The estate was expanded years ago under the former Count’s supervision. However, whatever splendid modifications were made to the home, they were nothing in scale compared to the attentions given to the area underneath the grounds of the estate.
Long ago the elves had burrowed here, unearthing the stones of light for mysterious purposes. As they worked silently in darkness, they left a series of tunnels and corridors deep underneath the land where the Wolframs came to settle. When the last of their descendents left to move west, the elves gave the task of guarding the secrets underneath the grounds to the small band of humans they had come to trust.
Wolfram’s study was one of the oldest rooms in the home and hid the main entry point to the underground caverns. As such, it was the most preferred room in the estate for the Count and where he conducted serious business matters. To get to the study from the tower, the man had to spiral down old stone steps to the start of a long mazelike passage that sloped gradually deeper into the earth. He moved down the same labyrinth of wooden paneled walls that Hastings had earlier led Elanore Redley before stopping at a certain spot.
With gloved fingers, he touched the panel a particular way. There was a slight click before the panel yielded to him. As it opened, he entered the octagonal shaped room and allowed his eyes to adjust to the darkness. The only light in the room was what filtered through the old, weathered stain glass that lined the top of the wall on the southeast corner of the room.
As chilly and dark as it was, he did not care for a fire. Over the years, he had grown accustomed both to darkness and cold. This was an aftereffect of the cruel treatment he had received long ago, sometime after he first left this estate and before he returned years later. Instead, he permitted himself to light one small candle to aide him while he uncovered the large leatherbound Book of Tales that had been left forgotten underneath a pile of maps on a stand. It had been more prominently and respectfully displayed in this study when his grandfather was alive but now sat largely forgotten amidst the other various odds and ends.
Wolfram wiped the dust off the heavy leather cover before flipping the tome open. He barely glanced at the inscription by its long-forgotten author “E.S”, impatient to look at its contents. Maximilian moved pages quickly out of his way, passing entries on the Sea Witch, the Sleeping Prince and the Snow Queen. These were tales he did not need to dwell over, for he knew their subjects well enough. But he paused for a moment when he came to one entry, and looked up from the book, letting his gaze wander back to the covered portrait above the fireplace.
His grandfather had loved the subject of that portrait dearly. The Swan Queen was admired openly by his grandfather — not for her legendary looks, but her tenacity and her courage.
It pained Maximilian to think that the long-ago pilgrimage to find her did not complete the way it had been intended to. The letter that had been written to be given to her never did manage to get delivered. Worse yet, even after the devastating encounter with the Unthings, he made a foolish, terrible mistake that would ultimately cost him and his family dearly.
He realized a few days ago how much he needed guidance – from someone as learned as his grandfather or from someone as strong as the woman in the portrait. But there was nothing except this book and perhaps the counsel of a few entities who could truly understand and make sense of the situation that was developing. He was not one of them.
The Count returned his attention to the book, flipping past the entry on Unicorns before settling on the pages describing the Unthings. As he reread the somewhat contradictory theories and stories regarding these shadowy things, he grew steadily more irritated. With a bit of morbid preciseness, he took a quill in hand and after warming the ink bottle by the candle, began to amend the author’s note about the typical domain of such creatures. “Never found in well-lit areas,” became “Usually not found in well-lit areas.” The phrase “Unlikely to attack,” was amended to note that the creatures sometimes showed an aggressive nature.
So intent was he in revising this entry that he did not notice the quiet steps that came from another entrance hidden in a shadowy corner of the room. A gentle cough was the only warning he received that he was not alone.
Wolfram abruptly turned to glare over his shoulder. He directed his pale-colored eyes at the tall, lanky man who had likely been observing him for some time.
“Didn’t mean to disturb you,” Giles apologized. “Just saw you studying your grandfather’s book there.”
The Count nodded and returned to amending the entry in the book. Giles stepped beside him to inspect Wolfram’s work more closely. “According to my grandfather, your grandfather was rather obsessed with updating that book every time your uncles returned from their various outings.”
Maximilian nodded. The additional inserts in the book suggested as such. “It’s a practice that I let lapse,” he set his mouth into a grim line. “I’ve not needed to update this book in years. The elves who left have sent no word and neither have our cousins.”
Giles leaned against a heavy oak table and took out a pipe from inside the front of his vest. He toyed with it as he thought aloud. “It can not be helped, I suppose. They’ve likely grown complacent over time and rather accustomed to the land. Although, I suppose we all were wrong to be so lax. It was always a matter of time before someone or something would come this way, don’t you agree?”
The Count sighed. “I don’t feel like debating that last point, Giles. If you have something to relate, do tell me. What of the Unthings?”
His cousin grinned, clearly used to the man’s lack of humor and patience for stories. “Well, I did not spot any new creatures along the routes I took. There is a lack of them, although there are signs of birds and other things still hiding out there. But I didn’t go looking too far beyond the road. There was simply not enough time.”
Wolfram had noticed the birds out and about a few days back during that strange encounter with the young hunter in the woods. But he had not given them the same notice that Giles apparently had. He would have to watch the skies more carefully. “What did you see on the road?”
“Not enough, I’m afraid.” Giles shook his head. “I barely smelled the snowstorm before it was upon me. The snows caught me off guard and wiped out quite a number of tracks on the road that I was trying to sort out. It was falling quite fast before I made it even halfway down to Crossroads.” Giles may have noticed the Count’s somewhat glum expression. “But not all was lost. The girl’s story I was at least able to confirm. Several folks at the inn where the coaches dispatch from did say she was there alone. She left town alone as well. However–” Giles paused.
“Other tracks?” Wolfram’s forehead creased ever so slightly, trying to recall what he had seen from his own inspection on and around the area of the bridge.
“Indeed.” Giles started to prepare his pipe. “There were other tracks in parts that overlaid her own. One set of human tracks. Another from a horse with a rider.”
At that statement, both men narrowed their eyes thoughtfully.
“I did not see anyone pass this way the evening Miss Redley came through,” Wolfram said somewhat uneasily.
They stood silently for a moment, weighing out what altogether this information might mean. A person following her could have darted back into the woods and skirted the road entirely, avoiding the road in these parts. But that sort of behavior then implied that there was something they did not want noticed. The presence of such a person was a rather suspicious development that did nothing to allay Wolfram’s already frayed nerves.
“No normal creature would have stayed out there in the snows of the last few days. Even I couldn’t manage it,” Giles puffed up slightly.
“Perhaps someone slipped in that morning I was visiting Miss Redley,” Wolfram said nonchalantly as he could. “You’ll have to humor me and go look about town and find out if there are any new faces.”
“Aye, I’ll head to the inn for a draft,” Giles grinned. “Been meaning to see if Miss Redley’s arrival might be signaling an entire invasion of pretty lasses. I’ll finish putting in a word of warning to the townsfolk as well, provided that the Mayor hasn’t beaten you to it.”
The Count had forgotten the other townsfolk. While he had warned the Mayor, he had not followed through to determine what rumors and stories might already be circling about in town.
“Speaking of the Mayor,” Giles twirled the end of his moustache slyly. “I’ll take the lovely young Miss Redley a message from you, if you like.”
Wolfram could tell that Giles’ thoughts about the young woman and himself were hardly innocent. He rewarded the man with a very unamused glare. “I do not doubt you will manage to find and alert every woman in town about the dangers to them. But do not make those warnings too lengthy. I do, in fact, wish you to take a message to the Mayor and her granddaughter, but not until you see to the young hunter I found wandering about this property while you were away. “
Giles’ grin faded. “Not the same weasel you found poaching on our lands!” Giles almost bared his teeth. “I could arrange for a bear mauling or two if you wish.”
The man’s easy transformation from a caddish coachman to dangerous guard did not alarm Wolfram. After all, they were related by blood and raised in similar fashion to hide their ‘fangs.’ The Count did wonder if Giles truly did have any sway with the bears, but ignored the comment. “It was not that man. The trespasser is the fair-haired one who is acquainted with Miss Redley and the Mayor. I found him wandering about near the bridge, with only a sword. He claimed to have some knowledge of what had happened to Miss Redley there.”
“A sword makes for poor hunting,” Giles rubbed his goatee thoughtfully. “From your description, it sounds like your visitor was Edmund from the Ormond family who runs the tradepost in town. I’ll see what I can figure out. Is there a message I should take to him?”
Wolfram tapped a finger on the surface of the book, thinking. “Hn. I don’t quite know what needs to be said. But I was less than polite when I encountered him. He might be injured.”
Giles whistled at the mention of injuries. “So you beat the crap out of him.”
“I was not in the best mood when I found him on property,” Wolfram raised one eyebrow, admitting that much. “But he held his own. He did not receive really more than a mild blow as a result. One as young as he is recovers quickly.”
There was a sound that came from his cousin that sounded like suppressed laughter. “I’ll go see what’s up with the lad then and make a beautiful, heartfelt apology on behalf of my temperamental master. And then,” Giles smiled devilishly. “I’ll make my way to the inn, do some snooping about as I usually do, and then procure you some more pies from the pub of course.”
At that last statement, the Count’s eyes glittered. “I shall make a point to dock your salary if you do so. You should have not given me those foul tasting things—“
Giles held up his hand in apology. “Would you have believed it had you not tasted it yourself? The special spices and meats at this time of year are a puzzling development. We seem to be inviting all sorts of strange things northward,” Giles took an opportunity to light up his pipe and then exhale a large fragrant ring of smoke. When he finished, he continued. “Crossroads was filling up with new faces.”
“This town may soon as well,” the Count closed the book loudly. “We’re too unguarded here. You and I are not enough to deal with just Unthings and keep an eye on all of these new elements and persons.”
Giles patted his swords and knives at his side somewhat proudly. “You know I can deal with people well enough, but Unthings are beyond my abilities. I’ve never had the pleasure of encountering one for myself. And if I did I don’t have any sort of ability to do anything about them, except run from them.”
Wolfram did not find much humor in Giles’ statement. Anxiously, he began to pace the room. “In our case, running away from them is not an option.”