With a strangled voice, Pip began to speak. “They’re wrong about you. I know who you really are.”
Edmund waited for the rest of the words to fall from his accuser’s lips. But Pip’s mouth hung open in awkward, almost painful fashion before his face began to contort.
The lions circled around the two men frantically as Pip began to violently tremble.
Edmund rushed to Pip — unnerved by the terror that overtook the other man’s face.
“It’s an attack,” the lions worried aloud.
They were not uncommon, these fits. Nor were they unexpected.
Selva and the lions had warned the guild that the Unthings left Pip devoid of many memories, including the full details of what had happened to him and his guildmates. Their attempts to coax this information from him often ended badly. Pip could only be pushed so far before his anxiety was triggered or his memory failed him.
It was obvious that his mind actively sought to block out the events associated with the day that he had been swallowed by an Unthing.
Pip had nothing to offer as far as answers. Why he was spared while the others disappeared for good was never satisfactorily addressed. Few had the time or energy to worry over such a question save the lions.
Now some of the lions hummed, trying to soothe the broken young man. Others counseled him, telling him to stop speaking and to quietly sit. They did their best to help Edmund guide him to the nearest bench.
The temporary fit passed shortly thereafter– leaving Pip exhausted and Edmund baffled.
Frustration and anguish marred Pip’s face as he raised his head to stare straight ahead. “When I get close to something I think important– that happens. I remember bad things instead of whatever I was thinking.”
Edmund studied Pip, trying to understand whether his grip on reality was worsening. He debated whether to press the younger man for information. However the statement ‘I know you’ was not the sort of thing one ought to let pass unremarked. Carefully, he reframed the question weighing most upon his mind. “Who do you think I am?”
The lions paced around them in agitated fashion, showing their displeasure with Edmund’s question. But Edmund was interested in Pip’s response and in trying to sort out why so many were indeed interested in his identity and lineage.
Pip hesitated, his brow again furrowing as he tried to look at Edmund and recapture whatever thought or insight had crossed his mind. They studied each other for several minutes before Pip finally looked away. “What I had to tell you is gone.”
This statement did not satisfy Edmund. He tried to request information in a different manner. “Then tell me what the others say about me.”
“That you’re a wolf just like them,” Pip blurted out. “That you want to hide it so you’re staying behind.”
Reluctantly, Edmund answered Pip. “I do not know if that’s true, but I don’t suppose it matters what they think. I must stay. I have someone I must protect.”
The concept of protection unsettled the hunter. Pip quivered. “But this is surely no place to stay then! They might come here for you.”
The fit of paranoia caused Edmund to pause. “For me?”
Pip corrected himself. “I meant for all of you. They attack people.”
There was something more to his slip of words. Edmund watched the other man while he muddled through their conversation while trying to avoid actually naming the Unthings. “They did come in great numbers before but we succeeded in destroying them. It is not likely that any remainders would come– not here at least. Or so the lions said to me.”
A look of confusion weighed upon the younger man’s face as he saw the lions nodding in agreement. “So it is true. There was a large attack.”
Like many other townspeople and guild members, Pip had been sent away as a precaution before the worst of the battle with the shadow monsters was expected. Many humans had sheltered deep into the glittering caves underneath the estate, only to be brought back when the wolves and lions were confident they had destroyed every last Unthing on their property.
Because of this, none had seen the wolves at their best and worst. The people had not known the skill the wolves and lions had in avoiding and destroying their enemies. But they also had been spared the sight of the Count transformed into a horrid monster. Edmund swallowed. He could not speak of these things freely. All he could do was to firmly speak what he believed. “This is a safe place.”
It was hard to shake the younger man’s disbelief. Pip still shivered as he asked another question. “Isn’t it possible that this place also attracts them? Why were the people in the inn torn apart like animals?”
Now it was Edmund’s turn to be unsettled by his own recollections. “I have no more information than you,” he said quickly. “But we are here still and they are not,” he added in a milder fashion. “Again, I believe this to be the safer place.”
Pip’s expression grew even gloomier. “The rest of the townsfolk decided to go back, though.”
Edmund felt his stomach drop at such a rash decision. He could not understand this at all. “Were you there when they met?”
Pip nodded slowly, understanding that Edmund wanted to know why this had come to pass. “None of them do the town lifestyle very well. It’s too crowded here. And some are deeply offended by the way this lord lives. The way the bodies were handled by the Count was the last straw.”
The friar had tried to assure the people that the bodies of those who had perished at the inn were handled in a respectful manner. However, several townspeople had openly noted that the Wolframs did not grieve properly like the rest of them.
There was nothing to do now, unfortunately.
Edmund realized that Pip himself was debating what to do. “Will you go with them or with the guild?”
Pip stared ahead. “I cannot go to the guild hall. I make them uneasy and uncertain about what I might be able to do. I am a burden to them. As for the town, I do not know anyone well enough willing to take me in. I could live alone if I had a place to go to.”
But that was unwise given his condition.
Edmund glanced at the lions, staring plaintively at him. He considered the timing of Gerald’s conversation and the content of it. Edmund put the pieces together, understanding what intervention was being asked of him.
He laid his hand on the youth’s shoulder. “You will have a place. Don’t leave with them — instead come tomorrow to where my parents are staying. We will figure something out with them.”
The youth looked surprised. He glanced at the lions who nodded their approval. Pip murmured his thanks and then shyly disappeared back along the path from which he had come.
Edmund was left behind to sit alone outside and contemplate exactly what he would need to do. Reluctantly he came to the conclusion that he could do nothing more without the Count’s approval or, if that was not granted, a forcing of the lord’s hand by demanding a favor from him.
A short while ago, Edmund and Elanore had earned their choice of three favors from Count Wolfram. The man had offered them wishes in a gamble to secure their cooperation in using magic to wake the entire lot of lions on the estate.
Neither of the two had been swayed by such an offer. They had helped the Count because doing so was its own reward.
Edmund was a proud and cautious person. Truthfully, he had no intent to ever use those wishes. Only once had he threatened to do so, forcing the Count to come to his home and see the lady Selva. In hindsight, he knew he had been wrong to make such a demand — to coerce Wolfram to go against his word. Edmund hoped if he had to appeal to the Count this time, it would not come down to doing something like that again.
He also did not dare approach the Count for a favor without first consulting Elanore. She had not been there when he had made such a misstep and she likely would have stopped him from doing so. But he would have to wait to talk to her until they had both sat a few more hours at the halfling patient’s bedside.
Thankfully the hours passed uneventfully while their mystery guest continued to sleep deeply. Edmund felt nothing, thought nothing, as he stared at the owl for the remainder of the day. He waited patiently for Elanore who would not leave until Gerald could return and confirm that neither he nor Thomas would need her services for the rest of the day.
He took her back to the main house where the food was waiting. Over dinner, Edmund told her of his conversation with Pip and the dilemma the young man faced.
She did not care about the wishes, telling him simply that she trusted he would ask and use them wisely. Elanore offered to come to see the Count with him but he declined, knowing she was anxious to find her grandmother.
He watched her disappear out the door while he lingered alone at a table. He would look up every so often, studying the Wolframs as they each appeared to collect their food. The Wolfram he wanted to see most, however, never arrived.
At first, the old man did not see Edmund standing behind him. The maids pointed at Edmund several times before the old servant took notice.
Edmund felt both shy and uncomfortable as Hastings turned around and beamed at him while he held out a cookie. The younger man was uncertain what he had done to earn such fond treatment, for the truth was they had not interacted very much. He worried that Hastings had guessed or been told about Edmund’s supposed connection to the lord.
The old man, however, could not know what Edmund thought. He was pleased when Edmund took the item and offered him a kind look. “Is there something I can do for you, young sir?”
Edmund hesitated. “Is your lord unwell this evening?”
“He and his wife are paying attention to his studies.” The butler smiled slightly. “I took them their meal just a while ago. They are arguing over the mechanics of magic and destroying some books in the process.”
Edmund pondered whether it was wise to interrupt the lord and his wife for a request such as his. “Ah.”
“You wanted to see him? I shall take them their tea later and tell him.”
He heard the hesitation in Hasting’s answer. The man did not wish to unnecessarily disturb his master. “No, please don’t trouble him. Would it be alright to bring back a note for you to give to him in the morning?”
The butler looked relieved. “Certainly. Is that all?”
Guiltily, Edmund nodded. He would manage somehow.
* * *
Far away in a nearly forgotten place, the halfling known as Hawk had finished crossing the vast sheet of ice that covered the waters that divided the lands of the Snow Queen from the rest of the Northernlands. He was grateful to not have fallen through the ice along this journey and to have little trouble along the way.
Few guards had been present to challenge him or force him to turn back. He had seen little sign of the elves that had once colonized this terrain or guards, for that matter.
If it were not for the cold and lack of wind, he might have been tempted to try to fly. But he did not trust the skies above this place to hold him and chose to walk hour after hour, day after day. He was careful to avoid the few trees that dotted the arctic landscape where other creatures might shelter.
Eventually in the distance, he saw the sharp rise of a seemingly delicate structure. The layers of snow and ice formed a glittering castle unlike those of the human or elven world. The structure towered above the earth on a deceptively thin base.
As he drew closer, he saw its beauty was also sharp, icy, and prickly — just like the persona of the Queen who resided in it.
The weathered explorer knew that in spite of how easy the journey had been thus far that he could not let his guard down. His keen eyes caught meandering dots of movement at the foot of that icy castle. He knew these were her bears — the ones the Snow Queen had pressed into her service long before he had been born.
He doubted they would welcome him with open arms.