During daylight hours, a figure in red wandered the courtyard of the Wolfram estate. She skirted the sparse hedges that lined its edges, step by careful step, while a handful of enchanted statues straggled behind her.
To the curious onlooker, the girl would appear to be stopping every so often to close her eyes and point her nose up in the air. Then she would do a peculiar thing, pushing her fingers out away from her body before letting them fall gracefully to her sides.
She might have been trying to fly.
This strange ritual of hers went largely unobserved. There was no one really to watch her. Other than the few sentries guarding the entryway and the walls that ran along the property, many of the Wolframs were wrapped up in affairs inside the home.
Left to her own devices, Elanore was studying the only magic she could. She walked about the courtyard, her boots following the flow of energy that she felt moving underground. At times, the flow would break through the snow, sending a wispy light floating to the sky.
Her fingers reached for those threads that only those with magic could see, trying to capture and string them together.
The lions could see her boredom, her yearning to do something interesting. So they would speak to her quietly as she conducted her strange dance in the garden. They filled her head with news of the things outside this estate, the columns and holes they had observed. They would talk until it was too cold or too dark for the young woman to stay outside any longer.
Inside, Elanore would spend her free hours putting what they told her to paper. She scratched out her understanding of what they described, drawing out a messy, complex map of the rivers and pools of stone they said were scattered all over the area.
How grateful she was when Edmund arrived with his family in tow. The young man and she established a new routine together, one in which the lions would greet them at the side of the home and run them about the courtyard or the ghostly garden. While they looked for flows of magic, the lions would tell them stories that had been long forgotten — of elves and fairies and candy houses and witches in the woods. Then they would return inside to the parlor and work on fixing the map that Elanore had started to create and writing down what they were told.
He was far better than she at drawing maps. She watched reverently as he redrew her scribbles for her. From time to time, he’d glance up from his work to smile but would not stop, knowing full well she was waiting for him to have something neat and usable for them to pore over together.
His companionship brought her great comfort and entertainment. He exerted himself to spend time with her and never withheld his affection from her. Every so often, however, she could sense his melancholy. He would say nothing of what he was bothering him, but Elanore suspected his moods had something to do with the chilly reception he received from others at the estate.
And perhaps that was a part of it. Edmund had all but two friends among the Wolframs. One was the affable Giles and the other the mysterious companion of their host. Lady Selva was still recuperating with Lady Tala’s and Mrs. Ormond’s assistance.
Elanore’s first glimpse of her came shortly after Edmund had settled in. The woman appeared at mealtime, walking slowly through the hall to the front table where the Count sat. Lady Selva’s gait was cautious and steady – hinting at her apparent convalescence. But her proud smile would befit a queen.
If the Count was a tall, dark formidable elf of a man, Lady Selva was like day to his night — a pale, beautiful lady whose face reflected her bemusement at her reception. The woman paused at their table and Elanore could not help be first dazzled and then alarmed. A great power lay in this woman, something that made her feel ordinary in kind. And Edmund was not immune to it — his eyes lighting up when he saw the woman, speaking to her with a familiarity that she hadn’t quite grasped until that very moment.
But when the Countess turned her gaze towards Elanore and took her face into her hands, the young lady felt suddenly shy. “Greetings, Elanore. I’m glad to finally meet you.”
Magic warmed her through the fingertips touching her face. Elanore could only swallow. “I am glad as well. You have done much for Edmund.”
“And he has done much for me in kind,” the woman said without opening her mouth to speak. “You are lucky he loves you so.”
Elanore did not know how to react, so startled was she by the voice. She found herself blurting out some awkward response, much to the woman’s amusement and Edmund’s bewilderment.
Her mind was preoccupied the rest of the meal by the woman. She should have thought more of the woman’s power, but she could only puzzle over Edmund. He was not a man who sought out intimacy or trusted many. And yet Selva influenced him greatly, enough at least to temper the young hunter’s irritation towards their host.
Indeed, the lady did much to soften the image of the Count overall. If the lord had been previously unfriendly, his demeanor appeared to be slowly warming. He bore scolding over his lack of appetite quite well, smiling slightly at the woman who dared try to tell him what to do. They whispered furiously, his clan. They talked of how the man had not stalked the watchtower at night since he had brought his mistress home.
They were obsessed with watching their lord and this lady. Why this was so singularly important to them was because the clan wanted an heir, or so Giles explained as he leaned across the table to talk with Edmund and Elanore. With a bawdy wink, he amended his statement, explaining that not one but several heirs were preferable.
Edmund covered Elanore’s ears before the man could proceed further, drawing a merry round of laughter from Giles and some of their table companions. Out of deference to the lad, they kindly switched the topic at that moment to that of the guild.
They all knew that the lady was responsible for another change of heart on part of their lord. It had caused great consternation when the Count had declared his intent to offer shelter to the dozens of townspeople and guild members within his expansive estate. This development far surpassed anything they could have imagined. Wolfram had barely embraced his expansive family over the years, preferring solitude and distance from the other family members. But in a rapid period of time, the man seemed determined to go from being a loner to becoming a lord of many.
However, the task of convincing the guildmaster and the townspeople to accept the offer made to them was proving to be a troublesome one. Elanore came to understand that the first attempt had failed. The Count’s explicit manner in detailing the creatures had frightened the townspeople considerably and ruffled tempers of many members of the guild.
It did not take the lady of the estate even a day before she heard of what had happened. The next morning Selva immediately insisted on going to remedy the situation, but the Count disagreed with letting her leave. The resulting argument spilled out of their bedroom through the hallways, the mess hall, the kitchens, and even the stables.
To some, this lover’s quarrel was a great source of entertainment. However, Elanore could not enjoy the spectacle of two strong wills at cross-purposes, both trying in vain to do the right thing. The public nature of their fight only served to distress the lions. They were worried, as was she, about the fragility of the future the two were creating.
She did not know how to answer when they asked why fleshy creatures were so difficult and moody. And her heart ached when they repeatedly asked if they were to blame.
Her grandmother intervened. She was stern, but kind as she confronted the lady and lord of the house as they called upon her in the parlor. “Now this has gone on long enough. My thanks to you, Lady, for stepping in on my behalf. You have advocated strongly for the townspeople while I recuperated. This has created an undue hardship on you, for which I must apologize. This time, I ask you to allow me to assist Sir Wolfram with the guildmaster.”
Elanore watched, fascinated, as the lady fell silent.
As for the master of the home, her grandmother appealed to him in a similar fashion. “I have little opportunity to exercise my offices as mayor. Now that I am better, I must see to the townspeople and how they fare. Perhaps you can convey me there?”
He, too, looked rather startled. He and his lady could only glance at one another, neither able to articulate a reason why not to agree to this arrangement.
Mrs. Winchester’s ward came to admire her grandmother even more deeply in that moment. The old woman had found a clever way to allow two strong people to come to agreement on how to aide her, their guest.
Elanore followed after the old woman to help her prepare for her outdoor excursion. She waited until they were alone in their room to speak of what had happened. “Did you know they would say yes?”
Her grandmother chuckled as she began to dress for warmer weather. “Yes I did. Their faces told me they were looking for some way out of this. Your grandfather and I used to argue until we forgot why we were exactly fighting. I imagine this isn’t all that different. It’s just that no one seems to be willing to tell them when enough is enough. That is what happens sometimes with people who are afforded such status and power.”
“Is that the likely case with the guildmaster?”
“No,” her grandmother shook her head. “I think this problem is simply an inability to see things the same way. Your Count Wolfram never seems to provide reasons. He has all the reasons already worked out in his mind, I would gather. But I’m sure you would agree that he is quite terrible at explaining himself. And before you even try, don’t even think of asking to accompany me.”
Elanore rubbed her nose in frustration at how easily her grandmother read her mind.
Her grandmother’s eyes twinkled. “Even if your host agreed, your presence would mean the lady would want to go, Edmund as well. With so many cranky people, it would be quite a mess of a presentation to the guildmaster. Allow me to handle this, for it is probably one of the last acts I can commit as mayor.”
The statement drew a sharp sound from Elanore, a sound of protest.
“An age is ending, Elanore,” the woman raised her hand to silence her. “The scattering of our townsfolk, the advancing eclipse, and the rumors of monsters shows that. It is happening just as your grandfather suspected it might.” With a swish of her skirts, she turned back to wardrobe where her things had been stored. Mrs. Winchester sighed. “Now help me find my good hat.”
* * *
Elanore would mull over these words after her grandmother departed with the Count and Edmund. They would tumble over and over in her mind while she wandered the estate grounds.
The sun came out, highlighting the remnants of flowers that had once grown in the garden. She bent down in the snow to study them when a sound of singing floated down to her ears. When she followed that noise to a tree, she looked up and found wrens peering down at her.
The lions at her side went very quiet. They blinked at the strange birds.
She squinted slightly against the sun, wondering at the golden, almost fairy-like dust that floated about them. The woman swallowed, wondering if the creatures were magic and might talk. And so she thought to speak to them, to ask them if they were waiting for something.
Wings beat against the wind in acknowledgement. “For the end and the beginning,” they sang once before the lions pounced.
The wrens scattered as did the illusion of fairy dust. As the sun disappeared behind clouds, Elanore realized she had been seeing the sunlight upon snow falling anew from the sky.
She shivered suddenly, quite afraid.
As the lions chased the impudent creatures away,she fled inside to the parlor. There she found Lady Tala resting, stroking her belly idly as she rested on the couch. Her face was blank as she greeted Elanore.
Elanore felt ashamed for having invaded upon the woman’s space. Had she stayed outside, the woman might have been able to rest more. “I am not bothering you, am I?”
“No,” the woman shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “I cannot sleep with these two kicking me all the time.”
The young healer could only wonder how the lady managed to keep such a busy schedule about the house in her state. “Your delivery date is soon, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” the woman did not sound that relieved to be admitting so. “I had hoped to deliver later, but we shall see.”
Elanore thought the declaration strange. She thought to ask the woman as to why she wished to deliver later but was interrupted by the sudden entry of the housekeeper into the room. Breathlessly, the servant interrupted them. “My lady – you are needed upstairs!”
The two women stood quickly to follow, knowing full well that the urgent situation must have something to do with Selva.