Her surprise broke his composure.
Wolfram dropped his cane. Both of his hands came to grip her arms lest she stumble.
She offered him something halfway between a grimace and a smile. “My lord,” she rasped out as her hands went to her abdomen. “It’s too early isn’t it? I know what the lions said. But–”
That ill-considered comment made him afraid. He saw the idyllic life they were building for what it truly was. Perilously fragile.
A tendril of fury unloosened inside him as he railed against this world — the one that threatened his happiness at every turn.
He tuned out her voice to shout for help. Several wolves tumbled out the large wooden door of magic and came their way.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw the lions advance with their shepherd and shepherdess not far behind them.
They descended upon him and his wife — all noise while telling him to be calm. He ignored their voices. “Get the chair,” he snarled.
His display of temper surprised a few of his cousins. But Wolfram paid their feelings no heed. Instead, his eyes searched the crowd for Tala. She could do something for his wife’s pain.
“My lord,” Selva tugged at his coat. When he turned his head, she reached for his face, trying to draw out whatever ill-temper had taken hold of him. “The lions are asking you to be calm. The children are just excited by the magic.”
She would try to soothe him, even now as she shook under each wave of pain. He wiped her perspiring brow, ignoring the din of those around them.
Marrok’s calm voice registered itself in his ear. “Your chair is here. Let us take her.”
Wolfram did not relinquish Selva so easily.
The grey wolf continued to speak calmly. “We’ll carry her inside where she can lay down. This being her first, we need to take it slowly.”
Selva’s face crumpled.
Wolfram opened his mouth to scold his cousin. He quickly clamped it shut when he realized nothing had ever been said to Marrok of the lost child. Even if Tala had suspected, or realized, she was not the sort to say anything unfounded to her husband. He would have to tell him later — tell him all of it.
“Selva.” He rubbed his wife’s hand, hoping to distract her from whatever trauma she relived on her own. “I won’t let you go.”
A smack on his back distracted him. In the moment that followed, his cousins were there to take Selva from him and settle her upon the chair.
Wolfram turned around to growl at his attacker. The tip of his own cane pointed at his stomach. Giles held it out to him, his expression betraying annoyance. “She wouldn’t forgive you if she had to deliver outside. Let them go and do what they need to do. They’re trying to help you both, not hurt you!”
He took the cane back and offered Giles a glum look. “I–” he started to explain himself. He wanted to tell him as well how afraid he was of betraying her yet again.
Giles pushed him forward. “Just go, dummy!”
He did not let them get too far ahead of him. He kept his sights on his wife as she was escorted to a chamber set up with a large bed. He stood waiting while the other men retreated to the safety of the hallway outside.
He would guard his wife while the women attended her, removing all the layers of clothing she had worn outside.
“She will not deliver faster if you stand there.” Lady Tala’s sharp reprimand jolted him out of his brooding silence. His distant cousin gave him a rather insolent glare.
As her lord and the mate of the woman under Tala’s care, he did not need to respond. But he clutched his cane in his hand, terrified into abject honesty. “I wasn’t there before– for our other child. I can’t leave her alone this time.”
The other women glanced his way, startled by the confession. But Tala snapped her fingers and they dropped their eyes and returned to their work.
It was Miss Redley who detached herself from the group to acknowledge his presence. She, who had known all along of his past, spoke more kindly to him. “She may go on all night. Would you not at least get something to eat and drink?”
He glowered in response.
She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “Perhaps you could speak to Edmund and have him fetch my box? I have herbs I want to use to help calm your wife. She is anxious.”
He would have snapped at any other for such obvious… insolence, but the girl’s dark eyes were pleading with him.
He knew Miss Redleywould not lie to him. Wolfram looked beyond her at the woman lying on the bed, wracked with pain. “Tell her I’ll be back,” he urged her. “I’m not leaving her alone this time.”
“Of course not,” the girl responded warmly. “I’ll stay with her until you return.”
* * *
Wolfram stepped outside the room and found himself in the midst of a small gathering. His eldest cousins and a few others waited upon him. Tradition demanded for him to issue orders.
His eyes first went to the fair-haired boy. Wolfram raised his hand. “Edmund . Miss Redley asks for her box of herbs.”
The young man looked surprised at being immediately singled out. He shifted on his feet — embarrassed to find everyone’s attention upon him. “Yes, sir. Is there anything else I may assist you with?”
Wolfram pinched the bridge of his nose as his mind sluggishly tried to weigh out his options. “No, for now that is enough.”
Edmund bowed and departed. In his wake, his cousins’ eyes returned his way.
“You do look like warmed over crap,” is how Giles broke the awkward silence that had ensued. “You really should have something to drink.”
“No!” Wolfram snapped at his cousin. Adding alcohol to his system would only serve to make him less alert and less predictable.
His cousin Gareth spoke up from the seat he had taken on a comfortable bench. “She will be in labor for days.Eat something or she will worry for you.”
Wolfram narrowed his eyes at his cousin’s pronouncement. The manner in which he had delivered it suggested a certain inside knowledge or familiarity that angered him.
“There is no knowing something like that.” Arranz the Silver Wolf slapped Wolfram on the back. He was an experienced father with more than one wife and many children. “No birth goes the same. Marrok knows that too.”
The Silver Wolf was a good soul, Wolfram realized– one who seemed to lack the sharp temper that marked many of the Wolframs.
As for Marrok, the shyer wolf said nothing. His eyes had been fixed on the door the entire time — listening to the sound of his wife inside ordering their younger cousins around. Inside the room, they heard the sound of furniture scraping the floor as it was moved about.
“If you’re not going to eat, “Marrok interjected calmly. “Then go wash up. Knowing Tala, she’s having them re-clean the floor. And my she-wolf will not let you back inside unless you’re absolutely clean.”
“Why, that’s a good idea,” the Silver Wolf grinned. “You know we’ve got this place safely watched.”
Wolfram knew he dare not argue. Their promise and Tala’s temperament were not to be doubted. “Hastings,” he called out for the manservant lurking at a respectful distance from them.
The old man looked equally worried. “Yes, my lord?”
“Please draw my bath. I will not be denied entry. I will follow when Edmund returns.”
Hastings bowed and departed, leaving the Wolframs to themselves.
The Count did not feel up to conversation and left his cousins to their own devices. They lounged about in the hallway, watching the world outside while they discussed unresolved business. There had been little to report on this day of those who had vacated the compound or news from those spying on the town to the south. Even the owl halfling did not merit much interest for the stranger was sleeping under guard.
In the end, their conversation petered out and they were left to observe the antics of the lions trotting around in the yard.
The Silver Wolf chuckled aloud. “The lions have, by the way, taken up a position around the estate. Very protective of our lord’s wife, aren’t they?”
Gareth’s more melodic voice responded. “Of course they would be. She is their mistress and the mother of the children who will inherit this place. No matter what lurks outside these walls, these children will be the safest and most watched in the world.”
Wolfram joined them at the window to see what his cousins were admiring. The lions were circling around the grounds, admirably trying to keep watch while many of his family busied themselves inside.
And as the wolves beside him carried on, he relaxed slightly– glad to count their presence as well. He gripped the head of his cane that signaled his authority over the clans. He knew his grandfather’s hand in all this. The man had foreseen that one wolf could not protect this place and its treasures alone.
The sound of approaching steps sent them all on alert. He saw his cousins stand and turn their eyes towards the distant hallway.
Wolfram knew who it was by the sound alone. He was pleased when Edmund rounded the corner, carrying the medicines that the girl had wanted.
“Here, sir,” the young man managed to say in the midst of several deep breaths.
Wolfram shook his head at the box held out to him. He placed one hand on Edmund’s shoulder. “You should have the reward of presenting it to your Miss Redley. I must heed my cousins’ advice and prepare myself.” He could not articulate his appreciation for them all that well, save to show them he trusted them enough to do as they advised. “Wait here for me, Edmund. And mind my cousins’ words.”
He asked this of Edmund without so much a growl or command. And as such, Edmund rewarded him with a nod of his head.
However, this kindness towards Edmund did not go unnoted. In fact, it revealed much more than the Count intended.