Instead he paused to remove his coat, using that action to afford him time to consider what to say. Most of his current family had no idea of his inexplicable ability to stay young or that he had once held the gift of magic. He preferred not to reveal how magic had wreaked havoc upon the one relationship he had been permitted to have in his life.
Selva had come to him uncertain of what she would find. It was the magic that held her interest. Even though his powers were fading, he still had enough to occasionally command a flicker of light from the stone he kept close to him. When he did so she would react with awe and pleasure. Her fingers would cling a bit more tightly to his, her eyes dance more than usual, while with that light they explore the ruins underneath the castle. For a time she was patient, learning all she could about this strange building and about him. Selva appeared to willingly embrace the expectations that she would stay at his side to assist him and pass what he taught her to the children that many of his clan she would eventually bear.
She was too bright to not notice the change within him. True to her upbringing, she did not bite her tongue. One morning when he declined to take her down into the ruins she snapped, demanding to know how long his gifts had been in decline. Wolfram would not answer her, even though she, as his future wife and as a subject, felt she had a right to know.
Poor Hastings and his entourage of servants soon found themselves tiptoeing around a master and mistress engaged in a battle of silence. They were equally proud and willful creatures. She would not talk to him until he gave her an answer. And he did not feel inclined to provide one.
Even when she would bring a tray of food to him in his study, he would deliberately ignore the beautiful woman while he read a book. She, in kind, would glower at him from her chair while he finished the meal. At other times she would tidy up the hopelessly cluttered room, making a great deal of noise as she put books back in their places. She would not be ignored!
For weeks, this standoff dragged on before finally, she broke her silence to inform him she would leave. And true to her word, she did.
Had the other Wolframs been fully aware of the situation, they might have advised him. However, all they could do in hindsight was to point out to him how he had erred. They were not sentimental creatures, the Wolframs. They did not speak of love or feelings. They pointed out instead that her departure could have been prevented by a simple command to stay. In addition, if he had grown tired of the young woman and wished her to leave, he still could have required an oath of loyalty and ensured some means of tracking her movements. This would have kept her safe and prevented any chance of a later betrayal.
In truth, he had done nothing because he had simply not understood that she would not return. When the length of her absence stretched from weeks to months, it was Hastings who forced him to understand the situation and begged him to write to his family to see if she had appeared anywhere. But they had no news and with her trail now cold there was nothing to be done. All they could do was to pack her things away and keep watch for her from the lonely tower that overlooked the land.
The sound of a chuckle from behind him forced his mind to stop drifting. The Count turned his head slightly and observed a maid tottering under the full weight of Marrok’s heavy furlined garment.
Wolfram’s guest was quite amused by the maid’s insistence in handling the offending article by herself, remarking that at home the garment would have simply been tossed at a peg and forgotten. “What courtesy here,” Marrok said cheerfully. “Really, my first cousins would have liked coming here after all.”
Maximilian took this opportunity to change the topic. “I did notice that there were several faces missing from your party.”
“Ah yes,” Marrok sighed as he followed the lord through a corridor that took them away from the other members of the minstrel party. He ducked his head under the door and looked about him, evidently puzzled as he tried to sort out where the elder leader was taking him. “I did not press them to come. I know how fond you are of some of the young ones.”
“I welcome all of our cousins,” the Count said diplomatically as one could to such a sarcastic statement. He was not interested in discussing them immediately. There were other more immediate matters of concern. “I’d like to show you something.” He paused in his walk to light one of the lanterns left resting on a table and then handed it to Marrok. With one hand he indicated the door that led to the tower that overlooked much of the surrounding land.
With only a word of caution to mind the steps, they were quiet while they wound their way to their destination at the staircase’s end. At the top of this tower overlook, Wolfram relieved the servant who stood guard with orders to wait at the landing, stories below.
“Earlier, I saw your men coming from here,” the Count sounded a bit amused. “This place affords a great view. I spend much of my time up here, just watching the world. That is generally how I pass a significant number of hours. It is a preoccupation that I believe your first-cousins and their children would find quite boring. The entire household is devoted simply to making sure we maintain this estate.”
Marrok grimaced. “I assure you that the party I bring is all Wolfram through and through. We do not come here for entertainments, but because we fear the long winter. My wife did try very hard to encourage my southern brethren to join us, but I fear that their non-Wolfram family holds too much influence over them. I doubt they will journey here without an order from you.”
The Count picked up the telescope and handed it to his cousin for his own inspection. “I have done little for many of my cousins these past few years. We have little to tie us together other than blood. To many, that would not be sufficient enough reason to answer a request of mine.”
“Even so, I do wish they would take the warnings of strange creatures more seriously.”
“It is impossible for the young to appreciate fully what has happened before.” Memories were easily lost or discounted. To the young, the mutterings of old men might as well have been myth and fable. “I suppose a dusty old castle holds little attraction for them, in light of the modern things they must witness in their towns and villages.”
“Come now, my lord,” Marrok chuckled while he continued to look out at the land with the telescope. “This place has its own merits.”
“I wonder sometimes.” The Count let fingers rest upon the glass. “Giles is only the second to reside here. The first resident did not last so long.”
Marrok suddenly put the telescope down and turned his sharp eyes upon the Count.
Wolfram realized only then that he had once again erred. He had meant to push the topic away and yet now he appeared to be baiting the other man with information. He turned his gaze away.
“Tell me,” the man spoke carefully. “If she did come back… would she be welcome here?”
Maximilian kept his voice neutral as he responded. “As I said, I welcome all of our cousins, close or distant. Whether I like them or not is of no importance. It is my duty as the guard for this castle to open its gates to all of our kind and defend it against those who don’t belong.”
Marrok held out the telescope to return it to the elder man. “Duly reminded. I suppose you have spent many an hour here simply watching not only for strangers but for our kind.”
“Of course,” Maximilian frowned, not understanding the sudden look of compassion upon the other man’s face.
“Ah, so,” Marrok said to himself quietly. “I understand now. It is well to show me this, my lord. I think that with your permission, I should like to send my men up here to monitor the area from here. We will gladly relieve your servants of these duties and permit you to be freed to do other things.”
The Count bowed his head in agreement. “Your help would be welcome. However, we shall have to be careful how things appear to outsiders. Your men are minstrels. If I use them too openly for other crafts and jobs, it may raise some questions amongst the townspeople.”
“The hunters, you mean? They are a suspicious lot, indeed,” Marrok chuckled. “I do not know, however, how bright they may be. What fools wander about in the forest at nightfall? They do not see well without light nor do they appear to understand that the unnatural emptiness of these woods has meaning.” Marrok’s expression suddenly soured. “All these humans are fools.”
Humans were fools in their eyes, because they did not see or worry that the woods were changing. But how the woods would change, they did not know exactly. Still, their instincts told them to retrench, to fortify their defenses, and to prepare.
“Some of these humans have their uses,” his elder responded. “And I intend to sort out what those uses might be. You and your men may find a few of them here on the estate, so we must be careful what we do for now.”
“We do not mind continuing to play a game,” Marrok nodded to himself. “The hunters think we are minstrels who would be heading southwards. Perhaps you changed our mind once we saw your lovely estate.” The guest chuckled. “We came to you looking for shelter for the winter. We promised entertainment and help around the estate in exchange.”
The Count raised an eyebrow at his cousin’s sudden enthusiasm for the idea. To be honest, he did not know if Marrok and his crew possessed any musical talent that truly would qualify them as passable minstrels. (He hoped they would not be required to prove that as a fact.) “If you think you can maintain that ruse for a bit longer that would help. However, I think it best if some of your men do go south tomorrow, gather information and supplies as a troupe might. You may have those men tell the people there that you are looking for a sponsor, I suppose.”
Marrok spent several moments rubbing his hands together, quietly sorting out who he would send.
His host cleared his throat. “As for the work around here, I would like to employ several of your men to follow-up on some information that the stone creatures provided. They’ve been working through validating a schematic that our ancestor decided to provide to us. The beasts uncovered what appears to be a filled well. They wanted to dig straight through, but the creatures lack both patience and finesse. I fear they will damage whatever might be found inside.”
Marrok nodded thoughtfully. “It would be best to do that under cover of night. I’m not too sure that we won’t encounter other people in the woods. There are quite a few people who have filled shelters in an attempt to hunt. Perhaps tomorrow night after we’ve had rest–”
“That’s fine, Greywulf. You ought to be off to bed as well,” the Count waved his hand in dismissal.
“You will not be retiring?”
Maximilan picked up the telescope in his hands, ignoring the concern in the other man’s voice. “I’ll stand up here a bit longer. Ask the servant downstairs to take you back to the entrance to find the others. The sun will be late to rise so do not worry if you sleep long. I’ll see you in the Great Hall when you wake.”
The other man departed with a quick bow and took the lamp, leaving Maximilian in the dark tower.
With a deep breath, he settled himself and then raised the telescope to his eyes. He watched the flickering fires on the landscape and thought of fools who wandered the woods. One in particular came to mind.
He was lost with his thoughts for a half an hour before his servant came noisily up the stairs to relieve him. The Count did not return to his quarters immediately. Instead he wandered about the house, listening to the sounds of the guests within it, all doing their own separate things. It had been a long time since this home had any real semblance of liveliness.
When Hastings caught up to him, medicine vial in hand, the butler found his master in a sombre mood. They talked quietly of Giles for a few moments before their topic turned to mundane things.
The butler followed his master into his chambers, detailing where the guests had been settled. According to his servant, Marrok’s wife and the housekeeper were of like mind and were mutually satisfied with their discussions on how to feed and employ the women and children in the coming days.
The Count was not surprised. The lady Tala was a sensible woman and experienced with managing several households. He was not surprised to hear how the supplies had already been stacked and stored, or that the women had managed to come to an agreement about how the morning meal would be handled. “I noticed that most of the families elected the old wing for their temporary residence. Surely the families might like some of the larger apartments on this side of the house.”
“We tried sir, but it is warmer and close to the kitchens. They would not have it. Lady Tala’s advice was to conserve fuel for now and leave the finer rooms for those who come later. She said that the others might expect that deference paid to them.”
Wolfram’s eyebrows knit together in displeasure. Marrok’s wife statement implied his other cousins — those descended from his older uncles — would be haughty and difficult.
His servant misunderstood the look on his master’s face. “I’m sorry sir if I should have done otherwise. Given that she is the only lady of the clan at the moment, I had to comply.”
“That is all right,” Wolfram assured his servant. “She has said nothing so far that suggests a lack of sense. She is generous and wise to think of such things. But we must clear out the rooms on this floor as well as downstairs.”
The old man was almost cheerful as he responded. “Ah, this makes the asking much easier. In fact, the Lady Tala had asked me to inquire about those. I’m pleased that you and she are of like mind.”
Indeed, Tala was a model clan wife, predictable and efficient. How easy it would have been if he had been betrothed to someone like her, as opposed to Selva. “Yes. See to it that all rooms are cleared out.”
“Sir?” Hastings paused in his work. “All the rooms? Including the lady’s chamber?”
“Yes,” the Count ignored the slight quiver in his butler’s voice. “Ask the lady Tala to dispose of the things in that room properly. Assist her as needed.”
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