Edmund had spent the entirety of the night calming the stone lions.
From the moment he had helped Elanore wake them, he knew he would always bear some responsibility for their welfare. Like children, they were full of energy and innocence that left unsupervised could lead to chaos. But their lord and master was burdened with many things. He lacked the hours of time to deal with the magical creatures’ whims. And so Edmund gladly stood in as their shepherd to guide their behavior.
To no one’s surprise, the Wolframs were not enough to control the hundred plus stone creatures running around and jealously guarding every gate they could find. Edmund guessed the anticipation of the birth made them frenzy in excitement. Still, he brought them to heel with a few stern words. When they would listen, he divided them into smaller groups and appointed more reliable lions who could remember orders to lead them.
He gave each group a task or a place to mind and a promise: he would visit with each of them until the morning.
Three times in the morning twilight he and the lions had felt the ground react and the winds stir. The movement was not so much a tremor but a subtle warming of the soil and rock underneath his feet. And the sound of the air was sweet — as if the wind announced each birth by varying noise and speed.
They all knew that Selva had somehow done the miraculous — bringing three lives safely into this world.
But after that third tremor, a profound feeling overtook him. He felt his joy and relief give way to sadness and worry.
He knew then that there was another one like him in the world.
When dawn brought a new watch group, Edmund left his lion companions for the meal hall. He moved quietly throughout the rows of tables, lost in the unexpectedly noisy, liquor-filled affair.
There they whispered of the difficult birth. There the Wolframs drank and ate out of relief.
In their minds, the twenty-five year gamble had paid off. All knew these children would command the magic that had been otherwise denied them all these years.
Many months of cohabitation had given Edmund insight into the wolves’ worship of magic. He knew his ability to command the lions grated at their pride. This morning, some of the looks that came his way were chilly, others triumphant. They believed the security of their clan’s home would soon no longer rely upon him.
He might have been uncomfortable save for Giles’ presence. Edmund sat down by the only Wolfram he could call something of a friend. And, ever the good host, Giles glared at the other wolves as if to dare them to complain.
But on this momentous day, they would not dine alone. To their surprise, Gareth appeared and offered an almost cordial greeting before he seated himself by them.
Edmund had no particular interaction with the elvish Wolfram until this past day. He had no idea how to approach such a halfling but he took a basket full of bread and offered it to this unexpected interloper. “You should have some while it’s still warm.”
Gareth shook his head. “I will only have tea. I shall wait until the lord breaks his fast.”
Edmund lowered the basket and worried he had broken some unknown protocol. He glanced at Giles, still blithely eating from a plate full of broken meats.
Giles shrugged. “He rarely eats as is. I doubt he will come down for meals until the danger is past.”
Immediately Gareth’s eyes turned to Edmund. “Tala has ordered we maintain our distance to avoid bringing sickness unto the mother and children. None of us, save the nurses and our lord, are permitted to call upon them. But perhaps Tala might relent for you. You are direct kin.”
Edmund chewed slowly, contemplating this poorly veiled suggestion. Instinct told him to choose his words carefully. He put down his bread. “I would not endanger my kinswoman by insisting on an audience at this point in time. If I am summoned or have a clear way in which to help, I would gladly visit. But not otherwise.”
His response appeared to confound his tablemate. “Yet her emotional state, I’ve heard, is peculiar. Our lord stated she had previously lost a child.” Gareth tapped his finger against the table. “ Is there not something your kind do to ease such pain?”
Giles threw a napkin down on the table and glared at his cousin. “The kid grew up here with the humans. Not in some remote village or backwoods like the Countess. So if you think you know something you better say it.”
“Ah,” Gareth shook his head. “I had misunderstood. Well–”
Before the wolf could probe him further, Giles intervened. “Now if you’re feeling chatty, let’s deal with the morning scouting party. Did Marrok tell you what he wanted done?”
While the two plowed through how to manage things without their lord, Edmund could have escaped. However, his curiosity was piqued and so he lingered. In spite of the birth of Wolfram’s three heirs, he knew the outside world would not stop being so troublesome.
“I can take Edmund with me,” Giles gestured towards the young hunter. “He knows the town and guild well.”
“I don’t think that’s wise,” his cousin vehemently disagreed. “This place is even more vulnerable now — so much more of a target to those who love or hate magic. You cannot mean to remove the only one who can order those lions from his post.”
“But the girl remains here–”
Edmund frowned as the scenario from the previous evening appeared ready to play out again. He was not interested in repeating that squabble as a passive observer. “I have already decided this morning I’d stay. If you want cover, Gerald should be packed and ready to go. Thomas as well. They have no reason to stay for now–Elanore and my mother will mind the patient.”
His blunt reply did not offend but amused them.
Edmund was not interested in sorting out exactly why.
Pip’s clumsy arrival in the hall gave him an excuse to leave the two Wolframs to their own bickering. “Excuse me.” He abruptly rose and walked towards the main entry.
An air of anxiety always seemed to cling to Pip. But almost any human would have been unnerved by a hall full of half-drunk Wolframs.
Edmund offered his former guild-mate a friendly smile. “Hey. There is other stuff in the kitchen. I don’t think you’d like what’s on the table. It’s rather–”
“Raw?” Pip frowned at the head table’s selection of meats.
Since the majority of humans had left the grounds, the meals had evolved. It had become obvious that the wolves liked their meat rare.
Edmund knew the kitchen staff likely had foodstuff that would be easier to stomach. “I think I heard that Hastings was setting aside some fresh gruel for the new mother.”
“Is she well?” Pip stuttered while they veered towards the kitchen to each retrieve a large bowl of soup. “I was wondering… I could hear a lot of noise last night.”
“Ah, sorry — the lions were hard to handle. Every time they’d calm down, another one would start gloating or crooning and–”
Pip seemed to brighten. “Oh. So that was what it was. I guess everything is alright. I’m glad,” he shyly admitted. “She is a really kind woman.”
Edmund felt relieved to see the news cheered the younger man. Pip was notoriously poor at sleeping. Both Selva and Elanore had told him that he usually woke each morning in near panic about being swallowed by Unthings.
They wandered through the kitchens and past the pantries to the doors that led outside. Several lions were already waiting, begging to play.
Edmund waved them away while they seated themselves upon a few benches not yet covered with boxes of soil or pottery.
It had not turned out to be a pleasant day. Spring had stalled in parts, only offering them cloudy skies and a hint of warmth.
But the soup was good. The two young men silently enjoyed the normalcy while the lions watched from a polite distance.
A sound of creaking interrupted their eating.
Edmund glanced up at a small group of owls weighing down the branches of nearby trees. He recognized them to be from the group that followed Lady Selva.
A particularly bold one swooped down and landed a distance away.The small snowy owl blinked a few times, warily assessing the situation, before it began to wander their way.
Pip almost smiled at the odd cadence to its walk. “That’s the first time I’ve seen one come this close. I guess it’s because of you.”
Edmund put down his bowl and held out his hand. The little creature hopped onto his arm and sidled up his shoulder before hooting once in his ear. With that, several other owls swooped low, intent on doing the same.
Their actions incurred the lions’ displeasure. The lions disobeyed Edmund and quickly crowded around the two young men to prevent other owls from joining the small handful on Edmund’s shoulders. Instead, the thwarted birds were forced to settle for noisily crying from every bench, pot, or bush within close proximity.
The sight was too ridiculous for even gloomy Pip to endure. The hunter began to snort before he began to laugh. But without warning, that good mood collapsed into choking sobs.
“He’s crying,” a lion informed Edmund. “Why? Does he hate owls?”
While the lions’ puzzled questions echoed around them, Edmund raised his arm, asking them to be quiet. Pip was clearly in the throes of something painful, something not right.
It would be a while before Pip’s ugly heaves began to subside. “I know I’m not supposed to cry when I laugh but my head’s messed up. I remembered I used to laugh like this but with people who aren’t here. I don’t have the right to do that. They’re dead and I should be too. My life is worthless.”
Few things incensed Edmund. However, defeatist words like these offended him. “Can you really argue that while these lions sit at your feet? They carried you for days all the way back here. They wanted to save you. Elanore… the Countess.. Gregory.. they all took care of you while you could not walk or eat unassisted. And then what of the guild master, who let you out of your contract? And Count Wolfram who gave you a place to stay? “
He asked these questions, trying to stir up some sort of recognition on Pip’s part of what had been done thus far. But as soon as he finished scolding the younger man, Edmund saw that Pip could not yet fully understand what had been done.
Moreover, Edmund realized he had said far more than was within his right. They were no longer in the same guild. They were not even friends. Rather, they were simply people on a common road–one in which they both tried to understand how they were to live in this new world.
Edmund kicked the back of his boot against the ground. “Sorry. I know I have no right to lecture you.”
Pip reached out to touch the mane of a lion who had decided it would be the perfect time to demand attention. He smiled absently at the catlike grin on the creature’s face. “I’d rather be lectured than ignored. It makes me think I still might matter.”
Edmund heard that small choked voice and knew that doubt still poisoned Pip’s heart. Impulsively, he reached over and tousled Pip’s hair. “You do matter.”
They fell back into silence as the two of them were obliged to pet a few dozen more lions who had chosen to be oblivious to the seriousness of this moment.
“You know, you’ve changed a lot,” Pip offered while scratching two lions’ manes at the same time. “I always thought you were kind of a bore. But I guess I didn’t really see the real you. ”
Edmund could have been offended by such a statement. But he chuckled instead. It was true he had once been nothing more than a hunter who only cared about providing meals for his family. “Everything started to change when Elanore reappeared in my life. It’s because of her I ended up needing to change. And thanks to her, we’re all here.”
Pip glanced around, taking in the menagerie of creatures underfoot and the buildings overhead. “But as odd of a place as it is, you seem pretty comfortable with it. Like you have always belonged.”