With no one person or situation to interrupt the conversation, Edmund was obliged to reflect upon such an assessment. Over the last few months, Pip had come to spend a great deal of time with the lions. Edmund worried over exactly how much the lions had revealed to Pip about Edmund, his questionable heritage, and his growing sensitivity to magic.
“I have been here as long as you have,” he pointed out mildly. It would be almost a half-year at this point according to their calendars. “I suppose I can say that I have adapted better than others to these unusual surroundings.”
“Exactly,” the younger hunter answered.”But I have been here almost as long and I still feel like a total stranger. You fit this place. As if it belonged to you.”
The lions did not seem to disagree. “Edmund, Edmund,” they chattered excitedly — pleased by such words. “Are you done eating?” They adopted Pip’s words and turned them in their favor. “You belong to us now! Let’s play!”
Pip’s words had roused strong responses from the social beasts. They were both frantic and delighted when Edmund put his bowl down and considered his situation. So frantic were they that when he did not move from his seat as expected, an eager lion nipped at his sleeve.
“No.” Edmund pushed away the creature’s nose before he was dragged away like some poor lion cub. “Mind your manners. I am still talking to Pepin.”
Even when the beast whined piteously, Edmund did not relent. He offered a stern warning and the beast and its fellow lions hung their heads in embarrassment.
He felt guilty at times like these. He rubbed his nose and sighed, exhausted by the lions’ unpredictable behavior. “It has worsened these past few days. Without people and with the Count and Countess unable to spend time with them, they become lonelier and more demanding. Their complaints irritate the Wolframs and so I give them what they want. In doing so, however, I can’t tell if I am making things better or worse.”
Pip watched the lions begin to wrestle in boredom. “How would they behave if you weren’t here?”
“I have no idea. If it weren’t for my duty to the Countess, I’d consider taking my parents and resettling back outside. Perhaps then they would quiet down.”
And yet, the lions openly grumbled at his suggestion. Others roared.
The vehemence of their response fascinated Pip. “It is obvious they don’t want to let you go.”
Edmund did not deny that. The lions were deeply attached to him. However, there no longer was any real reason to insist he must quarter here. The Unthings were a distant problem — unlikely to return until the next eclipse some hundred years from now. And while there were other threats out there to be considered, the wolves and lions had turned up nothing significant in their forays into the forest.
He knew the reasons for him to stay were dwindling. “I promised only to stay until the Countess has recovered.” In his mind, the need for him had begun to disappear. With heirs, the Count would also forget his obsession with him as well. He could give up the implausible belief that Edmund might be his son. That thought relieved Edmund.
But it was something else that made him smile. “Then Elanore and I can take care of our family matters and marry.”
That small moment of hope was accented by the appearance of the sun from behind the clouds.
The sight of it caught the attention of both young men. They tilted their chins upwards and hungrily drank in the light while the lions settled down. When the sun disappeared, all fell quiet.
Pip set his bowl aside. “I envy you. You have a path to follow. I don’t even know what that is for me anymore.” He kicked the heel of his boot into the dirt. “Old Gregory keeps asking me what I used to want to do besides hunt. I don’t remember. If I had such thoughts, I don’t have them anymore.”
Edmund did not have years of experience to understand how to deal with such dark words. But he knew that Pip’s anxiety mirrored some of his own from long ago. He leaned back and pressed his palms onto his bench. His mind reached for the right words– for wisdom. “When I was brought to this town, I did not know who I was. Not even my name. It was the kindness of others that helped me find some kind of footing in this world. It took time to find it. But you have time.”
The younger man did not respond. But he understood. “So,” he once again kicked the ground. “With this time, what can I do here besides play with lions, sleep, and eat? Old Gregory spends his time chatting with the old folks. And the guildmaster’s wife ignores me.”
“There’s the library,” Edmund offered. “Elanore and I have been trying to teach ourselves everything and anything we can glean from books and accounts from others about this land. Eventually, she and I will leave this place to see what we can find.”
The young man hunched over in his seat. “You’ll be out there.”
“Yes. And you would be welcome to journey with us until you find yourself again.”
Pip shuddered. “I do not think I will ever seek out adventure in the woods again. But if I did say yes, what would your soon-to-be wife think of that? You’d have to both keep an eye out for me.”
Edmund reached out to the heads of those lions closest to him. They were tense and alarmed by such conversation. His touch assured them to not immediately panic. “You’ll have time to think about it. It may not be for a while yet. And I think she’d insist you come along if you wish to be part of a journey. She has always liked exploring I think.” That curious nature was something he had come to deeply admire within her. “But–” he smiled to himself. “She’s also the kind who would do anything to help someone else.”
His open declaration of admiration for Elanore embarrassed Pip. The younger man coughed, scattering a few of the lions away from where they sat.
But Edmund was not ashamed of his words. Magic had drawn them together. But love would bind them.
And now, the two things together, hinted that she approached. The stones underfoot warmed in response to her presence.
He was not surprised when she peered around the corner of the building. But if she was in a hurry, the lions delayed her. They would have their greetings first before they would allow her to pass.
Edmund stood when their eyes met. He could feel her usually cheerful disposition was muted with concern.
She waved off the lions and came their way, her skirts swishing around her as she tried to walk. “I hope I am not interrupting.”
Pip looked ready to leave but Edmund did not let him escape. “No. We were eating and just trying to catch up before I turned in.”
Whatever was on her mind was not urgent, for she offered Pip a smile. “And you? How are you today?”
To Pip’s credit he was brutally honest. “I am depressed as usual. But I have been sleeping alright. The tea helps a lot.”
She sat down next to him. For the moment, her own matters were forgotten. Her voice wavered, weighted down with concern and compassion. “Is it as bad as last week?”
Pip rocked in his seat slightly and shook his head.
She looked relieved and exhausted at the same time. “I am glad.”
He stuttered, mortified to have caused her such concern. “You’ve had a hard time I guess. That strange halfling. And then the Countess and her three babies.”
She picked at her skirts. “I haven’t done enough. But I can do more.” She looked at the both of them. “Will you help me?”