In the Forest of Villefère
The sun had set. The great shadows came striding over the forest.
In the weird twilight of a late summer day, I saw the path ahead glide on among the mighty trees and disappear. And I shuddered and glanced fearfully over my shoulder. Miles behind lay the nearest village – miles ahead the next.
I looked to left and to right as I strode on, and anon I looked behind me. And anon I stopped short, grasping my rapier, as a breaking twig betokened the going of some small beast. Or was it a beast?
But the path led on and I followed, because, forsooth, I had naught else to do.
As I went I bethought me, “My own thoughts will rout me, if I be not aware. What is there in this forest, except perhaps the creatures that roam it, deer and the like? Tush, the foolish legends of those villagers!”
And so I went and the twilight faded into dusk. Stars began to blink and the leaves of the trees murmured in the faint breeze. And then I stopped short, my sword leaping to my hand, for just ahead, around a curve of the path, someone was singing. The words I could not distinguish, but the accent was strange, almost barbaric.
I stepped behind a great tree, and the cold sweat beaded my forehead. Then the singer came in sight, a tall, thin man, vague in the twilight.
I shrugged my shoulders. A man I did not fear. I sprang out, my point raised.
He showed no surprize. “I prithee, handle thy blade with care, friend,” he said.
Somewhat ashamed, I lowered my sword.
“I am new to this forest,” I quoth, apologetically. “I heard talk of bandits. I crave pardon. Where lies the road to Villefère?”
“Corbleu, you’ve missed it,” he answered. “You should have branched off to the right some distance back. I am going there myself. If you may abide my company, I will direct you.”
I hesitated. Yet why should I hesitate?
“Why, certainly. My name is de Montour, of Normandy.”
“And I am Carolus le Loup.”
“No!” I started back.
He looked at me in astonishment.
“Pardon,” said I; “the name is strange. Does not loup mean wolf?”
“My family were always great hunters,” he answered. He did not offer his hand.
“You will pardon my staring,” said I as we walked down the path, “but I can hardly see your face in the dusk.”
I sensed that he was laughing, though he made no sound.
“It is little to look upon,” he answered.
I stepped closer and then leaped away, my hair bristling.
“A mask!” I exclaimed. “Why do you wear a mask, m’sieu?”
“It is a vow,” he explained. “In fleeing a pack of hounds I vowed that if I escaped I would wear a mask for a certain time.”
“Wolves,” he answered quickly; “I said wolves.”
We walked in silence for a while and then my companion said, “I am surprized that you walk these woods by night. Few people come these ways even in the day.”
“I am in haste to reach the border,” I answered. “A treaty has been signed with the English, and the Duke of Burgundy should know of it. The people at the village sought to dissuade me. They spoke of a – wolf that was purported to roam these woods.”
“Here the path branches to Villefère,” said he, and I saw a narrow, crooked path that I had not seen when I passed it before. It led in amid the darkness of the trees. I shuddered.
“You wish to return to the village?”
“No!” I exclaimed. “No, no! Lead on.”
So narrow was the path that we walked single file, he leading. I looked well at him. He was taller, much taller than I, and thin, wiry. He was dressed in a costume that smacked of Spain. A long rapier swung at his hip. He walked with long easy strides, noiselessly.
Then he began to talk of travel and adventure. He spoke of many lands and seas he had seen and many strange things. So we talked and went farther and farther into the forest.
I presumed that he was French, and yet he had a very strange accent, that was neither French nor Spanish nor English, not like any language I had ever heard. Some words he slurred strangely and some he could not pronounce at all.
“This path is not often used, is it?” I asked.
“Not by many,” he answered and laughed silently. I shuddered. It was very dark and the leaves whispered together among the branches.
“A fiend haunts this forest,” I said.
“So the peasants say,” he answered, “but I have roamed it oft and have never seen his face.”
Then he began to speak of strange creatures of darkness, and the moon rose and shadows glided among the trees. He looked up at the moon.
“Haste!” said he. “We must reach our destination before the moon reaches her zenith.”
We hurried along the trail.
“They say,” said I, “that a werewolf haunts these woodlands.”
“It might be,” said he, and we argued much upon the subject.
“The old women say,” said he, “that if a werewolf is slain while a wolf, then he is slain, but if he is slain as a man, then his half- soul will haunt his slayer forever. But haste thee, the moon nears her zenith.”
We came into a small moonlit glade and the stranger stopped.
“Let us pause a while,” said he.
“Nay, let us be gone,” I urged; “I like not this place.”
He laughed without sound. “Why,” said he, “this is a fair glade. As good as a banquet hall it is, and many times have I feasted here. Ha, ha, ha! Look ye, I will show you a dance.” And he began bounding here and there, anon flinging back his head and laughing silently. Thought I, the man is mad.
As he danced his weird dance I looked about me. The trail went not on but stopped in the glade.
“Come,” said I, “we must on. Do you not smell the rank, hairy scent that hovers about the glade? Wolves den here. Perhaps they are about us and are gliding upon us even now.”
He dropped upon all fours, bounded higher than my head, and came toward me with a strange slinking motion.
“That dance is called the Dance of the Wolf,” said he, and my hair bristled.
“Keep off!” I stepped back, and with a screech that set the echoes shuddering he leaped for me, and though a sword hung at his belt he did not draw it. My rapier was half out when he grasped my arm and flung me headlong. I dragged him with me and we struck the ground together. Wrenching a hand free I jerked off the mask. A shriek of horror broke from my lips. Beast eyes glittered beneath that mask, white fangs flashed in the moonlight. The face was that of a wolf.
In an instant those fangs were at my throat. Taloned hands tore the sword from my grasp. I beat at that horrible face with my clenched fists, but his jaws were fastened on my shoulder, his talons tore at my throat. Then I was on my back. The world was fading. Blindly I struck out. My hand dropped, then closed automatically about the hilt of my dagger, which I had been unable to get at. I drew and stabbed. A terrible, half-bestial bellowing screech. Then I reeled to my feet, free. At my feet lay the werewolf.
I stooped, raised the dagger, then paused, looked up. The moon hovered close to her zenith. If I slew the thing as a man its frightful spirit would haunt me forever. I sat down waiting. The thing watched me with flaming wolf eyes. The long wiry limbs seemed to shrink, to crook; hair seemed to grow upon them. Fearing madness, I snatched up the thing’s own sword and hacked it to pieces. Then I flung the sword away and fled.
Fear? Your pardon, Messieurs, but the meaning of fear you do not know. No, I hold to my statement. You are soldiers, adventurers. You have known the charges of regiments of dragoons, the frenzy of wind- lashed seas. But fear, real hair-raising, horror-crawling fear, you have not known. I myself have known such fear; but until the legions of darkness swirl from hell’s gate and the world flames to ruin, will never such fear again be known to men.
Hark, I will tell you the tale; for it was many years ago and half across the world, and none of you will ever see the man of whom I tell you, or seeing, know.
Return, then, with me across the years to a day when I, a reckless young cavalier, stepped from the small boat that had landed me from the ship floating in the harbor, cursed the mud that littered the crude wharf, and strode up the landing toward the castle, in answer to the invitation of an old friend, Dom Vincente da Lusto.
Dom Vincente was a strange, far-sighted man – a strong man, one who saw visions beyond the ken of his time. In his veins, perhaps, ran the blood of those old Phoenicians who, the priests tell us, ruled the seas and built cities in far lands, in the dim ages. His plan of fortune was strange and yet successful; few men would have thought of it; fewer could have succeeded. For his estate was upon the western coast of that dark, mystic continent, that baffler of explorers – Africa.
There by a small bay had he cleared away the sullen jungle, built his castle and his storehouses, and with ruthless hand had he wrested the riches of the land. Four ships he had: three smaller craft and one great galleon. These plied between his domains and the cities of Spain, Portugal, France, and even England, laden with rare woods, ivory, slaves; the thousand strange riches that Dom Vincente had gained by trade and by conquest.
Aye, a wild venture, a wilder commerce. And yet might he have shaped an empire from the dark land, had it not been for the rat-faced Carlos, his nephew – but I run ahead of my tale.
Look, Messieurs, I draw a map on the table, thus, with finger dipped in wine. Here lay the small, shallow harbor, and here the wide wharves. A landing ran thus, up the slight slope with hutlike warehouses on each side, and here it stopped at a wide, shallow moat. Over it went a narrow drawbridge and then one was confronted with a high palisade of logs set in the ground. This extended entirely around the castle. The castle itself was built on the model of another, earlier age, being more for strength than beauty. Built of stone brought from a great distance; years of labor and a thousand negroes toiling beneath the lash had reared its walls, and now, completed, it offered an almost impregnable appearance. Such was the intention of its builders, for Barbary pirates ranged the coasts, and the horror of a native uprising lurked ever near.
A space of about a half-mile on every side of the castle was kept cleared away and roads had been built through the marshy land. All this had required an immense amount of labor, but man-power was plentiful. A present to a chief, and he furnished all that was needed. And Portuguese know how to make men work!
Less than three hundred yards to the east of the castle ran a wide, shallow river, which emptied into the harbor. The name has entirely slipt my mind. It was a heathenish title and I could never lay my tongue to it.
I found that I was not the only friend invited to the castle. It seems that once a year or some such matter, Dom Vincente brought a host of jolly companions to his lonely estate and made merry for some weeks, to make up for the work and solitude of the rest of the year.
In fact, it was nearly night, and a great banquet was in progress when I entered. I was acclaimed with great delight, greeted boisterously by friends and introduced to such strangers as were there.
Entirely too weary to take much part in the revelry, I ate, drank quietly, listened to the toasts and songs, and studied the feasters.
Dom Vincente, of course, I knew, as I had been intimate with him for years; also his pretty niece, Ysabel, who was one reason I had accepted his invitation to come to that stinking wilderness. Her second cousin, Carlos, I knew and disliked – a sly, mincing fellow with a face like a mink’s. Then there was my old friend, Luigi Verenza, an Italian; and his flirt of a sister, Marcita, making eyes at the men as usual. Then there was a short, stocky German
who called himself Baron von Schiller; and Jean Desmarte, an out-at- the-elbows nobleman of Gascony; and Don Florenzo de Seville, a lean, dark, silent man, who called himself a Spaniard and wore a rapier nearly as long as himself.
There were others, men and women, but it was long ago and all their names and faces I do not remember.
But there was one man whose face somehow drew my gaze as an alchemist’s magnet draws steel. He was a leanly built man of slightly more than medium height, dressed plainly, almost austerely, and he wore a sword almost as long as the Spaniard’s.
But it was neither his clothes nor his sword which attracted my attention. It was his face. A refined, high-bred face, it was furrowed deep with lines that gave it a weary, haggard expression. Tiny scars flecked jaw and forehead as if torn by savage claws; I could have sworn the narrow gray eyes had a fleeting, haunted look in their expression at times.
I leaned over to that flirt, Marcita, and asked the name of the man, as it had slipt my mind that we had been introduced.
“De Montour, from Normandy,” she answered. “A strange man. I don’t think I like him.”
“Then he resists your snares, my little enchantress?” I murmured, long friendship making me as immune from her anger as from her wiles. But she chose not to be angry and answered coyly, glancing from under demurely lowered lashes.
I watched de Montour much, feeling somehow a strange fascination. He ate lightly, drank much, seldom spoke, and then only to answer questions.
Excerpted from The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard by Robert E. Howard. Copyright © 2008 by Robert E. Howard. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.