Whether the snow fell or not, the Count often sat up in his tower watching the world below. This lonely, unappreciated duty had fallen to him once he was returned here many years ago. He would often sit up here to look westwards beyond the road, over the woods and to the Silver River beyond. He would watch for the appearance of those who did not belong to this land.
For many years, there had been nothing to see. Wolfram attributed this fortunate situation to the elves who had taken up residence in the denser forests. He believed them capable of dealing with any creatures normal or otherwise lurking within those woods. His confidence in their knowledge and their skills had been unbroken until he saw the creature at the bridge a short time ago.
If he had spent the past fifty years looking for something he did not think would come here, now he would need to prepare as if change was imminent. Suddenly there were more travelers on the roads here where there had been none this time of year. And the hunters, who had stayed away from him, were now poking about the woods that belonged to him. Several days of snow had kept many would-be explorers and travelers from exploring the cold wintry outdoors, but with the snows again easing, he realized that there were no guarantees that people would not once again trespass on his properties.
He found people bothersome. They distracted him from his need to look west for the Unthings and whatever other dark things that might be drawing closer. He still bore the scars from his encounters with a powerful witch, and he worried about the existence of others like her. For many years now he had not read the Book of Tales his grandfather had left him in a while, and he realized that he needed to begin reading them again.
The sound of steps upon the stairs interrupted his solitary deliberations. His man Hastings cleared his throat before entering the small watchtower room. Wolfram put his glass tube down on the ledge and looked back. He observed Hastings carrying a tray of warm tea and food in hand.
As usual, the old man wore an expression that bordered on disapproval. “Sir, you’ve not eaten in hours. Allow me to take a turn.”
Wolfram gave his faithful manservant an almost fond look. “Should I ask that of you? Your eyes are not as good as they were once, Hastings.”
“No sir,” the man began to efficiently set up a small space on a side table for his master to dine at. “But it is bright enough outside that I do not need eyes such as yours. I know the area from this point well. I can see blots and shadows well enough.”
Wolfram nodded, stepping aside to permit the man to do so. He sat on a small stool and picked up a cup of fragrant tea from the silver tray that was literally overflowing with food. While he waited for it to cool, he watched Hastings, standing at the window with the sunlight streaming in around him. Maximilian remembered the manservant as a young boy standing there in similar fashion, watching the road with sharp eyes and intense focus. The man was focused, but was far from being young. “It’s been sixty or so years, has it not since you first took up that duty?”
Hastings coughed. “I hardly recall.”
“You were a young boy then,” Wolfram mused. “Not nearly as talkative as you are now.”
“I was terrified of this place and you, sir!” Hastings did not turn around, instead taking the glass tube in hand and training it at various parts of the road. “You have no idea the stories they used to tell me when they were preparing me to enter your family’s service. It was one thing being told that I was going to the main household, but I had no idea how large or isolated this place would be. And no one had any idea of what you were like either.”
“It’s been almost fifty years, I think,” Wolfram lost himself in this cup of tea, reflecting.
Hastings had arrived inside a coach sent from the east. His shy clumsiness and fear of adults was fairly evident under the severe training of his previous butler, Watkins. Watkins was not harsh, but he was a perfectionist. As such, he was always apologizing for the boy, who seemed to perform well until the Count would appear and disrupt them in some task. It was only later that Wolfram had learned that the young boy had been fed some rather fantastic stories by his previous master about the Wolfram legacy. His uncle’s stories resulted in the poor child believing that any mistake he made would result in being immediately tossed out into the snow as punishment to be eaten by the wolves or worse yet, by the Count himself.
Hastings came around in time, and so would others. “I’ve received word which one of my cousins is to come here to be trained to care for my master and his family. He’ll be sent with the rest of the new servants in the spring.”
“And so another twenty or so years has passed,” Wolfram contemplated the meaning behind that statement. He put his cup of tea down and pulled out the blue stone again. He dangled it in front of him, marking the seconds of time as it swung back and forth – pulled along by a force of its own.
“Yes, my lord,” Hastings’ voice was perfunctory. “Best to wait until after the eclipse is done. The old servants will leave first and then the new ones will arrive. It will be quite a bit of work to train all of them at once.”
Wolfram noted Hasting’s tone of displeasure. The timing was unfortunate, but Hastings had delayed this transition. He had not been all that willing to let someone new in to take over his duties. Had he been, the old man could be settled in some warm place with his cousins by now and a different manservant would be training the new servants coming in the spring. “A new page will allow some relief of your duties. Even if you live another sixty years by some miracle– I think you’ve done well enough and should take it much easier than you have been.” He said it as neutrally as he could, but knew full well that Hastings would not be around forever. “Besides which my cousins at your old master’s household have said it was cruel to keep you working in this climate.”
“Cruel indeed! As if I could go south and retire and leave you alone with a freshly minted page.” Hastings sniffed from his perch. “Not with that unreliable Giles afoot, causing mischief with the house staff and all. He would fill that poor boy’s head with nonsense and mislead him into a life filled with women and wine. Then this house would be in disorder and my master would be kept from his duties.”
The corner of Wolfram’s mouth turned up slightly in amusement. “I assure you that won’t be that case. Even Giles has his scruples.”
“You know I would rather not leave here, sir,” Hastings abruptly changed tactics. “This has been my home for so long. And you and the unreliable one are the closest people I have to family.”
Wolfram put down his cup of tea and looked towards Hastings. Indeed, he realized, they were very much like an odd little family. He and Watkins had raised him up from childhood to become a useful aide and confidant. As time continued its cruel game with the Count, their relationship switched. Wolfram, the substitute father, had become the son and Hastings had gone from child, to peer, to parent.
“As such, this will be your home as long as you wish to stay,” Wolfram rested his head on his hand and gave the butler a fond look. “But you will still train a new page.”
“Understood, sir.” Hastings did not argue further. “As for the scalawag, I was instructed to inform you that he’s woken just a short while ago.”
Wolfram hid a smile behind his hand, knowing perfectly well that the person Hastings referred to was none other than Giles.
Giles, like Hastings, was part of the Count’s inner circle. But unlike his manservant, Giles was a distant cousin placed here by his uncles’ families. As such, he had the right to do as he pleased in the household, including passing himself off as a coachman and messenger. He did so, for access to certain elements and persons that would otherwise be off limits to him as a perceived member of the aristocracy.
While Giles was not blessed with the longevity of life that Wolfram possessed, he had inherited other Wolfram traits. Among these traits was an impressively keen set of senses – and the ability to track better than any manner of man or beast. He had disappeared shortly after Wolfram’s encounter with Elanore Redley to validate the girl’s claims and to gather additional information. However, due to the continuing snowfall, Giles had not returned as early as had been agreed upon. And the manner in which he had returned was a problem.
“Is he well enough for me to see him?”
“Yes sir,” the manservant nodded solemnly. “He’ll meet you in your study in a quarter hour. And I’ve made sure to keep the other servants busy. They are preparing the food just as you ordered. The others will be rotating in performing watch duties here every hour as well.”
“Good,” Wolfram put his plate down and quietly disappeared down the stairs.