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 and his home uncertain of what she would find. His fits of madness were often followed by periods of emotional absence. But it was magic that held her interest and eventually allowed them to connect. 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. She would react with awe and pleasure, her fingers clinging tightly to his while, with that light, they would explore the ruins underneath the castle. For a time, she patiently learned all she could about this strange building and about him. She endured his aloofness and prepared herself to aide him with his duties. He taught her what she needed to raise children the clan hoped she would eventually bear.
She was too bright to not notice the change within him and as one fostered amongst Wolves, did not bite her tongue. She confronted him about his declining gifts, demanding to know how long this had been going on. He 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. She would not talk to him until he gave her an answer. And he did not feel inclined to provide it.
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. And yet, she still fulfilled her duties.
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 understood fully what had happened, they would have pointed out several faults on his account. First, her departure could have been prevented by a simple command to stay. Second, if he wished her to leave he could have required an oath of loyalty and ensured some means of tracking her movements. This would have kept her both safe and prevent a later betrayal.
In truth, 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. But they had no news. With her trail now cold, there was nothing to be done except to pack the woman’s things away and wait.
The sound of a chuckle from behind him forced his mind to stop drifting. A maid tottered under the full weight of Marrok’s heavy fur-lined garment, amusing Wolfram’s guest immensely. “If I were at home, that would be tossed on to a peg and forgotten. But here, such manners. Really, perhaps my first cousins would have liked coming here after all.”
Although the hour was quite late, his cousin was obviously anxious to have some conversation. Maximilian shook off the unexpected memories and 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 paused in his walk to light one of the lanterns left resting on a table. “Be cautious here. We will climb a good deal of stairs with little light.”
They were quiet while they wound their way to their destination, the tower that looked out into the land around them. At the top, Wolfram relieved the servant who had temporarily stood guard for him with orders to wait at the landing, stories below.
“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. I believe your first-cousins and their children would find our usual preoccupations here 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 except to face 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.” Memory was fleeting. 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.
Wolfram had erred. He had meant to push the topic away and yet he had once again said too much. He turned his head away from Marrok, from the other man’s intense study.
“Tell me,” the man spoke carefully. “If she did come back… would she be welcome here?”
Maximilian’s voice was expressionless 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. “From here, one can see nearly anyone or anything within a great distance from this point. One would have plenty of time to prepare for whoever might approach. I gather you have spent many an hour here simply watching.”
“Of course,” Maximilian frowned, not understanding the sudden look of compassion upon the other man’s face.
“Then with your permission, I shall send my men up here to monitor the area from here. We will gladly take these duties over if that will help. I’m certain you might like to have time to do other things,” Marrok rubbed his chin. “Perhaps prepare for those that will arrive. Or return to other more pressing things that only you could undertake.”
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,” the grey man 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. All these humans are fools,” Marrok’s expression suddenly soured.
Both men knew the woods were changing. Into what, 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 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, then,” 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.”
Both men smirked.
“No, no,” the guest chuckled. “We come to you looking for shelter for the winter. We promise entertainment and help around the estate in exchange.”
The Count raised an eyebrow to consider the idea. To be honest, he did not know if Marrok and his crew possessed any musical talent. 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 troop 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?”
Maximilian 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.
A half hour passed before his servant came noisily up the stairs to relieve him. The Count wandered from the tower, listening to a house and its guests in their rooms, turning in to rest.
When Hastings caught up to him, medicine vial in hand, the butler found his master in a somber mood. They talked quietly of Giles for a few moments before their topic turned to mundane things.
Hastings followed his master into his chambers, detailing where the guests had been settled. According to his servant, the Lady Tala and the housekeeper were of like mind and everyone thus far was satisfied with the arrangements.
The Count nodded. Marrok’s wife 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 closer 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 be paid to them.”
Wolfram frowned. Marrok’s wife meant to imply then that the others who came were those who were descended from his older uncles, and as such, expected to be given first choice.
“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. “The Lady Tala had asked me to inquire about those. It is a relief that you have anticipated her request.”
Indeed, Tala was a model wife, running things with efficiency and dependence. 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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