The wolves emerged from the gathering fog and waited at the gated entrance to the Wolfram estate. They called to the guards on the other side to who reminded them they would not open the gates without their lord’s permission.
Eventually a man came to admit them, watching as the wolves passed by the metal charm that adorned the gate. But it was not the Count who watched to see if the device flickered or reacted. Instead it was Marrok the Grey who greeted them and bid them to stand still while several stone lions gathered around to inspect the returning wolves.
This ritual was necessary for sorting out the presence of hexes and spells. Once the lions had been satisfied that no mischievous or evil intent clung to the wolves, Marrok himself stepped forward.
The wolves forebore this additional inspection — they knew very well that it wasn’t only magic or disease that the others feared. The lord’s wife was sensitive to the smell of blood.
Marrok shook his head. “As late as you already are for the last meal, you must wash first.”
The wolves panted in response, some whining how hard they had run and how their food would grow colder.
Their complaints earned them little sympathy. Marrok was not as lenient as their leader who said nothing as he yawned and stretched out.
Gareth slid back into his preferred form. He stood on two legs and then took the blanket offered to him by his more senior cousin. He threw it over his shoulder, doing little to cover himself while he barked at the other wolves to shift and hurry along.
Marrok said nothing about how ridiculous the pack was in changing without remembering details such as clothing. He knew the manners of these wolves were peculiar.
The younger wolf tossed his mane of hair over his shoulder. “Where is our lord?” Gareth asked. “Why is he not out here?”
Marrok patiently answered his cousin. “He has taken some time away from these duties to bond with his unborn children. While it is daylight out he spends his time with his mistress. You, of course, were too late to see them at our midday meal. He will join us later once you’ve made yourself presentable.”
Gareth said nothing, knowing that they had returned a bit later than intended. But they had done so out of necessity –making sure they weren’t being followed.
Gareth glanced back at the gate and confirmed it had been shut. Then he acknowledged his cousin’s words. “We should also invite the humans who leave this place. Assuming they still plan to, that is.”
“Unfortunately that is the case.”
Gareth frowned at such news. “If the lord will be there, will his companion as well?”
Marrok quirked his brow but did not ask why the Lady Selva was of particular interest to his cousin. “She is very heavy with child. My wife believes she needs to rest much more. With the lord’s permission, we will ensure she does.”
The wind stirred as he uttered this promise, rustling the leaves that had begun to form on the trees and bushes.
The two wolves looked upon a distant window where that creature was believed to rest.
“I see,” came Gareth’s response. He flashed an elvish grin at his cousin. “Cautious as ever are the wolves. You, in particular, are a fine example of the species and a credit to us all in how you serve our lord. Hopefully our fair lady will hopefully not be tempted to act outside of her best interests.”
“She gave him her word. She will not run off to birth alone.”
“No, I should hope not. This time she would, I suspect, not get very far.” Gareth’s smile disappeared. “Until later then,” he said abruptly as he disappeared into the mist.
His departure left Marrok by himself to contemplate that troubling warning.
A crunching of soil and dirt signaled the approach of someone in the fog. Marrok glanced about, hearing the sound of a two-legged walker. He sniffed at the air, wondering if he might catch a whiff of that cold blackness that marked the one who had been spirited away by Unthings.
But as he waited, he came to see it was the other one — the one who the Count watched when he thought others were not looking. He listened as the young kinsman of the Countess continued on his way towards the place where the halfling slept.
Assured that the young man had found his way safely inside once more, Marrok turned around and ventured towards the buildings to gather the other guests.
* * *
Gareth had not intended to show any malice towards the Countess. In fact, he had only intended to highlight one thing he was not sure the other wolves truly understood. Selva was not a pureblooded wolf and prone to unpredictable behavior.
The lord was not such a wolf either. He, too, could prove unstable with sufficient provocation.
Gareth bathed, carefully scrubbing himself free of any residual dirt or blood that he might have carried. Unlike the others, he was superstitious enough to undergo this ritual cleansing — not wishing to unsettle either the Count or his wife with exposure to the blood of the dead.
Outside his quarters, he heard the sound of children running in the adjacent hallways of the building that had, until recently, largely housed wolves.
But changes were being made with residents being shuffled here and there. Gareth listened to their voices–those of humans and wolves jumbled together. Sourly, he wondered why no one had yet chased the infernal children to bed.
But their carefree play was a good omen. The wolf reflected over the fate of the town to the south and considered that these children might be among the dead had it not been for the timely intervention of the merchant and the friar. He wondered if their flight from the town had been, on their part, a subconscious act of preservation.
He suspected the larger part of the credit for the children’s rescue belonged to the mistress of the estate. What her reasons were, he could not yet fathom. While she descended from a benevolent and gentle race, she was more elf than wolf. He was not fooled by her veneer of beauty and compassion. She had become shrewd in her years away from this estate’s lord — cunning like the dragons her people had come to serve.
Gareth was greeted by Tala when he emerged from his quarters. The other leader of the Grey wolves did not look too pleased to see the children running about wildly. Her expression was fierce as she juggled her twins in her arms and ordered all of the troublemakers off to their rooms.
“Good evening, sister,” He bowed politely. “Your children are looking very lively.”
She grunted. “They were sleeping when the rascals woke them.”
He glanced at her twin children as they waved their fists in the air. They were large already in their human form, surprisingly so. And then he frowned as he saw their tails eagerly wagging. This half-form was a sign that they were not bright enough to understand the difference between their various forms.
Gareth could tell they would be ordinary wolves. They would be devoid of gifts of magic beyond their birthright– one of transformation. Blandly, he offered advice. “I’m sure they aren’t too different from their elder brothers. A bit of milk and food and they’ll sleep again just like any good wolf.”
Her mouth turned down slightly as if she could sense his disappointment.
She was from a very pure line of wolves — from those who hated most land dwellers. He knew that his elven blood made her uneasy about him. She still had not forgiven him for coming so late to the estate before the eclipse — for delaying his departure after the summons had been given to him to come attend upon the lord.
There was no dissembling with Marrok and his wife Tala. They were sharp but true. They could not help but distrust those like him, who did things according to his own time and purpose and offered little affection to those outside his immediate circle.
Gareth rifled his fingers through his still damp hair while she continued to block his way. “This place suits them with its many diversions.” As if on cue, the twins giggled. “It suits you as well.”
She did not step back. “We do very well with our pack whether traveling or not.”
He wondered at that remark. She still acted as if they might soon leave. But he had seen the minstrels settling in– becoming homebound and tied up with the Count and his wife. And he wondered how Tala herself had not seen the benefits of such a long-term arrangement. Tala could have great influence in such a place. With time and patience, the leaders of the Grey Wolves could become this place’s lord and lady except in title.
Neither the Count or the lady Selva had much interest in the daily governing of a large estate with multiple residents. The lady Selva had never been intended to run a household of wolves but to secure a bloodline.
A sudden squeal interrupted his thoughts. The children wriggled in their mother’s arms as they tried hard to look over her shoulder.
Gareth’s eyes followed their movements, drifting above their heads. “You cannot deny this place has certain unique entertainments. Our great forebear saw to that. It must be why we cannot keep the children — human and wolf — still. Do your young ones tell you what amuses them so?”
She gave him a withering look as if he were insane. “They aren’t exactly speaking yet.”
He leaned down to look at their eyes — light and full of knowledge of the hidden things. He watched their hands motioning seemingly without direction. He glanced over at the corner where the other children had been playing with a bowl of milk.
He saw the pattern of drops along the floor and hid a smile. Even her children, devoid of a magic talent, saw and understood what the others had not yet realized. “Tala, I hope when they begin to speak, you will be glad to hear what they have to say.”
She tightened her smile and her hold upon them. “Any mother would be.” She turned her head back to a door behind her. “Isn’t that right, Mrs. Caderyn?”
In that half-open door stood a woman who he recognized as the guildmaster’s wife. She was a colorless human, left bitter by being thrust into a loveless and childless marriage. But her fortunes had changed and, in spite of what the townspeople expected, the child in her womb had not miscarried.
The world felt off-kilter in that moment while he contemplated the triumphant figure. The disconcerting feeling faded as she retreated back to her room.
When the door shut, Tala told him of the woman’s fight to stay on the estate.
He tilted his gaze upon that door. Of course he sympathized with the human’s plight. Any woman who drank the water and ate the food from a place breathing with magic would be afraid to leave it until her child was safely born.
But what that child might be, he wondered.
His study of the closed door was interrupted by Tala. The smile she offered him was unpleasant and full of judgment. “They are waiting on you, cousin. Now is not the time to ogle the wives of others.”
Gareth chuckled to himself at such a response. “I would never be so foolish to think women were mere trophies to be admired. Particularly those with children to protect.”
He bowed and allowed her to escort him along the path of her choosing. They moved towards the library where the others waited, taking a route he suspected took him far away from the Count and Countess’ current whereabouts.
Gareth was disappointed by the size of the crowd that had been gathered to hear his reports. The Count sat next to an empty seat, signaling that his wife would not join them that evening. And true to Marrok’s word, the prickly Tala did not rematerialize. He knew she was well aware of Gareth’s reputation and interest in the Lady Selva. Likely, she had chosen to leave in order to keep an eye on her cousin.
But there were other noticeable absences. In their earlier gatherings he had seen more humans assembled at the table. While the merchant and the church man were present, the men of the guild were not joined by the townsfolk. The wolf’s eyes roamed around the room, looking for the girl with the cloak. He did not find her or her grandmother sitting in any corner. The only one of their crowd present was the noisy blacksmith.
Even with such a small audience, Gareth was still willing to provide an entertainment of sorts, telling the gathered of the odd behavior of the guards watching that town of Crossroads. He also told them of the ravens that had gathered outside it to take apart the carcasses left behind in open ditches. “The town is doomed,” he concluded.
A sort of disbelief settled over the room. The humans were unnerved by the idea of talking birds as well as the delight the birds expressed in feasting on the dead. The friar shifted uncomfortably in his seat while the merchant next to him rubbed his chin. The guild men dropped their gazes, save their incensed leader who clenched his fists at his side.
Across the room, however, Count Wolfram simply blinked. He had shown no expression while Gareth delivered his grotesque narrative. He, too, knew something of the birds. And he, too, had instinctively understood it possible that the human town had been judged and sentenced to a terrible fate. But the lord was not the sort to accept the testimony of others without question. He tapped his fingers on the table while he studied Gareth. “Blackbirds are not always correct. In particular, ravens are a tricky sort. Their greed sometimes causes them to anticipate too much.”
The birds gathered where they thought food might be easy and plentiful. That, they both knew. And the ravens had a history of not only helping the wolves but, at times, competing with them for resources.
But the younger wolf trusted his eyes. “Even so. The bodies did not always come out intact. Nor did they smell of decay and disease.”
“The murderer,” Wilhelm interjected. “You think he’s there.”
“I did not inspect their bodies,” Gareth slowly offered. “It would be irresponsible for me to suggest that he was. But the possibility exists. And my instinct suggests it is more than a possibility.”
The Count’s gaze slipped away towards the friar and the merchant. His voice was not all that solicitous as he evaluated their mixed reactions to such speculation. “You arrived, telling us there was a lack of food and a lack of management. But did you suspect something worse? Is that why you left in such a sloppy manner?”
“Yes,” the merchant sighed. He glanced at the friar who had gone pale as milk. “Ever since his novice’s death, I thought something might be off. We left using some hidden routes that were ah… often used to smuggle goods.”
“Still,” the guildmaster interrupted. “We didn’t see the guards doing anything out of the ordinary the last time we investigated.”
Harry Winters shrugged. “Really, I don’t know how they work. The only explanation I have for the change in the guard is that order inside the town must have broken down.”
“Martial law,” the guildmaster offered. “Or perhaps they hunt something inside.”
The blacksmith could not help himself. He brashly inserted himself into the conversation. “But then why keep the people inside if you have a predator or murderer on the loose?!!”
“Perhaps what they hunt is more important than the bait,” the Count answered. His words drew black looks. Such an idea was odd and cruel. But the Count did not pause to offer any other milder suggestions. “Given the situation, do you, Friar and Merchant, wish to go back?”
The friar and merchant exchanged looks, signaling that they had given thought to this matter. “Mrs. Winchester has given us the use of her home,” came the response. “I think we shall resettle there until her charge is married. Until then, we can use it to help us prepare for another journey north.”
The Count’s eyes narrowed slightly at his response. That look did not escape the others in the room. “And you, guildmaster, does this news change your mind?”
“Not one bit,” Wilhelm smiled.
* * *
Close by, Edmund kept solo watch over the strange patient in the makeshift infirmary. Elanore had left for the evening to wait upon her grandmother. Thomas had wandered off to catch a meal but had not returned.
The youth sat with a half-blank expression on his face, bored and restless while outside the wind had picked up. He could hear it as it leaked under the door and through the eaves of the building.
He had nothing for entertainment save the occasional sound of objects rolling across the floor.
He did not bother to glance down for he already knew it would be another acorn or seed blowing about.
How they had arrived here was not at all difficult for him to imagine. Mice had likely taken up in the walls of this temporary shelter and left its eaves and spaces full of treasures that the wind now tossed about.
Edmund suddenly stood up, inexplicably irritated by the mess. He looked for a broom but only found a small brush and dustpan. After he swept the offending items into a large pile on the floor, he returned to his stool. He wanted to see if these unwelcome guests might eventually come out to claim the items.
He sat for hours seeing nothing. When he stood up to stretch again, he studied the pile and concluded it lacked something essential. With a flourish, he added a piece of fruit leftover from the plate of food left behind by Elanore. Wearing a crooked smile, Edmund poked a hole in the odd pile and settled a red berry on top of it.
He then called softly to the mice, daring them to come steal away that prized treasure.
“That won’t work,” came a whispered voice.
Edmund’s head whipped up, startled by the sudden company. “Thomas?”
But he did not find Thomas standing there. Instead the owl perched on the bed, staring at him with one open eye.
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