The evening would not pass all that easily for Miss Redley. Although the household servants may have been perturbed by the idea of strange creatures floating about on the road, nonetheless they had gone to sleep. Elanore kept watch by the window, keeping her eyes fixed upon the gate. She did so until she was overcome by exhaustion and fell asleep in a chair by that window.
She had not needed to keep vigil. The master of the house himself had decided to spend the night in a watchtower for that very same purpose. With the aid of a glass tube, he stared out beyond the gate and back to the bridge.
The Count had been certain the shadows he had observed blotting out parts of the bridge should not, and would not be able to pass the bridge. They were familiar to him and to the elves who had taught his ancestors what they knew of this land. Together, they had discovered several measures that could undo these creatures.
But he had to acknowledge the extraordinary behavior of the creature while he trained his telescope on the distant lion statue. And he worried. He knew there were limitations to the statue’s power as a guardian. While it was made of elven magic of some sort, it could not destroy other things of magic so easily. At best it might confuse or slow the strange shadows and spirits that might pass out of the deep woods.
Its dark tendrils crept around the statue, determined to move past it. However it encountered an invisible barrier which it could not cross. He held his breath, waiting to see whether the line held. If so, he would not have to rely on the other wards he had placed upon his front gate. He would not have to concern himself over the extent of the power that remained among the one hundred lions in the garden that emulated the properties of the stone guardian on the bridge.
To his relief the shadow suddenly shrank upon itself. It settled back into a strange pool next to the base of the statue, rippling as if it were preparing for yet another try.
He muttered a curse under his breath and wondered if this unusually aggressive behavior was because of the girl, Elanore Redley. From the instant he spotted her picking apples out from the snow, she had made him uneasy. He would have turned her out on the road had she not mentioned the shadows.
Even when she told him of them, he had not believed her. He refused to believe that these dark things that preferred darkness were here out of their domain. Nor did he want to hear they hunted. He had always believed them largely passive, relying on food that came to them when mistaking them for pools of water to drink.
There was more to this irritation towards her, of course. He, who usually had an acute awareness of travelers on the road, had not known or seen her coming along this way. Somehow, she had evaded his notice while on the road. That ability set her apart from most normal persons. Perhaps whatever it was that made her different also had been noticed by that strange creature outside.
But he wrestled with such an idea, considering her encounter with the creature might be coincidence. Save for an occasional driver with supplies heading back and forth between Crossroads and Winchester or a rare adventurer, people did not take this road during this time of year. For a thing far from its usual habitat, she could have been viewed simply as another potential morsel.
As for what to do about her now, he did not know. So much depended on exactly who she was and the trouble she could cause him. Hastings was of the mindset that she was a spy for the Eastlanders or the pirates. He had pointed out that no ordinary family would permit a young and pretty creature to wander about alone. But the Count was confident that the girl was not a pirate. They would not wander where there was no treasure and nothing to gain.
In truth, what bothered him most was not who she might be but that she had broken his well-cultivated pattern of isolation. For many years, the Count had been the sort that kept to himself, sparing himself any unnecessary interaction with the outside world. Most certainly, he did not meddle with the local lords and ladies or with the affairs of the towns that bordered his lands. He was a man who had few direct visitors. If someone was to come to the house, they dealt with only one or two of the servants.
He forgot his worry over Miss Redley when the shadow again rose up, this time widening in length as it attempted to encircle the guardian. Count Wolfram trained his glass tube on the spectacle and noted the thing’s inability to keep a hold on the statue. And yet it persisted in trying. Its repeated effort would have been admirable had he not known and feared the shadow creature’s destructive capability.
Maximilian did not understand its continued attempts to struggle with the lion. Moreover, he was troubled by the idea that even after it had apparently devoured a pack of wild dogs that were following Elanore Redley, it was not satisfied enough to dissipate or wander away. Instead, it stubbornly remained. Whatever its motives, he had no solution to resolve the situation. Only elves might have some clue of what to do, and they would be trouble to find.
The Count pondered if there could be a cause to this situation. How and why the shadow came to be here could signify changes to the area he had failed to notice. Or it could be caused by the presence of a person. Out there were others like him – different from humans. Some were allies. Some were not. He pondered whether someone could have directed that thing here.
He dropped his telescope for a moment, giving his shoulders and back a rest. His back was sensitive at these times, thanks to the last encounter he had with one of his “kind.” She was, at that time, very powerful. Had she been interested in killing him, he would not be here at this very moment. But if the presence of the Unthing was the result of deliberate actions, this kind of plot would not be her style.
When the telescope was again raised to his eye, the shadow had retreated back into a shapeless puddle at the base of the statue. But now the sky outside had begun to lighten –revealing dawn was imminent.
As if it sensed the coming light, the inert shadow raised up its tendrils as if to try one more time to assault the lion that barred it from its goal. The sun crested over the horizon, freezing the strange thing. The monster that had failed to breach the bridge began to flake away like black dust. Its dissipation was an ironic and quiet end to the creature that had apparently taken many lives the previous evening.
And yet with that ending, Wolfram did not feel relieved. Instead he was left with a stinging awareness of the folly behind his self-isolation. Long ago, he had withdrawn from the world thinking it would keep him quietly away from all things unexplainable and unsafe. And yet, the unexplainable and unsafe had found him once again.
He realized that things in his life now needed to change, but this time no one was here to tell him how.