Maille, population 288
A commune 200km west of Cahors
I was the first to find her body.
It was a sickly morning; the air was dense and the puddles that pocked the dirt path refused to dissipate without the warmth of the sun. My breath misted in front of my face, and my wooden kit felt especially heavy as I hurried through the fields.
I had intended to pay a visit to Florence, the aging woman who owned land to the south of the commune. Such poor weather was bad for her rheumatism – so much so that she was often unable to leave her room. She had hired help to tend to her land, but little farming got done on days like today, and even less when she didn’t oversee them.
The field I was crossing had hay piled in high bundles, ready for transport and sale. I rounded a stack of the produce and stopped short.
The ground had been painted red.
And lying on top of the red, like a streak of pale paint on a scarlet canvas, was a girl’s body.
Shock hit me. I staggered back as my medicine box fell from my grip and hit the mud with a heavy clunk.
The girl sprawled in the damp dirt, her brown hair shaken loose from its braid and spread about her head like a halo. She couldn’t have been much older than twenty, but her gaunt frame suggested a life of struggle. Her eyes stared upwards, towards the sky, and her mouth was barely open.
The front of her woolen dress had been torn apart and the flesh underneath shredded. I would not have guessed that the remains were human if there had not been the head and limbs attached.
I was still and quiet for some time. The horror of the situation did not sink in easily, but when it did, I was almost sick from the shock of it.
I heard a voice a little way further into the field, calling a name. It took me a minute to make the connection between the name being called and the dead girl. I picked up my kit and, giving the body a wide berth, hurried to meet the caller.
“Caroline!” the voice yelled. He turned at the crunch of my shoes in the graveled dirt, and his face split into a good-natured smile. I was incapable of returning it. “Oh, good morning. Have you seen a young woman with brown hair? She’s been missing since last night.”
I took a second to wet my lips before speaking. “There’s been an accident. Please run to the commune and fetch help. Bring the priest. And the constable. And… anyone else who may be able to help.”
The boy’s face was grave now, and his eyes scrutinised me. “Should I also bring the doctor, monsieur?”
“No, I’m afraid it’s far too late for him.”
When help at last arrived, it was in abundance. Not only had the constable and priest come, but also a full dozen of the townspeople and a wagon and bull. They gathered in a circle around the body as the priest covered the remains with a thick woven cloth. I suddenly found myself surrounded by noise: shocked whispers on one side, grieved wailing on the other, and a man behind me was praying under his breath.
The constable stood immediately in front of the body and cleared his throat as he addressed the crowd. “It must have been a wolf attack.”
He hadn’t been the constable for very long. A decade younger than myself, he still lacked field experience. His blond hair stuck to his forehead as sweat dripped down his face, at odds with the frigid day. To his credit, he maintained a steady voice – but only barely.
“The cuts were too large for a wolf,” a voice said from the back of the group. I turned and recognised Alain’s leathery face as he gazed at the covered body, his brows knit tightly over his black eyes. “They don’t have claws that size.”
I was glad Alain was part of the group. I had helped lower his wife’s fever after a difficult childbirth, and now the woodsman regarded me somewhat as a friend. He was a large, practical man, and would not easily give in to the panic that seemed to be descending on the gathering.
“A bear, then,” retorted the constable. A wave of murmurs spread through the group.
Again, Alain interrupted. “There haven’t been bears in this area in hundreds of years.”
The constable was at a loss for a reply; he could only clear his throat as we watched the shrouded body being lifted onto the wagon. Now that ground was clear I could more easily see the violence which had accompanied the death. Deep claws had gouged the muddy ground, mixing dirt and blood into a thick paste. In one place a print stood out clearly, and I felt the air seized in my lungs as I looked at it.
The paw mark was enormous; it was easily as large as a plate, and I could see deep gouges in the dirt where unnaturally large claws had dug in. This had not been made by a wolf or a bear; in truth, I could not think of a single predatory animal large enough to leave marks of this type.
I was not the only person thinking along these lines. A voice behind me muttered, “Witchcraft.”
No one spoke. We didn’t need to; post-revolution France was an unstable balance of science and superstitions – particularly in small, remote communes such as Maille. Although the commune had a doctor who had studied in Paris and boasted the latest advances in medicine, most people still relied on home cures, prayer, or – on occasions – my own homeopathic services. It was not only common, but normal for magic to be blamed for events that were otherwise unexplainable.
Even I, a self-professed man of science and advancement, found myself dumbfounded by the death. Looking at the print in the mud, I could remember studying no animal that could possibly match it.
Once the body had been loaded onto the tray, the old bull pulling the cart was given a push. With a snort it began the long trip back to the town centre, where the mortician would prepare the body for burial. Before striding after the makeshift hearse, Alain paused long enough to clap me on the shoulder, and I realised belatedly that it was he who had brought the cart and beast to carry the body back to the village.
One by one, the gathered villagers left. They wrapped their arms around each other, whispering comforts and sympathies. No one approached me, and I had no desire to be part of the funeral procession. Instead, I decided to complete my visit to the widow Florence, and then take the longer road back to my home in order to clear my head.
The Following Morning
There was a commotion around the well.
It was the presence of the constable that attracted my attention. He usually made his rounds this time of the morning, but I had never seen him stop for idle chat before.
I pushed my way through the growing throng until I reached the constable’s side. He was bent over, his hands resting on his knees, in order to look directly into the face of a shaggy, dishevelled man who sat on the edge of the well. The doctor knelt next to them, rummaging through his bag.
“Explain it again,” the constable was saying. His eyes burnt with an excitement I hadn’t seen before. “More slowly, this time.”
The man he spoke to was pale from shock, and his eyes were glassy and unfocused. He needed Opium, and I desperately wished I had brought my kit with me.
“A regour attacked and killed the sheep,” the man mumbled. He wet his lips. “All of them. The entire field.”
“And you were hired to watch over them at night, correct?”
“When did it happen?”
“Hours ago.” The man shook his head. His eyes wandered across the faces around him, but I doubted he properly saw any of them. “Early hours of the morning. I don’t know exactly when. I heard a scream. But not a human… something wild, something animal.”
“One of the sheep?”
“No, monsieur. The regour.” He lowered his head into his hands, and his fingernails dug into his scalp. The constable leaned in closer, as though he could persuade the story out of the man by his mere presence.
“It killed all of the sheep, yes?”
“But it didn’t come after you?”
“I climbed a tree. I think it must have forgotten about me. I kept very still and quiet.”
“What did it do once the sheep were dead?”
The man jerked upright and threw his hands in the air, suddenly exasperated. “It ran off! I don’t know where. How many times will you ask me these same questions?”
The constable stood upright and ran a hand through his hair. He exhaled slowly before speaking to the gathered group. “We will have to arrange search parties to check all of the properties – especially the outlying ones. There may be other deaths.”
Whispers started among those gathered. “Is it certain it is a regour?”
“The priest should be consulted.”
“What good will a priest do? We need an alchemist.”
I touched the constable’s shoulder. “Pardon, but what is a regour?”
He barely spared me a glance as he pulled a book out of his pocket and began scribbling in it. “That’s right, you didn’t grow up around here, did you? A regour is, supposedly, a demon hound, large as a horse. The legend says is it can be summoned by one with an alchemic background who wishes to settle a grudge.”
I narrowed my eyes. “You believe that?”
He looked up, and his face was grim. “Please, monsieur, give me an alternate explanation. I would gladly accept it instead.”
I took a deep breath and fought to rein in my frustration. “Just because you don’t know what did this, doesn’t mean you have to turn to fairy tales.”
I heard a quiet scoff, and turned to see the Aldéric, the doctor, watching me. He had clearly just come from bed, drawn by the commotion. Despite the frosty air, he only wore an undershirt, and his red hair was tousled about his face. His eyes were colder than the frost. “You are awfully sure about yourself for someone who knows nothing of our culture.”
I bristled. Aldéric and I had never been friendly; he resented my medicine, and I abhorred the ineffective and often brutal treatments he employed – but he seemed particularly hostile this morning.
It wasn’t just Aldéric, though. I glanced at the other faces surrounding us, I saw no sympathy. In a commune as small as Maille, most families had known each other for generations. They’d played together as children, grown up in each other’s company, and worked together as adults. I was a newcomer: I had only been there for four years – and that made me an outcast by default. I doubted they would ever trust me in the same way as they trusted one another.
I was unable to resist challenging the doctor. “Don’t tell me you believe in this, this, regour creature. You discount anything you don’t understand -”
Aldéric snapped back, “You mock a little too quickly, monsuier, for a subject you know nothing about.” He paused and his eyes narrowed as he glanced me up and down. “Or, perhaps that is only what you wish us to believe.”
He stood and pulled the sheep-watcher up with him, supporting the dazed man with one arm. “Excuse me, I must take my patient back to the surgery.”
I sighed and rubbed my hair out of my eyes as they left. “I don’t understand that man,” I muttered, glancing at the constable. He was staring at me with wary eyes, and I suddenly realised the rest of the group had fallen silent following Aldéric’s parting words.
“Is there a problem, monsieur?” I asked.
“No problem, no, I was just thinking.” The constable’s eyes narrowed and I had the distinct impression that he was forming a new opinion of me. “You’ve travelled widely and read much, haven’t you, monsieur? Perhaps you’ve garnered some knowledge of alchemy along the way?”
The implication hit me suddenly and I took a deep breath of the icy air to steady myself. “I do not study witchcraft, if that is what you mean.”
“What’s that medicine of yours, then?” another townsperson asked. I twisted to look at him, and saw it was a man I had treated only earlier that week for burns. He had healed quickly with my help, and his accusation cut me.
“It is based in science and rigorous testing,” I snapped a little more harshly than I intended. “Even more so than your doctor’s methods, I venture.”
“You’ve travelled, though,” the constable retorted from my other side. “You’d have access to that type of literature. Many in my town cannot even read.”
I felt a chill pass over me as I turned slowly, looking for a friendly face, but finding only hostility. I had never had any delusions that I was a staple part of the town, but I had thought my remedies had been received gratefully. So many of these people had been patients of mine during the last four years, but now many refused to meet my eyes.
A large hand landed on my shoulder and gave it a soft squeeze. I turned to see Alain standing by my side, his face firm. “You’re at risk of letting yourselves be carried away to foolishness,” he said to the group, and his voice carried across the entire square. “Think, a little, before you judge.”
He lowered his voice and looked at me. “As for you – I think it would be best if you went home now. Yes?”
I nodded and pulled my jacket around my chest. The group parted before me as I walked through them and, although they all watched until I turned the street and was out of sight, none followed.
Two days later
It was a dry, chilly afternoon when I knocked on Ruben’s door. It was promptly opened, but I only saw the man’s round, red face for a second before the door was slammed closed again.
I was stunned by this behaviour. Ruben’s wife had come to me just that morning, asking me to pay a visit and prescribe a remedy for her husband’s sprained back. Confused and alarmed, I knocked on the door again, this time a little more tentatively.
I could hear hushed whispering inside, and then Ruben’s voice called out, “Your services aren’t needed any more, monsieur. Please leave.”
I took a deep breath through my nose and exhaled it slowly. Ruben was a kind, honest man, though perhaps not the best mind in Maille. I couldn’t believe he intended to send me away without even saying hello. “Ruben, please open the door. I’ve come to give you something for your back.”
“I don’t need it anymore,” the retort came back quickly, nearly angrily. I had never seen Ruben or his sweet-tempered wife angry before. I didn’t have long to be shocked, though, because a second later the door opened a crack. Ruben’s apologetic face appeared in the gap.
“I’m sorry, monsieur, I didn’t mean to be rude. I appreciate that you came here, but maybe it would be best if you left now.”
I glanced past the woodcutter and saw his wife at the other side of the room, standing protectively in front of their three young children. I felt a wave of uneasiness wash over me.
“What’s this about, Ruben? Why am I suddenly no longer welcome in your home?”
He shuffled his feet and, although he was almost a full foot higher than me, he looked like a child caught in mischief. “You know how the town’s been talking. About the regour.”
The uneasiness grew. “Yes, I heard about the death yesterday. They’re still blaming it on a cursed demon-hound, are they?”
Ruben’s large brow furrowed. “They found another family today. Jacques, his wife and kids, in their own home. They said there was so much blood it was running down the front steps.”
My stomach lurched. I had been friends with Jacques.
“Well, you understand,” Ruben said. “A man’s got to look after his family.”
I understood very well. A few years back, shortly after I had arrived at the commune, Ruben broke a wolf’s back when it attacked his son. Ruben was a gentle giant in every aspect, except when his family’s safety was concerned.
I gripped my kit’s handle more tightly to still the shaking in my fingers. “Ruben, you’re not turning away anyone else, are you?”
He looked ashamed. “No monsieur. It’s just… they say…”
“What do they say, Ruben?”
His brown eyes met mine, apologetic and defensive at once. “They say you summon the beast. They say you can’t be trusted.”
“Am I going insane?”
I stood in front of my suitcase. It was packed with clothes and my most essential possessions, with my papers sitting neatly on top. “Is this truly necessary?”
It had been four days since I had found the first girl’s body. Each night, at least one person had died.
An air of fear was growing in the commune. With such a small population, everyone knew everyone else, and each death was a painful, personal loss.
Families were altering their routines. They came in from the fields earlier, travelled in groups and retired to their homes before the sun went down. When I walked through the commune in the evening, I could hear the clicks of doors locking and shutters being secured.
I didn’t blame them. With the discovery of the unfortunate Jacques and his family, the total of deaths was at nine.
Nine brutal, violent murders in four days.
And now, it seemed, the blame was being pointed at me.
What if the deaths continued? How long would it take before the village turned to witch hunting?
I strode to the window and pulled the curtain to one side. There weren’t many people left on the streets as the day began to draw to a close; already the sun was low, painting the town in a dark gold.
I had no choice except to leave. I had moved here to offer safe medical assistance to those who lacked it, and even if the hypothetical ragour never showed its face again, I had been tainted with suspicion. Unless the mystery was solved, I would be shunned by all but the most desperate patients.
I dropped the curtain back into place and moved to my bookshelf. If I could only find some logical, infallible explanation for the beast that had visited our town, then not only would trust be reinstated, but goodwill established.
I had several books on native wildlife, and began searching for them, pulling volume after volume out of the shelf in my quest. As the top shelf emptied, I spied something hidden towards the back. Confused, I reached in and took it out. It was a thin book, bound in dirty red leather. There were no words on the cover, but it had been stamped with a symbol I didn’t recognise.
I felt a chill run up my spine; I had never seen this book before in my life. I opened it, and felt my throat tighten as I saw what the pages contained.
Summonings. Cantations. Runes.
This was an unholy book. I would have dropped it except that I had a horrible suspicion of what one of the spells might be for. I flipped through the pages, increasingly anxious, until I found what I had dreaded.
‘For the Summoning of the Ragour’, the page read in English, and, in smaller text, ‘for the settling of grudges’.
An image below depicted a wolf-like creature with long, unruly fur and teeth that extended beyond its jaw. Where its eyes should be were two burning flames.
I read the introductory text with an almost feverish haste.
‘An advanced spell. Mental strength and emotional control is required to contain the Ragour to its task. Not to be attempted in areas of high population.
‘Perform summons during the passing hour. If the Ragour does not complete its task on the first night, it will return at the same time on each subsequent night until either the summoner or the victim perishes, at which time its contract will be complete.’
I was fairly sure the ‘passing hour’ meant midnight. I kept reading; the spell appeared to be complicated; the caster would have to draw a pattern on stone ground with white chalk, and apply various herbs and oils.
I snapped the book closed and tapped on the cover as I thought. If the ragour truly did exist, and if it was the cause of these deaths, that would mean someone in our village had summoned it to kill for a reason. I tried to think through all of the rifts and disagreements I knew of. Some were certainly severe and long-standing, but did any warrant summoning this beast?
I paced the room as I racked my brain. Perhaps I was approaching this from the wrong angle – there were many people who might be driven to such unholy extremes by anger or hatred, but very few had the means to summon a ragour.
It would need access to the herbs described in the book, many of which were uncommon. They would need to have travelled, or come in contact with a traveller, in order to obtain the book in the first place. And, the key clue, they would have to be able to read English.
A horrible dread encompassed me as I realised who this implicated. I stared at the book for a second, then dropped it to the ground. There was only one person besides myself who fit all of the criteria – he used herbs regularly, he had travelled to England to study, and he would have known when I would be making my rounds in order to plant the book in my bookshelf.
The doctor – and I was to be his victim.
I ran a hand across my suddenly-dry lips. “Why?”
The answer was clear, though. Since I had moved to the town, I had slowly been drawing patients from his practice and introducing them to homeopathy. He could not understand how my little bottles of sugar could wield such power when his own treatments were often more damaging than helpful. I was a threat.
I remembered the way he had looked at me at the well. He had been silently accusing me. At the time, I thought he had believed me the summoner of the ragour; I now realised he must have been blaming me for the death and pain caused by his inability to wield his own weapon.
And now, because the ragour had failed him, he had planted the book in my home, in a place where it would be found if my possessions were searched. He had expected – intended – for me to be targeted and taken down by a lynch mob.
Quiet, proud Aldéric. Even with a monster attacking his commune, he had been unable to bring himself to kill a man in cold blood, but was relying on others to do the job for him.
Now I was confronted by a problem: with both the doctor and myself still alive, the ragour would return tonight at midnight, and every night following, until one of us died. I looked at the clock: just a few minutes shy of the passing hour. The time had moved more quickly than I had realised.
I started towards the door, checked myself, and ran to the dining room. I pulled a knife from its holder and, concealing it under my jacked, dashed into the darkness.
A light misting of rain fell from the sky. I hurried, head huddled down, moving as quickly as I could without tripping. My house was on the outskirts of town, but I could see my way tolerably thanks to the burning lights of the main village.
I was fifty yards from the doctor’s surgery when I heard a scream. A chill passed over my body as I looked up. Nothing seemed amiss with the stout wooden surgery, but then a window burst outwards. Dimly lit by the lamps, a huge, hulking black mass appeared. It turned to look at me, and its eyes blazed with demonic, hellish fire.
I don’t remember what happened next. I suppose I may have screamed. All I remember is those wild eyes fixed on me, drawing closer, the beast’s thundering in the ground as it charged towards me.
Then a yell. Alain burst into my view, his ax shining in the lamp’s light as it swooped towards the beast.
It hit home, sinking into the monster’s neck. I expected blood, but instead a billow of black smoke poured from the gaping wound. The ragour let loose a screeching howl and turned on Alain. There was nothing I could do; I crawled to my feet and ran for the doctor’s surgery.
The noise had brought the villagers from their houses. My ears filled with screams of terror and cries for help as the regour finished with Alain and began to hunt for fresh prey.
I reached the door to the surgery and dragged it open, then felt my legs go weak from horror.
The floor and walls were spattered with bright red blood, and furniture was strewn around the room. Part of a body peeked out from under a smashed cupboard. By the matt of long blonde hair, I guessed it was the surgeon’s unfortunate wife.
I edged around the body, stepping carefully so as not to slip in the pool of blood. There were four doors leading out of the waiting room, but the only open one was the trapdoor to the cellar.
I reached the landing and began to descend, but there must have been blood on one of the steps – or perhaps too much had stuck to my boot – because my footing gave way and I found myself lurching into the darkness. I grasped at the railing and caught myself before I hit the bottom. As I hung there, shaking and struggling to draw in breath, I heard a noise in the darkness. A thick, sick, rattling breath.
I pulled myself upright and, leaning against the wall, called, “Who’s there?” My voice was thin and weak.