All eyes riveted towards the master of the estate as he emerged from underneath the frame of the great wooden door — all eyes save a few. His clansmen watched uneasily as Count Wolfram took sharp, measured steps across the snow towards a small group assembled in the center of the courtyard.
His people tensed, for to ignore the Count was to invite discipline. These outsiders and the lions did not have the right to do as they pleased even if were merely finding merriment in something as simple as cleaning the snow off a piece of stone. This was their lord’s domain and as such, all things that passed on this property were his, by right, to bless or forbid.
Two high members of their clan followed their lord– both looking unusually perturbed. As for the third person in their lord’s party, Giles ambled along casually whistling to himself.
The Count immediately noticed that only Gawain glanced his way. The lions did not move to greet him, choosing instead to attend to the girl and the boy. It was apparent that the young hunter’s every word and movement had their full attention. They looked at him like she did — her eyes continuing to stray to the hunter’s face with an expression of something close to hero worship.
His eyes also noted how close they stood to one another, their hands clasped as they talked to the beasts. Lady Tala was right: Miss Redley was hopelessly in love with the boy but unaware of it. But it was the sight of the boy speaking to the lions that made him frown. He wondered how the townsman had become able to hear them.
Marrok had warned him already, remarking that the boy’s hostility was evolving at an alarming rate. He had shown up this morning, matching the other young ones glare for glare. Marrok was certain the boy was there for some mischief.
However, when the Count watched the young man interact with the woman, her kind face spoke loudly on the boy’s behalf. He did not believe such a gentle soul could love a monster.
He studied the happy tableau the young couple and the lions created. Wolfram sifted his feelings, dug deeper, and tried to understand why it should unsettle him. He considered that if he had any semblance of his old self left, those feelings might resemble regret or jealousy. Instead, he thought it a sense of deja vu.
He was still trying to sort out what they reminded him of, who they reminded him of when Lambegus greeted him.
Edmund Ormond stepped forward, putting himself between Elanore and the others. The Count glanced at Miss Redley, who lowered her eyes while she blushed.
“Hello,” the young man was composed, even a bit haughty as he greeted them all. He did not bow, as Miss Redley did. The hunter’s eyes glittered.
Maximilian Wolfram thought of his parents — a young snow white maiden and her would-be prince, and felt his chest constrict. That ferocious look on his father’s face when they would talk in hushed whispers of that black witch — that was what look the hunter wore now.
The realization that somehow he had become their enemy made him stop in his tracks. He gripped his cane tightly, fingers shaking as he tried to exorcise the ghosts that were lingering in his mind.
He was not a beast.
He was not. He would never be.
Not ever again.
He would not make their faces sad, worried.
Not ever again.
He had buried everything that had transpired in the time between the Unthings and Selva far deep within him. He was no longer the Big Bad Wolf, the monster whose claws tore people from limb to limb. To acknowledge those things would be to embrace the monster he had been.
But when they looked at him like that, he could not forget!
Two hands gripped his shoulder. “Sir.” Both Marrok and Giles were beside him, their expressions worried. They did not know their grandfathers had pulled him back from the brink and placed him here, safe from the world. Or, rather, kept the world safe from him.
The mask slipped back in place and he was merely their lord. He shook his head, detached their hands from his shoulder before he turned his gaze back upon the young man and young woman. “We have come to observe.”
Ormond did not blink. “And an impressive demonstration will be delivered… provided that doing so is in our best interest.”
The gathered crowd rumbled uneasily at such a statement. The Count narrowed his eyes at the hunter. Marrok had been right — something had changed about the boy. After their encounter weeks ago in the woods he had dismissed the young lad as soft — as a do-gooder. But the lad had somehow grown fangs between now and then. “Whatever happened to goodwill?”
The young man glanced sideways at Miss Redley. “Goodwill means little when there’s something you want.”
The Count wondered how this might play out. Ormond’s fondness for the woman could make him terribly easy to manipulate, to control. Or it could make him reckless and erratic. Such was the folly of youth.
The ghosts of the past hovered over the Count who wavered between words, divided between responding with contempt or compassion. He looked at Miss Redley again and sighed. “Three wishes. But they must be within my power to give.”
“My lord!” Marrok looked appalled.
The young man and woman looked perplexed. It was foolish, the Count knew. Perhaps even childish. Granting three wishes, as if this were like every other story in his godforsaken book. But he was intrigued. He wanted to see what the youth would ask with those three wishes and if he could get Miss Redley to stop looking at him with anger or fear.
“MASTER,” Lambegus sounded proud. “HONORABLE, GENEROUS MASTER. FROM THIS PERHAPS AN UNDERSTANDING CAN BE FORMED. WE SHALL BE ABLE TO HAVE COMMUNION AFTER ALL.”
“Speak plainly,” he held out his staff. He was tired of their riddles and games.
“YOU THREE BOUND BY SENTIMENT. FOR ONE TO WAKE US IS DIFFICULT. THREE IN COOPERATION IS BETTER. A HUNDRED OF YOUR BLOOD OPTIMAL. ”
Elanore Redley saw the flicker of annoyance on his face. She placed her hand on Lambegus’ nose as if to intervene. “That map you showed us was a clue. The stones that you showed me follow the lines in which they are arranged. Because you all have a common blood, born from this land, you all are also not at all different from those same stones. The idea that the lions are trying to suggest will work is that all of you whether flesh or earth or stone can accept magic and amplify it like a pool of water can amplify waves.”
And then he understood. Clever girl, using his own analogy about her own powers to explain back to him what the lions sought to do. He wondered whether they had known this all along, or if they had come to realize it during their many searches of the surrounding land.
Miss Redley bowed her head. “Forgive me for this morning. I did not understand either until they explained this just now. If you would be willing, let us try this together this time.”
“Master,” Marrok voiced his reservations aloud. “They will not like this.”
But one look at her outstretched hand and he made up his mind. “Go,” he ordered Marrok and Giles. “Have everyone space themselves out. Find every last lion we can in this courtyard and place your hands on them.”
The grey man hesitated, only to be dragged off by the Count’s young cousin.
As he took the young woman’s hand and joined her circle, he wondered why he did not worry more. But her smile and eagerness put him at ease. He watched Miss Redley as her eyes looked about, watching as the Wolframs rearranged themselves to do as their master had ordered.
The lions nudged her when they were satisfied. Miss Redley closed her eyes while the lion opened their mouths. He could hear her voice whispering parts of songs, something childlike and whimsical. He knew she was echoing what they told her for the words had an odd cadence and rhythm.
Her gloved hand flashed warm to his touch, but he held it fast. He opened his eyes, startled, when he began to distinguish new sounds. His eyes darted back and forth between the creatures — the loud booming voice of Lambegus, the dignified baritone of Galahad, and the whispers of Uwain. He winced at Gawain shouting like an overeager child.
The voices began to echo and layer, growing deeper and deeper as the passage of time began to slow. The snow stopped mid-air as lines began to appear to him, shining through the ground. They moved lazily, connecting things to people, people to things, stringing them to one another.
He saw it then, the vision of the map he had on that delicate piece of paper. The configuration of the statues in the courtyard were no longer haphazard but part of a design. They were part of that design– standing on the spoke of a larger wheel laid out by the people who had lived here before him.
The creatures were weaving her magic, he realized. They made it flow through the circle created by this space and the common elements between them. Their blood, their bodies and this ground grew that small magic she had given them. The magic would spin about and flower as the lions pushed it back around the circle.
And then they let it go, letting it spill over everything around them. He heard his heart thud hesitantly, responding to the lions’ long forgotten voices and the magic they had stirred up.
He heard his heart beat again, and he wondered why he had not heard it before.
And then it came more quickly, beating as time moved forward and the lions laughed. Four voices, then sixteen, then sixty-four, doubling over and over until all of them unfroze and came alive.
He blinked and the snow was falling again, but no one seemed to notice. The courtyard filled with a great deal of noise and wind.
Giles laughed uproariously at the other Wolframs, startled by the creatures all waking and talking and demanding to be paid attention to. Miss Redley laughed — dancing with her young man who told her she was wonderful before she threw her arms around his neck to kiss him.
The Count stood, stunned as he noticed that the mirth spread quickly. His people began to lose their grey looks and grim expressions — grinning, smirking, cooing, and running about.
Even if he had still the use of magic, he wondered whether this have happened this way if he had been used as the catalyst instead.
He received no answer. Instead, Marrok joined him, perturbed. “They are worse than cubs,” Marrok groaned while he watched Giles wrestling with one of these creatures. “They don’t seem to understand the meaning of quiet! They do not seem to know how to stop talking!”
He realized then that all of them could hear the creatures. And then, he laughed.
His laughter was strange and novel to all around him. But it was the lions who pushed their way to him, pawing at his feet with smug expressions on their faces. “Master. Master. MASTER,” they chattered, they preened, they yawned. “We did well, didn’t we?”
He reached out to them to scratch their heads, for he knew somehow they wanted to be petted.
The wind whipped around them, stirred up by the shouts and singing and incessant chatter of the lions. For a moment, he stood in the midst of a whiteout and he hesitated. He thought of a time when he was lost in blackness and certain death. It was the sound of the wolves running about him, calling to him that had saved him.
But this time the wolves were not a wind inside the seat of darkness. They were not spirit ghosts of his ancestors, reaching out to save him. They were flesh and bones on two legs, laughing uncontrollably in the beautiful white snow at their new companions.
Fear not. You are not alone.
The words of the white witch echoed across the long distance of time, reminding him that she had told him that when the need arose help would come. That it came in the form of a red cloaked girl and a hunter was ironic. Perverse, perhaps. His grandfather would have been delighted.
As the lions scattered to play with their friends the dust began to settle. He wondered what the young woman thought as she left the hunter’s side to greet Mrs. Winchester, hobbling out with a maid’s help to see her granddaughter’s handiwork.
The count was left with her suitor, whose smiles slowly began to fade in her absence. It was if Miss Elanore’s departure had drained away the life away from the boy.
They were not good at speaking, either of them. After a moment the young man broke the silence. “I should not have asked what I did.” He suddenly was uneasy. “Had she and I failed, it would have been disastrous”
The Count wrinkled his brow and sighed. “In my world, the price of a failed bargain is indeed high. But I would not have collected upon it.”
Awkwardly, the hunter bowed out of gratitude. “Regardless, I am glad I do not have to find out. But now that this is done, we must speak. Alone.”
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