The beast mimicked a song it heard in the air this evening — a song of owls, lions and wolves. To its two companions, it was simply spouting more of the lions’ ridiculous rhymes.
But the creature was not wholly itself as it sung. The song was one it had heard while at the hunter’s home – a whispered riddle that once repeated wove itself around the minds of those who heard it, until the presence of the woman was entirely forgotten.
In the Ormond home, the lady Ilva sat in the darkness brushing her long hair as she hummed that same tune. And in the kitchen, the young man read through the message those same men had delivered to him.
Edmund would not return to sleep, too displeased by the current state of affairs to do so. As he sighed, a flicker of shadows maniacally danced about the kitchen.
With a bright voice Ilva announced her presence and the shadows ceased. “What message did that man bring at this hour?”
The head of the young man snapped to his left, startled to find the woman standing there beside him.
She spoke more softly. “I did not mean to frighten you. I had been woken by the voices. Is it bad news?”
As try as he might, Edmund’s face could not remain calm. Tightly he spoke. “Miss Ilva, tomorrow I won’t be able to drive you about. I have been summoned to the estate of one of our esteemed lords. A Count Wolfram.”
She knew that had been so but did not tell him. The woman clutched her shawl about her as she sat down in a chair across from him. “I had no idea you were acquainted with the master of that estate.”
“Unfortunately, I am.” Edmund leaned back in his chair, away from the light of lamp. “But the summons comes from my friend’s guardian. They have been taken there this evening.”
“Your lady friend,” the woman prompted softly. “The one who makes cakes.”
His shadowed face grew tender at the funny description. “Yes, that is Elanore. Miss Redley. ”
They had spoken of her often. At times his references to her in their conversations were subtle. But it had been obvious to the woman that Miss Redley was never far from his mind, delighting him and making him unhappy at the same time.
His feelings had offered the woman a look at another form of human love different from the bond she had observed while living at the inn between the twin children. It was a strange kind of feeling to her, a kind of magic in itself. It could not be bent to the will of others; it could be both simultaneously rational and irrational. The emotion had an intoxicating effect… and it was also affecting the young boy for reasons he did not understand.
“She wields magic,” she stated.
“You knew?” Edmund looked troubled by her assessment. “It’s that obvious?”
She spoke carefully and patiently, for this was a new topic for the both of them. “Magic is like a fragrance to those who know it. I could taste it in the food she made and could see it when she walked by. As the world becomes dark, it will also become more evident to others who are less sensitive to it and cannot use it.”
He saw through her then. “You use magic,” he concluded. “You’ve been using it all along. That night I woke up–”
“Yes,” she nodded. “That object you received was tainted by magic that had to be countered. Otherwise it would have done something to you.”
He rubbed his arm absently while frowning at her. His recollection of the incident was hazy, at best.
“It won’t do that again,” she said firmly.
He had been so focused on Elanore as of the past few days that he had lost sight of these other happenings that centered around him. There was something he felt he ought to remember, something important. Lady Ilva had told him she would help him uncover the past when they journeyed north. But that idea nagged at him. He felt that spring would be too late. “If it was malicious, I hope not. I do not have time for dealing with things from this magic world.”
She studied his arm for a moment. “That world is not a separate one from yours. It has always been there with you. You haven’t looked hard enough at the shadows to have noticed it lurking there. You have forgotten it.”
Edmund wrinkled his brow. “Forgotten?”
“A figure of speech.” Ilva coughed delicately into her hand and changed the topic. “But why do you not wish to go to the estate tomorrow? Do you not wish to see the lady?”
The resulting expression on his face testified that he did. Ever since the man had shown up at his window, he had been doing everything to sit still at this table and avoid chasing her down. “I loathe him. That man is playing with her, I’m certain. At times he seems to have romantic designs upon Elanore and yet, he seems utterly callous as to her health. I know she will likely resume waking these stone guardians that serve him. She will endanger herself. Of course I want to go!”
She responded to his angry words carefully. “Her situation pains you, does it not?”
“I would take her from there if I could.” Edmund held tightly to the edge of the table as he closed his eyes and attempted to calm himself. “Yet how could I? This is what she said she wanted.”
He did not see the woman’s expression shift to one of surprise. “I suppose he was able to convince her it would be safer there,” she spoke to herself.
His gaze fixed upon her, suddenly suspicious of the tone of her statement. “You speak as if you know the man.”
Ilva did not falter under Edmund’s scrutiny. She folded her hands and answered calmly. “Yes, my lady once served there long ago — long before Winchester was a proper town. She came to know him and this land very well.”
“Impossible,” Edmund responded heatedly. “The town has been here at least for thirty or forty years. That would make him–”
“He is not human.” She shook her head. “He was at one point, but that part of him has been dying over the years. He once had magic too, but I feel it left him once he lost his heart. It is his elven and wolf blood that sustains him now.”
Edmund’s eyes glinted in the dim light, pondering the labels she had applied to Count Wolfram. “If he is no longer human, that makes him dangerous.”
His statement earned him a severe look. “Humans are as dangerous as are other creatures. Don’t be a fool, Edmund Ormond. There is little innocence in this world. But I do not think he is capable of true harm.” The woman refolded her hands and studied them. “He was human once, after all.”
She was, for the first time, without words. Edmund puzzled for a moment, before he prompted her to continue. “Your lady knew him well.”
“She thought she did.” Ilva looked up and smiled ruefully. “But she found out she did not. His idol is his home. The plans were drawn up by the elves, worked on by his forebears, and completed in his lifetime. It is magnificent by all accounts and full of many clever things. Under his home is a complex machine — one of stones and pieces that reaches out beyond his estate.”
“Then our trips out into the woods–”
Ilva’s laugh lightened the room. She was greatly amused by Edmund’s sudden insight into their seemingly random and useless excursions. “You may have thought me a bit touched in the head dragging you about in the snow. But there are many peculiar things hidden about this town: a well here, a stone there, and a statue at a bridge. These were also of the design of the original architects of this land. But the architects left behind little explanation of its design except possibly to that man. And the magic ability to harness them is also gone, save your lady. The Count will not risk losing her.”
“But he may push her past her limits.” Edmund shook his head. “She’s been exhausted already.”
“She grows stronger each day, but even so she could crack. And once she breaks, none shall be able to set her insides straight. That is the cost of magic pushed to an extreme. There are many who have broken and whose madness wrought great disaster to the west. You must tell her and the stone creatures that surround her to pay heed. They will listen to you. But his men are different. Tell them nothing of what we speak, for they are also wolves. They may show you their true forms if they feel threatened.”
He spoke rather sharply. “And by that you mean werewolves–”
She tilted her head to the side catching that look of distress cross his face. “No. They are not those things that your Eastern clergy like to ramble on about. Long ago, several wolves wished to be human to better understand them. Magic allowed that to happen and they could be wolf one day and human the next. Their descendants today are people like the Wolframs.”
The hunter shook his head. “If I were sane I would turn away from this estate. Why tell me this?”
“Because it is the sane thing to do.” She leaned forward and placed her hand on his. “The human era is about to change Edmund. I don’t want you to fear it. Rather, I want you to find your place in it.”
The young man found her statement odd. He pulled his hand away.
She sighed. “I see that look. The one that says you doubt me, or find me suspicious again. You are so young,” she smiled. “But you and I are more alike than any other two persons in this world.” She reached out to touch his head. “When I saw you and that head of hair, I thought how strange it was to see that here, of all places. I asked about you. I came to live with you. And now I am convinced that I am no longer the last of our kind.”
“Our kind,” he flinched at the implications of those words. “You speak as if I am not Edmund. As if I’m not human.”
“You are,” she said slowly as she perceived his resistance to the very idea. “As am I. But I am also many halves of other races as well. There is no hurry to decide if I am wrong or not. If I am right, it can only help your young lady.”
Of all the things she was trying to tell him, this last statement was the only thing he could bear to understand. Edmund met her gaze. “What would you have me do for Elanore?”
The lantern blazed in response. But while the light grew brighter, the room grew colder. The persona of the young woman slipped away and Ilva spoke. Her voice sent chills down Edmund’s spine as it channeled something old and brittle. “Humans are not good vessels for magic. It is rare to find that gift among them. Yet, several people in this town appear to be sensitive to it or to have the ability to wield it. This is a sign of the change that has been working itself it out. But it remains to be seen how stable this magic will be. ”
Without warning she was herself again. She turned her light-colored eyes upon him and spoke more kindly. “Only you can soothe her fatigue and keep her anchored. As she struggles, be open to solutions that may present themselves to you.”
He felt uneasy, wondering if he had imagined what had just happened. The magic she had channeled was far deeper than anything he had seen thus far, more bizarre than the magic of the lions at the estate. With all that power, he was troubled as to why she was here and what she wanted. Carefully he spoke. “I would think that there ought to be more than that.”
Ilva shook her head, her eyes never leaving his face. “Sometimes the best counter to magic is none at all.”