“Good evening. I am Wolfgang, Count von Überwaldburg, Vicomte Grabstein and Graf von Wolfswald. Welcome to my Crypt for another little soiree. Some of you young ladies may wish to divest yourselves of those thick neck scarves. In the warmth of this cosy dungeon, you may find it uncomfortably warm. I can assure you there is no need to attempt to conceal the graceful sweep of your jugular, Madam, I have already feasted, and this evening I am quite satisfied - sated in fact.”
The haughty face softened in a smile.
“Tonight I would like to share with you a rather cautionary tale. Many things create menace around us; some would say the Igors are threatening beings.”
“Thank you, Igor, but I do not need anything at present. You may return to your crypt. Others would claim that Hermann, my butler, is a dangerous monster, and still others that the werewolves are uncontrollable monsters lurking, at every full moon, to rip the unwary limb from limb. Of course, in some circumstances, you may be right — certainly in regard to the werewolves, but not necessarily. In fact, some monsters do not look like monsters at all …”
The Count sipped from a tumbler. The contents resembled a ‘Bloody Mary’. At least his guests hoped it was a Bloody Mary …
“Our story begins two days before the full moon.”
“Abigail, come here, please.”
Abigail, a natural blonde with a youthful and gracious figure, sighed. She knew what was coming, and dreaded these journeys. “Yes, Mum. I’m coming.” Closing her books, she sighed again. Her assignment was due in two days, and she’d hardly begun, her mother’s insistence on her help in the house and the kitchen kept her from her studies. This was her hope of eventual escape from the Ünterwald. Abigail cherished ambitions of a life in the wider world. Just once, she wished her mother would not insist on the monthly trip out to her grandmother’s rather isolated cottage. Just once she wished she didn’t have to spend valuable study time cleaning her grandmother’s house while the old lady scolded and demanded.
“Hurry up child. Grandmother is expecting a visit from my brother, and wants the house clean when he arrives.”
Abigail sighed again. She enjoyed the hike to her grandmother’s cottage. The trail led through the forest, which she loved. It gave her time to think and dream, but she’d rather choose the time herself. “Uncle Rudi? When is he coming?” She liked her Uncle Rüdiger. He was always fun.
“Not this time. My other brother, Gerhard. He arrives tomorrow. You must take the extra provisions up for him, and make sure you have the beds properly aired and made.” Her mother paused. “Make sure you are home tonight. I don’t want you there when Gerhard arrives!”
“Yes, mother.” Abigail shuddered. She certainly didn’t want to meet Uncle Gerhard, and especially his son, Franz, always with his father. They were not her favourite relatives. Gerhard was creepy, in a strange way, and she had unpleasant memories of waking to find him standing in her bedroom staring at her in the moonlight. He wasn’t welcome in his sister’s house since that incident. And then there was Franz. He made her flesh crawl. She shivered and collected her large haversack.
This meant she wouldn’t be able to go with her friends to the fair in Bad Katzen this afternoon and she’d miss the party her best friend Korinna was giving. Her class assignment would be unfinished - again. She could only hope the teacher, Herr Strumpfhose, would be understanding. But, being a dutiful daughter and a loving grand-daughter, she began to gather the things she would need for the cleaning, packing them into the back pack she always used.
“You’re not wearing those dreadful lederhosen to go to her are you? And those boots? You know she doesn’t like you to dress in men’s clothing.” Her mother protested. “You have such a lovely figure, my child. Why don’t you wear the pretty dirndl she gave you?”
Abigail sighed. Her mother simply didn’t understand how impractical the dirndl, stockings and dainty shoes were when you had to carry a week’s groceries and all the cleaning gear halfway up a mountain and along a forest path. “I’ll put it on when I get there, Mum. And house shoes.” She finished packing all the preserves and carefully wrapped sausage and smoked ham her mother had set out.
“Take your cloak, dear. You know how quickly the weather can change.”
“Yes, Mum.” She always carried the cloak, rolled up over the top of her pack. An impractical garment, but it had its uses - such as keeping the rain off, or providing a blanket when one wished to lie on the grass with Theodor, or Peter, sometimes even Dieter. Now she rolled the impractical dirndl in it. She’d change out of her lederhosen in a suitable spot before arriving at grandmother’s house. Strapping the roll over her backpack, she swung the whole onto her shoulders, gripped her walking stave and kissed her mother lightly at the door.
“Make sure you come straight home when you’ve finished, dear. I’ll speak to Hr Strumpfhose, and explain you will bring the assignment when you return.”
“Yes, Mum.” Abigail shut the door behind her and made a face. The Hr Strumpfhose was, at the moment, not her favourite teacher. He was much too attentive to her, and his attention wasn’t always on her work. But she had to admit that he was young, handsome in his own rather fussy manner, and certainly knew how to flatter a girl. Settling her wide brimmed hat — another of her mother’s dislikes — on her head, she tucked her braids under it. Then she set out, taking the road as far as the edge of Bad Katzen, and then the narrow trail through the forest as she had always done. But this time, other eyes took note of her route, and one figure followed - stealthily.
Visitors to the Lower Ünterwald find it attractive. It is very isolated, and can be dark and gloomy in the winter, but in the late spring and summer it certainly has its beauty. It is at this time that the sun reaches the deepest valleys and the inhabitants shake off their customary suspicion and gloomy outlook. And, of course, the young folk engage in their rituals designed to attract members of the opposite - and sometimes the same - sex with a view to eventual pairing and the creation of the next generation.
In the Ünterwald this can be complicated, since, being isolated, many are rather more closely related than is wise, and a pairing between them would, perhaps, be illegal. If one adds the fact that many are not, at certain times, what they generally seem to be …
On this fine spring morning, Abigail set out along the forest trail to her grandmother’s with her head filled with thoughts regarding the merits and attributes of Theodor, her latest Beau.
Striding along the path, Abigail enjoyed the cacophony of the bird song, the scent of the woodland and the occasional glimpse of the wary deer. Her acute hearing and sharp sense of smell detected other things as well - the distant thud of an axe, the sharp tang of wood smoke and the rustle of small creatures scuttling away from her approach. Today the feeling of being followed was strong. But, whenever she checked, there was nothing in view, and certainly nothing she could detect on the trail behind her.
A quarter mile from the cottage, she left the path and entered a small cleft in the rocky wall bordering this part of the trail. Here she shed her backpack and unrolled the cloak, smoothing out the dirndl. With a grimace, she shed her lederhosen, removed her loose fitting shirt, adjusted her undergarments, and donned the low bosomed dirndl, drawing the lacing of the bodice tight. For a moment she contemplated removing her boots and putting on the light slippers.
“No. That would be stupid,” she told herself. Carefully folding her lederhosen and practical shirt into the cloak, she rolled it, brushed the dirt off it and strapped it to her pack once more.
Emerging onto the trail once again, she paused. The feeling of being watched was very strong now, but she could see nothing unusual, so, with a shrug to settle the backpack more comfortably, she set off to grandmother’s cottage.
“My dear, so good to see you.” Grandmother beamed with unaccustomed pleasure at the sight of her granddaughter.
Surprised, Abigail returned the greeting, putting the change of attitude down to her being for once attired as the older woman thought proper. “Thank you, Grossmutti,” she said as she mounted the wide, shaded, verandah where the old lady sat in a rocking chair. Shedding the backpack, she pecked the old lady’s cheek. Something about her grandmother was different. It was more than just her scent. The old woman seemed less frail than she remembered. “You look very well. Shall I make you some tea?”
“I shall make it, girl.” Grandmother stood, smiling, her movement supple. “You may put the things you have brought in the pantry, and your bag in the attic.”
Unused to this sort of welcome, Abigail hesitated, her senses tingling. Grandmother appeared less stooped, taller - in fact less withered.
“Are you sure I can’t make the tea, grandmother? There will be time to unpack the groceries while the kettle boils.” She backed off, her grip on her backpack straps tight. “And I can’t stay; I have to be home tonight.”
“Nonsense, girl. You’ve had a long walk, and I’m not incapable!” The old woman softened her tone. “Besides, we have a great deal to talk about. You want to see your Uncle and Franz. It is a long time since you last saw your uncle.”
From a dark shadow beneath a thick clump of bushes, dark eyes watched the interplay between grandmother and granddaughter — and the sharp senses in the slender nose detected something at odds with the appearances. His nose told him there were three people present. Abigail, her grandmother, and a stronger scent overriding the grandmother’s. There was another scent on the air, that of freshly dug earth, and of blood …
Following the older woman indoors, Abigail again had the feeling that something was wrong with her grandmother, but couldn’t identify what. The face above the severe black dress was, perhaps, a little darker in shade, the eyes a little brighter, but it was as wrinkled as she remembered and the hair, white and pulled back in a tight bun, was as it always appeared. No, the appearance wasn’t it. The old lady still walked as if movement was difficult, still hunched her shoulders, but …
“I know, but I really mustn’t stay, Mum will worry, and I must get back before nightfall. I’ll work as quickly as I can and make sure everything is ready for Uncle and Franz.” Opening her haversack, she began to unpack it on the kitchen table. “Mum packed smoked ham for you, and knackwürst.” She chattered as she unpacked, watching the old woman out of the corner of her eye. The kitchen was clean, cleaner than she’d ever seen it on her arrival each month.
“Good, good. The huntsman has left me several slabs of boar bacon, and a haunch of venison, dear.” Grandmother replied, measuring tea into the pot and carefully pouring water into it from the kettle. “Tea will be ready in a moment.”
Abigail stared at her grandmother’s hands; she usually spoke of him as Hans, the huntsman. He visited regularly and kept the old woman well supplied with fresh meat. She tried to recall whether she’d noticed her grandmother’s hands before. They were strong hands, the fingers long, and the nails short. Working hands. But then she remembered that her grandmother lived alone, and of course her hands must reflect the hard work she put into growing vegetables, and in the kitchen. Gathering the items she’d unpacked, she carried them to the pantry. “Thanks, I’ll just finish putting everything away.”
Sometimes, dear guests, your senses are more reliable than your reason. Your eyes may ‘see’ what is on display, but the brain, such as it is, refuses to accept it as the truth. So it reasons that the imagination must be at fault. For many of your species that is a mistake which frequently has tragic consequences.
So Abigail saw, but chose not to believe, the differences in her grandmother’s appearance. And now she saw the bacon and venison in the meat safe …
The tea tasted strange, but Abigail also knew that her grandmother preferred a type of tea her mother loathed. She added honey and drank it. Then she went to work, more than a little surprised to find there was very little to do. Someone — she assumed her grandmother — had evidently done a considerable amount of cleaning already. Grateful for this, since it meant less for her to do, she set to work in the bedrooms, airing, and then making up the two beds in the small guest room.
Her grandmother’s room, to her surprise, was spotless. Everything in its place, and everything freshly cleaned. Even the bed linen had been changed!
“Grandmother? Has someone been here to help you? I don’t have anything to do here,” she exclaimed, visions of an early departure and perhaps even being able to join her friends in their celebration rising in her mind. “Come downstairs, my girl. I’ve waited a long time for this!” The voice sent a chill through her. It was her uncle, and he was now between her and the door. Gone was the dress, and the hunched shoulders, the wig, the make-up, the shuffling gait, and gone the querulous tone and voice. “I’ve plans for you — and they don’t include your leaving anytime soon.”
Abigail had a good idea what those plans might be. Snatching up her haversack, she stepped back into her grandmother’s room and slammed the door. There was no lock, so she wedged the handle, then pushed the heavy dresser into place just as her uncle attempted to force it open.
“Don’t waste my time, girlie — it’ll just make it harder when I get through this. Now pull it out of the way, and I won’t be so hard on you.”
She pushed a heavy chest against the dresser. “Never. Go away you horrible man. What have you done to Grossmutti? Where is she?”
He laughed, nastily. “Dead. Now give up and open this door.”
Outside in the shady shrubbery, the watcher stiffened. The scent coming from the small opened window at which Abigail, now in her lederhosen, was attempting to find escape, carried with it the strong smell of fear, soap, water and — blood. Movement on the trail leading to the cottage drew attention, and the long nose wrinkled at the smell of the newcomer.
The youth paused, leering at the girl at the window. “Not leaving already, Abi? You won’t find that much use - besides, I’m going to be waiting right here.” He opened the door and called, “She’s at the window, Dad. But she won’t get far.” Shutting the door he walked to a position from which to watch his cousin, still leering, and seated himself on a handy tree stump.
“I might have known you wouldn’t be far away, Franz.” Abigail did her best to sound unconcerned. “I suppose you helped Uncle Gerhard kill grandmother.” Her eye shifted to where a large wolf moved silently along the edge of the trees, but looked away quickly.
“Didn’t need to. The old bag died of fright — Dad’s pretty good at disguises don’t you think? He fooled you long enough.”
The wolf seemed to be stalking Franz. Fascinated, Abigail had to conceal her interest in the creature — helped by her uncle taking an axe to the wedged door. Above the axe blows she called down, “Yes, he did, but he won’t fool anyone else, and he won’t fool my mother.”
“Who cares? Once we have you, we have everything we came for.” A twig snapping made him turn his head. The wolf leapt, its impressive fangs fully displayed as Franz fell beneath the hurtling shape. The struggle was brief, and the wolf shook itself as it dropped the limp corpse.
Abigail stuffed her hand into her mouth, stifling her own shriek as the beast crouched, then changed, becoming Theodor. Naked, he signalled her to silence, doing his best to cover his nether regions with one hand. Then he ran out of her sight. The splintering at the door stopped.
“What the hell ..?” She heard her uncle snarl.
A bowel loosening snarl answered him, followed by the sound of paws on the stairs and her uncle’s curses as he faced the threat.
Seizing her opportunity, Abigail moved the chest, then heaved the dresser aside and snatched up a heavy walking stick. She flung open the door just as the wolf rushed at the man. She saw the axe begin its descent to meet the onrushing wolf, and put all her weight behind the walking stick aimed at her uncle’s head. The stick connected, the axe missed, the wolf didn’t, and Abigail fainted.
She recovered from her faint to find herself lying on the grass, wrapped in her cloak, and attended by a sheepish Theodor, now attired in a skimpy apron. “Theodor? You’re a …?”
The youth nodded. “‘Fraid so. You alright? They buried your Grossmutti in the vegetable patch. Must have killed Hans as well .. ‘cause he’s in the meat safe.” He saw her expression. “Sorry, I wasn’t thinking.” He shook himself, then grinned sheepishly as the apron slipped and he made a grab for it. “My sense of smell is a bit sharp when I’ve been a wolf for a bit … Overrides my thinking sometimes …”
She shook her head and smiled at his embarrassment. He was rather well — er —formed in this shape. “Were you following me?”
He blushed, and nodded. “I wanted to make sure you got home safely — you know, it’s that time of the month and all …” His blush deepened. “And then I saw Franz spying on you while you — um — changed …”
Abigail blushed. “Oh.” She considered his lack of clothes. Her practical mind took over. “Well, I’d better let you wear my lederhosen then — they’ll fit you, and so will the shirt.” She stood up. “You can change in the privy.”
“And so, my dear listeners, the young couple returned to the small town of Bad Katzen arm in arm. Abigail had to assist her Beau for the latter part. His feet suffered badly from the ill-fitting boots taken from the late Franz. Matters were swiftly resolved by the appropriate officials — though Theodor’s ‘other self’ was, shall we say, not featured in their report.”
“It is a rather interesting fact that sometimes it is not the wolf, the vampire or the monster in the closet or beneath the bed that is the threat. Sometimes the monster is in the bed, or out of the closet and in plain sight. Spotting them is the tricky part …”
The Count replaced the stopper in the decanter at his elbow and drained the tumbler of its deep red contents.
“Pleasant screams -- ah -- dreams, my friends. Oh, and do feel free to make use of the bat screens round the bed. I am sure Igor will be pleased to show you how to fit them.”