The new day brought no word from Crossroads.
Guildmaster Wilhelm walked the grounds of the guild compound while looking up at the sky, calculating how much daylight was left. He wondered if Gerald was able to rout out the young delinquents in Crossroad and would return soon. He hoped so, for he did not like feeling as if the guild were spread thin.
However much he worried, he kept a calm expression on his face. He did not wish to undo the generally positive mood within the compound.
The promise of action and future conflict had provided the guild members with a sense of purpose. Even though a host of activities would have to be undertaken, they did not complain. Instead they seemed almost happy to have so much hard work to accomplish.
Wilhelm oversaw them as they each took on different tasks — building, clearing space, organizing stock and livery, and greeting the small handful of families that had arrived at their gates with their belongings and food stores.
Not all of the townspeople could be convinced of the dangers to come or cared enough to leave the comfort of their homes and usual haunts. He set his mouth in a thin, white line as he reflected that at least two businessmen in town had firmly stated they would not shut their doors so long as a customer wanted their business. They were more interested in keeping gold flowing than promoting safety.
Their customers were not much better. They had heard about the rules that the guild members kept. They knew that food and beer would be rationed carefully and curfews enforced. And they had heard that those who came here would have to work. It did not surprise Wilhelm that none of those customers were here today.
He wondered what the mayor might have done in this situation. He did not have the patience or energy to continue pressing the townsfolk. Nor the interest.
People had to make their choices, as good or as bad as they might be.
If his men were content with this new-found purpose, the most happy man of all would be Gregory. For years, the elderly librarian had been ignored by the younger folks who cared little for lore or history. But overnight, the months and years he had devoted to studying archaic things had resulted in him possessing valuable knowledge.
Today it was not only one man who read under his tutelage but at least a dozen who looked through the materials their bookmaster placed before them. There was a renewed interest in looking at the hunting maps, in understanding what animals typically came this way, and guessing what predators might follow. This study in turn would guide the blacksmith in making new weapons, fixing old ones, and giving the rest of them something to use against the things that inhabited the darkness.
The hum of activity unexpectedly slowed.
Wilhelm saw his men staring agape at the compound entrance. He turned to look at Edmund Ormond striding through those gates. Two monstrous beasts followed him, their noses turning back and forth in the air.
The guildmaster immediately recognized the beast as the same kind Elanore Redley had ridden and of which a few townspeople claimed to have seen roaming about at night. He saw the guards following the lad and the beasts and took quick steps to intervene before there could be any real trouble.
The Guildmaster stopped short of the younger man, trying to understand what had changed about him. But he found himself unable to articulate that nagging thought in his mind. “What brings you here? Your parents have a problem?”
“No.” Edmund was aware that he had not been expected. “I came to provide the bookmaster with some assistance. These lions can help him.” He pointed at the creature standing pertly at his side. “This one knows something more about the creatures that may come with the darkness. He’d like to speak to Gregory with your permission, of course.”
“PLEASED TO MEET YOU ALL,” the creature interrupted. “I’M TOLD THAT YOU ARE THE HARDIEST HUMANS IN THE REGION. I’M LAMBEGUS AND THIS ONE IS GALAHAD. WE ARE LIONS BUT DON’T EAT HUMANS. EDMUND SAID WE ARE TO HELP.”
Edmund smiled tightly at the creature’s rather unfortunate manner in introducing itself.
Understandably, the outburst earned the visitors a wary glance from the guildmaster. The creatures stared, likely waiting for an equally effusive and loud response. “I’m the Guildmaster Wilhelm,” he stated gruffly.
“WILHELM,” the loud creature seemed pleased by the name and proceeded to test it out a few times, much to the amusement of the onlookers. “WILHELLLLLLLLLM!.”
Laughter broke the tension. Wilhelm did not like this beast that made silly use of his name. He snapped irritably at one of the young men unfortunate enough to have laughed at the peculiar outburst by the creature. “Go fetch the bookmaster.”
The man ran off and Wilhelm glared at Edmund. “How tame are these beasts? You don’t even have them on any sort of restraints.”
The young man gave the lions a severe look when they started to make indignant noises. Edmund did not care to articulate the nature of those complaints to Wilhelm. “No,” he spoke slowly, for the lions’ benefit. “They are actually quite capable of taking requests. They are not wild. And Lambegus is well-behaved enough to leave with you. He knows not to run about here. I’ve told him several times that they make bad lions stand in the corner on one foot if they misbehave.”
The lion grumbled, affirming that it appeared to understand the warning. “I’M NOT A SILLY CUB LIKE GAWAIN. I CAN FOLLOW RULES.”
“Very well then,” the guildmaster relented. “Will you stay or will you be leaving to see to your young lady?”
“Ah,” Edmund hesitated, perhaps a bit shyly. His face lit up at the mention of Elanore. “Perhaps not today. She is well. Surprisingly strong. I expect to see more of her soon. However, those arrangements will take another day or so, as my parents need to make several decisions of their own.” He looked directly into the guildmaster’s eyes. “I will be going to her. This time I won’t be leaving.”
To Wilhelm’s surprise, this statement earned Edmund a display of affection from the lions. In kind, Edmund patted them while he continued to speak to the guildmaster. “I hope that you might assist me with the matter of another lady. Our boarder Ilva did not return last night. She was supposed to be at the inn, visiting the innkeeper’s grandchildren. This morning I did not find her there. They told me she had left them late last evening.”
Wilhelm furrowed his brow. “She did come here last night. I spoke to her a bit about how to reinforce these grounds. As it was late, I escorted her to the house and we insisted she stay the night. She and the wife were breakfasting this morning when I left.”
“I’m glad,” the young man looked relieved. The creatures spoke softly of something. Edmund idly reached out to scratch the lions’ heads. “Then I’d like to take my leave to pick her up.”
“You should not trust that woman,” Wilhelm impulsively stated. “She holds back on a lot of things. She clearly knows more than she allows.”
Edmund nodded. “But the same could be said for a lot of people. She’s still, I believe, a fundamentally good person.”
The guild leader sighed, not able to really say otherwise. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Gregory making his way towards them. He spoke softly and quickly. “Your paperwork is done. So if you have other things to tend to, I will not object. But your parents…will they come here?”
Edmund shook his head. “They will follow me to an estate south of town or they will stay at home. They are not so easy to persuade of any other possibility. My parents are old. They do not like change. But they also do not like the idea of my leaving them.”
Wilhelm smiled ironically at Edmund’s assessment. “Age has nothing to do with it. My wife prefers her home, but I have insisted she come here. She has no choice in the matter. And your parents are no different from others, I would guess.” He eyed the lion blinking at them expectantly and inwardly cringed. “So are we to watch this lion until you return?”
“I DON’T NEED BABYSITTING,” the creature pouted. “I KNOW MY WAY TO EDMUND. I WILL GO WHEN IT GETS DARK OR I GET BORED. EDMUND WILL BE LONELY WITH JUST GALAHAD.”
The other creature made a noise that almost sounded like displeasure.
The young hunter swatted the creature on its back as he scolded it. “Do not speak of either of us like that. And do try to be patient with Gregory. If I hear you have misbehaved, I will see fit to ignore you for the next few days until you are more sensible.”
The noisy one yawned, apparently unconcerned by these threats. The creature pranced over to the bookmaster and immediately began chattering.
Wilhelm groaned helplessly at the noise and fled to his office.
* * *
Unfortunately for Edmund the lady was not to be found at the guildmaster’s home either. Ilva had shown up at the home but left in spite of Mrs. Rivyd’s insistence she stay.
He looked at the sun, hanging low in the sky, greatly worried. “Could we have missed her on the road, Galahad?”
The elegant creature surveyed the area. “I do not know. I do not think so. Let me see.”
Galahad was quiet as he stepped onto the road, listening, smelling, and thinking. “Come, let us ride. I have a trail.”
The trees watched them as they passed under them. Edmund frowned, noticing how those blackbirds persistently appeared in groups. “The birds–”
“Hush,” the lion said. “They listen and understand. They speak to one another now, asking who we are.”
If they made that determination, Edmund would not know. He was relieved, however, to see that they did not follow. They were content to stay in their current resting place, watching the road.
They made their way past the friar’s church when the lion slowed suddenly, its tense posture telegraphing that it was tracking something.
Edmund’s fingers rested on the hilt of his weapon. “An Unthing?”
“No,” the lion stated before it took off, following the line of water that fed into the creek. He seemed quite interested in something, running blindly until he veered left and darted towards a bush. Edmund raised one arm to keep brush and snow from hitting him in the face. “Galahad,” he muttered. “I am not stone like you are.”
The beast halted with a skid, sliding over the snow for a few feet while Edmund clung to the lion’s back. Edmund exhaled, relieved that Galahad was more adept at handling a rider than Lambegus. He glanced about to find his bearings. To his relief, he recognized the area. “Mrs. Winchester’s home up is on that hill. Shall we go look at the house?”
The creature agreed and began to strain up the hill, its feet crunching on the snow.
Edmund’s eyes moved around automatically. It had been habit for so many years to come by and check on Mrs. Winchester and her animals. He knew this place well.
He stiffened when he saw the door to the barn was slightly ajar. “We best check the barn. I forgot there’s a few chickens in there still. Likely a fox got into there.”
The creature stared at the door. “Get off Edmund. I shall go look first.”
Edmund dismounted, his hand at his sword as the lion carefully walked up to the open door. Galahad took a great swing at the door before he disappeared inside with a roar.
He heard the sound of wings beating madly at the disturbance and a sound of struggle before a mass of birds came pouring out the door. They complained with strange hollow cries over and over, the sound of it fading as they disappeared north.
The lion continued to make noise for a few more seconds inside the barn, apparently moving about clumsily in the small space. Then it growled loudly for him to come inside.
Edmund stepped inside the barn. Immediately he was dismayed to discover a smattering of feathers and blood. The chickens, it seemed, had met their demise.
The lion was standing at the entry of a stall, too big to move beyond its position. Edmund wondered might be there. He had thought the Wolframs would have taken everything. In fact, that would have been the sensible thing.
“Those invaders were owls,” the lion sounded unhappy. “We spotted one weeks ago close by. However, I counted at least six roosting in there. Having a great time with this poor thing.”
He wondered if it might have been one of the goats. He frowned for Mrs. Winchester had said nothing about caring for the animals.
Edmund stepped up to look inside the stall, and he saw a white thing rolled up in the corner. He thought of the dead chickens and thought Galahad might have caught a fox.
“My lady,” the lion said mournfully as it pawed at the straw on the floor. “What have you done?”
Grey eyes returned to the beast. Their owner thought how it was much larger than the snow foxes he had seen. He watched the distraught lion and then realized this was no fox. “Ilva?!”
The wolf raised her head slightly to look at them both. She was a beautiful creature, white as snow except for the blood that spotted her fur. She placed her head back down, resting it on her front paws.
“When transformed, it is likely she cannot access her other powers.”
Edmund tried again. With no precedence to guide him, he wondered if she could speak or not. “Ilva?”
“Go home,” came the mournful response. “I am not Ilva.”
Galahad shook his mane.
Edmund looked at the telltale light colored eyes on the beast and tried again. “Then is it Selva? My parents wish you home. It’s not fit for a lady to be out wandering in the snow.”
“Selva is dead,” came the answer. “She ceased to exist a long time ago.”
The sound of growling told him that Galahad was displeased with the response.
“Stop this nonsense,” the young man answered sharply. “I’ve been asked to return a book to a woman who goes by both names. Guess if no one will answer to either, I’ll just take it home and toss it into the fire.”
Her head turned back in his direction, her eyes shining with both fear and rage. “Leave it here!”
Edmund knelt down in the hay, holding out the pouch. He ignored Galahad’s mutterings not to show her the book, knowing it was the only way to confirm who and what she was.
The creature rose to her feet warily, as if she could not help herself. She leaned forward to sniff at it. He could see her tail rise and fall as she caught some scent, betraying her excitement.
He reached out carefully to pet her head.
She snapped her jaws, her teeth flashing white and sharp at Edmund’s outstretch hand. That gesture earned her the book, which she dragged away into the corner of the stall.
It was a sad sight, for in that form she could not do anything other than protect the book she coveted.
“We shall tell them this,” he said to both himself and to her. “Our lady just got lost in the woods. Come home with me, Selva. Let me read to you what’s inside.”
She did not respond. Her jaws were full, holding that book fast, in spite of her clear exhaustion. Her golden eyes drooped as she tottered on her feet.
Galahad suddenly made a noise. “You better take her, Edmund. She’s weakened so much she has become nothing more than a wolf. This snow, my lady,” the creature sounded worried. “What are you doing?”
“Thank you for your concern,” she stated. “But I only need a few hours of sleep. Then I shall be leaving again.”
“Leave?” The young man did not understand. He took a step forward towards the beast. “Where do you go? Did you not say you would stay and we would travel north in the spring together? Are you now running away like a coward because he knows you are here?”
“My lady calls,” she answered simply. “Plans have changed.”
She did not look at him when she said so. He knew then she was lying. “You lie. How you wolves all lie to yourselves! Such idiots!”
HIs arms reached for her, awkwardly scooping her up and placing her on Galahad’s back.
To his surprise, she did not struggle as he did so. She was too tired to. “Yes, I know.”
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