It was not an unusual sight for Elanore and Edmund to wander about the estate together. At times, their near-constant togetherness amused some and annoyed others. But today the wolves and men paid them little heed.
As they made their way from the main house, the gentleman and his lady friend conversed in hushed tones while sharing what they had learned from the Wolframs. Elanore had emerged from her encounter with the Countess, delighted. The lady of the estate was glowing with happiness and improved health.
However, Elanore’s enthusiasm for news about a seedling in one of Selva’s hothouses eluded Edmund. But he paid attention as best as he could until it was his turn to speak of his conversation with the Count.
When he did so, she quickly sobered.
The lions trailed after them, trying to catch what they could of the conversation. However, the majority were defeated by fragile patches of grass beginning to surface above ground. Knowing their delicate state, the lions were obliged to step far around them.
Those that managed to avoid the grass did not press too closely against the young pair. Normally they were inclined to stalk Edmund whenever he appeared outside. However, they were sensitive to the moods of other living things and Edmund, in particular.
And he was troubled.
So the lions did not pounce upon him. Soon they were distracted by a noisy group of guild men carrying boxes and tools. The lions stopped walking as they approached, knowing that to not give way meant a scolding from one of their two-legged masters.
Edmund and Elanore paused as well.
While they waited, another person caught up to them. A disheveled youth glanced about nervously before he managed to choke out a greeting. Edmund laid his hand upon Pip’s shoulder, as if to tell the sickly man not to try so hard. “It’s done, Pip. Count Wolfram agreed that as long as you are not his responsibility that you could continue your stay here. If that pleases you, then all is left is to work this out with the guildmaster.”
Such news earned an appreciative noise from the lions around them. But several caught Elanore’s downcast look and began to stare intently at Edmund.
The young hunter ran his fingers through his hair. How they knew there was more to this agreement he had no idea. He gave them a stern look that told them to be still.
The exchange between Edmund and the lions was not lost upon Pip. Pip himself had spent enough time with the lions to understand some of their behavior. Now, he too, became worried. “I hope you didn’t have to go to much trouble.”
Edmund took a moment to consider his response. He would not exactly lie and say that the lord had merrily agreed to the arrangement. But after all Pip had suffered, Edmund had no wish to trouble his guildmate with details that would not affect him. He smiled as best as he could. “We had a previous understanding. It came in useful.”
The young woman next to him stiffened as she fully realized what had transpired between her companion and the Count. But she recovered quickly and came to Edmund’s aid.
Elanore softened her fiancee’s words and offered her own assurances. She spoke in a kind manner. “You don’t need to worry about it, Pepin. We are not being inconvenienced in any way. In fact, Count Wolfram must be pleased to fulfill the request. All that remains is to tell Master Wilhelm.”
She knew that Edmund must have bargained away one of three favors granted by the lord some time ago. If she was curious as to why it had come to that, she did not ask. Revealing the cost behind such an arrangement would burden Pip and displease the lions.
Pip’s face finally crumbled in relief. “Thank you.” He did not smile but shyly offered new information. “I saw the guildmaster by the stables watching the blacksmith.” He paused. “Will you help me tell him?”
Edmund nodded tightly and set the pace for the rest of them, making his way towards a noisy gathering.
The small group wandered over to a busy area full of people with animals and carts moving here and there. The guild was, in essence, breaking camp after a long spell in a strange place. Although their guild compound was in sorry shape, many men appeared to be looking forward to their departure from the Wolfram estate and its rules.
In contrast, their leader Wilhelm glowered at anyone who came too close to him. If his men did not worry enough about the work to come, he would worry for all of them. He was a realist; he knew that the road ahead would be difficult. The world outside had survived an eclipse but it had become progressively stranger since its passing. It also remained dangerous. Towns no longer were safe if bandits were roaming the countryside.
But if he growled too much, it was not their laxity that caused it. Rather he lashed out in frustration — for reasons the guild men knew had little to do with them. Mrs. Cadeyrn had declared she would not be moved until she gave birth. Her reasons were sound; she was too old for her first child to come easily. All the healers at the estate were united in urging her to stay behind.
The idea of separation offended Wilhelm’s pride. Worse, it cast doubt in his own heart about his ability to protect what was most important to him.
When the small group approached the guildmaster, Edmund thought to lead and present Pip’s case to Wilhelm. However, it was Elanore who first stepped forward.
She greeted Wilhelm, offering him a smile in spite of his scowling face. And she withdrew a steaming roll from her basket and offered it to him. “You are all working very late.”
Around them, several passersby paused to observe their guildmaster and his mood. Edmund stood by; he dared not interfere with Elanore as she spoke.
In these moments, there was a kind of strength to Elanore that rarely was appreciated by others. Some judged her for her sometimes whimsical and childlike actions and assumed her mind to be immature. But Edmund knew much of what she did came from the joy of living. He appreciated this and her other gifts — including one that involved reaching others… even those as difficult as the guildmaster.
The offer of food was a successful gamble; it earned her a slight nod of thanks from Wilhelm. Even his manner was less prickly as he addressed her. “Every bit of light is useful. We have many things to finish today.”
She nodded. It was not a mere nod but an act of understanding. She turned her head aside and whispered something to the closest lion. The good creature repeated her request aloud, shouting a few words, before he ran off.
Edmund then knew more baskets of bread would be forthcoming.
Wilhelm hurriedly took a bite of the roll. When he finished he peered down at the three young people as if he were surprised they were still there. “So what brings all of you here?”
Edmund glanced Pip’s way to see if he would speak for himself. The invalid shook his head, leaving the matter to the other hunter to handle. Edmund raised his head and addressed Wilhelm. “The Count has agreed to allow Pip to stay.”
Wilhelm’s lips quirked downwards. It was hard to guess whether he was annoyed or amused by the news and in the defiant manner in which it was delivered. “So our elusive Count has surfaced.” His gaze passed from Edmund to Pip. “And I suppose you declared yourself responsible for him. Or if not, by default you are once we are gone.”
Carefully Edmund spoke. “You will not have him take orders from Gerald?”
The guildmaster chuckled. “He will not be here that long. And he will be pressed to return should he forget where his loyalties should lie.”
The guildmaster had, in effect, made his position very clear. Pip would not be the guild’s responsibility. With nothing more to say to Edmund, Wilhelm’s attention turned back to Elanore. “We inconvenience you with our guild members, I’m afraid. And more.“
She flushed, understanding he was not referring only to Pip. She spoke with some warmth as she stole a glance at Edmund. “I do not find them to be trouble at all. Most of the time,” she corrected herself with a smile. “However, I feel badly that I cannot manage the other patient on my own. If I were better with animals, there would be no need to deprive you of Gerald and Thomas.”
Wilhelm scratched his chin several times while he studied her. Finally, he sighed. “Do you always try to smooth everything over at your expense? Gerald is a free man as is Thomas. They asked to stay because they find this sort of thing interesting. There’s no need to apologize for them.” He flicked away some imaginary crumb on his vest and muttered under his breath. “Your mother never did.”
Elanore blinked, startled by the sudden mention of her mother.
The guildmaster’s face darkened, as he realized what he had let slip.
But Elanore reached out and rested her fingers upon his arm. “I know she was like that. She couldn’t help it. But I see now why I must apologize even more.”
Her gracious response startled the guildmaster who, in his befuddlement, swore.
Edmund knew Wilhelm’s words were not directed at Elanore but at the guildmaster himself. He looked away, pretending not to notice how easily Elanore could subdue even the prickliest personalities with her charming manners.
But even if she had conquered the proud man, Wilhelm was not the sort to admit it. He roughly scolded the group of young people as he began to turn away. “You’re all too soft. Maybe leaving Gerald here a while longer is a good thing. He can make sure you’re not all being utter idiots.”
He left them without a goodbye, drawn elsewhere by the arrival of a man bearing an urgent report.
* * *
Edmund would have liked to linger among his former guildmates. He would have liked to bask in their excitement — a feeling that had been otherwise been missing from his life the past few days.
Time had become his enemy. Normally by now spring would have matured into summer and the guild would begin to hunt in earnest. But the deep chill and darkness had altered the landscape, delaying the land’s return to normalcy.
Pip shadowed him as he escorted Elanore to the resting place of the halfling. But as Elanore put her hand on the door to the shack, Pip became distracted and shuffled away towards a crop of trees that grew near the stone wall.
Several lions ran after him at Edmund’s request. The young man was well aware of his guildmaster’s charge to him but he also kept the Count’s stern warning in mind. For now, Edmund would follow Elanore.
He followed her through the door to the small shack. While his eyes attempted to adjust to the darkly lit space, the sound of mice scurrying away caught his ear. He paused to listen. And then he noticed the weight of the air — not unpleasant but odd.
Their entry woke Thomas who was alone, asleep by the bed. The youth stood quickly and rubbed his eyes. He cringed as he realized he had dozed off. But neither Edmund nor Elanore chastised him.
“I think he’s better,” Thomas awkwardly offered as they approached the patient.
The three of them studied the large owl’s form still resting on straw-filled mats. They were all relieved to find Thomas’ words to be true. The creature’s breathing was normal and deep.
Assured that the halfling was still fine after her absence, Elanore busied herself in replacing supplies and medicines at the patient’s bedside.
Edmund could not help wonder why Thomas had been left alone. He pushed his stool near the younger man in order to find out what was going on. “Where’s Gerald?”
Thomas yawned. “Summoned I guess. Seems like everyone is running around frantically. Save me.”
His words were a bit too gloomy. Edmund shrugged. “Then take a break. We’ll mind the owl.”
Thomas flashed him a grin and hurried out.
With the other hunter gone, Edmund helped Elanore adjust the blankets placed around the unconscious form of the bird.
When they finished, she sat down. And then a skein of yarn appeared from one of her pockets in the apron she sometimes wore. It began to reform itself into something that Edmund suspected was going to become a blanket for one of the many children that had arrived at the estate.
He had nothing to do but watch her and the patient. However, once the room started to become dark, Edmund left his seat to retrieve one of the lamps hanging by the door. In his haste, his feet nearly slipped across the floor.
Embarrassed by his clumsiness, Edmund lit the lamp and then inspected the floor for a loose board. Instead, he found an acorn, rolling across the ground.