Nearby, the small wall clock continued its mechanical commentary. Its ticking provided the only noise in the room aside from the sound of two persons breathing.
Elanore regarded the young man with wonder.
In the conversation’s pause, the object of her study wrinkled his brow. The woman’s silence left him unable to determine whether his confession had inspired joy or distaste. She did not smile or frown. Instead her look could be best described as solemn.
Calmly, he tried to keep his wits about him as he stumbled through something to fill the yawning quiet. “I suppose that might sound peculiar to you.”
She blinked once, twice. Elanore considered the possibility that he was teasing her again while oblivious to the cues that suggested otherwise. The young woman chose her next words carefully. “Do you mean the idea that they might be able to read minds?”
A frown played across the young man’s face for the briefest of moments. He opened his mouth and then shut it, evaluating how to continue this unexpected dance with words. Edmund chose to keep his voice light and even. “How dreadful that would be if those stone creatures could read minds. No secret would then be safe from you, no surprises could be had.”
The young woman mistook his tone for teasing and turned her nose up in the air. She matched him tone for tone in reply. “I am not the sort of person who would pry that information from them.”
The reproach in her voice forced him to cast aside his teasing. Edmund reclaimed her hands in his. “I know that. However, at times I do wish you would pry.”
Her chin lifted, illustrating her surprise.
With something like his usual intensity and calmness he tried to explain himself. “I did not mean for us to be discussing the lions or their ability to mind read.” Again he stopped, his lips pursed as if he had more to say but was lost as to how to proceed.
It was she who found the means to urge him to continue. “Then let me restart the conversation again. You were glad that I kissed you and made an utter fool of myself.”
Having been sufficiently provoked, Edmund was quick to respond. “I would never think of you as a fool, Elanore!” He wrinkled his forehead. “If I have been overbearing and overstated any opinions about your choices and actions it is only because I have wanted to protect you.”
“You have always done so,” she answered soberly. “And yet I feel that I often take advantage of your kindness and I don’t want to. I don’t want Grandmother to do that either. What I mean to say is–”
“You don’t need or want a protector,” he finished her thought for her.
She dropped her eyes to their hands, still entwined on her lap. Then she nodded slightly, admitting it to be so.
The birds outside began to make noise, to assert their presence as they continued to gather around the house. Inside the house, the young lady and gentleman paid them no heed. Another long silence had unfurled itself heavily over the young couple. Edmund had turned his head away from the lady, leaving Elanore to once again study the gentleman’s profile as he closed his eyes and dipped his head. This time, she wondered if she had hurt him with her words.
As he slouched and sighed, she stiffened but did not say anything.
The clock’s pendulum swung – ten, twenty, then thirty times — before the wooden box announced the next quarter hour with an abrasive clang. He opened his eyes and watched the sunlight trickling through the window. In a low voice he began speaking to himself. “It is as exactly as our house guest said it would be.”
A queer feeling settled over Elanore as she watched Edmund’s gaze drift. She knew he was thinking of that other woman — his new confidante. She could not really know that this house guest had, in the span of several days, woven her influence over the young man. Edmund had not intended for such a thing to happen, but the stranger had uncannily read his feelings for Elanore and perceived his various moods.
Elanore’s hand wandered on its own towards his. Firmly she grasped it, startling him into a smile. He was back with her for the moment, leaning over her to absentmindedly readjust the blanket. This rather unnecessary gesture only served to magnify Elanore’s concern about this new lady boarder.
“I know things change,” he admitted. “Your grandfather commissioned me to provide a certain function until it was no longer needed. I think I’ve tried to hold on to the role of protector too long.” He had used duty as a convenient reason to linger at Elanore’s side.
Elanore’s fingers stroked the back of his hand, smoothing out his crooked smile. Her presence had an almost magical ability to comfort him.
In this one respect, he had already been in agreement with the woman. If Elanore was possessed of magical gifts, he felt it was of a kind that went beyond the silly lions’ mutterings about energy and power. He believed it was her other more mundane gifts — composure, spirit, love — that would allow Elanore, in time, to become a stronger person than all of the silly lions and Count combined.
Now absolved of the role he had been named for, Edmund felt the invisible hand of the guest in his home prompting him to speak openly. The hunter plunged into the Friar’s story in the same way he had related it to the lady house guest. He did not ornament the account or add his own conjectures, choosing to leave it as bare and depressing as he found it. Unlike Ilva, however, Elanore did not lecture him; instead she squeezed his hand.
Ilva had shown no sympathy. She was not that sort of person who mourned adversity. Instead, she told him that opportunities (good or bad) were always there to be seized and transformed. Transformation, she had explained, was not simply a principle of magic but one of life. Those who waited for favorable conditions would likely waste their lives. Those who turned the conditions in their favor would be those who would be the happiest in the end.
For days he had mulled her advice. Rewriting the story of his life could not happen unless he was courageous… unless he seized the things he wanted.
At the moment, Elanore could not foresee how she figured in Edmund’s plans. Instead, she listened patiently and then with horror as Edmund’s story shifted to describing the nightmares and possible memories that had begun to surface. Her eyes widened as she started to understand why Edmund did not look all that well.
When he stopped speaking, he stole a glance at her and almost lost his courage. She was lovely — even in spite of the unbecoming cap and nightdress that she wore. But he took a breath and gambled: “In the spring, I’ll be leaving on a journey with the lady Ilva to guide me north to find my home. I hope to find kin or something left behind for me to find.” There was a minute pause before he continued. “If by then you’ve had your fill of the Count and his home, I ask you to travel with us.”
Elanore’s chest tightened. She had never entertained the thought of Edmund leaving. In her mind, he was always inexorably tied to Winchester, always waiting here for her. She could not tell him that, for it was unfair and silly. Instead, she reminded him, “I could not leave Grandmother.”
“I ask you with her blessing. She said your mother will be here by then to take your place.”
Elanore furrowed her brow, surprised by the news of her mother. For Edmund and her Grandmother to speak of such a situation meant he thought the journey might be substantial. She nervously picked at the blanket with her fingers. “Are you not coming back?”
“That depends–” he answered lightly. “That depends on whether my companion wishes it so. When the snows have melted and this long winter has passed, I will seek her hand in marriage. Once I have completed that journey to my birthplace, I will be at her disposal to follow her as she pleases.”
“Oh.” Elanore found herself blindsided by this news of his marriage to the lady boarder. How beautiful and persuasive she must be to make Edmund’s outlook change so much in such a short period of time. Her voice was small as she protested the idea. “I’m afraid I would be in the way of both you and your wife.”
“You goose,” he scolded her. “How is it that of all the people only you have not seen what even strangers have? I am not speaking of making the boarder my wife.”
She suddenly exhaled as his meaning became undoubtedly clear. In spite of all the gossip, she had simply failed to believe that there was anything lurking behind the idea of marriage between them. She brought her own hands to her face. “Me?”
“You may find it hard to understand. But I’ve come to realize that I’ve turned down other women because they weren’t you! Even after our letters had become infrequent, your grandmother was boasting of you constantly. It was impossible for me to find any to be superior to you, Elanore.” Had the meddling stranger not had the audacity to claim his feelings were painfully obvious, he might not have been goaded into coming here and telling Elanore what he felt. “Look,” he suddenly sighed. “I know this proposal is sudden. But our paths may shift now towards different, more dangerous directions. Should we not meet again for a time, I didn’t want to have regrets about not having told you what I feel.”
As he stood, the finality of his words sunk in. Elanore tried to stand to grasp at him. “Don’t go yet.”
Weakened by several days in bed, she could not pin him down. Instead, she stumbled towards the floor. Before she could injure herself, he caught her about the waist. She felt awkward and guilty as he steadied her, knowing that she had been far too self-absorbed to notice his feelings. “I’ve been terrible to you.”
Her troubled look prompted his stern face to soften. “You have never been unkind. Should anyone say otherwise I will come back and pommel them until they recant of such a statement!”
She did not laugh as he might have wanted. Her ears were too keen to not notice what he had implied. “Edmund,” her face fell. “Will you really wait until the spring before you go?”
The sound of her uncertainty and fear caused a small hope to flicker within him. He would have given her a straight answer then if it were not for her hand drifting to touch his face.
That touch broke his patience.
Edmund seized that offending hand and pulled her close, enfolded Elanore within his arms.
And as the clock’s pendulum swung hypnotically back and forth, there was another sound, a sound of deep breaths and the rustling of fabric. He impressed himself upon her lips — not a shy, uncertain kiss like the one she had tried to give him the other day but one that expressed the pent-up frustration of several weeks. The young woman’s eyelashes fluttered against his cheek — the only resistance on her part. She relaxed within his ever tightening embrace and listened to his silent plea for her heart.
A small mischievous bird cried out, announcing that it was noon. Eleven calls passed unheeded by the young couple. On the twelfth cuckoo, a pale faced Edmund abruptly let Elanore go. She sank to the sofa, her face blooming scarlet as she smoothed out her clothing.
“I had not meant to do that.” Edmund ran his hand through his hair, shocked by his own behavior. He had no idea where that impulse had come from or why he had behaved like such a wild creature. “I presume too much upon you as is –”
Her hands had drifted up to her face, to check if it was alright. Her lips were leaden as she fumbled for words. “I should answer you…this…now…”
He looked away, clenching his hands to his side. He was furious at himself, furious for taking advantage of her. “Don’t answer me now. I have no right to demand such an answer. My behavior doesn’t oblige you. Be well, Elanore.” With that last request, he left the woman he loved alone in the room.
Her heart beat quickly in his absence, a loud counterpoint to the sound of the clock marking the time. Elanore pressed her fingers against her lips, startled and confused in the wake of her would-be suitor’s flight.
Outside the window, the birds observed all. Then they, too, raised their wings skyward and flew.
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