Hastings avoided looking him straight in the eye as he continued to undress. Maximilian knew it had nothing to do with the sight of scars upon his master’s form, but signaled some discomfort on his part with his decision.
The Count understood. His manservant was a caring sort of human, much like Maximilian’s own mother. However, he could little afford to be like her when it came to presenting himself to other Wolframs. Nostalgia and softheartedness could get one killed. Nor could he be like his grandfather, whimsical and given over to fits of sentimentality.
This eclipse, Wolframs would come to watch him instead. He, as the one who wielded the symbolic scepter, would make decisions for them in this strange time to come. How well he fared when the danger passed would depend on how solidly he behaved now.
So while Hastings could afford to openly mourn the woman who had once resided here, he would not. To appear to cling to mementos of someone who affronted the current lord seemed foolish.
However his memories, unlike the things she had left behind, would not be so easy to cast off. In spite of how much he tried, he would think of her as he, too, began to sleep.
Mischief took form of one stone creature pounding across the snow, its legs pumping quickly as it flew through trees that lined the Great Highway. The lion followed the road, propelled by a sense of boredom and by its pack mate’s account of a woman with a magical touch and an ability to speak to their kind.
While the creature prowled the woods, it did not notice a small owl flying and twirling around behind it. It had no reason to pay the bird heed; this owl was a rather ordinary sort often seen in these parts. Furthermore it had no magic gifts of note.
But the flighty creature was well-trained and gifted with a good memory. Its sharp eyesight allowed it to move nimbly around in the darkness, avoiding the blackbirds that slept during the night hours in these trees. It would not dare go near them for there was no friendship between their kind.
The owl came to rest in a tree just as the lion itself abruptly halted at the sight of a fresh trail. With a lack of finesse the stone beast walked all over the inconsistent prints on the ground, trying to follow them as they meandered towards a familiar home.
A sudden slice of the air forced the lion to turn back.
The bird, hidden away in the treetops above, fluttered its wings nervously as it watched the scene below.
Invisible just moments before, a soft aura of magic illuminated a tall figure dressed to match the snow. In low tones, a woman spoke sternly to the stone lion. “Didn’t your friend tell you not to bother the boy?”
If the owl had expected a bloodbath, it had anticipated incorrectly. Both owl and lion were aware of that the lady had not meant to harm the other creature. Had she, that snakelike line of magic would have hit the lion easily. Still, the lion’s tail waved uneasily as it glanced to its side to observe the melted snow.
“I came to see if it was true,” the lion turned its head back and whined like a petulant child.
“If what is true,” came the respond, brisk and cold as the winter itself.
The tail began to wave excitedly. “To see the pale lady with magic who can speak with all things that are magic. To ask.”
She sighed, evidently displeased by the turn of events. “I did not think your friend would be so unreliable as to break his word. He was not supposed to speak of our meeting. I should have sealed his mouth—“
“We are not living nor are we dead so your magic can’t work that way.” The lion stamped its foot on the ground. It did not see the lady smile in amusement while it continued to try to explain its own actions. “And our lord would not like it. Lambegus is the only one who speaks to him now. He would be able to tell something is wrong!”
“Is that so,” she said to herself as she put her hand on the creature’s nose. “Then it’s a good thing I did not do that to your friend, Gawain.”
The poor creature did not realize how it had slipped and provided more information than it ought to. Instead the creature was clearly distracted, purring as magic moved between them.
The woman known to them as the white lady spoke softly as she continued to stroke the creature’s nose. “Your lord does not know then that you have come?”
The lion was reluctant to speak, lest the petting stop. But it responded cheerfully. “No. We do not always speak until asked. He thinks we’re just rolling around in the snow. He’s too busy to pay us any attention.”
Her lips curved up slightly. “And now you have seen me, is your curiosity satisfied?”
She asked that question knowing full well it was impossible to sate the insatiable thirst for knowledge that defined these creatures of magic. But she was surprised by the response just the same.
“No. We do not know why you are with the boy.”
They were childish at times, but not fools. She continued to pet the beast as if it were flesh and bone, murmuring softly in its language. “It disturbs you that I have an interest in him doesn’t it? Are you afraid I will be unkind to him?”
“No. We know you. But we need him.”
She stopped her attentions to the beast and turned its head so she could stare into the lion’s eyes. “What plot does your master have for the boy?”
The lion Gawain tried to shake its head, but found her magic kept it in place. In mournful tones it explained itself. “Our master does not care about the boy. But he cares about Elanore. And we care about Elanore too. She can wake more. Four of us are not enough. Even many men are not enough. We hear voices whispering to us tell us things are coming.”
“What is coming, dear lion?”
The lion appeared to hesitate. The white lady reached out to scratch his ear and the beast shuddered. “Bad things full of hunger and hatred for our master and his kind. Only our kind can help. Master doesn’t understand that the boy can help Elanore. He can not see the boy Edmund for what he really is. But even so, even if he knew, he doesn’t understand the boy can care for her. And if he won’t care for the boy, we shall care for him in his stead.”
She knew the lions generally spoke the truth. The girl she had seen herself, the magic leaking from her unchecked. But she also knew the boy at his very worst, had seen the thing that had suddenly found him and wanted to eat him alive. The woman argued with the beast. “What can Edmund do truly?”
“Human love is powerful,” the lion said matter-of-fact. “It lends strength, a will to overcome normal rules.”
A small frown marred the woman’s cold, pristine features. The lion quoted language that came from another time and era, one of fairy tales and dreams. “Your friend. Did he explain to you the dark thing that tried to consume him? He has a curse that has attached himself to him thanks to an incomplete object that has been restored to him. I am trying to rechannel it.”
The lion stared, not able to follow her complicated explanations. She sighed, for she knew she saw the world of magic differently than they did.
Rather naively the creature insisted, “That human part of him and that love he has for her is enough. We have always said so. It is enough. It will always be enough.”
The lions were so much like the elves that it would be a waste of breath to continue to argue with them. “Then give me time. A week. After that, if you can do what you promise and he chooses to go with you, I will not stand in your way.”
“A few days,” the lion demanded.
The white lady shook her head. It was not clear if it was impatience or concern that drove the beast’s request. “Your brothers – tell them that I must help him first and that this is important. Until then say nothing to your master about the boy.”
She could see the creature stretch slightly while it thought over this. Unlike its brother, Lambegus, this one was very hard to persuade of anything. It was considerably more stubborn, more likely to be immune to her suggestions.
It yawned and then turned a patient gaze upon her. “Healer. Your gifts could save many lives. If the boy comes, will you not also?”
She blinked, wondering if this request was also part of the creature’s design in coming here. “A servant should not presume to act on behalf of his master, dear lion. And my magic is different from the girl’s and thus, I can’t wake your kind. If the thing you fear comes to pass, there will be lives here outside the gate that will also need saving.”
The lion looked deep into her eyes, weighing her words carefully. At this moment, neither knew what the other truly thought. But finally the magical beast spoke. “You speak honorably and well, my lady. Although I feel there is more to what you say, I will say nothing to my master of you. However, as more of his kin gather, it will be hard to escape their notice as much as you try to be invisible. You best keep out of sight at nighttime, fair one.”
With that it swiftly turned on its heel and ran off into the darkness.
As the sound of steps began to move away from the Ormond homestead, she continued to stand outside– oblivious to the cold. Her shoulders had begun to sag, only now betraying how much the conversation had burdened her.
A soft hoot in the air preceded the descent of a white owl from its perch. It floated gently towards the ground, coming to rest on the woman’s outstretched arm. The little owl hopped up to its place on her shoulder where it began to tell her of the things it had seen so far.
“Thank you,” she said before offering it a scrap of meat before she sent it aloft, to go about its way and she, too, disappeared into the night.