Chemo Treatments includes steroids, which are murder on sleep. The net result is that you sometimes can’t turn your mind off long enough to get a real sleep, so you get to closely examine what may have otherwise been dreams. This story is one result. I hung on to the idea because I thought it might let me experiment in “Flash Fiction”. However, I failed – for while it is short, it is not short enough. Flash fiction is defined as being no more than one or two pages long.
This is not in my usual genre, but I hope you enjoy it. As usual, your comments, and critiques are welcome.
Requiem for a Cold Night © – by Jerold Heyward
The door opened slowly, admitting the biting night wind into the town tavern. A tall, slim figure entered, unhurried, ignoring the cold. The newcomer scanned the room. The old tavern was warm, heated by the oil lamps, the stone fireplace, and as much by the accumulated warmth of the patrons which crowded around the bar and tables. It wasn’t a particularly large place, low ceiling, a low wooden bar worn down in spots by elbows, a rough hewn wood floor, and stone walls. The smell of brew and sweat hung in the air.
An old man playing a squeezebox in a dark corner stopped. The cold gust drew everyone’s attention to the door. They all knew from where he’d come, though only few had ever seen him. His gaunt thin face had a hint of death. But none knew why he’d come there, now. His sober countenance alone struck a little fear.
“Good evening,” the newcomer intoned, a deep dark voice, but non-threatening. “I am your new neighbor.” He walked up to an open space at the bar. The men on either side of him stepped farther apart, uncertain and afraid. “I have taken up residence in the old hermitage on the outskirts of town, in the dark woods.”
“A nasty place,” challenged a burly, bearded man holding a mug, and sitting safely away at one of the tables.
“Indeed, the place has a history, and is isolated and avoided. Precisely what I prefer. But let me introduce myself, I am Count Kowalski.”
The barmaid, not knowing what to think, but feeling slightly reassured, placed a full mug in front of him. “Drink?”
The count smiled, “Thank you, this was once my favorite drink, but fate intervened and my tastes have changed.” He looked away, a hint of remorse on his face.
Another voice from the back of the room called out. “It’s colder than a witch’s left tit out there. How’d you walk here in just that cape?” The suspicion in the man’s voice was clear.
“The cold doesn’t bother me, nor the heat of a summer day. But it’s best I tell you why I’m here. I want no misunderstandings.” He paused briefly, surveying the room. He could feel their fear, and see the barely disguised hate on many faces. “ I am not like you, although I once was, in the sweet youth of my life. I am here because you lost your sheriff two days past, and I’ve heard you blame me.”
“Ripped apart, he was. Torn limb from limb. You’re nothing to do with that?” Other voices about the room grumbled in muted anger, but no one dared move.
“No. I have killed some men, and killed some women, but never like that. There is another beast that did that handiwork, but it was seeking me. Your poor sheriff came across its path at the wrong time. Last night it found me, and I slew it.”
“And we’re to believe you?” A unnamed youthful voice in the back challenged him. The young man stood and stepped out into the light.
“You can believe what you want, but I’ll warn you of two things. I think you know what I am. And I warn you harm will come to anyone who tries to harm me. For myself, I assure I will not otherwise harm anyone in this village, nor any visitors who come through. Second, though, the creature I’ve slain had bitten one other from this village. That bite confers a curse as vile and evil as mine…
On each full moon, such as tonight, when he is exposed to the moonlight, he transforms into a wolf. This is what killed your sheriff, and there is now another in your midst. Far more dangerous, because once so transformed they have no control. They will kill anything in sight. Yet on the break of day, they’ll return to their natural form – often oblivious to the horrors of the night before. Yet once they realize the truth of their plight, they hide it. Like a wolf, they wish to cling to life. They embrace their new life because of the strength and vigor it gives them, which carries on to their daily life as ordinary looking men. And they eventually focus their attention on my kind, because we know how to destroy them.”
“Is that why you’ve come?” It was the burly, hairy man holding the big mug. “You’re here to destroy it?”
“No, I’m here for sanctuary, for peace away from the towns and cities I’ve been. There is abundant game in these woods, and I was an accomplished archer in my youth, some hundred years ago. I can survive handily on the blood of game. But in the cities, there is no game, and I was forced to survive on the blood of men.” He looked across the room. Putting a name to his curse evoked a silent horror on the faces of the patrons. “I tell you this now, because I want to remain here in honesty and peace. I mean none of you any harm. But I will countenance no disrespect to my privacy. Be aware that I can commune with ordinary wolves. I killed the leader of one pack, and am now its leader. They protect my hermitage.”
The room was stirring. Several men around the room stood threateningly, but did not advance. The men at the bar stepped further away, fearful of a confrontation. “He’s a vampire. The devil’s own. He cannot be trusted,” the younger man in a light coat shouted. The crowd was moved. A few of the men standing now edged warily forward.
The Count’s countenance darkened. He swept his cape back over his shoulders. Beneath the cape his frame seemed sturdier and more dangerous. The other men froze. “I warn you,” the Count continued, “I can kill any man in this tavern who attempts harm to me, but I am here to help, not to fight you. When the full moon is out, like tonight, no one is safe outside while this creature is loose. When the moon goes on the wane, it will be weeks before the creature will emerge again, and it will be warier – wiser in how to conceal its identity. Inevitably, it will come for me – waiting its chance. So it is as much in my best interest as yours to stop it.”
He paused, and watched closely the men who were standing. They had stopped their advance, but menace was still written on their faces. “So I offer you this gesture in cooperation. Select you one as spokesman. When you have a suspicion of someone in the village, that spokesman, that person alone, may approach the hermitage under my protection. My wolves will attack anyone they do not know. I only need a small article of clothing from your spokesman to teach them the scent, and that person alone will be able to pass unmolested. Within a month, as this creature’s mind festers, I will be able to detect it through its mannerisms and suspicious actions. Once identified, you decide what you wish to do with it. Though I’d caution, cage it first under the full moon to be sure. I don’t want you to rush deciding on human life on my word alone. Seek the proof with your eyes.”
“I’ll volunteer,” one of the silent men at the end of the bar spoke for the first time, “Sheriff Kopalec was my cousin, and a good man. He deserves revenge, and I will have it!”
Count Kowalski smiled, but it was a smile that could freeze a lake in the summer. “I think, maybe you still confuse me with a foe. It would not go well for you if you did. Another?”
The young man from the back strode forward, “I’ll do it.” The Count smiled again. He observed the young man objectively, and smiled this time more warmly. “You will do, but do you have a piece of clothing? My guards will need to recognize your scent before they’ll let you pass…perhaps that scarf.”
The young man nodded, and slipped it from his neck, a wry smile briefly crossing his face. He strode across the room with brave new confidence, folded his scarf, and handed it over.
“Excellent, brave young man. What is your name? “Luke.”
“Thank you, Luke. Now,” he turned toward the crowd. “A moment, one of my pack is standing outside the front door right now. I will let him sniff your scarf.”
A wolf at the door! Eyes widened, pints of beer froze at people’s lips, in shock that a wolf could be right outside. When the door opened, they saw him beckon. A moment later, a large head bearing dreadfully empty eyes appeared in the doorway. Count Kowalski held the scarf under its nose, and allowed it to sniff until it backed away. He spoke to it, but no one could hear. The wolf suddenly barked twice, rendered a loud, soulful howl, then withdrew.
The Count closed the door and turned to the room, a sober and serious look on his face. “That should do it. But I failed to mention one point, and nobody asked. Does no one wonder how I knew someone else was bit, infected with this curse? The answer is simple. Not far from where you found your sheriff’s body, I found a torn sleeve, bloodied, the blood not as fresh as the sheriff’s, but about two days earlier. I gave my pack its scent, so they could warn me…”
“So what,” shouted Luke, suddenly looking less comfortable.
“Are you feeling less brave now, Luke? They recognized your scent just now from that shirt sleeve. I suspected someone here might be the victim. You were the unlucky one, Luke. I knew, if given this opportunity, the creature would welcome the chance to walk through my defenses unmolested, catch me unaware. Your lupine half could not it pass up. Kill me, inherit my pack…but you have exposed yourself.”
“I’ll stand true to my word. I recommend not letting this, your man Luke, outside this tavern or near any windows tonight. Tomorrow night you can test him in a sturdy cage to see if I’m right. Keep in mind he probably has not killed yet, and his curse is not of his own making. I’ll take my leave now. Any mercy, I leave to you. I have little…but am not sometimes without the strings of remorse.”
All eyes were suddenly focused on Luke, and he made loud protestations, but the men standing crowded around him, blocking his any path, all suddenly more fearful of him.
A cold blast of air swept through the tavern as Count Kowalski disappeared into the darkness. From inside the patrons could hear not one, but a pack of barking wolves – following Count Kowalski away, back to the dark woods. But all eyes remained on Luke.