Elanore continued to sit for a long time, engaged in a moment of quiet reflection while elsewhere servants frantically tended to their preparations. While they labored, she struggled herself – trying to understand the Count’s strong belief that she possessed some ability to perform impossible feats.
Something drove that belief, something that no exploration of the grounds — with its pathways, statues and the carved door frame – or of the interiors of its buildings could reveal. She could not make sense of the contradictions – the warm inviting rooms like these contrasted to the gloomy chambers or long hallways she had seen in her first visit to the estate. The voices inside the house were confused, at odds.
Perhaps the man was at odds with himself.
Finding her spot by the window to be a bit chilly, Elanore rose from her seat to warm her hands by the fire. As she stepped near the hearth, she noted a pair of small statues near her feet and knelt in her long skirts to look at them. She smiled for a moment, as she recognized them to be rabbits or hares. Neither appeared to have that strange lifelike quality she had noticed about the outside statues. Still, she found them to be endearing. Her fingers had just reached out to touch them when there came a startled, “Miss!” from the doorway.
Elanore had no idea how dangerously close the skirts of her borrowed gown were to being set on fire until the housekeeper had pulled her from her spot. They were so busy with their inspections of her skirts that neither woman noticed a maidservant quietly place a tray on the table and quickly scurry out, frightened.
A shadowy presence had taken up in the corner of the room, behind a draped curtain that hid the door to the back hallway. The Count had slipped in to the room before the housekeeper had made her appearance. He should have declared himself when he had entered, but the sight of Miss Redley sitting amidst his beloved mother’s things had a peculiar effect on him. His normally impassive features had begun to soften as he observed Elanore take an innocent pleasure in her surroundings.
The housekeeper noisily preempted Wolfram’s studies of the young woman with a comment that surprised him. “My dear, do be careful. The master is such a particular sort who notices imperfections. Do be careful not to burn this fabric.”
The housekeeper was generally correct on many things. She was, after all, quite observant. That said, the Count did not care to have the servants dictate how he was perceived by Miss Redley. He stepped out from the curtain from behind which he had been hiding, pretending he had just arrived. “Mrs. Coombs, what Miss Redley wears is of no concern to me.”
“Sir,” the housekeeper bowed.
Elanore turned her eyes towards the Count, her smile fading.
“Is there something the matter?” he inquired, wondering why both women had grown terribly silent.
“There is not,” Miss Redley looked away. She had misunderstood his words in some way. “I was admiring the statuettes by the fireplace, my lord. Were they locally acquired like the statues outside?”
Her tone of voice was formal. The Count responded in equal fashion. “The statuettes were brought as a gift to my mother by one of my relatives from the coast.”
“I see,” she looked at them once more before turning away to study a clock against the wall. She sat down and said nothing more while Mrs. Coombs prepared the tea.
The silence between the young guest and the Count began to lengthen awkwardly. When Hastings arrived, Mrs. Coombs shot him a look of relief and left the room to take up her station outside, somewhere further down the hallway. Hastings took one glance at the gentleman and lady, both seated somewhat unhappily across from one another, and began to ply each of their plates with an overwhelming amount of food.
That action drew the attention of both guest and master, with the guest raising her fingers to her lips in surprise and her eyes silently appealing to the manservant to stop.
“Do oblige me, miss,” Hastings whispered. “The master has not eaten today, and your presence gives me an excuse to fill his plate more than normal.”
She stole a glance at the Count, whose irritated expression indicated that he apparently had heard every bit of the butler’s confession. Elanore lowered her eyes, covering her smile with her hands.
Hastings’ amusing speech went a long way towards dispelling the tension that always seemed to exist between the Count and Miss Redley. Whereas his master had failed to be charming and entertaining, Hastings excelled — finding ways to engage her opinions of the china, the refreshments, and even the furnishings in the room. Hastings did his master a great service, letting Count Wolfram simply observe and learn what pleased the lady and what did not. Gradually, he began to participate in the conversation with a few offered comments here and there. Slowly, when Miss Redley had been eased to a point where he felt he could be heard, he began to speak seriously.
“Miss Redley, before I put forth the issue that I had wished to discuss with both you and your grandmother, I apologize that I could not be more direct a few moments ago. Some information I wished to relate to you could not be shared with anyone except Hastings or Giles.”
She considered the explanation for his odd silence in the housekeeper’s presence. It was not wholly satisfactory, but she graciously accepted it with a nod. “And this information – may I tell my grandmother all of what you will share?”
“Of course,” the Count leaned back in his chair. “However, what you decide to tell her is at your discretion. Although you perhaps are not the kind of person who keeps secrets from your family.”
Elanore paused. His statement had reminded her of the one secret that her family had failed to share. She set her jaw slightly. “I do have the ability to be discreet when necessary. My work does not always allow me to be so free with my family.”
“Your work,” he raised an eyebrow. “I do not believe you mentioned that you had a profession before. Does it involve magic of some sort?”
“Indeed not,” Elanore looked alarmed. “I’m no witch. I am an apprenticed healer.”
Wolfram tapped his fingers on the surface of the table, considering her statement. Elanore felt nervous as his voice changed slightly. “Forgive me, Miss Redley. Your luck, combined with what I perceived to be a rather strange sense of curiosity about your environment and your unusual gift for attracting new creatures did lead me to think you were a witch. Your cloak—“
Elanore swallowed. “The red cloak was my mother’s. She wore it often after she had left Winchester. I took it from her when I began my journeying as well.”
“I see. And I suppose you will also tell me you do not believe in witches just like you don’t believe in elves, Miss Redley.”
“But I do believe in them” Elanore offered softly.
The Count bestowed Elanore with an ironic smile. “Then there is at least one thing we can agree on. It is a start, I suppose.”
Elanore’s cheeks reddened, surprisingly affected by his almost friendly words and expression. “Have I been that difficult?”
“Difficult, no, Miss Redley. I have not done an adequate job of answering questions and providing you information that you desire.” Wolfram’s long, elegant fingers reached into the interior of his velvet coat, from which he procured a folded document. Elanore watched with great interest as the man reached across the table and placed a folded map at the side of her plate. “Consider this the first piece.”
She looked up for a moment, affirming whether it would be alright to handle it herself. He nodded once before taking another slow sip from his cup of tea.
Elanore carefully unfolded the delicate map. As she did so, she suspected there was something uniquely strong about the paper upon which the map had been committed. It was a neatly drawn map, but she was puzzled by an undecipherable script that covered it in parts. Her forehead wrinkled slightly as she turned it about in her hands a few times. After a few minutes of studying the paper, she looked back up at the Count, who was staring out the window. “This is a map of this area, is it not?”
His eyes slid back towards her and he leaned forward in interest. “Yes. Are you able to understand the characters?”
She shook her head, unaware of how closely he was listening.
“It is not a key, but an old riddle.”
“And so brothers split, one traveled to the golden shores,
the others stayed to guard the gates.
The Fire flew to the West.
The Wood stayed to the East.
The Ice sparred with the Dragons of the North.
But none chose the witch of the sea,
Not even the dead in the lion’s den.
“What does it mean?”
“It refers to the elves that you believe in, Miss Redley,” all of a sudden his shoulders slumped. “The Wood elves included those who stayed here in this area, who settled this land and who had to leave it once man began to enter the area with his strange new weapons.”
“If it is a map of the area,” she looked at the paper. “I think I see where the village should be—“ her voice trailed off. “I don’t quite know what to make of the round symbols.”
“Those are elven villages.”
“So it is true, then,” she thought aloud. “Elves lived here in Winchester.”
He corrected her. “Not only that, but they buried their dead in the ground over there–”.
Elanore turned her head in the direction in which he pointed. As her eyes followed the line of his outstretched fingers, they widened as she began to understand.
The Count was pointing at the field of statues, the lions’ den.