The snow fell quickly and heavily, making the roads an unpleasant place to travel. And yet Edmund had navigated them, only to wait with his horse in front of the iron gate that marked the entry to the Wolfram property.
He stood in front of the gate pondering Ilva’s claims and whether her mood might be responsible for the miserable change in weather. She had said little to him as he prepared to leave, choosing to sit by the window and watch the sky. But as soon as he put his hand upon the doorknob, she had run after him in order to place an item into his hands.
“For your host,” is all she had said, with no other instruction or explanation offered to him.
Edmund had inspected the book, and found it to be from one of the shelves in the store. Assured it was ordinary, he slipped it into his bag and left. But now, as the sky wept, he wondered if he should have asked her more.
He understood her worry over brewing conflict between himself and the Count. However, even if he might be a hunter and the Count a real wolf in human shape, he did not see things the way she did. He loved Elanore but did not have any rational reason to go after the man.
Was it that she feared that he might act rashly and be killed by the Count? Or was it the reverse? Ilva was a beautiful woman who had hidden her service to the man. Could it be that she felt more towards her master than what would be permitted a servant?
Edmund hefted the pouch that contained that simple book. His instinct told him that this ordinary object held a message to the lord, one that he would not fully understand until he himself delivered it into Wolfram’s hands and watched his reaction.
As the minutes passed and no one came to greet him as promised, Edmund tried the gate once. When it did not give, his eyes traveled to the right of the gate to evaluate the stacked stone wall that ran down the road, keeping the curious passersby from looking inside the large property grounds.
He wondered what would happen if he tried to climb that wall. Before he could consider it, a stone lion was swiping at the gate’s metal grill.
“EDMUND!” The lion was excitable and uncontainable in its efforts to access him, its paws repeatedly attempting to reach through the open portions of the gate. “WE HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR YOU. EVEN THE MASTER WAITS.”
The young man shook his head. He was certain the Count did not wait with the same eagerness. Rather, the man likely dreaded his intrusion. “Good morning.”
The wind gusted in response as the one was joined by three others, poking at the gate while they chattered.
“I am supposed to meet someone here,” Edmund tried to reason with these creatures whose useless activity caused his own horse to paw nervously at the ground. “Marrok was his name.”
They stopped their noisemaking but only to stare. “WHAT DO YOU HAVE FOR US.”
Edmund sighed. The lions would not move without some incentive. “Come now,” he muttered at them. “Will you not fetch this person? It is cold and you are frightening my horse. I’ll give you what’s inside my pockets once I’m INSIDE the gate.”
“There is no need for that,” came a thin, wispy voice out of nowhere. The grey man took one step forward and scattered the lions out of his way.
“Good day, Mister Marrok.” Edmund offered a friendly greeting.
The solemn man did not respond, instead turning his attention to addressing some mechanism on the gate. It took a few moments before the gate clicked and it swung loose, allowing Edmund to step inside.
The man grunted. “Foolish lions should have known they couldn’t open it. It is a lock meant for normal hands, one that only can be manipulated with care. As for my name, it is only Marrok. I do not care for titles. Now– let me see your things.”
The hunter dropped his short sword and allowed himself to be subjected to a search. Marrok was quick and thorough, saying nothing until he was satisfied. “You may retrieve your weapon, Mr. Ormond, but I’ll have to ask you to sheathe it once we leave the gate. My men won’t take too kindly to any aggressive displays towards myself or towards our lord. Keep in mind that while you may not see my men, their eyes will be on you at all times.”
As Edmund reached down to retrieve his sword, he heard the sound of soft footfalls somewhere close by. He realized then that he had never been alone at the gate with the lions. At least several men had been observing him the entire time.
The Count’s henchman snapped his fingers and on cue, one such man appeared next to him. “Your horse will be attended to by this man here. He will make sure it is made dry and fed well.”
This new fellow barely glanced at Edmund, instead immediately stepping over to the horse to sniff at the steed. “Tis a normal horse, sir,” the man grinned as he took the reins from Edmund, flashing an impressive set of teeth in amusement before he leaped upon it and forced it down the path.
Marrok did not waste time and moved in a different direction. Edmund fell alongside him, trying to keep his spirits calm.
He was glad for the indifferently cheerful company of the lions. As promised, once inside the gates he had silently offered them contents of his pocket — a few ribbons they took greedily in their mouths. They padded after the two men, dragging those ribbons across the surface of the snow.
They kept him distracted from the sensation of being watched as the odd company walked in a part of the woods around the home that he had not seen before. He had to keep a tight rein on his instincts, for they told him to reach for his sword as shadowed figures slipped in and out of his peripheral vision. When someone would boldly come to the path to stare, Edmund reminded himself to stare back. These onlookers were not men but wolves — challenging him in their silent way. He would not show weakness by averting his gaze.
Marrok said nothing during these encounters to reprimand his men or to encourage them. He watched, only breaking the silence once they had arrived at a door. “Where did you say you were from?”
“I have been told I am from the north,” Edmund answered. “But I do not know where.”
That response earned him a surprised look. But no more was said, for a lady emerged from behind the door.
The lions scattered, choosing to go hide behind the trees. Edmund could not help but wonder what it was about the woman that intimidated the beasts– there was nothing offensive about her tall figure, pointed chin and light-colored eyes. Perhaps it was the severe look she cast their way.
When she spoke her voice was sharp, not musical. “Well. So this is Miss Redley’s young man.”
Marrok did not answer, leaving Edmund to make the introductions. The young man in question bowed. “I am Edmund Ormond.”
She bowed stiffly in return. “I am Lady Tala. Of course you have met my husband, Lord Marrok Wolfram, although he prefers to be simply called Marrok. Come inside, you must be cold.”
Her politeness and ordinary manner surprised him. The woman was far more civilized than all the men he had met thus far. As he followed her into the house he wondered if she was also a born and bred Wolfram.
He was greeted by a young woman who apparently was there only to take his coat. She disappeared with a grin as soon as he left it within her hands. When he turned around, Lady Tala stood quite close, leaning in to look at something. At his startled look, she drew back. “Oh,” she apologized. “I haven’t seen hair like that in many years.”
Edmund had known that he would likely encounter a number of odd behaviors among these people. He had let his guard down too easily… presuming that the woman might have been an ordinary one. It would seem that he was mistaken! “I have business with Mrs. Winchester,” he stated firmly. “And your master. Please inform him that I need a private audience.”
Both Wolframs exchanged uneasy looks. It was Marrok who answered. “The master is busy. He may not make himself available.”
Edmund stood his ground and repeated himself, this time less politely. “I will not leave unless he sees me. Inform him. I have something I must relay to him.”
The older man seemed irritated by his manners but relented. “My wife will show you first to Mrs. Winchester. I will seek out the Count.”
Lady Tala sighed as the man departed. “The Count is in a terrible mood. It is impractical to make such demands. But come along.”
With that statement she told him more about the entire group of them than she realized. They believed themselves subject to the Count’s whims and moods. In that sense the Count held far more sway over his subjects than the Guildmaster did his own guild. Edmund said little, thinking through how best to approach the man as they moved through hallway after hallway.
Gradually he could not help but notice the growing number of faces that appeared in each corner or corridor they moved through.
The woman caught him glancing about. With a friendly, ingratiating tone she spoke. “You noticed the men outside, I gather. Well we are mostly womenfolk and maids here. There is no need to be uncomfortable. They watch you only because you are an outsider and you are handsome. They know about the young woman and wonder if the master means to make her his wife.” Cheerfully she added, “After this morning’s fallout and your appearance, I believe the women will change their bets.”
His icy glare only made her laugh. “You do not know how much trouble you cause, young man. The men are suspicious of outsiders. And the women are wild to meet them.”
In some respects, the woman was far too much like Ilva. She was outwardly a lady, but her eyes spoke of cunning and efficiency. He did not trust her but smiled charmingly. “I hope I don’t disappoint you all.”
The woman could not help but respond with a smile. “The men cannot help but be impatient. It is not in our nature. Including their master, the Count.”
“I hope that not to be the case,” Edmund responded as they found themselves in a quiet hallway and heard the sound of familiar voices floating towards them. “Impatience leads to disagreements with others, particularly outsiders. Outsiders have no loyalties to men like your master.”
The lady stiffened at Edmund’s veiled warning. But they did not converse further, for the sound of rustling skirts and a swift, light step came from around the corner — a sound that could only belong to Elanore. With a sharp, decisive movement he stepped forward in time to catch the lovely girl in flight.
“Edmund!” She had flung her arms around him, trapping him in place while her grandmother scolded them from inside the parlor for their improper behavior.
“Oh!” Elanore suddenly pushed herself away, noting the woman who had withdrawn behind Edmund. She reddened while she greeted the woman. “Do you come to have tea with us as well? I sent the maid away for Grandmother much prefers that I serve her. I shall serve you and Edmund as well if you like.”
“I don’t take tea,” the lady answered, mysteriously flustered by the attention. “It is not customary where I am from. But I will rest in the parlor for a while if you don’t mind.”
Elanore was puzzled by such a response, but Edmund was not. He knew quite well that she would be the “eyes and ears” while he visited with Mrs. Winchester and her granddaughter, but there was no reason to upset the young woman with such a terrible burden. He distracted the young woman by reaching over to tousle her hair. “I’m rather cold and wet right now. I’d like tea.”
“Of course,” Elanore continued to clasp his hand and affected a cheerful voice. “Hastings brought us a most lovely tea a few minutes ago. He ordered so much food and I have no idea why.”
Elanore pulled him along, seating him by her grandmother close to the fire while the lady Wolfram chose a place outside their circle, at a table by the window. The lions had gathered outside it seemed and were running around with ribbons. He tried hard to not watch them while he studied Elanore, fussing over him.
She smiled often and had many pleasant things to say about the food. Edmund, however, had noted the persistent unsteadiness in her hands as she served him tea. He did not know yet what had happened to Elanore or to Ilva that made one timid and the other sad, but it infuriated him how much damage one man could do.
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