The mood in the room shifted slightly as the gathered were forced to acknowledge the presence of the estate’s lord.
Maximilian Wolfram had slipped in some time ago. Exactly at what point in the conversation he had done so, they did not know; none had seen him until he had spoken. Those who knew him well were not surprised by his appearance. And those who did not, took care to study him.
What they all saw was a man who was different.
A man of confidence.
As he placed a map in front of the guildmaster, he made it evident that he had heard quite a bit. “Your map is adequate, but this one is done by those who knew that area well. By the elves.”
That piece of information sent a restless wave through the men who had accompanied Wilhelm. To those who did not believe in elves it was a challenge to their entire way of life, where man was the center of the world. And yet, as the map was unrolled it was undeniably detailed and beautiful. It was nothing that could have been fashioned by any human hand.
As the lord took a seat vacated by one of the other Wolframs, the guild leader began to inspect the map. “The work is very good,” the red-haired man had to admit. “It seems every rock and grove of trees are accounted for.”
“That is the way they were,” Maximilian Wolfram said. “They knew the value and name of the rocks, the valleys, and things most pay no attention to. The lions are like them. They know much about the land up to a point. However, your huts were built recently and so it is not something they would know. It won’t be Miss Redley who will instruct the lions, but you.”
A muscle in the guildmaster’s jaw worked itself over and over as he tried to tune out the whispering of his men. “Do you mean I should ride one?”
The Count seemed amused by the man’s suggestion. “Would you if it was necessary? I can see from your expression that you would prefer not. What I meant was for you to provide instruction as to where the huts are in relation to the elven map, not yours. After that, the lions can proceed on their own. They are quite capable of executing searches by themselves.”
A few of the men tittered at such a compliment.
But the young woman in the room frowned at them. She knew they had no faith in the creatures, for what little they had seen had not helped them believe they were nothing more than dumb beasts . But she loved them and treated them as friends — not pets or novelties.
She took a great big breath as if to argue on their behalf, but the Count raised his hand and silenced the room. “Your men doubt what I say, Guildmaster. But if you laugh now, what will you do when the same lions help us defend this place later?”
Wilhelm sensed the other man’s displeasure. He carefully mulled how to proceed and deflected the question with another of his own. “Can they follow complicated directions?”
“Their childish playfulness should not be mistaken for unreliability or the inability to comprehend what we say. They are far older than you or I. They can outrun us and outfight us. I’d argue that they are your best hope in a search for your men.”
That bold statement seemed to offend a few of the gathered. Wilhelm knew his men thought the comparison ridiculous, but his host clearly thought otherwise. “I would need to show them maps and charts. Can they read such things?’
“The map is for you,” the Count pointed at what he had dropped on the table. “They won’t read those. You simply need to tell them what major landmarks to follow. They will read the rest of it from your thoughts by using their gifts.”
“You mean magic.” Wilhelm’s face revealed his distaste as he tapped his fingers on the table. He was hardly a man of religion or mysticism. To ask to use something he did not believe in was beyond difficult. It was ridiculous.
“Sir.” Elanore’s gentle voice reframed the challenge the Count had placed before the guild leader. “It can’t hurt to at least talk to them with me. You can see for yourself how well they understand. If they can help, is it not worth trying? It is far too dangerous to send anyone else now and we can’t just do nothing.”
He struggled with the suggestion they put before him, because not only did he refuse to trust in magic but in those he had no reason to trust! “You seem insistent on this idea. And if they go, what do they want? More importantly, what do you want?”
He directed that last question directly at Elanore Redley and the lord. But it was the others who reacted. Mrs. Winchester stiffened in her chair. Across the table, Marrok’s eyes narrowed.
The young woman answered the hunter first, her words rushing out of her as she looked back at him with mortification. “The lions? They don’t negotiate. If anything, the most they’d covet would be your friendship and an occasional moment of your time.”
“You forget the ribbons,” the Count added dryly. “They are vain–”
“My lord,” the young woman’s eyes begged him to stop. “Please do not joke.”
“They will ask for nothing,” the Count humored Miss Redley. “And I do not ask for anything new. Honor my lady’s request. That is all.”
The two leaders stared at one another, both understanding that this was no small promise. Lady “Ilva” had asked that his men not touch a single wolf for the winter. That was easy enough to promise at the time, for wolves had not been seen in this area for years. But as her lord reiterated the request and underlined it with a fierce look, Wilhelm suspected that the wolves would soon return.
Had Miss Redley not interrupted the silent exchange between the two leaders, the guild leader might have asked if such a thing would soon happen.
But she did, asking him if he would like to see the lions right away.
The guild man’s cynicism wavered as he looked into those kind and hope-filled eyes. While he did not like the lord or trust him, he could not say the same for Elanore.
The girl he believed to be his child clearly wanted him to say yes. He was not given over to moments of tenderness, but he found himself gruffly agreeing with her. “I suppose we could try.”
And with those words, the guild leader found himself traipsing after Elanore with a surly lord beside him.
They walked along the hallways, drawing in several more guild members into their company as they moved to the back of the building. Other men appeared, the Wolframs watching as the band of guests passed, their faces frozen as the snow outside.
There was mass confusion as they all threw on coats and wraps before regrouping at the backside of the main building. The young Miss Redley ran ahead, waving excitedly at a figure in the middle of the lawn.
Edmund Ormond looked back, his uncovered hair catching that last bit of sun that the winter afternoon offered. If it were not for the white snow on the ground, he might be a shepherd in a pastoral scene, wading through a flock of a most unusual sort.
But the creatures he herded were not sheep but monsters of stone. They moved freely and randomly around the young man with mouths opening and shutting like hungry birds.
The hunters fidgeted as the wind picked up and the lions all turned to look at them. The shepherd walked slowly towards them, occasionally scolding one of the beasts in low tones. Several creatures randomly followed him, only to skip over to the girl with the red hood and curiously sniff at her gloved hands. They stuck their faces forward at her, to receive the petting they desired.
She rested her head on the cheek of one, as if it were a horse and not a bizarre monster. When she was done, that lion detached itself from the throng and wandered intently towards the crowd of men. It moved slowly, as if it could sense how the guild men tensed around their leader. Only some had seen the lions before; and of those who had, many were wary. Even if these lions were as kind as the girl would have them believe, a single swipe of a paw from any one of them could send them flying.
Their leader stared straight ahead, not flinching as the creature came to look into his face.
“He’s waiting to be greeted,” the young lady offered.
And so the hunter swallowed once. “Hello,” he ventured.
“WE MEET AGAIN,” the beast suddenly boomed. The men about their leader winced, stepped back, all too familiar with this specific lion. The guild members braced themselves for the cheerful “WILHELLLLLM” that followed.
The man of the hour winced; the sound that came out of the lion was loud and drawn out, more a caterwaul than a greeting. “You again!”
“YOU REMEMBER ME!” the lion peered at him and then the others, pleased in spite of the sour look on the man’s face. “CALL ME LAMBEGUS. OR LAMB.”
Several of his men looked greatly amused as they recognized the beast from the time it had visited. They could not forget the thing shouting its way around their compound.
Wilhelm had no sense of humor, again casting a dark look at his men. He gritted his teeth as he spoke to the overly happy creature. “The girl tells me you can help. I have three men missing. The last we saw of them was in the cabins we have near the Silver River.”
The creature turned its head away to look for its master. “MY BEAUTIFUL VOICE ISN’T NEEDED HERE RIGHT NOW. IF IT PLEASES YOU, I WOULD LIKE TO GO.”
Count Wolfram agreed. “Not alone, of course. You cannot carry a man back and fight at the same time, can you?”
“NO,” the beast snorted, tickled by such an obvious question. “BUT WE WILL NEED TO KNOW WHO TO LOOK FOR.” With that statement, Lambegus’ nose invaded Wilhelm’s space. “SHOW ME PLEASE. YOUR HANDS ON MY NECK WOULD BE FINE.”
The guildmaster hesitated for a moment, but Elanore and Edmund nodded at him. With so many eyes trained upon him, he reluctantly placed his hands on the the stone creature’s oddly warm surface. When nothing happened, he wondered to himself how this magic was supposed to work.
“DON’T WORRY ABOUT THAT,” Lambegus chuckled loudly.
He nearly drew his hand back, wondering what trick the creature had used to seemingly read his mind.
The creature rambled on. “SO VAGUE. WHAT ARE THEIR NAMES? WHAT DO THEY LOVE? WHAT DO THEY LIKE?”
Wilhelm supplied the names slowly. “Kip. Wells. And Pip.” He thought about what they looked like and then stopped. “I’m sorry, but I really can’t tell you more than that.”
“The others can,” Edmund spoke up. “I can.”
The leader watched as Edmund approached. He felt a twinge of inadequacy to find himself in need of help from a much younger member of the guild. When had he stopped knowing what made the younger ones tick? He felt a strange sense of discomfort as the younger man called over the others.
The young guild members looked uncertain as they aped Edmund, placing their hands upon the beast wherever they could reach. But the lion rumbled approval and greeted each one of them by name, much to their surprise. “IT’S GOOD,” this obnoxiously loud Lamb declared. “I UNDERSTAND. NOW LEADER, SHOW ME THE PLACE IN YOUR MIND IF YOU CAN.”
Wilhelm felt exhausted by this exercise. He looked at the young men next to him and envied them. They accepted what the lions did without reservation, believed that this odd thing knew their thoughts and saw what they saw.
But he was too old for this creature magic. He could not hold the visual in his mind, so he spoke aloud, telling the creature of the map he had looked at. He talked about the nearest named tree and the way the creek flowed by a large hill that blocked the view of the huts where they had camped last.
“I UNDERSTAND.” The statuesque creature shook off their hands. “MY LADY WAVES AT YOU ALL FROM THE DOOR. GO IN NOW. IT IS COLD. I MUST TEACH MY BROTHERS WHAT YOU HAVE ALL SHARED. WE WILL LEAVE WHEN THEY UNDERSTAND.”
And there she was, the lady in white, drawing the attention of not only her husband, but the rest of them.
The guildmaster dismissed the young men, who were eager to return inside and also catch a glimpse of the rumored lady of the estate.
Next to him, the lord’s eyes narrowed into slits as he watched the young men ogle the woman as they passed her.
“Don’t worry,” Wilhelm said tightly. “They know well enough to keep away from her. We won’t give any of your men who may itch for a fight any reason to start one.”
“She can fight them on her own,” Wolfram responded. “But better her than I. I lost her once. I will not lose her again — to a man or to anyone else. ”
Wilhelm nodded grimly, hearing the threat in the other man’s voice.
They watched the rest go into the building, save Elanore and Edmund. They were, the lord informed him, the ones who were tasked with training with the lions.
The young woman spoke in low tones, her voice tender as she continued to talk to the lion. “Will you be in any danger?” Elanore asked the creature.
“OH NO,” the lion preened at the touch of her fingers on his mane. “WE MAY BE SLOW IF WE RUN INTO TROUBLE. BUT TIME IS OUR ALLY AGAINST OTHER THINGS. WE WILL SURELY RETURN.”
“Still. Do be careful.” She threw her arms around the lion’s rather large neck and planted a kiss on the creature’s nose.
The creature fell still, startled by the gesture of affection. “WHEN I RETURN, WILL YOU GIVE ME ONE OF THOSE AGAIN?”
“HAHHHHH!” The lion laughed, grand and loud, sending snow to the sky in his moment of ecstasy. “HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!” When he finished his noisemaking, he circled around Edmund, as if to gloat. “I GOT ONE TOO!” Edmund laughed in return and slapped the creature’s rump affectionately.
And then the other creatures converged upon the couple and the beast, whispering demands of some sort.
“Hurry,” Edmund shielded Elanore from all the noses being thrust in their direction. Sternly he scolded them all. “Time is being wasted.”
And it was. The sun had already crested in the sky. It was beginning its descent.
The young man spoke to not just the one lion, but to all. “You may not need light, but they will need it to see you. They will not know who you are, so they will be afraid. Those of you that go, remember to find Lambegus if you find one of the hunters. He speaks their language and can help you be understood.”
Lambegus ran around in giddy circles for a few more times before Edmund and Elanore were able to calm him down. With a little bit more pressure from them both, he finally left the humans to join his brethren in a strange dance around the lawn and to teach them what must be done.
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