At first she did not hear the sound. Elanore was embroiled in a strange, muddled dream in which lions and elves wandered through mazes and labyrinths. But eventually she opened her eyes and looked about in the darkness.
She did not know where she was.
But she listened for a few moments, finding the comforting sound of the cuckoo clock marking time. She could hear the pendulum thoughtfully moving back and forth before it was joined by asynchronous tapping.
The staccato sound changed in both rhythm and volume several times before Elanore understood from where it came. She reached for the lamp at her bedside as she rose, lighting it automatically with matches from a drawer. Her fingers carefully tied a shawl about her shoulders before she drifted across the floor and paused at the top of the stairs.
Her head turned sideways to listen. Bedcovers rustled in the room next to hers, but the woman within that room did not wake.
The lamp guided Elanore as she moved cautiously down the stairs. When she reached the door from which the taps came, she peered through the peephole in the door. With so little moonlight in the sky, her effort to look outside was pointless. All she could do was to call out, “Who is there?”
Suddenly, the knocking stopped.
A howling came from outside, perhaps the wind wrapping itself around the small house. When it stopped, a familiar voice spoke through the door. “Miss Redley, it is I. It is urgent that I speak to you.”
The young lady might have been pleased to hear such a voice earlier in the day, but at such an hour she frowned instead, wondering what emergency might call the man here.
She was greeted by a blast of cold wind as she opened the door. Her eyes shut involuntarily against it, only to reopen and find the Count inside already, shutting the door behind him and resting his cane against the wall.
Surprised by his quickness, she almost forgot to say hello. But she greeted him, if faintly, while adjusting her shawl with her free hand as she looked at the gentleman’s attire and realized she was not dressed to receive him.
When she turned her full attention back on the man, she was startled by the intensity of his expression. “Is it Giles? Is he ill?”
In the weak light, the Count’s eyes appeared to glitter. “Giles is fine. As are you I see.”
“Then the emergency–”
“Miss Redley,” his normally smooth voice sharpened. “A lion reportedly was running amuck in the town earlier this evening. A woman in red was seen on his back. When I asked the lions about this careless act, I received a rambling and confusing explanation.”
Elanore bristled slightly, unsettling the lamp in her hand. Small flickers of light danced on the wall unevenly, making it hard for her to see him all that well. “I did not ask Gawain to go there. He went to inspect a fountain while I was on his back.”
“I see,” came the answer after a significant pause. “I am aware that the lions seem to wander here often. I did not know that they had taken to transporting you about.”
“Today was the first such occasion,” she countered. “They usually only are here when it is dark, but today Gawain came early so I thought to take advantage of his timing to ride with him.”
“I have heard you wished to see me.” His voice sounded soft and kind again. “Were you intending to meet me?”
She did not know what to make of this man, at times intimidating and at others solicitous. Elanore did not trust his sudden good mood. “Gawain and I did discuss going to your estate,” she admitted hesitantly. “But…”
He leaned in to steady the lamp in her hand, his gloved fingers brushing against hers. “But what?”
Elanore felt his breath upon her cheek and tried not to look into his eyes, again lit with some sort of amusement and something far more dangerous. She blurted out, “But the lion and I went to see the guildmaster instead.”
He stepped back, irritation replacing a smile that had begun to form on his face. “The guildmaster cares little for the history of this place or anyone outside the guild. What could he possibly do for you?”
The idea that the guildmaster might be preferable to him must have offended Count Wolfram. But Elanore did not care much for his lordly pride or his dislike for the hunters. “He cares for the people. Just as my grandmother does. As do I.”
“Hm. And this guildmaster has assured you of his assistance?”
Elanore raised her chin. She wished the guildmaster had agreed to, for then she would have been able to haughtily inform the lord that she, indeed, had done quite well without him. “No,” she had to admit. “But he said he would think about what I had shown him.”
The Count did not look at all surprised. “And the people who saw you and the lion today, did they say they would fight these shadow creatures?”
“No,” she had to admit again against her will. “Some did not believe.”
A faint look of scorn crossed his handsome face. “As expected of such people.” He began to turn away, but she stopped him the only way she knew how.
The Count looked down at Elanore’s hand that had caught his sleeve while she desperately sought out some strategy, some method of convincing him to help. “But some do believe! And some also can hear lions speak. Did Gawain not tell you?”
She could do little else but appeal to him like this. The townspeople were a burden to him, unless they brought him some talent, some gift that could be useful.
She felt a flash of relief as the Count tilted his head, appearing to consider her words. “He did mention something about finding a few things of interest to Lambegus. I did not think it possible that even more humans could hear the lions speak, but if true, it is news that is both good and bad.”
“How could it be bad news?” Elanore pressed.
“You have given people with imaginations every reason to let them run wild. It is one thing to talk of magic. That alone would make you strange. But then to flaunt a magic beast never seen before and infect others with this talk of magic and myths — you now are a dangerous witch or a lunatic. Or both.”
Elanore tried to wrest her hand away from his arm, but he seized it quickly to ensure she would not run while he spoke. “Using the lion as your calling card cost you whatever influence you might have had as the Mayor’s granddaughter. Now you are not her messenger but the messenger of magic. All kinds of magic, good and bad, will be forever associated with you in these peoples’ stories and their dreams. You are now different. And it is in human nature to turn against that which is different.”
She could only look at him aghast, appalled by the negativity of his statements. But he spoke with conviction, as if it were an infallible truth that he knew firsthand. Elanore shook her head. “I know the people who live here have their flaws, but they have a right to be afraid, just as they have a right to safety, to protection.”
“Miss Redley,” he interrupted her by placing his finger over her lips. “I fear you are too kind-hearted as always.”
His voice, ever so silky and gentle, lulled her into a false sense of security. She realized, too late, that he had trapped her between himself and the wall, with one hand firmly holding hers near her side and his other blocking her other side.
“Come with me,” he commanded.
So close was he now that she could not look away. Heatedly she responded. “Don’t be absurd. My grandmother is sleeping. We should wait until morning to discuss such things!”
“I am not sleeping any longer.” A hard voice came from the top of the stairs. As the old woman turned about the corner of the hallway, she raised a stick at the unexpected visitor. “You should step back. That young lady is spoken for.”
Outside, the wind began to howl loudly. The Count blinked and looked at the windows for a moment, waiting for the sound to quiet before he turned his gaze back to the old woman.
He did not step back as ordered, choosing instead to keep close to Elanore. He bit out his words slowly, making sure he was heard. “I don’t think you understand, madam. I mean to take Miss Redley now for her safety.” The mild, soft manner dissolved and something fierce overtook the man as he continued to speak. “Her stunt today has ensured that people will come to find her, perhaps as soon as it is light. The pub is restless tonight. The non-believers among your townsfolk are numerous. What mood they will be later will depend on many things beyond both of your control. We cannot assure your continued safety if you both do not come now.”
Both Elanore and her grandmother looked about, confused by the plural reference.
“I have a coach and several men outside,” the Count’s eyes shifted back to the window, to the darkness. As he turned his attention back towards Elanore and Mrs. Winchester, neither woman knew if he meant to assure them or threaten them. However, it was clear that he expected their full compliance.
Elanore trembled in indignation while Mrs. Winchester glowered at the Count.
The old woman and the lord stared down the other before Mrs. Winchester finally relented. “Elanore, go upstairs.”
The Count loosened his grasp on Elanore, who went immediately went to her grandmother. The old woman lowered her stick.
“Grandmother. Surely we can’t go like this. If Edmund was here–”
Mrs. Winchester silenced the girl. “If he was, he’d want your safety. He, too, would be worried for you. After eavesdropping on your conversation, it seems that I would have to agree with the Count.” Again she repeated herself. “Go upstairs. Take the bag in your mother’s closet to pack your warmest things and anything you brought from your mother.”
Elanore paled but argued no further.
As the young lady fled up the stairs, Mrs. Winchester addressed the lord once again. “Before we flee like cowards, know this. I, too, have my own conditions.”