Tangible Schizophrenia


The Brotherhood of the Bear

Author: Guede Mazaka
Rating: PG-13. Descriptions of wartime horror.
Pairing: Grégoire de Fronsac/Jean-François de Morangias
Feedback: Good lines, bad ones, etc.
Disclaimer: Not mine.
Notes: For ficangel for her birthday. AU. Instead of going to Africa, Jean-François was shipped to America to fight in the French and Indian War.
Summary: War makes for strange bedfellows. Sometimes, that lasts beyond the end of hostilities.


Grégoire knew something was wrong even before Mani, a few yards ahead, reined in atop a small hillock and stared in horror. After what his friend had already been through in this sordid affair that was supposed to be a civilizing war, there should have been nothing left with the capability to shock the other man. But nevertheless, he was. And it was a different shock than when Mani came across another brutalized corpse; this was quiet, white-lipped and oddly enough, tinged with awe.

But Grégoire already knew that, in a vague crawling way beneath his skin. Because while Mani the tracker had been watching the ground, Grégoire the soldier had allowed the rare quiet of the surrounding woods to lull him to sleep and to bring out Grégoire the naturalist. There were so many new and strange birds fluttering through the branches…but of all things that were high in the trees, he had to say that hanging men were the one species he wished he did not need to classify.

They were wearing the uniforms of French officers. Very slowly, Grégoire eased his horse pistols loose in their holsters and thumbed an inch of sword out of his scabbard. “Mani…”

“They are gone already.” The other man lifted an arm and flexed his fingers in two quick waves. Then he clucked at his horse and began descending the gentle slope as if he were going down a sheer cliff.

When Grégoire rode up beside his friend, he saw the need for such care: the whole clearing was painted slick red and strewn thickly with body parts, chains, stained knotty branches…a bear.

At first, that last item confused him, but then his grim reason reasserted itself and explained. A French unit had been ambushed and slaughtered, and of course the American woods were not proper battlefields, so the bodies had been left to attract the natural scavengers. It was the cusp of spring and the predators of the forest were rousing lean and hungry from the harsh winter. So the bear had come later, scenting the blood. But in that case, then why was it dead?

Mani had halted and dismounted, and was kneeling beside one body, which to Grégoire’s eye looked no different from the rest. The other man, however, had seen something from the hillock that was enough to bring him down.

“This one still lives.” Once Grégoire had come near enough, Mani wiped away enough of the blood from the man’s face to show that a little life still lingered in his cheeks. When Mani held a feather to the man’s nose, it stirred with breath. He pointed to the man’s arm, which was hopelessly mangled, and then to the bear carcass a few feet away.

On closer inspection, Grégoire saw that that injury was not due to any human device. He rocked back on his heels, honestly astonished for a moment. To judge from the look of the other man, he’d already been wounded when he and the bear had had their confrontation, and incredibly enough, he had won the encounter. “Though that will not save his arm. Or him. The nearest surgeon’s miles away.”

But he was already going to his knees and rolling up his sleeves, as if he with his few skills had a hope of saving the man. Nevertheless, Grégoire found himself wanting to rise to the challenge. It had been a long time since he’d found a glimmer of the better side of man.

One gruesome detail in the officer’s—for beneath the mud and blood, he wore abundant lace and braid—favor was that the bear’s jaws had apparently crushed without yet tearing any of the major blood vessels, so he was not bleeding very much from his arm. Grégoire did the best he could to temporarily stop that flow with some wadded-up rags, but if he wanted to move the man to shelter, that arm would have to be amputated and the stump cauterized. “Mani, can you…Mani?”

The other man had transferred his attention to the bear and was hacking at its claws, expertly twisting each out and dropping the things into one of his bags.

“Mani. You can collect those later,” Grégoire snapped, a bit more sharply than he normally would have.

“These are his. I take them for him.” But Mani came and held the pads while Grégoire built a small fire and set the blade of his largest knife to heating in the middle of it. And he held on when Grégoire, cursing and sweating, put his taxonomical knowledge to unorthodox use.

Living flesh handled much differently from dead flesh, however, and fatigue had blunted the nimbleness of his fingers. So he struggled to cut where he had to and sear what he must, going as fast as he dared; he hadn’t yet had the experience that the lightning-fast, black-humored battlefield surgeons did. Considering the kind of specimens of humanity they generally were, he hoped he never would, but at times like this—

--and when he was nearly done, the other man’s eyes snapped open. They were blue washed with grey, and they wanted to scream.

“Friends. Hold still. I need to finish this.” Those weren’t comforting words, but with his hands full of ragged, charred-edged flesh, Grégoire didn’t have the time to be a good nurse. He gritted his teeth and prayed that the familiar French would be enough to put the other man at ease.

Mani murmured indecipherable words in a soothing voice at the other man, who seemed to understand and who held trembling-still for the rest of the makeshift operation. For all Grégoire knew, his friend might be mouthing curses in revenge for his people’s treatment at the hands of the French, but somehow, he thought differently. Grégoire had put himself out of the category of bastard French and into friend by his deeds, and it seemed as if this man might have done the same.

The last patch of bloody flesh was seared shut, and Grégoire wrapped up the stump as quickly as he could, but not before the officer’s eyes had seen his work. It was an ugly mess, a crippling blow to ability and vanity, and he knew that the second often counted for more than the first. And he could see the gagging dark taking over the other man’s eyes.

“It’s horrible. But I can look at it without flinching, and so can you.” Grégoire turned to clean off his knives, then glanced back. The officer was watching him with a curiously lucid gaze that somehow prompted him to add a few more bitter words.. “At least it’s honest and in the open. I’ve seen worse in the depths of men’s hearts. That is what disgusts me.”

The other man might have nodded, but it was impossible to tell because almost at the same moment, unconsciousness came down hard on him and his head lolled back in Mani’s grip. Holding back a sigh, Grégoire swiftly saw to the other wounds, which singly were not nearly as bad as the arm, but together probably equaled it in severity.

“He will live,” Mani said, levering up the limp form while Grégoire packed and scavenged what few useful items the corpses retained.

“If he does, then I’ll buy him thirty masses at the nearest house of God.” But though Grégoire said that with a snarling smile and a sardonic tone, he was as careful as Mani in getting the officer onto his horse.

* * *

Mani found a cave and stream. Fortunately enough, for in those few hours, the head lolling against Grégoire’s shoulder had already begun to burn hot. The officer had passed out, thank God for once, and so both he and Grégoire were mostly spared the agonies incurred during the transportation of the wounded.

The cave was little more than a hollow large enough to secrete the three of them, but it sat high enough above the rest of the land to be reasonably defensible, and Mani swore that their horses could be stashed in a nearby copse of trees without too much risk of theft. Grégoire put his trust more in the calmness of his friend’s tone than in any train of reasoning, both because he was exhausted and because the officer was beginning to stir.

Excusing himself, Mani went down to the stream to water the horses and left Grégoire with the packing. It seemed that whatever degree of honor the other man had earlier accorded the French officer, that was now disappearing in the face of the same uniform that had decimated Mani’s tribe.

As it happened, Grégoire had become fed up with his lace and brocade snagging on every little twig long before he’d met Mani, and had resorted to rougher colonists’ clothing, with only his hat to mark his rank. And his hat was currently rotting at the bottom of a river twenty miles away, so there was not even that. Perhaps that was why Mani had had relative ease in accepting Grégoire on the merit of Grégoire’s actions and not his race.

In any case, it wasn’t terribly important at the moment. More to the point was establishing a shelter, so Grégoire doffed his stained patchwork of a coat and once again pushed up his sleeves. He spread out their bedrolls first of all and bundled the dazed officer into them, doing his best to counteract the spread of the fever. It wouldn’t stop any gangrene, but the knives he stowed in one corner would do for that, as long as there was something left to cut.

When the other man finally woke enough to speak, Grégoire was busy portioning out jerky and biscuits for the evening meal, if it could be called that. By his guess, Mani had been gone a little long, so hopefully his friend had spotted a rabbit or something more substantial they could add to their diet.

“How far back are we?” An eminently sensible question, if taken in the context of asking where the current battle lines were.

In fact, it was so sensible that Grégoire halted in his tasks and turned completely around, wondering if he’d somehow become party to a miracle. No such fortune; the other man’s cheeks were flushed the scarlet of a whore’s petticoat, and his breathing was shallow and labored in its eerie quietness. But though his eyes were over-bright, they were also intelligent. “Five miles east of here, last I knew. That was three days ago. They’ve probably changed by now.”

Nodding, the other man strove to sit up. However, he tried to count on a limb that was in part gone and nearly sent himself face-first into the rock. When Grégoire caught him, he cried out and convulsed in pain, but still had enough will to hook his good arm over Grégoire’s neck and assist in righting himself. It was impressive in an old-fashioned, knightly way. “Your…name, rank and regiment?”

“Not enough blood for an infant and you’re interrogating me,” Grégoire muttered to himself. For the moment, he ignored the query and rechecked the pads he’d wound around the stump; they were the cleanest, last bandages he had, and it looked as if he would have to sacrifice his shirt soon. “Friend, remember?”

“I know. You told me.” Not only did the other man remember, but he even achieved irritability. Very impressive, Grégoire thought dryly to himself. “I—God Almighty!”

And there was feeling still above the elbow, so perhaps the joint might be saved. “I apologize if you’re a God-fearing man, sir, but I doubt He troubles Himself overmuch with this land.”

Now would have been a good time for Grégoire to hold his tongue, considering that the tatters of rank insignia left on the other man clearly outranked him, but it was difficult. Though Mani was a loyal, selfless and infinitely helpful companion, one quality he did lack was a large capacity for sustained conversation. Gibes and fancies alike merely rolled off his smooth serenity without producing much in the way of verbal responses, and thus starved Grégoire’s more cosmopolitan side.

The other man favored him with a startled stare that wavered only a little, and Grégoire almost feared. But then, very carefully, the officer cracked a smile. Dark as the jeer that had preceded it, but still genuine enough. “A godless land indeed, if my savior is a non-believer.”

“Oh, I believe in many things, sir. You can be certain of that.” Surprisingly enough, Grégoire found himself breathing a little easier at being called that and not, say, mutilator, which might have been more accurate. “Grégoire de Fronsac, currently unattached. My rank is likewise…unsecured from my person.”

“The naturalist.” Those pale eyes narrowed a little, recalling God knew what gossip. “Jean-François de Morangias, colonel—formerly.” The lean face turned away before any change in expression could be glimpsed. “I am without a regiment as well, as far as I know.”

That name sounded familiar. It was certainly noble, but didn’t number among the families high enough, rich enough or foolish enough to frequent the king’s court so Grégoire couldn’t immediately recollect its implications. Well, such considerations made up a lesser part of life in war. Another thing that could wait.

As gently as he could, he made the other man lie down. And then he squatted over Morangias and pointed at the amputated limb so they could have the discussion without any misleading evasions, however softening those might be. This was not Versailles, and diplomacy sometimes cost more than brute force.

“I don’t know how much experience you have with such wounds,” Grégoire began, but he was swiftly cut off by a sharp look.

“It will fester and I will probably die raving, dripping with green pus. And if it is not that, it will be one of my other wounds. I know the fate of the injured in this war.” Dark long lashes fluttered down to rest on already waxen skin, then snapped open. A disturbingly strong will dwelled in there, and not all of the unease it provoked in Grégoire could be attributed to fever-glint. This was no run-of-the-mill sprig of the overbred aristocracy. “You will kill me. If I…if it…”

Grégoire looked down at his shredded and half-healed palms, then nodded without looking up. “I will do what I can.”

The other man drifted into unconsciousness once more, and Grégoire was so relieved by that that he failed to hold Morangias’ lack of thanks against him. But he did have the devil’s own time prying the man’s fingers from where they had clutched in his clothes.

* * *

That night they had a grouse added to their dinner, and while Mani concocted some prickle-smelling paste over the remains of their campfire, Grégoire poured half a bowl of broth down a restless, half-fainted Morangias. When he saw the color of Mani’s proposed poultice—like ergot-ridden wheat ears—he was doubtful as to its efficacy, but as there was no better alternative, Grégoire smeared it into every single break in Morangias’ skin. Then he laid down beside the other man and rolled himself up in his coat, trying not to shiver so much he jarred Morangias.

When he fell asleep, it was to Morangias’ faint rattling whimpers and to the silhouette of a watchful Mani against the dying firelight.

* * *

After that, Morangias was too far into the fever to feel the chill settling in the air, or to hold down any kind of food. As far as Grégoire was concerned, it was a good day when he could convince the other man to swallow more than a cupful of water. And then Morangias’ eyes would roll back, staring and nearly lifeless except for that fixed burn that persisted in them. His skin turned first flushed, then white and ever thinner, being scraped away from the inside so that his angular bones threatened to pierce through. He was not quiescent, either, and sometimes Grégoire was nearly driven to gag the man before Morangias’ loud ravings brought down an army on their heads.

“You might suffocate him,” Mani pointed out. They were a little way from the cave, crouching over a stained and ripped map that was nearly illegible. In truth, both Grégoire and Mani had long since stopped relying on it, but the ritual of consulting it remained a comforting familiarity to Grégoire. Mani humored him so the woods wouldn’t turn him mad.

“I might do that anyway. He isn’t improving, and winter is coming.” Grégoire glared his irritation about the trees and hissed under his breath. For the past two weeks, his life had alternated between caring for a man who didn’t even remember in which his country he was and silently cursing as scouting proved that the main enemy lines were creeping steadily nearer their camp. They would have to make a decision soon.

He was reluctant to do that. Part of it was Morangias’ damnable timing; whenever Grégoire was on the verge of declaring the man inside the blanching, thrashing shell irretrievably lost, Morangias would somehow drag himself back long enough to prove differently. And whatever kind of man Grégoire was now, he still couldn’t kill another human being in cold blood.

If he stopped chewing his lip and averting his gaze from the body huddled in the cave long enough to rationally consider matters, he also knew that another part of it was that he had become somewhat fond of Morangias. It was the kind of fondness one had for the ill-tempered dog passed every morning on the way out, but nevertheless, it was fondness. The other man—or what glimpses Grégoire had of the other man during Morangias’ rare lucid intervals—showed flashes of an intriguingly complex, strong and yet vulnerable personality. A curiosity among the aristocracy Grégoire had met, this man liked to use his wits for purposes other than frivolity.

And then there was the problem of the bear.

A touch on Grégoire’s shoulder instantly brought him out of the reverie that he hadn’t even noticed descending on him. When he looked back at Mani, something like the light of amusement possibly was slipping out the slants of the man’s eyes. But it was gone before Grégoire could be certain.

“A little longer. Healing takes time.” Then the other man dug into his bag and produced a strange bundle of clacking white beads.

Closer inspection proved them to actually be highly-polished bear claws, knotted with good leather into two bunches, one of which Mani tucked into Grégoire’s pocket. “Right hand,” Mani explained, though he didn’t give any indication as to what the question was supposed to be.

He dropped the other bunch into Grégoire’s palm and rocked off the balls of his feet into a standing position, then began to move off almost before Grégoire could blink. “This is what you’ve been doing?” Grégoire called after the other man.

“Scouting means waiting. I pass the time with my hands.” And then the other man was replaced by a tree; Mani taking up his turn at tracking the progress of the British advance a little early.

The smile on Grégoire’s face felt like it was souring the muscles required to make it. But in the end, he restrained himself to folding up the map and carefully storing the useless piece of paper in his saddlebags. Then he turned towards his patient, absently jiggling the spare set of claws in his hand, and stilled.

“Any news?” Morangias croaked. He had pulled himself up into a sitting position, good arm cradling the halved one and both resting on his blanket-shrouded knees. Sweat had dried into the strands of his hair so it stuck to the sharp edges of his gaunt face, its peculiar shade tinted more silver than brown, and blackness had seeped into the skin beneath his eyes. But despite all of that, he looked…

Grégoire had a hand on the other man’s forehead before he even realized he’d moved. He took it off almost as fast, staring disbelievingly at the cool hollow of his palm. “Your fever broke?”

“It’d—it’d appear so.” As with the claws, a more focused scrutiny revealed that Morangias wasn’t nearly as composed as he appeared. Picking and poking at the bandages on his stump, he audibly gritted his teeth. The movement of his fingers abruptly increased in speed, approaching frenzy.

Frowning, Grégoire instinctively reached out to stop the other man, but the turns of cloth had already fallen away.

For a long moment, they both merely stared at the ugliness. Eventually Grégoire made himself think like a surgeon: the stitches looked nearly ready to come out. They were more even and neat than he remembered, so when time faded the scars from violent pink to white and perhaps even tan, they would not be too bad. They might even look distinguished, provided the viewer was prepared for sight of them in the right manner.

“My mind believes I still have it,” Morangias finally said, very quiet and controlled. The muscle in his cheek was jumping with the effort he was making to stay calm. “And as long as the wraps were on, I could almost pretend that was true.”

Pain stung several points on Grégoire’s palm. Confused, he lifted the fist he’d unknowingly made and uncurled it to find that the claws had stabbed little scarlet beads out of his flesh. While Mani had polished the rest of the pieces to a satin finish, he had methodically sharpened the ends. As Grégoire should have known.

He almost laughed at himself, but at the last moment, realized that Morangias might take the wrong meaning from it and held it in. Turning his hand, Grégoire dropped the bundle onto the other man’s knees. “These are yours, I believe.”

The other man needed a few seconds to recognize them, but when he did, he succumbed to a breathless, sarcastic chuckle. Two long fingers plucked them up and wonderingly felt them over. “Dear God. I thought I’d dreamed that…there’d already been so much—blood.”

“No, the bear was real. And responsible for your arm.” A little hiccup somehow inserted itself between the second-to-last and last words of Grégoire’s statement, which made him flush and glance away. Normally he had no issues with stating a fact. “Though you revenged yourself on the animal very thoroughly.”

“Then it’s dead?” Morangias dropped hand and claws back into his lap, then leaned his head against the stone. He absently lifted his stump—and a shadow convulsed his face. Then he lowered it and lifted his hand to rub rather too hard at the stubble on his cheek, a nasty twist in his lips. “A bullet had already carried off two of my fingers—damned English shot my sword out of my hand. So it wasn’t entirely to blame.”

Grégoire ran over the stilted, unnaturally precise way in which the other man had spoke, not liking the undertones he found in it. He uncomfortably rolled his shoulders. “That bear was one of the largest I’ve seen in America. A fine trophy.”

“The last I’ll take, cripple that I am now,” snorted Morangias, mostly to himself.

Self-loathing. That was it. No wonder Grégoire had been so slow to identify it—that feeling was far too close to his own bones, lashing his raw nerves hard. “Then that would be a shame, sir. Because I was beginning to think I’d found one officer that rose to a challenge instead of skulking about in the dark. My apologies; we are losing, after all.”

Then Grégoire rose and stalked off, trying to put some distance between them before his temper completely loosed itself. His shirt was filthy and itched, so he yanked it off despite the cold.

Behind him there was a sharp intake of breath, and he belatedly remembered the latest scars he’d gained. “They’re not as bad as yours, sir, but the women won’t find them any prettier,” his tongue snapped out.

Swearing to himself, Grégoire went down to the river to make an attempt at washing himself. If Morangias was awake enough to hate himself, then he could shoot straight enough to be left alone for a few minutes.

* * *

By dinner he was already feeling a pang of guilt, but the other man was so reserved and distant in his silence that Grégoire was deterred from doing much except heap the food high in Morangias’ bowl. Mani was a veritable horn of plenty when it came to obtaining game, so starvation at least did not number among their worries.

The firelight flickered amusement on Mani’s face, but as before, it was too quick for Grégoire to be without doubt about his observations. What was concrete were Mani’s words afterward, when they were seeing to the horses: the British would be too close within a day, and they would have to move by tomorrow afternoon. And still no sign of nearby Frenchmen or allies; none of the native tracks Mani had come across were recognizable as friendly, and Grégoire did not feel like chancing the risk of following a trail to a hostile tribe.

With all the worries preoccupying his mind, it was no surprise that sleep stayed far away. And in a manner of speaking, it was fortuitous in one sense. He was still awake when Morangias suddenly rolled over, breath streaming across Grégoire’s nose, and laid two fingers on Grégoire’s lips.

They rested there for a count of almost-seven, then departed. “Sardis would squeeze far too many sermons from this,” the other man muttered, lying back down.

Sardis…that was a name that had figured prominently in Morangias’ ravings. From what Grégoire could gather, it was the name of a clergyman in the man’s household, of whom Morangias didn’t seem to be very fond. Something concerning stifling and relations with Morangias’ mother.

That in turn led to reminiscences of some old Church scandals, and the occasional youthful hijink from Grégoire’s past. Smiling to himself, he gradually relaxed enough for sleep.

* * *

There was little in the way of packing, so before they left, Grégoire offered Morangias the chance to bathe and shave as an indirect apology for the tactlessness of the day before. Blinking, the other man gratefully accepted, but when it was clear that Grégoire wasn’t about to leave him alone to do it, pride stiffened Morangias’ jaw.

With a sigh, Grégoire spread his palms and did his best to remember how to be polite. “I know. But the river is running fairly strongly.”

Morangias was too busy struggling to pull his shirt over his head to reply.

Politeness never seemed to fit correctly in frontier life, Grégoire noted darkly. He thickened his skin and stepped forward to seize the hem of Morangias’ shirt, easing it over the other man’s elbows.

As soon as his arms were free, Morangias angrily ripped himself the rest of the way out, leaving the maltreated garment hanging in Grégoire’s hand. He had a glare that could rival a wildcat, though he was shaking with the effort it took to stay on his feet. “Thank you, Fronsac.”

“While it’s nice to see you in better spirits, pretending nothing’s changed doesn’t help, either.” Grégoire walked around the bare-chested fury and knelt down by the water’s edge, starting to rinse out the shirt.

After a moment, footsteps followed and stopped beside him. Still sounding irritable, Morangias awkwardly removed his boots and sat down. “You speak as if all you do is nurse the wounded.”

“For a long time, that is what I did. Our esteemed generals repaid Mani’s tribe for their help by trading them smallpox-infected blankets, and he’s the only survivor.” The shirt nearly tore under the stress of the wring Grégoire gave it, and he belatedly loosened his grip on it. “I was attached to a regiment that was sent into the woods during winter without enough supplies. The scouts got us lost, the shadows picked us off when starvation and cold didn’t, and a month ago when the snow started to melt, I finally stumbled out into the dead camp of Mani’s tribe. Believe me when I say that you are not the most crippled man I’ve ever seen.”

Morangias absorbed that curt tale while Gregoire spread out the shirt on a bush that was just beginning to unfurl its leaves. Then, head bowed, he stiffly held out his hand so Grégoire could pull him up and help him take off his breeches.

When Morangias had cleaned himself to his satisfaction and got out of the river, Grégoire helped rub him dry with a blanket. It seemed as if Mani’s paste had worked a minor miracle, for all of the man’s wounds had healed quite well; with the exception of his arm, Morangias had retained a surprising amount of beauty. Once he’d put on some weight, he would have little trouble attracting attention.

Parisian sensibilities had no place in New France, Grégoire chided himself. He recalled his mind from its abstract admiration to more mundane matters, such as getting Morangias dressed in a scavenged set of clothes before the man shivered into a new illness.

“If you intended to dress me as a private, then why did you save my shirt?” the other man queried, tone good-humored enough.

“It’s good linen. Should keep you in bandages till we run across a proper encampment,” Grégoire retorted, rewrapping Morangias’ injuries. “You should count yourself lucky that you won’t be wearing your own uniform. The fancier the outfit is, the greater a trophy the natives count it.”

The grimace Morangias made was identical to Grégoire’s. “I’ve noticed that.”

But the other man didn’t seem inclined to elaborate, and Grégoire was sympathetic enough to let the matter pass. Instead, he handed Morangias a razor and patiently began the task of teaching a right-handed man how to shave left-handed.

* * *

When Grégoire finally heard the other man’s story, they were sharing his horse while Mani led them down a trail so fine only he could see it. His friend’s keen hearing probably still allowed him to overhear the conversation, but he was assiduously pretending he couldn’t. And sometime soon, Grégoire would maneuver Mani into a situation in which the other man would have to confess why that amused him so.

“I have to say, I’m puzzled. Is he your manservant? Did you save his life and incur a debt of honor—do they have a code of honor?” Morangias had twisted around so Grégoire could see half a quizzical expression.

He was trying—Grégoire had to give the man that. The word ‘savage’ had carefully been avoided during the conversation leading up to the current discussion of Grégoire and Mani’s relationship.

“I did save his life, but he has saved mine more times than I can count. And they do have a code of honor, which in some respects would surprise you with its similarity.” Grégoire leaned around the other man and clucked the horse into a faster pace. As he did, he happened to brush against Morangias’ shoulder. The other man shivered. Only a little, but…Grégoire found himself eying the pale skin of Morangias’ nape. “We’re friends. And according to the customs of his people, a kind of adopted brother to each other. But when around other Europeans, it’s easier to merely use the pretense of master and manservant, so as not to strain small minds too unduly.”

“You talk like they’re better than us,” Morangias murmured, a hard low angry edge to his words. He faced forward and his fingers curled around the front of the saddle till the knuckles whitened. “Between the eyes of a maddened Indian and the eyes of that bear, I saw no difference. They came down—they were supposed to be leading us to the rest of the army, and instead they delivered us to the British. And the British gave us back to them for play.”

This time, Grégoire’s temper froze with his fury instead of raging loose. He kept his body relaxed, but cut away the niceties from his words. “You’re mistaken, sir. I’ve seen all parties in this war in close quarters, and I have to say, I cannot find a better among them. Man is cruel, no matter the color of his skin and hair.”

They rode on in strained silence for several minutes, which was finally broken by a placid Mani turning about and riding back to them. Reining in, Grégoire leaned towards his friend—then had to grab at himself. But the smooth claws slipped between his fingers and fell, only to be effortlessly snatched up by Mani. “Thank you,” Grégoire muttered, taking them back with embarrassment warming his face. “What did you see?”

“Smoke.” Mani’s finger pointed upward, tracing out the thin wisp of gray for Grégoire’s eyes. “Many fires. Your army?”

“My army? You’re certain?” As Grégoire took a second, harder look at that delicate trail of hope, he discovered an odd leadenness in his belly. But then the relief that washed through him obscured the feeling, and he temporarily forgot in his eagerness to believe.

Nodding, Mani showed a trace of smile. “There are words carved on that trunk, like the ones you wrote out in the dirt.”

That had been during the period where they had been more or less trapped together in a village of smallpox corpses; Grégoire had suffered a mild childhood bout and thus had gained immunity that way, but Mani, it appeared, was simply one of those strange exceptions that the disease could not touch. And that fact had caused some deep wounds in the man, so in an effort to distract him, Grégoire had taught him French. Speaking Mani easily learned, but writing and reading hadn’t interested him, and Grégoire eventually given up.

Spurring forward, he saw that his friend had in fact paid some attention—not to the proper lessons, of course, but to the facetious one on swear words. Nevertheless, Grégoire found himself grinning more broadly than he had in months. And when a few minutes later, a suspicious officer hailed them from the trees, he nearly embraced the man.

Morangias’ expression was happy as well, but rather more subdued. Though Grégoire only noticed that later, when he was recollecting everything.

* * *

Of course, Morangias was a ranking officer and high nobility, so he was immediately whisked off. For a moment, Grégoire almost protested—irrationally enough, he missed the man. But then he overheard the first slur against Mani, and his priorities shifted to shuffling through the formalities as quickly as possible. While Grégoire was genuinely glad to be among any form of civilization once more, his stint in the wilderness had lowered his tolerance for its idiocies. Mani was worth three of these primped, perfumed…examples of the former Grégoire de Fronsac.

Yet his reason said that the idiocies had to be taken with the wonders, just as the evils of man had to be swallowed down along with the good. It seemed that the forest had rubbed off some layers of Grégoire’s sense of irony as well. God help him, he almost sounded like an idealist again.

A few days later, Grégoire was desultorily considering his new orders when the tent flap shuddered and in stepped a clean-shaven, better-fed, perfectly-dressed colonel with his right sleeve neatly pinned up. Curiously enough, Morangias still was hesitant; usually officers returning from the woods wasted no time in making up their campaign hardships with arrogance and debauchery.

“You look improved, sir,” Grégoire offered, swinging his legs from his cot to the ground. He laid down his papers and gestured towards the folding chair beside him, but Morangias refused.

A first, and false, impression would have been that the other man was carelessly flicking his eyes over the inside of the tent, but Grégoire’s instincts told him that Morangias was more avoiding than searching and possibly mocking. “Call me Jean-François. After what has happened—”

“After what happened, most men would insist on the ‘sir.’” Something about his visitor was irking Grégoire, and it was showing. He smiled in an effort to disarm his impertinence, but he could feel it coming out more sardonic than harmless.

Jean-François obviously registered all of that, but he merely smiled back with the edges of his lips. “You’re a very cynical man.”

“My apologies.” And where was Mani, Grégoire wondered. His friend had been due back from the horse pickets a few minutes ago.

“I won’t take them. I like that.” On the heels of that interesting statement came a sharp, flustered, wary glance. Then Jean-François stepped around the chair and bent over the open sketchbook lying beside Grégoire. “You’re a fine artist,” he remarked, sounding startled.

Grégoire reached out to close the sketchbook, but his fingers somehow curled around the other man’s wrist instead.

Jean-François sucked in a breath, then closed his eyes. A fine shake was going through him, and it was impossible to tell whether it was due to rage or despair. “They’re sending me back to my family. Honorable discharge, due to my injury.”

“And they’re sending me back into the woods as a guide, since I spent the winter memorizing the land, and since I have Mani. My impertinence doesn’t always meet with such favor,” Grégoire replied, pain equally as deep in him.

He pulled on the wrist till he could put his other hand on the back of Jean-François’ neatly-tied pigtail. By the time they parted for air, his fingers had worked every strand loose of that braid.

When the other man leaned in again, Grégoire stopped him with a hand on Jean-François’ chest. Then, feeling the heart beating against his palm, he groped about till he found the bear claws. “These should be yours. You earned them.”

Long, trembling fingers reclosed his own around them so quickly the claw tips cut him again. “Keep them. You saved me,” Jean-François whispered, low and fierce, and then he kissed Grégoire once more.

It was more than a thank you, and when the other man flung himself out in disarray a moment later, it was enough to keep Grégoire smiling ruefully to himself. Even when Mani eased in seconds afterward, making it clear he’d been standing guard, Grégoire continued to smile.

* * *

Two Years Later. Paris.

“It’s shorter than the other one,” Mani said, gesturing towards the confection of embossed gilt and expensive paper that bore the king’s seal.

“There isn’t any meaningless flattery in this one,” Grégoire explained, rereading the note. He absently fingered the single bear claw that had been enclosed with it.

Chévalier Grégoire de Fronsac,

You have doubtless received the king’s order to come to Gévaudan and investigate the strange beast that is terrorizing the land. To that I add my personal plea for your presence. Do not dismiss the stories as superstition; the bodies are real. And there is more to the troubles of Gévaudan than the monster.

Send word to me as soon as you arrive. Regretfully, I cannot offer you lodging for reasons I prefer to explain personally, but I can offer you all the resources at my command.

I would enjoy your presence.

Jean-François de Morangias

Mani was smiling the way the saints did in the cathedral windows. “Now you have a reason.”

“He will want this back, won’t he?” Grégoire held up the claw, musing on the nature of fate and coincidence and timing. Perhaps crossing paths sooner would lead to a different outcome…but at any rate, he was feeling a curiosity blooming in him that was far stronger than it had been in some time. “And into the woods we go once more.”


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