Guilt consumed Jill as she and Jack stopped at the base of the rocky slope. Another hundred feet and they’d be at the mouth of the Tatzelwurm’s cave. Half cat/half lizard, large enough to eat a man, Deliah waited for a meal that would sustain her until the eggs hatched.
High above them, Mont Blanc rose in Swiss Alp grandeur, white peak against a blue sky, judging with the intensity of a formidable God.
“What’d you say, love?” Jack turned and faced her, cheeks rosy from the climb. His breath plumed, shielding the smile that had stolen her heart.
“We should leave.”
His face fell. “If we go without the prize, then all was for naught.”
She stepped close, clenching his jacket in her fist. “We don’t need to do this.” She wouldn’t allow him to die like she had the others.
He stared into her eyes. “You deserve better than a farmhand’s salary and a barmaid’s life.”
From the moment he stepped into the pub with her father, Jack treated her as an individual—more than a conquest. Another way in which he differed from the previous farmhands.
“We can move away. Get different jobs.”
He touched her face. “It’s not that easy. Let’s give this a try.”
“You’ll die,” Jill whispered. “She only trusts me.”
Eight years ago, Jill saved the Tatzelwurm after she’d fallen over a cliff. Two springs later, Delilah laid three eggs but refused to leave the nest and grew weak with starvation. Jill brought her deer remains, unaware a village scoundrel, intent on having his way with her, followed. The hungry Tatzelwurm devoured the man and gave Jill an egg in exchange.
Upon leaving the warm nest, the egg solidified into solid ivory, its weight and size equal to a half-year’s wages. Every spring, Jill brought Delilah bags of fresh meat while Father promised his latest farmhand great fortune if he helped her bear the load. Jill warned each man of the danger, but all preferred to risk their lives for money. Each one met a terrible death, for Delilah loved human meat so much, she traded an egg for it.
Instead of wealth, Father promised Jill’s love to Jack. He had no right. Jack deserved a good woman. Not a murderer.
He paused near the cave’s opening and braced his backside against a large boulder. Jill sat on the ground in front of him, feet planted on the descending slope to keep from sliding downward.
“Father lied. You won’t survive.” She told him everything about Delilah’s devotion and taste for human flesh. “You mustn’t enter the cave.”
Jack sat and wrapped his arms around her. “She won’t give you an egg if I don’t go. You have to let me help you. When we succeed, we’ll leave here and never return.” He tipped her chin, kissed her deeply, then stood and pulled her up. “I’ll toss the backpack and distract her while you grab the egg. Then we’ll meet at the bottom of the hill.”
They entered the cave. From the shadows, the head and forelegs of a saber-tooth cat lifted off the nest. Jill could feel her hot breath from the hiss that started as a low rumble and grew to a high-pitched warning.
“It’s me, Delilah, it’s okay.” Jill edged forward, but Delilah mistook Jack for a sacrificial meal and lunged. He lifted the backpack, jamming it into her mouth. Delilah shook then lurched again.
“No, Delilah. Stop!” Jill flung herself in front of Jack. A fang sliced through her side. Delilah growled, tossing Jill toward the cave entrance. Jill held her side and watched as Delilah spun, swinging her head side to side. Jack jumped over the lizard tail before it smashed him into the cave wall. Two steps ahead of Delilah’s snapping jaws, he ran, wrapped an arm around Jill’s middle and forced her out of the cave. She tripped, causing Jack to fall with her. They tumbled, down, down, down over rocks and hard earth, landing with a thud at the base of the slope.
Jill struggled to her knees, ripped off her jacket, and pressed it over a gash on Jack’s head.
“Jack, you are so foolish. Why didn’t you listen?”
He lifted the corners of his mouth. “You saved me. You are better … than you believe. Time to … let go of the past and…” His eyes fluttered.
“No. No. No. Stay with me, Jack.”
With a slow movement of his hand. He pushed the egg towards her. “Start over.”