As the sun dropped from sight, a sound of thrashing and rattling could be heard echoing throughout the Wolfram Estate.
The lord of the manor had only just returned from dealing with four rather forlorn stone lions when he observed the undeniably unpleasant noises coming from the second floor of the main house.
He frowned as he took long strides down the hallway towards one of the many stairways in his home. Servants scattered in front of him, cowered behind him, and whispered. They did not know what was worse – their master’s apparent frustration or the moans from the floors above.
Maximilian Wolfram knew that things were not going according to the plans he had set forward for this morning. As he advanced up the steps, he muttered to himself. “The tonic will have to be concentrated much more.”
Behind him, his manservant wheezed as he valiantly tried to keep up with his youthful master. “Sir,” Hastings huffed. “The cook is already reworking the formula according to new specifications. I’ll bring it up later.”
The Count drew to a sudden stop at the top of the staircase. “The cook fully understood the situation already?”
“He did, sir.”
“How–” the Count’s face darkened slightly. “How did he know what needed to be done? Was it your instruction?”
“No, sir.” Hastings did not blink. “Many of them were born into the household of your youngest uncle.”
The lord’s mouth distorted into something of a grimace as he was reminded of his uncles. It had been quite a long time since he had given them any particular thought.
He moved along the hallway wall and looked up at the portraits of these uncles, long dead and gone. His father was probably the most serious of the entire lot of men at home. The rest of his uncles had been loud and noisy, but the youngest had taken a peculiar wife of his own. The children that he had raised were even more problematic as they grew older, some ferocious, others vain, and all insufferably open about their talents. “Then why have I’ve only seen you and Smith going back and forth between these floors?”
The butler nodded. “They have guessed full well what is going on, but they lack experience, sir. Many of them fear he may be dangerous. I’ve been unable to get any of the others to relieve us of our duties.”
His fingers clasped the handle of his cane. It had been a long time since anyone in this household had to worry about any danger inside the home from one of the Wolves of the Northernlands. Nor would they have. There had been no reason to think there might have been a halfling in the house. Giles had been very careful. Until now, that was.
Even so, they should have understood that the man was no danger to them. He glared at the wall, wondering how he had managed to have such insensible servants. “They should know that he is no more dangerous than a drunken man–”
“He is quite strong as it is and many years younger. Even a careless blow from him could severely injure them. And then some have fears about being scratched or bitten and being changed–”
A dark look passed over the lord’s face; it was obvious to him now that their former households had been delinquent in training the servants. “They have read far too many stories. His condition is not contagious.”
“I know sir. But not all of them had the benefit of Mr. Watkin’s instruction. Only Smith and I were informed fully of what to expect. The others did not have any reason to learn.”
Wolfram supposed not. After all, they had come to this home long after his grandfather had passed and it had been determined that he, himself, could no longer transform.
“Sir, in light of this likely becoming a recurring problem, I shall correct this misconception to the best of my ability when I have the time to do so, sir.”
The count’s face softened. Hastings had been working much too hard and was spread far too thin. He was angered by the intransigence of his servants, enough so that he would be glad to send them away earlier if it would not make Hastings’ life so much more difficult. “What can I do to help ease this situation? Shall I have a word with them?”
“Sir, I will manage that. But if you could see to Giles, sir. He refuses to take the tonic. He can tell that you’ve been increasing the density and frequency of doses. As such, his behavior has become quite erratic. It’s not helping to keep the servants calm.”
The Count narrowed his eyes at this additional insubordination. The cane shifted from hand to hand as Giles’ behavior reminded him of an unpleasant situation a lifetime ago.
“He’d listen to you, I think,” Hastings offered respectfully. “You are his master and his lord.”
He was indeed his master or employer, but that was a formality. However, he was also the head of the clan — the eldest living Wolfram by many years. Like it or not, Maximilian Wolfram would coerce Giles to do his bidding, even if he had to utilize force. “He will become even more agitated as the night deepens. I’ll see to this right now.”
Hastings nodded and followed his master to the doorway to where the unruly coachman was convalescing. A sharp rap at the door brought Smith out into the hallway.
“Sir,” Smith bowed.
Wolfram tapped his cane impatiently on the ground. “Has he improved?”
“No sir. He continues to refuse the medicine and keeps attempting to scratch himself so I’ve had to continue to restrain him.”
The Count looked through the open door and into the dimly lit room. He saw Giles listlessly hunched over on his bed, his back to the wall while his hands were bound in wooden stocks. His eyebrows drew together, annoyed. “Hastings, please fetch the strongest liquor on hand. My grandfather’s reserves please. Wait outside with it until you are summoned.”
The butler disappeared down the hallway, while the lord began the process of taking off his gloves.
“Smith, go back in and I will follow.”
The servant did so, earning him little notice from the coachman. However, Giles stirred when Wolfram entered the room.
The Count frowned at the scrutiny; he was bothered both by the intensity of the man’s gaze as well as the yellow tint to the patient’s normally green eyes. “Smith. Give me the key and please take the light out with you..”
The Count kept an eye on his retainer while he addressed Smith. “Shut the door and wait outside,”
Smith handed him the key to the restraints on Giles’ hands and quickly disappeared, closing the door behind him.
Wolfram put the key away and then shifted the cane in hand. He turned all of his senses towards studying his cousin. It was clear that Giles was nothing like his dapper, vain self. What offended him, however, was the faint odor that clung to the man. The smell suggested that Giles’ physical state was imbalanced. He shifted the cane to his other hand. “Have you been drinking?”
Giles hissed his irritation. “As if that’s your business.”
“It is my business,” the Count said coldly. “You refuse your medicine. These antics of yours scare the others into thinking you’re about to lose your mind, transform into a werebeast of some sort, and then turn them into one as well.”
Giles snarled. “We’d be better off if I did. We’d have to stop living behind the pretense that we were normal.”
Wolfram’s voice turned contemptuous. “You know that not to be true. If it became known what our family’s secrets were, we would draw the eye of multiple forces. A Wolf, man or beast, must show caution.”
Giles spat. “You say that only to justify why you hide away from the world.”
“You are mistaken,” the Count’s response was eerily soft. His eyes glinted as he continued to tap the cane with his fingers. “I have to stay here for all of your safety.”
Giles did not hear that last admission. His attention was transfixed on the cane. All the Wolframs knew the cane was really a staff — one that had come from the first Maximilian Wolfram. As such, they all had been taught to fear it.
The grandson of its first owner wielded it now. It was a sign of his authority. “You don’t know what would happen if I did not stay hidden. You don’t know what they’d do to all of you.”
The Count placed the vial of medicine on a table at the far corner of the room before he turned back to address his young cousin. “I would be justified right now in throwing you out. Because of your loyal service, I will unlock your restraints and give you a choice. You may take the medicine over there. Or you can attempt to leave. If you can get past me and on to the gates on your own, I will not send the family after you. But know this! You will surely revert to your other state before the next sunrise and likely will not be able to effect a change back to human shape. The hunters may find you in that state and kill you. No one will come to your aide, nor can I. An insubordinate cub will be left to his own. That is also one of our rules.”
Giles fell silent. In their history together, the Count had never raised his voice against him, never told him he would simply cast him aside. He looked puzzled, almost hurt as he finally responded. “And if I don’t make it?”
“You will take every tonic we give you until you have been restored to your normal self. You will apologize to the servants who are afraid of you but who have been working hard to serve your needs. You will not leave this area until after the eclipse.”
“I’m better outside these walls,” Giles responded defiantly. “There’s still much I can do. Search out things in the woods. Take messages.”
Even if that were to be true, Wolfram did not trust Giles to keep the rules that his grandfather set and which he, as the eldest of the surviving Wolframs, continued to insist be kept. This unusually long and difficult recovery suggested that Giles had used his powers for more than 24 consecutive hours, beyond the point of safety. “You would not be fit for such duty. I can tell you have broken at least one rule already. There was no other way you could have made it to the river and back so quickly if you had not sustained the transformation continuously. Outside, I have no assurance you won’t break that rule again.”
Giles set his jaw in response. “That rule is nonsense,” he declared. “I broke it only because I had our best interests in mind.”
“But it is my rule.” The Count glared. “I do not have many.”
Giles sounded displeased. “The darkness is coming. We won’t fall if we use our power. The others say to not do so because of a few stories–”
“Stories?” The Count snapped. He was deeply unsettled by his younger cousin’s choice of words. It would appear that these new generation of Wolframs had not been instructed properly. He wondered if they, too, flirted regularly with the rules regarding the use of their powers.
They likely had not been warned that to embrace the gift of changing oneself without restraint meant risking a slow slide into madness and a thirst to kill.
All his uncles knew that transformation could also lead to both a physical and mental devolution. Halflings could end up becoming monsters hunted– not just by these human hunters but stranger and more powerful things. That information was supposed to be passed down to their children, and their children’s children.
“They are not mere stories,” Wolfram said tightly. He was not comfortable with the idea that he might have to be the one to admit what had happened many years ago, why his grandfather had formed that rule. And so he did not explain, as he might have or should have.
The coachman likely would not have understood. He was not in full possession of his own senses. “I don’t care. I don’t want to eat that crap. If I have to be disobedient to avoid drinking that filthy water, so be it. Nothing personal.”
“Understood.” His elder cousin answered sadly as he took the key that Smith had given him and unlocked the mechanism that kept the stocks securely fixed.
As the wooden bars sprung open, Giles rubbed his hands. Then without warning, the man exploded forward.
There was never really any real subterfuge with Giles’ strategies. The Count saw through his movements. He knew the younger man would not go for the medicine but break for the door. He swung the cane heavily at Giles’ legs.
The coachman cursed as he felt his legs betray him and he faltered, only to be pushed back against the wall by the force of the Count’s free hand.
The Count pressed the decorative element of the cane against Giles’ jaw, making contact against the would-be escapee’s skin. “I’m sorry,” he said before the inset stone in the cane flickered once. Giles — drained of energy — slumped to the floor.
The count looked down at the man, helpless before him. He may not be able to match Giles gift for gift, but he still had years of knowledge that would serve him and the tools his grandfather had left behind. “I’m sorry,” he repeated as he forced the man to take the vile medicine. “But I won’t allow you to be killed and trussed up by those damned hunters. You and Hastings are the only ones left who I can trust.”
And he was enough of a monster to refuse to let him go.