The ordered and unmysterious world of Sir John Talbot, founded upon centuries of changelessness, had taken only an instant to shatter.
"The wolf must have attacked her, and Larry came to the rescue. I’m sorry, Sir John."
He heard the words without comprehension, oblivious to the hunters milling about the clearing. He could only stare down at the face of his dead son—yet what he felt was not the raging grief which should have come. The shock and terror of what he had seen, and done, had frozen his very soul.
Maleva, the gypsy, knelt beside him, leaning over Larry’s body. Her lips moved across prayer-like words, but Sir John did not hear them; instead, it seemed as though he felt them. Somehow her presence held back the cry of anguish and madness within him… and he knew that if she left him then, so would any fragment of sanity he had left.
He had seen the change, seen the wild beast he had killed take the form of his own flesh and blood… his son. Not only had he lost a beloved child, but the stability of reason that should have enabled him to cope. Logic could no longer exist in a world where men became animals.
Someone laid a coat over Larry’s body, and for an instant, Sir John hovered on the brink. There came to him a flash of will to lash out, to tear to pieces the man who had covered his son’s face—but the moment passed. Half-numbed nerves told a more than half-numbed brain that Maleva’s hand had come to rest on his shoulder.
He did not know how long he continued to kneel in the crawling mists, in the eye of the storm the hunters had become as they moved about him, regrouping. There would be preparations to take home Larry’s body; Doctor Lloyd would see to it. And Frank Andrews would clear away the rest of the men.
They did not know the hunt was over.
Captain Montford was bending over him, trying to coax him to stand up. Faced with the sudden choice between movement and madness, Sir John lurched woodenly to his feet, his gaze inexorably drawn to the instrument of his crime and loss.
The cane still lay where he had dropped it, moonlight gleaming on the bloodied silver handle.
The return to Talbot Castle was chaotic. Led like a sleepwalker by Captain Montford and Doctor Lloyd, Sir John was conscious only of swaying lantern-light and murmuring men—and Maleva, hovering at the edge of the crowd but always within his sight, a lifeline. This was the world now, incomprehensible and alien… and she with her witch’s wisdom knew it better than his science ever would.
At the door of the great house, she stepped forward to enter, but Montford tried to bar her way. "What are you doing? Go away and leave this man in peace!"
"Let her alone."
The words were the first Sir John had spoken since before this madness began—in fact, the first since he had spoken to Maleva herself, in the forest earlier that night. He turned to look at Montford with the full force of the gathering coldness within him, and there was no further argument. Maleva silently followed them into the house, where a hush had fallen as the servants learned of their master’s bereavement.
Doctor Lloyd deposited him in his bedroom, then went in search of something to make him sleep. Sitting rigidly on the edge of his bed, Sir John stared with wide and haunted eyes toward the window.
The moon, just past fullness, was large and bright in the sky beyond.
He turned slowly. Maleva was standing at the threshold of his room, and as his gaze fell upon her, she stepped in. How different she looked, in the opulence of his house; such fragile splendor put to shame the fine pieces of art that his family had spent generations collecting.
"I grieve for you, Sir John, as I grieved for both our sons. Unknowing, you have done for yours what I could not do for mine—you have given peace to the boy you loved. But now I fear the price that you have paid."
Maleva stepped closer, her eyes dark with solemn wisdom. "Tell me, Sir John."
For a long moment Sir John stared at her and through her, a desperate wildness in his eyes. Then, at last, he stretched out his right arm, and pulled back the bloody tatters of his sleeve—exposing his inner forearm and the ghastly message it bore.
He did not feel the wound, the brutal gouge of the werewolf’s teeth. He felt only the crawl of the cooling blood that had welled up, sliding in thin red rivulets down his wrist to seal his fate.
Mad laughter rose in his throat, but found no release, as he slumped to the floor, unconscious.
Sir John awoke to the singing of a bird on his windowsill. He felt no sense of time passed, and the horror of the night remained as fresh in his mind as it had been when he knelt over his son’s body.
Person or persons unknown had settled him in his bed. He sat up, his eyes and then his hand moving at once to his right arm; it was swathed in bandages. Slowly at first, then more quickly as morbid anticipation gathered within him, he unwrapped the spotless white gauze. The last layer fell away like the tissue paper over some mockery of a gift, revealing what he knew he would find.
He had seen that mark before, on Larry’s chest.
With numb dispassion, he traced the five points of the scar. Folly; this was no scar at all, not as the flesh knew it. This was a sign of something more sinister and intangible—a scar, perhaps, upon the soul. Proof that he had a soul… and that it had been condemned.
A single hard shudder ran down the length of his spine… and then stillness, inside and out, as the chill of certainty reached to the deepest marrow of his being. Calmly he drew a breath, and turned to gaze about his room.
Maleva was sitting in the padded wicker chair by the bureau, asleep.
He should have been surprised, but he was not; only her presence could have laid such a calm over him now. How she could have overridden the contempt of Doctor Lloyd and the servants was irrelevant. She was there—and she knew.
Slowly Sir John rose from his bed, wrapping himself in his dressing-gown out of habit. He stepped to the bureau and looked down upon the old gypsy’s face, his photographic memory taking in every line, every brush-stroke of a lifetime’s cares upon that delicate canvas.
Oh, how well she knew.
His gaze wandered, taking in her clothes, the colorful raiment of the gypsies—the bright, coarse fabrics, the masses of beads, the heavy golden earrings. Above the hem of the sash at her waist, something metal reflected the early rays of the sun that shone through the window. He recognized the moonlight color of refined silver.
As he silently withdrew the dagger from the sheath tucked into her sash, her eyes opened, and their gazes locked for a long moment. She was as passive as carved marble, but he could sense her fear in ways he had never perceived anything before.
She had brought this grief into his village, his home, his life.
Abruptly he turned on his heel and strode to the window, turning over her dagger in his hands in the brilliant morning light. Skillfully forged, and very old. A weapon that anyone might fear, but for him—now, for him, what power it possessed. Silver. His only threat… or his one salvation.
He spoke tonelessly as he turned to face her. "My compliments to the craftsmen of your people."
A scowl of disgust darkened Maleva’s face. "That was not meant for you."
"No? Then for whom?"
"For my son." Maleva put her head in her hands. "Bela asked me… but I could not…"
"No. Instead you protected him. Brought him here to spread his curse." Sir John flung the weapon at her feet. "You’re responsible for this nightmare—for the death and suffering he caused."
The gypsy looked up, her gaze moving from the dagger on the rug to Sir John. "He was my son."
"And because of him, my son is dead." In three strides Sir John crossed the room to face her, and smiled grimly when she shrank back. "Oh, don’t be afraid, Maleva. I won’t harm you. I have too much need of you. As you helped Bela, you must now help me." He paused, taking in her astonished expression. "Or do you think it evil that I should wish to live?"
Slowly her expression changed, her posture stiffening. "I did not think it evil of my son."
Sir John’s bitter smile softened. He nodded once, but before he could speak, someone tapped softly at the door.
"Come in," he called out, turning to face the visitor. The door opened, and Doctor Lloyd stepped in, pale and wide-eyed as though he were facing a ghost.
"Shut the door," Sir John commanded.
As the doctor woodenly obeyed, Sir John pulled up his sleeve, stretching out his arm. Lloyd turned back to be confronted by the scar, and grew paler still as he stared at it.
"You know what this is," Sir John said slowly.
"I…" Lloyd swallowed hard. "I saw it when you were found collapsed in this room. The same as… Master Larry’s scar. I bandaged it so that no one else could see."
"Most considerate." Sir John gave him a calculating gaze. "Does anyone else know?"
"Frank Andrews may suspect. Gwen Conliffe seems to have told him about what… what she really saw last night, and I think he believes her." Lloyd paused. "He’s downstairs now."
"I want him to hear what I have to say. Bring him up to me." Sir John paused. "You’d better have Gwen come up with him, too."
Lloyd gaped. "How did you know she…?"
"I know she’s here because you carried up the scent of her perfume. Now go and fetch them!"
"Yes, Sir John…" Lloyd shuffled to the door with several backward glances, pausing once to sniff the air. Maleva watched him go, then turned a skeptical eye to Sir John.
"I’m going to get dressed now," he said simply, starting toward his closet.
Maleva followed Doctor Lloyd.
Sir John had just finished straightening his tie when there came a rather diffident knock at his door. He spared a moment to appraise his image in the bureau mirror; he had been somehow afraid of it, but found only himself reflected in the glass, prim and fastidious in proper mourning black. He could have believed himself unchanged, if not for…
"Come in," he called out briskly, moving to sit behind his desk.
Doctor Lloyd stepped into the room, followed by Frank Andrews and Gwen Conliffe. Maleva entered last, silently retreating to her chair. Sir John regarded them all with solemn patience. He watched Gwen sink into the desk chair opposite his own, her face pale and drawn; he watched Andrews pace the rug, hands shifting restlessly.
"Sir John," Andrews began, his gaze failing to meet the older man’s. "The things Gwen and Doctor Lloyd have told me—how can I believe—"
"I think you do," Sir John interrupted quietly. He breathed a sigh and lowered his gaze, his fingers moving solemnly across his right arm. "In any case, what you believe doesn’t matter. All you need to know is that I’m going away."
Lloyd, still standing by the door, gave a start. "But Sir John—!"
"I want the rest of the village to think me dead. They mustn’t wonder why I should disappear. The people have suffered enough fear and superstition—now let it be buried in the Talbot crypt, with no mystery in my fate to continue to haunt them." Sir John met Lloyd’s astonished gaze with steady resolve. "You must help me, Doctor. You can arrange it; not immediately, of course, but a few weeks from now. You can make the people believe that I’ve died of my grief."
Gwen looked up slowly, her eyes brimming. "Where will you go?"
"I don’t know," he admitted, with a shake of his head. Then his expression grew gentle; he reached across the desk, and Gwen did not shrink from him as he took her hand in his. "But I’m a man of science, Gwen, and I cannot let knowledge be overcome by fear. I want to study this affliction, to understand it—perhaps even find some way to treat it. If not for my own sake… I owe that much to Larry."
A single tear slipped down Gwen’s cheek, and she placed her hand over his.
Doctor Lloyd shook his head. "Sir John… how will you…?"
"I will protect and guide him, Doctor."
It was Maleva who had spoken. As all eyes turned to her, she rose from her chair, wrapping her shawl more closely about her shoulders. "My people have ways. I will watch over Sir John, just as I watched over my son. There will come no harm to him… or from him."
"I’ll see to that," Sir John promised solemnly, meeting Lloyd’s anxious expression.
Andrews shook his head in consternation. "I don’t understand."
Sir John smiled ruefully at the young man. "You don’t need to, Frank. What should concern you is that I intend to leave you all I have. I know you and Gwen will serve this village as well as…" For a brief moment, his voice faltered. "As well as either of my sons could ever have."
"Oh, Sir John," Gwen whispered sadly.
"No, Gwen. Don’t grieve for me. When I’ve gone away, I want you to forget me, and to focus on your life with Frank. It’s a great responsibility I’m leaving to you both. For the sake of our people, it’s the future you must think of, and not the past."
Stepping forward, Andrews placed his hands on Gwen’s shoulders. "We’ll do our best, sir."
Ten days later, the village folk gathered to witness one last solemn procession as it made its way to the cemetery, led by Doctor Lloyd and Captain Montford.
Some whispered that Sir John’s passing was the final blow of a tragic curse which had befallen the Talbot family. Surely, the deaths of two fine sons and their father in so short a time could be nothing else. There were many grumbled accusations against the gypsies whose visit seemed to foretoken the recent horrors, but those hardy and mysterious people had vanished from the countryside.
All save one.
Yet as the villagers gathered to watch and mourn the bearing of Sir John’s casket into the crypt, no one noticed the old woman who briefly halted her cart at the hilltop on the road leading out of the village. Nor did they notice the man who sat beside her, a heavy cloak drawn close and a hat pulled down over his eyes. For a moment, the pair observed the funeral from their distant point of vantage.
As the door of the crypt was closed, Sir John Talbot shook his head and turned away, raising his eyes to Maleva’s. "I hope they can forget."
The gypsy’s thin hand came to rest on his arm. "Have faith that they will find their way. It is your own way that you must now seek… and in that, I will help you."
Sir John placed his hand over hers. "You don’t have to do this."
Maleva’s eyes grew gentle as she smiled. "I know."
With that, she flicked the reins, and the cart rumbled off down the road to the sea.
© 2004 Jordanna Morgan
© 2004 Jordanna Morgan