It was not easy to sit on or control 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 that had been taking it towards the creek that ran along the back side of the Winchester property. It rumbled in surprised disappointment. “Do we not go to visit my brothers?”
“Not yet,” she attempted to sooth the creature. “I know you thought we’d go to your home, but you must help me with some matters here in town first.”
The lion trotted along happily on a footpath, pleased to be of help and of some apparent use. “What am I to do, Miss?”
Elanore took a deep breath of the cold air and took a moment to look about her. The woods were quiet in the late afternoon light. Few animals or people stirred. She turned her head back east, thinking. “Head back to the road. We seek a house with a red roof.”
Again there came a strange sound from the lion, puzzling over such a request while it turned towards the Great Highway. “Won’t we be seen?”
“Yes we likely will be,” the young woman answered above the roar of the lion.
“Hmmmm,” Gawain pondered that. “Master will not like it.”
The corners of her mouth turned down slightly. She had not forgotten the Count’s seeming reluctance to draw attention to his estate. But he was not here to advise them nor invested in the people of this town as her grandmother was. “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. “There comes a time when things shouldn’t be hidden. As for your master, 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. He almost pranced as he came to the road and looked about for signs of people. Gawain took great pleasure in this new-found freedom, pausing often to look at the homes they passed.
He would have stopped often if it were not for her gentle guidance 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.”
As they walked up the drive to the home,both human and creature looked about curiously. The young woman had always passed through this part quickly. Only once had she tagged along after her grandfather on a visit to these parts. As for the lion, his tail stood straight up as he looked about the lawn of this house.
As they walked up the shoveled path, the lion growled suddenly and tried to push her aside. Their approach had not gone unnoticed. Elanore’s hand went to the lion’s mane as she saw the guildmaster watching them through a window, 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 stopped walking and focused her attention on the lion. She petted it repeatedly, taking her time to show the guildmaster that the creature was both harmless and tame. She had long forgotten how odd these creatures might appear to others. Their size, their strange look, would make the lions seem dangerous particularly to those who hunted beasts for a living.
How long she did this for she did not know. But eventually the door to the home opened and the man stood in its frame, still unwilling to let go of his gun.
“Guildmaster,” Elanore called out gently. “There’s no need for that. He means you no harm.”
The man’s eyes narrowed as he watched the creature yawn. “You say ‘he’ as if it’s alive.”
“What is alive?” A woman suddenly appeared behind the guildmaster, to the man’s annoyance. Her eyes widened as she looked at the beast, also aware that it was not normal flesh and blood like the carcasses often dragged home by the men under her husband’s employ.
While the two conferred quietly, Gawain suddenly went on the alert. Elanore tugged her makeshift reins, trying to keep him still.
Elanore had never met the guildmaster’s wife but surmised that this pale, gaunt creature must be she. She did not look afraid as she stood behind her husband. She called out to address her. “It is a beast made from stone. His name is Gawain and he is very well-behaved beast who understands humans. See?” Elanore turned her attention back to the lion. “Sit, please if you will.”
The lion did so reluctantly, 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.”
“Unthings again.” He muttered a curse under his breath, earning a sharp look from his wife for such language. “Girl, you should be at home with your grandmother instead of chasing stories around and letting wild things fill your imagination.”
The girl made for a pathetic image, standing outside shivering in the cold as she looked down at the snow. Elanore regretted not taking more time to think this effort through. Had she brought Lambegus, at least the lion could directly address the man’s skepticism. She had no recourse now except to 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?”
“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 a rebuke from the woman who rarely asked much from him. He lowered his gun. “Fine,” he sounded rather tired and aggravated. “But that THING stays outside the window where I can see it.”
Elanore brightened, her smile returning.
But the thing in question 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 heard the sound of feet upon snow. Her eyes widened as the meaning of the guild leader’s words became quite clear and several men had slipped out from behind the trees, weapons in hand.
“Miss Redley,” Mrs. Cadeyrn ignored the display and waved her hand in the young woman’s direction. “Do come in and have some tea that the Father Laurence left with us. It will do you good against the cold.”
Elanore looked to Gawain, wondering if this was alright. The creature nodded slightly and closed his eyes as if to pretend to sleep. Unlike her, he was unfazed by these men. “It’s alright. If they were a threat, I would have removed you already.”
The creature’s words made her realize that it had been aware of these interlopers this entire time and ready to act if necessary. She, however, had not realized the great trouble she could have caused. Overwhelmed by her realization of her own foolishness, she could barely think as she allowed the woman to take her hand and lead her inside.
The lady and man of the house said little as Elanore’s cloak was hung and the guest was shown to a chair. 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 with tea and cake in the guest’s stomach, 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 tried to tell them about her walk and the beauty of the land, but sensing the man’s impatience began to shorten her story, providing only the details about the animals on her trail. She described the sounds of crying animals in pain and how she was certain the animals had been eaten alive.
The guildmaster’s weathered face creased at that statement. Elanore paused, thinking he might ask a question. But as none came, she explained 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, simply indicating that the gentleman’s household staff offered her shelter that evening. She explained that from her window she was able to watch the bridge that night and see the thing writhing as it tried to move beyond the guardian until the morning light took care of it.
When she finished her story, 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 by wandering alone on the roads at night.”
The man fell silent at her response, his face lost in some thought of his own.
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 men,” 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 of our usual 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 consult with you.”
“It’s not too hard a request is it, husband?” The lady of the house interjected and 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 looked at him again. Idly she wondered if her mother had often the same sort of difficulty convincing him to do something. Embarrassed by that 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 and gathered her cloak. “Would it be alright if I came back to talk to you the day after tomorrow?”
He did not perceive her sudden shyness and instead shrugged. “I do not know if my mind will change much.”
Mrs. Caderyn watched Elanore carefully. “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. I’m deeply grateful for your time.” She bowed to them both before she proceeded outside.
The man followed her out the door, waving off his men as he did so. The lion stood as the hunters disappeared and waited expectantly for Elanore to say something.
“I’d like to see this creature of yours,” the guildmaster said as he followed the girl out.
Elanore nodded as the man walked alongside her and then stopped to look at the beast. Gawain did not mind the scrutiny, simply choosing to stare back at the man.
After a while, Wilhelm’s 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 mistake her kindness today as an overture of friendship. I suspect,” he said neutrally, “she thinks to understand the past by examining you.”
Elanore gasped at such an unflattering and cold statement – 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. His expression was unfathomable as he answered. “Indeed, I do.”
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