Sunday 25th May 1766, Bristol, England
Rose stood in the centre of the wood and looked around. She liked the coolness here, the quiet. The temperature in her homeland of Jamaica never dropped this low, yet she found it oddly comforting. At twenty years old, she hadn’t set foot outside her native country until a month before, when she’d landed in Bristol in the captivity of Captain Maddern. He and his master, the scientist Melchior Croll, had tried to take advantage of her. But she’d put paid to that. With the help of the beasts.
She was considering the difference in the woodland scents when a movement in the bushes startled her. It could have been a badger or fox. But no, it seemed much heavier than that. As far as she knew, there were no predators in England. Apart from the ones who had come over with her from Savanna la Mar.
There it was again, louder this time. A heavier tread, and a panting sound. She turned to see a ragged-looking man staring at her. He looked alarmed at first, probably because of her deep mahogany complexion. In this darkness, with nothing but the full moon to see by, she imagined her eyes and teeth were all that were visible. But then his gaze relaxed, as he recognised she was a young woman of slight build.
“Well, well,” said the vagrant. “What’s this, then?”
Rose remained silent. She betrayed no fear and this seemed to irritate the vagrant.
“Escaped slave, is it?”
She stared at him.
“Maybe you don’t speak English.”
“Why wouldn’t I speak English?”
The vagrant looked surprised. “So you do talk. And what brings you here, my darling?”
“That is not your business.”
“Come on now, lovely, there must be a reason you’re out here in the middle of nowhere. You must be on the run, am I right?”
“Better you know nothing about me,” Rose replied, her face belying her exasperation.
“Well, let me see,” said the vagrant. “There’s no one else around. No one to hear us. So what gives you the confidence to ask me to leave you alone? A young lady like you ought to be afraid when someone approaches her in the dark. Are you a simpleton? Or a whore?”
Rose took a deep breath. It would not do to get angry. It was important for her not to draw attention to her presence here. “If you want to live, leave now.”
The vagrant burst into laughter. “What, are you going to kill me? A little girl like you? I think you’ve pushed this far enough, my dear. No, you’re going to do exactly as I say. And then you’ll beg for more.”
He took a step towards her and started pulling at his filthy breeches.
Rose raised her hands. “One more step and you will be sorry.” She said this with such force that the vagrant paused.
“Have you got a weapon?”
“You might call it that.”
“Well, so do I,” he said, pulling a small knife from his pocket and swishing it in the air before him. “Let’s see yours, then.”
Rose smiled and let out a long, low whistle.
“Oh, I see. Others around here, are there? Well, they won’t find you, however much you call out.”
He reached forward to grab her wrist but was momentarily arrested by the sound of heavy feet. Thunderous. Fast. And headed straight for him.
Rose watched his face as Leoncico the Spanish hunting dog burst through the thicket from behind her and positioned himself between Rose and her attacker, snarling.
“Steady boy, steady,” said the vagrant.
Leoncico bared his teeth and began to bark.
“Call him off. I don’t mind killing your dog.”
“Too late,” said Rose. “You know too much now. You cannot leave these woods.”
The vagrant frowned but was only just processing the news when he became aware of another being behind him. His face betrayed his fear, perhaps some instinctive reaction to the presence of a predator. But he couldn’t square that with Rose’s utter lack of concern for her own safety. He turned round slowly and came face to face with a monster.
More than seven feet tall, its face a mask of fury and hunger, the monster rose up on its two hind legs.
“Cyrus,” said Rose, “meet this evening’s meal.”
“What devilry is this?” said the vagrant.
It was his last utterance.