Hell’s Hounds

Author’s Note: This was originally written for Halloween, but like all good deadlines, I completely missed it. Although it’s set in the same world as the rest of the No Pandas stories, a twist on our own world, it’s not a humourous story.

She had always loved the smell of the town on market days, especially in the market place itself. Ever since her mother had died when she was young, the market place had been where she felt the most safe, the least alone. It was hard to be lonely when surrounded by so many people, all packed tightly together as they tried to squeeze past each other on their way to buy and sell, before going to eat and drink, before going home if they lived nearby, or perhaps staying with relatives or in one of the inns if they had travelled from one of the outlying farms.

There was something about the smell of so many people, the warm musk, dirt and sweat mingled with the aroma of dyes from the fabric and the scents from freshly baked food, that she found friendly and comforting. However, as with a fruit that appears ripe and fresh on the surface, there is always the risk of a maggot.

“Miss Martock, once again it is a pleasure to see you.”

The man had made his way directly through the crowd towards her, an imposing figure with his tall height and broad girth in his late middle years. He was dressed in rich clothes that were spoiled with the stains of his sloppy morning drinking. The scent coming from him was not at all friendly, but sour. Stale beer from the night before still hung on his breath mixed with the aroma of his morning ale, and his jacket carried evidence of his dinner as well as his breakfast.

“Sir Hugo, you always seem to find me,” she replied, not curtly but not kindly. Whilst she didn’t want a prolonged conversation if she could help it, it didn’t do to upset the local lord. Her father may have owned and managed his own farm with the help of her brothers, but he still had to obey the law, and the law was decided and enforced by Sir Hugo.

“And you always seem to avoid me, Miss Martock.” Still standing behind her as she looked at a display of cloth, he laid a hand on her shoulder. “Have you thought any more about my proposition?”

“I have sir, and again I say that I cannot. You are a lord, and I a yeoman’s daughter. It would not be proper. I shall continue to do as my father wishes and wait for someone more fitting of my station. Good day to you Sir Hugo.”

And with that she removed his hand from her shoulder, nodded to the stall holder and walked away through the crowd, oblivious to the look of anger rising on Sir Hugo’s face.

He was loading the wagon when she returned. It had been a good harvest this year, and they were laying in supplies for the winter. Her brothers were still out bartering for more cloth and wool, except for the youngest, whose job it was to look after the horses and the wagon.

“He found me again Father.”

“I am not surprised, you would stand out in any crowd child. But he knows that you have said no, and that I would not approve. He would have to be a lot more in his cups that usual, or a lot more stupid than we give him credit for, if he were to force himself.”

“Father, I know he has a reputation.”

“A reputation he deserves girl, remember that,” her father interjected. “He frequents all the inns and bawdy houses in this town and the surrounding ones, him and his high-born friends. His father was a good man and would be ashamed to see his son behaving so. Now, help your brother feed the horses so that we can go as soon as the others return. I like this town and its people less each time I have to come in.”

She took her father’s hand in hers and spoke gently. “Father, these people had nothing to do with Mother’s death. You shouldn’t take it out on them.”

“No love, I know. You mother took ill and I could not help her. I swore when I lost my first wife that I would not be able to love again, but your mother was a wonderful, loving woman. And your brothers needed a woman about the house. I may be able to do many things, but I cannot be a mother.”

“But you can love Father, and there are good people in this world, as well as the likes of him.”

“Indeed love, but the cream isn’t the only thing to rise to the top, that’s where you find the scum too. Now, go and help get the horses ready or we’ll still be here at nightfall.”

“How dare she!” Hugo roared upon his return to the inn. “She has refused me for the last time, I swear it.”

“Hugo,” called a rough-looking yet well-dressed man from a group near the back of the room, “come, sit down and drink. You will soon forget her; harvest market brings new apprentices, and the landlord has taken on two new girls.”

Hugo sat gruffly and reached for the pitcher of beer. “I’ll sit, I’ll drink. But I will not forget her. I shall make her mine, I promise you that.”

“And how do you propose that sir? As you have remarked, she has once again refused you.”

“She won’t be able to refuse if I do not ask. It is a church night tonight, her father and brothers will not be at home. So drink, I have an idea.”

The moon was rising with the breeze over the moors, its light shining a chilling silver blue that matched the biting cold from the wind, illuminating the figures of five men leaving the modest house and setting off on the two-mile walk to the church. Around the house itself a warmer glow of light escaped from the candles within, but these were snuffed out one by one as the frugal occupant saved wax where it was no longer needed. Only one window showed light when five different figures appeared, coming over the moors on horseback rather than by foot from the village.

They moved without speaking, the only sound that of their horses’ harness, the hoof beats muffled by the heather and moss. The figures stopped short of the yard, where the mud gave way to cobbles. Three figures dismounted and approached the house, each with one hand loose by their side and the other holding a club.

There were shouts, and there were screams, but there was no one to hear. A few minutes later three figures emerged from the house, one carrying a bundle over its shoulder. They slung the bundle over one horse before each remounted his own and headed off back over the moors in silence.

“Put her in an upstairs room. Use the nursery, it’s got a lock and is never used. It’ll be quiet at least, and she can sleep off the knock. We’ve done it, she cannot refuse me now. This calls for a drink, so let’s drink!”

Sir Hugo was pleased with his plan. She could not simply leave, for he had locked the door. And she could not hold out until her family came, if they did, because even if she were here for just a few hours, alone, people would talk. And they would say what he wanted them to say. Her precious reputation would be ruined, so there was no point in her hiding behind it. A drink was certainly called for, and some food to sustain him for he foresaw a long night of activity ahead.

The mood back at the farmhouse was not so joyous.

“I’m going to kill him.”

“Father, we don’t do that. You taught us that to fit in we have to control that part of us.”

“Yes, I taught you that. I did indeed teach you that.” He looked around at the broken furniture where she had put up a struggle. She might look like a young lady but she was his daughter, and she was, in part at least, like him. And the thought of her being abducted by Sir Hugo once more raised his hackles. “I did indeed teach you all that to survive we have to fit in, but tonight sons, I’m going to teach you something else.”

As he said this he ripped his shirt from his back, his arm muscles swelling to three times their previous size. “I’m going to teach you what it means to be us,” he shouted as he dropped his breeches to the floor and bent over onto all fours, his legs expanding and contorting into powerful hindquarters. He looked up at his sons as the transformation completed with his mouth splitting into an ear to ear grin, revealing three rows of teeth. “Tonight sons, I teach you how to hunt. And we manticore love to hunt.”

And with that he raised his head and howled, a bloodcurdling howl that hadn’t been heard in Dartmoor since the two nights many years before, and five years apart, when his wives had died. His sons raised their heads, and howled in response before they too removed their clothes and changed. It really was in the blood, the hunt. Even if they wanted to resist the urge, it was too strong now. Moments later the pack was running out of the door and over the moors.

Sir Hugo had started drinking at breakfast, which went only a small way towards explaining his actions, but now he was well into his cups.

“Gentlemen, I believe that we’ve let her cool down enough!” he yelled as he jumped onto the long table in the dining room. “I must play the gallant host and see to the needs of our guest. And myself.”

Only a few moments later he came running down the stairs again, cursing at the top of his voice. “She’s gone! The wench has climbed out the window. I don’t know how, but she’s done it!”

“Best saddle the horses then and get her back, eh?”

Sir Hugo didn’t know who said it, but to his drunken senses it made perfect sense.

“Do it! We ride!”

Two groups of hunters and one lone girl crossed the moors, drunken men riding for pride, the girl running for her life, the manticore running to take one.

Sir Hugo caught up with her first. He’d ridden harder and faster than his friends, who had fallen behind, and in riding his horse so fast he found that he could not stop it when he caught sight of her but instead collided, knocking her off her feet and over the edge into a wide gully. Throwing himself from the horse before it bolted he ran down to her. She lay face down where she had fallen, her head limp as he lifted her body, her neck grinding as it moved, and blood seeping from her mouth.

Her father howled from the top of the gully as he arrived to see them there, his daughter dead in the arms of the man responsible. A single powerful leap and he was on Sir Hugo, knocking him away and leaving deep claw wounds in his chest. He changed, rearing up on his hind legs as his grief took him, sucking in the cold air as his body contracted his muscles and contorted his form back to human. A manticore in its animal form may well run and fight better than most creatures, but it cannot hold a loved one in its arms, and that was what he wanted to do now; picking her up, he wept to feel the warmth leaving her in the cold night air.

His ears picked up the sound of horses in the distance; Sir Hugo’s friends were approaching and would find him with two dead bodies. Even though they would know what had happened, and why, he would still be hanged for killing two that night, not one. “Baskerville,” he whispered as he laid his daughter on the ground, “I will haunt your family for as long as I live. I will bring to yours the grief that you have brought to mine.”

Although it broke his heart to leave her on the moors, he transformed once more and ran at the horses.