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The Circling of Wolves

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Jack awoke in a guarded mood. The other men that were to share the guest room had trickled in by that time, and were scattered in sleep around the room. He took a minute to consider the guileless man sleeping beside him, plainly attractive and helpless in slumber. Jack brought his face very close to the man's, letting his breath graze his warm face. He touched the man's bottom lip, and then rolled out of bed. He dressed without waking anyone, and ventured out of the guest room.

Jack found Edward and Alex in another bedroom. Edward was already awake and dressed in cricket whites. He glanced at Jack and smiled.

“We missed you last night.”

“I retired early.”

No one knows yet, Jack noted, pleased. He sat on the edge of the bed and watched Alex sleep. Everyone is busy sleeping off last night's indulgences or preparing for the match. No one has even noticed that Lady Charlotte is missing.

“The sleep did you well,” Edward said. “You look marvelously refreshed, Jack.”

“It's good to be out,” Jack said. “I've had a wonderful time.”

“See? What did I tell you?” Edward said. “All you need is to keep more company than your own. It isn't healthy to be so solitary, not at your age.”

“I concede your point, brother.”

Alex stirred and looked up blearily at Jack. He smiled, yawned, and bid Jack good morning. The other men were waking, going about their morning toilet and dressing. Jack felt apart from them, but the feeling was no longer unpleasant. He had broken the bonds of this world, torn their trite world asunder. He had taken the most precious thing there was in this world, life, and none was the wiser. If there was a God, He must feel like this when He tore this person out of the world, or set that person suffering. It was a powerful, giddy feeling, one he could grow accustomed to.

“You look very happy, Jack,” Alex remarked as he dressed. “I saw Lady Charlotte join your party yesterday, might she be the heart of your happiness?”

“Aha, so that's the cause!” Edward grinned. “Alex, I do believe our brother is in love!”

The secret pounded in his mind, and blood rushed to his face. Taking this for a blush, Edward congratulated him and teased him. He even put his arm about Jack's shoulders while they headed out of the guest room, so happy was he to finally behold his brother as a normal human being.

Even cynical Jack was amazed that no one thought much of Charlotte's absence over breakfast. One of the ladies even claimed to have left her sleeping upstairs. The match was all anyone could speak of, and wagers were already being made.

One of the girls in Charlotte's traveling party began to search for her while the match was being organized. Jack joined her in voicing concern, and they recruited some servants to search the house and grounds for her. Such a search would take hours before it breached the forest, and Jack put it out of his mind.

A small concern began to worry at Jack's calm during the game. He recalled writing Charlotte the letter that proclaimed he could not love her. It was sentimental drivel, hardly even a refusal of her affections, but it troubled him. Would it be enough to kindle suspicions against him? Surely not, but …

Still, there was nothing to be done about the letter now, and it was safe in his bedroom still. If he left to pursue it, he would seem suspicious to all when her body was found. Her body, he thought, feeling a chilling thrill. The murder came back to him in flashes like lightning. He shivered despite the summer sun.

The Duke of Richmond's team won, to the delight of Jack's finances. He was swept up in the celebration by Edward and the Duke. They drank and sang and had a picnic lunch on the lawn.

“You seem distracted, Jack.”

Jack looked at Edward as he picked at his food. He had been worrying about the letter, but what could he say? He decided to use half the truth.

“It's Lady Charlotte I'm thinking of,” Jack said. “She's missed the game, and her party sent servants to find her. Do you think she might be ill?”

“Not so ill as you are, my lovesick brother,” Edward said merrily. “Are you certain you're not the cause of her being still retired?”

“Me? No!” Jack said in innocent fervor. “I should never stain a woman's honor, certainly not a woman that I intend to take as wife. We parted last evening. I'd had too much to drink, and bid her goodnight early. I haven't seen the fair lady since.”

Edward and the Duke shared a look. Now what was this? They seemed concerned not for Charlotte, but for Jack. Genuinely baffled, Jack frowned.

“What?” he asked. “What is it?”

“Oh, nothing,” Edward said uncomfortably. “It's nothing at all. Gossip and silliness.”

“He might as well know all about his intended,” the Duke insisted. “It is gossip, but the gossip goes that the lady takes great liberties with men.”

“I'll never believe it!” Jack said, pretending to be angry. “Such an honest creature as Charlotte can be nothing but a virgin.”

“Oh, she's a maid still,” the Duke said. “So they say, anyway. You've been home too long, Jack, if at your age you don't know the difference between loss of virtue and loss of innocence.”

“Charlotte is pure in both,” Jack told him. “I'd swear it on my life.”

“You must not hold your life very dear,” the Duke said flippantly.

Jack clenched a fist, and Edward put a restraining hand on his shoulder.

“It has been known for some time, Jack,” he said gently. “But never you mind what people know from poisoned tongues. I'm sure Lady Charlotte is worthy of your faith.”

The Duke shrugged. Jack calmed, though he affected to be distressed. It was all turning into a play, he thought in amusement, and a very convincing one at that.


 

The climax came just after lunch. There was the sound of a woman screaming, and a commotion broke out at the edge of the forest. Edward followed the Duke to see what the fuss was about. Jack watched, feigning anxiety. The men talked to a lady servant, who was being held up by her fellows. She had just returned from the wood, and was ghastly pale. After some discussion, Jack saw Edward glance back at him with a stricken expression.

Time for my finest hour, Jack thought. He ran over to the growing crowd, followed by Alex. He pushed his way through to Edward and the Duke, whose ruddy complexion had paled considerably. The Duke looked at Jack with embarrassed pity. By now, Jack was more than a little attracted to the strapping, impressive man. The talking ceased at a gesture from Edward.

“But what's happened?” Jack asked. “Have you found Charlotte? Is she ill?”

Edward gripped Jack's shoulder, but Jack shrugged him off. He demanded an answer, to which there was only silence. He saw the lady servant look into the woods, and ran off in the direction of her gaze. Edward shouted and ran after him, and soon the crowd was on his heels.

The Lady Charlotte Arnsbury lay where he had left her, crumpled like a gilded leaf in her stained golden dress. Her dark hair spilled around her tiny body, whiter than shell, and framed a horrific face. Her eyes bulged unnervingly, accusingly, and her face had taken an unnatural shape, the tongue bloated up to protrude between her formerly perfect lips. A fly landed on that dry dead tongue, and the smell of the corpse wafted into Jack's nostrils. His nerves shattered, guilt overcame triumph, and there was no longer a need to feign his emotions.

Jack reeled back and vomited onto the earth. He coughed, choked, and by the time his brothers found him, he had spat up all his lunch. Edward gripped his shoulder, and this time Jack allowed it. Dizzy and ill, he actually clung to his brother's strong arm to stay on his feet.

“Who would do such a thing?” Jack murmured. I did.“What kind of a monster does a thing such as this, Edward?”

“Jack--”

“No!” Jack cried furiously. “No, tell me, Edward! Tell me! Tell me what kind of animal has it in his nature to commit such an act? Tell me!”

“No animal of human kind,” Edward said, “could ever do such a thing.”

Jack saw the genuine disgust in his brother's eyes, and the words stung him. He looked in a daze back at Charlotte. He knew in that moment why the horses shied away from him, and why his father had always been strictest with him. He knew what he was. Even in his grief, he knew that he mourned not for Lady Charlotte, but for the loss of all self-pretense. Even then, he could not regret the murder for its own sake, but for the sake of his peace of mind. He stared at Charlotte's glazed empty eyes, which seemed to stare back at him, for what felt an eternity.

Edward turned Jack from the sight, embracing him paternally. “No, avert your eyes, dear brother,” he said soothingly. “Do not taint your memory of your love with such a sight. Her soul has gone, and this shell is only a shell.”

Jack pushed away from the comfort he did not deserve. The forest spun around him, and he stumbled. The urge to laugh mingled with the tears streaming from his eyes, and he knew he was nearing hysteria. If he lost himself, he knew he might confess, and though a part of him cried for punishment, his reason shied away from it still. He was not a fainting type, had never lost consciousness for emotion, and so he put on one last feint. It was not difficult to fall to the ground, and Jack appreciated the rest. There was stillness around him. Then, feet shuffled. He kept his eyes shut and forced his mind to retreat.

“Did Jack actually faint?” Edward asked, stunned. He knelt down beside his brother and shook him. “My God, the poor man's fainted!”

Jack fainted?” Alex's tremulous voice breathed. “He never faints! Get him off the ground, Edward! This is terrible. I can't … I can't … Oh God!”

Alex burst into tears and Jack ached to comfort him. Had he thought once since last night how this would affect the boy? No, he had not even spared a thought for his precious brother. He lay still, wishing that he really could find the peace of sleep.

Jack almost gave up his ploy when Edward heaved him up and slung him over his shoulder. He hoped that no one would notice the flush of humiliation creeping into his face. He heard Edward gently usher Alex to his side, and he brought his brothers away from the grisly scene.

“See how the dress is soiled,” Jack heard the Duke saying behind them. “Doubtless she was out with a man, whatever Jack Randall wishes to believe otherwise. No good can ever come of such ways in a woman, but this! None of the gentle sex deserve such a fate, not even the most wanton … ”

His murmur faded as Edward swiftly bore them out of the forest. Weary, woozy, Jack felt his consciousness begin to waver. He did not pass out, but he did fall into a dozing stupor. Edward carried him all the way to one of the guest rooms, where he lay Jack down on a warm mattress. He stroked his brother's forehead, and ordered a servant to bring water for when he woke. Alex sat down on the bed beside him, and clutched one of Jack's hands tightly in his own.

“Oh, Jack, poor Jack,” Alex lamented. “Poor Lady Charlotte, of course! And poor Jack. He looked so happy this morning.”

“Aye, he glowed with love for the lady,” Edward said. “It is first a tragedy to the lady and her pitiable family, naturally, but next it is a tragedy to Jack. Seeing him these two days past has been as watching the sun shine through the clouds of a storm. He is so rarely happy, and has never before loved.”

Jack felt the bed grow considerably lighter as Edward rose. He heard his footsteps, heavy and fast, pacing him across the room.

“Goddamn such a beast as would do such a thing!” Edward said darkly. “No, Alex, do not look at me that way. Cursing a demon by the Lord's name is no blasphemy. And only a demon could have done this! Only a Satan-besotted usurper of God's good earth would steal a lady away in the dead of night and slay her so brutally!”

Jack, being the subject of Edward's insults, twitched. He willed his brother to shut his mouth, but his silent appeal went unanswered.

“Damn the villain a hundred times over!” Edward continued. “Let me find him, Alexander, and so help me, I'll give him a death that will make him envy his poor victim. Filth of that kind should be boiled alive, after having every strip of flesh whipped from--”

This was too much. Jack groaned loudly, and pretended to wake. Edward was still hot with anger, but he softened as he returned to his brother's side. Jack looked at his brothers dully, and found that he could hardly meet their eyes. The secret no longer blazed like the power of God within, but smoldered dismally in the pit of his heart.

Edward helped Jack sit up and let him rinse his mouth into a bowl. He then gave him water to drink, but Jack could hardly keep it down. The smell of death had stuck in his nose, and his stomach still rolled uneasily. Edward moistened a cloth with cool water and mopped Jack's brow. After his condemnation of Charlotte's killer, Jack found the attention a very cold comfort indeed.