The owl blinked a few times as if he was trying to decide whether to speak further.
Edmund, out of his politeness, affixed his gaze upon this talking bird and waited.
While Edmund did not possess that uncanny ability to penetrate the thoughts of others, the bird misunderstood the young man’s silence. After a few uncomfortable seconds had passed, the bird cried aloud. “Now before we begin talking about such familiar things, we ought to have an exchange of names! This Mister business won’t do!”
The young man humored the bird. He stood and bowed politely. “I am Edmund Ormond.”
The bird sounded out the name slowly. “Edmund Ormond? But how droll. And not a name I expect for you.” The owl blinked. “It is rather–”
“Common,” the young man finished the thought aloud.
“No. Short!” the owl protested. The bird nodded his head vigorously, scattering a few molting feathers here and there as he chattered in dizzying fashion. “Yes, you should have at least four names! One for each stage of life and then some for each of your achievements!”
The poor creature appeared to be working itself into a fit over some imagined lapse in protocol.
Edmund cleared his throat. “Then I suppose you have four names yourself? What shall I call you, Sir?”
The use of this title drove the owl into another paroxysm of horror. “Oh, please, not ‘Sir’. I have at least a dozen other names that were once suitable for use. But the one my mistress uses is Sova because it is the one her brother gave me.”
The strange, foreign name evoked images of faraway deserts and warm oceans. Edmund felt a tightness in his chest as he considered how ordinary his own upbringing had been. In spite of the conflicting advice he received from various interested parties on what he ought to and ought not to do, he could not shake that deep seated feeling that he belonged elsewhere. Edmund brushed off that perturbing thought and focused on this anxious Sova. “We should send word to this mistress of yours. She must be worried about you.”
“Oh she’s used to us being gone a lot!” The owl said a little too cheerily. “And she’s not at all lonely when we’re gone.”
For someone who was speaking to a stranger –the owl seemed too free with his information. Edmund listened with increasing disbelief as the owl bragged about his mistress –a princess who was so beautiful and kind that elves threw themselves at her feet when they met her. The halfling continued to prattle about how he was glad not to be at the garden because the stupid guards were usually silently fighting for her favor amongst themselves.
The young man did not mind this unsolicited stream of information about this so-called Queen of Swans. However, he would have to ask Elanore later exactly what they were feeding the creature in order to determine whether any of this freely given information could be plausibly true or arisen out of a heavily-medicated state.
“Sova,” the youth interrupted the bird. “You have been here a week. How long before that you were unconscious, we don’t know. If she is as kind as you say, then she will be worried.”
Edmund’s hand drifted back to his pocket, his fingers touching the smooth surface of the pebble offered by the unseen houseguests.
The owl halfling had described this queen as warm and honest. And the image that presented itself to Edmund was not at all unlike Elanore.
He thought of how the young woman might feel if one of her siblings had not returned home. And he could not help but gently rebuke the owl for his blustering lack of concern. “If you do care as much as you claim to, you ought to send a message of some sort to her. In fact, I will help you craft such a message.”
Sova tilted his head, not understanding the other creature’s thoughts and feelings. “If you say so.”
Edmund cleared his throat, pleased to have secured at least one sensible concession from the halfling. “But I do not know what to say to her about why you came to us. If you were on a mission for her, what was it that you saw? What danger is there to you or to us here?”
Sova flexed his one good wing and watched another dislodged feather from it float to the ground before he muttered to himself. “That unpleasant business! Really– I was hoping you already knew.”
“I am not sure what you have seen,” Edmund volunteered as he placed a bowl at the creature’s feet and sat down on the stool. He watched the owl take a drink from it before he offered more information. “We have had a rash of deaths a few miles north of here. Not natural. The victims were all inside an inn. The door was locked. They were torn limb to limb. Nothing suitable for burial was left.”
The halfling went still.
Edmund continued. “Some of the wolves think the remains were eaten. The bones, they claimed, were gnawed. Organs were missing.”
The pupils in the owl’s yellow eyes enlarged as the creature gazed upon him. “I did not know, Edmund Ormond. I am sorry. That is very shocking. Those deaths must grieve you and the humans.”
The young man paused to consider exactly what he felt. He searched within himself and found the owl’s thought to be true. Above the anger and frustration, his most predominant feeling was one of sadness. Edmund ran his fingers through his hair as he tried to answer Sova. “The world has become a disturbing place the last few months. And we don’t understand why. But I feel uncertain of what to do because there is no one to fight or blame. All we have is a faceless enemy.” He paused. “I would like to believe it one great evil but a part of me wonders if the world has simply decided we no longer belonged here.”
The owl hooted softly. “I do not know how to answer that. I have good eyes but I cannot see what lies behind all this trouble.” The owl extended his good wing outwards, pointing at the air. “But I see the ripples too — and am convinced that some dark pattern is forming, something terrible. These woods have gotten stranger since the eclipse. Parts like this place give me joy. But the south… I find it repellent.”
“Yes,” Sova said carefully. “That human dwelling is evolving. I approached it heedless of any danger because it appeared to be weak in magic. But that was the last thing I recall doing. I do not want to return without help. A disease has taken root there — and that someone or something will need to be dealt with in time.”
A thrill of fear ran through Edmund’s veins at the halfling’s words. He felt the stirring of purpose within him but was no hothead. He knew very well the impracticality and foolishness in running out and trying to lead a siege upon his neighboring town. “And yet we have no king or army here to avenge the deaths of those murdered souls.”
The owl stared at Edmund. “No king?” The halfling scoffed. “How droll! You are all sadly ignorant of the truth, aren’t you?”
The owl leaned forward, his large form startling Edmund as he pushed into the young man’s space. “The snows are gone so this is now a matter for my queen to handle. This place is running wild — and it is clear your lord is unable to do anything. His hands are quite full with elven magic running amok on this estate! Golems running around! And these gnomes and fairies are proliferating by the day. And those wolves! With so many, why haven’t they done something? Do they not want to use their magic?”
The picture the owl painted was one of magical chaos or ineptitude. Edmund’s shoulders slumped as he realized the poor opinion the halfling had formed about the Wolfram estate. “You will have to ask their lord. As for the lions, they are not hopeless. They are simply wild as they were designed to be. They do, in fact, listen.”
The owl tilted his head.”Do they really?”
“Well, sometimes,” Edmund admitted with a cough. “And not to everyone.But I can manage them well enough.”
“I supposed they might. They honor you then, noble creature. And what of the wolves, have they been treating you well?”
“They are not terrible,” Edmund defended the wolves. “Some of them are friendly enough.”
The owl sighed. “Friendly enough? That is no good! They do not honor you properly.” He nearly knocked over the water bowl with his foot as he continued to grumble. “My lady would find this most grievous! She has missed your kind in the garden. You would fare much better there!”