Count Wolfram was not used to the weight of people pressing in around him. But the crowd that gathered around the lord did not know that. As they finally emerged from the last
of the buildings they were to inspect, his family and the townspeople did not comprehend how uneasy their proximity made him feel .
Fears were tricky companions, presenting themselves at inopportune times. Wolfram leaned upon his cane. His expression suggested displeasure and pride. In truth, he was uncomfortable. But the end result was the same; the others backed off slightly to afford him room.
The only one who had failed to do so was the blacksmith. “These are good buildings,” Smith loudly declared as he whipped his head back and forth between the lord and the guildmaster. Ever the optimist, he had routinely noted the solid construction of the buildings they had visited. This particular set was notable as it was closest to the estate. “If the guild won’t have it, I think it would be a good place for a few families.”
The guildmaster did not take the bait. Instead, Wilhelm stared down the lord. “We were told for many years that they could not be purchased or leased because they belonged to a distant landowner.”
“I was a distant landowner,” Wolfram spoke dryly. “For many years I was so distant I might as well have been absent. I could not trouble my servants with dealing with matters of property.”
This sarcasm drew an appreciative chuckle from the townsfolk. Wilhelm, however, did not join them in their open amusement.
Nor did Wolfram enjoy the unexpected approval bestowed upon him by the townspeople for his dry wit. Abruptly he broke free of the crowd. “It is time to return inside.”
If his manners were lacking, it was because he could see his men growing more uneasy as it grew darker. Even with the lions patrolling the area around them, his wolves were unsettled by having so many humans outside the safety of the estate. They believed the humans were frail against the woods and invited trouble.
The wolves distrusted their surroundings. Upon their return home, those who had gone to the town to the south warned the rest to avoid it altogether. Marrok and Gareth had determined that magic was present but the user either hidden or weak. More worrisome was that the smell of the place had gone wrong.
His kin visibly eased as the party returned to the safety of their lord’s property. Wolfram remained near the gate, counting every member of their party as they entered through the wall. A familiar flash of blond hair sailed by, its owner listening to that noisy man Smith as he talked excitedly about the property they had seen. The Count’s eyes followed the youth for a moment, confirming Edmund’s safety before he finally summoned the lions inside.
The magical beasts were last to enter, streaming in and greeting their brothers who had not journeyed outside. Once they, too, had been accounted for the gates were drawn shut.
They had changed their evening patrols after discovering the slaughter at the town pub. Wolfram and his men preferred to keep the humans inside, far away from the walls so as to avoid providing any temptation to any witches or man-eating beasts that they speculated might have proliferated during the eclipse.
Wolfram offered a few encouraging words to his guards in their watchtowers before he began to walk the long path down to the courtyard.
He took the slight hill downwards, his eyes looking for the lions. Those who were not roaming the walls were resting on their pedestals. Some slept. Others stared up at the sky.
He saw a pair of light eyes flicker in the darkness.
Wolfram quickened his pace, frowning as he saw only one figure waiting for him.
His cousin raised his hand in greeting as his lord approached. “Your wife is resting inside,” Marrok assured his lord. “I told her that there would likely be no meeting tonight to occupy you.”
The Count leaned on his cane. “It has not changed. The humans need time to think. I suspect you may as well.”
“Our decision will be unchanged no matter what the humans do,” Marrok crossed his arms over his chest. He and his troop were nomadic and not inclined to care about material things as much as his elder cousins from the west and north. “But I will also not waste an evening off,” he almost smiled as he politely inclined his head. “Giles brewed something terrible with one of our younger cousins. I am eager to try this concoction of theirs. You should come with me.”
Marrok rarely said such things to him. Wolfram realized Marrok spoke for all his cousins, expressing some concern for him. He thought he should accept the invitation but one of the lions kept pacing slowly around them, reminding him of other things. “I will think about it. I have one more thing to do before I come back inside.”
Marrok nodded before he melted back into the shadows.
Wolfram made some pretext of circling around the courtyard, waiting for his stalker to reveal himself.
Gawain finally poked his head around a pedestal and ambled over to his master. The lion knew his pattern by now — several nights a week Wolfram would walk the grounds, his feet following a different path. Tonight he took the one that wove around the grounds, passing some of the smaller buildings that had been converted into temporary homes for the townspeople. He walked carefully, feeling for the presence of the stones that conducted magic and offered light and protection against dark creatures and dark magic.
His body warmed as each stone responded, vibrantly pulsing with magic. He felt his body relax slightly as he stumbled upon the gardens. He paused to look at the buds forming on the trees and the grass that had begun to poke through the brown dirt on the ground.
He knew the fragile garden provided an analogy for the changes in life. And while he missed the role of solitary watcher over the land and the simplicity it brought him, he would not exchange that role for what he had now.
Gawain made a small noise in his throat, signaling the approach of someone else. Wolfram knew by the creature’s excitement it was Edmund, likely returning from a meeting with the townspeople to find Miss Redley in the main house.
He took one step out of the garden, knowing this way they would have to cross paths. The stones on the ground trembled with energy as the young man came closer. For some perverse reason Wolfram did not call out to him. Instead he loitered and looked up at a distant window.
To his disappointment, Edmund did not pounce upon him as a young pup might when presented such an opportunity. Instead, the young man cleared his throat and offered a “Good evening.”
Maximilian glanced at the young man’s face — always full of purpose — rarely laughing except when with the girl and the lions. “I am checking our defenses,” he said by way of explanation for his idling on the grounds. “Would you like to join me?”
To his surprise, Edmund’s grey eyes sparked with interest. He fell in-step with the Count. “I thought the assigned guards dealt with that.”
Wolfram was pleased to have incited some curiosity on part of the young man. “I am testing the stones that we walk on. If you would observe.” Maximilian paused and placed the bottom tip of the cane against a particular spot on the ground. Faint lights began to travel away from that point, illuminating a scrolling pattern that extended out towards the stone walls of the estate. “Miss Redley used a stone to tap into these same fields before. This cane is doing a much weaker transference. It has far more control than what I gave her to use.”
“Is that also an elven artifact?”
“I believe so. My grandfather left this for me once my father passed.” The Count picked up the cane and tipped it slightly in Edmund’s direction. “Perhaps you would like to try it for yourself.”
A hunted look crossed the young man’s face. He did not take the cane but politely tried to steer the conversation in another direction. “Your father passed before your grandfather?”
Wolfram clutched the cane in his hand. “He and my mother both did. It was the price they paid in order to always remain together.”
The young man did not know how to respond. His mouth twisted in what could only be interpreted as regret. “I am sorry. I did not mean to pry.”
Wolfram shook off his malaise. “It is not prying. You are their–” He altered his words, realizing he was pushing too much. “You would have liked them. They were far more agreeable than I.”
His sarcastic statement earned him a small grin from the young man. Wolfram felt pleased to have scored even that. Once again he held the cane out. “Will you not try it?”
Edmund still could not be convinced to accept it. He shook his head at the man. “I cannot do what you and Elanore do.”
“You do have magic,” Wolfram stated calmly. “I know about the door.”
Edmund’s shoulders dropped. “Of course, I should have realized the lions would tell you. I admit I was teasing them a bit. It was nothing particularly special. I am not the only one who hears her — the children can hear as well.”
The lord would have liked to tell him not to downplay the significance of what he had heard but the young man was determined to continue.
“It’s frightening the townspeople,” the lad seemed worried. “They fear they will become witches and eaten for their wickedness like those people in the inn. They are confused.”
As Maximilian looked at the young man, he realized that Edmund himself was also confused. Conflicted. He tapped his cane against the ground. “There are no assurances with anything at this point, I am afraid. But leaving here does not mean magic is done with them. The same applies to you.“
“And I know that,” Edmund raised his chin. “In fact, Elanore and I both have decided to stay. For the moment.” He quickly continued as if he were afraid his host would misunderstand. “Until your children are safely born and Selva is recovered. Neither of us want to risk Selva drawing upon magic to do something reckless while she is carrying your child. Our families agreed — they don’t like it as it means they can’t return to their homes but as long as you keep your promise they cannot see a reason to disagree.”
“You will be treated well, I promise.”
“But, I can’t promise that the others will stay. You need to brace your wife for whatever the others decide. I hope you will not attempt to coerce them. They are not bound here by blood and duty. They are free people. ”
Edmund’s look of cool suspicion was not misplaced. Wolfram knew very well he had manipulated Miss Redley in the past.
“You are too kind,” Wolfram said aloud. “You don’t owe us anything. Or them.”
“I do,” Edmund said sharply. “This town raised me. For that I owe them a great deal. And I owe my family something as well. All of my family.”
Wolfram would have liked to clarify that last portion further but decided not to press the matter. “You have my word. I will not meddle with their decisions and ask her to consider their situation. But I cannot promise help once they leave these walls. Even if you wish it.”
“I understand,” Edmund smiled tightly. “I think they all do.”