The manner in which the young man expressed himself would have greatly displeased Marrok. Young men of their clan never made demands to their elders unless they had a specific desire to have their ears mercilessly boxed. But to tell a lord what to do was heretical.
However, Maximilian was old enough to remember how things were before the Wolframs had become rigid and hierarchical. He remembered the way the two most important men in his life would have handled him. His grandfather would have teased while his father would have raised his eyebrow at him before both put him in his place.
He did not have his grandfather’s facility for humor, so he silently reprimanded the hunter with a look. In the pause in conversation that followed, the young man wisely reconsidered his words.
Ormond cleared his throat. “The matter involves a young lady who has not given me permission to speak openly. I do not wish to accidentally solicit your family’s input.”
The Count found the statement amusing, for it was true that anything discussed out here would likely be overheard. His men were keen of hearing. The women, equally so, but not unafraid to voice their opinions. And then there was Miss Redley, who he suspected would be quite overcome with indignation if she found herself the topic of discussion.
He nodded, waving off Giles and Marrok as he moved back towards the house. He did not need either to follow. Although he could not say he yet liked the hunter, he did not feel that same compulsion to provoke or challenge him. As long as Miss Redley was out here and on this estate, the young man would not dare act out. He would be on his best behavior.
And so the hunter fell in step behind him, saying nothing as a curious group of lions joined them in walking towards the driveway that passed by the estate’s main entryway.
They were asking questions all at once. Wolfram frowned as the creatures swarmed around them, wondering what they were rambling on about. “Not now. And don’t follow us inside. Stay out here, but don’t leave the grounds. You will be needed shortly.”
They moved from him to the fair-haired lad, asking about ribbons. The lad laughed, letting his hands run across their backs as he explained patiently that he had no more to give. In spite of what he said, they did not let him move from his spot until the Count could be patient no longer and barked for them to leave.
The sound of his voice sent them running, all save Gawain. With the other beasts out of the way, Gawain trotted over to the master. Wolfram spotted something dangling out of the smug beast’s mouth. As he leaned in to look, he sighed, now understanding why the horde of magic creatures had pestered them. “You cannot have something that they do not. It vexes your younger brothers so. Would you mind allowing me to keep it for now?”
The lion sounded a protest. In doing so, it dropped the offending item into his hand. The Count gently pressed his fingers against the bridge of the beast’s nose in order to keep it from snatching the ribbon back. “You realize you can’t speak to them if your mouth is always full. As the first to wake, I do need you to speak to them and teach them.”
The lion gave him a yawning grin, seemingly pleased by the master’s words. The Count felt relieved to have successfully distracted the creature from its shiny prize. The lion pushed its face towards the Count, looking as closely at him as it could. “But what should they be told?”
“Everything,” his master commanded. “Tell them what you have seen as you explored outside to letting them know how I will spank them with this cane if they wander off without you, Lambegus, Galahad, or Uwaine. We can not have them chasing around animals or people. We all will have work to do soon once night falls.”
“Aww,” the lion replied. “But playing is what lions like to do.”
“At the very least, tell them to leave the people be so they can resume their work,” his master scolded him. “They have meals to eat and walls to patch. It is no good to play all this light away.” The Count paused to look at the door frame in front of them, the one that sometimes acted like a mirror, one that was constantly shifting. He felt uneasy as he noted the carvings fading away. “The door seems to be smoothing itself out,” he said to the creature. “But into what I can’t tell. Can you?”
“Not into lions,” the creature padded up to the door and looked at it, as if its complaint might be heard. It looked peevish as it turned back to address him, its master. “It’s a very dumb door. I watched it for many years do nothing and it showed the same thing day after day. But now it changes its mind all the time. But never shows lions. If it did, then I might think it was useful.”
He touched the creature on the nose again. This time he did not mean to scold but to assure it. “Well, perhaps one day you shall see one on the door. But go Gawain! Pull your brothers into some kind of order.”
He could have sworn the beast uttered a small “Yippee” as it turned about on its heel. It did not run off as he expected. Instead it circled around Ormond once, soliciting another pat of affection from the young man before it pounced off the steps and ran through the first pile of snow it could find.
The hunter turned a brief, thoughtful gaze upon the door. His study of it was broken by the appearance of Hastings.
The elderly man looked past them for a moment, his eyes rounding as he surveyed the chaos behind the two men. He tried valiantly to recover his composure as his lord stepped through the entryway. While the gentlemen cast off their heavy winter outerwear and servants scurried forward to claim them, the butler seemed uncertain as to what to do. “Shall I prepare the study?”
The Count shook his head adamantly. “The parlor is fine as long as we remain undisturbed. Please make sure that only you serve us this afternoon. Let the others tend to the kitchen.”
Hastings understood, quietly issuing a few commands to the other servants to ensure that this request would be followed. When he resolved the matter with the housekeeper, he bowed to guest. “Sir,” he said politely. “Follow me.”
Count Wolfram lagged behind while the young man chatted with the butler. He was glad his manservant was amiable, for he was not routinely inclined towards small talk. But even more so today, for his thoughts were full of nostalgia and old feelings.
He could not help but be silent when they stepped into the parlor. He fiddled with his gloves, removing them before handing them to Hastings, who offered him a drier pair. They watched the young man as he looked about for something.
Hastings waited until he had finished replacing his gloves before he spoke. “Sir, the kitchen staff will have dinner available shortly for those who take first watch tonight. Do you wish for your afternoon tea? And should I also set a place for the guest?”
This was an awkward question. The Count hesitated, trying to draw upon protocols he had long forgotten. His mother was always the one that had welcomed others into his home. He could not remember what the appropriate thing was to do in such a situation.
“Do not trouble yourself on my account,” came a voice from somewhere behind the sofa. “I should take my leave shortly.”
The response surprised the lord. If anything, he thought the gentleman might have immediately declared his intent to stay the evening. His eyebrows knit themselves together briefly before he addressed his butler. “A strong drink for me, Hastings. I feel tired.”
“Yes, sir.” Hastings glanced out the window and flashed a nervous smile at his lord before disappearing out the parlor doors.
The Count did feel tired and chilly, but he did not sit by the fire. Instead, he wandered over by the window.
The young man joined him, holding a wrapped parcel in his hand. “I see why you prefer this room,” Ormond offered. “Isolated from the rest of the house but still in sight of the courtyard. It seems that our big friends are finally beginning to settle down.”
He could see Giles running around, herding the large cats in his own loud way. He could see the persons and beings outside were slowly resolving themselves into some kind of order. The Count watched them, trying not to feel uneasy about this time of celebration. “Night will fall shortly, Mister Ormond. Your business, I suppose has something to do with Miss Redley. I see how things are between the two of you. Your first wish might be to ensure that you will be allowed to visit her without restriction.”
The young man responded with a small smile. “I do not see the need to make this a formal wish. Even if you thought it best to keep me from here, we both know fully well that neither the lions or Miss Redley would be pleased by such an outcome. As long as they have free interaction with me as much as they please, I believe you will find them all the more easy to deal with.”
Regrettably, he knew that to be true. He did not argue this point. But the boy seemed to have ignored one technical problem with his request. “In time it will be too dark soon to travel the few miles on horseback. And that presumes that nothing hunts travelers on the road. You understand that we, ourselves, do not plan to leave these grounds under any circumstances once the sun sets for the winter. Even for those in trouble on the road. If you truly wish to stay beside Miss Redley, you must know that you will have to reside here and give up your freedom to come and go until the winter is gone.”
Ormond blinked at his strange choice of words, but allowed them to pass unremarked. “I am glad that we see things similarly. If you will permit me to talk to Giles or Hastings about the arrangements, I will explore that option. I have a family who must also be consulted and considered in all this.”
“The same is true for them. Once they enter and the sun has set, they can not leave this place. Our rules are quite harsh at times. I can not be sure they will like this place.”
“Nor can I–”
He was not really comfortable with all of this. To go from a relatively empty home to a full one was one challenge, but to add in outsiders made him uneasy. However, Hastings and Giles would manage them well enough until the trouble did start. “I trust they can entertain themselves well enough with the mayor and her granddaughter. They do not create much trouble for Marrok and the Lady Tala. But I would ask you to be aware that Marrok’s men don’t like you much.”
The young man’s face tightened. “That was obvious as soon as I stepped onto these grounds. I had wondered about my reception today, considering I have done nothing to earn their ire. But perhaps it’s forgivable given the circumstances.”
His smile made Wolfram feel uneasy. “The circumstances?”
“Creatures that hunt are not well liked by other predators. Wolves in particular are not inclined to like those of the two-legged variety. You’re wolves in human form. A hunter would be your forsworn enemy.”
The Count cursed inwardly to himself, wondering which of his servants past or present had been so unfaithful or stupid to tell an outsider this information. “What an odd claim to make.”
The young man looked at him intently. “Then you will not deny it?”
Wolfram irritably tapped the bottom of the cane on the floor. “Why should I attempt to? You seem rather confident about this point. Would my answer change your mind?”
Ormond shrugged. “It had become increasingly clear that you and your men are not ordinary. However, the idea that you are wolves was not my own. A young woman had told me what you all were. But I did not know whether her claim could be trusted.”
He rubbed his chin for a moment as he came to understand that the young woman Ormond had wanted to speak of was not Miss Redley. “And now?”
Grey eyes trained upon his face, while their owner spoke. “I trust that her claim is true. However, whether she is actually trustworthy I am not sure. This Lady Ilva has also claimed to have served you. How I do not know, although she has a great magic power of her own. But she appears younger than most, save Giles. That age discrepancy concerns me.”
Wolfram had already started to shake his head. “I’ve had no servant who goes by that name. It sounds like she tricks you, for her name is a variation on ‘Ylva’ or a she-wolf.” He moved the cane back and forth in his hand as he thought aloud. “And I have never had a woman of magic serving me. They are highly rare in these parts. It surprises me that one would have found you. If that is the case — even as angelic or beautiful she may appear — if she possesses magic, you would be better off never seeing her again. You do not know if she is some sort of siren, intending mischief upon any man who gives her his ear.”
The young man frowned, displeased by the statement. “She claims to be from the north not the seas. And her use of a pseudonym and her good looks do not necessarily mean she is a liar or dangerous. If you do not know the name, can you speak to whether you had a servant beautiful enough to never forget?”
The young man pressed the matter, describing the woman as best as he could.
The Count froze in place as the image of Selva was constructed for him piece by piece. Unwelcome questions and feelings pressed upon him, insisting on being addressed. Maximilian pressed his lips together and shut them all down. His voice was detached as he responded to the young man who watched him too closely. “I will not deny that a woman who looked like that once passed through here. However, that could be coincidence.”
Ormond sensed his ambivalence and thrust out the parcel he had been carrying. “Then I should give you this. Perhaps this might confirm something for you. This woman picked it out from the shop and asked I give it to my host. Why it was an appropriate gift she failed to explain.”
Wolfram slowly set his cane against the wall before taking the parcel. He carefully unwrapped it, finding a small thin book inside the paper wrapping. It was not an expensive book, nor did it look to be unique. He began to flip the pages, studying the colorful illustrations and the simple words. His voice sounded aloof as he made a pedantic observation. “It’s just a common children’s reader isn’t it?”
The young man appeared disappointed by his lack of interest in the gift. “Yes, it is something we would keep for the children in school. She has a preoccupation with stories. I thought perhaps you enjoyed them as well.”
“No, she was the one who liked stories,” he said absently while continuing to flip through the book. “I didn’t read them very much. I found them silly.”
“She takes them seriously,” Ormond stated. “I’d say she worries over them very much.”
“Does she?” His fingers paused over a page whose corner had been folded over. He straightened it out, much like how she often would set his books right while fussing over the study.
He snapped the book shut, holding it tightly as he forced himself to face her ghost. “She had no close family and was very poor. She had nothing so she came here, even though her claim to our line was very thin. She was pale and beautiful, like the snow outside. She used to dance under the moon in the woods, so we called her Selva. But she had no magic to offer me, only stories and her companionship. If the woman told you she was a servant, she lied. Selva would have been my wife.”
He knew his words betrayed too much about her and about himself. He looked away from the young man’s face, but he could not escape his judgement.
But the young man sounded kind. “That would explain many things, even how she behaves now. She told me that she did not leave on good terms.”
The Count pretended to study the activities outside, if only to avoid facing the young man’s inquisitive look. He did not wish for the young man’s pity. “If it is the same woman, she left because she wished to — not because she was forced to. Those terms were not good, but they were her terms.”
“And yet you did not pursue her–”
“She had a habit of disappearing when she sulked,” the Count crossed his arms across his chest. “And as she left no note, told none of the servants, I thought she was being temperamental. But eventually I had to accept she was gone of her own doing. And when a wolf leaves, they leave for good. Or so I thought.” He narrowed his eyes. “Twenty years is a long time to wander off.”
“Twenty years,” the young man exclaimed. “But she barely looks–”
“None of us look our age,” the Count rubbed his hand on his brow. “If it is her, she likely looks the same as the day she left. She would look young, to someone like you.”
He was relieved to hear the sound of steps coming towards them. The promise of company would force them to stop this pointless back and forth between themselves.
The two gentlemen looked towards the door where Hastings entered.
“Is everything alright?” Hastings frowned, noticing the melancholy air to the room.
Wolfram took the glass off the tray and drank the entire contents in one large swallow. He would have gagged at the taste, if he already did not have a bitter taste in his mouth. Grimly he responded. “A woman who matches the description of Selva has been speaking to Mr. Ormond. If it is true, my missing bride has conveniently resurfaced. What could it mean?”
His sardonic tone of voice earned him a pained look from his butler. “Sir. If that is so, why do you stand here arguing this point with the boy or with me? Should you not demand answers from her yourself?”
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