… The king was in his counting house counting out his money,
The queen was in the parlor eating bread and honey
The maid was in the garden hanging out the clothes,
When down came a blackbird and pecked off her nose!
A sound of wings brushed against the wind, wings that took a small owl aloft over a swelling creek and the Winchester home near it.
For a while it blew about here and there, wherever the wind might go: over hill, over tree, over town and homes.
It was not the most agile of owls, but it was diligent. Eventually it found the trail it was seeking and the owl circled and swooped its way down to the ground before it tumbled clumsily into the snow.
“Whoo” it sighed as it rolled towards the feet of a four legged beast, its companion on this journey to this odd little town.
The white wolf yawned and bared its teeth as it looked down at the owl, its version of an amused smile.
“Whoo,” the creature righted itself carefully and hopped a respectable distance from the beast. Even if it understood that the wolf did not mean to eat it, it did not particularly want to run into those sharp canines. The owl folded its wings and quirked its head before it began to unfold its tale of the strange man it had seen.
The owl and wolf would talk for quite a while long into the night of the strange things in this town until the advent of dawn and the approach of hunters in the woods would make them flee for safer grounds.
Far west of the conversing pair of creatures, a wooden swan-like boat sat quietly in the middle of a dark reflecting lake. Clear blue eyes narrowed as their owner watched the images flickering on the water’s surface. She did not complain to the man who steered the boat, instead watching patiently. The lake was mercurial, showing many images at times, and nothing at other times, but what it did show was never trivial.
The lake had long mirrored the pattern of images of people and of this world, hence its name. It did not often show anything new and so she had ignored it for a time while she focused on the issues amongst the elves and the seafolk. Thus she had not been here to see the incremental changes that had appeared once human travelers from the east began to arrive and build homes on the far shores of this subcontinent.
For hundreds of years, human conflict had always been a faraway thing confined to the eastern continent. The dark haired woman frowned, creating a small crease in her otherwise flawless and eternally youthful face as she gazed down at the lake and saw boats coming from across the eastern sea. She wondered if they would bring their conflict with them as they landed upon the Southlands and Northlands.
Her eyes moved away from the image, coming to rest on another – one of a man with grey eyes that glittered in the darkness.
She stared at those unusually colored eyes for a moment before she made a small sound of both consternation and curiosity.
“What is it?” the hawk-like man turned his glance the lady’s way.
The lady continued to stare at the image, wondering if this might be the same person whose image had appeared almost a hundred years or so ago. At first, she paid the young boy little attention. But the lake insisted on showing him as he grew older and always in the company of odd beings — strange men who wandered the woods and then amongst the elves. His aura hinted at something which she later came to understand represented powers that were once like hers.
She had forgotten him among the many faces she saw over the years. Men were short-lived creatures, and she had thought by now he would have been dead. And yet there he was standing in a tower alone, as if he were waiting for something.
She would not come to know what he was looking for. While she was old and wise, she was not omniscient. The lake could not speak, nor show her the dark Unthings amassing to the east of her. They were of little concern to the lake, for water itself could never threatened by those shapeless masses. Even if she had seen them, she did not fear them. She was a creature of all light who could never be harmed by them and had not had the time to unravel the meaning of their existence. Nor would she have the time, for soon she would have to turn her attention to another kind of darkness spreading over the world she watched over.
But the man she watched was not blind to dark things and creatures. Wolfram’s narrowed eyes scanned the road and forest, unaware that Mirror Lake and its watcher’s scrutiny had fallen upon him.
The Count’s eyes strained more than they had ever done so before. With the long shadow the moons cast along their trajectory towards one another, the nights had grown both longer and darker. He knew his other senses had begun to grow stronger, telling him something was wrong with the food he ate from the inn and with the smell upon the wind. They told him the disobedient lion lay quietly on its pedestal below, too cowed by the Count’s earlier display of his fury at its apparent wild romp close to town to run off again without permission.
The lion did not know the world it had woken to, one of hunters who were anxious to use their latest weapons and gain trophies. He did not know if the lion understood him as he tried to explain that too many irregularities would draw notice from those who were naturally attracted to magic. Miss Redley’s powers needed to be carefully managed and hidden as long as possible. The lions must not act suspiciously, for spies of the human and other kinds would certainly take notice and draw unneeded attention this way.
Maximilian no longer had magic that could protect the lion, the girl, or this castle against those with apparent gifts of magic and curses of their own. He was wary of those beings with considerable magic who lived unusually extended lives, whose power and long lives often corrupted and twisted the way they thought.
The Wolf Count found witches to be a particular problem.
One witch had haunted his mother and father for years. The witch had no reason to hate his mother, other than she had reminded the woman of someone from the witch’s long and peculiar past. His father and his six brothers had discovered her deep in the woods after one attack laying amidst a grove of trees, nearly dead from poison. Who or what had finally killed the witch, neither the book or his grandfather could explain. His grandfather had only offered up his version of an explanation, uttering that fate had finally caught up with the woman and corrected its error, devouring her whole.
He had not been done with witches then. Wolfram had the misfortune to acquaint himself with another as a young man. He had been too fooled by her face and the aura of sadness around her to notice the smell of salt and blood that clung to her. When he finally realized what she was, he could do nothing. That he was alive and standing today was not by his own effort, but that of his uncles and the wood elves.
Forcefully he pushed thoughts of the creature from his mind reminding himself that she and the thing she had made him become were all in the past. On land, she was not a threat to him. She could not maintain a complete human form long enough to travel this far inland, nor as a creature of the sea could she. There would be no rational reason for her to come to him now. The witch had taken everything she had wanted from him already– time, youth, love, and the one family gift he now valued most.
Without this gift, he had to depend heavily on Giles.
Hastings was the other person he had come to depend on far more than he ought to. As the sun began to rise, he waited for the sound of his manservant’s steps upon the stairs. As expected, the man appeared in the tower to place an expertly prepared tray at a table beside Wolfram.
A look of worry was evident on the butler’s face as he greeted his master. “Sir. I’ve drawn your bath for you.”
The statement was mundane but the meaning clear. The Count knew he needed to rest but did not move from his spot. “Is there news of Giles?”
“Ah,” Hastings fidgeted uneasily. “None of the servants wanted to venture out last night to town. It was too dark by the time we had finished the other preparations to see the road.”
“Send someone as soon as you can this morning then,” the Count said, a bit sharply.
Hastings did not blink at the slight display of temper. “They are not expecting anyone until at least an hour or more. The lady certainly will not be ready.”
“I suppose not,” the count answered coolly. “But I mean to have Giles back here as soon as possible under our care.”
“Sir,” Hastings hesitated before offering unsolicited advice. “You must not act so hastily. The young lady was rather angry with you yesterday. You must be more considerate to the lady and more careful to adhere to your own directions.”
The Count picked up a cup of tea off the tray and said nothing while taking a long sip.
“Your manners are fine enough for your cousins and elves, but human girls are very different,” the old man said somewhat meekly, attempting again to counsel his charge.
“She doesn’t strike me as overly sensitive,” the Count answered. “She’s behaved respectably.” Indeed, he felt in spite of whatever strange thoughts and actions he had thrown her way she had largely ignored or been impervious to his behavior and words.
At times he had acted in a sort of deliberate fashion – trying to provoke her and test her character and person. But at other times, she had brought out impulses and desires that he could not really explain. He did not mean to be unkind, but he felt almost unable to help himself from wanting to possess and consume her.
He wondered if it was an involuntary response on his part to her magic or that infernal red cloak.