it was a dark and stormy night.
thunder crashed. lightning flashed.
in a dark and stormy land, far from the brightly lit cities and towns of genteel civilization,
a lone traveler rode furiously across a battered and windswept landscape, heedless of the uprooted trees, fallen boulders and other obstacles that the maddened lightning periodically illuminated in his path.
animals, too, wolves, bears and panthers growled and hissed in his path. still he rode on.
behind him, audible over the din of the howling wind, the howling of dogs, the pounding of an army of hooves, the clanging of armor and the occasional explosion of firearms could be heard.
suddenly his horse reared up at an enormous mossy rock illuminated in the path by an bright bolt of lightning. a huge black panther crouched on top of the boulder. rain streamed over its sinewy body and dripped from its red roaring jaws.
how it rained!
with a desperate effort, the blinded rider forced his terrified steed to its four feet and dismounted. red eyes appeared in the boiling mist around them. suddenly the panther sprung from the rock, landing a scant six feet from the traveler!
calmly, the rider drew a saber from beneath his rain-drenched cloak. the panther reared back, growling deeply. the other animals drew back also, except for a shaggy bear, with a raven on its shoulder, a hideous black-and-white wolf, and a thin elongated jaguar.
the rider advanced toward the panther. the panther retreated two steps, then sprang!! the horseman seemed to slip forward in the mud, then brought the saber down on the leaping beast's skull, splitting it in two. red blood, white brains, and a loathsome green gas boiled out, briefly illuminating the scene, then was quickly effaced by the increasingly furious wind and rain.
the other beasts who had witnessed the affair began a horrible cacaphony and began to surround the human and his steed, but with an imperious gesture he waved them away. they slunk back into the darkness. only the bear with its raven companion paused to mark the rider's countenance (hidden, indeed, by his thick cloak) before joining its fellows in the darkness.
it was over in minutes. now the clangor of the pursuing army, which had been partially obscured by the raging storm, manifested itself anew.
leaping back on the horse, as the lightning flashed, flashed and flashed again, the rider had just time to see in the distance the outline of a castle, curiously undefended and alone on the horizon.
then the lightning disappeared as quickly as it had come, leaving the cosmos in total darkness, as before. now, the heavens opened in earnest.
after what seemed an eternity the lone traveler reached the castle. it was completely unlit, and he would never have seen it had it not been for the lightning.
the pursuing army had been left behind in the downpour which had still not ceased.
the travelers clothes were hopelessly soaked through. he had ridden his horse to death - when he dismounted the heroic beast collapsed and expired in the mud.
the traveler looked around as best he could. he could not help but notice the most singular aspect of the castle - that although the landscape around abounded in hills, crags and rocky terrain more suitable for a defensive position, it had been built in the most exposed spot imaginable, as if taunting any would be attackers.
there were no moat or other outer outer fortifications so he strode right up to the door.
although no light shone from within, the building, as best he could tell, did not look neglected. the windows (all barred) were not broken, and no rubbish was visible around the walls.
"it is inhabited - i feel it," he spoke aloud. he proceeded to pound on the front door. after about ten minutes of the hardest blows he could muster, a faint light finally appeared under the door. it opened, and the waterlogged traveler found himself facing the oldest servant he had ever seen - the fellow must be one hundred and twenty years old, he muttered to himself.
"actually, sir, i am four hundred and eighty-seven, but i still have excellent hearing." the ancient lifted his head from the base of his curved spine and fixed the traveler with the eye of a condor or cobra. "are you making a claim on the master's hospitality?"
"it seems the appropriate course of action under the circumstances."
"indeed. will your horse require attention? do you have more than one horse?"
"my horse has expired and will require disposal. and he was, i am afraid, the only one."
"no servants accompany you?"
"very well then." the old man stood aside and the traveler entered. he was led dpwn a long low ceilinged hall unadorned by pictures, statues, banners or armaments. a door at the end was opened, revealing a spacious though low ceilinged drawing room. it was immediately apparent that the lack of light on the outside was not due to the lack of light within, but to the tightness of the shuttered windows. a veritable bonfire blazed in the hearth, revealing the figure seated next to it in the most ravishing light possible. but despite the fire and the tight window, a chill shook the travelers frame as he entered.
"from this wet clothing," he muttered to himself.
the figure beside the fire did not speak. instead the deep voice of one to whom command was first and second nature emerged from the shadows of the room.
"gruz, don't bring the fellow in here dripping wet, put some dry clothes on him."
"yes, sir. i thought you might want to see him first."
"i will see him when he's dry."
the traveler gave a short bow in the direction of the voice. "i apologize, sir -"
a cold breeze brushed the travelers cheek, as if from the wave of the voice's hand. "your apologies can wait, sir," the voice replied in a polite enough tone. "we have all night."
"all night and more," the servant added. "this way, sir."
the clothes provided the traveler were old but cut from the finest cloth in the finest style. he recognized them as the work of the celebrated guido of florence, tailor to crowned heads. they fit loosely but very comfortably, with a hint of unsightly bagginess under the arms.
gruz watched impassively as the traveler dressed himself. "are the clothes to your satisfaction, sir?"
"indeed. they are very dry."
"will you wanting something to eat?"
"of course, if there is anything."
"i will speak frankly, sir. our larder is limited, as the master and his ward are not great trencherpersons."
"i am sorry to hear that." the traveler shrugged. "anything you can provide would be appreciated."
"no doubt, sir. i was thinking of your horse."
"ah. no doubt you can prepare him properly."
"the cook is quite an old hand at such matters. with mars being in the ascendancy for so long."
"of course. there is no reason the poor beast who served me so well in life should not render me this final service. and it will not, i am sorry to say, be a novel experience for myself."
"it's settled then. would you prefer to wait in the great room with the master, or in the kitchen?"
"in the kitchen!" for the first time since his arrival the traveler displayed something other than complete equanimity.
"i am afraid the only table is in the kitchen," gruz answered impassively. "i could, i suppose, bring you a plate in the great room. no doubt you are quite dextrous with a knife and fork. be that as it may, the thought of a single spot of grease from a side of grilled horsemeat falling on the furnishings in the great room - i don't care to think of it."
the traveler finished tying his cravat. "well - i've eaten in worse places. perhaps in worse company. but i think i will wait in the great room, as you call it, with the master."
"very good, sir." gruz picked up the candle and they left the room.
'will i be sleeping in that room?" the traveler asked as they moved down the corridor.
"if you like, sir. and if you sleep."
"so the master and his ward - they don't dine at all?"
"they don't dine at table."
"stop a minute."
gruz stopped, but did not turn.
"i am not a complete fool, you know. i know what your master is."
"really,sir?" now gruz did turn to face him. "i wouldn't have thought you the type to discuss masters with servants."
"your master is a gravigne - a creature who feeds on the golden souls of the innocent."
"but, you see," gruz replied. "i am not the type of servant who discusses his master - with either masters or servants."
"but i am not asking you anything. i am simply telling you what i know."
gruz gestured forward with the candle. "let us proceed. i am sure the master is grateful for your company and looks forward to it."
neither the master nor the ward rose when gruz and the traveler entered the room.
gruz was dismissed with the briefest of nods.
"be seated, sir," the voice from the shadows commanded. there were no chairs in the room , and the only other sofa was some distance from the fire. the traveler lowered himself on to it. he found himself directly across but at some distance from the woman but unable to see his host.
"i apologize for any lack of comfort in our hospitality," the powerful voice went on. "we go for long stretches of time here with no visitors at all. and then, suddenly, the visitors fall like rain. one never knows what to expect."
"yes," the traveler replied loudly. "especially with mars so long in the ascendancy. allow me to thank you for the dry clothing. i couldn't have done better at a visit to the tailor."
"no need to shout, sir. we both have excellent hearing. and now that you are properly seated, may i ask whom i have the pleasure of entertaining?"
"i have many names at my disposal," the traveler replied. "as i am sure you do yourself. for the present, i use the name, comte de st denis."
"ah! the comte de st denis, the comte de st denis! with such a name, i have no wonder you are being chased through the night. as for myself, you may know me as the baron anonyme. and this is my cousin, madamoiselle cecile."
"very good." the traveler bowed to the woman. seated beside the blazing fire and blending with its light, she was almost the only thing visible in the room.
"my servant has asked if you need anything in the nature of food and drink," the baron continued.
"that has been taken care of, very satisfactorily."
"would you like to spend the night with my cousin?"
"indeed i would. i see, sir, that you have not abandoned the old ways of hospitality."
"of course not." the voice showed a slight trace of annoyance. "do you take me for some puling christian, or man of the enlightenment? i am not monsieur de condorcet."
madamoiselle cecile spoke for the first time. "the night grows short, cousin. i am not sure i can do justice to this gallant fellow in the time left." she faced the traveler. "tomorrow night, sir, would that not be more suitable? you can spend the day here, gathering your strength."
"that sounds most agreeable."
"it is settled then."
"and you - you sleep during the day?"
"sleep!" cried the baron. "what a thought! no, sir, we hunt during the day. we hunt!"