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The Circling of Wolves

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The luck of the Devil was with Jack. That very night, after a thorough search of the woods was made, a vagrant was arrested for the murder of Charlotte Arnsbury. Obviously, the innocent man denied the charge, but he was known to live rough in the woods of the county, a ruined son of some noble family that had been convicted of rape in the past. Jack knew the unfortunate would hang for his crime, and his assured escape of blame for it provided some comfort.

Jack was withdrawn through the journey home, and not even Alex dared approach him. With the Duke of Richmond's estate behind him, the entire matter of Charlotte Arnsbury's murder seemed a nightmare of some distant night. His heart began to recover, though his nerves had not.

Edward and Jack greeted their father in the hot sitting room. He was resting in his chair, but waked fully when he saw their expressions.

“What have you done?” he asked Jack immediately. “What misery have you brought upon us now? Where is Alex? Have you hurt Alex?”

“I've hurt no one!” Jack shouted, bristled into fury. “Why must you always think the worst of me?”

“Alexander is fine, he's resting,” Edward said, putting a calming hand on Jack's shoulder. “It is Jack who is partly a victim here, for his great loss.”

Edward told Sir Denys of how Jack had found love in Charlotte Arnsbury, only to have it cruelly dashed away by a hideous murder. Jack stood by miserably, but he was very aware of his father's keen hazel eyes studying him. The old man's color faded from his cheeks, and he said not one word when Edward concluded. All was silent save for the ticking of the clock.

“I must tend to Alex, and tell our mother of this tragedy,” Edward said. “Jack is to be comforted, father, please be gentle with him. His loss is terrible.”

Edward left them alone. Sir Denys stared up at his son for a long moment. Jack felt ominously, but he dared not go.

“Your loss?” Sir Denys finally rasped. “Your loss, Jack? And what did you lose, exactly?”

“Why, the woman that I loved,” Jack said, though his nervousness tempered his affected anguish. “I was to marry her.”

“Marry her? You were to marry her, you say?” Sir Denys laughed incredulously. “The woman he loved, he says! Oh, oh God … ”

“I see that the news has made you unwell,” Jack said, turning. “I'll leave you to--”

No sooner had he turned his back on his father than the man's walking stick shot out and struck him full across it. Jack stumbled, shocked by the sudden pain, and turned to Sir Denys. Though his frame was wasted by the idleness of old age and disease, Sir Denys was still very tall, and he had drawn himself up to full height. He towered over his son, and Jack felt a pang of the old childhood fear. Before he could defend himself, Denys rapped the cane across the side of his legs, and they gave way. Jack fell to the floor, throwing up his arms in a feeble attempt to protect himself.

“What! Are you mad?” he cried. “Why are you hitting me?”

“Oh, bastard, evil, demon child!” Denys roared down at his son. He struck him again, and yet again. “Were your mother not a holy woman, I would suspect she bedded the Devil before conceiving you! Unholy monster! Murderous cowardly sinner!”

“Murder, man, are you daft?” Jack asked angrily. He tried to stand, and was rapped back down to the floor. His legs and back burned with pain, but the bruises were nothing compared to the pure terror he felt. He knew! His father was not fooled, he knew what Jack had done, he always knew what Jack did. “They arrested the culprit!”

“Then they'll hang a dog for a wolf!” Denys snarled, wolf-like himself. He reached down to grab Jack, lifted him to his feet, and threw him against the wall. With his sturdy walking cane, he beat Jack's back, his buttocks, his thighs, too savage in hatred to remember his aged body. “I read your letter, you lying cur! You made much of your lies, but you meant only to refuse the poor lady! So! Was refusing her not enough? Are you so unnatural a man that you could not even abide a gentle, loving woman's life?”

Jack said nothing. What could he say? His father knew the truth, and there was no point denying it to him. The cane struck deeply into his flesh, well-earned punishment but galling all the same. Though he knew he should stay there and take it, Jack could not remain facing the wall while the hated old man struck him. He whirled around and grabbed the cane even as it swung towards him. The wood struck his palms hard, and he grimaced.

“Enough!” he shouted. “Enough! I'm not a child, to be beaten by you, old man!”

Denys tried to wrest the cane away, but Jack held fast. He was pulled close, and looked up at his father with hurt hatred burning in his hazel eyes. For a moment, he saw a flicker of fear in his father's gaze, and it emboldened him.

“You killed her,” Denys said dully. His anger had cooled, leaving him deeply grieved. “You strangled that woman. You strangled a poor, innocent woman.”

“And what will you do?” Jack whispered in a hiss. “Ha? Tell all of Sussex that it was me? Let all of Britain know the sort of son you have?”

“I have no son in you, Jack.”

“That's not what the world would say, and you know it,” Jack said, grinning like a madman. The beating had finished snapping his nerves. “Would you let them say your son was hanged for murder? Would you bring that shame to pious Edward? Would you bring that grief to poor Alex? Would you damn and doom the Randall line for my sake? Ha? Do you hate me so much?”

Denys's temper was riled again. He let go the cane, which Jack still gripped, and slapped his son full across the face. Jack stumbled, and raised the cane in anger. Denys's eyes blazed at the sight.

“Would you strike me then, Jack?” he asked, voice soft with fury. “Would you strike at your own father?”

“You've struck me often enough.”

“Go on then, Jack, and batter an old man the way you once battered your poor brother,” Denys dared him. “You are kin only to the Devil.”

The fight had taken much out of Sir Denys. He no longer looked frightful or mighty, but only tired and ancient. He staggered to his chair and sat down in it, breathing heavily. Jack lowered the cane, but kept it in both hands ready.

“I do not hate you more than I love my true sons,” Denys said. “I would not have you hanged so that your mother can die with sorrow. I will say nothing. They must never learn of this, never.”

Jack set the cane down only then. His father watched him with the baffled eyes of a person encountering some rare, strange, malevolent animal.

“But you are no longer any son of mine,” Denys said. “Your soul is black, Jack, the blackest soul that I have ever had the misfortune to meet. I have seen terrors and wrought terrors in war, but none have been equal to the terror of knowing that I issued you into this world by my own body's seed. I almost wish that your mother was not a loyal and decent woman, so that I could deny any claim to you, you demon.”

“I'd rather claim the Devil as a father,” Jack said, “than you. You have never loved me. You have never thought me anything but evil. Is it any small wonder, then, that your prophecies have come to fruition, father?”

“No wonder, only a product of my own foolish father's pride and love,” Deny said. “Do not look at me so, Jack, for I did love you. I loved you, even though I always knew what you are. I loved you, and so I did not drown you when you were a babe and I felt only ill tidings by your cradle's side. I loved you, and so I tried all my life to beat the evil out of you, to at least temper it so that your soul might be redeemed someday. I suppose I even love you now in some measure, or I would have beaten you to death with that cane and have done with you.”

“And here I thought it was my hand that stopped you from doing so.”

“Don't be cynical of my love, Jack,” Denys chided him. “I was a soldier, knighted for my service, and I know the difference between beating a man and killing him. Had I wanted to, I could have dashed your brains out with that cane, and you know it.”

Jack crossed his arms sullenly.

“You do not believe that I love you,” Denys said knowingly. “So be it, and it's probably best. You do not deserve to count yourself loved. But whatever stupid fatherly love I might still have for you, I cannot abide you any longer. I would not grow poisonous weeds in my own garden for Edward and Alexander to be sickened by. You will leave this house of mine, Jack. I will support you with an allowance, only to avoid raising your brothers' suspicions, but I will not be any more of a father to you. Go to London, Jonathan, and be damned there.”

“I will go to London,” Jack said with a smile, “and be free there. I won't stay to trouble you here in your house for longer than a day.”

“Good,” was all the weary old man could say. He took a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his clammy face. “Good.”

Jack turned and crossed the room.

“Jonathan.”

He turned. Denys threw a parchment across the room at him. Jack went to it and picked it up. It was the letter he had written to Lady Charlotte, as he knew it would be. He laughed, completely undone. Sir Denys Randall stared at his son, and had to turn his face to hide his tears.


 

By the time he returned to his room, Jack was a wreck. He did not know why he lamented being thrown out of his home, it granted him the freedom he had always craved, but he could not deny his misery. He tore the letter all to pieces and threw it in the fireplace, then set a fire blazing despite the evening's heat. Only as he stared into the leaping flames did he realize that he had been crying.

Jack cried out, furious that his father had brought him to tears this one last time. He screamed wordlessly, falling to his knees, tearing at the carpet, his clothing, pounding on the hard stone mantle. All this, he thought, all of this, and for what? For the fact that one night I couldn't force my cock into some lady? For that one secret shame, that one secret failing in me, I am made a monster. I shall never be human again, if I ever was.

“You should have killed me!” he shouted, though he knew their father was nowhere near to hear it. “You should have killed me, then! You should have killed me!”

Because I'm too much of a coward to kill myself. Impotent in everything that could save me. I'm no man, no man, no man at all …

Jack lost time, himself, and everything in his frenzied anguish. He screamed so wildly that Edward and Alexander came rushing into his room at last. Edward lifted his brother from the floor, trying to shake him back to reason. Alexander tearfully soothed Jack's hot face, and kissed his cheek. The tenderness finally began to bring sense back to Jack.

“There now, Johnny, there,” Alexander murmured. “Be still, be still. Edward, put out that fire, it's burning up in here, and he's already fevered. I'll get water, and you get him into bed.”

Jack let Edward lead him to the bed, weak and docile as a child. Edward was grimly silent, as he always was when emotions ran high. He was a good, simple man, and untoward behavior always horrified him. He went to move away after putting Jack in bed, but Jack pulled him close by the front of his shirt.

“Edward, kill me.”

“Do not talk that way,” Edward said sternly. “It's a sin to think of suicide, Jonathan.”

“I'm too cowardly for suicide, and so you must kill me,” Jack said. “Edward, you must, you must end me. I'm afraid. I'm deadly afraid of the things I may do if I live.”

“Don't be ridiculous, Jack,” Edward said. He paused with slight hesitation before adding, “You know you're a good man.”

“You know I'm not!” Jack exclaimed, agitated again. “Edward, if you love me, kill me! Kill me! I'm scared. Oh, brother, I'm so scared.”

Edward pried his hands off his shirt and escaped from the insanity. He passed Alex returning on his way out, and Alex was shocked by his pallor. Alex shut the doors, leaving himself alone with Jack in the hellishly hot room. He gave Jack a glass of water and held a cold wet rag to his forehead.

“What did you say to Edward, Johnny?” Alex asked once Jack's sobbing his subsided. “He looked as if he had seen a ghost.”

“I begged him to make me a ghost,” Jack said wearily, “and he refused.”

“Jack!”

“I must die, Alex,” Jack told him. “I fear what I may become, if I am suffered to live any longer. I have an anger inside me, Alex, the equal and opposite of your purity. I am foul, my soul is aborted, and I must die.”

“You mustn't speak so,” Alex said. “I love you, and I could not live if you died.”

“But I could live if you died,” Jack said, “because I am a base and evil coward.”

“You are not.”

“I am, Alex!”

Alex's breath ran short, and his hazel eyes widened. Jack bit his tongue and bowed his head. He had never shouted at Alex before, not once. Fresh tears and fresh shame flowed over him. It's about time, he thought miserably. He must know the truth of me. He must stop loving me. I cannot bear his innocent love any longer.

“I am wretched,” Jack told his brother. He lifted his head and took Alex by the shoulders, hard. “And I do not deserve your love.”

“Johnny, you--”

Jack kissed him then, and not as a brother. He opened his mouth widely onto Alex's soft lips, and kissed him with all the passion of a lover. Alex was very still in his grip, and he dropped the wet rag onto the bed covers. Then, slowly, miraculously, Alex opened his mouth and kissed him back.

“Do you see what I am, Alex?” Jack whispered when they pulled apart. Their foreheads leaned together, their black hair mingling, and in profile they were very nearly twins. “Do you see now, dear Alex?”

Jack took the dagger he kept beneath his pillow and put it in Alex's effeminate hand. Alex looked down at it, tears standing in his eyes. Then he reached over and lay the blade on the bedside table.

“No,” he said simply. “No, Johnny. I love you, and you must live for my sake, if not your own.”

Jack met his eyes, stunned. How could Alexander love him, knowing the true black depths of his affection for him? Why was there only love in his eyes? Where was his horror, his judgment, his hatred, his revulsion?

“But don't you understand?” Jack asked, his throat raw and his voice course. “Don't you see what I am?”

Jack kissed him with a more slovenly voraciousness, a lewd and lustful kiss. He kissed him and kissed him, until Alex stayed him by putting two fingers to his lips.

“Stop, Jack, you must stop,” he said firmly. “You will not make me love you less. I have always known that you love me with perhaps too much affection than the world or God might understand. I've felt it in your touch, seen it in your eyes. I know that you want the love of a man, and not of a woman. What should I say, Johnny?”

“Say you hate me,” Jack begged. He lay back, sighing, and spread his arms out over the bed. He stared at the canopy above the curtained bed, the silken sheets draped from the dark rich wood. “Strike me and curse me and call me an unnatural demon.”

“The way father has? The way Edward has?” Alex asked, shaking his head. “I will not hurt you, and whatever you think, I know that you cannot hurt me.”

Alex leaned over Jack, bringing their faces level. He kissed Jack's lips, not lustfully but not as innocently as before. He settled down against the pillows, and cradled Jack's head on his lap. The electricity of this intimacy brought Jack back to tears with shame.

“I do not deserve you, Alex.”

“But you have me.”

Alex held him thus while he cried until his heart was sick from it. He stroked his face and hair gently. Jack cried himself to sleep, and Alex stayed where he was. He stared at the face that was so like his own, listening to the man breathe easily at last, and wept for him.

Alex lifted Jack off, and lay him on his back in bed. He would not lie in sin with him, as he knew Jack often wished to, but he would lie beside him. Jack rolled onto his stomach and threw an arm over him. Alex lay down, his profile close to Jack's, their breaths commingling. He held one of Jack's hands and whispered a prayer for him.

“God protect you, Jack,” he said in the last. “God protect you from yourself.”