Chapter Two: The Door of Hazel, The Castle of the Wolf
Knock at the door,
Pull the bell,
Lift the latch,
Walk in all’s well[*]
The snow continued to fall softly, erasing the crisp tracks they left upon the ground upon which they walked.
As for the walk itself, it had become much longer than she had expected. She had failed to realize earlier that the building she had seen from the gate at the road was not all that close. From there it had appeared to be a small building, but as they continued down the path it became apparent it was quite large.
Elanore took small steps to the Count’s large ones, trying valiantly to keep close to the man. She had not been brought up in a manner as to follow strange men here or there but as incongruous as this was with what she had been told as a child, she did not let it bother her too much. It had become quite clear that surviving winter in the Northlands mandated that she had to learn to adapt to new rules.
Her curiosity about this place and the man who lived there grew as they went deeper down the path. In the stories she had heard of Winchester she had never heard of this estate or the existence of a Count. Unfortunately, the walk thus far did little to reveal much about either. He had maintained his silence for the better part of the fifteen minutes down the road, and the path covered with trees and bushes did not reveal much either.
When the path suddenly widened, she found herself in a courtyard of statues. As she continued forward, she was surprised to find the statues identical to one another. Dozens of stone lions sat in the midst of barren, frozen ground of an apparent garden staring back at the path. They were like the one on the bridge, if only smaller.
The Count paused next to the last lion in their path. He placed a gentle hand on it for a moment before brushing off the snow that had collected on top of its head. When finished, he resumed his walk towards the house.
As she passed the last lion, she looked at it carefully. For some reason, it did not look like the others – as if it was, in fact, posed in such a manner that it appeared more ‘lively’ than the others in the garden. She concluded finally that there was something remarkable about the way the sculptor had rendered the eyes. She puzzled over the connection between these lions and the stories she had heard as a child about the protector of the bridge.
The Count eased his pace, allowing her to catch up to him. The Count finally broke his silence. “It is safer here.”
She noted that he appeared slightly more relaxed (albeit only ever so slightly). “The lions—“ she answered. “The stone lion on the bridge, you have others like it here.”
“Indeed,” he gave a hint of a smile, “One might say that they are its brothers.”
Elanore took a moment to look back at the path upon which they had walked. She did not know how many of these lions there happened to be, but the way the lions were aligned left a peculiar impression upon her. Elanore wanted to count them, but could not as the Count had moved yet again.
He stood waiting at the foot of a large heavy iron door, over which stood a doorframe carved with numerous images.
“This door,” she could not help but gasp. “It’s marvelous.”
He looked up at the carvings with a slightly pleased look on his face. “It is a door wrought by the hands of the elves,” he pushed it open for her. “They call it a door of magic, made of hazel.”
‘Hazel – like the trees in fairy tales,’ Elanore thought to herself. She wondered if some of the images that had been carved in the frame were, in fact, taken from some of those tales. She wanted to look again, but she continued through the opened door.
The young woman had only a moment’s opportunity to note her surroundings – to glance at the rich dark wood panels lining the large entryway — before an ancient man stepped forward from the shadows. The man took the cloak from the Count’s shoulders and handed it off to one of the other servants who had magically appeared from one of the many various sized doors surrounding the entry way.
They formed a strange half-circle about her and the Count. Including the old man, there were seven servants in all.
She was surprised to see a rather kindly expression form on the old man’s face as he turned to look at her. In contrast to the sullen and unfriendly expression on her apparent rescuer, he was jovial in comparison.
“You have brought home a young lady from your walk, sir?” The man smiled broadly.
At that comment, a quiet wave of bemusement rippled through the half a dozen servants who had gathered around their master. Elanore felt her face warm slightly.
The familiarity of the question did not shock the Count, but seemed to rouse him from his otherwise silent state.
“I happened upon her while walking the grounds, Hastings.” the Count frowned slightly. “Or rather she happened upon me as I happened to be moving to investigate some noises by the gate. As it turned out—“ he said a bit more gravely, “There are shadows on the road that seemed to have chased Miss Redley as she was making her way to town.”
Elanore nodded slightly, acknowledging that last statement.
The elder servant blinked at her, while the other servants looked at her with undisguised interest. “It is not wise to be walking on the open roads, miss. Particularly with the early winter evenings.”
“My apologies,” Elanore looked about, suddenly realizing (as her eyes began to adjust to the lighting) that several of the more wizened servants were shaking their heads. She also noticed their somewhat rumpled appearance. It was becoming much clearer to her that Mr. Hastings and the entire household had apparently otherwise retired for the evening. “I was hurrying to Winchester,” she bowed her head. “I was told in the last town that I could make it to the next before dinner if I hurried. The roads were icier than they had indicated, and so I was caught outside after the sun had set.”
“Good gracious,” she could hear one of the littler ladies mumbling. “Did they not tell you there was a coach?”
Elanore looked about, not certain who had asked the question, but aware of the many eyes upon her, continued. “I was told that that they would not send it until the snow had stopped. They were wanting to wait a few more days. My grandmother is not well and I asked if it was walkable—“
“The Crossroads townsfolk are ignorant about the area and the dangers therein,” the Count interrupted with a frown. “We’ll have to make our warnings much more clear to them for future purposes and warn them against letting travelers walk this way. Now,” he diverted the attention of the staff to other things. “Tend to this young lady, Hastings.”
“With the circumstances being rather unusual, it would be best to accommodate her until it is light. The roads will be much safer for travelers then.”
“Yes, sir” Hastings bowed.
“I’ll take my leave then. Good evening, Miss Redley,” the Count abruptly announced before turning on his heel and disappearing down one of the various hallways.
Elanore could not hide her astonishment at the suddenness of her host’s departure, or the sudden scattering of the servants back through the many doors into the entryway. “Did I do something to offend them all?” she wondered aloud.
Hastings coughed, reminding her that she had not quite been left alone. “The master does not like his staff to loiter or to indulge their curiosities. They know to leave you be. As for the master, he does seems rather unsettled, Miss.”
“I do not mean to impose,” Elanore spoke gently.
“Ah, it’s not that young miss,“ Hastings took the opportunity to dust the snow from her cloak, before taking it in hand. “It’s the bit about the shadows. Haven’t ever heard of them coming this close to these parts. Most of us have never seen them.”
“Neither have I,” Elanore found herself warming to the older gentleman. Although he was a bit blunt and exceptionally curious for a butler, compared to his master, he was rather congenial. “I wasn’t even sure if it was one when I saw it, nor exactly what to do.”
The man chuckled. “No one ever knows what to do. There is no logic to those things, I’m afraid. “
She frowned. “Is it true they eat up anything?”
“Ah, “ Hastings pondered that for a moment. “I’m afraid I do not know anything more than what the stories say. You’ll have to ask the master. He knows far more than any of us, I’m afraid. Now—“ he cleared his throat, “—we must pay attention to other matters.” He began fussing with folding her cloak. “Please follow, my dear. We will get your things dried and a meal sent to your room.”
Elanore quietly tiptoed after him down a maze of hallways, past a kitchen, and what appeared to be a storeroom. She could not tell exactly where they were going, but guessed that she was being led to one of the service staircases to a side building that Hastings explained was where most of the servants resided in winter. “It’s a newer part of the building,” Hastings apologized. “I apologize that we are not to put you up in more elegant quarters, but we close rooms that do not get enough heat. This building is easiest to heat in winter so it’s best for you to stay here.”
Elanore was not used to finery or the social conventions of the Northlands, so did not mind the appearance of a breach of protocol regarding guests that so worried the elderly manservant. As he opened one of the doors at the top of the staircase, she stepped inside a modest but warm room and looked about.
“As for the master,” Hastings followed her inside in order to tend to the fire. “He has a tendency to seem impolite, young miss, but he has much on his mind. Your experience on the road, I’m sure is troubling him, Miss.”
She recomposed herself and spoke good-naturedly to the older manservant. “I understand. I do not know what to think of it myself. I’m also afraid that the manner in which I imposed upon you all certainly must have startled you all much further.”
“Indeed,” the older man tilted his head as he assisted her with removing her scarlet cloak. “We do not receive many people, I’m afraid. If there is something strange about our manners, please do not take offense or think less of our master. He is simply a solitary person, unused to more cheerful society.”
Elanore smiled slightly. “I will try not to judge him harshly. But I will also try not to try his patience.”
Hastings bowed in acknowledgement. “One last thing, Miss Redley. And it will also seem rather impolite to mention this—“
“Do go ahead, sir.”
“In general, the staff do not wander at night. The master tends to prefer his solitude and all that. Miss Redley if you would –”
“Ah,” Elanore blinked. “I will not trouble you all and keep to my room.”
“I’ll have one of the ladies bring you a warm meal here then,” the butler looked relieved. “She will be nearby if you need any further assistance.”
She nodded, wondering exactly what that interchange had been about, but did not dare ask for more information. Instead, she bowed graciously as he put her cloak away and retired from the room.
When he left, Elanore went to the window and stared out into the snow filled darkness.
[*]from Grimm’s Fairy Tales