As the Count looked down at the girl in his arms, a look of deep interest marked his face. The interest was not romantic but purely clinical – consistent in manner with someone who might be regarding a rather interesting specimen. He smiled, nonetheless. “You are a most unusual lady, Miss Redley.”
“She is,” the lion purred happily.
Elanore was not particularly gratified or amused by the apparent compliment. She was trying to understand how to respond to a set of circumstances that now included a missing horse, a man holding her improperly, and a rock with a tail waving from its other end — much like an overgrown cat.
“Can you hear it now?” Elanore asked of the man who appeared to be entertained by the bizarre scenario before him. “That statue seems to be talking to the both of us.”
“I can only hear a roaring of the wind,” the Count responded as the young lady squirmed slightly in his grasp. Noting her apparent discomfort, he dutifully set her on her feet. “However, I see it moving.”
“I’m not talking to the both of you,” the lion said mournfully. “I’m talking only to you, Miss Redley.”
She warily regarded the stone creature who appeared offended by the lack of attention it was being afforded. While it licked its paw, Elanore tucked a strand of her hair behind her ear and considered her options. One involved running back up the hill and out the gate, screaming all the way. Her pride, however, kept her rooted in front of both man and creature. “I think I should go find my horse,” she said to herself, thinking it sensible to place some distance between herself and both man and cat.
“It’s fine, it’s just over there hiding on the side of the house,” the stone creature sounded rather aggrieved that she had chosen to walk away. “I think it knows by now that I’m not going to eat him.”
Exactly what stone lions might eat she did not know. She wondered if girls with red cloaks would be on that list of items. However, as the Count had not moved or looked all that concerned about his safety, she supposed that the statue might not be all that interested in consuming people. Even so, Elanore kept her distance as she decided to talk to this thing. “How is it that I can hear you and he–” she pointed at the Count, “–cannot?”
“He can’t hear me anymore,” the lion growled as it turned its head towards the Count. Elanore shifted her glance back at the Count aware what the creature’s statement implied. As for the object of their mutual interest, he stood there adjusting his gloves indifferently.
“Or if he could hear me,” the lion sniffed in a petulant fashion. “He’s being an abominable sort and ignoring me. And I hate being ignored.”
The Count readjusted his cloak and gave her and her attire a thoughtful look. “Miss Redley, I believe we should go inside before you catch cold.”
Elanore hesitated, not quite sure if it was alright to leave the lion alone. “The creature is complaining about you.”
“I’m not complaining,” the Lion interrupted. “Just telling the facts to you Miss– you woke me up from my long sleep, you know, and I’ve not had polite conversation—“
“Do stop your mewling,” the Count raised his cane threateningly at the stone beast. “Unless there is something important to say to the lady or to me through her, you are keeping us from other matters.”
The Lion showed its displeasure by turning its head up in the air.
“Well?” Elanore asked the Lion.
“I have no business for my lord,” the thing grumbled. “But if you would kindly brush off this statue to my left, I’ll have some company when you abandon me —“
Elanore rubbed her nose at the absurdity of being able to talk to a glorified stone that now wanted her to do it a favor. Reluctantly, she accepted her undesired role as mediator and spoke to the Count. “It has nothing to relate. However, it is asking for us to brush off another statue—“
“No,” the Count directed a pointed glare at the statue, the annoyance now evident on his face. “One of them is quite enough as is.”
“How unkind. We’re never a bother, really—“the lion started to whine indignantly before the Count held up his cane and gently rapped the creature’s nose. The statue shivered for a moment, before it began to slowly freeze in place, piping a faint “Aw, goodbye” to Elanore before it fell quiet.
“Goodbye,” Elanore responded politely, not sure if the thing could hear her. She gave the cane that the Count held in hand a second glance, wishing to know more about it. Whatever questions she had, however, she could not ask. The Count was already moving down the path.
Elanore obediently followed him past the remaining statues, back to the front driveway and up to the massive door that barred entry into the Wolfram home. When she caught up with him, she placed a firm hand on his arm.
“I’ll send one of the servants out to fetch your horse,” the Count looked back out of the corner of his eye.
She withdrew her hand quickly, suddenly feeling as if she had made a great mistake in touching him in such a familiar manner. He was, after all, a different sort of person with other customs and rules. Elanore wanted to ask him to explain everything to her. But that in itself might be far too much of a demand between mere acquaintances. “Are those things truly statues?”
He paused for a moment under the door frame. Count Wolfram closed his eyes, appearing to deliberate how to respond. When he finally spoke, his words came forth almost reluctantly. “No and yes. They were once quite ordinary things made from stone quarried from this land. When the elves lived here, it was said that on occasion, a statue would do something quite extraordinary and appear to move. But that was before–“ he stopped.
“Before?” she gently prodded.
“It is not relevant to your question,” Count Wolfram’s voice turned cold.
Elanore would not be deterred. Quietly, she asked “What is relevant then? What can you tell me?”
The man’s silver eyes had wandered up to a specific point in the door frame where wolves battled a sinewy and monstrous figure carved into the wood. “Miss Redley, if you have not noticed already — your presence is causing a series of anomalies to occur.”
“Causing is much too strong a word. It is a series of coincidences—“
“Explain this then.” the Count pointed his cane at the hazel door frame. “After your last visit, the door frame changed.”
Elanore was a woman inclined towards rational explanations. “Could it not be that any changes are normal reactions to cold and changes in the humidity?“
“No,” he said firmly. “I do not mean to imply the normal aging and weathering that occurs due to snow. Look,” he commanded.
The strength behind his voice forced her to comply. She looked at the door frame again. She had been impressed by it during her last visit and had marveled at the intricate manner in which a dozen or so scenes were carved into the door’s wooden frame. Her recollection of it then was of several scenes that were likely inspired by stories told to her as a child.
“The trees,” the man sighed impatiently. “They bear fruit. But it’s more than the trees. The frame itself has decided to narrate a different series of images–”
As she saw the look of frustration flash across his face, she wished she had paid more careful attention to the frame previously. Indeed, any change in the door frame would alarm most people who believed wood to be a generally stable material. Still, the Count’s logic was a bit hard to understand. “I’m sorry. I honestly don’t recall— so I find it difficult to accept what you’re saying.“
“Miss Redley–” Firmly he took her in hand and brought her closer to the wooden frame. Elanore did not have time to protest as he stood closely behind her, one hand secured at her side, and the other guiding her free hand to press against the surface of the wood. He offered no explanation for what he intended to happen, but she felt the wooden surface warm after a few minutes of uninterrupted attention. What might have happened she did not know, for the experiment ceased when the door opened from the inside, revealing a somewhat worried looking Hastings.
“Miss Redley!” The old man greeted her warmly, politely ignoring how quickly his master and the lady in question had stepped away from one another. Instead he offered his own hand to Elanore and helped her across the threshold. “Your grandmother is not joining us?”
“She sends her apologies. Mrs. Winchester is not well enough to make the trip,” she answered from amidst the sudden scurry of activity resulting from the appearance of servants from every door in the front hallway. The young woman did not say more until the coats and wraps were efficiently secured and had disappeared quickly along with the servants to wherever they had initially come from.
When the last door had closed, Elanore was surprised to be left alone with Hastings. In the flurry of activity, the Count had taken the opportunity to disappear yet again.
“My lord likely went to retrieve something,” the manservant offered apologetically. “If you will allow me to lead you, my master will receive you in one of the front rooms when his business is finished.” Hastings directed a pointed look at the basket she carried. “Shall I carry that for you?”
Although the basket was still heavy, she demurred.
As gracefully as she could manage, Elanore followed the butler as he led her down a carpeted hallway different from the one she had traversed on her first, accidental visit. It was a surprisingly pleasant part of the building, one that seemed at odds with what she had seen previously.
Hastings was sharp enough to perceive Elanore’s approval. “My master’s mother used these rooms when she was alive. What little entertaining was to be done was performed here.”
“These rooms are very pleasant and pretty,” Elanore smiled.
“Yes,” Hastings warmed at this statement. “Most women find it so.”
“I see,” Elanore responded faintly.
“I speak generally,” Hastings realized his error. “The female staff think so.”
The implication of that statement was nothing more than humorous to Elanore, but the manservant reddened, mortified by his own words. Somewhat nervously he continued to chatter. “During winter, we do not usually open these rooms, but my master made an exception for you and your grandmother.” Hastings opened a rather tall set of doors that appeared to lead into a rather formal room, filled with antiquities. The items were far older than the types of things found in her grandmother’s home, a sign that the Count’s mother had significantly old-fashioned tastes.
Hastings offered Elanore a seat at the table by the window. As she turned her head to the window, she was a bit startled by the view of the statues in the courtyard. Elanore turned her head away from the sight of them, wishing she could draw the curtain shut. Their pert eyes seemed to be avidly watching her.
“Did you know Mrs. Wolfram?” Elanore asked, trying to think of something other than those lions in the courtyard.
The man paused in tending the fireplace. “No, miss. I was not fortunate enough to have met the lady. She had passed before the start of my tenure here.”
After that, he offered nothing further in conversation. As he excused himself somewhat meekly a few moments later, Elanore wondered if she had stumbled onto a topic forbidden for discussion. It worried her that she had somehow offended Hastings, who was the far most likeable and straightforward person in this household.
She reflected for a moment, trying to understand why those who lived under this roof were so reluctant to speak and were so mysterious. Her eyes wandered around the room, looking for any hint of the woman who had once used these rooms, a portrait or a miniature of some sort. It occurred to her then that the only portraits she had seen in the house thus far had been in that strange room of books.
She found their absence from this room to be most peculiar.