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.”