One golden eye drew Edmund’s attention and held it fast. No matter how hard the young man attempted to recall what he knew of owls, his mind remained blank. He spoke clumsily as he tried to engage the bird. “Then how should I trap these mice?”
The owl closed that one eye while opening the other. It then turned his head around to look at a far corner of the wall. “They’re not mice, you know,” it said politely. “If they were, I would have eaten them.”
Such a comment was followed by a smattering of sound. Grains began to fall from an unseen point by the wall.
“Now, now,” the owl said solemnly to that corner. “You have nothing to worry from me. I know you’re not mice.”
Edmund’s neck prickled with discomfort at the halfling’s conversation with the air and the sudden quiet that followed. “Who are you talking to? What are they?”
The owl’s head pivoted. Two large orange eyes were now affixed on Edmund. “You speak to me but cannot see them? How peculiar. One would think you ought to be able to.”
Edmund had to shake his head.
The owl tilted its head as if it were listening to these unseen guests. After a few seconds, the owl turned its gaze upon the hunter. “They boast. From their chatter, I guess they have been running wild these past few days all over the ‘house,’ marking out their favorite places and cleaning.”
Edmund’s disbelief must have been evident for the owl continued. “Yes, cleaning! They say they are setting things in order. They came here because they heard there were fewer of us to bother them. They also are very curious about you.” The owl hooted in irritated fashion. “Can you not see them at your feet? ”
Edmund glanced down. The grain he had dusted into one pile had now scattered in a circle around him. “I see that something has happened. I see what they’ve done but not why or how.”
The owl seemed flustered by his response. “They’re doing what house gnomes do, that’s why. How can you not know a house gnome? Your parents have been very negligent! Imagine a halfling who doesn’t know his own stories!”
The bird’s indignation was mirrored by sound of grain once again scattering.
“I’m sorry,” Edmund apologized without fully understanding why. “If I am rude, it’s not intentional. I was adopted and raised by very kind townspeople nearby. They don’t know any stories of halflings.”
He heard the faintest of cries from below him. Edmund raised an eyebrow, understanding that whatever these gnomes might be, they were very small. He turned carefully, concerned that he might accidentally hurt one if he took one false step. “It is true,” he murmured. “I have only read things that humans read.”
“Oh, humans,” the owl sounded sympathetic. “Such a mess they are.”
Another acorn launched itself, this time at the owl. “Hey,now you listen here. Stop throwing things about. And stop your shouting.”
A small buzzing sound near Edmund’s ear startled him. He had raised his hand to wave away the interloper but restrained himself, afraid a careless move could hurt the unseen spirits.
With a patience borne of handling and caring for demanding, loud magic lions, he spoke calmly. “I cannot hear you, good gnomes. Mister Owl, could you explain what they wish for me to know?”
“See?” The owl hooted at these unseen beings and then glanced Edmund’s way. “Well, there’s a very big one now hovering near your shoulder shouting all sorts of silliness. She wants to know why you are here of all places and not home.”
Home. Edmund mouthed the word to himself. He began, confused. “Our family home is not safe. We had Unthings outside a few months ago. And now something else may be lurking in the woods.”
The owl swiveled its head around, once again listening to the voices. “She insists you return to your real home. She says that this place could easily become bad for your disposition.”
A weary look flickered across Edmund’s face at the unsolicited advice. “My home is with the people I care for. Do you mean for me to simply leave them behind?” His voice darkened in warning. “That idea is untenable. It is offensive. If does not matter whether you are gnomes or halflings or humans, I do not waver on this point.”
Outside a lion roared from a distant point on the grounds. Another called while moving swiftly their way. They moved according to instinct and out of necessity. Edmund’s thoughts and feelings in disorder compelled them to intervene. They would come to tend to their shepherd.
Inside, the grain immediately reformed itself into a neat, orderly pile before the room fell silent.
The owl, as well, began to profusely apologize. “Now there, young man. There is no need to get angry with them. They are well-meaning in your case. To them you’re like the baby that has escaped its pen. They fret over you out of instinct.”
Edmund wondered at this persistent behavior by other magic creatures towards him. He mused to himself in half-joking fashion that he must possess some awful power that forced others to worry over him.
The unseen gnomes proved that point a half-minute later when they gently tugged at his clothing. He restrained the urge to smooth down the wrinkles they created and looked down to see if he could catch a glimpse of them. Instead, he found a shiny pebble resting in the crease of his sweater.
He sighed at the offering but accepted it with thanks, hoping the gnomes would not cause any further trouble.
Edmund turned his attention back to the owl whose appearance had worsened. To his untrained eye, the poor owl looked like it would start molting feathers any moment. He dropped a cloth over the creature’s back to warm it. “You must rest.” And to their unseen observers, he issued an order. “If you want to talk to me, you’ll have to wait until later. Mister Owl needs food and medicines.”
“No, not yet,” the owl said crossly. “I’d rather not deal with the humans.”
Edmund tried not to take offense at such a comment. “And what of your wing?”
The owl’s expressions did not vary but Edmund imagined that the owl frowned as he stretched it slightly. “It feels terrible. Normally I could fix this myself with the clever use of my powers but I’m not strong enough.”
Edmund was reminded of what the Count had said before. “If it is a matter of strength, would another user of magic be able to help?”
The owl’s head tilted again as he evaluated Edmund. “I suppose it would depend on the other user’s skill. But one doesn’t simply just use magic with anybody. That’s a rather personal thing.”
The scolding made Edmund feel inexplicably awkward. Fortunately, a large knock on the wall came to his rescue. Several pairs of eyes appeared in the window. The lions had arrived, piling one on top of another while trying hard to peer inside the small shed.
“We’re under attack!” The owl cried aloud, lamely trying to flap its one good wing.
“No! They’re just worried.” Edmund moved to the window, hoping he did not step on any of his unseen guests while doing so. “I’m fine!” he scolded the lions who were loudly talking to him through it, rattling the glass in alarming fashion.
When they calmed down Edmund spoke quietly. “But you will unsettle our guest.”
The lions understood, immediately retreating. Edmund could hear several of them trotting away, hopefully going to find help.
With the lions out of sight, the owl visibly relaxed. “They listen to you. I should have guessed that to be so.”
Edmund defended the loyal creatures. “They would not have harmed you. They were the ones who rescued you from the forest and brought you back here.”
“Ah? Is that so?” The owl sounded mildly perplexed. “I knew they were intelligent. But kindness was not something I expected from them. What a strong magic must have created them.”
The young man tried not to smile too much as he confirmed the owl’s suspicions. “They boast about that often. They will bring help.”
When he saw the owl simply blinked as if he were daft, Edmund was pressed to explain himself. “The others will want to see you. The Count stated that there might be a risk to you if you were to stay in that shape too long.”
The owl hooted softly. “This Count you speak of. Is he a wizard or healer? Why does he say such an absurd thing?”
The shrewd look in the bird’s eyes reminded Edmund to proceed carefully. He did not wish to lie but he also did not want to reveal more than was wise. He decided to only state what others on the estate already knew. “He is a halfling and lord of the other wolf halflings.”
The bird’s eyes rounded further. “Ah, wolves. I admit that I have not had any in my circle of acquaintances. I do not know why they hold these superstitions.” His head turned around back and forth while he pondered this for himself. Eventually, he blinked. “But you can see that I’m fine other than my wing? I am not descending into insanity or madness, am I?”
Edmund’s lips turned up slightly. The bird was more than fine. Garrulous. Chatty. A bit air-headed actually. “No,” he admitted. “I am enjoying this conversation. This is the most I have ever talked with any so-called Halfling.”
“Ha. Yes, well wolves and birds are very different. But my kind haven’t been hunted into near extinction or persecuted to the degree they have been. I don’t have to be cold and careful because no one usually targets me with arrows and guns.”
“I cannot speak for the past. However, the humans here have agreed to not hunt wolves.”
“Extraordinary!” the owl flapped his good wing. “But if they became wild or unmanageable in a changed state–then I suppose that agreement might end.”
Edmund shifted uncomfortably. “I’m certain both sides are aware of that.”
“Imagine having to be afraid of losing your mind. What a troublesome condition for a halfling.” The owl went silent, considering something. “Now if that should happen, you won’t let them eat me, will you? I can’t exactly fly anywhere right now should they forget themselves.“
Edmund raised his eyebrow at the frivolous question. “I do not think you should worry about that possibility.” Save the Count himself, he had never seen any wolf spiral out of control. “If they had wished to eat you, do you think you’d be here alive? Everyone here has been trying to help you.”
The owl blinked.“ That’s what they said too, these little ones.”
“And you did not believe them?”
“Ah, they do not usually lie. They are very good-natured, though, and tend to see things within a flattering frame.” The owl ducked his head as another acorn appeared to fly by it. In response, he opened his beak and shrieked in warning.
Out of the corner of his eye, Edmund saw the pile of grain was being moved off to some safe place where presumably the house guests would make good use of it. Once the grains had all but disappeared, the owl calmed down.
Edmund waited until the owl had resumed staring at him before he knew he was being given permission to speak again. He spoke honestly and without embellishment. “We have no prisoners here. It is by choice we stay. Certainly the rules here are tough but we know it’s those rules that likely kept us alive.”
The owl ruffled its neck feathers and spoke faintly. “It did seem to me when I flew over this area that winter had been very harsh. I am grateful for the care I have received thus far.”
In the ensuing lull in conversation, Edmund could not help but wonder what had befallen this bird. Carefully, the young man sat by the owl’s makeshift bed. “Please tell me, what did happen to you? What did you see?”