A lion leaped over the impossibly high gate that was designed to keep out unwelcome visitors. He landed on the icy snow, the crisp layer of ice cracking as he skidded. He scattered those brothers of his who were too slow to move out of the way.
This clumsiness did not go over particularly well with these younger siblings, but the lion roared back at them. “I have a message for the master!”
They understood, moving aside. However, the Wolframs who guarded the gate and the grounds were not particularly agreeable to moving anywhere in the miserable sleet. They blinked at this creature who, to them, was simply another one of the rather excitable and childish lions that ran in and out of the compound. They rolled their eyes and told the creature to sit down and wait.
The lion did not obey. Instead, the beast growled before he pushed them aside. Using the top of his head, he rammed it against the door.
The lion’s head created heavy knocks that shuddered throughout the castle.
Those knocks could not be ignored. Several pairs of feet ran quickly to open the door from the inside. The lion tried again, speaking much more loudly this time at the servants. “It is I, Galahad. I have a message for the master.”
Their response was confused. The rumors were that their master sat in his room, obsessively cradling a glittering stone. They all whispered that their lord should have been downstairs, receiving a band of cousins who had only just arrived. The woods had become almost impassable by the Silver River. The towns with defenses were beginning to shut their walls against anyone they did not know.
It was Hastings who eventually would take the message to the Count. Only he knew the truth. The Count had come back into power and was preoccupied with why the magic had returned, why the stones were now working for him.
“My lord,” Hastings gently interrupted the Count’s moment of contemplation. “Your cousins are done with their meal and expect to retire for the time being unless you wish an audience now. There also is one of the stone creatures at the door with a message.”
Maximilian tried to think back to what he had told the lions to do. Many were out completing the surveillance he had first tasked to his original group of four lions. “Did the lion give a name?’
Hastings seemed rather bemused by this question. Even though he had helped occasionally dust off the creatures from time to time, he had never developed the same degree of fondness that his master and lady had for the creatures in their courtyard. “I believe it was Galahad.”
The lord closed his fingers around the chain that held the blue stone and placed it around his neck. “Is there trouble?”
“The creature will not say no matter how much the others ask. He said it’s a confidential matter.”
He was rapidly learning that the lions were very different and talented in different ways. Even how they spoke reflected that their uniqueness. In this case, such a response could only belong to Galahad. “I believe then I should see to this lion first.”
Hastings understood and proved once again his gift for efficiency, helping his master dress with record speed. When Wolfram emerged at the top of the stairs, he caught his servants off guard. They scattered, likely to tell the rest of the household and his cousins that he had finally woken.
He moved downstairs briskly, taking a cloak from one of the servants. He pulled a hood over his head to guard against the abominable conditions outside. And yet the messenger beast seemed to hardly notice the snow, pacing back and forth on the stone steps while the precipitation bounced off its back.
Wolfram scanned the grounds, well aware he had already been spotted. He hurried, speaking to the lion with a low voice. “What message do you bring?”
The creature lowered its gaze. “The young master said your gift was delivered. The recipient rests at the Ormond home but worsens by the hour. Edmund believes only you can help her. If you will not come of your own accord, then you must for the young man. He insists you must come to grant him a wish. I was also told that I cannot leave here without you.”
“I could order you back without one.” Wolfram noted Galahad had referred to Edmund Ormond as master. “That is, if you are still loyal to me.”
The creature appeared to be confused by his impatient response. “Our loyalties belong to the land and those chosen to dwell here. We serve your family without question. Lady Selva was also chosen by the land as was Edmund and Elanore. She still remains among those chosen, even if she has been also chosen by another. Even if we do not understand her.”
Wolfram adjusted the hood of his cloak at the news. The lion’s admission that the woman was Selva startled him in many respects. The lion would know if it was her, he was certain.
“Why does he worry? Why do you worry?”
“He cares for her deeply. As do we. At the moment, all of her magic goes into covering the land with snow and we do not understand this, for she will die if she continues unstopped.”
He clenched the handle of his cane at these harsh words.
“What’s this?” Marrok and Giles appeared around a corner, apparently ready to grab him. “You up and about already? After yesterday?”
Wolfram cursed inwardly at the interruption. “The hunter needs something. I believe I am being summoned.”
This idea did not particularly agree with his men. Marrok seemed deeply concerned by such a reckless idea. “It would be unwise, my lord. I’ve talked to Gareth and their band members while they ate. The woods are becoming quickly very dangerous. They said the darkness within has spread. They hunted before they arrived, wandering far north to follow the game and to avoid the things that are emerging from the River. We don’t want you out wandering needlessly.”
“It is imperative that I go. The lion has impressed upon me that it is I who am needed. One of our own has turned up at the Ormond home.”
“She did not turn up there,” the lion interjected. “She was brought back there. Edmund discovered her in a barn, in very bad shape.”
The men looked alarmed by such a statement. He knew they were trying to rack their brains, as to who this might be.
Giles stroked his chin. “From one of the smaller families, perhaps?”
“No,” the Count answered tightly. “This would be my mate.”
Marrok’s grey face paled. “My lord! It can’t be. Not after all this time. It must be a trap.”
The youngest among them coughed delicately. “Given the season it is, I’d say she might simply be returning to her mate to perform her duties. Sir, I can go instead. I can take an enclosed sleigh and retrieve her.”
“No, it must be my master,” Galahad insisted. “What he has done, he must undo.”
The Count looked at the beast, sifting through the lion’s vague instructions. “Marrok, I will go. You keep the men under orders to continue with addressing the perimeter defenses. Gawain will keep the lions busy scouring the area.” He paused, to consider the risks. ”And I want the healer girl kept here. Would Tala be open to seeing a patient?”
He could see the woman’s husband shift uncomfortably. “She would, but to have the both of you out of the compound would make my men and myself exceedingly uneasy. I do not wish for something to befall either of you. They will insist on forming an escort party.”
“As expected,” Wolfram knew this irregularity on his part was a problem. “I’m sorry to ask so much of the both of you. Giles–”
“I know, sir,” Giles saluted smartly. “I’ll keep an eye on Miss Redley while you’re out.”
The lion growled at the sly remark. “Edmund will not like your idea of keeping an eye on Elanore.”
“I won’t let him do anything, sir,” Marrok intervened, grabbing the ear of their young cousin before he dragged him inside.