The Count was rarely ever questioned or spoken to in such a manner by his servant. At first, he could not respond. But once he understood that the manservant had sided with the hunter against him, he began to glower at the both of them.
Hastings quickly realized his precarious position. He apologized profusely as he tried to take back 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, as he held this book that her fingers had touched, smelled the fragrance over her on its leather spine, and struggled– he realized he had spoken too carelessly.
The magic today had done something to him, unlocked something that had rattled about neglected for many years. Unpleasant, unmasterable emotions welled up within. He spoke in clipped, angry 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 certain what it meant. “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, stirring up a warm pool of suppressed outrage from somewhere deep within him. “It would not be unexpected for me to run her off either.”
He tore at the book before casting it aside, much to the shock 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 turn her out. You would raise your hand against her?”
Ormond’s eyes burned with an intensity that Wolfram might have admired had he was not so angry. “If it is her,” he had to remind them all that he had not yet fully accepted all these claims. “You should know that wolves strive for dominance. 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. But she broke our bond. And if you understand our kind, I cannot promise that the discipline wouldn’t be severe. We are slaves to instincts.”
“Are you saying you’re all no better than animals?” The man clenched his fist at his side. “You have no control? No compassion?”
“Master,” Hastings interrupted. “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 feel. And the rest would follow you as well!”
“Shush,” the Count turned away. He would not allow them to see his face, lest it betray those unaddressed fears from the past that were quickly resurfacing. He had snapped, he knew, and betrayed one weakness. He resolved to not find out the truth. He did not want to be soft again, to let someone abandon him.
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 Ilva. 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. He cleared his throat and began his attack anew. It was his youth, his outsider status that emboldened the hunter now. “Ilva claimed that she would have returned if not for the Unthings pursuing her. The woman who rescued her bonded her to her service.”
Both Hastings and his master were forced to turn their attention back to the hunter. The count frowned, trying to see if the lad lied. Before he could stop himself, he had fallen back into conversation with the young man. “Who was this rescuer?”
“We call her the Snow Queen in the stories here,” the hunter stated. “She called her the one who controls the snow.”
Maximilian looked out the window and frowned. His cane tapped on the floor while he thought through what he, himself, believed. 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 after all the things that he already accepted truly happened, he had to also allow that the story was possible. But if true, he did not know how to respond.
Their faces, however, hinted to him what was expected. The Count knew that his manservant clutched that book as if it offered some hope of something. Ormond was fidgeting, as if he awaited some sort of answer from him.
He struggled weakly to maintain his sense of outrage but 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 they 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 pleaded. “You need to see her. She might be in danger still.”
The young man’s grey eyes turned towards the silver-haired servant, moved by the continued pleas.
The Count was not ready to relent. “If Mr. Ormond is correct, then she is even further from us. 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 angered the hunter. Edmund Ormond took a step towards the Count, his hands clenched again. “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?”
“I, too, have my doubts as she has shaded the truth a number of times. But I have thought through her circumstances, which as they appear to be true, suggest that her behavior is understandable, if not supportable. I can accept her mistruths. Leaving that aside, I want to tell you more. 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 has advocated for you as any servant ought to!”
The Count tapped his cane on the floor absently, still unmoved 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. “Once I look beyond those things and account for the possibility that she was more than a servant, other things started to fall in place. 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. But now I see why!”
Wolfram rubbed his fingers over his nose, wavering between discomfort and amusement. 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.”
An incredulous pair of eyes turned back to him. “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. 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 firmly.
Edmund shook his head. “Even so, then are you 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? And yet look at Hastings!” The young man looked as if he wanted to shake him, to knock him to the floor. “He grieves. He does not believe this is right. For he must feel that you loved her once. That you owe her more!”
“Ridiculous,” the Count snapped back, clearly unsettled by the young man’s words. “You are projecting your own values in this case. As I said, our kind has different rules entirely. We do not love.”
“No,” the young man shook his head. “I know that word doesn’t likely exist. Or if it does, it has no place amongst all the efficiency you value and the protocols you uphold. I suppose the word ‘love’ might even be forbidden in a place where duty and station is king.” Edmund might have given up wholly at this point, but he turned swiftly to Hastings. “But 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 the man had the look of one who wanted very much to speak.
The butler held out the book with both hands, and bowed his head. “My lord, forgive me for speaking out of turn. 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. I don’t ask you to forgive her, for that is your choice. But please do not pretend she did not love you nor you love her.” The old man’s voice trembled. “I do not wish to deny those happy memories existed because they are also my happy memories.”
Wolfram could see them – those unshed tears of his faithful servant. And he felt a pang of guilt, for of all those he had around him, this man was among those he treasured the most. “Hastings,” the lord reached out to touch the man upon the shoulder. “What would you have me do?”
The servant whispered. “Don’t let this be the last gift, the last words between the two of you. My lord, bring her home!”