The Count was rarely ever questioned or spoken to in such a manner by his servant. As such, he found himself startled by his manservant’s response. Once his surprise passed, his look grew stern.
Hastings quickly realized the precariousness of his position. He apologized profusely as he tried to amend his words. “I’m sorry, sir. I just meant that it would be easy to find out. Did you not say you would welcome her here if she ever returned?”
The butler was correct. Maximilian had said something like that but at the time the idea of the woman returning was a distant possibility. Now he struggled with himself as he held this book that her fingers had touched and upon which her smell lingered.
The magic today had done something to him, disturbed those neglected corners of his inner psyche. Memories locked away were leaking from their safe places and along with them unmasterable, undesirable feelings began to stir.
He should not have spoken too carelessly. She was not some mere prodigal clan member, for he had taught her himself of the secrets of his home while she lived with him. She had become more than the rest of them. And so he answered the same question again, this time in clipped, annoyed tones. “It may be true that as a Wolfram she has every right to seek shelter here during the eclipse, but I do not know what kind of welcome she’d receive.”
The hunter observed the rash of color on the Count’s face. He frowned, not aware of the danger it represented. “Would your men punish her for abandoning this place?”
“It would not be unexpected for them to want to run her off,” Maximilian said through gritted teeth. He could feel his heart pumping blood through him, feeding a warm pool of suppressed outrage somewhere deep within him. “It would not be unexpected for me to run her off either.”
He cast aside the book, much to the surprise of his companions. Hastings put down his tray to pick up the discarded item and mournfully dust it off.
The hunter pounced. “So you would raise your hand against her?”
Ormond’s eyes burned with an intensity that the Count might have heeded had he not become so angry himself. “IF it is her, I would not punish her for the fight that she brought to me years ago. A wife to one of us must be as strong as her mate. It is the only way she could survive against the constant strive for dominance within this clan. That was not the problem. When she left, however, she broke her word to me and our bond. I’m bound by our law to discipline her, and the nature of that discipline is guided by older, more primitive instincts. I might be lying if I promised that the punishment wouldn’t be severe.”
“Are you saying you’re all no better than animals?” The fair-haired man responded to Wolfram’s harsh words, clenching his own fist at his side. “You have no control? No compassion?”
“Do you claim that for yourself then?” Wolfram mocked. “Are humans all that much superior with their pillaging and plundering? With their rape and their murders?”
“Master!” Hastings sternly interrupted them both. “You are not a cruel being. She came here with nothing and you treated her kindly. You showed mercy to Giles when he rebelled! You know you are strong enough to defy whatever instincts you might feel. The rest would follow you as well!”
The Count turned away at his butler’s interruption, hiding his sudden unease at the statement. His man believed him to be much better than he was. And yet, he had exploded quickly at the first sign of his ordered world falling apart. They did not understand how he was foundering around like a young baby, responding too quickly to any provocation.
The hunter might have simply walked out at this point, very well aware that the lord did not want to say much more about the matter of Selva. However, Hastings’ expressions betrayed the deep attachment he had with the missing wife of his master.
Edmund Ormond was struck by the dilemma of the servant, too afraid to speak his mind. It was not his youth or outsider status that compelled him to stay and speak — but his compassion and his desire to seek the truth. He cleared his throat and began again. “Ilva claimed that she would have returned if not for the Unthings pursuing her. The woman who rescued her bonded her to her service.”
This material point forced both Hastings and his master to turn their attention back to the hunter. The count frowned, for it was possible that the lad had seen the situation and decided to lie. But the young man’s gaze never wavered. Before Wolfram could stop himself, he fell back into conversation with the young man. “Who was this rescuer?”
“The one who controls the snow,” the hunter circled around the topic carefully. “We call her the Snow Queen in our stories here. She is a terrible and powerful witch.”
Maximilian looked out the window and frowned. His cane tapped on the floor while he thought through what he, himself, believed about this claim. He had not given the existence of that woman any thought, for his grandfather had always believed the weather was a simple accident of nature. But he had to also allow that the story was possible. And if it was true, if the claims were true, then he did not know how to respond.
It was their faces that hinted to him that a far more lenient response was expected. Maximilian struggled to maintain his sense of outrage but their hopeful looks and that heart of his — beating more slowly by the moment — betrayed him. His head turned incrementally towards the hunter, his voice reflecting a small sign of softness. “Do the Unthings chase her still?”
“I did not ask,” the young man sounded troubled that he did not know. “But she implied that they chase her no longer.”
“Sir,” Hastings suddenly pleaded. “You need to see her. She might be in danger still.”
The young man’s grey eyes turned towards the silver-haired servant, struck by the man’s continued pleas.
The Count was not ready to relent. “If Mr. Ormond is correct, then she is not one of us now. She is one of the Snow Queen’s eyes and ears and the woman will fend for her now.”
“Sir!” Hastings sounded aggrieved.
The old man’s sorrow shook the hunter from inaction. Edmund Ormond took a step towards the Count, his hands clenched at his side but ready to act. “Are you that far gone? How is that you all have the look of men but none of the heart?!”
“And what is it you think is wrong with me, Edmund the hunter?”
“Would you continue to deliberately ignore her? She maneuvered a deal with the Hunter’s Guild in which they would stop hunting wolves until winter has passed. And even after she told me what you were, how old you were, she told me to show patience, not fear, towards you. She advocates for you even now!”
The Count tapped his cane on the floor absently, unwilling to be moved by the impassioned speech. He could not deny that Ilva and Selva sounded to be the one and the same, but even so, he had no desire to act. He swung his cane back and forth in his hand while he seesawed between rage and indifference.
The hunter Edmund breathed once, twice, before he continued in his efforts to force the lord’s hand. “When she first came she told many of the townspeople that she was here simply passing through and that Winchester was a resting stop along the way. And then she claimed other things had caught her eye. But she was enjoying herself watching all of us and in advising me about Miss Redley. She even sounded envious of the relationship we had. She sounded envious of companionship. Do you not see why?”
Wolfram rubbed his fingers over his nose, wavering between discomfort and irritation. This Edmund was creative and analytical, but not making much sense. He was projecting something that he could not quite understand. “Speak plainly, Edmund Ormond.”
The look he received in kind was incredulous.
Edmund nearly shouted. “She must love you still! A woman does not return to a home unless she is drawn there. She can’t help but linger where the memories are the most profound and valuable to her.” He rocked back and forth on his heels. The youth was impatient with him, so frustrated by his host’s blindness. “But how would a woman who has left on bad terms behave in such a situation? She pauses, she waits, she thinks through things. She hides while she watches and tries to decide. For she knows you, she knew it was possible that you would respond so harshly. And you have!”
“That is by your standard,” the Count said harshly.
“Then will you be satisfied if I return to her and tell her you tossed her present to the ground? That you truly don’t care to know what happened to her? To see her before her life moves forward without you? “ The young man looked as if he wanted to shake the Count or knock him to the floor. “ And yet look at Hastings! Your servant is sad. He does not believe this is right. For he must feel that you loved her once. That you owe her more!”
“Ridiculous,” Wolfram snapped back. “You are projecting your own values in this case. As I said, our kind have different rules entirely. We do not love.”
“No,” the young man shook his head. “I know that word doesn’t likely exist in your vernacular. Or if it does, it has no place among your other values — where duty and service is king.” Edmund might have given up wholly at this point, but he turned swiftly to Hastings. “But you might know for you are not like them. Am I right? Did your master love this wife?”
The Count turned a keen look upon his human friend, his loyal servant. He knew he could order him to be silent, but he was not that heartless. The man had served him well for too long to not be allowed to speak what he thought, even if it was about him. “Speak freely, Hastings. I will not be offended.”
The butler bowed his head for a moment, lost in thought. Then slowly, he held out the book with both hand. “My lord, I have served you a long time, since I was a child. When she came, I served not just you, but her, with great pride and joy. I don’t ask you to forgive her, for that is your choice and beyond my station to ask. But please do not pretend that she did not love you nor you love her.” The old man’s voice trembled. “I do not wish to deny the existence of those happy memories. You may not want them anymore, but I still do. Those days were amongst my most happy.”
When Hastings looked up, Wolfram could see unshed tears in the faithful servant’s eyes. A sharp stab of guilt impaled him and he knew he was hurting one of those he treasured the most. As unwelcome as feelings were to himself, they were vital to Hastings.
The lord struggled in vain against himself for a moment before he accepted that he had lost this battle.
He was soft. Much too soft.
Wolfram reached out to touch the man upon the shoulder, practicing a gesture that he remembered signified compassion and connection. “What would you have me do?”
The old man whispered. “Don’t let this be the last gift, the last words between the two of you. My lord, please find her and bring her home.”