The evening would not pass all that easily for Elanore Redley. Although the household may have been perturbed by the idea of strange creatures floating about on the road, they had gone to sleep nonetheless. She kept a vigil by the window and watched the gate as best as she could, until overcome by exhaustion, she had fallen asleep in a chair by that window.
She needed not to have gone to all that trouble, as it turned out. She wasn’t alone in keeping vigil. The master of the house stood in one of the watchtowers and, with the aide of a glass tube, looked 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. Long ago, members of his family had joined the elves in studying the stories around these and other creatures not normally found here. Together, they had discovered several measures that could undo these creatures.
But he had to acknowledge the extraordinary behavior of the creature as he trained his telescope on the stone lion at the bridge. And he had to acknowledge the limitations of the power of the statue. Although, made of elven magic of some sort, at best it showed it could only confuse what strange shadows and spirits that might pass out of the deep woods.
He moved the tube slightly to the left of the lion and noted the dark pools at the base of the statue. For a long time the pools sat quietly, before suddenly coalescing and then lengthening in height. He was filled with dread as for a few long moments it towered over the lion, before it collapsed over it
Wolfram watched intently as its dark tendrils crept around it and attempted to move past it. However, it ran against a seemingly invisible line which it could not cross
If the line held, he would not have to worry about whether the barriers would hold. He had placed an additional ward on the gate, and the lingering power of one hundred lions in the garden possessed the same properties of the stone lion on the bridge.
When the shadow suddenly shrank upon itself, he hoped for a moment it would disappear. Instead, 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. He was uneasy about her – he had sensed something odd when he first saw her picking apples out from the snow . When she told of the shadow, he had not believed her. He had still firmly believed at that point that these dark things preferred darkness ; the sunlit and moonlit areas here were out of their domain. In most circumstances they did not hunt other creatures, rather they consumed poor creatures that mistook their appearance for starlit pools of water from which to drink.
Had he not visually confirmed the shadows in the distance, he would have turned her out on the road.
He was also still irritated that she had caught him unawares. 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 set her apart from most normal persons. Perhaps whatever it was that made her different also had been noticed by that strange creature outside.
Or it could have been a simple coincidence. Save for an occasional cart with supplies heading back and forth between Crossroads and Winchester or an occasional adventurer, persons did not take this road , and particularly during this time of year. She could have simply become potential food for a thing that was far from its usual habitat.
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 for 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 were not that stupid to be wandering about, where there was no treasure and nothing to gain from being up here.
But what bothered him most was that she had broken his well-cultivated pattern of isolation. For many years, the Count was 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, nor with the affairs of the towns that bordered his lands. He was a man who had no direct visitors. If someone were to come to the house, they dealt with only one or two of the servants.
The shadow again rose up again suddenly, this time widening in length as it attempted to encircle the lion. He trained his glass tube again on the spectacle, and noted the thing’s inability to keep a hold on the statue. And yet it persisted 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 remained. Whether it was waiting for the girl, or seeking out the humans that lived beyond the bridge, he would have no solution to resolve the situation. Only Elves would have some clue of what to do, and they would be a bother to find.
As to how and why a shadow came to be here, that was a far bigger problem.
The Count pondered if there could be a cause to this situation. Were there changes he had failed to notice in the area? Or could the cause be a person? He wondered about the others out there like him – different from other humans. Some were allies. Some were not. Could someone 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 he raised his glass tube to his eye, he observed that the shadow had once again retreated and fallen into a shapeless puddle at the base of the statue. He also observed that the sky was finally turning lighter, a sign that dawn was imminent.
As if it sensed the coming light, the inert shadow raised up its tendrils as if wanting to try one more time to assault the lion that barred it from its goal. As the sun crested over the horizon, he was relieved to see the thing freeze before disintegrating slowly in the sunlight. 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, he was even more aware 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 there was no one to tell him how.