As the sun rose on the town of Winchester, the only activity to be found was at the Guild Hall. Wilhelm Cadeyrn, leader of the guild, had appeared at the guarded entryway to the compound with orders to the sentries to not let anyone out without his direct permission.
His expression was terrifying as he scoured the grounds, barking at the men to gather in front of the hall. He counted them one by one as they came to stand before him, his frown deepening as he noticed who was missing.
Most of the guild expected the master to address the appearance of the magic beast the prior day. To their surprise, the man began with other news.
“This morning a messenger brought a letter with a terse complaint that my men had not shown in Crossroads for a hunt. You can imagine my surprise at receiving such a note.” His eyes studied each of the men, looking for a reaction. “We have no commissions at the moment.”
Wilhelm suddenly turned towards one of the younger members in the crowd. “Clive — you came back from the outpost late yesterday. Half of your party is missing this morning. Smythe. Rolf. Benwick. Martin. Cody. Jamison. Were they not with you?”
The lad called Clive shifted uneasily on his feet as several dozen men gazed suspiciously at him. Clive looked at one of his companions and swallowed once before he responded. “They said they wanted to take their shares to Crossroads so we parted ways in the morning. Thought it was odd, but they said they had permission to do so.”
The guild leader looked at the man next to him, a youth by name of Thomas. “Is this true?”
“Yes, I swear by it,” Thomas nodded.
“You know me better than that,” the guildmaster scolded them harshly. “Why would I splinter a group without all of your knowledge, leaving you at half strength coming back?”
The young men hung their heads, unable to respond.
The mood of the crowd darkened. The guild men were often given some autonomy to their own affairs but while on a hunt the men were not supposed to deviate from agreed upon protocols and practices. Worse, the missing men appeared to be engaging in business outside the guild.
“Gerald,” the guild leader turned to his side, seeking out a man who he had known since his early days in the guild. “Take one of your party and find this gentleman. Apprise him of the dangerous conditions out there and dissuade him against commissioning any hunters to undertake such a foolish thing. And then see if you can turn up our troublemakers. If you find them, deal with them.”
The men of the guild shifted uncomfortably in their spots. Either the lads would return to face discipline or be removed from the guild with a warning not to use the name to promote themselves. They watched the departing men with grim expressions.
Their leader’s voice was harsh and loud as he turned his attention back to his men. “We are now short an additional two men when there is so much to do.”
The crowd pressed around him, anxious to hear their orders.
Wilhelm looked about him and was relieved to still see so many reliable faces. “You all know that we have gone beyond rumors of strange beasts to having one actually appear before us. While it’s daylight, we must hunt close to home and see what more creatures have made their presence known.”
“Seems the girl is the source of the trouble,” some of the men vocalized.
“She is not our concern,” the guildmaster glared, making his displeasure at the interruption known. “We should patrol the woods in groups of six while it’s light. However, I want four of you canvassing the houses and evaluating how well they’re protected against bands of wild animals. Tell folk that we will offer shelter here if they wish it. But you,” he looked at Clive. “I want you and Thomas to find the blacksmith and weapons master at the pub. Tell them we open early this winter. Sober them up if needed.”
The guildmaster’s brow creased deeply as he looked about for one other person. “Now where is Gregory?”
“The old man set out a while ago,” Clive stammered at him. “He’s off to run an errand at town. He’s been seen at the Winchester home quite a bit.”
At the mention of the Winchesters, Wilhelm looked around and realized Edmund wasn’t there either. “I’ll be back after I find him then. I’m off to the Mayor’s house. Go fetch that blacksmith already!”
* * *
Elanore stretched with catlike grace as sunlight slipped in through the curtained windows. She lay in bed for a moment, shaking off the exhaustion that came from interrupted sleep.
She listened to the sounds of the home — the sound of people outside working on the grounds and the sound of people walking below.
In spite of the noise, her grandmother continued to rest beside her in the bed. Elanore wondered how the woman could ignore the hum of activity that never seemed to end and snore happily away.
Elanore slipped out of bed, leaving the woman to rest. She struggled into a white robe that had been laid out on the chair and then crept across the wooden floor. She pushed the curtain aside and pressed her forehead against the glass window trying her best to see everything that lay outside.
Below her, four lions sat on the stone steps that led to the great wooden door. They were as still as true statues; their faces were immobile and unflinching as they stared at door. She wondered what they thought of its new design. She had seen a glimpse of it as she was hurried inside from the coach through that door — its surface gnarled with wolves and serpents tangled in a vicious embrace. She wondered if they worried over this sudden change.
The noise she had heard from her bed came from men on the long lawn. They slipped in and out of the shadows of the statues and trees, clearing the stones of snow and ice. She had heard them last night as the coach arrived, moving about in the darkness. Standing guard, perhaps.
A few looked up at her window now, their expressions curious.
Elanore drew back and dropped the curtain. Her eyes drifted about the large, fine room in which she had slept and spotted a promising chair by the fireplace. She sat upon its stiff cushions, drawing her knees up to her chest.
No orders had been left for her last night. And so she waited for some word, turning a small bag full of blue stones and one gold one between her fingers. She felt their warmth and weight, deciding that they had grown heavier in the previous day.
The pouch disappeared into the pocket of her robe when a small tap came at the door. Elanore hurriedly secured her robe before she went to the door. “Who’s there?”
“I’ve come to bring you breakfast and tend to your toilette, ma’am.”
Elanore heard the voice and opened the door. She blinked at the maidservant as the woman entered the room with a tray in hand. “I can serve myself,” the young woman said awkwardly with her hands held out to receive the silver platter.
The older woman frowned slightly as Elanore placed the item on a side table. “Miss Elanore. My name is Millicent. I’ll be assigned to you and your grandmother while you stay here. Is the room to your liking?”
“Yes,” came the soft response. “It is very elegant and comfortable.”
“Our master had it opened up a few days ago. It belonged to a lady.” The older woman stopped and then corrected herself. “I mean it is where lady guests were often received.”
“I see,” the young guest wrinkled her brow at the apparent slip in words. She debated whether to ask more, but the woman’s expression did not invite more conversation.
The maid withdrew to a corner while Elanore drank her tea. When she finished, the maid insisted on assisting her with dressing. Millicent took great pains to brush out Elanore’s long wavy hair and pin it into a neat bun behind her head. The maid continued to frown while she buttoned up Elanore’s plain frock.
Another knock came, and a middle-aged woman appeared. Elanore puzzled over the woman’s appearance and station.
The woman bowed. “I am Tala. Lord Wolfram’s cousin.”
Elanore saw the resemblance then – the same long features and light-colored eyes.
The woman studied Elanore before she delivered her message. “Your presence has been requested in the dining hall. Millicent shall wait upon your grandmother while I escort you downstairs.”
Somberly Miss Redley followed the woman downstairs and to a part of the house she had not seen before. As she turned down a hallway she found Giles slouched in front of another set of large doors.
Giles grinned as he spotted the two women. “Cousin,” he nodded at Elanore’s escort. “How goes it?”
“Well enough,” the woman answered. “I’ll leave her with you. Mind your manners. No foolishness. I’ve already heard from the women this morning about your visit to the kitchen!”
“Of course. I’ll behave,” he promised slyly before turning back towards Elanore.
Several questions ran through Elanore’s mind as she watched the woman disappear quickly around a corner. She opened her mouth to ask them but Giles would have none of it. With a smirk he interrupted her. “Sleep well, princess?”
She nodded slowly, puzzled by the nickname.
“Good, good,” he said absently. “The place is noisy all night and all day now. I wondered how you might make out in your first evening here. Well, I suppose you’ll get used to that part at least.” He stepped forward to pull open the heavy door. “Ladies first.”
Elanore stepped forward onto a parquet floor and tried not to choke as she took in the vast space beyond the entryway. She felt awkward and out of her element in the cavernous hall. Slowly she walked towards the round table where a dozen or so men were seated.
A dozen pairs of eyes riveted towards her, pale and unblinking. Elanore shivered instinctively before she dropped a curtsey. “Good morning,” she ventured.
From the largest chair at the table, Count Wolfram gazed at her for a moment before speaking. “You appear to have rested well. Several of these men have requested a demonstration — some proof of your gifts.”
She clenched her fists to her side, trying to maintain her composure as the men continued to stare. If she was looking for kindness or sympathy, she did not find it in their faces. Some looked at her coldly. Others greedily. Elanore fought down the urge to run and focused on the Count. “I have rested but not fully. I have the stones with me. Will that do?”
“They wish for a demonstration with the lions,” he answered.
“Sir,” Giles spoke up from behind his voicing mild disapproval.
“Any decent magic user can use stones,” the Count responded unsympathetically. “The lions are not woken or commanded by just anyone.”
“Fine,” she said tightly before whirling about and hurrying back towards the hallway.
“Whoa, princess,” Giles fell in behind her as she pushed past the door. “Do you even know where you’re going?”
Elanore pursed her lips. “Outside. I’m not so helpless or foolish to not know how to find my way there.”
He glanced behind him before he spoke in a whisper. “You shouldn’t take these requests personally. That’s how he always is with the Wolframs. Dry. Superior. Kind of a jerk.”
Elanore had paused in the front hallway, waiting while a servant scrambled to find her cloak. “But I’m not a Wolfram,” she said firmly. “He is not my lord. Nor am I a servant to be commanded.” Her anger was evident to Giles, for she took no pains to hide her feelings. “As of late, I feel I have been ill-used.” The Count had always been difficult and reserved but not always unpleasant.
She pulled the hood of her cloak over her face as if to quell further probing by the coachman. When she took her first step outside, she breathed the cold air. The sky had opened up, blanketing everything with a wet mix of rain and snow. The day had become miserable for work outside.
The lions did not care what kind of snow fell to the earth. They rolled about in it just the same, stopping only when they had spotted her. She almost smiled as they brushed by her and called her to play. Their unabashed affection cheered her a little, allowing her to momentarily forget her anger.
Their lord stepped beside her. His cane hovered in the air, separating Elanore from the lions. “This is not time for that.” His face was grim as he tapped the cane against the ground once. “You all forget yourself. It is time to wake more.”
Elanore drew herself up, her petite figure trembling in anger at the way he had spoken to her. The lions scattered as she snapped back at the Count. “And I will but not because you demand it.” She threw her arm out and pointed at the statues in the courtyard. “I will at their pleasure, for it is their instruction I have been following thus far. Not yours.”
The Wolframs stared, affronted by this act of defiance.
Neither the lady nor the lord paid them any attention. Something flickered in the Count’s eyes as he studied Miss Redley. But he withdrew his cane and bowed. “Since this task requires the cooperation of the lions and Miss Redley, all of whom have shown their displeasure, I suppose I have no choice but to agree.” The corners of his mouth turned up slightly as he looked at the lions, hiding off in the courtyard. “Miss Redley, I hope you all will be more obliging and pleasant when your dear hunter arrives. My clan members are impatient.”
* * *
While Elanore was escorted to the parlor to compose herself, Edmund sat in the kitchen of the Ormond home, deep in discussion with Old Gregory.
As the old man drank a hot cup of soup, he expressed his frustration over his latest readings. “This area was supposed to be full of wolves and bears, hence the guild coming out this way. But they all but disappeared for some reason. The hunters thought they were people-shy.”
Gregory did not have the benefit of the knowledge that Ilva had imparted upon Edmund. The wolves had not really disappeared but simply changed. Edmund glanced her way, noting she chose to say nothing. He cleared his throat. “You think they’ll return?”
“Aye,” Gregory rubbed his chin. “Perhaps they number among the creatures that return once full darkness is achieved. This part of the country has a different terrain. Maybe the woods empty of many types of beasts trying to escape the dark forest.”
Edmund wondered if Ilva might affirm or deny such an idea. But she was standing at the fire, lost in thought.
She jumped when the sound of knocking came from the door at the other side of the house. Edmund turned his head, listening as his mother and father answered the door. He heard the sounds of the opening door and the pleasant chatter that followed before heavy steps came down the hallway.
There was an awkward moment of silence after Guildmaster Wilhelm entered the kitchen. The guildmaster and lady stared at one another before the man recalled his manners. “My apologies for interrupting,” he bowed at the lady. “You must be Lady Ilva that Mrs. Ormond spoke of.”
The pale lady nodded. “You are, of course, the Guildmaster. If you’ll excuse me–”
“No, no,” the guildmaster did not let her pass. “I won’t be long. I’ve come from the Winchester home. I had gone there to tell the ladies that the guild will begin patrolling the town and outlying areas. However, they appear not to be home.”
Edmund frowned, knowing full well that the guildmaster had likely followed tracks from the Winchester house, expecting to find the women here.
Gregory interjected. “I myself walked that way this morning. You’ve been following my trail I would guess. If you’re heading back to the guild hall now, I’ll go with you though. I want to talk to you about some of the creatures that concern me.”
Wilhelm was not easily distracted. He shifted his gaze to Edmund. “I saw quite a few tracks there. Several men came this way I could tell. But something four-legged did as well, something like the beast she rode yesterday. I’m not trying to find her. But I suspect you can. I wish her to know that I’ve accepted her request to assist the townspeople.”
Edmund crossed his arms over his chest. “She’ll find out eventually. Why are you so concerned about relaying this information to her?”
Wilhelm sighed. “I wish my daughter to understand me.”
The young hunter was up in a flash, clearly appalled at such a statement. He pointed at Wilhelm accusingly. “You jest. You wish to hurt her even more don’t you? Something like this–”
“Edmund,” Ilva stepped forward and placed a hand on his arm before he could collar his leader.
Wilhelm stared down the younger man. “I do not make the claim lightly. Her mother and I were more than engaged. We had become lovers before she slipped away from this town.” The guildmaster’s expression was somber. “When I first saw the girl, I saw the resemblance to her mother but I was struck as to how old she was. I started to work out the timing in my mind and asked the innkeeper a few questions. I was convinced that it was possible that she was conceived here in Winchester before her mother left. But without an exact age, I could not be sure. However, with each encounter I continued to study her and see all the ways the girl was unlike her mother. I became more convinced of this truth. That is, Elanore must be my daughter.”
“I cannot tell her that. I dare not,” Edmund’s voice turned to ice. “It is still conjecture and as such, a cruel thing to speak of.”
“Is it?” The guildmaster responded just as coldly. “But if true, is it not also cruel of her mother to hide the truth from me? I have, all these years, been childless. And yet here might be my daughter who won’t know me, is afraid of me, and who I can’t help. My child.” His gaze settled upon Edmund and he willed him to understand. “Surely you of all people can empathize with my frustration.”
“What would you have me do?” Edmund turned his head away. He understood the frustration but could not empathize in the same way.
“I have no choice but to ask someone else to stand at her side. To release him from the guild to keep her alive and safe so I have a guarantee that I might see her again someday.”
They all stared at the guildmaster. If what he had said before was startling, even scandalous, this was simply out of character for the man. “Please explain yourself,” Edmund said slowly. “Am I to be removed from the guild?”
“No. You would be honorably released with full privileges afforded to a retired member.” The guildmaster looked at Gregory. “The book keeper can make the adjustments in the official record when he returns to the hall. Your parents will be entitled to the guild’s protection and your pension.”
The action was obscenely generous in light of Edmund’s age and limited time of service. Any fool would accept these conditions, but Edmund was far too honest to simply agree. “Where she has gone I am not sure I will be allowed to follow. I may not be able to assure you of your wishes.”
Ilva suddenly spoke up. “I can assist you, Edmund. But to do so, I will need something to bargain with. Guildmaster, I would like your word on one particular matter.”
The guild hunters looked at the woman anxiously.
Carefully, Wilhelm spoke. “What would that be, Lady Ilva?”
Her brows knit together. “Your hunters must abstain from hunting wolves. Until Edmund or the girl releases you from that promise.”
“But that is absurd,” Wilhelm frowned. “My men will never understand that. It seems illogical. We have always trained how to hunt them.”
She shook her head. “You must tell them to show restraint. You must understand that the wolves are not unlike your kind, striving to survive on this land and against the things you both will face soon. They are but a small population now, having been hunted into near extinction during the last eclipse by enemies that are both magic and beast. The place your daughter has gone to is a sanctuary for creatures like them. So long as the guild hunts wolves, Edmund would not be welcome there.”
The guildmaster narrowed his eyes, trying to sort through the puzzling statements of the woman. She was an unknown entity to him, someone who he had no history with or any reason to trust. But the hunters listened to her for some reason. She compelled them to.
In this situation, he did not see the harm in making such a promise. “I suppose if they do not come near us, we will not hunt them. It is simple enough. We have our hands full with game hunting and the town as of now.”
“Some of your men might be tempted,” she stated. “Men do so like trophies. But in this case, you might tell them that to hunt them during this year comes with a curse. If they take a wolf’s life, they will become one in its stead.”
“A strange threat,” the guildmaster snorted. “A good story, indeed! Sounds like elven folklore to me.”
The woman smiled. “It is. But it would not be so bad to be a wolf. They’re not all that different from humans, after all.”
The men all gave her a rather puzzled look.
“Never mind me and my stories,” the lady laughed merrily. “I’ll see to it that Edmund does as you ask.”
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