A tempest assaulted the moors. Outside the bubble of the cottage the night raged in black void, blue fire and cacophony.
In an electrifying moment of stillness, a dreadful howl pierced the darkness. The note filled every space and vibrated there. In the rocking chair by the hearth, her fingers turned white as her grip on the pistol reached its full potential. In her mind's eye, she recalled the pawprint found outside her window that very morning, as wide across as a dinner plate.
For hours, into the deepest part of the night, she held an awful vigil. The rain pounded the stone walls, the wind pried at the roof slates with desperate fingers and in the lull between flash and crash, the howl. Each time a little closer.
Compulsively, she released the cylinder and counted the rounds inside. Set her thumb against the hammer and barely dared to breathe.
It was the witching hour when she finally saw it, silhouetted in a flicker of lightning. A monstrous hound, quickly obscured as a gust of hot breath clouded the windowpane. Then the face melted into the darkness once again. She perceived a new sound within the little cottage, as her ears began to ring and the blood drained from the surface of her skin.
With every ounce of courage she possessed, she forced herself from the chair and crossed to the wooden door on shaking legs, setting her ear against it. One hand held firm to the door handle, the other cocking the pistol, her breath a blockage in her throat.
Slowly, she stepped back and swung the door as far as it would go. The rain immediately forced its way through the opening, drenching her to the bone. She barely felt it. The barrel of the pistol shook and she brought her second hand to the butt in readiness. The Beast of Dartmoor crouched foursquare on the threshold.
The hound stood as tall as her sternum at the shoulder. Its thick black pelt was saturated from the storm. As the thunder crashed again, a violent tremor ran the length of its body, highlighting a frame of solid sinew and raw muscle. The hound lowered its terrible head, lips peeling back to reveal a rictus of long, white teeth. Its jaws and chest drooled bluish flame on the doorstep.
A low growl began to vibrate the air between them like piano wire.
For a charged moment, they held their gazes locked, neither willing to look away, until once again the moors lit up, washed in a flicker of electric light. She saw the dog flinch, for that was what it was: monstrous perhaps, but a dog.
Slowly, she let the pistol drop. Careful to keep her face wiped clean of anger, she stepped back from the door, leaving it to stand open. The snarl began to relax and when she called out softly to it, one ear cocked forward a little. Inch by cautious inch, the hound ventured into the cottage.
She built up the fire until it blazed and laid a blanket from her bed on the hearth. She watched the hound sniff anxiously, turning fourteen circles to the left and a further fifteen circles to the right before consenting to sit. He ate the chicken broth she offered and allowed her to clean his face of the sticky glowing gum that coated it. She counted his ribs and the lash marks that striped his back. When she leaned close and inhaled, he smelled of wet dog and, under that, something like home.
Little by little, the great hound relaxed into sleep. She sat in her chair and watched over him as he cried in his dreams, legs spasming and twitching. He was something between a mastiff and a bloodhound, she thought.
When the dawn broke, she was ready. Leaving the dog with a bowl of hot porridge, she strode out into the watery light to meet the two strangers as they approached her garden gate.
'Good morning, Miss Battersea,' hailed the shorter of the two, in his fine London accent. 'We've come this morning to enquire after your wellbeing. I don't mean to frighten you ma'am but there is a beast currently loose on the moors. Did you see or hear anything last night, by chance?'
Miss Battersea surveyed their soaked clothes, spattered with mud and peat from the mires.
'We took a shot at it,' explained the shorter one apologetically, 'but we missed.'
She turned her attention to the tall one, who had remained silent. His eyes were busy skimming the ground around the garden path and she prayed the rain had washed out the pawprints.
'I slept soundly all night,' she said, summoning up a smile. 'All is peaceful here, though I thank you for your kind concern.'
The jovial expression on the shorter one's face slipped a little. 'Are you absolutely sure Miss? We tracked it to within not a quarter mile of your house.'
Miss Battersea's finger found the trigger of the pistol hidden in the folds of her skirts.
The tall one finally spoke. He had produced a pipe and was tamping down tobacco into the bowl with his thumb. 'You live here alone, Miss Battersea, do you not?'
She nodded curtly. 'I do.'
'Very remote little corner of the moors here,' he commented, gesturing with the stem of his pipe.
She nodded in agreement and received a single sharp nod in return.
'Well,' said the taller one to his companion, 'it seems the trail has given out and we have lost our quarry. Come now Watson, let us return to the Hall. We must be on the eleven o'clock train. We've an appointment we mustn't miss in London later today and I do profess to having missed my dressing gown and slippers something fierce.'
As her finger eased back off the trigger, the taller man tipped his hat and set off, striking out at a fine pace that had his companion hurrying to match.
She watched and waited at the garden gate until the two men were no more than tweed specks against the loamy greens and violets of the moor.
Before she returned inside, she took the birch brush from the woodshed and carefully swept away every last trace of muddy pawprints on the garden path and several small spots of phosphorus, which the rain hadn't quite fully washed away. She thanked her stars that the tall man with the pipe had missed them.
When she finally pushed open the door to the cottage, she found the dog licking the bowl clean and, at the sight of her, his tail thumped against the hearth stones.
Cover image by Usman Omar via Unsplash