“ONLY a madman buys sheep when there’s a werewolf on the loose, Roddy, that’s all I’m telling you,” said Sir Morten as he drained his mug.
Roderick gripped his own pint a little tighter. As the amber liquid jiggled with his nerves, the bubbles formed a foamy sort of ewe quickly torn limb from limb by the next shiver of the flagon. At least this time, he needn’t smell the tortured thing, nor hear the flies buzzing. He hadn’t expected to feel that way about the death of a sheep. From their comfortable seats in the familiar club, the rest of the men chuckled, almost as the buzzing flies.
For the hundredth time since his mother’s death, Roderick wondered why he came back to the Hawk and Hound—“the club,” he corrected himself, picturing the patronizing smiles of the other gentlemen. A closed door filtered the gaiety of the public room beyond, but on the private side, sterner men prevailed. The dark wood paneling and the low beams felt the more crushing with the pipe smoke that gathered above, stinging his eyes and bringing to mind the dark, sad faces of those men back in America; chained men hunching through the tobacco fields so that men like these could lounge about with unaffected indolence.
The room divided naturally into three parts: the counter where Roderick leaned with his drink, the three tables with their high-backed chairs, and the hearth where spindled chairs creaked under the restless bodies of the younger men. The arrangement of the cluttered furnishings still provided an easy track from the back door to the hearth, the favored roost of West Norton’s most celebrated inhabitant. Roderick’s place by the counter afforded an excellent view, and he remembered why he kept on coming back.
Someone banged out a pipe in time to his words: “Not quite the happy natural we expect from our Roddy, eh?”
Another general chuckle and a sip of ale fortified Roderick’s spirit. “Well, I’ve just got to get my dog, that’s all.”
More laughter, mostly from the hearth, and a protest from Lord Rogers. He stiffened in his high-backed chair, his pointy beard thrusting. “Beast ripped four of my best coursers in the hunt last week, Roddy. I hardly think a single dog would serve your estate—not with that ridiculous roaming flock on which you’ve just wasted good coin.” He casually wafted his fingers in the air to dismiss Roderick’s foolishness.
“All I want is for the estate to be running again; it’s what Mum would’ve wanted.”
“She wants you drawing werewolves to her home? That’s quite a mum she is!” The speaker, a youngster just returned from holiday, had obviously not heard the whole story, and Roderick’s chest tightened as the room fell silent. His gaze slid away to the fireplace, crackling merrily, and the cluster of men cozied up there. They leaned in, or pretended to disdain the bright figure who perched on the edge of the hearth. Allen, Lord Staynesburgh, lounged with long legs crossed before him, elegant head tipped back against the stone, eyes shut, his eyelids a pale hue, almost lavender. He appeared utterly disinterested in the talk over his head, despite the pauses left for his response. He might almost be asleep but for the languid smile that came and went upon his face. Roderick took another swallow of his ale. Off to the other side, the youth tried a chuckle, which died when he realized nobody else was laughing.
“Somebody’s got to tell him,” muttered Sir Morten, “about Roddy’s mum.”
From a distance, a sonorous voice announced: “Killed by the werewolf.” In the midst of his companions’ sudden silence, Staynesburgh blinked his eyes open, rubbing at them wearily, just returned from journeys of his own. He spoke again, more softly. “But Roddy’s told that story a hundred times by now.”
“Not to all of us,” the youth broke in.
“During the attack two months ago,” said Sir Morten, with a glance at Roderick to ask if he might continue, “they two were out walking by moonlight when the thing came upon them, and killed her before our man could even react.” His wild gray eyebrows twitched a question.
“Didn’t actually kill her,” Roderick said, fiddling with the chain of his watch, not wanting to remember. “Not by tooth and claw, in any event.”
“By fear alone,” drawled Lord Rogers, then took a puff upon his pipe, letting the smoke ring drift up to the rafters. “A wonderment the beast didn’t take them both in such a fashion.”
“Maybe if half your dogs hadn’t balked,” remarked one of Staynesburgh’s circle—Gibson, wasn’t it? He looked a bit sharper than usual.
Shaking off his father’s hand, the youth pressed forward. “But how did you escape?”
Roderick clunked his mug onto the counter. “Climbed a tree. Simple.”
“Gave the man enough of a fright he’ll not come a-hunting with the rest of us.” Lord Rogers continued to study the ceiling. “Perhaps getting a dog’ll put some bite into him.”
A few chuckles greeted this remark, and Roddy felt his cheeks grow hot. Two years since, his mother bought the Danforth estate and the title that went with it, hoping to set her son up to attract a good wife. If her Yankee breeding did not impress their neighbors, her money did—to the extent that they permitted Roderick in their midst. His lavish parties bought what good will his mother’s money could not; but not enough respect for them to use his full name. He pasted his smile back on. “Indeed, I shall get a dog; an awfully big one. Lord Staynesburgh might assist me, if he’s willing?”
“But the werewolf, m’lord—what was it like?”
“Uncouth rascal,” grumbled Carruthers, cuffing his son lightly on the arm.
The boy ignored his old man. “Please, my lord.”
“Huge,” said Roderick, his eyes finding its shape among the knotholes in the paneling. “Pale gray, not dark. Lithe and silent as a dancer. Cautious.”
“Smart,” Lord Rogers inserted. “Trouble with these devils—smarter than a wolf, and more cruel, but lacking the conscience of a man.”
Roderick gave his head a shake to dispel the image he had conjured. “But it never touched her, after she fell. It’s never bitten anyone in all these months.”
“It’s only a matter of time, Roddy. You’ve lost sheep—I’ve lost dogs. Not a man among us remains untouched. Carruthers’s best hunting horse, half Merton’s flock—your own dear mother, God rest her, would be with us today, if not for the beast.”
“And all our peace of mind,” Sir Merton added.
With a theatrical groan, Lord Staynesburgh heaved himself to his feet, bending his back until the bones popped. He finished this little display once more at the center of attention, and gave Roderick a tilt of his head. “The dog, Roddy. Week from Tuesday?”
“Right,” said Roderick. “Yes, thanks. Tuesday.”
He half bowed with an elegant turn of his hand, like a lady at a ball, earning another round of chuckles. “Then I take my leave.”
“’Night, Staynesburgh!” “Safe journey!” called several voices from around the fire and beyond. “Mind the wolf, Allen,” Gibson added with a laugh.