The Count was short-sighted in one other regard — specifically his deficiency was in the knowledge of the discipline of magic. As much as he had contrived to keep secret the mysteries that had unfolded on his property, he did not understand that magic – even in its weakest and smallest forms – left a trail for those with gifts to see it.
In fact, the surge of magic that had woken the lions would not go unnoticed by others far and near. Winchester had been thought dead to magic after the elves had left the area. The eastern part of the Northlands was considered a backwoods full of unremarkable humans, dumb but tasty deer, and a few nomadic types who used a small talent for fortunetelling to hustle out a living.
It would take time before those far away would observe this significant pulse of magic. For now, the first to notice the ripples of magic would be those closest to the Wolfram estate.
At the only town inn, the white lady quietly worked in the sitting room upstairs, her light veil drawn over her eyes as she knitted a long skein of woolen thread into a strange misshapen garment. Her face was frozen except for the movement of her eyes, searching outside.
As little as she said, the children did not find her odd. They had found her here and without asking, sat at her feet to play with their toys. Their reasons for joining her were simple. They were curious as children might be and naturally attracted to her perfect and clear features, the strange cadence of her voice, and the smell of snow that clung to her.
Ilva did not mind them. Her eyes softened slightly as she watched the brother and sister playing. They were among the few things in this town that offered her any pleasure or entertainment.
There was little to commend this town to a traveler like her. Her first thought upon reaching this place was to continue on through it towards her eventual destination. But she had felt an unexpected source of energy and stopped at the inn to sit and listen to what the town had to say to her.
Back and forth she had walked along the road, sensing something powerful underneath her feet and around her, waiting for something.
‘Waiting for her?’
The sound of scuffling came from under the table.
“What’s that?” the boy suddenly grimaced.
The girl covered her ears.
Ilva’s ears twitched slightly at the sound of a faint roaring of the wind. Her eyes looked outside, looking for telltale signs of the winter wind setting debris and trees flying and swaying.
She looked at the treetops and saw that they did not move.
The sound passed and the children yawned before falling back to whispering amongst themselves of the monsters under the earth. They were talking of stories they heard that past week – of the dark seas and caves to be found in the deep oceans.
How easy it was for them to both observe magic and forget it, she remarked silently to herself. And how sad that no one in this town had noticed the innate ability of these children to perceive the unnatural things of this world. How this talent had come to them, she did not know. Perhaps it was due to their innocence, or lack of preconceived notions, or perhaps it was the soil that they had sprung from –soil riddled with the dust of magic itself.
Her thoughts did not linger on them very long. A cloud of glittering dust floated down the road, like dandelion seedlings floating upon a warm breeze. Those who walked outside underneath it would not see the flickering particles. But the birds in the square had keener senses and began to sing shrilly as it moved through them– so loudly that the children abandoned their game to peer outside.
Their faces pressed to the glass, their lips and cheeks leaving smudges on the windows.
She pursed her lips, finding the voice that was at times lost somewhere inside herself. “Gertrude, Cai,” she called to them. “What do you see?”
“Magic snow,” they looked back at her, their eyes round and dancing. “Grandma says when the Snow Queen is near, you can see the sharp flakes and snow dust,” Cai answered solemnly.
“Perhaps you’re right,” a faint smile played upon Ilva’s lips. “You know the story well?”
“Yes,” Gertrude peered from behind her brother at the grand lady. “We were named for the boy and girl in the story.”
The woman nodded as if that coincidence explained everything.
A sound of hoof beats drummed upon the earth. As it drew closer, the children held their breath to see what might pass. Ahead of the advancing horses, a swirl of dust intensified in thickness for a moment, spiraling up and around the road before it began to settle to the earth. The children’s faces fell when they saw it was an ordinary black coach –not a resplendent sleigh with white reindeer pulling a legendary queen behind it.
“Oh,” they looked outside hoping for something else to show but were disappointed when only a hunter on horseback passed through the square with a sharp and unhappy look on his face. “It’s just Edmund and a boring coach. We don’t have a lot of sleighs,” the boy sighed. “People around here like wagons.”
The woman looked out the window down the road after the rider and the coach that had passed north of the square. Beneath her veil, her eyes gleamed. As she spotted another set of persons entering the square, she withdrew from the window and addressed the children. “I have a sleigh. If your grandmother will agree to it, perhaps we should ride it?”
The children glanced at one another, impish smiles painted across their faces. With a few excited whoops and shouts, they scrambled off to find their grandmother.
The lady in white followed after them with a pleased smile on her face.
* * *
An elderly man shook his cane at the small crowd of blackbirds perching on nearly every free and unreachable surface of the village fountain.
“Mr. Williams,” Father Lorrence sighed. “Shouldn’t you be inside?”
Williams was a withered, frail individual. He spent his days sitting at the front window of his daugher’s home, glaring at the young ruffians who veered too close from the road towards the property. But this morning he had given up his usual seat to pace the area around the fountain. “I hate birds! Infernal things keep leaving their mess all over !”
The Friar knew that the old townsfolk like Mr. Williams were quite attached to this fountain. In the town’s early days, there had been nothing here except a well to indicate that this town was much of anything. The people of Winchester had scraped up what they could to raise the funds for a craftsman to build this monument. Gently he prodded the man to give up his fruitless task. “We can clean it in the spring time. We’ll get the young lads over at the guild to help.”
The man ignored him, continuing to brandish his cane at the beady eyed monstrosities.
Novice Wyte watched the old man with his usual sleepy look. “Father, he does not look all that well. Should I escort him back to his home?”
The Friar squinted. Neither his eyes nor his powers of observation were as sharp as they used to be. Wyte proved to be right. The man’s coloring was ruddy. But he did not like the idea of Wyte marching the man back hom, like a petulant child. The friar took a deep breath, intent on using some other means of persuasion. “Mr. Williams, it’s almost time for tea. Would you like to go inside the inn for a bit? I heard that the good folk there were going to make some sort of rhubarb pie. May be the last for a while I’ll be having here and I’d be honored if you join me.”
The old man stopped his cursing. He was not immune to food or a request for his assistance by the respected friar. But he was not so trusting of the young man who followed him. He cast a suspicious look at Novice Wyte. “You not going to hit me up for some sort of campaign, are you? Alms?”
“Now, Williams,” the good father shook his head. “You know I’m not that sort.”
“Ha,” the man gave them a near toothless grin. “Well can’t speak for your young one there.”
“I’ll be on my best behavior, sir,” the novice said humorlessly. “I know better than to interfere with the friar’s pie eating, anyways.”
This statement seemed reassurance enough. The old man gave up his harassment of the birds and followed the gentlemen inside the inn.
The innkeeper immediately rushed over to greet them. He did not have much to do; the lack of customers in the establishment was obvious as they were guided to a choice spot near the fireplace.
While the three waited for their food to arrive at their table, the friar asked the old man a series of patient questions, inquiring after the man’s family and their preparations for the winter.
“Wish I were going south,” the old man said somewhat gloomily. “Another family or so departs tomorrow. We should be with them. But my daughter is married to a hunter and they hate the idea of any of the elements making them adjust. If only I were a friar like you, I’d pick up an go.”
“I go south but not for adventure, I’m afraid.” The cleric’s eyes twinkled with amusement. “My novice and I have been summoned to go head off some trouble. It seems this unusually harsh winter is forcing more people into the towns south of here and creating some rather short tempers and a need for services which our church wants us to provide.”
The old man shook his head. “Too much wine and young men folk with nothing to do, I bet.”
The Friar chuckled. “I suppose we will have to go see for ourselves. But every winter it is often the same thing, followed by a spring full of newborns. This year may be worse, especially since the winter nights are only lengthening.”
“Tch!” The men made sounds of amused indignation.
Warm food and drink shortly appeared at their tables. As the men ate their fill, their conversation became lazy and random. The men fell into an easy, satiated silence that was broken by the sound of squealing children outside.
The sounds were happy ones and there was often very little danger within these parts, so the response on part of the men was slow. Indolently, they craned their necks to look out the windows of the inn. They caught the sight of a figure in white furs walking alongside the innkeeper’s wife in passing.
“Surprised the missus let them out,” Williams put down his spoon for a moment. “Suppose the lady guest talked her into it.”
The Novice broke his usual silence. “Is that the former schoolteacher?”
His supervisor shook his head. “No, but as to who she is, I do not know.”
Williams looked pleased to have information that the clerics did not. “She showed up a few days ago in a fancy white sleigh from the northern parts, they say. Since then she’s been mostly idling here in this inn. Seen her go out for short walks but always alone.”
Wyte frowned. “Traveling alone … not all that wise. I do wonder at these northern folks.”
“They keep to themselves, Novice,” the Friar shook his head at his young charge. “And the ladyfolk are quite adept with weapons too. They descended from a different group of settlers than the rest of our folks near the coast. Not particularly sociable.”
“Perhaps she comes down to trade,” Wyte speculated. “Weapons or goods of some sort.”
As logical as that idea might be, none seemed satisfied by that explanation. They chewed their food thoughtfully in silence and continued to wonder.
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