A stone lion sat on its pedestal in the Wolfram estate courtyard diligently scratching itself. With the master no longer in sight, it had given up its pretense of being in an “inactive” state.
For a while, the thing dozed sloppily on its side and waited for the girl to come back outside. However, when yet another hour had passed, the stone creature blinked its eyes open and looked about vigorously. It called out a faint “hallooooo;” to the untrained ear its cries sounded like a cold blast of wind. When no response came, it hopped off the pedestal and up towards the road.
At the gate, the lion sniffed the air vigorously, searching for the girl. It did not smell her but something else outside beyond the gate. And so with a swipe of its paw, the gate was forced open and the creature pranced to its left in order to look at the Big Lion, the guardian statue on the bridge.
Fortunately for the creature and its master, there were no travelers on the road. The servant left at guard in the watchtower sat dozing while the lion bounded down the bridge and tumbled flat at the feet of the statue.
The stone lion roared a nice friendly hello, generating another gust of wind. The guardian of the bridge did not roar back. Not discouraged, the lion began to sniff about its feet. Its nose uncovered several faint scents about the great guardian beast. There was the smell of the void — the blackness that it instinctively hated. The lion shook its mane, thinking it would like to go find that black thing, bat it about within its paws, and then smash it to pieces. It paused, however, to consider another fresher scent that intrigued it greatly.
However the stone lion was created to prioritize danger before fun, so it ran here and there, over the bridge, under the bridge, and in the water, searching out any stray shadows that might have gone undetected. Not finding any thing of concern, the lion yawned and padded over to inspect an interesting mess of prints on the ground.
There the other scent appeared again and the creature circled about ecstatically for a minute before it stopped, dizzied by its efforts. Then it began to follow this scent north towards the town.
Edmund roused with a start, abruptly sitting up in his bed. He shoved his covers aside, for he was hot and sweating.
Whatever vivid terror or nightmare had gripped him was already fading quickly, leaving him only fragments of images and sounds. What had been left behind in his mind was the sight of blood running red on the snow and the sound of wailing ringing in his ears.
For a long time he sat still, wondering why the dream had returned after so many years.
He looked down at his hand once before washing up and lumbering along to the kitchen. He found himself alone, save for a few notes and a plate of food on the table.
Edmund scanned the first note and felt uneasy. He ran his fingers repeatedly through his shorn hair, wondering why his parents had wandered off this morning to see Mrs. Winchester. But he did not follow for his father wanted him to watch the shop.
He had idled here too long at home, sick and useless. He knew that the guildmaster would not wait; he would likely be already tracking the wolves he had determined had been in the area. And the friar might have already left to make his rounds. And Elanore…
She was the first one he wanted to see. She had cried in his arms the other day, heartbroken over the realization that her mother had lied to her about the past. The sight of her tear-stained eyes had affected him deeply.
Unfortunately, with her absence he had to satisfy himself with the token she had left behind this morning. The plate of food left for him contained a rather unfortunate pie of sorts that may have once been filled with vegetables and meat, but was burnt enough to make it difficult to tell. From its sad appearance, he could tell it was Elanore’s handiwork. The other note on the table confirmed it.
Edmund left the defeated looking item idling on the plate while he wandered about the cupboards and picked through more reputable looking items left over from the morning meal. As he did so, he flexed his hand and arm again, testing for the presence of a sharp sensation of pain. To his relief, it was absent. Even so, he did not look all that cheerful as he sat at his father’s desk in the front room that doubled as the storefront.
He set the odd misshapen item that passed for a pie on the plate next to his chair. Edmund glanced at pie on his plate uneasily, wishing for the courage and the fortitude to eat the charred mess. He gritted his teeth and instead looked at the ledgers.
Normally there would be very little to review in the ledgers, for business was quite slow. To Edmund’s surprise there were several entries to view from the past few days. As his eyes moved past entries for purchases for lamps and oil, he cringed. The coachman and adventurer known as Giles seemed to have stopped in to procure a fan. Dourly Edmund rifled through the older entries, recalling that this was not the first time Giles had stopped for a woman’s trinket of some sort. He could only guess that this man was wooing another woman somewhere.
Edmund set the ledger aside with a sigh. This was the life of a shopkeeper, one in which excitement was found in the silly habits of one of the town’s rakes. Guiltily, he wondered if he should have been studying the former guildmaster’s journals instead, but decided against retrieving them from his room. He had spent enough time already poring through the entries. Beyond his initial discoveries, there was nothing else in those specific texts that particularly spoke to the creature that had plagued Elanore, the elves, or even regarding the strange Wolfram family.
He was about to pound his head on the desk in boredom when a sharp rap came at the door.
Quickly he stood to look out the window and discovered a tall and very stuffed figure standing outside.
“Greetings,” the fur-covered being spoke cheerily as he opened the door.
The fair-haired man realized that from somewhere inside that ball of fur there was a woman speaking to him. Edmund offered polite greetings and allowed her inside. “I apologize, but Mr. and Mrs. Ormond are out.”
“Huff,” she puffed and began to remove a very lengthy stole that she had extensively raveled around her neck. The fur wrap appeared to be cobbled together from various hides of many animals. Edmund held out his hands to receive this rather odd pile of dead creatures.
When she finally seemed to be rid of the scarf, she shed her white coat and rabbit fur hat. It was only then that he could fully see her figure and face. The lady, in spite of her earlier appearance, was quite thin. Her face was sharp and beautiful, with skin as pale as the snow outside. Her hair was fairer than his own, and sat upon her head as a crown of braids. The woman fixed hazel eyes upon him, looking at him quite intently for a moment longer than what would be considered polite or ladylike before she dragged her gaze around the shop.
“I was informed that this store was the only one in this little town,” she spoke clearly, no longer encumbered by that fur stole.
“Yes,” Edmund hesitated, momentarily dazzled by the entire picture of beauty that had been hidden under that treacherous scarf. He had never seen any woman like this before. “Is there anything in particular you were seeking?”
She waved her hand. “I’ll know when I see it, young Mr. Ormond. I’ll let you know.”
Edmund was not all that used to well-to-do customers who seemed interested in mere browsing. While the lady began her inspection of nearly every shelf and table, Edmund stepped back to the safety of his father’s desk to ponder what to do. He recalled how his siblings in the larger towns might handle such a customer in one of their own shops. “Would you like some tea? I’ve just made some.”
She put down a strange little pocket of spices that she had found in a tray, and turned her eyes back towards him. “That’s very polite of you, but I’ve had my lunch at the inn.”
“Did you find it to your liking?” Edmund asked politely, anxious to make some conversation.
“The food is fair enough, but the crowd there is very drunk and noisy,” the lady looked a bit irritated. “There seems to be more guests than normal as well as a gathering of hunters. I am not used to such smelly noisy men drinking during the day. When I asked where else I might be able to more quietly entertain myself while I am here, the innkeeper suggested I visit this store.”
“I see,” Edmund puzzled over this information. He was not aware of any gathering planned for the inn. “I was wondering why the men were at the inn and not the pub.”
“The pub was quite full,” the lady wrinkled her nose. “The town has little else I suppose for men to do when there is nowhere to travel to. I suppose there is even less for women. I’ve been told better accommodations exist to the south by several well meaning people at the inn, but I do not wish to go. It is far rougher there than it is here.”
“Indeed,” Edmund frowned. For a lady of her apparent wealth and background, she would find the Crossroads even worse. “I take it you must be from a town north from here?”
She nodded, but did not offer more information than that and turned her attention back to looking at the items in the shop.
Edmund excused himself in order to retrieve a kettle and cups from the kitchen. He returned to find the lady at his desk, her nose turning up at the air here and there.
For a moment, he felt uneasy, wondering if she was looking at the ledger. “Have you found something you wish to purchase?”
She extended her hand and pointed in the direction of the plate on the desk. “This. The innkeeper does not make sweets, and I’ve been craving them.”
Edmund wrinkled his brow and hurried over. “I’m afraid it is not an item for sale. It was brought over for me this morning to sample.”
He was surprised to see her disappointed look. Good-naturedly he devised a solution. “I can not sell it to you, miss. But if you would sit for tea, I would be glad to share it with you.”
To his surprise, the lady smiled and graciously accepted the seat he offered her. He dutifully sliced a portion of the pie for her and turned his attention to the tea. When he looked back, the pie had disappeared with only an unladylike lick of her lips to indicate where it had gone. “It is quite good,” she smiled, her white teeth flashing impressively.
“I believe it must have been,” Edmund said somewhat faintly, not quite understanding how that was possible that she had found it both tasty and easy to eat. As the lady watched, he took a small forkful of the pie and chewed it diligently. After putting it in his mouth, he dropped his fork to reach for the cup, taking one long sip of tea and then another. And another.
The woman looked at him with great interest. “Are you not going to eat your half?”
“Ah no,” he answered sheepishly. “I’m not all that hungry,” he lied.
“Such a shame,” the woman blinked, her eyes fixed on the remaining cake. “It is rare to have something handmade by someone you love.”
Edmund coughed. “Excuse me?”
“The lady innkeeper told me that a Mr. Edmund Ormond and a young lady were soon to be engaged,” the woman answered. “And I made a supposition that this pie must be from that woman, for you did not look as if you wanted to really eat it but did regardless.”
Edmund crossed his arms, at which the woman exploded into laughter. The sound was startling; it was a strangled choking sound, a giggle that suggested the woman did not often laugh. “Your face speaks for you,” she sputtered. “You do not like the pie, nor do you like the statement I’ve made.”
He tapped his fingers on the surface of the desk. “I should inform you that the lady innkeeper has tied me to several different women over the past few years. These usually were temporary residents — daughters of hunting lords or barmaids who might be passing a summer here. They were often customers here. This young lady–”
“She’s different, no?” The pale lady was still eyeing the cake. “She was at the inn the other day. Not a spoiled noblewoman or a bar wench, I gathered. She had flounce.” The lady made a face at her apparent awkward choice of words. “Not that. I mean to say that she had a lot of energy. I liked the look of her very much, so asked the madam about her. It was then she told me of you and the engagement. Now that I’ve seen you, I agree with the madam. Miss Elanore seems more lively than you, Mr. Ormond.”
In spite of her rather damning assessment, Edmund still good-naturedly pushed his slice of pie towards the woman. He was red in face, though, as he struggled to find a polite way to change the topic. “Miss Redley has her good points. And liveliness is one of them.”
“Ah, and hard working!” The lady looked quite pleased to find her plate full again and eagerly gave it her attention. “I can taste her efforts in this pie. So many spices and tricks. If there was a new idea the young lady cook had, it went into this pie!” With a clasp of her hands, she declared. “Such a level of commitment to making this complex and interesting for you, Mr. Ormond. That effort is why it tastes so good.”
“I’m grateful that you have enjoyed it so thoroughly,” Edmund offered, although quite unnerved to find that a beautiful woman could be so bizarre. He was even more unsettled once she finished eating the food and turned a rather inquisitive and sharp gaze upon him.
There was something cold and assessing in that look, something that made the hairs on his neck rise. Edmund stood somewhat abruptly, feeling vulnerable. “I’m sorry that there was nothing else to interest you. If there’s something you wish to be ordered on your behalf– we can do so, but it may take weeks. That is presuming, of course, you will be here.”
“Oh, I’ll be able to return, I think,” the lady stated after attacking the last few remaining crumbs on her plate with a certain amount of gusto. “I shall make a point to come back and buy whatever lovely leftover trinkets you shall be ordering for ladies like your lovely young miss. Of course, I will be back to see if there are any more pies to be eaten as well!”
Edmund had sufficient manners to keep his composure. “And for whom should these items be set aside for?”
“Ilva.” She smiled, but did not specify whether it was a first or last name, nor appeared all that interest in clarifying that point. Instead she retrieved her coat and wrap, draping her furs over herself as thoroughly as possible. “One last thing,” the lady paused in her task of transforming herself from beautiful woman to bizarre stranger. “I spotted your parents earlier. You look very much unlike them.”
Edmund did not react. Over the years, this observation had been made quite often to him – sometimes politely and sometimes with scorn. He offered a well-rehearsed response in a tone that obscured whatever hurt or insecurity he might have felt about his orphaned status. “I was adopted by them some years ago.”
“Ah,” the lady murmured, giving him another silent and appraising look. “That explains why you have a different air and look about you, Edmund Ormond. You and your lady friend do not seem to fit very well into the fabric of this town. Don’t mistake me—“ she suddenly apologized, as if she could sense his discomfort at her statement. “I only mean that in a good way.”
He nodded, politely.
“And you are now quite upset with me,” she shook her head, again displaying a remarkable ability to read his feelings and thoughts. With a surprising degree of warmth, she added. “I do like you both, Edmund Ormond. Do be careful these next few weeks as daylight begin to wane. “
And with that, she disappeared out the door, leaving a disturbed and mystified Edmund in her wake.