Frostbite-Chapter 15

“I was born in Winnipeg a while back,” Powell began, when they were seated in the back of Dzo’s truck and headed for the house. “I had a pretty normal childhood. I played at tin soldiers like any boy, and worked some for my father, who was a grocer. Never went to much school, but I didn’t know what I was missing, so I didn’t complain. Then, when I was nineteen, I was called up to serve this country in the Great War,” Powell said, facing away from her. “What you would call World War One, I suppose.”

“Hold on,” Chey said. She’d just thought of something. “This all happened when you were nineteen? The First World War started when you were nineteen?”

“I was born in eighteen ninety- five.”

She shook her head. “You don’t look a day over forty,” she said. Except his eyes were old. They’d always looked old to her.

“We change almost every day. When that happens we don’t just sprout hair and grow our teeth out. Every cell in our bodies is altered and renewed. Our cells never have time to age. It’s true, Chey. I’m a hundred and eleven years old. And for most of that time I’ve been a wolf. I can guess your next question, but I don’t have an answer. I don’t know if we die of old age or not. I feel as healthy as I did the first time I changed, but beyond that I just don’t know.”

Chey’s spine tingled at the thought of living that long running from one forsaken corner of the world to another. How long would her own life last, she wondered? Decades—maybe centuries of endless transformation lay before her. Of waking up naked in the frozen forest. Chey shivered and it wasn’t because she was naked. She felt a pressing need to change the subject. “Did you wear one of those funny dish- shaped helmets?”

“Yes, I goddamned did,” he said, the back of his neck turning red. It was the first time she’d ever heard him swear. “I wore a Mark One two-pound helmet. And I wore khaki leggings to keep my feet dry, but they never did. I don’t know what you’ve been taught that war was about, or why we fought in it at all, but for me it was just about mud. Oh, there were some very pretty songs they had us sing about queen and country, but in the real day- to- day, when all was said and done, most of what I remember of the war was the smell of other men’s feet and plenty of mud. Mud everywhere, and the Germans shelled the tar out of our mud, and we shelled theirs, and sometimes we took their mud away from them and sometimes we had to give it back. We dug down into the mud to try to get away from the explosions and then we crouched in our mud and waited to die. Every so often they told us to crawl over some barbed wire and shoot anything we saw. Everybody knew what that would mean, which was that most of us would not be coming back. This was the war when they first used machine guns, you see, and tanks, and aerial bombardment, and poison gas, and nobody knew yet how men in Mark One helmets and leggings were supposed to survive going up against all that, so a lot of us didn’t. We did what we could to not think too much about it. There was always alcohol around, but cheap stuff, stuff people brewed in old coffee cans, and it would make your stomach sour for days. Then there were women. This was France, after all, and France was supposed to be full of pretty girls. Too bad they’d all packed off for less muddy places when the shooting started. Those who were left weren’t the prettiest, but they were—well—more friendly, I suppose, than girls back home. Especially if it was the day after payroll came down the trench. You understand what I mean?”

Chey smiled. “Oh, yeah.”

“One night like that my buddies and I borrowed a field car and just motored around for hours looking for anyone female who might enjoy some uniformed attention. Just when we were ready to turn back a mate of mine from Vancouver shouted out for me to stop. I looked ahead through the windshield and there she was, standing by the road as if she was just waiting for us. A woman, a God’s honest French jeune fille like we always used to talk about finding but knew we never really would. Oh, she was beautiful. Long red hair and creamy skin and not a stitch of clothing on her.”

“That must have been a surprise,” Chey suggested.

“Oh, heavens, yes. Especially back then. You won’t believe me, but in those days if you saw a girl’s ankle you hurried back to your friends to tell them about it. When we saw that girl standing there in a state of nature, well. I suppose we thought she must be some kind of ghost or angel or something. None of us could figure it, how we got so lucky. Still, this was wartime. You saw crazy people around all the time. You know about shell shock?”

Chey frowned. “We call it PTSD now. Post- traumatic stress disorder.”

Powell shrugged. “It was brand new back then, so we made up our own name. Human beings weren’t meant to see some of the things we saw on a daily basis. Bodies stuck in the wire that nobody was brave enough to fetch back. Whole chunks of French countryside disappearing in clouds of smoke, leaving craters behind. Good men shot by snipers half a mile away because they were foolish enough to light a cigarette at the wrong moment. People went crazy with the noise of the shells, and not just soldiers—plenty of civilians, too. When they got shell shock they would turn inside themselves. They would stop looking at your face and get real quiet. And then, sometimes, they would start crying, or screaming, or maybe they’d start fighting everyone they could get their hands on. Compared to that—this woman looked alright, she was just naked. We weren’t about to hold it against her.”

“So you were—how many of you were there?”

“Six of us, including myself,” Powell said.

“Six virginal teenagers looking for prostitutes and you saw a beautiful naked woman standing by the side of the road. I assume you pulled over.”

“Of course we did. I jumped out and ran up to her and took my cap off and asked her if she was alright and if she needed any assistance. She spoke English rather well, well enough to tell us a story we didn’t believe at the time. Something she’d obviously thought up on the spot. She said thieves had accosted her and taken her clothes. If we would give her a ride home she said she would reward us.”

Chey laughed. “Is this a horror story or a letter to Penthouse Forum?”

Powell stared at her with a lack of comprehension that made her realize he’d never heard of the magazine. He had been up in the north country a long time.

“When she spoke her voice sounded like church bells off in the next valley, you know, a long way off. Almost like she wasn’t talking to us, like she was barely aware we were there. Her name, she said, was Lucie, and she was very pleased to meet such well- mannered gentlemen. I think some of us had wicked ideas before she said that, but she shamed us into our best behavior. Back then a lady could do that, make you step back into line with just the tone of her voice. You knew that some people weren’t to be trifled with. One of us offered her his greatcoat, which she took and put on, but then she didn’t tie the belt, so you could still see you know what. I thought about tying it for her, but that seemed like a real liberty and I didn’t want to impose. Instead, I opened the car door for her and she climbed into the seat beside me. I still remember the feel of her smooth, soft hip against my own. She directed us to her house then. It was about ten kilometers away in the shelter of a deep river valley. It was a castle. Not a chateau, not a villa, but a real medieval castle. It stood in pretty serious need of repair. A German shell had knocked in one of its towers. Still, it was a castle—and our mysterious guest turned out to be the daughter of the Baron de Clichy- sous-Vallée.”

“Oh- ho, the plot thickens.”

“We worried her father would come racing out with a pack of hounds and an old blunderbuss, maybe, and give us all what- for for offending his daughter’s honor, but it turned out we didn’t need to worry. The old man had gone off to fight as an officer in the cavalry. He had died, along with every single one of his men, leading a charge into a hail of machine gun fire.

“So there was no Baron. But the Baroness was at home, and she met us at the door in a dusty gown. She had brown hair and haunted eyes and she carried a golden candelabra with no candles in it. Like I said, we saw a lot of crazy people during the war. She looked maybe twenty or perhaps thirty years old and when I first saw her I thought she must be Lucie’s sister. She was not.

“Lucie went to her rooms and threw on a gown from the last cen¬tury. I mean the nineteenth century. The kind of thing Josephine might have worn to Napoleon’s coronation, except that moths had been at it and there were gravy stains on the sleeves. I figured it was probably the best dress she had, and I wasn’t about to say a word against it. For one thing, it left her shoulders bare and she had shoulders like”

“Hmm?” Chey asked, but she could see that Powell was lost in a reverie. Remembering those shoulders. She cleared her throat noisily to get his attention.

“Right, well.When she came back down we were led inside into a banquet hall lined with tapestries. The roof was full of holes and rain had ruined most of the furniture, but there was meat on the table, roast mutton of a kind we never got in the trenches. There was wine, too, of a kind that does not exist anymore. My mates and I ate and drank our fill, and perhaps more.

“Lucie came and sat by me. For whatever reason I was the one she picked. The other fellows saw it and there were a lot of jealous looks around that table, which made Lucie shower me with even more attention, because she could tell how bad I felt. She always did love making me squirm. She hung on me all night, holding my elbow, serving me from the silver platters, making sure my wine goblet was always full. The other fellows tried to make time with the Baroness, but they might as well have been pitching woo with a howitzer for all the warmth or affection she gave them.

“When we were all finishing up, all drunk and stuffed full of food, Lucie leaned in very close until I could smell her perfume and she looked up into my eyes. She gave me a very complicated smile, lots of different things going on in that smile. Then she whispered in my ear that she had something to show me. She had washed her white face and in her old- fashioned gown she looked like some ghost from a story. Even as I rose from the table, even as the boys whistled and cheered me on, I felt as if I were under some enchantment. Perhaps I was.”

Chey held her tongue.

“Lucie led me deep inside the castle, through dark and dank hall¬ways, our only light coming from a single candle she carried in her hand. I saw hot wax roll across her knuckles, but she did not cry out, and I wondered who this spirit could be. She led me down a flight of stone stairs, into the cellars of the place. The vaulted ceilings were white with niter. The floor lay submerged under a couple centimeters of murky water. Her dress dragged through the muck, but before I could say anything she hurried on, faster and faster, and it was all I could do to keep up. We passed racks of wine bottles, some of which had burst because there was no wine steward anymore to tend to them. We passed piles of furniture stacked to the ceiling, pieces that would be priceless antiques today, but these were left to rot. We came at last, at long last, to a narrow room that contained only a single enormous cage. It stood three meters high and twice as wide and the bars were made of solid silver. In the candlelight they glimmered like mirrors.

“‘The moon is rising,’ Lucie told me. I didn’t understand, of course. ‘Will you be my guest for the night? The accommodations are more comfortable than they appear.’ I stared at her, thinking she must be some kind of maniac. More than just crazy. I think you can guess what happened next.”

“She changed,” Chey said.

“She changed.”

Check out the previous chapters of Frostbite right here.

Excerpted from Frostbite: A Werewolf Tale by David Wellington. Copyright © 2009 by David Wellington. Published in the Unites States by Three Rivers Press, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. Published in the UK as Cursed by Piatkus Books, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group.

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