Wolfram did not know where the time went. One moment he was purifying himself in waters infused with herbs according to some ritual that Tala had drilled into Hasting’s mind. The next he had returned himself to the hallway outside the chamber in which his wife was resting.
His cousins Arranz and Marrok were gone.
Edmund sat amongst miserable company. The younger wolves Giles and Gareth glowered at each other across the hallway.
The Count quickly studied them. While Giles was often annoyed at someone or something, it was rare to find his other cousin in a bad mood. “What is the matter?”
“Nothing,” both responded in an unhelpful manner.
Edmund rose to greet him. The boy looked puzzled at the Count’s attire. Wolfram wore a long garment that on a good day could qualify as a long dressing gown. It was, actually, something he had been ordered to put on.
He was too polite to ask about these odd customs of the wolves. Instead, Edmund cleared his throat. “The lions are restless.”
“The others have gone to investigate,” Gareth answered coolly. “And as they have not settled down, we were discussing who should go next.”
Wolfram strained his ears, listening to the distant conversations that filtered in through the windows. He could hear a few lions, childishly declaring their will to protect their lord. But the rest was all wind and dust — the lions were speaking again but only to one another as they roved the grounds.
“I think I should go,” Edmund offered in the uncomfortable silence that followed. “Even if it is nothing, they are noisy and loud. They may be disturbing Selva.”
Wolfram’s eyes caught the slight lift of Gareth’s head that signaled his approval of the idea. And his ears heard the small puff of air Giles expelled.
The Count read these small signs and returned his attention to the pale-haired youth. “And what of Miss Redley?”
The young man cringed slightly. “She did not wish to take leave but she was ordered to go to the kitchen to prepare herbs by Lady Tala.” He added, “She apologized for not keeping her promise.”
“It is nothing,” Giles patted Edmund on the shoulder. “Tala can be quite demanding when she sets her mind to something. And she wouldn’t trust that job to just anyone.”
Wolfram knew Giles was trying to shield the two from his anger. He wondered if he had been that unreasonable thus far to merit that protection. “Of course I understand. Miss Redley’s skills were more useful elsewhere.”
But a small doubt nagged at Wolfram. There were so many superstitions and traditions involved in childbirth. The wolves were almost paranoid about every perceived threat to their children. They feared both disease and witchcraft as well as the presence of outsiders. Tala’s caution worried him.
“Selva will be alright, won’t she?” asked Edmund.
His question was rewarded by fairly dark looks.
Once again Giles interjected. “You’re overthinking things. It’s not all that different from humans I would guess. Just note that if you get in the midwives’ way you might risk being attacked. Wolves are extremely protective of their young.”
The Count’s mouth twitched as Edmund’s light-colored eyes filled with confusion. “I cannot imagine how she can bear it. There must be at least half-dozen attendants in that room. And then four here outside it.”
“This is but a small number,” the Count said instead. “In fact, Lady Tala keeps other curious folks away. She minimizes those in the room to those she deems meet her criteria. We are just enough to protect my wife and ensure the safety of the children.”
Edmund’s expression grew stern. “Do you mean that someone might try to harm them?”
Gareth responded coolly. “A master swordsman guards these door. Any such creature would die before they touch her ladyship.”
The vehemence of his declaration startled all of them.
Edmund raised his hands to show he did not wish to further irritate the wolf lord. “Then I am not necessary here. I shall take leave and speak to the lions and Marrok and Sir Arranz.”
None of the wolves objected. And so the boy departed, leaving a gloomy crowd at the door.
In Edmund’s absence, the expression of both Giles and Gareth changed.
“It is better he not be here,” Gareth angrily whispered at Giles. “He is not one of us.”
“And he is her kinsman,” Giles snapped back. “He has every right.”
“I will enter,” Wolfram silenced them. He squeezed the tip of his cane, angered by what he now understood about their quarrel. “Keep alert. If the girl returns, ask her to stay with you for now. She may be needed either inside or outside.”
“Of course,” Giles grinned.
Wolfram shot his cousin a stern look, silently discouraging him from trying anything untowards the young woman. He turned his head towards the other cousin. “Does this master swordsman wish to pass a message to my wife?”
A spot of color formed on Gareth’s cheek. The Count’s cousin pressed his lips together. “You know she and I were friends long ago. I wish her only to be safe and happy.”
Wolfram knew it was more than that. “Giles loathes her but swears he will protect her. Because he loves me as a brother I trust him. And you?”
Gareth courageously did not waver as he met Wolfram’s gaze. “You know I pray for the survival of our kind. But while I swear loyalty to you, it is for her happiness I sacrificed my own claims long ago. I would protect her–even against you, if I had to.”
And in that response, Wolfram understood where the two of them stood. ”Guard this door then– not for me but for her. From this point forward, unless Tala or I ask, do not let anyone pass through.”
* * *
Once the doors to the vaulted chamber closed behind him, Selva stirred.
The lord would have gone to her immediately but his younger cousins stopped him. The females of his clan could not look at him directly but were adamant that he tie back his hair.
He subjected himself to further indignities when they wrapped him in a horrid shapeless sheet. But when they finished and had divested him of his cane, he was allowed to proceed to his wife’s side.
He took her hand, noting that while she perspired she was in good color. “You look beautiful.”
She whispered with a hint of a smile. “And you look like a cloud. Or a ghost,” she started to tease before she grimaced.
“Don’t make her laugh,” Tala chided him. “Or we put you in the corner.”
Selva, however, did keep laughing inappropriately while holding his hand. She was a mess of emotions, tears leaking out of her eyes at the same time she tried to smile and hide her pain.
Wolfram did not know whether to be awed or apologetic when her hand gripped his so tightly that he felt her nails dig into his palms.
“This is your doing,” she hurled at him fiercely before she began to wail.
He would have panicked if Tala had not scolded him from across his wife’s body. “The first child is crowning.”
Outside the wind responded. It rattled the windows outside the hallway and changed the pressure inside the building. He did not know if these winds were echoing her pain or simply announcing their presence– if they, too, kept vigil while Selva labored.
He could hear the hurried curses at the sound of glass breaking. The wind howled and so did a baby, arriving into the world.
“A girl,” pronounced Tala with something like a grin. He caught a glimpse of the she-child with a head full of dark hair before she was handed over to two of the attendants in waiting. “A strong, strong, child with a voice to match.”
He laid his hand on his wife’s forehead deeply surprised by all he had observed thus far.
Selva opened her eyes and looked his way. “Remember this on this one’s naming day. That the wind outside was a strong one.” This was no request but an order.
And while the cousins cleaned this she-child, her sibling hurried after her.
Quietly, without warning, a boy slipped into the world — silent, dark, and uninterested in his surroundings. He was so quiet that the midwives smacked his bottom a few times to prove he was alert and healthy.
When he cried it was more like an annoyed mewling sound.
“No,” Selva sobbed. “Do not misunderstand him. He is his father’s child.”
She seemed ready to rise and snatch that child back .
“Be still,” he placed his hand upon hers, urging her not to move.
He was grateful he would not have to hold her still. Her eyes did not leave her two babies as they both alternately cried and fussed. Instinct made her want to hold them and nurse them in spite of the impracticality of doing so.
But then came a startled curse from Tala.
Wolfram felt a premonition of trouble as he heard the women chattering. “Countess,” they cried. “There is another child! You must push.”
The shock made him useless as one of the younger women came over and adjusted Selva’s positioning. They massaged her back and shoulders as if to remind her that she was still not done.
Wolfram slowly shook off this malaise and listened.
Outside, the wind had fallen silent. Through the shattered windows out in the hall, the lions also did not speak.
All waited in fear.
Only Tala kept her wits about her. She spoke brashly, as if to break the tension. “This one does not wish to leave his mother’s womb. So the father must command his child to listen.”
She stared at him, challenging him to prove his worth.
It was a ridiculous ploy. However, Wolfram took one look at his wife and squashed any concerns over sounding foolish. “Come out now,” he urged his child. “Your mother cannot bear this any longer.”
Selva winced again as there was movement.
“Good,” Tala called from the other side of his wife. “Yes, that’s a good boy. Listen to your father. Come to your cousins.”
Selva’s fingers had found his hand. They held onto him, squeezing while she endured the pain. She would hold it until the child had passed outside, clinging until there was a sound — a signal that all would be well.
He heard the worried murmurs. He kept his wife still, however, while the women coaxed and rubbed the child. Fear wrapped around his heart as he waited for the sound of a cry.
And when it came, he exhaled. They all exhaled.
The ground trembled as the lions thundered somewhere outside by them, roaring their tidings while someone shouted at them to cease their noise.
“He’s so pretty,” the young women whispered to their mother before they took him away to wash.
And they brought his siblings to their mother.
Selva closed her eyes for a moment as she inhaled their scent. And then she glanced Wolfram’s way. “My lord, you should hold them. They have spent all their time with me so far. They are anxious to meet you.”
He did not know what to do with such tiny creatures but he obliged his cousins once more. He carefully balanced two of his children on his arms and watched as Selva waited to receive their third child.
Her face lit up with some secret joy as she crooned at the baby, already suckling at her breast. She hummed a foreign tune while he did so, one that none in the room understood.
Wolfram stared at his wife as she stroked the fine, pale hair of their youngest boy who decided to open his eyes.
The boy’s fine grey eyes unnerved him as did what happened next. The child waved his fist about as if to say hello to something in the air.
But his wife laughed. “Have you come back to me after all this time?”
While the two children in his arms began to cry, Wolfram watched his wife.
“Is she alright?” he heard one of the young girls ask. He wondered if they, too, suspected their Countess mad.
“The herbs,” snapped Tala at all of them. “We are not done. Fetch the girl now.”
He was dimly aware of the children being lifted from his arms while Selva’s contractions began again.
Tala said nothing further until she had finished studying what came out in the afterbirth. She then prepared a draught to make Selva sleep.
Only then, did she speak again to him, assuring him that his wife and children were alright. “When she has rested, I am sure she will explain everything to all of us. Until then, remember that three is a very good number, my lord. Fate has been very kind.”
He could only nod in response.