Maximilian Wolfram knew it would be futile and dangerous to keep the news of the invalid guest from his wife. That same evening he told her who and what had been discovered on their estate grounds.
But he timed such a conversation to occur well after the majority of the residents of the estate were asleep. He had learned that the best time to speak to her was often at the end of the day when they were alone in their chambers.
He waited until her ritual of brushing her hair was complete, his eyes following her as she rose to close the curtains at his window. He did not let her finish before he captured and held her loosely against him.
She laughed. “You have been stalking me all of these last few minutes. What is it, my lord?”
“I have some interesting news for you,” he began. He kept his hold on her secure as he told her about the owl, as if he were afraid she would run off to see it.
Her smile faded.
“It isn’t one of your messengers,” he murmured into her hair. “I am certain of it. And it sleeps now under the care of others. Tomorrow I shall take you myself to see it. But tonight, you must rest with me.”
Selva closed her mouth.
He knew it was difficult for her at times to yield to his wishes but she would not openly disobey. That night, he kept her nestled close to him and watched over her as she slept in his bed.
And he was awake when she opened her golden-colored eyes and asked when they might go to see the patient.
“After we eat,” he replied.
“We?” She blinked, surprised.
They did not always dine together. There were often too many things to do and people to manage to allow them to break their fast together every morning.
But he had decided lately that this should change. “I said we would go together, didn’t I?”
Selva rewarded him with a kiss, one that eased those whispers in the back of his mind.
The voices were quieter these days but were not completely gone. They told him that she would someday slip through the grasp of his fingers. Just as he had allowed it to happen before.
But he found them easier to ignore. He was no longer so dead to feelings and emotions. For every small gesture of love she offered him, he found himself able to reciprocate.
Now — while they ate together — she offered him a smile.
In kind, he gave her a terrible, awkward one.
She colored, her eyelashes fluttering as she dropped her eyes and finished her meal. She put her spoon down. “My lord, everyone is staring.”
They always stared. He shrugged. “Is something wrong?”
Her mouth twisted and she hid her mouth behind her hand. “You appear very different,” she said between gasping sounds that he realized was suppressed laughter. “A little frightening.”
He did not care. He stood at her side of the table and placed her hand in the crook of his arm, intent on escorting her outside and across the grounds.
He moved deliberately, as if to allow the lions to come out and observe their lord and lady make their rounds. And dozens appeared, shouting hellos loudly and sharing all sorts of randomly cheerful pieces of information. They were careful, however, not to come too close for they had been warned that the condition of the woman was delicate. They had been told very firmly she could not play with them and that the lord’s cane would surely punish them if they tried.
Selva soon noticed they were not moving in a particular hurry. “Why do you take me on such an indirect path, my lord? Aren’t you worried about the cold?”
Edmund had observed that exposure to this place was changing them all. He wanted his children to feel, in her womb, the magic of this place. He wanted them to command it fully when they came to be born, not to struggle as he did. “I want our children to have a connection to the magic in the earth,” he stated.
And then as his eyes fell upon the lions, he admitted one more thing. “I also want us to experience this together.”
She tightened her hand on his arm, pleased by such words.
But before she misunderstood, he would make his parameters clear. “But to do so safely, I must ask you to not rush to use magic on this creature. For now, you must reserve your strength and let the rest of us handle this. The young healer and Edmund agree.”
She bit her lower lip. “I will not, although if magic is what sickens it–”
“You shall see. But we did not think so.”
She looked doubtful as they entered the small wooden structure that housed the visiting patient. It was a crowded setting with two guild men, Miss Redley and a patient.
Wolfram kept close to his wife’s side throughout the silent appointment, studying her as much as he did the others who tended to the halfling’s care. Initially she had a panicked look but it had faded into watchfulness.
Both listened closely to the guild men and human healer talk about their patient’s well-being.
But Wolfram knew Selva was using her intuition — that gift of heightened perceptiveness — to weigh out the truth of what each spoke. While she listened, her attention remained intensely focused on the patient.
Even Edmund’s entry with bandages could not distract her.
Her fingers at her side flexed once. Twice. Wolfram finally gripped them and placed them in the crook of his arm. He would have liked to observe the young Miss Redley and his would-be son a bit longer to be certain that they were following his instructions. However, a magical outburst seemed imminent. He took a step towards the door. “Come with me.”
He did not bother to explain his sudden departure to the humans. Instead, he quickly pulled his wife away from the small shack where they had isolated the bird.
She protested mildly as he took her to the courtyard where the lions usually slept. “I wasn’t done.”
“There is nothing you should do– can do,” he told her. “We will need him to recover his health and I will need to change him back.”
“You?!” She drew herself up straight as if she would fight him.
He held her gaze, seeing fear there that mirrored his. “Wife, not you. Anyone but you.”
Rarely, he called her by that title aloud. But he felt it necessary to assert his authority as her husband and protector.
She rubbed the bridge of her nose with her fingers. “How can you change him back if you don’t know what it is you change him to? And what if you are not strong enough?”
He silenced her worries with a kiss. He did not do this to distract her from her concern. Rather, he wanted her to know that he had not been idly meandering these past few months.
Power pooled along the lines of magic beneath their feet. The lions whispered in delight as they sensed it. They would not interfere. They understood him — the way his mind worked and his intent in bringing her here.
He did not let her go, would not let her escape him until he felt every part of her stopped struggling.
“Selva,” he scolded her gently. “Do you still mistrust the rest of us? Think– this place gives power, not only to those who have magic but to those under its protection. And I think the power will be lent to me to do exactly what must be done to protect this stranger — another rare creature not seen ever in these parts who needs our help. The knowledge will come in the moment we use this power. That is the way we have seen it work so far. Unless you know a reason we should not help him– ”
She balled her hands into fists and pressed them against his chest. “Enough! Of course, you must help him!”
“Then you know him?”
She glanced away. “No. Yes.”
He raised his eyebrow at the contradictory answers. “Hs is your queen’s servant?”
“No!” She protested heatedly. “She never uses halflings as messengers. It is too dangerous!”
Selva revealed a great many things when pressed, things that perhaps she did not understand were valuable. He led her slowly along the path back towards the main entry to their home.He did not let go of her hand. “Then why your answer? Have you seen this halfling before?”
She wrinkled her forehead. “I don’t think so,” she frowned. “But there’s a comforting sort of feel about him. Smells and feelings associated with places you like.”
Her answer troubled him. He did not like her evasive, frustrating responses. Before he had written them off as evidence of her cunning and intelligence. But he wondered if these might be holes in memories left by some trauma or unpleasantness in her own past. He believed her to be generally truthful.
They paused in the open doorway that led inside and he turned her to look at him. Here, at this door, he would press her for information. He would explore the limits of her knowledge. “Where does he come from?”
She strained to think. After a moment, she swallowed. “I don’t know,” she sounded distressed. “I don’t know,” she repeated limply.
He ignored the servants hovering around them. He kissed her again, this time on her nose. “Tell me, other half. I order you to tell me what you think, even if you don’t know.”
It was as if something bound her lips together. Wolfram’s eyes narrowed slightly, ever so watchful. But finally her lips began to move. “The lady of the lake.”
“The lake?” He himself frowned. “What do you mean?”
Her eyes darted around slightly and she whispered quietly, so quietly it might have been a thought in his mind. “The lady in the study.”
Her words fixed their next destination. Wolfram took his wife in hand and entered the maze of halls sloping downwards towards the study.
They found the fireplace lit upon their entry, as if the study had known they would soon arrive.
Wolfram placed his hands on his wife’s shoulders and guided her to the portrait of a dark-haired woman looking serenely back at them. He had one question left on his mind. “That woman?”
She seemed to relax as she, too, gazed upon the picture. “I am certain of it now. My former mistress would travel with the north wind. At times she would cross paths with that woman. I think I spotted him in her entourage.”
This sort of coincidence did not bother her as much as it did him. Paranoia gripped him. “Would he know you? Would his queen send him to spy on you because of who you serve?”
She looked mortified. “She is not like that. The stories regarding her are true. Do not question them.”
His eyes flew back to the books in the room. “Those who seek to influence the world sometimes fall prey to it. That is a truth also espoused by many tales in this world.”
Selva pulled away, annoyed. She sat carefully down on the chaise and rested her hands on her rounded belly. “You who claim you don’t believe in tales have no right to use them to argue with me.”
He picked up the book resting on a humble, dented table and then stood before her. She sighed, repositioning herself so he might sit next to her.
But he did more than that, setting the book back down to adjust her position so that she could recline with her legs over his lap.
His gloved fingers found rest upon her abdomen. He was still sorting through his wife’s assessment of the patient and who he served. “She is the patron of your kind. Is it not the case that you believe her incapable of any trickery because your kind are indebted to her?” She had rescued many of them, housing them in her garden until they were strong or brave enough to face the outside world. “Or is it that you always find good in every creature that crosses your path?”
And now he had angered her. “My lord, I see the truth of others. What I choose to do with that knowledge does not mean I am blind to the dangers. But I follow my own truth.” She picked up his hand and placed it over her chest. “I follow what I feel here. If I did not I would not be here with you.”
He did not know how to follow that most undeserved declaration of love.
Still unable to express himself, Wolfram took her hand and pressed his nose to to her palm. She continued to humble him by choosing to live with what had been left behind once the darkness had fled him.
He knew he still fell short both as a wolf and as a man.Whatever he was, whatever he had become, he could only pledge to not squander that love.
His eyes fell to the book at his side. “I suppose the Book of Tales is not quite correct then on our account.”
Her eyes riveted to the book next to him. “Oh? What did it say?”
He did not offer it to her. Instead he flashed his teeth in a half-smile. He would extract something from her first before he would show her.
Incentive:Edmund and Elanore bid you hello