is that you?"
His nose sniffed her cheek, his hot breath a welcome warmth. A quick flick of his tongue on her face told her that he was indeed Stephan St. John, the man she loved.
He stepped back, and his eyes quietly surveyed the gloom beyond the firelight.
Another wolf followed him, a lighter colored animal. The ears on that one flattened as it looked at Zara, as if it meant to strike. It snarled, and the ruff on its neck rose up.
The wolves both began growling low in their throats. The hair on their backs raised.
They saw something they did not like beyond the firelight.
Zara edged away, useless as that action might be, she was not about to lie still and be attacked, by one of them or another intruder. She arched her back and twisted her hips, inching backwards.
The russet wolf leapt over her. The tan one followed him in leaping over her in an elegant arc and sprayed snow in her face as he landed just inches from her head. She scrunched up her face and tried to rub the clump of snow from her eye with her shoulder. She gasped at the harsh feel of the frozen spray clinging on her skin as it melted from the warmth.
A horrific noise of snarling, snapping jaws made her shrink back, away from them and close her eyes tight. She remained still, waiting for the attack with gritted teeth.
When nothing happened, she opened her eyes to determine what that disgusting sound might me. Were they fighting each other?
No, the beasts were attacking something else, something hiding beyond her in the darkness. She arched her head and rolled forward to try to see what it was. It was a black wolf.
A pure black wolf--it the sign of the evil one.
Zara shivered, and whispered an ancient prayer.
She watched as the trio circled and snarled. The black wolf was large and powerful, but it was no match for the two attacking it. With a shrill yelp, it staggered and stepped away. The russet wolf lunged. There was a fearful snapping of jaws and ferocious growling. The black wolf and the one she knew as St. John were rolling on the ground, both wild beasts determined to kill the other one to survive.
Copyright Lily Silver, 2014