The noose chafed around his neck. Where once they had backslapped him for tweaking the noses of the nobles, now the crowd jeered him. Jack kept his expression blank. He would not give them the satisfaction of reacting to their cries. He looked for a familiar face but saw none. He had tried to convince Matilda to stay but the stress had been too much."I want a quiet life, Jack."
Given the way things ended up, he guessed she was right. But she had always been too good for him anyway.
The executioner leaned in close, his breath reeking of sour ale. "It's a fine crowd. You should be honoured."
Trying to keep up his bravado, Jack replied, "Yet strangely, I'm not." Looking out into the crowd he whispered, "Goodbye, Matilda."
"Bloody hell. What's this?" the executioner asked as several horsemen pushed through the crowd.
Grateful for even a few more seconds of life, Jack muttered, "Always something isn't it?"
Their red lion livery was familiar, but the name escaped him. The leader, a round-faced man with red hair, rode up to the platform and raised his hand. "Execution's been cancelled!"
The crowd booed as two of his men stepped on the platform and shoved the hangman aside. Smiling, the redhead pulled a large bag from his belt. He reached in and tossed some coins into the horde. Within seconds, the execution was forgotten as they scrambled for the loot.
The man grinned at Jack. "Fickle lot aren't they?"
Before he could reply, a blow to the back of the head rendered Jack unconscious.
He awoke to find he was riding a horse, his arms tied to the saddle, a sack covering his face, and his head aching. He struggled against his binding to no avail. "Someone want to take this bloody thing off?"
A guard pulled the sack from his head and he winced as the light assaulted his senses. They were in a small forest clearing beside the road. It had been awhile since he'd been in such environs and he enjoyed the earthy smell.
The redhead pointed to him. "Get him down. We'll stop here."
A guard yanked him from his horse and put him on the ground. He eyed the leader. "What's this about?"
Jack keeled over as he was punched in the stomach. Somebody grabbed him by the back of his tunic and pulled him back up. A man with a pockmarked face growled at him. "You mind how you talk to Sir Thomas Murcville."
Murcville raised his hand, "Easy there, Darrow. I need him in one piece."
"One piece for what?" asked Jack. Jack saw the pockmarked man's fist clench again and in enough pain already, he hastily added, "My lord."
Murcville cast a critical eye over him. "So you're Jack Trent. I thought you'd be bigger."
"Your wife didn't have any complaints," replied Jack.
Murcville turned to Darrow. "Now you can hit him."
Jack keeled over again.
Murcville pulled him back up. "That was for talking back. Personally I find my wife incredibly annoying. So if you had spent any time with her you wouldn't be bragging about it."
Still getting his breath back, Jack replied, "My mouth tends to...run off."
Smiling, Murcville wagged a finger. "You should watch that. It might get you in trouble. In your previous career you were known as the greatest poacher to roam this part of England. Now I need your help to hunt a beast that has been terrorizing my holdings."
It wasn't the sort of request Jack was expecting. He licked his lips. "What sort of beast, my lord?"
Murcville stared off into the distance. "I don't know. Peasants can be unreliable witnesses at the best of times."
Pondering that for a moment, Jack replied, "And what would I get out of this?"
Murcville poked him in the chest. "You are still breathing, aren't you?"
Jack decided to chance his luck. "That was good enough for this morning but I need more than that now."
Murcville raised his hands. "Surely protecting the people is reward enough for the people's champion?"
Jack spat on the ground. "That's a bit of a sore spot as my friends sold me and the people threw rotten garbage at me while I was about to be hung."
A smug look came over Murcville's face. "I expected as much. I'll give you coin and I can tell you where to find the members of your former band. I'm sure you want to discuss your arrest."
Jack's chest tightened as he remembered the day he'd been taken. The bastards hadn't even had the guts to face him in a fair fight. No, they'd plied him with drink and he'd woken to find himself in a cell. The idea of getting revenge on them warmed Jack's heart. He raised his hands. "Cut me loose."
Murcville's laughter echoed through the clearing. "Most amusing, but I like you tied up for now."
Jack frowned. "How the bloody hell am I supposed to track something like this?"
Darrow clipped him hard on the back of the head. "With a blade at your back."
"So are we agreed?" asked Murcville.
Jack shrugged. "I've nothing else planned. Let's find your beast, my lord."
Murcville smiled thinly. "Come on then, I don't want to keep Alec waiting. It'll be dark soon. That's when the beast strikes."
Jack was thrown back on his horse and they ventured deeper into the forest. A day that had started with his imminent death had taken an even more bizarre turn. He had never met Sir Thomas, but he didn't trust him. He couldn't; he was a noble. For all their high talk, they only cared about themselves. Until he could find a way to escape, he would play Murcville's game. From there, well, he wasn't sure. After everything that had happened he only trusted one person. But she wouldn't want to see him.
The men moved silently along the muddy track. The tension radiating radiated off them like heat from a fire.
"Relax, lads. I wasn't this tense with the noose round my neck."
Darrow rode up beside him and clipped his head again. "Shut it."
Half an hour later they came to a stop on a rise overlooking a valley. It took him a moment, but he recognised the village. Willstowe. He had passed through many times distributing some of his robbery haul. It was good to keep the locals friendly. Of course he always kept most back. After all, he was the one taking the risks.
It had never been the wealthiest of villages, but it had never looked this bad. Several of the buildings had collapsed, some had been burned out, while others were on their last legs. Their foundations needed only a strong wind to knock them over.
Murcville gave him a look. "You know it?"
"Willstowe was a thriving village once. Its fields filled with livestock and crops. Now they lie empty."
"Typical," Jack snorted. "I should've known that was all you cared about. It was never about the people."
Murcville's eyes narrowed. "The people depend on the livestock, and I depend on the people."
"More like you leech off the people."
"The strong protect the weak. That is the way it has to be."
They rode down into the valley. As they got closer, Jack noted the look of concern on Murcville's face. Something was wrong. They pulled to a halt just on the outskirts, the smell of charred wood thick in the air
"Darrow," Murcville said, "take some of the men. Find Alec and the others. We'll wait here."
Darrow nodded. "My lord."
He got off his horse and led several of the others into the village.
The other men formed a small circle around Murcville and himself.
"You seem worried," said Jack.
"I left ten men here with the surviving villagers. They should have met us."
Jack raised an eyebrow. "What do you mean surviving villagers?"
"Something had been hunting them. One managed to slip through and let us know. When we arrived there was only ten villagers left."
Jack peered uneasily around. "What did they see?"
"Nothing that made sense."
Darrow returned, his expression even grimmer. "I found Alec. You should see this, my lord."
Murcville swung off his horse. He pointed to Jack. "Grab him. I want to start tracking this thing."
A guard yanked Jack from his horse and led him away like a dog on a leash. This place had good memories. He had kissed Matilda here for the first time under that tree. It had taken some convincing, but that pretty much summarised the whole courtship. Now it was a place of death. Dark patches of dried blood and a pile of what had been bodies but was now just a mound of mangled flesh and bone covered the ground. One clothed torso wore Murcville's livery - the red lion.
"Ye gods," Jack said.
His face pale, Murcville turned to Jack. "Earn your reprieve, Wolfshead. Tell me what did this."
Jack bit his tongue. There was no benefit to annoying Murcville at present. With what he was seeing, he was as eager as the noble to know what was responsible before it tore up more of the countryside. He bent down and examined the ground surrounding the pile. It was churned up pretty bad, but after several minutes he found an impression in the mud. "Look at this."
Murcville knelt beside him and put his hand beside the track. "What is it?"
"I've never seen the like." Jack shook his head.
Murcville took another look. "Could it be a wolf? A bear maybe?"
Jack felt like laughing. "There haven't been wolves or bears in these woods for years. But then I've never seen tracks like this either. They look almost human but not quite." The wind whistled through the buildings. Jack glanced at the mid-afternoon sky. "Whatever you're going to do, you'd better think fast."
Murcville stroked his chin. "Can you track it to its lair?"
Jack nodded. "I could, but I think it would be a waste of time and risky at this time of day."
The noble shook his head. "I can't have this thing roaming my lands. Do you have a better idea?"
"It's come here several nights in a row. I bet it'll be back here tonight. I say we lay a trap."
Murcville locked eyes with him. "You'd be betting your life."
"Should have been dead at midday. I'm not scared," he lied. "Are you?"
"There's only two types of men who feel no fear - idiots and liars. I am neither." He cocked an eyebrow. "I know you've set up a few ambushes in your time. Any suggestions?"
Jack studied the village and nodded. "Something's coming to me, but you'll not like it."
Several hours later with a crescent moon looming large over them, the tension coming off Murcville and his men was even more palpable then before. They might have been soldiers but they were far from eager, especially after what happened to their comrades. Under Jack's supervision they constructed several rectangular pits in a circular pattern in the centre of the village about six feet deep with wooden spikes lining the bottom and camouflaged them with dirt and matting, then placed barricades in certain spots to funnel the beast into the right place. They took up position in the centre of the circle with torches.
Darrow was fit to be tied. "This plan is madness, my lord. Standing out in the open like this will only get us killed."
"I can't say I enjoy the idea of being bait either," Murcville said.
"This beast is a hunter," replied Jack. "It would sniff us out if we tried to hide. With all of us here in the open this is where it will come."
He pointed to the barricades they had hastily put up. "There's only one way to come at us and that's straight ahead."
Darrow didn't look convinced. "So you say, wolfshead."
If Jack weren't still tied up, he would have folded his arms. "I do say."
"Enough!" said Murcville. "If this idea fails, Mister Trent will be in as much trouble as the rest of us."
Scowling, Darrow replied, "Yeah, but he's got nothing to lose."
Murcville flashed him a look and Darrow hastily added. "My lord."
Jack laughed bitterly. "Yes, you're a real man of the people."
"I never claimed to be," replied Murcville. "I'm a soldier. My brother, he was a man of the people. Charmed everyone he met, peasant or noble. Not the brightest, but he always endeavoured to do his best. When people asked for help he gave it, even accompanying a merchant convoy through our territory." He paused. "That's what he was doing when he stopped one of your arrows."
The silence hung thick in the air. Finally Jack looked away. "Am I supposed to apologise? Would you really want it?"
Murcville studied him for a moment. "No, it would make no difference now and I probably wouldn't believe it, but some acknowledgment that we aren't all bad would go some way."
Jack turned away. "Well, it's not coming from me. Nobles sucked my father dry with their demands. I don't regret dispatching any of them."
"My brother had a wife, pretty thing, totally devoted to him. A lot more pleasant than my own. Their displays of affection could be a little sickening to a cold fish like myself, but they were happy. She was pregnant when he died. The fragile thing couldn't handle it. She went into early labour. Mother and child died." He turned to him. "Did they deserve it too?"
Jack felt himself redden. "I do not kill women and children."
"But women and children do suffer as a consequence of your actions."
"It is no different then what nobles do to peasants every day."
"Quiet," Jack snapped. "There's something here."
Murcville squinted. "I don't see anything."
"I saw something move against the horizon." He swallowed. "Something big."
"He's talking bollocks, my lord," replied Darrow. "He-"
In the silence of the night, the sound of footsteps thudding against the ground was ominously loud. A man-shaped figure stood before them hidden in the shadows. Its large yellow eyes. Jack thought it was at least seven feet tall.
"Men, halberds and crossbows at the ready," Murcville reminded them.
Jack moved to comply, only to curse as he remembered his arms were still bound. "Bloody-"
Growling, the figure charged at them, then disappeared as the ground beneath it gave way.
Everyone stood still as statues until Darrow replied, "Hell's bells, that was big."
Murcville looked down at Jack. "It seems our plan worked."
My plan, thought Jack. "I have had some experience hunting beasts."
"No doubt," said Murcville. "Barnes, Hollis. Go check it out."
The two men glanced warily at each other. Darrow shoved them forward. "You heard, Sir Thomas. Move it."
They shuffled towards the pit. Lowering his torch, Barnes peered over the side. "I can't bloody see anything."
"Then look closer, you mutton head," said Darrow.
Hollis leaned down. "I still can't see..."
Something yanked him into the pit screaming. Running from the edge, Hollis suddenly fell to the ground and was dragged backwards into the pit, his yells quickly cut off. A shadow leapt out of the pit and landed before them. It looked human but with longer arms and bestial hands.
Murcville's voice echoed in the night. "Crossbowmen, fire!"
The four crossbowmen fired at the creature but it suddenly vanished into the dark. Though it had disappeared from sight, everyone could still hear the beast stalking round them. The crossbowmen fired more bolts but the bolts sailed through the air, hitting only wood and earth. The beast fell silent.
Jack flinched as something reared out of the darkness. It crunched halberds between its hands, ripping them from the soldiers' grasps. One tried to pull back and he was lifted off his feet. His screams quickly cut off.
"Draw swords!" said Murcville.
In spite of their fear, the men followed his orders. Murcville tossed over a torch and they saw the beast chomping into the helpless man. It looked up at them, its face covered in blood, and growled.
"Charge!" yelled Murcville.
They had barely gone a few steps when the beast laid into them, blood and limbs flying in equal measure. Not even flinching as his men died before him, Murcville attacked. "Back to hell, beast!"
He thrust his sword at the beast as it stood over the dismembered body of one of his men. Snarling, the creature leapt forward.
Jack rammed into Murcville, knocking him to the ground and the beast leapt past them. As he lay sprawled on the ground, the beast loomed over him. Bone spurs stuck out of its mottled grey skin and it had long, matted, black hair. It glared at him, its eyes boring into him.
Jack considered himself brave, but he found himself unable to even scream as he remembered tales told to him by his grandfather. Readying himself to die, he just lay there, his arms and legs useless. But the beast let him be and disappeared back into the darkness. After several seconds Jack started breathing again.
"Damn it!" yelled Murcville, getting to his feet. He spun on Jack. "I almost had it."
Jack stood his ground. "He almost had you. I saved your life."
The heat burned out of Murcville's anger and he cut him loose. "If you run, I will kill you."
Jack found himself smiling despite the situation. "Like I'm going to run with that thing out there."
He helped Murcville tend to the wounded and cover the dead. The scene made him nostalgic for his prison cell. Several were slain, their bodies ripped open or their limbs torn asunder. The others all sported injuries of one sort or another.
Darrow however was in one piece, though he had a haunted look in his eyes. "Never seen a beast like that."
Murcville slapped his shoulder. "None of us have."
Pointing to the bodies, Darrow said, "We lost half our men, my lord. I suggest we get reinforcements."
"From where?" asked Murcville. "I brought everyone who was any good with us."
Jack stepped forward. "That would be a waste of time anyway."
"And why would that be?" asked Darrow.
He leaned down and pointed to a track interlaced with blood. "The beast is hurt now. This is the best time to track the thing to its lair and kill it."
"Beside you and me, my lord. Only Stevens and Phelps are unhurt."
"You're forgetting me," said Jack.
"No, I wasn't. This whole thing was your bloody idea and we've lost good men." Darrow grabbed Jack by the tunic. "I should kill you, you bastard!"
"Enough!" said Murcville. "I agreed with the plan. You want to be angry at someone, be angry at me."
Darrow scowled, but he released his grip.
Resisting the urge to thump Darrow, Jack smoothed out his tunic. "We've wasted enough time. We need to move before we lose its track."
"Agreed." Murcville turned to his remaining men. "Grab some torches. We're going hunting."
Then he pointed to the bodies strewn about. "Grab yourself some weapons, Wolfshead. A spear and sword should suffice."
"I'm a dead shot with a bow."
"I don't trust you that much."
Jack could only grimace. He was well used to the carnage wrought by combat but the damage inflicted by the beast was truly something to behold, with limbs crushed and flesh bitten down to the bone. Ignoring the dead-eyed stare of the body before him, he pulled off the scabbard and attached it around his waist. With the reassuring weight of a sword hanging from his hip, he grabbed a spear covered in the blood of its former owner.
Five minutes later they were deep in the forest. It would have been far easier with dogs, thought Jack, but there was enough track for him to follow by flame.
The forest had been his home, his fortress for years. He'd lived, fought and killed in this forest. Out here he'd been unbeatable, his defeat coming from within. His chest tightened, he could get angry later. Now he had to focus. The way the beast had stared right at him shook him to the core. He still wasn't sure what it was. Stories of otherworldly figures were common. Every village had one. Much as he tried to project an air of confidence in front of Murcville and the others, he was afraid. But he still had friends in the area. He had to help them. "This way."
As they crept slowly along, Murcville whispered, "The beast didn't attack you. Why do you think that is?"
Jack shrugged. "Maybe it doesn't attack unarmed men."
Murcville leaned in closer. "Not all the villagers were armed."
"Who knows what the bollocks is going on in its head?"
Jack lowered his torch and pointed to a set of tracks near some brush. "See the deep indentation here? It's limping."
"That looks no different than any other patch of dirt." Darrow leaned down to take a closer look.
"It does if you know what to look for," Jack said.
Darrow got to his feet. "This is madness, my lord, we can't..."
The beast leaped out of the bushes, knocking Darrow to the ground. It grabbed his leg with a sickening crunch and dragged him into the surrounding brush. His fingers left deep grooves in the mud.
Jack flinched as Darrow's screams abruptly cut off.
"Form a circle!" Murcville ordered.
From the front of the column, Phelps was moving to comply when he was pulled into the darkness.
"Move, damn it!" yelled Murcville.
Murcville threw his spear but the shot missed by mere inches. Stevens fired his crossbow into the woods. He twisted around and made a break for them. The beast erupted out of the undergrowth, snapped Stevens' neck, and pulled him into the darkness.
Dropping his torch, Jack threw his spear into the tree line and got a howl for his efforts. He grabbed Murcville by the arm. "Come on."
Jack dived into the forest, trying to catch a glimpse of the beast as it charged through the undergrowth. But it stayed just out of sight. Fortunately, it was bleeding like a stuck pig. They pulled to a halt.
"We should see to the others," said Murcville.
"The others are dead," snapped Jack. "This is our chance to avenge their deaths."
"As if their deaths mean anything to you."
Jack stood his ground. "You're right. They mean nothing to me. I only care about killing that thing. Now are you going to stand there and mope, or are you going to help me kill it?"
Murcville studied him for a moment. "Let's find this thing."
After walking for several minutes, Jack came across a tree with broken branches on its lower limbs. Something big had passed through. He pulled apart the branches and looked down into the valley below. There was a large square stone building with a courtyard in the center. This was surrounded by an orchard and vegetable garden and enclosing all this was a tall stone wall. A set of wooden doors hung limply off their hinges. He knew they had reached the beast's lair.
Murcville came up beside him and pointed to the largest of the structures. "What is that building?"
Jack leaned on a tree for support. "I thought you considered yourself a man of God?"
"I consider myself a moral man. I make no other claims and you still haven't answered the question."
"This is the Convent of Saint Ursula."
Murcville shook his head. "A Convent out here. Madness."
Jack gestured to the bleak, windswept hills surrounding them. "Can you think of a better place to achieve serenity?"
"Perhaps they would have been better off getting a husband."
Jack gestured to the valley. "We need to move. The nuns might be in danger."
Murcville snorted. "Yes, I'm sure they're uppermost in your mind."
Jack rounded on him. "I've had enough of your jibes. Maybe you hadn't noticed but there's only two of us left. You have nothing over me now."
Murcville's sword rose slightly. "Is that a threat?"
Jack stood his ground. "I'm here because I want to be. I want that thing dead and I'm putting my life on the line as much as you. So how about some bloody courtesy?"
It was almost worth all the bloodshed to see the expression creep along Murcville's face as he realised the truth of Jack's words. He was alone in the forest with a wolfshead. A wolfshead he had angered.
Murcville lowered the blade. "You're right, I have been...churlish. You have saved my life, and I have saved you. Now we must save theirs."
It was the most he could expect. "Aye."
Despite feeling somewhat laden, Jack led the way out of the forest and followed the tracks. When they reached the thick wooden gates, Jack couldn't help noticing that they had been bashed in. He glanced over at Murcville who replied, "Takes a lot of strength to do that."
They continued on inside. Saint Ursula was a small order and even with the best efforts of the nuns, the grounds had never looked that tidy. They had more otherworldly concerns. But there was a definite change. The grounds looked overgrown. Farming tools were strewn about like they hadn't been used in days.
Murcville tapped his shoulder and pointed to his right. [new para]
Jack grimaced. The wooden doors to the convent had been smashed to pieces. Just a single piece hung from the frame. He ignored the unease building inside him. Tightening his grip on the sword, he slowly approached. He rubbed his hand along the wood, his fingers sinking into the claw marks.
Kneeling beside him, Murcville brought up his hand. "Blood...and it's fresh."
Jack's heart hardened. "Good, then it'll be easier to kill."
They crept inside. The Convent interior was a mess, smashed furniture, claw marks on the walls and torn fabric littering the ground. Judging by the large number of tracks, the creature had passed this way before. By focusing on the freshest tracks, Jack could make out its direction. He signalled Murcville and they walked slowly down the passageway. The creature had descended deep into the bowels of the Convent to lick its wounds. Though unlikely, it was possible one of the other nuns was cowering from the creature. He wasn't an overly religious man, but he prayed now.
They walked along in silence until a thick pungent smell wafted back to them. Turning his head, Jack thought he detected its source. He pointed Murcville in the direction of a darkened doorway. He gave a nod and they closed in. Flanking the door on opposite sides, Jack signalled with his fingers that they should enter on three. Murcville nodded. Counting silently they leapt in on three. The room was dark, filled with the smell of rotten flesh, and in the shadows Jack could make out small mounds around the room. None of them was large enough to be the beast.
"What the hell?" said Murcville.
Jack leaned down to examine the nearest mound. A chill ran through him. It was bones. They were all bones. He slumped against the wall. He had failed her yet again. "They're all dead."
Murcville grabbed him by the tunic. "So you're just giving up? We still have a monster to kill."
"You don't understand."
Murcville locked eyes with him. "I understand that thing will kill again if we don't stop it."
Jack nodded. An eye for an eye. Matilda wouldn't have approved, but she wasn't around.
He gripped Murcville by the shoulder. "When we find this thing, I kill it."
Murcville smiled thinly. "If I don't kill it first."
They left the room and descended deeper into the Convent. Jack tried hard to ignore the dried blood on the walls. He found himself picturing nuns screaming, Matilda screaming… "The Chapel is up ahead. It must be inside."
The Chapel doors were open, and the first streams of daylight were shining through the Chapel's stained glass window. Creeping inside, they had barely crossed the threshold when a deep growl sent a shiver down Jack's spine.
Its face covered in blood, the beast leapt out at them. The two men separated and Jack forced himself to charge. He swiped the blade in an effort to remove the beast's head, but the creature ducked under the move and knocked the blade from his hands.
Jack took a step back, tripping on a piece of wood. As he fell, Murcville rushed forward. His thrust grazed the creature's side. Howling in pain, it swung around and hit Murcville in the chest. He flew back several feet before crashing into a column with a groan. The beast moved in to finish him off.
Seeing his chance, Jack sprinted for his blade. Scooping it up, he jumped up on a pew and used it to push himself forward. He landed on the beast's back and thrust his blade into its side. Screeching, the beast crumbled beneath him.
He gave it a swift kick. "Take that, you bastard." He examined the wreckage at the rear of the Chapel. "Murcville, you alive?"
Murcville stumbled to his feet among the wreckage of the chairs. He rubbed his head. "I have been better. I ...by all that is holy-"
Jack scurried back as the beast came back to life and started writhing on the floor. Jack wondered what worse creature he had unleashed upon the world, but curiosity stayed his hand. He had to know what was behind this before killing it.
The sound of cracking filled the air as its bones began shrinking and reforming. There were tearing sounds as its skin opened and retreated inside, revealing a pale young woman with matted blonde hair. Blood seeped from the wound he'd inflicted.
"Damn it, Matilda."
Jack's legs weakened beneath him, but he forced himself to stay upright. He felt worse then he had in the hangman's noose. Moving forward was like walking through a bog, each step harder then the last. He covered her with his cloak.
Grimacing, the woman on the ground clutched her side and looked up at him with bloodshot blue eyes. "Hello, Jack. It's been a long time."
Trying not to let his discomfort show, he squeezed her hand. "Damn it, woman. I leave you alone for a year and this happens. How the hell did you end up like this?"
Her hand rose to her throat and for the first time he noticed the thick gold choker around her neck. While her skin was covered in blood and dirt, the choker looked as clean as the day it was made. "I did something bad, Jack."
"What is it?"
"It was hidden among some relics from the East, donated by some returning crusaders." She smiled. "I guess I picked up some bad habits from you. The nuns can't miss what they don't know about. So I took it to my cell and tried it on." A wistful look came over her eyes. "I dreamed I was a hunter. When I awoke I was covered in blood. I thought it was mine until I saw the bodies. All battered and broken."
"You killed them?" Jack asked, remembering all the corpses they'd discovered.
She looked away. "Not all of them, not at first. Some were hiding in the cellar. I wanted to tell them to run, but I...couldn't. It wouldn't let me. The only person I could think to help me was you. So while the beast slept inside me, I walked to Willstowe to find you. I found Declan, drinking as usual. He said they had finally gotten wise and picked up the bounty on your head. I got angry." She shook her head. "The rest is a blur."
Jack elected not to let her in on Willstowe's fate. "Let's get this damn thing off."
She squeezed his hand. "The damn thing won't come off."
Jack brushed the blonde hair from her neck. "There's writing on it."
"Let me look," said Murcville. He bent down. "It's Latin."
"Well, what does it say?" asked Jack.
"Necklace of Nemesis."
Jack and Matilda just stared at him.
"I believe she was a Roman Goddess."
"Anything useful?" asked Jack.
"Yes. It says do not wear."
Rubbing his forehead, Jack muttered, "That's real helpful. Is that it?"
Murcville got to his feet. "I'm afraid so."
Jack shook his head. "I don't accept that."
He tried grabbing it, but got a sharp shock for his efforts. Shaking his hand he muttered, "Bloody hell, that hurt."
"It wasn't much fun for me either," Matilda replied.
The two laughed.
She smiled. "I missed you, Jack. I shouldn't have just left like that, but I was scared."
"Of me?" he replied slightly taken aback.
"You loved the life too much, more than I thought you loved me."
"I would have stopped eventually."
She laid her hand on his face. "Liar."
Already uncomfortable, Jack found the conversation going places he didn't want to go. He pointed to her side. "Your wound?"
Grimacing she replied, "It'll heal, if I can make it through to tonight. The beast is resilient."
Murcville's voice cut across their reunion. "I'm sorry to hear that, Sister. Mister Trent, if you find it too difficult, I will dispatch her for you."
Releasing Matilda's hand, Jack picked up his sword and got to his feet. "What are you talking about?"
Murcville's face was hard. "I'm doing what I set out to do. What we set out to do." He glanced at Matilda. "I don't know if what you say is true. Frankly, I don't care. You've caused too many deaths."
Jack raised his hand. "Let me take her away from here. You'll never see us again."
Murcville shook his head. "I won't transport this problem somewhere else. I'm sorry, Sister."
"I won't let you kill her."
Murcville's expression hardened. "I'm not asking."
Murcville swung his sword and it took all of Jack's skill to fend him off.
His sword levelled before him, Murcville backed off slightly. "You can't beat me in a fair fight. I've been training since I was a boy.'
"I'm no slouch either." Jack thrust forward.
Murcville deflected the thrust with a twist of his wrist. Jack took a swing at his head. The nobleman ducked under the move. Jack changed the angle of his cut and sliced down vertically. Murcville sidestepped him, then slammed into Jack's side. Jack collided with the wall and dropped his sword. Looking up he saw Murcville's blade heading straight for him. The sword halted just inches from his throat. Jack and Murcville looked over to see Maltilda had changed once more and was clutching Murcville's sword arm. Before Murcville could say anything, she latched her other hand onto him and swung him into the air.
Murcville flew several feet and fell with a thump. She advanced toward him. She wrapped her hand around his throat and lifted him free from the debris.
With Murcville hanging limply in her grasp, Matilda turned in Jack's direction.
Jack gestured slowly with his hands and tried to keep his voice calm. "Matilda put him down. You can control it."
Growling, she looked back at Murcville.
She stared up at the ceiling and screamed. Murcville fell from her claws.
She hunched over and began changing back.
Jack rushed over to support her. "Are you all right?"
Leaning against him, she replied, "I am now."
"I thought you couldn't control it."
She smiled. "I couldn't until now."
He turned to Murcville, who sprawled limply on the ground, his hand around his throat. "We're going now. Don't follow."
"I will find you," croaked Murcville. "This isn't over."
"It is for me." He paused at the threshold. "I'm sorry about your brother and his wife."
Murcville leaned up. "You can't trust her. She's a monster."
Escorting Matilda to the door, Jack replied, "Yes, but she's my monster."