Edmund was correct to mistrust the lions’ ability to give advice. The Count nearly blew up at some of the ‘helpful’ ideas the more shameless lions offered.
Wolfram could not be persuaded to allow more than several lions inside their home after he wrangled out a better explanation from the lions as to what they planned to do. There was a bit of animated discussion surrounding the topic of where to put the lions. The kitchen seemed best — for it was warm and suited for transference of energy. Neither Hastings or Mrs. Coombs were pleased by that idea, for that meant surrendering the kitchen. However, few places had stones quarried from the area, and their lord would not be swayed to consider the hall or other facilities.
The lions were not the only ones to be warned. Lord Wolfram banished many well-meaning onlookers of the two-legged variety. The last thing he wanted was the lions to have an audience as they whined about various public displays of affection. Only a small number of individuals were permitted access to the kitchen, namely to assist in maintaining a comfortable spot by the hearth for the patient.
Lady Selva came to rest between the creatures with her hands upon their backs. For the next few hours the Count watched her, tensing each time she leaned forward to rest her head and close her eyes for any length of time. But gradually her color improved as did her composure and his temper.
When she finally told the group to go away and let the kitchen staff work on the evening meal, her caretakers knew she was much recovered. The men left first, followed by Lady Tala at her husband’s request. Selva asked to sit longer with Gawain and Uwaine and Elanore stayed on while the Wolframs met on business.
The two lions sat at Selva’s side like two extremely overgrown dogs. Their eyes closed at times, particularly whenever Selva would shift her weight off the awkward mass of cushions on the floor to stroke their backs.
“I am keeping you from Edmund, aren’t I?” Selva rested her head along Gawain’s back. “I apologize for causing you so much trouble.”
Edmund had long been pulled away to assist some of the newer guests from town. “He is busy with other things.” Elanore was scratching Uwaine’s nose as an experiment. She noted that it took at least ten seconds of attention before he would yawn in response. “I’ll just find him later.”
“You two are very different from Lady Tala and her husband,” Selva mused aloud. “They have not been apart more than a week or so since the day they chose one another and mated.”
Elanore blinked. “You mean the day they married?”
“It is not the same,” the lady saw the young girl’s confusion. “Wolves don’t really practice the same ceremonies. Once they have mated, it is the arrival of their offspring that brings them recognition as a pair. They have regularly brought new Wolframs into the world for some time. They will be like that until one of them dies or is challenged for their position.”
“But what if you’re not a traditional wolf? Can you be recognized without children?”
“I suppose so,” the lady stuck a strand of hair behind her ear while she thought aloud. “I think the customs have become muddied since a great many mingled with the elves. In their case, they might observe several practices.”
“What of you and the Count? Are you close like Tala and Marrok?”
Selva’s brow crinkled at the forward question. Gawain gave Elanore a rather annoyed look as if to ask why his lord’s business was her business.
But he could not balk if Selva spoke. Eventually the lady had something to say. “My lord is not like Marrok. Neither of us is very close to being a full blooded wolf. I have tried to act like one in the past, but I am not a very good one. The truth is, I don’t believe I can ever be like them.”
Elanore found herself perplexed by their beliefs. “But the family affords you every honor that would be given to their lady. Since you have returned, they have not shunned you, have they?”
“No,” the Lady looked at the fire. “There have been no questions from any of them. It is because the Wolframs live so much in the present moment, that the past almost becomes irrelevant once they know what they want to do and their leader sets their direction. They are fiercely loyal to him. And so far, my lord has not said anything to them to make them dislike me. But it is one thing to be a wife and another to be loved like Marrok loves his mate.”
Elanore nearly cried aloud. “But he does love you. It was him who followed me and tried to convince you to stop your magic, wasn’t it?”
“You are mistaken.” The woman looked down at the back of Gawain, her face showing she wished she did not have to say so. “When I sent you away, I thought it might be an intruder encroaching on my spell dream. But as I discovered a small dusty thing, I wondered if it might be something you had stirred up from my lord’s past. A witch warped him and twisted his magic to her purposes. It could have been a manifestation of that past curse.”
“But there is no taint,” the lion Gawain pertly interjected. “Not anymore. Healed.”
“So I realized,” Selva spoke to the lion. “When I raised the light and saw it to be a small four-legged beast that did not run from me, I was relieved but puzzled. Having seen Elanore I realized it was possible that this creature might be my lord or Edmund. I tried to encourage it to speak in the same way I conversed with her, but it only barked until I woke.”
“It was not Edmund,” the younger lady shook her head. “Neither of us was in contact with you at the time before you woke.”
The light of the fire reflected in Selva’s eyes. “I realized that too. The wolf cub looked and felt too much like my lord. But while you were conscious of what you were doing, I don’t believe he was.”
“If he wasn’t, he will be soon,” Uwaine tried to console the lady. “You want to hurry him, I know, but there is no need. Our new Lif and Lifprasir came to us. You must help us protect them now.”
If Elanore was puzzled by what the lions spoke of, the lady appeared completely mystified. “What do you mean by invoking that myth?”
“The endless struggle that passed between the three is no longer. They have made their peace and the hunter and maiden have set forward in a new direction. They have the bond you and our lord lacked. And by luck they also satisfied our requirements. Although perhaps it was not luck at all. Edmund is–”
The woman placed her hand on Uwaine’s nose, effectively muzzling him. “Shush!”
A suspicious thought formed in Elanore’s mind as she reconsidered the lion’s interrupted words. “Edmund told me about you,” she began slowly. “You told him he was like you. Your kind.” However, there were many words that could fill that blank, among them, one that felt tantalizingly plausible. “Is it just that?”
Selva moved surprisingly quickly, placing her hand over Elanore’s mouth. “Stop, please,” she begged in Elanore’s mind.
Elanore’s immediate reaction was to shift away from the woman. She realized now that Selva’s ability to speak to her like this came when they were in contact. But she considered the look of alarm on the woman’s face and gently took the hand covering her mouth by the wrist. “If you must, then I prefer this,” she put Selva’s hand down and loosely touched her fingers to the top of the hand. “I shall listen.”
“I am sorry. These walls have ears. And the land is full of other spies. ”
“We have ears, too.” The lions reminded the women that they were already invested in a part of this conversation. The creatures repositioned themselves to maintain contact with Selva and Elanore before they settled to listen.
Selva found herself forced to address all three of them, whether she liked it or not. She rested her head again on Gawain’s neck for a moment before she began to answer the question. “I know what you are thinking – he has my hair and he has their eyes. I know Miss Redley that you believe I might be his mother. But it is not possible. When I left this place, I intended to go north to where the dragons once lived. My forefathers knew the world before it was born and saw the birth of magic itself. I believed that the old ones lived still and would know what to do for my lord. I turned back.”
She stopped speaking for a moment, hard pressed to form words as to the reasons why. What came next was yet another surprise for Elanore. There were no more words, but only images.
Selva showed them what she remembered — the fierce northern mountains whose peaks were always covered by snow and the dynamic nighttime displays of light that lit her way as she took step after step towards the largest mountain of all. But they felt her womb stir, felt her legs drag. Her growing figure made her realize she wanted to return home to her lord but she was too proud to run back with no answer. Instead she returned to a small, agricultural village to rest. This was her home once.
“A wisewoman in the west was my only hope. But I had to wait.”
And soon a small infant suckled at her breast – a child that had her flaxen hair and his father’s eyes.
The lions rumbled to themselves as Elanore inhaled quickly, wondering at the physical similarity to Edmund. But they saw the other children who would be placed together while their mothers and grandmothers worked in the common hall. They were like the child, light haired and with eyes that were grey and blue, gold and hazel.
Time shifted again and it was a dark, winter morning. In the common hall, the women were busy preparing a meal. They sang a song of deer and pheasants while their children slept nearby. A child cried and they saw the inky black mass seeping through the cracked window. And then the cry stopped as a silent pool of black water flowed and swallowed the fussing child and those around it in one fell swoop.
The screams began then and the woman shifted on instinct. Her wolf form danced and evaded the shadows as she tried to go to the bed.
But the shadows dissipated until there were none left. The women ran outside to warn the others but they, too, began to scream, caught by others that lay quietly, waiting.
In the present, the lions whimpered and their bodies twitched. Instinct told them to fight those things – even Unthings in memory were an abomination to them. But then the masses were gone as the fires took over them, licking at the things that had not died.
One by one the screams faded into silence and the wolf was left to empty her stomach on the grass and drag herself to a pool of water to drink.
And then they saw the dispassionate face of the Snow Queen, blinking at the ragged mess that Selva became. They felt the woman’s cold hand upon her, invading her thoughts before announcing that her misfortune had been caused from beginning to end by her act of abandoning the Count.
The lions who had said nothing until that point began to growl. “That is not true. You did not leave him with that in mind nor was the damage beyond repair! The broken bond did mark you as disfavored. But had you returned, magic or no magic, we could have helped! She must have wanted to take advantage of you!”
Elanore could only stare in stunned silence as the images stopped. She turned slowly to look at Selva, who had placed her hands over her ears. “No, she gave me peace. She was far kinder than he was, even though she did not feel anything. She gave me a means to do something, far more than I ever could. You should not speak so disrespectfully of her!”
They did not understand that she did not want to hear them. If what they believed was true, then they were telling her she had lived a complete lie. “Gawain,” Elanore placed her left hand on his mane. “You are a very loyal servant. Uwaine–” she placed her right hand on the other lion’s nose. “You are perceptive. Is it right to promote your master over another by causing her pain?”
Uwaine sighed, chastened by this mild scolding.
“If he is harsh, it is because he cares!” Gawain could not help working himself towards a rather loud roar. “He wants more from my lady because he needs her more. But he never listens to what we have to say and he makes a mess because he says stupid things on his own!!”
Selva reached out to hug the creature’s mane, apologizing for vexing the innocent creature. “It isn’t you. I don’t know how to talk to him either. Or listen. To him, to you. But, I can at least start with you.”
They looked at her for a moment, perhaps weighing out the sincerity of her words. After a moment, they began to wave their tails. Gawain, who had been cross just a moment earlier, appeared to be delighted and unable to contain his own excitement. ”Will you come together TODAY? We must speak with you both!”
“Perhaps,” her confidence seemed to flag slightly. “I don’t know if he will say yes, but I will try today and tomorrow, and as often as you like.”
Elanore placed her hand on the lady’s arm, offering her support. “I will help make sure you find the time to speak to him.” Her eyes twinkled as she stood. “I think it is time to find Mr. Giles.”