For Sova and for Edmund, she made it impossible to look away.
It was not beauty or power that held their gaze. Rather it was her fearlessness.
Elanore’s face lit up from within, reflecting both excitement and pride. Lady Selva had given her this task of changing the owl to his previous form. Unlike the last time she had wielded magic in this courtyard, she had the confidence that she would succeed.
Not only would she succeed, but she would not fall ill– not with Edmund standing there, shouldering the burden that magic exacted. He, along with the lions, would remain close by until she was done.
Outside the circle, the others shifted — the woman full with child, pulling Count Wolfram further away from the light. They moved beyond their cousins — wolves in human form — watching the stranger in their midst.
Their surly looks reminded the owl halfling of his place. Any treachery or mischief directed towards their lord would not be taken lightly. However, the owl would first have to contend with the lions who had already told him they would smash him under their paws should he cause harm to the boy and the girl.
To a halfling like Sova, they were far more terrible creatures than the wolves. The elves had always used inanimate objects to enhance their magic but these creatures represented something unnatural — neither dead nor alive. But the human girl and the halfling boy who the lions worshipped did not seem to notice it.
Their introduction into this ritual of change would have surprised his latest master. When he reunited with her, he would tell her of these creatures and their childlike wisdom and terrible might. That the power to control them rested upon these two — a human and a rare halfling — was something no one had foreseen.
The lions’ whispers layered one upon the other, creating a strange sound of wind rushing around them. They, too, became a part of the light, their words reflecting knowledge from another time and place. They would remind the living creatures inside their circle of what must be done to facilitate the change of the owl.
It was to these words, Sova added his own — a crooning, melancholy fragment of a rhyme.
Those who understood magic would know this was no incantation or spell. Words alone held no power, but they were part of his ritual — one he used to focus attention upon him.
He commanded them not to forget that it was he that needed their help. Against the backdrop of magic his theme, his story, would rise above the many voices and be heard.
But in the light, the boy and girl would not simply fade away. Before that boy named Edmund, Sova could not hide all of who he was. He was broken open by that piercing gaze– his fears of men laid bare, his feelings uncovered for the one woman who had accepted him as he was.
He cringed as he was compelled to speak the truth not of what he was but who he was. Under the boy’s unexpected power, he was a book whose pages flipped themselves open of their own accord.
Sova screamed. He screamed at the truth.
But those outside the circle saw only the physical toll of transformation. Sova’s claws and legs began to elongate and widen. But that change did not finish. What would have taken seconds under normal circumstances became an uncomfortable scene.
He thrashed on the straw strewn over the ground — overcome by the sharp agony of his bones trying to piece themselves back together. His body clung to the form he had kept for too long. He shrieked as another convulsion overtook him — the cry of a bird dying instead of the words of a living man.
He had stopped speaking those words — the story of who he was. But Elanore sidestepped his flailing arms and scattered feathers. Even as each piece of him fought against being changed, she would not forget who he was.
Her voice reached out and found him, weaving his story round and round while the noble boy watched. They were relentless and tenacious in their pursuit of truth.
They would not let him go.
Until he appeared before them as a man, they would not let him go.
And then, as naked as can be, he lay for a moment and looked at his whole form. He shivered as a cloak was draped over. He was not cold but ashamed of his arrogance. The halfling had called them boring and thought them weak. He had thought he did not need them. But they had seen his broken self and sewn him back together.
Suddenly he understood the lions’ worship of this pair. He groaned as he forced himself to his knees and bowed.
The light around him began to coalesce into specks. Some of these sparks would fuse into the earth like seeds. Others above the ground darted about like fireflies.
The din of laughter was inescapable. The lions jabbered loudly, overjoyed at their success. But echoing them were more familiar voices — childish and giddy.
As his eyes rolled back up into his head, his last conscious thought was of his queen and what she would need to know.
They were here.
* * *
The aftermath of his collapse was chaos. Wolves rushed past the lions while the few humans among them skulked away.
More than one found some safe corner to empty the contents of their stomach. Even the unflappable Gerald would end up roaming the grounds while he shakily smoked a pipe.
The Count and Countess watched all those who remained in the courtyard. They saw Elanore leaning upon Edmund while her fingers toyed with a stone dangling from a chain around her neck.
But it was his expressions that drew their attention, changing so quickly until she decided to wander towards a tree.
The Count was reluctant to turn away from the sight of the two seated underneath it with the lions curling at their feet. They were a picture of peace as their eyes were fixed upon the last of the magic light dissipating into the night sky.
But Selva began to wander off. He caught up to his very pregnant wife and automatically placed her hand in the crook of his arm. They walked towards the house while he brooded over whether that picture of serenity was too perfect to last.
He paused again and his wife lightly smacked his arm. “You must stop doing that,” she said lightly. “They’ll be fine. Edmund and I are of the same blood and Elanore is human. And that owl will not bother them too much. He might feel compelled to bind himself to them — to serve them both. But it may be an annoying enough development to encourage my kinsman to finally wed Elanore.”
In the darkness, the corner of his mouth turned up. She was more fox than wolf, according to the descriptions his grandfather had once written of the wood-dwellers. “I see how it is. You used that same power of yours to tame me as well?”
“Oh?” She feigned surprise at his voiced suspicions. “Which way was it, my lord? Was I taming you? Or were you trying to keep me? All those times I aided you with my magic — did you not act out on purpose so I would have to stay by your side?”
She teased him in making light of their troubled past. He supposed she wanted him to tease back. Instead, he pulled her against him and kissed her hungrily.
“My lord!” Her hands tried very hard to put some space between them. She made a throaty sound as she laughed. “Not outside. The guards are watching and the lions are coming this way!”
He ignored her warning for another few seconds, still caught up in the aftereffects of a strange and unearthly magic that had revealed itself to them. For a moment, one might have accused him of being giddy as he openly displayed his affection for her. Or ever foolish as he rashly vowed to himself that she would bear him at least a dozen more children like herself and Edmund — stubborn, strong, and compassionate to a fault.
“Oh,” she cried out as if she could hear that thought. But instead her fingers flew to her womb. “No children, not now!”