Nothing more was said as he secured the barn and walked alongside Galahad towards his home. Galahad himself was quiet. It was as if the creature brooded alongside him, questioning what they had interrupted in the barn.
They were nearly home when Galahad whined softly, alerting Edmund to the shift in form of the Snow Queen’s minion. The young man quickly averted his eyes from the form of a lady on the lion, clumsily placing his coat on top of her in order to both warm her and preserve her modesty.
Needless to say, his parents were alarmed by her half-naked state and his inability to explain what had happened. However, as unhappy they were about the situation, their complaints were nothing compared to those of Galahad.
The lion protested loudly about being left outside. The beast claimed that he had to be by the lady. However, there was no way to accommodate the creature through the doors and in the small rooms of the Ormond’s modest home. And there was certainly no way Ilva would be placed in the stables simply to accommodate the beast.
Instead the curtains were left open so the poor thing could watch through the window as the Ormonds worked together to warm the lady.
Edmund felt a familiar sense of unease as he looked down at the sleeping woman. Even after she began to breathe more easily, he watched her as she slept. From time to time, her mouth would move, as if speaking.
Both Edmund and Galahad kept their vigil throughout the night. Lambegus eventually returned, standing next to his pack-mate. Both watched each rise and fall of her chest as if willing her to keep breathing.
Somewhere deep in the night she tried to move.
Edmund jerked his eyes open at the sound of the bed creaking, ashamed he had fallen asleep. But he was quicker than Ilva, placing a firm hand on her shoulder to keep her from sitting up. “You are not well enough to go anywhere. Nor will they let you if you should try.”
She turned her head slightly on the pillow to obtain a better look at the window. The lions filled the window, their heads quite close to the glass as if to echo his point.
It was a frightening idea that the lions could ever be unhappy, but that is what he thought they might be as their gaze tracked the woman’s every movement. “I see how foolish wolves can be,” he shot at her. “You claim only a small link to them, yet I see you in the form of one and worse, acting as obstinate and proud as the rest of them.”
“A wolf is a convenient form,” she answered. “A hardy one. But surely you did not find them completely flawed?”
His sense of fairness compelled him to reflect on that point. Edmund knew his sense of good and right differed from the Wolframs. Unlike them, he saw value where they might not. He felt compassion that they could not seem to afford. But in spite of their coldness – he recalled how even they smiled when all the lions woke. And so he told of her that.
She seemed startled by the news of the lions. But then she warmed to the idea. “They know the value of those creatures. And now the Wolframs know yours. You did well, Edmund. Perhaps you are the biggest surprise. Except to my lady.”
Carefully he tread around the topic of Ilva’s mistress. Galahad had implied that the owls served the great Snow Queen. He did not know what they were doing in the barn with Ilva. Or to Ilva. “Does your lady hate the Wolframs?”
She might have laughed if she had the strength. “No, Edmund,” she reassured him. “She does not hate them but pities them. She thinks they are confused. All of them. Including my former master.”
When she spoke of him, her eyes dimmed slightly. She fell silent as her thoughts drifted.
Edmund knew where those thoughts had gone. He picked up the pouch off the floor and pretended he did not notice the expression on her face. “I wish I could tell you that I didn’t agree, but I would not know.” He held out the book. “Shall I open this and read to you?”
Conflict raged across her features. He thought she might turn her head away, but then she turned over her hand, the palm of it facing up as to receive the gift.
Edmund complied, placing it in her hands. He turned away and pretended to fuss with a lantern, wishing to afford her some privacy.
When he turned back, she was resting the book on her stomach and looking up at the ceiling.
He placed the lantern down and then readjusted her pillows, allowing her to more easily look at the book. “Should I go?” He asked as her fingers absently touched the cover.
She shook her head. And so he sat next to her as she opened the book.
There was nothing written inside as far as he could tell. And for some reason, he apologized to her when it became apparent that nothing might be inside after all. He tried to remember what the man had said to him. He cleared his throat and spoke kindly. “He said if you were really Selva, you’d understand why it came back to you.”
Her finger rested on the corner of a page that had been folded before but was now unfolded. She toyed with that corner for a moment, as if she was trying to understand the thoughts of the lord. After a moment, her fingers resumed moving the pages until near the end, when she fell upon a place where a page was missing.
Ilva touched the ripped edges of paper. “He’s angry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to leave him so angry,” she said with a glance at the window while she closed the book. “How they’d scold me, those lions. I promised them I would take care of him, but I let my temper and pride get the best of me. I thought I’d go and learn magic that would replace what he had lost. It was arrogant and foolish.”
The pale woman turned her gaze away from the book to look out the window. She did not put it down, gripping it so tightly that her hands grew white with the effort. She was listening to something again while a heavy snow struck the glass, sliding down the glass heavily and collecting on the ledge. Her cheeks colored a bit, perhaps as he lost herself in some private recollection of her own. “It was vain of me to think he might hold at least one fond memory from our past.” She took a labored breath of air before she closed her eyes. “My lady was right.”
Edmund’s chest tightened as he experienced sorrow on her behalf. He wished the answer she had drawn from the book had been better. He had hoped that the Count would prove himself different from the others.
His fingers ran through his hair once before he sat back in his chair to watch the woman as she began to sleep. His eyelids began to weigh down with exhaustion, but he would not allow them to close.
Even if he had wanted to sleep, he could not. The wet slap of the snow annoyed him, as did a faint whine that seemed to come from the window.
Edmund opened his eyes, blearily looking outside. The snow had become ice, beating sharply down on the poor creatures’ backs.
He wondered why they did not take shelter in the stable. And then his eyes came to rest upon Ilva, thinking about her comments about her magic and how it differed from others. Changing form was one thing but he wondered about her lady and what she was teaching Ilva. He sat straight up, startled. “Is this ice your doing?” he asked the sleeping lady. “Was this her order?”
Magic had a cost, he had learned with Elanore. Ilva had warned him of how humans were frail vessels for magic. But Ilva — was she also the same?
Edmund ran to the door, cursing himself for not asking more of the lady and the Count. He tried to keep his face covered against the shards of ice that flew about wildly as he opened the door. He ignored the lions’ greeting, wanting to know the truth. “What’s happening to Ilva?”
“SUFFERING,” came Lambegus’ cry.
Galahad spoke. “Her heart was always trying to compensate for his coldness. Because of that, my master and lady could never do what you and Elanore did to wake us. And now you have, for which we are grateful. But now, we do not know the end for them.”
Edmund cursed as he thought through what she had tried to tell him. He knew that the rain of ice would continue unless something was done. “This must stop. Fetch your master, please.”
“He will not come here,” the two lions grieved.
The young man drew himself up, cutting a proud figure. His eyes blazed with fury at the situation. “Then tell him I need him for my first wish. Tell him I need him RIGHT NOW!”