It was not easy to sit on such a beast, but Elanore clung to the reins as tightly as she could manage. “Turn north,” she told the lion.
The lion slowed its brisk pace and rumbled in surprised disappointment. “Do we not go to visit my brothers?”
“Not yet,” she attempted to soothe the creature. “I know you thought we’d go to your home first, but you must help me with some matters here in town first.”
The lion was pleased to be of help and trotted along happily. “What am I to do, Miss?”
Elanore took a deep breath of the cold air and looked about her. Somehow they had ended up near the creek. “Head back to the road and seek a house with a red roof.”
Again there came a strange sound from the lion, puzzling over such a request as it turned towards the Great Highway. “Won’t we be seen?”
“Yes we likely will be,” the young woman answered.
“Hmmmm,” Gawain pondered that. “Master will not like it.”
She had not forgotten the Count’s seeming reluctance to draw attention to his estate. “But I think it will be good if they see you, Gawain.” If anything, the lion was the most visible and concrete proof of the unexplainable magic that was slowly waking in this land. She hoped seeing the creature would compel people to begin to act. “You and I do not need to mention where you sleep at night, do we?”
The lion rumbled again, this time in amusement. “Clever, clever, we shall be clever,” he sang ecstatically as they came to the road. He took great pleasure in this new-found freedom, pausing often to look at the homes they passed.
“Not that one,” she would have to gently guide him forward, pushing him closer towards the guild quarters and compound beyond the town.
“I see it,” the lion said excitedly. The house was painted neatly and pretty — a stark contrast to the other structures which were, at best, functional. The lion slowed as it approached the house in question. “I hear people in that one.”
“Yes, that is the one we seek,” Elanore answered with a smile. “Let me off here and follow me.”
Their approach, as it turned out, had not gone unnoticed. As Elanore walked up the shoveled path, the lion growled suddenly and tried to push her aside behind it. She looked to the house where she could see the guildmaster at the window with a gun in hand. Calmly she reassured the creature. “He’s just alarmed, that’s all. Just let me continue to hold the reins and don’t do anything sudden.”
The lion flicked its tail uneasily but complied.
“Good boy,” Elanore petted the lion repeatedly, taking her time to show the guildmaster that the creature was tame. She had long forgotten how odd these creatures might appear to others. Their size and their strange look would make the lions seem dangerous.
Eventually the door opened and the man stood in its frame, still unwilling to let go of his gun.
“Guildmaster,” Elanore called out. “There’s no need for that. He means you no harm.”
The lion yawned indifferently, already bored by this encounter with another human. There would be no pets or playing with this person inside the house.
The man’s eyes narrowed as he watched the creature. “You say ‘he’ as if it’s alive.”
“What is alive?” A woman suddenly appeared behind the guildmaster, to the man’s annoyance.
While the two conferred quietly, Gawain suddenly went on the alert. Elanore tugged her makeshift reins, trying to keep him still.
Elanore had never seen the guildmaster’s wife but surmised that this must be the woman. She called out to address her. “It is a beast made from stone. He is a very well-behaved beast that we call Gawain. He understands humans. See?” Elanore turned her attention back to the lion. “Sit, please if you will.”
The lion did so immediately, drawing an appreciative “oh my” from the lady of the home.
Encouraged, Elanore continued to address the lion. “Would you lie down please?”
Gawain obeyed and in doing so, tried to make itself appear smaller and as less of a threat.
“It seems quite tame,” the woman spoke to her husband who seemed less willing to believe so.
“This is crazy,” the man muttered and threw another glare in Elanore’s direction. “What do you want? What do you want from us?”
The friendly smile on Elanore’s face faltered as she came to realize that this demonstration would not work like she had hoped it would. She had thought he would see the lion and understand. “This lion is one kind of magic creature. There is another, a kind of shadow that eats things. I saw one like it outside town right by the bridge. There may be more like it once the eclipse is upon us.”
He growled in response. “Girl, you should be at home with your grandmother instead of chasing stories around and letting wild things fill your imagination.”
She looked down at the snow, regretting not thinking this matter through. Had she brought Lambegus, at least the lion could speak to the man directly and address his skepticism. Elanore could do nothing more now than beg. “I know I have no right to ask you to believe anything I say, but will you not at least talk to your book master and Edmund about the eclipse?”
The girl made for a pathetic image, standing outside shivering in the cold.
“Husband,” the woman pushed his arm aside. “Do stop pointing that thing at her. The innkeeper’s wife said the child has been ill. Do not keep her out there. She is growing paler by the minute.”
Wilhelm looked startled by the gentle rebuke from a woman who rarely said much of anything to him. He lowered his gun. “Fine,” he sounded rather tired and aggravated. “But that THING stays outside the window where I can see it.”
The thing snorted. “I’m a lion,” the creature sounded hurt.
“Shh,” the young lady petted it again. “Be still. I’ll be back soon.”
“It better not move,” the guildmaster said crossly as he waved his hand in the air. “My neighbors will be keeping an eye on it.”
Elanore’s eyes widened as the meaning of his words became clear. The house was now surrounded by men, weapons in hand.
“Miss Redley,” Mrs. Cadeyrn interrupted her husband. “Do come in and have some tea that the Father Lorrence left with us. It will do you good against the cold.”
Elanore looked again at Gawain, who nodded slightly and closed his eyes as if to pretend to sleep. He was unfazed by the presence of others. She realized he had likely been aware of these interlopers this entire time and ready to act if necessary. As for herself, she was suddenly overwhelmed with the stupidity of what she had done. She could barely think as she allowed the woman to take her hand and lead her inside.
The lady of the house did not comment as she took her cloak. When Elanore sank weakly into a chair, the guildmaster did not sit either. Grimly he returned to standing at the window with his eyes fixed on the lion, now settling in for an apparent nap.
Elanore dared not watch the man but instead turned her attention to the mistress of the home– this apparent saint that the Guildmaster had married instead of her mother. Unlike her husband, the woman was a center of calm as she moved about the house and prepared the tea.
It was this woman who encouraged her to speak by first inquiring after her grandmother. Then after she had plied her guest with tea and cake, Mrs. Caderyn politely asked Elanore to tell her story again.
Elanore started over, providing more details about the creature she had seen on the bridge. She talked about the walk and sound of barking upon her trail before she mentioned looking back while running. She described the sounds of crying animals in pain and how she was certain the animals had been eaten alive. The guildmaster turned his attention back to her at that moment, his weathered face creasing at some aspect of her story.
She thought he might ask a question then but he remained silent. Elanore talked of how she had pushed her way into a gate and was discovered by a gentleman who assisted her. When she mentioned the Count, she was careful not to embellish her story with any descriptions of his estate but stated that his household offered her shelter that evening. It was from this home that she watched the bridge that night, the thing writhing as it tried to move beyond the guardian until the morning light took care of it.
The guildmaster broke his silence to voice his disapproval. “If you were my daughter, I would have you stay put in that town until someone could fetch you. Wild beasts and quickly changing weather would make short work of even someone familiar with these parts. Whatever you saw was dangerous.”
Elanore bowed her head. ” I consider myself fortunate that I am here to tell of that tale. I have no intent of causing others to worry again.”
The man fell silent at her response.
Mrs. Caderyn eyed her husband, puzzled by the change in his expression. Politely she filled the gap in conversation with another question. “Miss Redley. I could not help but note that the creature outside bears some resemblance to the statue on the bridge south of town. Is that a coincidence? Or is there a connection between that creature outside and the statue?”
Elanore nodded, encouraged by the observant question. “I have been told it’s not. That statue predates the arrival of people in this area. So does that creature. Most likely they are all made by those who lived here before us.”
“Made?” The guild leader groaned. “Now we stray into fairy tales, do we?” He now appeared rather annoyed. “Miss Redley, you brought that thing here for a reason. I presume it isn’t for my wife’s entertainment or to continue to serve as a nice lawn ornament. Speak plainly. Let’s presume that there are more of both these lions and these black shadows. What do you want?”
Elanore looked up at the man, who at least was no longer scowling at her. “My grandmother and I have no experience with fighting,” she admitted. “I can’t learn how to be a hunter and think the way you all do. I can’t even hold a sword in hand. It makes it difficult then to protect others. I was hoping you’d know what should be done if there are to be many more of the dark things.”
“I am short hunters,” Wilhelm said tightly. “And preparing to fight against things from dreams and fables seems a distraction when we have to prepare ourselves for a long winter and more likely predators.”
“Please don’t think of it that way,” the young woman frowned. “All I’m asking is that you think of preparing for things that might be different from the usual threats. At the very least, allowing Mr. Gregory and others to advise you. Or others to consult with you.”
“It’s not too hard a request is it, husband?” The lady of the house graciously poured him another cup of tea. “Miss Redley doesn’t appear to be asking anything more than caution. Or anything more than you might already do for the town.”
The man sighed, unable to argue with his wife’s counsel. “Miss Redley, I make no promises. I still have no idea what to make of your strange mount on my lawn. A part of me wants to have nothing to do with it and another wants to empty my gun into it, hoping it will prove to be nothing more than a weird hallucination.”
“It’s not,” Elanore said firmly. “You saw I rode it. It is solid and real, as real as you and I.”
He ran his hands over his face, almost resigned to that fact. “I’ll think this over.”
“Thank you,” she heard the reluctant agreement there and idly wondered if her mother had often the same sort of difficulty convincing him to do something. Embarrassed by the stray thought and a self-consciousness that hadn’t been there a few moments before, Elanore dropped her gaze to her lap. She wanted to ask him something but dared not while his wife sat there with her tea.
Instead she stood suddenly and gathered her cloak. “Would it be alright if I came back to talk to you the day after tomorrow?”
The guildmaster shrugged. “I do not know if my mind would be made up.”
Mrs. Caderyn suddenly intervened. “Even if you haven’t, I would not mind Miss Redley’s company if she can spare it.”
Wilhelm appeared uncomfortable but begrudgingly agreed.
Elanore smiled weakly, looking somewhat relieved. “My apologies again for troubling you. Given all that has happened in the past, I can only say that I’m deeply grateful for your time.” She bowed to the woman and proceeded outside.
The man followed her out the door, waving off his men as he did so and taking advantage of the opportunity to look at the lion more closely.
Gawain did not mind the scrutiny, simply choosing to stare back at the man whose own stony expression appeared to relent slightly.
“You are fortunate my wife took an interest in you,” he said as he stood by and watched the girl clumsily climb the lion. “She is not from here and never knew your mother. Do not presume that she means to befriend you. I suspect,” he said coolly, “she thinks to understand the past by examining you.”
Elanore, used to kindness, gasped — startling the lion. “Certainly you must know we are nothing alike.”
Wilhelm’ reached out to steady the beast that carried the girl on its back. “Indeed, I do.”
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