Both men stared at him openly, perhaps questioning his choice of healer. But Edmund nodded once and disappeared.
Wolfram took one look around the stables and instructed the lions to temporarily keep others away. He turned his attention back to Giles who had draped a cloth over the creature hoping to keep it from accidentally harming others should it wake.
The count took several careful steps away from the fallen bird, his cane dragging along the ground as if his link with it might reveal something new about their unexpected guest. “I have not seen this kind of halfling before.”
“Neither have I,” Giles kept his eye on the creature. “He smells of these woods — at least to some extent. There’s a faint hint of magic that doesn’t originate from here.”
Even Wolfram could smell it — it was not the smell of stone or woods but of something else.
“Sir,” Giles rubbed his beard. “Your wife would be better suited for this. She comes from the woods–”
The Count hunched his shoulders. “I will not tempt her to break her promise. She is vulnerable now, more so with each passing day.”
He worried that her methods of healing might also require the use of magic to work. Her body already was taxed by the presence of not one, but two, halflings. And he did not wish to gamble with three lives for the sake of his convenience. “We shall use human knowledge to help this creature.”
His coachman and confidant did not argue this point. “You know she will not be happy.”
The Count pressed his lips together in a tight smile. “I am prepared for that, yes.” And he would tell her the truth. He would not risk losing her ever again.
A rumbling sound at the door drew his attention. It was as if the lions had sensed his thoughts and anticipated how they might serve him. The lord took a short, quick breath. “Gawain, come forth.”
The lion was pleased to have been selected from the assembly at the door. He trotted forward and gazed up at his master. “Yes?”
Wolfram noted the eager posture of the lion, that seemingly limitless energy that he possessed. “Gawain, please tell me what kind of magic this is.”
“Master should know,” Gawain responded, puzzled.
The dark-haired lord shifted on his feet. He had a growing sense of magic but still doubted his own perceptions. He could not make mistakes as he had in the past. Many more lives depended on his judgments being correct. “I wish to confirm that it is safe for others to approach.”
Gawain’s ears perked up in understanding. “Yes, sir,” he shouted before he moved to the bundle resting on the straw-covered floor. The magic beast bowed his head slightly and sniffed at the creature. “It smells like freshly-turned soil.” The lion paused, surprised. “A spell that is foreign. It is almost gone.”
Wolfram crouched beside the lion. He mulled the description of the magic the lion had offered him. Rarely had he heard such an analogy before. “This protection spell — is it faded because it was tampered with?”
The lion blinked. Gawain glanced in the direction of his brothers, whispering their own opinions at him. “Maybe? Only the smallest thread of it remains — so tiny and thin that you cannot see it unaided. But we think it was woven of good thoughts and intents. What small part is left will not harm us who mean to help him.”
He was glad to hear so. Had they said differently, he might have had to burden his wife and ask her to unweave the magic threads that were present.
However, even if there was no taint on the creature, he stepped carefully around the unconscious owl. The talons on its legs were sharp and dangerous. A stirring, panicked owl could still cause physical harm.
Wolfram and Giles began a more detailed examination of their guest. The coppery smell of blood clung to their gloves as they touched the bird’s feathers. The wing was pierced and the right leg broken.
“Poor thing,” Giles shook his head as he examined the wounds. “I would hazard a guess that he fell out of the sky or a tree.”
Gawain continued to stare intently at the creature. “They say they found him on the ground and dragged him here. But he must be very weak and young in his magic. Otherwise, he could have changed shape.”
The lions were always fascinated by magic potential. To some extent, magic was how they defined other creatures. Wolfram reminded the lion, “It is not always their choice. What did they find by him? ”
One lion stepped forward, taking one regal step after another. “Master.” Galahad bowed elegantly. “My brothers said they found him to the south under a bush. It was an unwise place for an owl to be. There were no other tracks. No evidence of a hunter or another creature.”
“Shall I go look?” Giles stood up. “If they could show me–”
Wolfram noted that several of his cousins had filtered into the stables. His gaze returned to Giles. “No.” It was dark — no obstacle for a wolf. However, the creature’s flight range was enormous and any searching likely to be a waste of time. “We are better suited trying to heal this creature and wait for it to wake and talk.”
He searched the small group that had arrived. “We have uncovered a halfling — but its origins are unknown to the two of us. Are any of you familiar with this type of creature?”
They stepped forward and peered as the blanket was pulled aside. A few frowned. But all had nothing to offer.
Wolfram sighed. It frustrated him that so many answers eluded him. If only his powers could reveal the truth they could not provide. He sent them away with several of the lions. He asked them to augment the patrols around the periphery. .
Gawain and Galahad, alone, were permitted to stand by. They knew the arrival of Miss Redley and her companion were imminent. They insisted on staying in case their services could be of use to the lady.
Elanore Redley pressed her lips together as she entered the stables, her usual cheerfulness absent. The contents of her cloth bag rattled as she moved to the back of the stables. Behind her, Edmund followed with additional blankets.
The two lions had to be gently pushed away while she knelt down next to the bird. Her eyes widened as Edmund adjusted the blanket to allow her to view the owl. Even if the young man had prepared her for the sight of the bird, she had not fully grasped its size until she sat next to it.
Wolfram bit his tongue as he watched the two confer quietly. She was studying the creature, trying to make her own determination of what was wrong.
Her eyes met his, worried at what she saw and troubled by what she was being asked to do. She took one soft, shaky breath before she spoke. “I have little experience with animals of this type. I might have advice regarding a cow or horse — the kinds of animals we often keep in our villages and are far more used to humans. I cannot be sure I won’t harm it with my medicines.”
“This is a halfling,” Wolfram stated. “It won’t react the same as a normal bird.”
She furrowed her brow. “Even so, half what? Human? Elf? I will not experiment blindly. I must not make its situation worse. You must advise me on what it requires or I must be able to speak to him.”
“He is not half-elf,” Galahad interrupted. “Halfling,maybe. But he is or was human.”
A sharp sound came from Giles. “Why you coy creatures, why didn’t you say that before?”
The lion continued along amiably. “What is the end result is the same. But Elanore fears treating him because she thinks he is different. He is not.”
She took another breath. It was obviously she was not comfortable with the choices she had. Even so, she reached into her bag. “I will try to alleviate his pain. We must do something about that leg.”
Edmund, who had been silent, suddenly placed his fingers on Elanore’s hand. “It is large enough that we will need someone more expert in handling the creature to help. We do have a birder or two in our group who may advise us.”
A look passed between them — one that the others did not fail to catch. The lions grinned in silent understanding as he pulled her to her feet and settled her in a safe corner.
He was quick, returning a few minutes later with help. If he was tired of all this running about, Edmund did not complain. Instead he introduced those present to Gerald — a middle-aged man with a reliable look about him –and Thomas. Wolfram recognized the elder gentleman by sight. He was often seen near the guildmaster.
Gerald came gloved and prepared to act. He asked the lions to move farther away before he assessed the creature, stirring in a troubled daze. For a few minutes before examining the bird’s injuries for himself.
In short order Thomas and Edmund were dispatched to gather what he wanted while Elanore prepared some solution according to his specifications.
The bird stirred. Wolfram watched as the man expertly held the creature and fed it the liquid concoction that the girl had made. He spoke with soothing tones, promising the owl that they were only trying to help it. His words seemed to pacify the nervous creature. And with the assistance of Thomas, they were able to splint the leg of the owl and apply paste to its wounds without too much of a fight.
When they had finished, the guild men and Giles began to discuss where best to shelter their patient.
Elanore stood back, her eyes watching the bird resting in the corner of the stall. Her eyes fell upon the lord and he could see she was, once again, troubled.
“Miss Redley?” He spoke in low tones as not to draw too much attention from Edmund.
“Forgive me for my ignorance, sir.” She fidgeted. “But when you’re injured in your changed state — does that injury carry over to your normal form?”
Her question was a sound one. She did not know how to treat halflings and wanted to understand. Perhaps not only for the sake of this patient but for also for the one she loved.
“It depends.” Wolfram’s attention drifted to Edmund who was now fashioning a box of some sort with the assistance of his fellow guildmates. His eyes slid back to the young woman’s face that openly betrayed her worries. “When you are decent enough at changing shape you can use the transformation to help you lessen the effects of an injury or wound. But sometimes your ability to heal yourself is incomplete. Much depends on your own magic talents and the seriousness of the ailment.”
“This creature is undernourished,” Gerald interrupted testily, perhaps irritated by talk of magic. “It needs to be fed and tended to for a few more days. Thomas and I can take care of him.”
Wolfram nodded once. The man had proved he was capable. “We will help you with the arrangements for its recuperation. But you shall only have a few days. No more.”
Their faces wrinkled in dismay and anger.
Wolfram observed that his words had been perceived as harsh. And with great care, he explained his reasoning. “A halfling left in a state of change too long slowly begins to forget one’s other forms. If we want him to remain a bird — we do not have to worry. However, if he is to ever return to his true nature, we may have to force a change.”
None of the humans understood the significance of such words or such an action. They offered him puzzled looks and could only nod.
But Giles cursed from his post at the doorway, well aware of the cost involved.
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