Elanore returned downstairs to find the discussion between the lord and her grandmother had concluded. Her grandmother had wandered off while the Count stood in the hallway, tapping his cane on the floor.
“I have more than one bag to transport,” she declared with a certain amount of defiance before placing the items loudly on the floor.
To her surprise he did not even raise an eyebrow at the collection of books and medicines she had decided were necessities she could not do without. Instead he offered his arm. “It is dark outside and difficult to see. If you do not mind, I shall escort you to the coach first.”
“I do mind,” Elanore declared. “I would rather wait upon my grandmother. She may still need my help.”
“Go ahead, dear!” Her grandmother called out from somewhere in the kitchen. “I have only a few more things to attend to.”
Elanore closed her eyes and exhaled, resigning herself to the situation. Again the Count offered his arm. She dawdled over her cloak and gloves, putting them on as slowly as she could before she gingerly accepted the man’s assistance.
A strong wind wrapped around her as she stepped outside, summoned by the cheerful calls of several lions waiting upon her appearance. Given the circumstances, their enthusiasm was unwelcome and problematic. She did not relish having to hold more tightly to the Count and relying on him so much.
The Count did not seem to enjoy their exuberance either. “Quiet,” he snapped.
To the young woman’s relief the wind stopped. She would have let go of the man’s arm then if it had not been impossible to see in the darkness. The light from the inside of the house could barely illuminate her way to the coach.
She was escorted several steps before she caught the sound of the lions whispering to one another in spite of their master’s orders. They were close now — close enough that if she squinted hard enough she thought she could see them next to a large coach. “Are they… attached?”
The Count cleared his throat. “Normal horses would have been hard to manage on such a night. They volunteered to pull the coach for you.”
As if on cue, two voices called to her excitedly. “Elanore, Hello Elanore. How are you this evening, Miss Elanore.”
She raised her hand to acknowledge them but found herself interrupted. Rather gracelessly she was hoisted up and pulled into the interior of the coach.
A brief exchange of words revealed that it was Giles who had impatiently taken her off Wolfram’s hands. He was now her appointed caretaker, keeping her from further mischief while the Count returned to the house in order to assist Mrs. Winchester with her preparations for departure.
“We meet again,” Giles joked quietly.
At such an hour, Elanore did not find much amusement in being manhandled or wish to entertain such banter. “I suppose you were the one who told the Count about my riding the lion into town?”
“Yes and no,” he chuckled softly at the frigid tone of her voice. “It was Lambegus’ scolding the master first overheard. He sent a few of us off to take a look about and I did have to confirm such a story about a woman riding about wildly. He was not pleased at all. We had to keep him from breaking down your door and dragging you women out.”
“You jest,” she shook her head.
“Well, of course.” He humored her. “But why so sour? I would have expected a slightly better reception to our surprise visit. You were anxious to see the Count earlier.”
“This is not what I had in mind,” she admitted. “Your lord’s methods leave a lot of things to be desired. But given the trouble Gawain caused, why is he here and not Lambegus or Galahad?”
“The blasted thing can’t sit still,” the Count’s servant seemed somewhat amused. “Nor can he handle more complicated orders. Lambegus is far more suited to accompany our men who are out this evening. They don’t speak much lion and only he can provide information in a way they can understand.”
She frowned, wondering at how this would make any sense. It was far too dark to move about. Even if they carried adequate lighting, a lamp would barely illuminate a foot or more of the surrounding space. “The men wander at this hour?”
“If you account for some unusual gifts of my lord’s vassals and the lions… it isn’t strange.” His rich baritone voice was smug as he rambled along. “The darkness means nothing to those of us who were born on this soil. We’re a talented bunch. In fact, I can see you now quite well myself, wrinkling that pretty forehead of yours in disbelief.”
She ignored his continued attempts at flattery but had to consider what he said as true. She could only see the faintest outlines of the men the Count had brought him. And yet they were working without the aid of a lantern as they filled the coach’s back compartment with goods and luggage. “Exactly where did you say you were you born?”
“To the west.” He sounded as if he might be grinning. “If you fancied elves, I’d answer that I was from the golden beaches. If it’s the hunter type the lady liked, I’d say I was from the Silver River region.”
Elanore sighed. Either he was trying to be incorrigibly charming or to stonewall her. She resolved to say no more while she waited for her grandmother to join her.
She was relieved to not have to wait that long. Soon, the door to the compartment opened to accommodate a new passenger. The sound of rustling skirts gave away the woman’s identity. Quickly Elanore offered her hands to guide her grandmother to the seat beside her.
Mrs. Winchester did not let those hands go. “Well,” the lady murmured. “I believe we are finally ready to leave.”
The woman sounded perfectly fine. Unflappable. And yet Mrs. Winchester’s hands trembled within Elanore’s, signaling doubt. Fear.
That insight into her grandmother’s emotions startled Elanore. It distracted her while the Count told them he would not join them on their ride. As he shut the door and sealed them within the small, dark confines of the coach, Elanore’s view of the world was forcibly shifting once again.
Her strong, forceful grandmother sounded old and frail as she spoke aloud. “I would not have left that home for any other reason than your safety. So many memories fill that place. So many stories were made there.”
Elanore’s anger towards the Count was forgotten as she put her effort into comforting her grandmother. “We’ll have plenty more to tell in the years to come.” The young woman clung to her grandmother’s arm and placed her head upon her shoulder.
“Ah,” the woman closed her eyes, too tired to say otherwise. “Yes, Elanore. But now those stories will be all left up to you.”
The Count made sure to secure the Winchester house before he walked south, collecting several additional companions along the way. He did not have to slow his pace as Marrok, Lambegus and Galahad quickly fell alongside him. None wanted to linger outside more than necessary. If they moved swiftly it was not the Unthings that were on their mind. That threat was a distant concern compared to monsters of the human variety.
Wolfram had found the old woman to be quite shrewd. In their final conversation she had hinted at the stories her husband had told about the fae and how they had not truly disappeared from the land. While some migrated, she insinuated some simply changed their shape and lived as humans.
She was close to the truth. In very short time, she would come to see exactly what they were. But for the moment, Maximilian allowed her to believe what she wished. He humored her demands.
Her first demand brought them to the fountain in the middle of the town square. The group paused to examine it and the claims about its construction. Satisfied that Gawain had spoken the truth about its construction, the group wandered near the homes that surrounded it.
The lord had been told that lion-speakers dwelled in two of these homes and was asked to verify the safety of these persons. If Elanore Redley had become of a person of interest to hostile men in the pub, it was possible that those believed to be like her might also need protection.
The two Wolfram men paused at the buildings of interest, deploying their senses to study those who dwelt within them. Assured that the inhabitants rested undisturbed, Count Wolfram left Galahad with instructions to watch the area for problems of the magical sort. He was certain that Marrok’s spies, already placed in the inn and pub, could handle mischief of the normal kind.
Lambegus did not appear glad to be separated from his brother, but their master would not part with both as he still required their services. The Count’s next set of instructions grieved the creature but the lion trotted ahead of the two Wolframs, unable to disobey them.
The two men fell into a serious discussion as they followed the beast. They spoke of the nature of the town square and those who lived around it. Marrok verified Giles’ earlier assessment that no magic smell clung to these people who spoke to the lions. The only magic to be found in the square lay with the fountain, contaminated with stone quarried from this land.
The Count was disappointed with Marrok’s verdict. He had hoped that those with the ability to hear the magical beasts might be gifted with magic. It would seem, however, they were simply able to perceive its presence and the fountain had further amplified that sensitivity.
Children were often gifted with insights that other, less innocent creatures lacked. They would grow out of those gifts, most likely. As for the old man, his ability to hear the lions was likely due to his advanced age. As death grew steadily closer to the man, he would likely continue to see magic more readily than others.
There was an irony in this, in that the young and the old were able to see and hear what the Count could not. Maximilian was neither young nor old. His life would stretch on indeterminately like the unaging stone lion that waited on the road ahead of him.
Lambegus ears pricked forward, facing a house on the side of the road. The Count wondered what Lambegus observed. “Go on,” the Count urged him forward a few times before the lion took off, disappearing around the back of the modest home.
When the Count and his cousin caught up with the creature, they found it shyly pressing its nose against a window while it hummed a strange little song.
It took a bit of coaxing to force the lion aside. The Count tapped on the window barely three times before the curtain flipped aside and a young man glared back at him. In the lad’s hand rested a long knife, one that looked used and well cared for.
Marrok hissed, but the lord shook his head and handed his cousin a match. “Light it,” he commanded and then held up a letter to the window.
The young man’s look shifted from animosity to concern. The hunter pointed to the side door and disappeared.
Marrok blew out the match and followed the Count closely.
When the back door was opened, the three men did not bother with exchanging greetings. It was too early an hour to care much about politeness. Instead, the Count pressed the letter in the young man’s free hand. “Mrs. Winchester and her charge are now safely under my protection.”
The young man looked down at the letter, his expression betraying worry. “I had not expected this so soon.”
“Neither had I,” the Count stated firmly. “Hence my standing here at this inconvenient hour to deliver this to you.”
Edmund Ormond narrowed his eyes. “Why not send Giles or just leave this at the door?”
“Mrs. Winchester wished that I deliver this message,” the Count admitted. “It has been impressed upon me by the lady and several others that I have yet to apologize for the damage you took from the events of our first meeting.”
“I am fully recovered,” the young man said coldly as he regarded the cane in the Count’s hand. “You do not need to trouble yourself further on my account. Nor do I plan to trespass upon your estate.”
And yet Wolfram had to trouble himself. The Mayor had scolded him for his flirtation with her granddaughter and angering the young man. Her fury about the injuries he had apparently caused them had deeply impressed him. “Nor will you be. I was asked to permit you access to the estate while she and her charge are under my care. I have agreed to her request, so long as you comply by our rules on the grounds.”
The younger man glanced at Marrok and the Count, suspicion marking his youthful features. He did not trust the invitation. He did not trust the Count.
However Lambegus spoke out, reminding the three men that he was still there. “EDMUND THE LION FRIEND WILL BE SAFE. MASTER SPEAKS TRUE.”
The Count gave the lion a severe look for his loud outburst. He would prefer that Lambegus not wake the other residents in the Ormond home. “There is no trickery. Come alone tomorrow to see her. Marrok will explain the rules to you when you arrive.”
The hunter studied them all in turn before he nodded. “Tell Mrs. Winchester I will come. Is that all?”
The Count shook his head.
With a terse “Good night,” Edmund shut the door firmly and locked it.
The young man’s abruptness made a rather deep impression upon them. They were quiet as they slipped into the woods and continued their journey towards their home.
Marrok was the first to break their silence. He sounded almost perturbed as he asked his lord to explain why the boy disliked him so much.
Before he responded to his cousin, the Count paused to reflect. “I’ve been told that he loves the young lady we’ve taken into our household. I have attempted to influence her in several ways. I suppose that might be the main reason he does not care for me.”
Marrok winced. “I worry about your concept of influencing. Is that all?”
“THE MASTER PAYS HIM NO NOTICE,” Lambegus interjected. “HE DOES NOT LIKE BEING TREATED AS AN AFTERTHOUGHT.”
The Count could muster little regret or sympathy in his response. “Hunters have killed our kind and those under our protection. I did ignore him like I would any hunter. But it has come to a point where it seems he cannot be denied some form of attention.”
Such a statement would be cruel by human standards, but Marrok understood the way his lord thought. He was a Wolfram, and to them their world revolved around the clan. Those outside it were offered only the energy and time that was left over after they had addressed their own matters.
“My lord,” Marrok sounded worried. “The boy confuses me greatly. As soon as I thought I determined what smell lingered around him, I find my mind changed. He does not feel like either the girl or the townspeople. If I may ask, what did Giles say about him? And the lions?”
The Count gave his cousin a sharp look, surprised by his assessment. “They did not agree. But they all like him without fail.”
Marrok turned his head back to address the lion. “Is that so?”
But the lion did not answer. It zigged and zagged along behind them, whispering and humming to itself.
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