Her name was Constance.
Once the King banished her from his kingdom, she took considerable pains that her true name would be lost in the dust and forgotten by men. After she had incurred the king's wrath and the attentions of lickspittle courtiers who would as soon slaughter her as not if they thought her head would be a suitable gift for His Majesty, it seemed best to her—and to me, the trobaritz who composed the lai about her husband—that she be remembered only as a faithless wife, and her Breton husband known only as Bisclavret...the Breton word for a man who can transform himself into a savage wolf.
And it was true, or true enough. I told no lies. But I left out a great deal. Blame me not for this. I have dared to sing the truth and risk royal rage more than once in my life...but there was much I could not say of the Baron Bisclavret or of Constance herself as the king, tense and white-faced, kept his November-gray eyes firmly fixed on my throat.
But there are ways of smuggling songs and stories into the minds and ears of those who will believe both. Listen. Listen well. For this is the lai of Bisclavret's wife.
Had the Breton baron been like many another man who transforms into a beast, he would have transformed by the light of the full moon three nights a month, and it is likely Constance would not have suspected for a long time that aught was wrong. He could have given so many excuses—illness one month, a hunt the next, a meeting with his friend the king the third, a three-day penance from his confessor the fourth.
But the baron was not so fortunate. Three days and three nights of every week was he compelled to spend as a wolf.
No woman could fail to notice that her brave and comely husband--who swore that he loved her well--nevertheless shunned her presence at least three days out of seven. More than three days, sometimes, for her husband's friend the king often came to Brittany to hunt, and when the king was within a hundred miles of her husband's castle, there was no question of him remaining by Constance's side. The baron—both as man and as wolf--raced to the king's side with joy in his heart. Oh, yes, he loved his wife. But he loved the king more.
Constance, of course, did not speak of this. The king was the king, after all, and what a king wants a king gets. To refuse a king is unwise; to criticize a king, doubly so. Constance knew this, and perhaps that is why she kept silent.
Then again, perhaps she did not want to see her husband's face light with joy on hearing the king's name, or hear him call the king 'my love.' Oh, she knew well that the king came first. But it is no pleasure to know that the person you love with all your heart and soul merely loves you as much as he can.
And so things stood for some time, with Constance swallowing her sorrow and presenting a kind and pleasant mien to her husband and to the world. But over time, she began to realize that even when the king was far away in Burgundy or Anjou or Aquitaine, her husband still vanished three days out of seven.
Puzzled, Constance asked the servants, "Where does my lord go for half the week?" But none could tell her.
She asked his favorite guards and companions, "Where is my lord these three days you do not guard him?" But none knew.
Then she asked his confessor, "Father Olivier, why is my lord not here? Have you sent him to pray and fast for his sins at some church or abbey?"
"Would that I could," said his confessor bitterly, and he crossed himself. "Would that I could. You had best ask his lordship yourself, for I may not speak of what he does or why."
Constance could only think of one reason that her husband would need to confess his regular absences as secret sins, and the thought of sharing him not only with the king but also with some common village maid nearly made her wild with jealousy. She called down many a curse on the head of that maid before it occurred to her that knowing who his light-of-love was would hurt far less than imagining the details.
I can live with unpleasant facts, she told herself. But I won't torture myself by wondering if she's tall or short, ugly or pretty, dark, fair or as red-haired as Judas. Whatever he tells me can't be any worse than what I've imagined already.
This was less a certainty than a hope, and yet she lived on it. For hope is the bread of unfortunates.
And so it was that the next time her husband was home, Constance went to his chambers and—in all innocence—asked one question that razed her marriage to the ground.
The baron's reaction was not what Constance had hoped for. He did not describe his ladylove, but neither did he deny that she existed. Instead, he uttered a dramatic warning.
"Naught but evil will come of telling you this. Did you but know the truth, you would cease to love me in an instant, and that I could not bear. God's mercy, do not ask this!"
But the warning made little sense to Constance. That adultery was a sin she did not doubt, but many women had to cope with their husbands' infidelities, and some men were far crueler about it. She had heard tales of men who had installed their concubines in the same house that they shared with their wives. Her husband had not done this, at least. She knew she would be angry with him and that for a time she would not like him very much...but how could she cease to love him altogether? He was her heart.
So—convinced that her husband was exaggerating, and perhaps making a poor jest as well—she implored him all the more strongly to trust her, both with soft words and gentle looks, until the baron sat down on his bed and told her the truth.
"Wife, I become a werewolf—what our people do call Bisclavret. I transform and flee into the forest, and while I am there, I dine well on roots and prey."
Exasperated, Constance sighed. "And still you jest with me, husband! The Bisclavret is but a tale that children and servants tell to frighten each other."
The baron—Bisclavret, we must now call him—gaped at her, astonished. "You do not believe me?"
"Of course not," Constance said, speaking with some impatience. "Why would I believe such a piece of taradiddle? It might have served to amuse me as a child, but now--"
Bisclavret stood up and motioned her to follow him. "Come, and I will show you the truth of what I am."
He led her to a small, disused tower room a floor above the castle gardens, one that had once been used for spinning and weaving. Once, but no longer. Dust lay thick on the looms, and the spindles were empty of thread. Even the flagstones were bereft of herbs and rushes. It was the bleakest place Constance had ever seen.
Bisclavret then called for a page and, when the boy appeared, bade him to tell all the servants to shun the gardens until evening. After the page had returned with the news that all the servants had been warned and had, in his turn, been highly praised and then dismissed, Bisclavret turned to Constance. "Stay in this room and keep the door barred and locked, no matter what you may see or hear, until I ask you with a human voice if I may please come in."
And with that, he handed her a large iron key and strode out the door. Constance locked and barred it, slipped the key into a purse hanging from her waist, and then walked over to the window, wondering how long this increasingly poor jest would continue.
A few moments later, Bisclavret entered the garden. "Do not look at me until I tell you that it is safe," he said to her.
Constance nodded and turned her head away.
There was silence for a time. Then he called out to her again. "You may look now."
Constance started at the sight of him. She had never thought to see her husband standing mother-naked in the afternoon sunlight. Not only that, he was standing directly beneath her window.
And as she gazed at him, he began to change.
The transformation was swift and gruesome. His skull shattered and re-formed into something long and bestial; his bones broke, bent and twisted themselves into shapes that human bones should not. Fur sprouted so swiftly that it punctured his skin and left it bloody. His fingernails became deadly black claws. Knife-like teeth sprouted in his mouth. Worst of all were his eyes, for in an instant they transformed from the intelligent green eyes of a man facing unimaginable torment to the soulless eyes of something bereft of mind or thought or any emotion save the drive to kill.
And as Constance saw his eyes change, Bisclavret—now a huge gray wolf—saw her standing in the window just above him, snarled, and leaped at her, clearly intending to turn her into his next meal. For an instant, Constance froze, torn between shock at the animal's ferocity and amusement at its attempt to do the impossible.
She was leaning out of the window when she froze, the trumpet sleeves of her rose bliaut dangling down well past the window's narrow edge. Bisclavret's claws easily snagged one of the sleeves. Between one breath and the next, he half-pulled her out of the window.
Frantic, Constance gripped tight hold of the edge with both knees, grabbed a rough, outjutting stone with one flailing hand, and screamed for help. But no servants rushed to save her. They heard her screams, just as they heard the snarls and growls coming from the garden. But the tower room was locked, and Constance had the only key. As for battling the beast that had got into the garden, the servants had their orders--"Shun the garden until evening"--and not one chose to disobey his master.
That moment of utter silence after she screamed told Constance everything she needed to know. Title, position and authority meant nothing in this matter. She was absolutely alone.
The wolf gazed up at her appalled face and bared its teeth in something that resembled a smug smile.
And in doing so, it released its grip on her stray sleeve.
Constance grabbed the thin edge of the window, pushing down with her newly freed hand and back with the one gripping the stone sticking out from the wall. A moment or two later, she was teetering on her knees in the narrow opening. And then she stepped backwards onto the cold flagstones...
...only to discover that she could walk no better than a terrified babe just learning to toddle. Scant inches away from the window, her legs collapsed beneath her as if they had been made of water.
At that moment, the wolf outside let loose a howl of famished triumph. It might have been a coincidence. Might have been.
Closing her eyes, Constance crawled backward away from the window, not stopping until her foot struck the wall on the opposite side of the room. And there she huddled, trying to think and pray, as the werewolf in the garden snarled, howled and flung itself at the door leading from the garden to the castle again. And again. And again.
She did not budge until she heard a gentle knock at the door and a familiar voice saying, "Wife? May I please come in?"
It took every ounce of strength she had to unbar and unlock the door.
Does it seem so strange that she would admit her werewolf husband into her presence? Most likely it does. Yet...she still loved him, and longed to believe that her husband knew nothing of how savagely the wolf had behaved. I doubt if she could have said what she most craved from him—an expression of innocent bewilderment? A heartfelt apology? However, when her eyes met his, she saw something that made her sick at heart.
Bisclavret—not merely the wolf, but the man--had enjoyed frightening her.
No. Not her.
Frightening his prey.
This was such an appalling thought that she instantly rejected it. Some men were beasts, certainly. But not all, and not hers. Certainly not her husband, the man she had loved and cherished for years.
And his next words, spoken in a gentle tone, did nothing to settle the turmoil in her mind.
"Do you understand now?" he asked. "Do you believe that I am what I say I am?"
Constance answered his questions with one of her own. "How did this come to pass, husband?"
She was still hoping that some inexplicable curse of hedgewitch or Saracen afflicted him. Instead, he gave a harsh and angry laugh. "What is it we say in confession? 'Through my fault, through my own fault, through my most grievous fault.' I do not suppose you would be content with that as an answer?" A glance at Constance. "No. Of course not. Listen, then. It all began many centuries ago, when I was still a man."
"Centuries?" Constance whispered.
But Bisclavret did not even notice.
"Many years ago," he said, looking at the empty loom, "I was a borouch, a sorcerer. My power was great, but I yearned for it to be greater. Nor was magical power all that I desired. I wished for what men have always craved—wealth, a kingdom, someone with a fair face and a loving heart beside me, endless youth, eternal life.
"Other wizards told me that knowledge of spells could only be achieved with study, that skill came only with practice, and that pursuing my lust for wealth and youth and life would lead me down paths I did not wish to walk. I heeded them not. I forced stones and fire and the very air to surrender their secrets, and when the world around me held no more mysteries, I beseeched good spirits, saints and angels to tutor me. The benevolent spirits did so, at least at first. The saints warned me to cease what I was doing. The angels said plainly that what I wished to learn from them would be put to wicked purpose, and that they would not aid a mortal in sin.
"I cursed them all, and went my own way.
"I then sought answers among creatures that, if not evil, were still soulless. I begged help from murdered virgins who had become vengeful water spirits. I beseeched spirits of air and intellect to assist me. None could help. Then I asked a fire spirit who had been bound by the seal of King Solomon thousands of years ago, and he told me the name of a Grand Duke of Hell who could give me what I wished.
"I did not even think twice.
"It took decades to summon the demon, for there were many tasks that had to performed made ere I could call upon his name or ere he would speak to a mortal. I will not tell you what they were; if I did, you would never sleep again. But at last all was ready, and I told him what I craved.
"He thought little of my request. 'I can provide all the things you ask for,' he said with disdain. 'I will even provide them for the rest of your eternal life. But in return, there is something I want as well.'
"'My soul,' I said.
"The demon laughed. 'Nay. Why should I bargain for that which is already ours? You delivered your soul into our hands decades ago, sorcerer. "
"Even this did not frighten me. 'What do you want, then?' I demanded.
"'That you agree to serve Hell's will for the rest of your existence.'"
"'That is no bargain,' I said. 'I would have what you promised and have no time to enjoy any of it.'
"The demon grimaced. 'As you will. Whenever we wish it, then.'
"And that is no better,' I said, proud that I'd spotted this. 'For Hell would wish me to serve it for the rest of my eternal life, and that I will not do.'
"The demon was not pleased, but he agreed to limit the time I must serve Hell. 'Three days a week on which you must willingly serve Hell,' he said at last. 'And three days to do your own will, and one day on which you can do neither your will nor ours, for the seventh day belongs to Another. Are we agreed?"
"'We are,' I said, for I thought the demon had made another mistake.
"And so the magic was done, and my sick and aged body was transformed into the young, hearty, fair one you see before you. He garbed me in rich raiment and gifted me with gold and jewels and horses, telling me that if I but rode in an easterly direction for half a day, I would find rich lands ripe for the taking and a lovely Christian heiress to take to wife. I obeyed, and all was as he said. In three days, I had everything I'd asked for, and more besides.
"But on the fourth day—the day after my wedding—the demon appeared in my chambers. 'Three days you have done your own will,' he said. 'The next three days are ours.'
"I misliked this much, for I could think of many terrible things Hell could demand of me in three days, and the slaughter of my new bride and the ruination of my new lands were the least of them. But then I recalled what I thought was an error, and I smiled.
"'Our bargain said that I must serve willingly three days a week,' I said. 'But I am not willing to serve Hell for three days this week, or any of the weeks that follow. And I shall not!'
"I expected him to vanish in a rage, for he had sworn to provide what I'd requested for the rest of eternity, so I stood to lose nothing. But instead, he laughed.
"'If you will not do Hell's will, we must change your will to suit ours. Borouch, become borouch! Soulless man, become a soulless beast!'
"I lunged for him, but it was too late. I was already transforming. He ignored my attack and spoke on as if delivering judgment.
"'Three days a week shall you be a wolf, Bisclavret, whether you will it or no. You shall be horrible to behold, crazed of mind and ravenous of body. All beasts and birds and fish and things that crawl shall you spare; human flesh shall be your food. And all the evil that you may do, werewolf, you shall do...for the rest of eternity.'
"He said far, far more than this, if truth be known, and what he said burned into my memory. But let the rest of it pass for now. He pronounced my curse, vanished...and I became a beast.
"And then...my lady stirred in the bed beside me, and saw the monstrous wolf in bed with her. How she screamed! Yet her screams were like the sweetest music. And how I screamed later, when I saw...what was left." There was a long and dreadful pause. "Her name was Ursula."
Constance's blood ran cold when she heard this tale. Silently she prayed for the soul of the poor bride who had been so cruelly devoured, as well as all others that Bisclavret had slain over countless years.
As for her husband being not only accursed but a centuries-old sorcerer pledged to Hell and damned in the bargain—not even truly human any longer—this was so repellent that she could not think of it without her gorge rising and her head spinning. So for a long time she spoke not a word.
But then a strange thought occurred to her—how was it that no one had ever espied the werewolf? For a man running naked into the forest every week surely would have caused gossip by now. Yet a wolf in men's garb would have been ten times as odd.
And so she asked if, as a wolf, he ran about in his clothing or was as unclad as any normal animal.
Very likely this was not the question he was expecting, but he answered it. "As a beast, I go naked."
"What do you do with your clothing, then?"
Now, this was the most innocent of the questions Constance had asked, and she asked it solely because she could not imagine a savage hell-beast daintily carrying human clothing in its mouth for three days. But Bisclavret was appalled.
"That I will never tell you. If I should lose my raiment, or even be seen as I stripped off my clothing to transform, then I must remain a wolf for the rest of my life. Never would I be a man again...unless my clothing were given back to me."
It was that moment that Constance first thought of a way to free herself from her accursed husband. Some may blame her for this, and swear that she should have remained true to him. Perhaps, they will say, her love would have broken the curse.
But Constance did not believe this, for she remembered that she had always loved Bisclavret well and yet this had changed nothing. It had not shattered his curse; it had not even saved her from attack. There was no question in her mind that, had Fortune not smiled upon her, he would have pulled her from the window and eaten her alive.
And even if he had not harmed her, had he not slain others? Had he not admitted to hunting, killing and eating humans for centuries? She shuddered as she thought of the lady Ursula, who had been summarily married to a stranger and been torn apart after the wedding.
Nor did he seem repentant. He might loathe being a werewolf. He might strive to be just, noble and wise and respected, and to do some good in the world. But he was still accepting Hell's gifts of youth, wealth, power and the love of fair maidens.
This sickened her. How could she remain with a murdering monster that was pledged to Hell—and accept the comforts that Hell had provided—without damning herself as well?
She could not. As the demon had said, all that a werewolf did was evil. And that had to include their marriage. Whether he was in man-shape or wolf-shape, her husband was ever and always a werewolf. Nay, not even her husband, for demons and agents of Hell were not permitted to join with mortals. Their wedding—their entire marriage—had been a lie and a snare.
But perhaps there was a way to escape from this horror...if she was clever enough.
All this flashed through her mind in an instant.
So when Bisclavret protested that he dared not tell her or anyone where he hid his garments, lest he become a wolf forever, Constance remained calm and patient, granting him the kindest and most loving of smiles. "Husband," she said gently, "You are the sun, the moon and the stars to me. Have we not always been friends? Why do you doubt me, or conceal one jot of this tale from me? How have I lost your love and your trust?"
Now, Bisclavret had no doubt expected hard words and recriminations, especially after the news of his damnation and his first wife's gruesome death, and Constance's gentle reproofs of distrust and doubt struck him all the harder. Or perhaps he truly did trust her, believing that the news of his evil nature truly made no difference to her. Or perhaps, after so many centuries and so many wives, he thought little of her question. If she betrayed him, he could always kill her later.
Perhaps it was one of these. Perhaps it was all three.
At last, however, he yielded.
"Wife," said he, "in the forest nearby, there is a hidden trail that veers far from the path that leads through the wood, and at the end of the trail lies an old chapel—or, mayhap, temple, for it is too old for me to tell what God or gods may have been worshipped there—where I have often wept and wailed and cursed my fate. Not far from the chapel is a blackthorn bush, and if you brave the thorns and thrust your arm within, you would find a large hollow stone . Within that stone I do hide my garments until the three days of my transformation are over and I may return safely home once more. " His face twisted. "Ask me no more, my lady. I can scarce bear to speak of it."
That night, Constance did not sleep at all, but instead betook herself to the castle chapel and wrote a letter to a knight who lived nearby. This knight, whose name was Guillaume, had known Constance from childhood and had loved her and served her loyally for many a year. He had long begged her to return his affection—and indeed she did—but she had refused to take him as her light-of-love, lest they both be caught and dishonored. Indeed, she would not even give him a promise of future love, or even tender words. So his feelings on receiving a letter from his lady bidding him to come to her at once and in secret may well be imagined.
In truth, though Constance had loved Bisclavret well, she had long cared for Guillaume. She had refused to have aught to do with him because he was a sore temptation to her. But now she had no husband in the eyes of God or the Church, and the man that she had believed was her husband was a killer and a cannibal, a damned magician and an undying monster, and none of those things could ever be changed. Was it not better to wed again to a man whom she loved and who loved her, and who would protect her against all danger? She thought it would.
Her first words—that she would be Guillaume's love and wife, and that her heart and all she owned were his—pleased him very much. But then she explained why she was willing, and Guillaume was not so pleased. He knew well that werewolves exist—but knowing that was very different from accepting that his ladylove had wed a monster. He wondered if she had been poisoned, or had fallen ill with a fever and lost her mind. Something this foul surely could not be. Constance told him of Bisclavret's attack and even showed him the bliaut with the clawed and bitten trumpet-sleeve, but he would not be persuaded.
"Listen to me," Constance said "I told you where he transforms and where he hides his clothes. Catching him in the act of stripping would be dangerous, for the wolf would see you and attack. And I think he will change at midnight, when the new day begins. So bide a bit. Wait until Lauds is being sung, and then ride into the forest to the ancient chapel, find the clothes he has hidden in the hollow stone, and burn them. And I will burn all of his clothes here in the castle. Then he will never be able to change back, and you and I will be free to wed."
This still seemed very foolish to Guillaume. But, he reflected, it was a small task, and if he could thus battle the fears and phantasms that tormented her, so much the better. So, speaking many fond and loving words, and without an ounce of belief in his heart, he agreed.
Two days later, as Sunday turned to Monday, Guillaume rode into the forest, a sword in one hand and a lantern in the other.
The forest was oppressively dark, and more than once he lost his way. But at last he found the trail that led to the ruined temple, and then the bush that concealed the hollow stone. And the clothes were where Constance had said they would be.
But Guillaume still could not bring himself to believe that a werewolf had blundered into his life. And so he made excuse after excuse for why the clothes might be here. Perhaps, like many another nobleman, the baron had turned brigand, and changed here from his nobleman's garb to something more practical. Perhaps the baron was using this place as a trysting spot for some common wench that he fancied. He could think of a thousand things than made far more sense than a man transforming into a beast.
Moreover, he could all too easily picture the wrath of the baron on discovering that his clothes had been burnt. It seemed foolish to anger someone so powerful whose fury was as likely to fall on the innocent as the guilty.
And so, with such thoughts and persuasions winging through his mind, Guillaume decided not to burn the garments, as he had promised. Taking the clothes would suffice. Surely losing both clothing and wife would be humiliation enough for Constance's husband.
He stuffed the clothes in a sack he'd flung across his horse's back (and why he brought that with him I do not know, for he never said) and then rode away, much pleased with himself.
But as he and his horse came to the narrow place where the trail branched off from the path, Guillaume saw a dreadful sight: a monstrous wolf—he said later that it was the size of a cart-horse--disemboweling a screaming peasant.
Now, Guillaume swore up and down afterwards that he would have fought the beast if he could. But his horse—a destrier born and bred and long since seasoned in battle—shied at the sight and smell of Bisclavret, kicking and squealing in terror. It was all that Guillaume could do to stay on its back, for the horse was crazed...yet, if it had not been for the creature's frantic bucking, biting and kicking keeping the wolf at bay, Bisclavret would have dined on Guillaume's heart that night.
After a time, however, Bisclavret crouched down, readying himself to leap upward and pounce on Guillaume. Guillaume wasted no time. He dug his heels into the horse's sides and shouted, "Now, Brunellus!"
And Brunellus sidled down the trail just as the wolf pounced and landed where the horse had been seconds before. Then, as the wolf was getting to its feet once more, Brunellus galloped faster and faster toward the entrance to the branching path.
Bisclavret lunged for the horse, cruelly scoring its flanks with bites and claw marks.
Fear and desperation gave Brunellus strength. Shrieking in pain, it sailed over Bisclavret's head, over what remained of the trail, over the dying body of the peasant, and landed cleanly on the path leading out of the forest. And it did not stop running. It ran through the woods and straight home to its own stables, though it galloped so long and so fast that it nearly ran itself to death.
Now, long before he had reached his own manor and had done his best to calm his terrified horse and tend to its wounds, Guillaume became certain that the enormous wolf he had seen was Bisclavret. He was sickened and ashamed that he had disobeyed his lady, yet he could not bring himself to remove Bisclavret's clothes from the sack in which he'd stuffed them and burn the wretched things. He could not look at them without recalling that he had allowed an innocent animal to be hurt and a dying man to suffer rather than attack the werewolf with sword or arrow. In fact, he had fled like a common churl.
And the very thought of arming himself and going back to that forest to see if he could wound the immortal monster was unendurable. Try as he might, he could not envision himself succeeding. And, as the werewolf devoured him, would it smell the Lady Constance's scent upon him? They had met but two days before, and some hounds were said to hunt older, colder spoors than this. How much more could a werewolf do?
Hating himself and his failure, he threw the sack of clothing at the bottom of an old chest, filled the chest with ugly and useless items that he dared not get rid of , bound it with iron bands, and bade his servants send it to a castle of his in far-off Provence. Surely the werewolf would not dream that his clothing was there.
Constance, of course, knew nothing of this. She burned all other clothing that Bisclavret possessed--and doing so without the servants noticing was a feat worthy of Hercules. Then she sent a missive to Guillaume: "Is it done?" And back came a letter from him: "I have done all I could and more to keep us both safe."
She didn't realize that he had not answered her question. Not then.
After several months, Bisclavret's friends began to hear that he had vanished, and be sure they came to the castle to ask questions of his wife. But Constance could tell them no more than the truth: he was gone one morning when she arose, and she had not seen hide nor hair of him since. She did not even know what direction he was traveling, save that he had most likely passed through the forest along his way.
Many and many a man searched the forest—not to mention cities both near and far—for Baron Bisclavret. But no one found the slightest clue, and at last his kinsmen decided that he must have been set upon by robbers and his body tossed into a ditch somewhere. After more than a year had passed, Constance—now officially a widow--wed Guillaume, who took her far from Brittany to his castle in Provence. A distant cousin--or a man claiming to be, though Constance thought it unlikely since Bisclavret was hundreds of years old—was given the baroncy.
This would have been a fine place for the tale to end happily ever after. But Hell would not have it so.
I have told you of Bisclavret's past. Now we come to the second reason I could not sing the truth before the king...because the king himself now comes into the story.
The king—call him Matthieu, as no ruler of France has ever borne such a name—grieved sorely for his friend Bisclavret; no husband ever mourned the loss of a belovéd wife so deeply. The thought that Bisclavret had been slain by brigands kindled his wrath against them, and be sure that no thief was safe in his domains for a long, long time. But as time passed, he heard of a hideous beast that haunted the woods near Bisclavret's castle and that had killed so many men, women and children that their numbers could not be counted. The king vowed before his court that this beast would take no more lives, and a vow that so many heard had to be kept.
So, one day when the king was visiting the Duke of Brittany, he proposed a hunt in Bisclavret's wood.
And oh, what a hunt it was.
The hounds caught Bisclavret's scent at dawn, and harried him up hill and down dale from morn to eve until he was more wounds than wolf. I think—though I do not know—that he must have begun to fear what would become of him if the hounds did tear him to shreds. For the demon had gifted him with eternal youth and eternal life...but nothing had been said about his body being immune to illness or healing from every wound. If the hounds tore him apart, as they clearly wished to do, he might be left with nothing more than a head, a paw or a tooth for a body.
And then he espied the king, his former friend, and raced toward him. So swiftly did Bisclavret move and so fiercely did he cling to the king's stirrup that the other members of the hunting party had to refrain from loosing arrows or hurtling spears at the beast, lest they harm or kill His Majesty. And you may be sure that the king, too, feared that the beast would devour him. But as the moments passed and the wolf continued to whimper and cling to the king's leg, the king began to feel flattered by such supplication from a beast of the wood. Bidding no man to do the beast harm, he commanded that it be brought back to the Duke of Brittany's castle. And when the king left that castle several days later, the werewolf went with him.
Now, many courtiers were troubled by this enormous wild animal that fawned upon the king as if it were a lap dog, saying that such behavior was not normal. Some said that it might be the get of a wolf and an elkhound that had been given at least some training before it took to the woods, but others thought that the savagery with which it had fought the hounds ill-matched the grave courtesy it now bestowed on the king. Nor did many like the fact that the wolf now accompanied the king everywhere, or that the servants swore that it slept beside his bed. None of this was wolflike behavior, and no one, save the king, believed that a wolf could so easily transform himself into a dog.
Have you heard that the lords and ladies made much of this wolf? They did, for they saw well enough that the king was besotted and that he would avenge any wrong done to the wolf as if it had been done to him. And it is true that no one in the king's castle had much to fear from the creature.
But the peasants and artisans who dwelt near the king's castle did.
A werewolf does not cease to crave human flesh when it moves to a palace.
Constance, though, heard but little of this, for Provence was far from Paris. She heard a whisper or two of the king's new hound, but no more than that. And, if truth be told, news of the king's hunting dogs did not interest her that much.
Then one day, the king announced that he would hold a grand feast, and that every baron and vassal he had, and every minor lordling as well, must come. So, naturally, Guillaume was invited to the feast as well. He came to the feast richly garbed with a goodly company of knights, and proud that the king knew his name.
But when he returned, Constance was shocked to see him, for his back and right arm and right leg had all been bitten by something with massive jaws, and his robes were blood-drenched tatters.
"Guillaume!" she cried. "What evil is this?"
"The king's pet wolf set upon me," he said, "and it would not leave me be. It would have killed me, I think, if it had not been driven back with a stout cudgel. And all did swear that until it saw me, it had been a kind and biddable creature, but I vow to you, wife, that creature had a demon's temper."
As he spoke the word "demon," a look of pure horror filled Constance's eyes. "Husband. Tell me that when you burnt my first husband's clothes, you did not meet him leaving the wood."
Guillaume hemmed and hawed and at first would not say aye or nay. But Constance would not let the matter go, and demanded the whole tale. And Guillaume finally admitted that he had met the wolf while coming back from the ancient temple, though he said nothing about not burning Bisclavret's clothing.
"And what did you do with his raiment?" she asked, speaking as one who has discovered that things have gone wrong for a long time and expects them to keep going wrong. "You did not burn it, of that I am certain."
Guillaume was reluctant to admit the truth, but at last he bowed his head, told her of the chest with the sack of Bisclavret's garb buried at the bottom, and asked her pardon for lying. "At first I did not believe you," he said. "And then after meeting the devil wolf...I believed all too well. I was ashamed of my failure. Too ashamed to touch those garments again. Can you forgive me?"
Constance did not answer. "Show me this chest."
Guillaume led her to the storage room. Quickly, the two of them unpacked the chest. Then Constance opened the sack, removed the clothes, and then cut them into small pieces, burning each piece in turn until not a silken thread or a scrap of boot leather remained.
"Now," she said, "we have done what we should have in the beginning. But that does not solve our current problem. We must take what we can carry on our backs and prepare for rough travel. And we must leave tonight."
Do you protest that this is not the way the story goes? I remind you—the song was written for the king's ears. He wanted a tale of royal justice and royal wrath, of suffering for those who had wronged his dearestfriend, and a simple explanation for how Bisclavret resumed his human shape again. He did not want to be told that he had suspected Guillaume of some evil, thanks to Bisclavret's actions, and that he traveled to both of Guillaume's castles seeking knight, lady and answers, but that in both cases, he arrived to find an empty castle...one long disused, and the other a cage from which the birds had flown.
And where had they gone? To Frankfurt, where Guillaume had decided to pledge his service to the King of the Romans.
Now, the king sent all his armies after them–north, south, east and west. But none of his soldiers saw them, and small wonder, for they were clad as a merchant and his wife and had joined a party of pilgrims besides.
Guillaume was convinced that they were safe enough. But Constance had little faith in "safe enough." Learning of an anchorite whose cell was in the church of the town the pilgrims were visiting, she made up her mind to go privily to this holy woman and beg her for advice. The next morning, before sunrise, she was at the anchorite's cell, bearing a loaf of fresh bread and a pot of honey from the innkeeper's wife, potions and ointments from the local herbalist, a pot of herbs both for prettiness and use, and a bundle of things to help the anchorite make and mend clothes—needles, thread, scissors, linen and wool.
Through the bars of her cell, the anchorite's eyes gleamed at the sight of all the gifts. "I am not certain if I should accept all this," she said. "It looks too much like temptation."
"It is no more than many a poor woman has," Constance replied. "I see nothing wrong with giving you things to keep you healthy, fed and sheltered from the cold."
"And the honey to sweeten my nature?" asked the anchorite, and laughed. "Sit you down on the ground outside my cell, sister, and tell me what you want."
Constance blushed at being so easily found out, but nevertheless she sat down and told the anchorite the whole sorry tale—Bisclavret's hellish curse, her own decision to trap him in that form with her current husband's help, the king finding and befriending the wolf and the wolf attacking her husband and rousing all the king's suspicions. "It's a sorry tangle," she said. "And I cannot see the end of it."
The anchorite was silent for a time. "The wolf does more damage now," she said at last. "You may be free of him—but now he hungers six days out of seven, rather than three."
"I know I'm responsible for his eating more people," Constance said with a groan. "But I could not stay with him. And I do not think that delivering myself into his jaws would solve anything, either."
"No," the anchorite agreed. "It would not. We need a better solution, I think. And we will need to think of it quickly, for you may have to travel back the way you came, and it would be better to do that now, before your child is born."
Constance started at this. "What?! How do you know?"
"An angel whispered it to me," said the anchorite, as if saying, "The sky is blue." "But that matters not. Tell me the boundaries of the curse again?"
And Constance dredged through her memory again, and spoke of the fact that he must change three days each week unless trapped in wolf form, that he must eat man-flesh and nothing else, and that he had to have his own clothing to change back.
"And you have destroyed all of his clothing, is it not so?"
"Yes. I burned it all."
"Then the answer is simple. First, you must make Bisclavret a full suit of clothing, and get him shoes to go with it. Second, you obtain a knife with the Holy Virgin as its hilt and the Cross upon its blade, but take care not to strike a blow with it before you see the wolf. And third, you must travel without your husband back to France and, as the bells toll midnight on a Sunday, place the garments in the king's chamber, wait until you are face to face with the beast, and then say loudly, 'God's Peace, Bisclavret, and these clothes are yours.' Once this is done, the matter will no longer be your problem."
Constance stared at her. "But...but this solves nothing! He'll be back in human form, seeking to avenge himself on his faithless wife--though we are not lawfully wed, and he knows it well. And who knows what he will do to Guillaume and the child?"
"Make quiet your heart," said the anchorite in a soothing tone. "You are not traveling in a circle; all will not be as it was in the beginning. Believe me when I say that this will solve the difficulty...though it may involve hardship and sacrifice."
It was not the answer Constance had wanted, but it was an answer, and the only one that Heaven seemed likely to give her. So at last she bowed her head in acceptance.
She began work on Bisclavret's garb the same day, much to the fury of Guillaume. "But you are the one who told me to destroy his clothes!" he shouted. "You yourself burned every shirt he owned! What foolery is this?"
"It is not foolery," Constance said firmly, not ceasing her sewing for an instant. "I know not how this will mend things...but it will, Guillaume, truly."
"Oh, yes! Restoring a werewolf to human form will surely save your life and mine!"
But no matter how Guillaume railed and shouted and complained and commanded, Constance did her own will and went her own way, until the last stitch had been sewn. And what an outfit it was: a rich mantle of Tyrian purple edged in gold; an ankle-length overtunic of dark blue; fitted hose of scarlet; and shoes with sharply pointed toes. Oh, they sound old-fashioned now, but at the time this was the latest fashion for rich noblemen. No one who cared about looking well, be he man or beast, would refuse such a gift.
And once the clothes were done, Constance, heavy with child and the cries of her shocked and angry husband battering her ears, headed for the French border.
Now, if I told you all the adventures that befell her along the way, I would be telling this story for a year and a day. But she survived them all. And the day that she reached France, she took herself to an inn and there gave birth to Guillaume's daughter.
Now, though it was not easy traveling with a babe, Constance soon found that having the child with her was an effective disguise, for the king's soldiers were still scouring the highways and byways of the land for Guillaume and Constance...or perhaps Constance alone. But no one was looking for a common woman traveling on foot with a baby, and so they both passed unnoticed.
And at last--in the bleak midwinter--they reached the castle of the king.
Constance did not want to bring the babe into the castle; who would wish to bring a helpless child into a beast's den? But then she recalled that those within the castle had so far remained safe, while those without were targets for Bisclavret's ravening, and decided the babe would be safer within. So, one Saturday evening in December, she knocked at the door to the castle kitchens, and asked the head cook if she might come in and warm herself for a bit.
The cook agreed, and Constance sat by the fire for a while, letting heat and life seep back into her. Then, after feeding the babe to ensure she would not cry, Constance carried her from the kitchen to the king's chapel...which, though it was drawing near Compline, was empty. She prayed at the shrine of Mary that the anchorite's advice be true and that the killing should end tonight. Then, placing the child behind the statue of Mary, she left, searching for the king's chamber.
Despite her being wretchedly clad and worn from her journey, no one—noble, soldier or servant—saw her making her way through the castle. Perhaps they saw her and deemed her beneath notice. Perhaps an angel was hiding her. Or perhaps...perhaps sometimes evil simply goes blind. In any case, she soon came to the king's chamber, lay Bisclavret's new clothes on the bed and put his shoes beside it, and hid behind the door.
Now came the hard part...waiting. For the anchorite had been very clear—she had to greet Bisclavret with a blessing and tell him that the clothes she was providing were his, or, in his mind, the clothes would not be his, and this would not work. Yet the last thing she wanted was to see the werewolf. The wounds he had left on Guillaume had been bad enough; she did not like to think what he would do to her. She shivered, and clutched the hilt of the knife that the anchorite had bidden her to obtain.
Then, as the last strokes of midnight tolled, the king and the wolf entered the chamber together.
Bisclavret caught her scent almost immediately, dragging her out from behind the door. He lusted to tear her to pieces and devour her, and was plainly baffled as to why he could not.
He could not devour her, of course, because it was becoming Sunday, and he could not do Hell's will on that day. But Saturday had not quite faded yet...and Bisclavret wished for nothing more than to hurt her.
He leaped upward—and bit off her nose.
Constance shrieked in pain...and stabbed her knife at the beast.
Now, whether Bisclavret feared the holiness of the knife or the wickedly sharp, two-edged blade, I do not know, but he scrambled backwards before it could cut one hair from his hide. Nor did he approach her again, but circled her warily.
This gave Constance the chance to speak...though, wounded and disfigured as she was, they must have been the last words she wanted to say. "God's Peace be on you, Bisclavret. These clothes are yours."
The wolf stared at her for a moment. Then it began to push both Constance and the king out of the chamber.
It took Bisclavret some little time to dress himself in his new finery. But at last he emerged from the chamber in human form once more, looking like the fairest of the angels.
The king gazed at him, his eyes aflame with joy.
Constance gazed at him, too—but her eyes blazed with rage and sorrow.
The king did not want to hear Constance's reasons for doing what she did, and still less her reasons for evading arrest. However, when Constance mentioned that a holy woman had told her how to free the werewolf, Bisclavret prevailed on the king to let Constance go. Perhaps he feared a worse punishment than being permanently transformed into a wolf if he did not acknowledge that he'd been granted mercy.
And so the king, with exceedingly bad grace, conceded that Constance and Guillaume might be banished instead of tortured and executed. Though there was little point to this—after all, the two had already left his realm of their own accord—Constance still managed to thank him for his kindness.
She then reminded the king that the curse on Bisclavret was not broken. He might not be in wolf form any longer, but werewolf and cannibal he was and werewolf and cannibal he would continue to be for three days out of the seven. And she also told them both something that had occurred to her while she was journeying to France.
"I believe there's a way for the curse to be broken," she said, looking straight at Bisclavret, who trembled, "and I believe he knows it. But I do not think he will ever use it."
"Silence, witch!" shouted the king. "Cease your vaporings and your lies and get you gone now, before I change my mind!"
And Constance went—stopping at the chapel to retrieve her baby daughter first, of course.
And that was the last time she saw Bisclavret. But it was not the last time she heard of him. Oh, no.
The king commanded that a feast begin three days hence, and no amount of pleading from Bisclavret could dissuade him. He was determined to show the world how fine and handsome and kind his long-lost friend was—perhaps even more determined than he would have been if he had not heard Constance's warning. For more than most men, kings do not like to be thought weak or foolish, especially by themselves.
So for three days following that Sunday there were hunts and hiring of musicians and hasty invitations. And on the evening of the third day, there began a feast to end all feasts. Chickens stewed in marrow broth, pike grilled in a cinnamon-and-ginger sauce, roast goose with parsley, cheese, pork baked in a pie crust with honey and currants and chopped dates, dried apples and dried herbs artfully transformed into soups and desserts, gingerbread, wafers covered in melted cheese, spiced cakes, and a dozen or so different kinds of fine wine. There was no end to the feasting, the jesting, the singing and the dancing.
Now, Bisclavret slipped away about an hour or so before midnight, for he knew full well what would befall him then. And be sure the servants and guests knew well where he was too. Some wished to see him change for the sake of curiosity; some thought that other princes and kings might like to know that the King of France's closest friend changed shape three days out of the week; some wanted to see a rich man humbled; and some wanted to impress others by saying that they had seen—or even fought--such a vile beast. And Bisclavret, of course, was forced to run thither and yon, for in each place where he could transform, he found he found people watching.
There was a time he would have taken the risk. But he had transformed in front of his wife, and now he knew that the demon had spoken truly. To be seen while transforming would mean becoming a beast, for aye and forever.
At last he fled to the chamber he had been sharing with the king. Servants had been in and out of there as well; the fire had been lit, and enough food and drink to feed a village had been placed near the bed. But there were no servants in the chamber, and for that Bisclavret was grateful, for midnight was fast approaching. Frantic lest anyone follow him, he locked the door behind him.
Then he—and the servants who had been locked out and who were now eavesdropping—heard a lazily pleased voice coming from the bed. "What delayed you so long, my friend? Come lie down beside me."
Did Bisclavret freeze when he heard the king speak? I suspect he did. He did fumble for the key—the servants heard it rasp against the lock several times—but he could not turn it. Judging by the slow cracking sounds that could be heard outside the room and the accompanying groans, the bones in his body were already starting to break and reform.
"Quickly..." he gasped. "You must get out of here now."
The king laughed. "Are you still so fearful of the curse? It is broken forever; there is no need for you to be afrighted."
Bisclavret spoke, and his voice was so low as to be all but unintelligible. "Leave now. The change has started. If you are here when I become a wolf--"
"Bah," said the king. "Even if you are still cursed, which I do not believe, the wolf never hurt me in the past, nor will it in days to come. That I do know."
Bisclavret's words were little better than grunts now. "And. Why. Is. That?"
A dry chuckle. "You are not the only one to have made certain arrangements to get what you most desire. I have asked for but one favor from them: to find you again. I could not believe that you were dead, my friend."
Bisclavret must have stared at the king in horror at this news. Worse must have been the sense that he had caused it—if he had not contracted with Hell, the king, who was wrathful but not truly evil, would never have made such a foolish bargain.
His friend being damned was worse than his friend being devoured alive.
He could not endure it.
Perhaps that was when he understood what Constance had hinted at—that there was a way to stop the evil, though it would cost him dearly.
Now, what happened next, I do not know. But those who were listening swear that they heard a loud thump, as if something heavy had been flung against the wall, followed by a growled, "I reject your gifts," followed by a foul name that no one who learned it could ever forget.
Do not ask me what that name was. I will not tell you.
The next thing they heard was the king shouting for help. The servants forced the door open...and found a skeleton on the floor, still clad in Bisclavret's clothes. He had rejected all of Hell's gifts, even immortality, to save the king from any further evil a werewolf could cause.
It was a noble sacrifice. And perhaps his repentance even saved him from Hell.
But the king does not see it that way. He grieved then and grieves now for his lost friend. There are rumors that he seeks a way to restore Bisclavret to life. That he dabbles in necromancy.
And he still blames Constance for all of it, saying that she wove charms and enchantments into Bisclavret's garb that tricked him into surrendering his life for no reason.
Constance? Oh, she still lives at the court of the King of the Romans, as does Guillaume. She now has a hollow nose carved of ivory, and, according to Guillaume, looks nearly as she did before Bisclavret's bite. There are tales that she gave birth to scores of children, and that all the girls were born noseless, but it is only a convenient lie to distract the king, who is still vengeful. If you expect to find a woman with many noseless daughters, you may not notice the woman who has but one child, and that one long since grown.
Oh, you want to know what happened to Constance's daughter?
My name is Marie, and I am from France.