And often through my curtains peep,
For you never shut your eye,
‘Till the sun is in the sky.
The last day of light would start with the absence of birds.
The guildmaster waited for daylight to confirm that all signs of life had departed from this place. He had known for weeks now that Winchester was unusually empty of wildlife, save the animals the townspeople raised for themselves. But now he knew that it had been completely abandoned.
He returned from his walk about the grounds, his feet heavy as he wandered to the library. He did not wish he had to seek their counsel. He fought against the idea of being dependent on the Wolframs to any degree, just as he fought against accepting the secret they revealed a few days prior. He had no love for either magic or for wolves, and he had learned how they embodied both.
When he came upon them, he found the lady tying back her lord’s hair. This small, intimate gesture was so very human, that he could see why he had been fooled by them this entire time. But when they turned their gazes upon him, Wilhelm hardened his heart against them. He was direct and to the point. “The watch has confirmed the departure of a great many birds. Unlike past years they appeared to be migrating west.”
The Count acknowledged this information with an incline of his head. “You are the expert in animal behavior. What do you believe it means?”
“Birds migrate for various reasons. Perhaps to feed or spawn.”
“Or observe,” Lady Selva spoke up. “Some kinds are known to keep watch for others.”
Wilhelm shifted back and forth on his feet unsettled by the idea that even the birds might not be what they seemed. Again, he hardened his heart, not willing to be distracted by some of these ideas. “They could be leaving this area for their own safety.”
“It is a shame that they do not speak,” the Count reached for his cane. “But I do agree with you in that it is not a good omen. The worst case should always be kept in mind while we drill and prepare.” The lord paused for a moment. “Your men have done quite well, so Marrok has said.”
The guildmaster was relieved to hear the lord agreed with his concern. He accepted the praise, not telling the lord that he deliberately held back men from duty who were unreliable or particularly frightened of the man-wolves that hosted them. They were assigned to guard or assist the townspeople, many of whom would be unable to defend themselves if there were trouble.
Their conversation focused on these practical topics. In due course, there was little else to say. Wilhelm thought to dismiss himself, but the lady spoke suddenly. “We are very grateful to you for teaching us how to improve our defenses.”
He bowed his head. He had been terribly bothered by the arrangement of the estate. Now that he understood what the Wolframs were, some of the deficiencies made more sense to him. “We aren’t the same in how we fight, nor do we have any gifts of magic to offer. I hope our assistance will prove useful at the end against whatever other creatures might be out there.”
Wilhelm’s words came out more harshly than he intended. In spite of his uneasiness around them, he knew these Wolframs were not bad souls. But their self-proclaimed existence suggested the possibility that other creatures of myths and lore might also be wandering this land. He was not naive enough to believe that they, too, might be inclined to be friendly.
Neither Wolfram seemed offended by his statement. This, too, was something the guildmaster found peculiar.
The lord cleared his throat. “Regarding the mishap the other day — have you heard from Edmund Ormond ?”
“No.” The guildmaster pondered the abrupt shift in topic. Carefully, he proceeded. “As I see it it’s not my business to intervene. But if you ask my advice – the boy is not the sort to hold a grudge. He’s a good man,” Wilhelm said loyally. “Most of my boys are. We can be a bit greedy and wild at times, but we keep our word. Treat him consistently and fairly, and the incident will be long forgotten.”
“I understand,” the Count responded.
* * *
The next day, there would be no light to guide each watch. Inside, the time was passed with quiet things. Much of the month in darkness would be spent in sleeping, eating, and cleaning if all went well.
However, some did work in rooms where light was provided. More than a dozen women sat together, mending clothing and bags that were used by the men on duty outside. Others knitted, for there was always a need for scarves, mittens or blankets.
Elanore was trimming leftover cloth for bandages when she felt the ground tremble. Outside, she could hear the lions shouting. She excused herself before she hurried downstairs.
She pushed her way through a swarm of men in the entryway to find the door. She peeked outside, listening to sounds of the watchmen yelling. Others poured out and began to move up the courtyard towards the path to the gate.
Elanore looked about for a light, but a pair of hands pulled her back inside. “Miss Redley,” the guildmaster warned her mildly. “That call was not for you. Until it’s confirmed what approaches, we all stay put.”
She bit her lip, chafing at the instructions he provided. If Edmund would show, she would be allowed to go outside. But to her disappointment, he did not appear.
* * *
Long before the men in the watchtowers had raised an alarm, Edmund had heard a faint roar. He was out in the courtyard looking for the lion in distress when Galahad discovered him and began to drag him to the gate.
The men standing guard did not appreciate their presence or the additional influx of other lions behind them demanding for the gate to be opened. They turned a blind ear upon the creatures.
Even when the watchmen confirmed the presence they saw were the lions, they did not act. The gate would not be opened without word from their lord.
Outside came a roar, an indignant call. “HURRY! WE HAVE A CUB. HE IS DYING.”
The Wolframs stood firm, in spite of the horrendous yowling that resulted from the crowd of lions. Thankfully, the master of the estate did not wait to end this standoff.
He cast a displeased look at the crowd of lions pressing against him, then spared another look at the men who had drifted this way. “This is not a fight yet. Please go back if you are not on duty or if you are not a medic.”
His eyes were not angry but stern as he addressed the lion’s appointed shepherd. “Edmund, you must not let them carry you along as they please. They always mean well, but they do not always think ahead. A handful would have sufficed. Please teach them this and make sure they return to their stations.”
Edmund left Galahad and Uwaine behind. The rest he ordered back to their posts, although some were less timely to respond than others. He paced the courtyard, keeping an eye on a particular few for a while before he felt it safe to return to the hazel door and wait in warmer conditions.
His appearance on the step drew the undisguised interest of both Wilhelm and Elanore. All Edmund could manage to tell them was that the lions had returned with a human.
“One of our men?”
Edmund had to admit that he did not know. He dispatched Bors, a chatty, energetic lion for news. The creature returned with what information he had gathered from the other lions. “He has been exposed to the elements. That is no good. But he has another sickness. Mistress is with him, in one of the other buildings. They keep him away from you all in a quiet place while she tries to weave his mind into order. She is very worried.”
“Find out where they are, please,” Elanore asked. “It’s important. Bring Lambegus.”
The lion made a sound that sounded like agreement before it ran off.
The guildmaster reminded them that he could not hear them as she did. “What news did it bring? And what do you plan, Miss Redley?”
She tersely explained the situation before she explained what she intended to do. “I can assist the lady and learn from her. If anything were ever to happen to her, who else will step in?”
“Elanore,” Edmund said softly, perhaps surprised by the steel in the young woman’s voice.
“Lambegus was their leader. I’m sure his explanation will answer our questions as well.”
It turned out that Lambegus would not leave the young man. It was Pellinore, as he called himself, who came to apologize for the loud beast. He mildly explained that he was one of the lions who had gone out to look for the hunters. But he offered little else, his tail twitching back and forth nervously as he waited to be dismissed.
His reluctance to speak was obvious. Pellinore would not respond to any polite prompting from Elanore. Edmund finally had to chide the creature. “Must I command you to provide a name of this person?”
The lion turned its head to look at him, clearly offended. “The name he called himself was Pip.”
Once Elanore translated the creature’s seeming gibberish, the guildmaster cursed. “How is he?”
The lion shook its mane. Again it seemed unwilling to speak.
Elanore reached for the guildmaster’s hand. He swallowed at the gesture and her insistence that he place it upon the lion. To the lion she spoke again. “Will you share with us what you saw? You can feel that this man is like his guardian. He needs to understand. He deserves to understand.”
The thing shuddered. “If I show you then you won’t like me. Let’s play instead.”
They felt its uneasiness. Edmund spoke kindly. “You may tell us instead. And when you are done, you shall have a treat as we promised before you left.”
The lion considered the offer and the gentle expression on the hunter’s face. “Please. What she promised first.”
Elanore reached for the creature and pressed her nose to his. “It will be all right,” she kissed him.
It was an interesting tableaux — the guildmaster, the young hunter, and the lady all petting a slightly impudent lion in order to coax him to speak. But the creature was soon lulled into a feeling of safety and began to talk. “He was under a tree, half asleep, half dead. He was alone with a burnt out fire. We found him and he wanted to run. If he weren’t so weak, he might have tried. But Lambegus calmed him and told him we would take him away from the woods. He said the Unthings ate them all before he passed out.”
“He was… what?”
“They took all of them. But we found only him, left behind a broken shell. The others we don’t know, because we could not go further west. The deep woods are full of things eating and being eaten.”
Edmund and Elanore felt the guildmaster tense. All knew that the others were lost.
The creature shuddered, likely sensing their thoughts. “Lambegus wanted to press forward, but we knew we should not separate. We returned with the boy and to warn the master that the woods are alive. The Unthings will begin their feeding. But now they have tasted the humans. They will come for more.”
* * *
The young man’s situation bewildered Selva. She could glean little from the mess of images and thoughts that were left in the otherwise black terrain of the young man’s mind. She did not have the context or means to piece the man back together again.
Maximilian watched as the woman in white robes worked hard to soothe the patient. His nose wrinkled at the oddly familiar stench that clung to the man. It nagged at him while he watched her try to keep the man alive.
Miss Redley appeared shortly thereafter with the guildmaster and several of the young men from the guild. He did not greet them. He simply watched what the humans might do.
This time it was his turn to observe as the group circled about the patient, with the girl in the red hood trying to reach the mind of the one who was lost. And this time, Selva helped her.
A shiver ran down his spine as he thought of someone long forgotten.
Their efforts did not result in any change. In the end, the younger healer provided the man with something to put him into a deep and less painful sleep. Something told him that only time would be able to resolve what ailed the young hunter.
With the man stable, Wolfram assembled a small group to dissect the news the lions had brought them. The mood in the room among those gathered was grim. The failure of the lions to find the hunters greatly discouraged them all.
The woods were rife with creatures on a massive feeding frenzy. The lions spoke of the forest ground crawling with insects and worms and the birds and small creatures that came to eat them. Soon, the food chain would include predators and all manner of beasts.
It was for this unusual repeated event, the Unthings had likely waited. For many, that was chilling insight into their behavior. However, the lions believed the taste of those creatures had evolved.
Wolfram recalled the creatures’ tenacity in pursuing some of the wood elves. It was true they were believed to be indiscriminate feeders, but he also had seen their preference for attacking the elves. If they could not dine on them, he wondered if they would now have humans instead.
He drew his conclusions. Accepted truths could change. He turned to the guildmaster. “Of those who reside here, it is clear that there is a greater risk to the safety of the townspeople and the guild. You could take your men now and stay days ahead if you head straight east out of the other side of this property. We will mind those who can’t leave. It would be a challenge, but you would likely be safer if you can reach the port towns.”
To Mrs. Winchester, however, he had no options to offer. The children and older residents could not make the journey. It was cold, rough terrain between here and the port city.
“We stay here unless we are a danger to the rest of you,” Wilhelm responded. “We still have Pip and Edmund here, neither will be able to leave. I’m not making the mistake of leaving anymore men behind.”
“The danger is still there regardless of who stays or goes.” Lady Selva saw the man’s concern and she reached over to pat him on the arm. “I shall be honored to keep you with us. If only we could do the same for the others close by. A message perhaps–”
“There isn’t any further need for messages,” Wolfram interrupted. “Giles was diligent in doing what he could to spread the word after the first sighting. We offered advice as well, but we don’t know whether it will be taken.”
“As did I,” Mrs. Winchester sighed. “I have tried to reach my peers and those we know in the area. I hope they stay inside and equip themselves.”
Lady Selva said nothing more on the topic. Only the wind howling outside hinted at her discomfort with the responses to her concerns.
If he noticed her lapse in control, Wolfram did not speak of it. The discussion turned to the reconfiguring of the watch to move the humans to indoor duties. He summoned Giles to the table to give him his orders. “If the time comes, you will lead them to shelter.”
Giles looked uneasy. “But my place is with you, my lord.”
“No, your place is to be my eyes and ears where I cannot be. It is to stand in my place when the need is obvious.” Wolfram turned his attention back to the mayor and the guildmaster. “I recommend that you give him your full cooperation. He is your way out. If something happens that leads you to believe that our perimeter is undefended and the inhabitants of these buildings are in danger, have your people go to the dining hall and wait for Giles. And bring the servants with you. Hastings will also be of great help.”
Mrs. Winchester nodded, but narrowed her eyes as she considered one particular detail. “And what of Elanore and Edmund?”
He paused before he responded. When she first had agreed to come here, she had negotiated several terms with him. This one was the hardest to accept. “As I promised, they will be delivered to you.”
* * *
Neither Edmund or Elanore knew that their fate was being decided by the group of adults who had gathered without them.
All they could think of was the imminent arrival of creatures who wanted very much to eat their kind alive.
Again, Edmund was the first to know of something approaching the bridge. He woke to an angry roar, this time echoed by many others. He roused his parents with a reminder of where they were supposed to gather. After planting a quick kiss on his mother’s cheek, he left to find Elanore.
The young woman met him at the stairs. He saw that her dark eyes were wild and bright with emotion. She had heard the lions as well, but when he took her hand to see if she was ill, he realized that she not only heard them, but felt them and their rage. “Grandmother wishes you luck,” she said breathlessly before she kissed him and pulled him down the stairs.
She would drag him to the gathering spot at the entryway. Both inside and outside the door it had become a staging area where the men sorted themselves into teams while still others stumbled in, demanding explanations for what was going on.
“It is a mass of Unthings.” The Count’s cane came dangerously close to some of the younger Wolfram’s backsides. He was displeased at the disorderliness of the late arrivals. “They are gathering at the bridge. So far, they do not venture past the statue.”
Outside, the lions were already creating a small storm of wind. “WE GO,” they kept insisting.
“Control them,” the Count snapped at Edmund. “They will all pour out onto the bridge if you don’t do so. And that is not the way to defend this place should any slip past that point! Do not be dragged out beyond the front steps. You must stay with the lady and make sure she does not go out of the range of light.”
Both Edmund and Elanore forgave the man for his demanding and angry orders. They moved outside and stepped out of the way in order to allow the first few groups of men to pass. The door behind them made a small noise as it began to change subtly.
Elanore glanced its way. Once smooth, its surface began to shift, as if to echo the strange undulating motion that characterized the Unthings.
In the distance, a blue light flared up towards the sky, signaling a great discharge of magic power.
“They are hungry,” the lions snapped their mouths. “Curious. Piling up. Testing the guardian.”
Edmund calmed them. He needed quiet to find that other voice, the one who had first spoken to him on the bridge and the one who told him of their arrival. When he heard it, it was small and quiet as if it were far away. “Something else is there.”
They heard the voice too. “WYRMS!” Several of the lions bolted, a line of them streaming to the gate. This time, they knew better than to wait for the watchmen to open it for them. They would pile on one another, climbing over each other to find their way to the top of the wall, and disappear over to the other side.
“Galahad!” Edmund sought out the one lion that was unfailingly rational and calm. “The orders were to keep them here. What do they mean by this?”
“They will not come back,” the lion said soberly. “They wish to fight the earth eaters, the hole-dwellers, the things that crawl up from the ground. They are hated by our kind as much as the Unthings because they are shameless and greedy.” He tilted his head to listen to the wind. “But do not worry, they have stopped at the bridge. The guardian tells them to wait. The Unthings and the snakes have found one another.”
An accidental struggle began at this point, with the shadowy things slipping and rolling towards what was described by those in the towers as large eyeless serpents. The end result of this was to cull the numbers of things assembling on the road. The Unthings that found food, consumed what they could before fading away. Others were diverted from their original path and wandered off elsewhere.
Soon the numbers of things remaining were small. It was then the lions rushed forward to do what they could to destroy the unwelcome creatures. But they could not get rid of a large snake that seemed particularly interested in them. Over and over, they shouted at it to leave.
The humans under the door were bewildered by the updates. Each description that came of snake inching forward across the bridge grew more and more unbelievable.
Elanore, who had the least experience in these woods and with animals, was most bothered by the claims she overheard. “How could such a large thing exist? And where did it come from?”
Lady Selva materialized next to her, as if to answer her question. “Those wells we thought the elves dug. Perhaps they didn’t dig them. Perhaps those things did!”
Edmund thought back to a distant memory, recalling the long fall that a young Elanore had taken one summer into a so-called well. He shivered. “If that is the case, they must be monstrous in length and width. But how is it possible to grow so large?”
The Lady set her mouth into a line. “It’s unnatural –and I’m sure that is something the Unthings are aware of.”
“Horrid thing,” the lions spat out. “It says it’s hungry for stones. It moves!”
Edmund took several steps forward away from the lighted entryway. He trained his eyes at the wall, wondering if his ears deceived him. “I think something is coming over the wall!”
The front guard of lions saw it as well, immediately moving to the intruder. Savagely they attempted to bite the serpent. “Scaly!” They gnashed their teeth at their failure to find a hold and began to beat their heads relentlessly against the creature’s side.
Elanore tottered towards Edmund. She held her hands to her head and he grabbed her. He felt the magic surging within her.
“Did they kill it?” Elanore choked out. “I can’t tell what’s happening.”
He understood her behavior. She was reacting to the lions as much as they did to her. He held her close. “Go calm them,” he ordered Galahad. “This won’t do. We must think of something better!”
The guildmaster came quickly to them with assistance. Wilhelm brought a torch and offered Elanore an additional arm to grasp. He looked at the lions around them, observing their frustration.
The pale woman began to hiss behind them. Selva saw as did Edmund that the snake was moving its head about blindly, ignoring the attacks of the creatures. “Jormungandr,” she spat.
She called to them in warning. “Don’t draw energy from the earth right now Elanore. It will only attract its attention to you and the nature of this ground it stands on. If it began to dig to its escape, it would discover a treasure and eat its way through every vein of stone we stand upon!
She sprang forward, moving quickly towards the creature. In her wake, the air snapped with cold. “I’ll freeze it if it kills me!”
“It’s hide is too thick,” the guildmaster said quietly, to no one in particular.
Apparently the Count had realized it as well. The band of Wolframs closest to him prepared something else.
Several bright spots lit up. Fire.
Elanore looked to Edmund and the guildmaster. “What do they mean to do?”
The young man watched the Count take a spear in hand. He thought of something Gregory had once put in front of him as part of his reading. And it was the only thing that resonated with him at this moment. “Long ago– there was a legend of a wyrm that was defeated by a man who pierced it from the inside with a spear tipped in fire.”
“That would be foolish,” grumbled the guildmaster.“That story was from the old land. And the kind of men who told them were fable spinners. Drunks.”
“And what would you have them do?” Edmund said tightly.
“A weak spot. There must be one. If not skin, skull, feet, legs and hands, or a creature’s eyes– then there is another tactic we hunters use.”
Edmund shook his head. “Poison? But there is no time. And the quantities required–”
Wilhelm looked at the lions with a smile. “But there are plenty of terrible things to feed that thing. Another story had a wolf who was killed by a hunter in a strange, roundabout way.”
“Stones,” Elanore finished the thought. “If we could trick it somehow into eating something quite bad for it, perhaps we could slow it down.”
“You mean the lions,” Edmund finished her thought.
“Yes,” Wilhelm nodded. “Assuming it won’t actually digest them.”
“We are not so easily eaten,” came a sniff. “But what would you have us do? Run inside and prance about with annoying songs? Hope to give the creature indigestion?”
“What if magic is used once inside?” Elanore offered quietly. “They are able to channel what magic is sent their way.”
“Ohhh,” the lions suddenly perked up. A great many of them came to Edmund to plead. “Give the word and we go!”
Edmund was perturbed by the the risk to the creatures and Elanore. But he glanced back at the lights in the distance and realized that the option being explored by the others was not much better. “Take only what you need and find Gawain. He will be by your lord and can talk to him. If anything, we ought to try that first.”
A dozen of them giddily ran off.
Edmund and the guildmaster supported Elanore as they moved closer to the beast. As they made their way forward, he could see the lions had stopped their reckless attacks. To his relief, the creatures had begun to sing.
If it eats stones, they say, we will give it lots!
We are better than bags, crunchy and cut!
Dine with us, Sir Wyrm, if you please.
We’re a tasty treat!
Lions are the best to eat!
They kept this bizarre ritual up, dancing around until the serpent began to inch their way. Its mouth began to yawn widely at the promise of a delightful meal.
When a great many disappeared inside, the serpent could barely move or close its mouth. Nor did the singing stop, for the lions were still chanting their nonsense.
Elanore clasped stones in her hand, intent on using the sounds to help her focus her energy. However, before she could even move, a blue light began to flicker in the distance.
A voice boomed across the grounds, the words echoing over and over. “ENOUGH!”
A wicked flare of energy followed, arcing away from the cane held by the tall, dark lord. It flew into the ground and quickly moved in a straight line towards the bloated snake. At first nothing appeared to happen, while the chants inside grew louder and louder. Gradually light began to leak out of the mouth of the serpent – a light that the lions outside began to corral. The energy crackled as it circled around and under the enemy — a great, powerful heat that would pass to the lions inside the serpent.
Waves of energy began to leak through the serpent’s hide. When the thing exploded, the light expanded quickly before it began to fall back to the ground, along with the remains of what it had destroyed. Edmund shielded Elanore from the soggy debris that began to blow their way.
“We are a tasty treat!” The lions who had piled themselves into the snake ran around in one more chorus of their ridiculous song, concluding it for the benefit of their brethren. In spite of their disgusting conditions, the lions all danced, seemingly unaware of the inappropriateness of their behavior.
The guildmaster suddenly roared with laughter as the lions poured everywhere, demanding praise from their lord, from Edmund, and from Elanore. “Crazy little beasts,” he patted one heartily. “That was a damn fine show.”
Play time, it seemed, was not incompatible with fighting in these lions’ minds. This way of thinking clearly endeared them to the guildmaster but confounded the others.
Elanore bore this all, somehow. Edmund could see that she was relieved to see this thing over.
Lady Selva was quick to take her aside, noting the distress on the young woman’s face.
“I can’t look at them quite the same way.” Elanore confessed her worry to them. “They are so charming and yet completely ruthless.”
The Lady spoke with a smile. “This is part of their mystery. But it is good that you were both able to control them and steer their activities to a more appropriate and limited activity. You all have done very well. And you, too, Guildmaster… I do thank.” Her eyes flashed angrily. “My lord is rash. I believe you prevented him from wasting his life needlessly.”
“I do not know magic, but I do know beasts,” he acknowledged her thanks. And he knew the woman loved her lord well. “I shall return to the entryway and rest, if it’s all right with you.”
And with a brief wave, he left them to continue their effort to restore the lions to order.
Needless to say, Count Wolfram would take his companion’s council after this point. He relaxed his strict dealings with the lions and engaged the guildmaster more. Soon a small group of lions began to regularly patrol the areas around the bridge, gleefully stamping out the random Unthings or serpents that might appear. But they did so under careful supervision of Edmund and the Count, both aware that the lions could quickly get out of control. They were wary of the creatures’ free-spiritedness as well as the their behavior’s impact upon Elanore.
The guardian continued to hold up under these small repeated assaults, but its voice began to dim.
It would not warn Edmund when the real attack began.