For these northern-raised men, the resulting sight was both dazzling and incomprehensible.
But Elanore, who had been born to the south, was no stranger to bright, vivid flowers. “Oh Edmund!” the lady exclaimed in delight.
If there were a garden of paradise, she believed them to be in it.
She cradled the bloom that had fallen from Edmund’s hand and looked about for these unseen users of magic. Her heart was moved by the beauty of what she saw. And she could not help but repeat Edmund’s request. “We would like to meet you. If the flower doesn’t please you, tell us what does.”
The dust flurried indecisively around her, swayed by the sweet and gentle manner in which she had spoken.
But no guidance came.
Finally, it was Pip who broke the silence. “Try sweets.” He bashfully looked up from his basket of vegetables, trying to offer what little help he could. “We had a lot of missing dried fruits and sugar cubes recently. It must be because of them.”
She did not even think to question his logic. Elanore frantically searched the baskets around her for something that might suffice.
But Edmund leaned forward and placed his hand on Elanore’s knee.
Her cheeks warmed in confusion at the affectionate gesture. When his fingers drifted up her leg she began to stammer. “What are you doing?”
Although he was not a particularly mischievous man, a ghost of smile flickered across his face while he tugged at her apron pocket. “Candy would do, would it not?”
She might have frowned too much, for he withdrew his hand. Edmund’s brow creased, silently marking his worry. “I will replace it somehow, Elanore. I promise.”
His voice sounded truly contrite.
“Oh you silly Edmund,” she weakly scolded him. She did not wish for him to believe her truly angry. “As if I would make you do that. What’s mine is yours.”
She was rewarded with a kiss to her hand that made her smile. In turn, she joyfully scattered the small pieces of striped candy on the ground before where the two sat. “Look!” she cried out. “These fruit come from a far away shop, made by hand.”
There was a sound of excited chatter as the golden specks reappeared. They increased in brightness and in number, flying from tree to tree, plant stem to stem.
When the round candies began to move across the ground, they waited for the unseen hand to reveal itself. But seeing naught, Edmund placed his finger on the top of one piece before it could get too far from him. He held it in place while he restated his request. “You may have them only if you show yourselves. And there will be more tomorrow should you prove that we have not brought enough.”
“More?” echoed around them as the small lights began to draw closer. “More?” The lights were forming into eyes that peered back. “More?”
“Yes, more. And we will bring them to you,” he said softly. “And sugar. And ribbons. And toys, if that is your thing.”
The faces filled in around those eyes, tiny and human-like save for the wee ears on the creatures. Then came their bodies — appearing in all shapes, colors, and sizes. Long and thin. Short and round. Pale and dark. They appeared on and under the plants, sometimes hanging from branches. Some sat cross-legged on top of the tiles. Others with wings floated in the air.
Around the humans were hundreds of little people, all their eyes shining with curiosity and childlike glee. The humans sat up straight, taken aback to find themselves in the midst of so many companions.
The one caught holding the candy in front of Edmund squeaked in indignation at having been forgotten. Upon inspection, the magic creature had the appearance of a miniature girl child, with a mop of curly brown hair that topped an otherwise round and healthy face. Her green catlike eyes were fearless as she pulled at the candy. And she was quite loud.
Edmund relented and removed his finger from her way. With little resistance, the little sprite almost fell over. But she quickly righted herself and scampered towards the safety of Elanore’s lap before she stuck out her tongue.
When Edmund laughed, the eyes all blinked out. “Come,” he grinned. “You may have the rest.”
It was only then the others followed the example of the small girl-fairy, running and flying in to claim their rewards.
“I know there is not enough now,” he inclined his head slightly. “And so I will bring more the next time.”
“More?” they echoed before they faded back into the dust and shadows, leaving only their eyes visible while they watched.
Pip stared back, fascinated into silence.
But Elanore paid them little notice, giddily admiring the tiny creature in her lap. The young woman was taken with the greedy little sprite who had forgotten to disappear.
The fairy was still attacking the candy with her mouth without much success. The piece was too big to eat in one bite, much to the creature’s irritation.
Edmund cleared his throat. “Elanore, the others will fade away if you do not act soon. If you need their help, ask it now.”
She glanced around, surprised to find so many eyes still blinking around her. “The lady of this house has a need of burdock root and gentle foods good for cleaning the blood. Does the garden bear such items?”
Several pairs of eyes blinked a few times as if they were uncertain whether to help.
“The mistress of this home needs your aid,” Edmund reminded them. “She, who has kept you company all this time, cannot return here without it.”
The eyes blinked out, turning into specks of dust.
“Do you think they understood?” Edmund frowned.
They watched as the clouds began to circle about overhead and underfoot.
“Let’s wait,” Elanore murmured. She had coaxed the fairy in her lap to give her the candy. She began to break it up into smaller pieces, being careful that the creature could see the candy the entire time until she left them resting on her skirt. When the sprite resumed her eating, Elanore explained herself further. “Selva would come in here and always find what she wanted. Somehow they made it happen. I don’t know how but they understand things. But they do.”
Pip interjected. “Is the Countess that powerful?”
“I don’t know,” she answered, curious herself about the full range of Selva’s magic. “They must have liked her very much. See how they don’t want to listen to either of us.”
“They listen to Edmund,” Pip disagreed.
Edmund shifted uncomfortably in his seat as both of his companions studied him. “I don’t know about that. As you can see they’re not listening now.”
And yet the leaves in the garden shook as if to defy him. New plants began to grow and stretch, following the will of the fair folk who would summon them. Slowly, the baskets began to fill with new vegetables and herbs.
Elanore pet the hair of the little cherub in her lap with one finger while she watched Edmund and the lights flickering around him. She watched them until their task was done, seeing how they watched Edmund until it was evident he would not ask for more.
Reluctantly they faded away, one by one, still crying “More?” while the humans gently closed the door behind them.
* * *
They parted ways outside the kitchen where they left a treasure trove of vegetables. Without warning, Pip explained that he wished to sleep.
He fidgeted while trying to sort out how best to take his leave. “I’m sorry if I wasn’t good company today. I’m grateful you asked.” He hunched his shoulders. “When I stayed behind, I didn’t expect anything to come of it. But today, ” he croaked. “–today I’ll remember. Always.”
Pip ran off before anything further could be said, leaving a stunned couple in his wake.
Elanore swiped at her eyes. His words both humbled her and gave her joy.
Edmund’s fingers tangled in her hair as he tried to stroke her head to comfort her. “We forgot to think about how he might feel, didn’t we? I took things for granted. I forgot how real and wondrous the magic of this place happens to be. But for today, I should thank you too.”
Elanore buried her head in his shoulder. She was still ashamed to have become so overcome by emotion. “Of course not, silly,” she tried to rally her spirits. “You shouldn’t be thanking me. That magic is a part of you.”
His fingers stroked the small of her back. “And a part of you. Am I wrong?”
“No,” she answered softly, wondering why admitting that made her heart feel suddenly heavy.
“Elanore, what happened there–” he began to say as his arms tightened around her waist.
It was unexplainable, magical, and terribly frightening how much it could affect others. Elanore interrupted. “Let us tell him about it. I want to ask what is happening here. Just in case.”
“You mean now?” He then corrected himself. “Of course you would mean now. Even though we’re dirty and soiled.” He paused before he wryly added, “And tired. And hungry. And alone.”
“He’s expecting us. He knows we would visit the garden. Please,” she implored.
He did not need more to convince him. “Okay,” he relented and sighed. “Okay.”
Elanore did not know why he seemed disappointed. But she grabbed his hand and led him to the wing where the new mother resided.
There, they spotted the Count sitting on a bench outside one of the chambers contemplating the floor. The Count cut a somber, pensive appearance to those who watched, including a few of the lions peering in through a nearby window.
The lord did not acknowledge them until Elanore called out in greeting.
Wolfram nodded once in the young woman’s direction but his eyes came to rest on Edmund.
Neither of the two young people could discern what lay behind that steely gaze.
Edmund raised his chin. “How is she?”
His blunt question mortified Elanore. However brusque Edmund might be, the Count did not bristle. The gloomy man continued to stare at him. “The children are nursing well.Their mother is physically managing. She is feverish at times.”
Elanore could see something weighed upon him. “You are worried about her.”
The Count pressed his gloved fingers against his temple. “In her delirium, she keeps asking to see our third-born. She frets when he’s taken away unless I hold him. I fear she is confused. She keeps claiming he’ll be stolen away or lost.”
Edmund was at a loss for words. And so it was up to Elanore to carry the weight of what had become an uncomfortable conversation. “Of course she would want to protect her young.”
Wolfram tapped his cane on the floor. “But the other two she allows Tala and the nursemaids to feed. This one she claims is her lost son and must not be taken from her side. I cannot appease her.”
Elanore held out the basket, willing the Count to stop staring at Edmund. “She’ll listen better once her fever is gone and she has had time to rest. Take this. It will help.”
The Count received it and studied its contents. “I see you have uncovered quite a good deal of herbs and roots.”
She spoke as quickly as she could before he would say something additionally painful to Edmund. “I cannot take the credit. I did not know these were there. The creatures dwelling in the hothouse brought them to us. I’m sure they were fairies or brownies of some sort. And they must have been the ones helping your wife tend the garden. They are able to make things grow.”
He touched his gloves to his lips. He did not look all too surprised. “My mother used to talk about fairies. Perhaps I did not understand why. I could not, for I have never seen them.”
“But we did,” Edmund finally broke his silence. “They showed themselves to us when we asked.”
“When you asked,” Elanore corrected her fiancee. “If you had not been there, I doubt they would have helped to the degree they did. Only you and the Countess could make them listen.”
“A young man of many hidden talents,” Wolfram murmured. “It would please her to know how strong you are becoming.”
The young man glanced away, embarrassed and uncertain. “But I cannot do anything for her now.”
Wolfram stood without warning. His eyes did not leave Edmund as he brandished his cane in his direction. “I believe you can. Go and speak to Hastings. Tell him to draw your bath to Lady Tala’s specifications. Return once you are done and then we shall speak more.”