A stream of lions advanced towards the young woman, anxious to ask her a million questions.
Elanore did not hear their giggling voices as they started inquiring about the kiss. She stood absently, touching her smiling lips while she puzzled over the mystery that was Edmund. Although she had known him most of her life, she could not explain what he had just done.
The lions pressed closer. They blinked at her with their large eyes, sensing the flutter of magic within her. When they spoke gusts of wind stirred the dry snow off the ground. The snow hung in air drifting along as particles, reflecting the light of the magic waking in the earth.
The Count struck his cane against the ground and then swung it about him, chasing the lions away. He took the young woman’s arm firmly in hand and led her down an open path, back towards the main house.
Walking partially restored her to her senses. The hint of light began to fade and Elanore’s head cleared.
She turned her attention back to her host and studied him as they continued their walk. He had grown a little greyer since undergoing his strange transformation into a shadow monster. But she thought those signs of aging made him more approachable in turn.
Unlike Edmund she was inclined to see the Count in a friendlier light because of Lady Selva’s influence. Elanore had spent enough time with the woman to see past the bickering front the lady presented to her lord. Selva was, at times, frustratingly mysterious. However, she failed in hiding her love for the Count–from Elanore or from any of the other female residents who spent time with the woman.
Many speculated that the Count could not be as aloof or icy as he appeared. But his expression was unreadable when he addressed her. “Are you well Miss Redley? The lions’ desire some response from you.”
She was mortified to have been caught not paying attention. Elanore shook herself out of her silence. She waved lightly to the lions, still following from a greater distance. “I suspect my excitement has caught up to me.”
Drily he responded. “You mean Edmund caught up to you.”
Elanore reddened at the remark. “Naturally we are very happy at the moment. Father Lorrence’s arrival is good news. Edmund’s parents wished for the friar to bless our plans before we talked further about marriage.”
A strange look crossed Lord Wolfram’s face, spurring Elanore to correct herself. “By that, I mean it is his adopted parents who have made that condition.”
A wrinkle formed on his forehead. For a moment it lingered there before it smoothed itself out. “Miss Redley, I presume you know of the conversation I had with him? About the offer for him to stay?”
The tone of his voice was silky and overly solicitous but she knew he was displeased. Not by her knowledge of his offer to allow them reside here but by her knowledge that the Count believed Edmund to be his son.
She drew herself up and looked the older man in the eye. “He does not hide things from me. Nor should he bear his burdens alone. He told me of what you believe.”
He halted their walk for a moment to ponder that statement. “And what will you do with that information? Will you keep it to yourself?”
“Of course. It is not mine to disclose!”
“No,” his eyes narrowed as he looked at her. “It is not. Your families can only meddle and precipitate more trouble. And if they should, my wolves will take action that is most in line with their natural instincts. Wolves are possessive and strong-willed to a fault. Neither of you would have a choice what happens next to you.”
Elanore mirrored his expression, suddenly wary. Had she not believed he was a person capable of kindness she might have viewed his words as a threat. Very carefully she considered what he was saying about his family. “Do you mean they will harm him? Or take him prisoner?”
“In a way.” He gripped his cane tightly in his hand. “They will shackle him with expectations he isn’t ready to handle. He is young and inexperienced. But the wolves leave him be because he is nothing more than your knight and the lion’s pet. They see he is being trained by the lions and by myself because Lady Selva wishes it. He is her kin, not theirs. They will leave it like this –refusing to engage further because they have heard it said widely you both will be leaving.”
Elanore gripped her skirts, frustrated by what he said. “Those plans were only known to us, our families, and the Lady Selva. Even then, nothing could be done until permission was obtained from both of our parents. Only then we’d be able to marry and leave.”
“And that,” he said sternly, “has now become impossible.”
* * *
Edmund found Friar Lorrence sitting alone in the drawing room. The old man stood to receive him, his slow speed betraying how unkind the winter had been to him.
The hunter swallowed his surprise and greeted him warmly. He took up a chair across from the man and waited for the friar to speak.
The clergyman cracked a smile. “Edmund, I am relieved to see you look well. I was worried for you when we last met. But I see you are much better thanks to your girl. She is both lovely and energetic. Her grandfather would have been so happy to see the two of you together.”
The young man’s face brightened for a moment. As a child, he had worshipped Elanore’s grandfather, Mr. Winchester. Hearing such a statement from the man’s best friend lightened his heart. “We both hope so. I am sorry I wasn’t here to greet you earlier. I was outside training and had no idea you were here–“
“I did not know myself that I would be.” The smile on the clergyman’s face was gone now, replaced by a look of exhaustion. “As of yesterday I had no idea things would come to this. Coming here wasn’t in our plan. We would have gone elsewhere had it not been for a woman on the road.”
Edmund stared. “On the road? Are people on the road again?”
“Ah no,” the Friar frowned. “As such, we were startled by her appearance. The roads are empty. The woods are full of rumors of ghosts and monsters No one comes north our way and everyone who ventured out from town has, so far, turned back. This past week the town’s new council has restricted traffic inside and outside the walls.”
And yet the man was here far outside the town. Edmund studied the older gentleman. “So you did not leave with their permission. What is going on?”
The friar’s rounded shoulders drooped further. “For a while supplies and entertainments were plentiful. Crossroads was set to have its usual winter full of drunken revelry. But once the period of darkness came, so did the stories of evil demons spiriting away anyone wandering at night during the dead hours. Then the traders came less frequently and then stopped showing altogether. We have had no new supplies in several weeks. And no one dares hunt outside because they are afraid of what they have heard about parties that have gone missing.”
“The Unthings!” Edmund gripped the armrests of his chair. These were shapeless monsters that lurked in dark corners, waiting to devour living beings. The estate residents had coped with a great many of them, barely surviving their encounter more than a month ago. He now realized that the creatures had gotten to the other towns as well.
“Yes, although Harry told us not to concern ourselves over those things when he dragged us out onto the sleighs in the dark. The children were terrified in spite of how much he tried to bribe them with candy. Many had no parents. It was terrible trying to keep them calm.”
Edmund stared at the rug on the floor, dizzy with the recollection of a similar situation many years ago and a similar terror. “What was that man thinking? It wasn’t safe what he did. We ourselves have been told to stay in for at least few more weeks.”
The friar nodded, pleased to find himself with such a sympathetic audience. “That’s what the woman said to him as well when she found us. The fool told her he was more afraid of men than of monsters. She laughed wildly at that one and sent him back with a few of her magic beasts! Then she whispered to the horses and they took off before I could even strap myself back in. How she beat us here, I still don’t know.”
Edmund exhaled as several questions were answered. “The woman you met was Lady Selva.”
“Well,” the friar looked rather troubled. “Yes, it seems so. Not an ordinary woman, it appears.”
“No,” Edmund answered firmly. He wished to tell the friar more but was not sure what the man would believe. Nor did it appear to be the right time to speak more.
The friar blinked heavily. His drooping eyes signaled the old man was in need of rest.
Edmund would have to wait to discuss the other things that were on his mind. He glanced about, frowning. “Where is your novice? Shouldn’t he be here by now to escort you to your quarters?”
“Ah.” The friar squeezed his eyes shut and bowed his head. He muttered a silent prayer before he reopened his eyes. “I’m afraid not. Novice Wyte is no more.”