JULIANA AND THE WOLF

This werewolf story is dedicated to the beautiful and unforgettable Yvonne Romain. Please comment nicely!

Juliana ran and ran, but it was no use. The beast knew the forest too well. Soon the Spanish servant girl was out of breath, her chest heaving, unable to take even one more step. Suddenly she tripped and fell.

Instead of the beast's hot breath on her neck, however, after a moment or two the girl felt someone prodding her with a walking stick. Lamplight and a warm voice washed over her.

"Good heavens, my child! Who's torn your gown? And what are you doing here in the dark forest in the dead of night?"

The rugged hermit was a holy man. His cottage was small and tidy, a place of refuge from evil. After she had caught her breath and recovered her wits, Juliana told him her story.

"I was a servant at the castle. He was the baron's only son. I didn't want to go into his room, but I needed a place to hide. The old baron was after me."

"Why was the old baron . . . ah, never mind, my dear." Understanding came to the lonely hermit as he took in the girl's appearance. Dark-eyed Juliana had the heart-stopping figure of a pagan goddess and the regal bearing of a queen. Not even a servant's drab attire could conceal her astonishing beauty. "What did the young man do? Did he try to hurt you too?" he asked gently, pouring her some wine.

Juliana shook her head. "It wasn't like that. Poor Antonio had a fever, and I gave him water. That was when he told me of the curse. On every full moon, he takes the shape of a wolf!"

"Ah! Then he was the beast that chased you here?" The hermit frowned thoughtfully. "The shadow of the wolf lies like a curse on the baron's offspring. If this Antonio had caught you, my child, your fate would have been worse than death."

"But he is good, father, I know he is!" Juliana's dark eyes flashed fire as she defended the man she loved. "Antonio is not a beast, not at heart. He could run wild. Instead he allows his father to lock him up each night. Like an animal!"

"How did he get loose tonight?" The holy man looked at her with shrewd blue eyes, clearly sensing her tender emotions.

Juliana blushed. "We were walking in the woods, and we lost track of the time. The moon came up and – it was awful." She shuddered. "I'm not a bad girl, father. I was only in the woods with Antonio because I've heard there's a white flower that can lift the curse. Moonflower, they call it."

The kindly hermit looked skeptical. "The only cure for a werewolf is a holy miracle – or a silver bullet. Come, my child, and I will show you where you can rest for the night."

In the morning, Juliana made her way back to the castle. The woods were safe enough by day, but it was not a pleasant journey. The loyal servant girl kept worrying that Antonio might have been hurt or killed while the curse was on him. Or else his cruel father might have thrown him into the castle dungeon. And if the baron blamed her for letting his son loose, what would he do to her?

When she reached the castle she got a shock. Everyone was acting strangely, but not because of the beast's escape. The old baron had died during the night.

"Juliana!" Charming Antonio cried out with joy, and wrapped her in a fierce hug. "Thank heavens you're all right! I thought you had run off last night to escape my father's cruelty."

"N-no, Antonio. I ran off because you were – because of the curse that is on you." Juliana kept her voice low because there were many listeners in the castle courtyard.

"Never mind that now," Antonio said. He stepped back, still holding tightly to her hands. His dark, handsome face was exultant, glowing. "Father is dead. Do you understand what this means, Juliana? At last I am the true lord of the castle. I can do anything I choose. And I choose you for my wife!"

"Oh, yes!" Juliana was so carried away by happiness that tears filled her eyes. Antonio kissed her on the lips, and the people of the castle looked on with smiling faces.

"I don't think we should marry until we know your curse has been lifted," she told him later, speaking her mind as soon as they were alone.

Antonio laughed and drew her into his arms, pressing his warm lips to hers. "Do you imagine I could ever harm you, love of my life? I want to marry you this very minute!"

"Oh, my love," Juliana sighed. She couldn't think when Antonio held her close. "If we could just be sure the curse was gone . . . let's not marry before the full moon."

Antonio laughed. "We shall have a ball on the next full moon . . . and let all the countryside see that you are marrying a man and not a wolf!" He grew serious after a moment. "Juliana, the curse was put on me by my father. He was an evil man – and my grandfather was even worse. But that's all in the past. I'm the true baron now. Can't you believe in me?"

"Of course I can." Juliana wanted to believe in Antonio more than anything in the world. But her heart was uneasy. After a few feverish days she slipped away to see the forest hermit.

"Please come to the wedding ball! If you were with us, father, I know that no harm would come to Antonio and me."

"I don't know," the holy man said. "If Antonio refuses to accept that he has the curse, perhaps nothing can be done."

Juliana frowned. For the first time she looked at the holy man as a man. He was not beautiful like Antonio, but he was still a person to draw the eye. His face was lined with age, but his features were pleasing, his blue eyes wise and thoughtful. His hair was slightly silver, but he was thick and powerful, with broad shoulders and a barrel-chested build. Somehow these things irritated her. "You don't want to help! There must be some reason why you don't care. Father."

The austere and dignified older man sighed deeply, looking off into the woods outside his simple hut. "I am no priest. Long ago these lands were owned by another great family. Antonio's grandfather and the lord of the castle fought a duel, over a tempting servant girl. They say she was a Gypsy girl, dark and beautiful, like you. But the true baron was killed, and his young son disappeared. They say he died, or went abroad. But in truth he became a forest monk."

"What was the name of . . . of the lost young baron?" Juliana was completely drawn in by the tale. She had almost forgotten her own problems.

"His name was Gregorio," replied the wise man. "And he sits before you now. But I have no wish to be known, Juliana. No wish to fight for what was lost long ago, and can never be mine. Please do not ask me to come to the castle."

"No-one will know of this," Juliana agreed. She felt torn between a deep admiration for Gregorio and a bitter anger that he would not help. Without another word, she rose and left the hermit's hut.

"Juliana, wait!" Gregorio offered her an earthen pot filled with fresh and beautiful white blooms. "Moonflowers," he explained. "I gathered them after you came that night. I shall pray for you, my dear."

"You do that." He only meant to be kind, but as she walked back to the castle the lovely servant girl felt very much alone.

On the night of the ball, Juliana paused to admire herself in the full-length looking glass set up in her new bedchamber. Her wedding was near, and she was a servant no longer. The black velvet gown had come all the way from Seville. When she beheld how it clung to her, hugging her round hips, exposing her bosom and bare arms, Juliana felt a thrill of pleasure. Antonio would truly adore her in this dress. There was just one thing missing . . . with a very gentle sigh, she put one of the lovely white moonflowers in her hair.

"How unbelievably lovely you look tonight!" Antonio's boyish brown eyes were dancing with delight as he inspected his bride to be. When he pulled her into his arms for a kiss, Juliana couldn't refuse him. He was her master, and yet he needed her in a way that awoke deep feelings. In a moment her arms were around his neck and she was kissing him back. The two of them fell back on her bed, still kissing.

Juliana could not resist the tide of his desire. But just as the gown was slipping from her shoulders, she looked out her window and saw the full moon rising above the castle.

"Antonio, look!" Even as she pointed, the shadow of the wolf fell across her exposed and vulnerable flesh. Horrified, the girl pushed herself free, sitting upright on the bed as her unbuttoned gown fell to her waist.

"OWOOOOOHHH! WOOH! WOOH!" The horrible hairy beast that was once Antonio seemed to howl in anguish before turning and leaping out the window.

Juliana screamed for help, desperate to find Antonio and save him before it was too late. It was terrible to be a lady – she couldn't even button herself up without her maids. But the castle servants ran to her room, and with their assistance she quickly made her way to the great hall.

The sight that met her eyes was chilling. All of the assembled guests were crowded into a corner, while the snarling wolf-creature menaced them with his dripping fangs and claws. No-one had been hurt yet. But what made the scene so ghastly was the sense that the young baron was truly trying to gain homage as castle lord.

"Antonio, wait!" Juliana stepped out from the crowd, her steps calm and sure though her blood was icy with fear. She shuddered, quivering all over, but the smile stayed on her lips. Her posture remained erect and ladylike. "My lord, my husband, why do you frighten our assembled guests? It is not gracious . . . it is not kind. You are a gentle man, Antonio. Please take my hand. Will you not dance with me?"

There were over a hundred people in the great hall. Many were fine-dressed lords and ladies who had recently laughed at Juliana's sudden elevation. Others were jealous servants who resented the beautiful peasant bride for similar reasons. But no one was laughing now. No one even dared to breathe. Every person in the hall, high and low, seemed to sense that the dark-eyed girl with the body of a goddess was offering her very soul to keep them safe. Juliana's courage and the danger she was in kept them absolutely spellbound.

For a moment it almost seemed she would succeed. The wolf creature wavered as the lovely Juliana held out her hand. In later years, some even said they saw a tear in the beast's eye, as if he knew he could never come back. But then he gave a snarl and sprang for her throat.

It was hard to tell which came first, the scream of the girl or the roar of the musket which felled the beast. But when the smoke cleared, everyone saw who had fired the silver bullet.

Don Gregorio had returned just in time.

EPILOGUE

Of course there was no question that the King of Spain would recognize the lost baron's claim. Don Gregorio Belmonte had the education of a scholar, the reputation of a churchman, and the courage of a soldier.

What he needed was a wife.

Juliana resisted at first. In the sad days after Antonio's burial, everyone seemed to be pushing her towards a life she no longer wanted. The fine clothes, the luxuries and pleasures, even the love and gratitude of the people, all tasted sour.

"He knew all along," she blurted out, walking in the garden with Don Gregorio one hot, lazy summer afternoon. He had just returned from Seville with a ring for her finger and a look of quiet sympathy in his eyes. Her curt refusal didn't wound him. Instead of growing angry, he led her into the garden, saying nothing while they walked. His silence made her want to talk.

"Antonio always knew he wasn't the rightful baron," she went on, the need to share overcoming the urge to grieve alone. "The poor boy felt so unworthy because his own father and grandfather had tainted him by their evil deeds. It was so awful for him, trying to be something he could never be, always feeling that others were judging him behind his back. He thought that a life of splendor would fix things somehow, that it would make him happy. I don't believe that," she declared, wrapping up her words with a deep sigh.

"I don't either." Don Gregorio took her arm, steadying her. "You are nothing like Antonio. You think only of others, while he thought only of himself. That is why I want to marry you, Juliana. You saved this castle. Now the two of us must work together to make things right again. I can't do it alone, dear."

"But what if I can't love you the way I loved Antonio? You are so kind and strong and wonderful but I don't know . . . I mean I can't promise . . ." Juliana felt tears spring to her eyes. Antonio was gone. But he still haunted her dreams. Would the shadow of the wolf hold her in thrall forever?

The wise older man laid his fingers gently across her lips, silencing her. "Then you'll just have to love me some other way. I promise to love you in every way I can, day and night till I die, if you'll only let me. Will you let me, Juliana?"

Juliana couldn't speak. She nodded, because her heart was too full. And then Don Gregorio kissed her, a kiss that was passionate like Antonio's but also warm and caring and protective, and she melted.

And the shadow of the wolf was banished forevermore.

A/N: True fans of horror cinema will recognize the Spanish setting and the basic plot from CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF, the 1961 Hammer Classic starring Oliver Reed and Yvonne Romain.

But the happy ending is totally original.