It would appear that the Count was done with pleasantries.
Small clouds of dust and trails of cobwebs swirled about as the lady guest was swept along in the wake of the impatient man. She breathed heavily as she ran, unable to demand whatever explanations she was due. Her voice caught in her chest, unable to escape.
Outside the wind had begun to furiously gust, a fact that neither of them knew while they descended down sloping paths that took them below ground.
Elanore did not understand how they could move so quickly. She stumbled along in the darkness after the Count, to whom the absence of light appeared to be irrelevant. How it was possible for him to move with such quick certainty she did not know.
Without sight, she could only listen to the ambient noise about her. There were her steps, sometimes muffled by carpet, other times crisp against some type of hard surface. At first, she thought it marble, but then she began to hear the sound of creatures skittering in the darkness, a stone pebble scattering every so often and falling into a pool of water, and the odd thrumming sound in the distance. The smell was cold and dank, a sign they had gone underground.
Then somewhere in this artificial night, a door shut and the sounds ceased.
Elanore found herself lifted and then placed upon a soft couch. She lay still for a moment before she cautiously pushed herself up with her fisted hands. In the darkness, she strained to listen, finding only the sound of herself, attempting to catch her breath.
She had not been afraid when he had pulled her along, one hand in his and her other clutching the stone that was her supposed talisman of protection. But now that she had been abandoned in the darkness, the absence of sound and light grated upon her nerves. “Sir?” she spoke to the air.
A warm breath blew across her neck.
Elanore screamed. Or perhaps, she yelped.
The Count’s voice floated about behind her, “You can not see me, can you?”
A flicker of anger passed through her and she wished fervently she did possess magic, for certainly she would have used the stone in her fist to brighten the entire room. Instead Elanore swung her closed fist blindly at the air.
There was a sound of something striking a surface, but she did not hit him. Instead, the source of the sound was a long matchstick from which a small flame appeared.
“Miss Redley,” the Count spoke as he transferred the flame to a lamp he had placed on a table. The oil in the lamp caught fire, allowing a small light to illuminate the space in the room that immediately surrounded the two. In that dim light his face, cast in shadows, was hard to call charming. Elanore was alert, watching as the man turned his attention to the items next to the lamp. There was a look of something furtive as he shifted the smaller items aside before asking his question. “Do you believe in fate?”
She was perplexed. Had he not insisted he had something to show her? And yet now he was the one asking questions. “No,” she answered primly. “Life is a series of choices. I do not accept the concept of inevitability.”
His eyes gleamed at her. “Miss Red Riding Hood –the girl with all the very reason to believe in luck and fate and who refuses to acknowledge either.” His voice took on a rather provocative slyness. “I suppose there is no need to show you the Book of Tales, after all.”
His words and the manner of tone in which they were delivered had the effect of inducing a strong sense of curiosity within Elanore. She could not help but glance at the table again, noticing the heavy book sitting upon it. “What is in it?”
She was surprised to see his expression soften as his gloved fingers ran over its surface. His apparent fondness for an object reminded her that the man was a purported loner, unused to company. His peculiar mannerisms might simply be due to his lack of socialization. But there, in that look, she saw the potential for normal human affection and emotions. Quietly she asked, “Was it a gift to you from your mother?”.
“No,” he seemed to be quite far away in his thoughts. “My parents were not the sorts to sit about reading that much. This volume came to me from my grandfather.” There was a hint of gentleness about him as he spoke of his family. “He would read to me from it when I first came here. Each week he would give me at least one new story – a story of magic wands, princes, knights, and witches.”
Vulnerability on his part lent him a certain approachability. Elanore stood and slowly drew to the side of the man. She peered at the the leather-bound volume now in the man’s hands, determining it to be a quite plain looking tome. “I have books like that one in my home in the South.”
“But to you they are simply dead trees and ink. They hold no power, for they are mere works of fiction,” the Count answered.
Her forehead wrinkled for a moment, before she came to realize the meaning of his earlier rebuke. These things that she called tales, fairy stories… he believed otherwise! “But to say that the tales are histories, not myths—“ her look was long and searching, “The kinds of things described in them are–”
“Hard to believe,” he finished her thought. His face tensed for a moment, before he seemed to resign himself to her continued questions. Wolfram looked away for a moment, pained at some recollection. “I said the same thing to my grandfather long ago.”
“Not only that,” she continued to frown. “But inconsistent. There is no one version of any story — even the most common–”
“My grandfather came to a theory that the versions eventually point to a true one. I do not know if that is the explanation for the differences in stories and attitudes towards them that have arisen in our different homelands. But to the old families of the Northlands, the tales we tell are not only stories of the people who have gone before but of those who exist now and are to come.”
Elanore shook her head. The religious orders of the Eastlands did not look kindly upon fairy stories. The more extreme factions held any person who spent too much time talking about fables and stories to be fools; those who believed them histories were likely to be excommunicated and exiled from the city-states of the East. To take that one degree further by allowing the stories to be tales of the future would be considered far beyond being heresy.
However, she was a southerner; the sentiments of the Eastlands or the Northlands didn’t matter much to her. She did not reject the idea outright.
“I can tell you think it’s mad,” he brooded. “But Miss Redley, consider that you– who had only heard of elves in stories — believe in them now.”
She looked down at her hands, admitting more or less that she did.
He continued rambling along, a bit desperately. “And could it not be that once you accept one story as true, that you must begin to examine others?”
The woman continued not to speak, still thinking through his points.
The Count mistook her lack of response for doubt. “It is, as I feared, too much for you to even consider,” he said to himself before falling silent.
Elanore reflected carefully. The Count had admitted he once had doubts about the idea but spoke now as if he had somehow been convinced otherwise. “Does that mean you’ve determined some of these stories to be true?”
Her words seemed to revive his spirits. “My grandfather actually did a considerable amount of work to examine this idea. He seemed quite confident that he had matched two stories to real accounts.”
“Are you saying that the book you hold is somehow different?” Elanore pondered his earlier question to her about fate. “–That it is not merely an account of history, but a book of divination or prophecy?”
He set his mouth. “I can not make that claim. The editor of this book is silent on the method of interpreting this book. However, my grandfather did not read the stories as literal accounts of things past or to come, but more along the lines of allegory or analogy. He believed that the concepts, the choices made by the principles actors, and the consequences within each story would match to real stories in the past or to come. The details, however, might be altered by the editor for reasons of their own choosing.”
“But what of the other accounts in other collections of tales,” she countered. “Why are those not equally true or likely to become true?”
“I am not sure that they are not,” he admitted. “However, the two tales he validated are unique versions to this book, as far as I know.” Count Wolfram paused for a moment. His face betrayed some inner struggle before he continued sharing information. “The specific issue of authorship was something quite exciting to him. Typically most books circulating in this part of the Northlands originate from the East. This volume,” he noted, “came not from human traders, but the minstrel elves, who said it had been obtained in the Golden City, their capital far west. They insist that the author of this book and its various copies were not written by the hand of an elf but an immortal.”
Elanore looked at the book with a renewed sense of interest. “Is the identity of this so-called immortal author known?”
He pursed his lips. “It is not.”
“Yet another puzzle,” she thought aloud to herself. It was the sort of scholarly conundrum that would have delighted her grandfather. “And yet there is a commonality with other books, you believe?”
“In many parts, yes.”
She sorted through the various statements, the ideas that the man was asserting. “The wise woman who trained me once said that certain common themes and messages in different religions suggested the possibility of a common origin and possibly the existence of a universal truth—“
He rewarded her with a quick nod. “In a sense, shared story elements and themes may also point to a common source. That many scholars and readers will acknowledge willingly. But—the key difference is that this editor of this book asserts the stories within to be based on true accounts not fiction.”
“It would be interesting to reread these stories with that idea in mind,” she considered aloud.
His face drew itself into a thoughtful expression and he looked as if he wanted to ask something. However, he appeared to change his mind. “Perhaps we will be able to discuss them further, should you agree to it.”
She was reminded that he had mentioned having a proposal of some sort earlier. “Was that your object in inviting me here, though? I am rusty on the tales from the south–” She would not be all that useful in a discourse on comparative mythologies.
“Miss Redley, do not be deliberately obtuse,” he leaned forward, his teeth flashing. “Your willingness to dialogue with me on this further is appreciated, but I desire more from you than that.”
“This belief that I have magic– “ she murmured. The debate was not to be forgotten, after all.
“Yes,” he answered. “You have something that I no longer seem to possess. The lion that moved today did so because you unwittingly gave it the ability to do so. I can no longer command him or any of the others in order to do what they were created to do. You are, in spite of all your protests, a woman who holds a rare gift for magic.”
Before she could argue, he held up his hand. “Miss Elanore. I already know your objections to that idea. I believe that we can overcome them should you submit to my tutelage. All I want from you is to assist this eccentric man in finding a means to protect this place– this home to the people your grandmother cares for and to those that I care for. If I turn out to be wrong about your abilities, we will research other methods.”
Elanore was a deeply compassionate creature at heart, always hard-pressed to turn down a request for assistance. Perhaps she was also weak against those who were persistent, particularly those that had the countenance of being good and well-meaning. “What is it that you fear?”
Her gentle tone of voice signaled that success for the Count was imminent. He let his fingers hover near the side of her upturned face but he did not touch her. Yet.
Instead he continued along patiently unfolding for her a situation that would compel her to agree to his proposal. “I told you that the creature that brought you to my doorstep was a possible sign. In a short time from now, we will face a double eclipse which will cast a long period of darkness upon this land. Days will be as dark as this room as it is now. One creature roaming in the dark is problematic, but where one comes and is not taken care of quickly enough, more will show. Even a small army of shadows will threaten everything here. One of its kind can eat a pack of wolves. A thousand will destroy every living creature–”
“Perhaps they won’t come–” Elanore responded expected, offering a counterpoint that was both plausible and logical. Ironically, she was woefully ignorant of the man’s hand that had come to rest upon her shoulder.
He turned his face away, hiding a hungry look. “Then we pass through the eclipse and assume they will gradually disappear as the days grow longer and the moons themselves also return in strength. Then you may discontinue the studies as you see fit.”
She looked down at her closed fist again, wondering. “You seem confident that I can do something against a possible threat.”
“I believe that you can do more than I can,” he answered perfunctorily. “I have knowledge, but no power. For your effort, I am prepared to offer appropriate compensation and protection–.”
Elanore did not grasp his intent to barter or set conditions for her assistance. Instead, she intently focused on the stone for a moment. Eagerly she asked, “Do you mean I can be taught to use my mother’s stone?”
He had turned back to her, his face controlled. The man was too interested in securing her favor to probe Elanore’s motivations behind this question. All he saw was excitement. “What I teach you may help,” he answered, while the woman looked up at him, her eyes alight with some sort of inner resolve.
He did not know that his words had appealed to her sense of pride and her anger. More than anything, she wanted to be equal to Mrs. Redley or surpass her.
“I will try as you ask, sir,” she agreed. “I will study with you.”
His mouth quirked upwards slightly at her acquiescence to his proposal. Still, he did not want to appear too eager to begin exploiting that victory. “Of course, you must ask your grandmother to approve this arrangement. Her health is important. I will do what I can to see to her comfort–”
“Yes,” Elanore nodded. “Let me talk to her about how best to manage the lessons and the care she may need.”
“I will not keep you much longer then,” the Count leaned forward, his breath fluttering against her neck. “I have one last thing I’d like to show you. However, what I am going to show and explain to you must NOT be discussed with anyone other than Giles.”
She shivered at his closeness.
“This should be our secret. Understand?” His other hand moved lazily down her arm, his fingers encircling her wrist. Elanore was too proud to pull back. Weakly, she protested. “Giles — and not Hastings?”
“Hastings would find it troublesome,” he answered.
“Very well,” she answered bravely and tried not to flinch as he blew out the light.
He clasped her about her waist and guided her deeper into the depths of the mysterious estate, towards a cavernous chamber filled with blue lights like stars.