The Beast

(September, 1819)

They called him The Beast, and he didn’t much mind.

It suited his purposes.

There were two ways to survive being Magus without breaking either the world around you or your own mind. Søren, his father, had chosen one way. A wanderer by nature, he had made Japan a second home. Once he discovered the temples of Edo, he spent hours of each day in meditation or training, honing his self-mastery into an impenetrable fortress of its own.

Beorn frankly didn’t have time for that shit, and restraint didn’t suit him. He was a big man, in every sense of the word: over six feet tall, barrel chested, and heavily muscled, he had grown his tawny hair to well below his shoulder blades. At that point he figured he might as well really dress the part and had grown in a full length beard. His appetites matched his frame, and he made no effort to hide the fact. Again, as often as not it suited his purposes.

 

Like now, for instance. He sat behind a large walnut desk, staring down the Brotherhood’s ambassador. The young man was holding up well, all things considered. He was, for lack of any better description, non-descript. Middle height, slim, pale skin, dark hair, dark eyes. He couldn’t be more than twenty-two, and he was almost hiding the fact that he was terrified.

Beorn repressed a smile. “Did they think I wouldn’t kill a child?”

“They think I’m less of a fool than Archer,” the man said. He didn’t even squeak when he said it.

Beorn laughed. “I like you already. What’s your name?”

“Walter Bertram.”

Beorn grunted. “So they thought I wouldn’t kill an old ally.” Bertram was an old name, and a family so powerful in its time that it hadn’t bothered to hide its old ties to Odin when the people around them turned to the Christ. But this stripling didn’t carry that old strength in his bones. Beorn could see a glimmer of that power around his edges, but this Bertram was like a shadow cast by an old and distant flame. Still, you never knew what embers still sat in the ashes, and he filed the name away for later reference.

Bertram cracked a smile at that. “Most likely they thought I was expendable.”

They were at an inn a few miles north of Groningen. They jested, but Bertram had spoken the truth: the Brotherhood had given it forty percent odds he wouldn’t make it home. The truce had been signed two months ago, but both sides were still jumpy. More accurately, Bertram’s side was jumpy. Beorn was erratic and unpredictable, at least by reputation.

Standing in front of him now, Bertram wasn’t so sure.

“You brought the girl?” Beorn asked.

Bertram nodded, and set the file he carried on the table. Opening it, he said, “Her bloodline is impeccable. He grandfather…”

The duke waved his hand. “I don’t care. What can she do?”

Bertram blinked, confused. “Do?”

“I’m looking for a wife, not a racehorse,” Beorn said. “What the fuck do I care who her grandfather was? You’re a Bertram, and yet you’re expendable. That alone should tell you that your breeding obsession is misguided, at best. Tell me what the girl can do, and I’ll tell you if she’ll suit.”

Bertram bit back a retort, saying instead, “She’s a weather witch. Quite a competent one, too. And a healer,” he added as an afterthought.

Beorn raised an eyebrow. “And her name?”

“Catherine Harris.”

“Bring her in, then.”

Bertram opened the door and waved the girl in. Beorn openly looked her up and down, but she didn’t notice; her eyes were firmly fixed on the floor. She was nineteen, tall for a woman, and willowy. Her blonde hair was tied in a simple knot at the base of her neck, and her grey dress was high necked and modest.

“Leave us,” the duke said. Bertram hesitated before nodding. Catherine gave him a terrified look, but he didn’t even meet her eyes as he left, closing the door behind him.

“Be at ease, child. I’m not so bad as all that.”

Her eyes were still fixed on the floor.

He sighed, and scratched his beard. Maybe he should have shaved after all. He stood and walked to the other side of the desk, leaning against it and folding his arms. “I’m sure they’ve told you how it stands. Your people need this peace. I need a legitimate heir or all hell will break loose once I’m gone. That, my dear, is where you come into it.”

“Yes, your grace.”

“I’ve asked them to bring you here today so that we could get a look at each other. That, and I’d be willing to bet no one has yet asked your opinion on this. I’ve never taken a woman who wasn’t willing and enthusiastic, and I don’t intend to start now. Although,” he said, almost as an afterthought, “I’d waive the enthusiasm in your case.”

Catherine looked up at that, and opened her mouth to speak before biting back her words.

“Speak up. If you’re to be my wife, I expect you to speak your mind. I have no time and no patience for the meek.”

“But Lady Barton−” the girl stammered.

“Lord Barton pissed me off, so I plowed his wife. But I promise you,” Beorn added with a grin, “she was enthusiastic.”

She frowned, thinking it through. “But he said that−”

“Think for just one moment,” Beorn said. “Does Julia Barton seem like much of a Helen to you? They needed an excuse, and I might have been stupid to give them one. But they would have found a pretense to start this war one way or another.”

She thought for a moment, nodding. “You killed David Archer.”

“He didn’t have my scruples when it comes to bedmates. He assaulted a member of my household, and even if that hadn’t called for his head, he had tried to bribe others to spy on me.”

“He was my father’s friend,” she said.

“Yes, and I bet your papa was very careful never to leave you alone with him, wasn’t he.”

Catherine thought about that. Beorn observed that while he could see the wheels turning in her head as she considered what he had told her, she did not look surprised or outraged. He hadn’t told her anything she didn’t already suspect.

Finally, she asked, “Did you really nail his hands to a post?”

He couldn’t restrain the laugh. “Yes, and it was a job well done.” He had, in fact, rather enjoyed doing it. The head he had sent back to England.

She bit her lip for a moment, considering him openly now. “You killed more than two hundred of our men.”

His face hardened at that. “Have you been to West Africa lately, my lady? I have two children there: I’ve gotten a good look. Or Bombay? Or do you have any idea how many places have suddenly discovered witch-hunting in the last hundred years? The Brotherhood’s influence must expand, yes, and where they can’t breed them out or buy them out, they’ll burn them out. I’ll compare body counts any day, and I can at least tell you who I’ve killed, and why, without shame.” He made a gruff noise in the back of his throat. “They’ll call me the barbarian, and yet they’ve sent you here like a virgin sacrifice to The Beast. That wasn’t my idea, by the way. But here we are.”

“What if I refuse?” Catherine asked.

“I’ll send you home,” said Beorn. “But I don’t think I’m the one you have to worry about.” He didn’t know what they’d do to her if she failed.

She nodded once. “True. And if I agree?”

“I’ve avoided taking a wife for a reason: fidelity isn’t in my nature, and I have no plans to change that. But I need a legitimate heir, one that your lot will accept in my place when the time comes. Give me that, and I’ll leave you to your own devices. I may not be true, but I’ll be truthful, and quite frankly as long as you don’t make me look the fool, I don’t much care what you get up to either. After that? It’s up to you. If you want to be nothing more than the mother of my son, I’ll give you a house anywhere you like and see you’re left in peace. But if you have the inclination, there’s a great deal to be done. If you’re suited to it, and you’re not afraid of hard work, I can make you one of the most powerful women in this world. I know it’s far from the most romantic proposal ever uttered, but it’s what I have to offer. Will you take it?”

She considered it for only a few seconds before she nodded. “I will.”

“Then come here and kiss me like a good girl,” he said. She approached him nervously, but when he did lean down to touch his lips to hers she was surprised by his gentleness. When he pulled back, he pinched her chin fondly. “And that, my dear, is how history is made.”

As she made to leave, he called after her, “Did they tell you to kill me in my sleep?”

She froze, one hand on the doorknob. Without turning, she said, “Yes.”

“Will you?”

A long pause. “No.”

“Why not?”

She did turn then, and looked him in the eye. He saw the steel under the demure exterior. Oh, yes. He could grow to like this one. “Because you just made me a better offer.”

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