The Count had no reason to accept such a statement as true. However, Wolfram knew Edmund and Selva were unusually vested in the welfare of others. They were perceptive, particularly with respect to each other’s feelings.
His cousins were not all able to comprehend this bond between the two kinsmen. The young man’s protective stance towards their lord’s companion offended some. They felt it misplaced; they knew they were more than capable of taking care of the woman. Others understood and let it pass – it was evident that the blood that was shared between Edmund and their lady bestowed both magic and feelings of duty toward their own kind.
It should have made Wolfram jealous to think someone could innately grasp Selva’s inner emotions and motives better than he. But Wolfram believed that some things in the world were meant to be esoteric and beyond his own reasoning. He was grateful that Edmund and Miss Redley cared so much for Selva and were outspoken in matters that concerned her. The truth was without Edmund’s interference a short while ago, the Count and Countess would have indefinitely wallowed in prideful misunderstanding.
The two men quietly roamed the grounds, still following that softly glowing trail of light. By necessity, the Count walked ahead of Edmund and their lion friend, seeking out various spots where the magic protecting the estate intensified. But even in this companionable silence, Wolfram’s mind pondered how to close the gap between themselves.
He had an awareness that this was partly his fault. He was inept at social niceties and worse, had let his dislike for hunters color how he had previously treated the young man. But time had afforded him some perspective. In hindsight, Edmund had been correct on many points and was sensible. He had done what he could to try to make amends for his many mistakes. But he did not know what to offer a son. Wolfram’s steps slowed. “Thank you,” he said aloud.
The young man looked up from the ground. He hesitated before he spoke. “For staying?”
Wolfram turned his head back to look at the fair-haired youth that resembled his wife.
Edmund looked away, embarrassed. He crossed his arms over his chest. “If it’s that, you ought to thank Mrs. Winchester. She was much opposed to the idea but has softened under Elanore’s influence.” He smiled tightly. “Elanore told her the lions won’t allow either of them to go for now. And Mrs. Winchester believed her. In that sense, she is now one of your greatest supporters.”
The Count inclined his head slightly, acknowledging that.
“Even so,” Edmund continued quickly. “I think Mrs. Winchester would like to talk with you.”
Wolfram waited, listening to see if there was more to the young man’s request before he continued. “Then I shall make some time for her.”
The young man looked pleased but rubbed the back of his head, signaling something else was on his mind. He opened his mouth once, then shut it quickly.
The lord resumed his walk, calling back. “Do not waste our time by trying to be polite or by dawdling at my heels. Come walk alongside me and tell me what it is you wish to say.”
That blunt demand had the effect he had hoped for. Edmund complied, falling in beside the lord.
They took several more steps before the youth cleared his throat. “I am sure you’re aware that Elanore and your wife discuss a lot of things. You know I want to find out the truth about where I came from but some of their suggestions concern me.”
The Count tensed slightly but kept his focus on the trail of magic. He did not ask the boy why he kept at this pursuit. He did not ask Edmund why he could not be content with being a wolf. “She would lead you on a journey if it weren’t for her circumstances being different.”
“That is utterly senseless,” Edmund said sharply. “I told her so.”
Wolfram glanced down at the handle of his cane. “I do not disagree.”
“Then you should tell her and ask her to stay with you.” The young man paused, his voice gathering power. “She loves you.”
The lord’s mouth quirked slightly at Edmund’s straightforward outlook on things. Love was a complicated feeling – one that caused irrational things to happen. “I do not ask. I tell her she is mine.”
Gawain whimpered as Edmund’s brow furrowed.
They had quarreled before about Wolfram’s dealings with his wife. Edmund sighed, astute enough not to argue this point again. Instead his hand drifted to his side where the sword Selva had given him rested, his fingers worrying over the details in the engraved hilt. “I told her that I would refuse any such arrangement that meant separating this family you are trying to build.”
His words revealed the kind of values Edmund held and the kind of life he was determined to create for himself. Unity. Family. Love.
Wolfram’s hand trembled as it gripped the silver head of the cane at the fleeting memory of his father. But the lion brushed past him — and the thought dissipated. The creature moved to Edmund, pressing its nose against the young man’s hand. It was a gesture that spoke of a soul in need of comfort.
Wolfram blinked, realizing he could never make up for what had been lost, never smooth over the failure to have provided what the young man had wanted all these years. If Edmund was truly his son, a part of the young man would always hate him for having abandoned their family before his birth. Wolfram had let go of Selva.
It was an unchangeable, damning fact.
Gruffly, Wolfram had to admit what the only likely answer was for what ailed Edmund. “Miss Redley. You know her continued presence at your side would alleviate my wife’s concerns.”
“I know. We both know that. Elanore and your wife have arrived at some kind of solution. They convinced an owl to take a message south to her mother.”
Wolfram arched a brow, surprised. For a moment, he was struck with admiration for his wife’s ability to work through things that he had neglected while his mind had been occupied with other matters. He began to walk again along the wall. “It is a good idea, I am sorry I had not suggested it myself.”
“I thought you might have,” Edmund followed him. “I meant to thank you for it.”
He was intrigued by such a possibility. “How did you arrive at that idea?”
Edmund glanced up at the trees they walked under. ” I know you are using the lions and your cousins to gather intelligence. Blackbirds always seem to be present when you’re around. Ravens in particular. I thought they were in your service as well.”
His observations amused the lord. Wolfram was not at all displeased to have roused such thoughts but realized he would have to tread carefully with Edmund in the future. “Ravens have had rather good relationships with wolves over the years. But to use them as you suggest poses difficulties.” He would not admit more than that. “If you were in my position and had the power, I presume you would use them as well?”
“If I could trust them, then yes.” Edmund answered. “Although I would not use them but ask for their help.” The distinction was important to the young man. “But I would be using every elven trinket at my disposal.”
“And you think I am not?”
Edmund glanced his way, contemplating something. “The townspeople haven’t forgotten the caverns underground — and they regularly see reminders of foreign things on the grounds. But they question your defenses. They have too little indication of your plans.”
Wolfram failed to understand Edmund’s concern. “We share what is important with your blacksmith and mayor. The friar as well. We treat you the same as we treat our own.”
“You presume they act like your own cousins do with their own clans. But that– well,” Edmund rubbed his gloved hands together for a moment. “Even the most well-meaning cannot help but filter things according to their own biases. Or forget to share plans and tactics. And so the townspeople do not fully trust what you offer them.”
“And what do you propose?”
“Nothing complicated. It wouldn’t hurt if you spoke directly to everyone at a mealtime. Tell them what are you thinking and ask your cousins to tell the people why they are staying instead of returning home.”
“I see,” Wolfram glanced the young man’s way. “I will consider that idea if they are willing to speak. And if you have some idea of what it is you think they need to hear, put those thoughts to paper. I will consider them.”
A look of surprised relief crossed the young man’s face. “Of course. Thank you.”
They continued their progress around the grounds. They were now rounding the main servant’s quarters, silently walking under darkened windows. The quarters were empty. Their residents were busy in the hall and kitchens, supervising the evening meal.
It was then that a roar rumbled through the chilly air across the grounds.
Immediately Wolfram directed his attention at Gawain who had trained his ears in one direction to listen. At last the lion spoke. “Master, there is something interesting to see in the stables.”
The Count narrowed his eyes. “What? Another pile of rocks?”
The lion squirmed, knowing his lord did not appreciate the games his brethren sometimes played with their lord. Interesting did not mean important. But the lion turned around in one spot, listening. “No, they are serious,” he concluded. Carefully, he spelled out the information he was receiving. “It is an O. W. L. Should we go fetch the lady?”
Wolfram brushed his hand along the top of the lion’s tilted head. “Let us go ourselves first and see what this is about.” He glanced Edmund’s way. “You may follow if you wish. Otherwise I suggest you return inside.”
The lift of the youth’s head told him that he would not leave now.
And Edmund did try to keep up with the wolf, swiftly traveling across the grounds. He followed the lord to the stables, where they discovered Giles swearing at a crowd of lions.
A stern command from the Count directed the lions back outside where their presence would not unsettle the horses. Once they had been dispelled, only then could Wolfram see a brown owl sprawled in the corner of a stall, breathing shallow, course breaths.
Wolfram looked around and saw the open shutters above them. “Did this thing hit the windows?”
Giles leaned forward and then shrugged. “I have no idea. It was here when I arrived.”
“No master.” One lion piped up from the open door. “We found him outside and brought himin here. We thought he was one of the lady’s owls. Then the coachman started to yell at us.”
Giles glared. “You were batting it around roughly. If it was conscious before it isn’t now.”
Wolfram leaned down and looked at the miserable creature. From its markings he knew it was not one of the owls that served Selva. “This is not a snowy owl,” he chastised the lions. “And worse, it is now in shock from your moving it around.”
The lions whimpered slightly at his stern words. They moved to Edmund, perhaps looking for reassurance. He would not offer that. Instead, he shook his head in disappointment.
Wolfram shot a glance in the direction of the young man who had followed him all this way inside. The young man appeared openly perturbed by the bird’s size and features and by the realization that this was not an ordinary owl.
This creature was from the world they lived in now — a place where nothing or no one was quite what they seemed.
“Edmund.” The Count spoke. “We need Miss Redley. You should tell her we have a guest.”