Their conversation would have to be delayed while the large band of Wolframs were settled at the estate. The logistics of hosting so many persons posed a novel problem for the Wolfram household. Visitors were rare and were not often prolonged guests of the Count. That they arrived at an unexpected hour was one complication, but the addition of inhuman creatures running about everywhere scattering these visitors was another unnecessary concern.
The stone lions’ misbehavior resulted from boredom. They had tired of searching for the unmarked totems on their master’s map and significant deposits of blue stones outside the estate. Deprived of more affectionate company (for their master did not indulge their mewling requests for attention or permit them to stalk a certain young lady and gentleman in town), they pounced greedily upon the newly arrived guests. They had a grand time talking at the visitors who misunderstood them, unable to see that their gusts of wind they created bothered them. They somehow missed that their large and novel presence made the smaller two-legged beings cry. It took a few swipes of a cane at their heads to make them stop their foolishness, and another pointed glare by a very aggravated master to send them off to the side of the house out of the way. There, they attempted valiantly to behave for a time but soon resorted to rolling in the snow in order to amuse themselves.
Once the pests had been removed, the crowd was able to finish passing through the courtyard and reorganize along the circular drive that faced the great wooden door. As it did so, the Count stepped aside and allowed Giles and Hastings to sort out the details of who to put where. Their joint priorities were to get everyone quickly inside before being resettled somewhere on the property.
Maximilian stood off on the far side of the stone steps of the major entryway, his eyes looking at procession that passed him. Marrok kept close, giving him names and ages and some descriptions of persons that passed through the door. This information would help the Count remember which cousin was which.
Maximilian was attentive to these details, as well as the nuances to his younger cousin’s voice as he explained certain skills and strengths of people. A small smile played about the Count’s lips while he listened. While Marrok was careful in his choice of words, his tone often revealed his true impressions about each person. It was these unspoken comments that Wolfram valued the most.
But he did not only value Marrok’s judgement. The Count had good reason to be fond of the man. Marrok had descended from Maximilian’s youngest uncle, who according to many accounts loved Philip Wolfram most of all the brothers. Of the six sons born to the first Maxilimilian Wolfram, it was the eldest who saw to his youngest brother’s well-being and education once their mother had passed away. His uncles would joke for years afterwards about the “duckling” traipsing after Philip. That affection between brothers would be extended to Philip’s wife and son once they, too, made their home here in these Northernlands.
Therefore, if there was any hint of softness within the Count’s heart, it would be for this clan and his kind uncle’s descendants. It was no coincidence that Giles had come from this clan, for he would not have felt compelled to accept any man from the other clans. Giles had come under the pretext of a favor to a then younger Marrok some time after the incident with the runaway bride. Maximilian had been asked simply to “house the troublesome welp” during a time when the clan was in an uproar.
He had accepted Giles thinking he would be scaring the young man into better behavior. It took him quite a while to realize that Giles was simply a free-spirited young man who didn’t care much for the traditions of his own clan. Only years later did he see that Giles may have been an unwitting pawn placed here to keep a pair of eyes upon him while providing the rest of the clan some reassurance that their eldest leader was still functioning.
Their concern or mistrust was not unexpected. He could offer no reason or information on the missing woman’s whereabouts and had likely brought suspicion upon himself in his silence. He did not know what assurances Giles and Marrok had to offer the others, but he always suspected that the clan feared he had become cruel or insane.
Ironically, Giles had done simply more than provide insurance to the clan. The young man had been blessed with a sunny disposition that defied the Wolfram temperament. Likely the young man kept the others from suspecting worse of the Count while keeping the Count from falling deeper into his own seclusion. For that, Maximilian could be grateful to both the young man and the cousin who had interfered on his behalf.
It was the sound of this wise cousin’s voice that brought him back to the present. Maximilian almost smiled at the man, indeed feeling better than he had in past weeks with the appearance of so many peculiar people and creatures. He ran his fingers over the wooden door frame, the door that had recently predicted the assembly of wolves in such a place. It would remain to be seen how many wolves would gather here and what new predictions the door would reveal in the days to come.
With the crowd now safely inside, both men waded through the entrance and into the mass of people in the foyer. Guests and servants were packed in every which way, spilling into the hallways that led away from the entrance. The din was subdued, for there were many tired and hungry amongst the travelers.
“I apologize for the children,” Marrok sounded annoyed as he saw a small group head away from the others towards the kitchen. “They know better than to ask for food at such an hour. They were all ordered to go to bed.”
A faint memory stirred in the Count’s mind, one of a long journey for him when he was young like them. His hand in his grandfather’s, he had walked through the gates and onto this land, uncertain of what he would find in this new place. All of a sudden he felt very old, very much out of place and time. “It’s alright,” Maximilian answered gruffly. “Today they are likely tired and frightened.” He hesitated, realizing he was echoing someone else’s words from the past. “Tomorrow there is plenty of time for discipline.”
Oblivious to the Count’s sudden distress, Marrok rubbed his eyes in exhaustion. “We’ll restack those supplies in the morning. And perhaps tomorrow we’ll send some of our more careful men out for food.”
The Count was relieved to fall back to matters of business. “Giles can accompany them if needed. There’s a town south where they should take care to buy things in small quantities.”
“Giles looks piqued,” Marrok commented bluntly. “We shouldn’t bother him.”
Maximilian understood that this was more a warning than an expression of concern. “He seems to have taken to overutilizing his gifts. He was warned and disciplined accordingly. But he is recovered–”
“I see,” the other man crossed his arms over his chest while they continued to watch the flow of people begin to disappear up stairs and through corridors. “I could retrain him.”
“Having many of our kind around should be enough,” the senior Wolfram responded. “I fear that with just another lone wolf to keep him company that he has picked up quite a few bad habits. This regrouping of our clan should help. Perhaps he might also find a wife among those who gather — one who might be able to keep his interests more focused.”
“You mean to send him away? That won’t go over very well with the others.”
“No,” the Count shook his head. “I mean to allow him to settle here.”
The supposed minstrel leader blinked in surprise. “You have mellowed, cousin. You know that means you you may have both children underfoot and a strong Wolfram woman to deal with. You who had vowed to live alone–”
“There is always a time for change,” the Count frowned. “It is simply a precaution.” He did not like how the other man looked at him, as if he had suddenly become soft. There was a weakness to this current arrangement. Without more help, the increased intrusions by humans were making things quite unmanageable for him. He wanted to adjust to the changing situation and to do so, he had to begin to make several decisions. “It will do him well to have some responsibility.”
“A wife and sons might do that for him.” Marrok muttered. “But mind you, a clan woman is a terrible frightening creature. You saw my wife, yes?”
“She appears to be carrying another son for you,” Wolfram said slyly.
“Two sons,” the man looked rather proud.
Wolfram raised an eyebrow. Two was a rare occurrence, some would say an omen.
Marrok was very pleased. “After this eclipse, there may be plenty more. A long winter and having several clans under the same roof might mean many children in the spring. Definitely need to see to our stocks while we can! And how pleased the founder of this home would be to think of this place filling up with so many Wolframs.”
The Count frowned slightly as he considered Marrok’s point. (Apparently his grandfather’s greed for children was well known throughout all the clans.)
“As for your offspring,” Marrok ventured. “You know the others will ask. And as your former bride is not among us perhaps it is time to–”
The cousin’s impudence was rewarded with a quick narrowing of the eyes on part of his lord. Marrok was quick to see the Count bristle and found himself apologizing. “I saw your attention fixed by some of our fairer ladies. I presumed–”
Maximilian barked out a laugh, realizing that while he had paid a great deal of attention to the man, he too had been studying him closely in return! “If my gaze lingered over any of your clanswomen it was only because of a certain resemblance to her. It would be like her to slip in with the others. That is all. ”
The comment, delivered matter-of-fact, said that the speaker felt far more than an apprehension for his security. “If only we were that fortunate. We’ve had no news. But she had no close ties to anyone in our village.”
The Count brooded for a moment, well aware of that fact. She had no ties to anyone living, at all. He at least had been a favored son, offered the protection of his uncles and their descendants. She had no one.
Maximilian sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose. His grandfather would have somehow prevented the disaster from happening had he been alive. But had he been alive, the Count would not have withdrawn almost totally from the living world either. Nor would he have become so horridly unfit to handle the well-being of another person. “I fear I never understood her.”
“No one did,” Marrok shook his head. “I believe everyone thought they could control her, and there she went, flying off without a word or any reason why.”
The Count did not blink. He would not betray what he did know — what he did not want to admit.
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