“A visitor to see you, leader.”
Wilhelm looked up from the table at which he was working and frowned at the guild member standing at the entry to his temporary office.
Outside, the day had disappeared. And it was far beyond the hour for decent folk to be on the road.
But behind that boy was someone who did not follow normal rules. The sometimes minstrel and full-time halfling known as Marrok waited.
The guild leader pushed aside his surprise, affecting a disinterested look as he waved off his guildmate. The Wolfram clan was not exactly human. He knew that this would be no social call.
Wilhelm rose from his seat. While he placed his papers underneath a book, his mind sifted through all the possible reasons for this person to appear at their doorstep. He began with the most obvious. “Is my wife in labor?”
The greying wolf took no notice of the lack of a normal greeting. “Not yet,” Marrok answered. He procured a sealed letter from under his cloak and pushed it forward across the table. “She asked this be sent to you. My lady and the other women believe she has at least a month.They wish for you to prepare yourself.”
“A month,” Wilhelm repeated vaguely as he thought of the condition of the guild compound. “That isn’t much more time.”
“I shall wait for a letter in reply,” the minstrel motioned to the chair, asking permission to seat himself .
“Of course, Wilhelm assented. But before he seated himself across from this unexpected guest, he closed the door. He knew his guild men were not above listening to each other’s conversations. He preferred, however, to read the letter’s contents unobserved.
He turned the paper in his hand, carefully sealed with wax. It was rare to have a letter penned in his wife’s hand. He had written awkward letters to her during their long-distance courtship. She replied with little interest or passion. The practice had stopped as soon as they married.
Without any real affection or friendship between them, he did not know what she would speak of. There had been no tears or begging on either side when she had made her decision to stay with the wolves.
He cracked open the seal and scanned the letter’s contents. Only a few lines covered the paper.
Wilhelm put the letter back down on the table and stared at the wall while he recited the list she made for him. “She tells me I need to think of a name for the child. And to make sure the men are not only eating cured meat or they will die of the wasting disease. That is all. I have no answer.”
Marrok nodded once. “My men and I came with a few baskets of vegetables and fruits. We can bring more canned goods later.”
Wilhelm felt the awkwardness of his position. Normally they would not accept such fare but there had been nowhere to buy foodstuffs. Instead, they lived solely off meat left over from the previous season and what small game they could find in the forest. “We won’t have meat or furs to trade for them. Not until at least next month.”
“No matter,” the wolf shook his head. “These are a gift in celebration of the safe birth of Lord Wolfram’s children. It is a portion of the feast we would have shared if the circumstances were better.”
Wilhelm again frowned, puzzled. It was too soon by his accounts for such a thing to happen. “If the circumstances were better?” He wondered why the visitor spoke only of the children and not the lady of the estate. “How does their mother fare?”
He caught the quick glance at the floor before Marrok responded. “I can only repeat what my wife has said. Physically she will take time to mend. But she is well enough to nurse.”
It was evident that his guest did not wish to say more. Wilhelm debated what to say. While he cared little for the arrogant lord, the Lady Wolfram was admired by many in his guild. They had come to understand it was she who had been behind the offer to shelter them during the terrifying winter. Quietly and sincerely, he offered his wishes for her speedy recovery.
Neither man was cut out for dwelling on the sentimental. The halfling cleared his throat. “Lady Tala told me you should expect the same for your wife. For now, she keeps to her bed most of the day. She may also need to do the same after the child is born.” Marrok spoke bluntly. “The guild does not appear to be suitable for that purpose.”
Wilhelm stared down his nose at his visitor. “You have come to see our progress on her behalf? Well!” the guildmaster laughed bitterly. “This is not a fit place for a family or a child. Our vandals did not leave things in good shape. Half of my men are sleeping in tents inside the barracks. The smokehouses are being re-cleaned and it always smells rancid. Mind you, we have done little else to prepare for the larger hunts of the summer.”
“Indeed, it is a difficult to live off the land,” Marrok answered calmly. “The townsfolk cannot fill their allotment of buildings. If you were to take the remainder, your men would not need to spend so much time on repairs or furnishing quarters.”
Wilhelm’s suspicions as to the reasons for the wolf’s visit deepened. “My wife pushed for that as well. I could understand that. But why does your lord press this matter? What does he gain from such difficult neighbors? Surely you don’t think this a good idea. Too many hunters make for hardship.”
The wolf glanced away — a sign of discomfort or guilt. “The Lady Wolfram’s wishes for the safety of the humans are very well known to us. As she has conceived and borne three healthy children for our master, her new family should honor those wishes if possible.”
The guildmaster stroked his chin, perplexed by Marrok’s reasons. He did not understand the Wolfram clan and their feelings. However, he was not sure the wolves could understand them either. “It may seem ungrateful to you. But our families crossed the ocean for freedom –away from lords and their treacherous offers for protection. Many people in the East are no better than property of their rulers. As such, my men wish to live freely and independently from towns.”
“Of course,” Marrok bowed. “Out of deference to our lady, I had to try again. As for the towns, your men might be interested to know that we believe few are now left to bother them.”
The guildmaster narrowed his eyes and studied the halfling. “Crossroads? What has become of it?”
“Their collapse is imminent. No one has passed back out of the town walls in days. Even our friend the undertaker has not appeared to perform his duties. Several lions came back earlier with an account of the birds pecking at the pieces of bodies in a mass grave. They tried to chase them away, thinking they were dishonoring the graves but their impression was the bodies were already torn apart. ” Marrok blinked. “I know of no disease that looks like the work of butchers.”
Wilhelm grimly agreed. “Our murderers, perhaps. Still, that town in winter has thousands of people. I wonder how something like that could happen and not go noticed for too long.”
“Indeed,” came the response. “We are puzzled. But my lord has told us to look to the houses to the north to see if there is a pattern. However, those closest to here were empty. The ones further beyond, my men will go see for themselves. I recall a town there some years ago.”
“That town is deserted in the winter,” Wilhelm shook his head. “We typically go east for supplies.”
“Then I presume your men are on their way there.”
Wilhelm nodded. “They know it could be dangerous. We do not know what lurks in the woods. But they keep to the well-known paths. I will send word if we find anything out.”
“Of course, as will we.” Marrok stood to take his leave. “My lord also wished for us to send word that your townspeople have decided to raze the remains of their town center. The Mayor was opposed to it but she could not overcome their superstitions. They believe the inn and pub requires purification. We will do our best to make sure they do not set fire to these woods with their actions.”
“An extreme position, wouldn’t you say?”
“That I cannot judge.” Marrok opened the door. “The world has greatly changed.”
* * *
While Marrok tended to business outside the Wolfram estate, inside it his lord was preoccupied with his own personal affairs.
Count Maximilian Wolfram was carving a path into the hallway carpet.
Wolfram knew time was slipping away from him. Through Giles had come word that he had caught Gareth lingering around the younger clanswomen who had attended Lady Selva at birth. While he did not suspect his cousin of malfeasance he knew Gareth was searching out information. Exactly what Gareth was aiming at, however, he did not know.
When several of his distant cousins came out of Selva’s temporary chambers, he took up by the windows to let them pass. He frowned at the cold draft playing against his back. The window was still not fully repaired from the blast of wind that had broken several panes.
The young girls bowed their heads in passing and avoided looking at him. He could smell their mortification. Lady Tala had been instructed to dismiss anyone not from her own pack but not told why.
Outside he heard the lions chattering amongst themselves. They had finally withdrawn to a distant tree for the evening. He was glad, for their constant attentions were starting to grate at his nerves.
Finally, Tala emerged to speak to him. “The matter is addressed. My daughters and nieces are the only ones who remain.”
“Is she awake?”
“Yes, and she has eaten very well. You should come in before she feeds your children.”
The news was good in his eyes. But he poked his cane at the carpet. “Not yet. I wait for Miss Redley and young Ormond.”
Tala did not frown. However, unlike Marrok, she made no pretense of politeness when it came to the Count. “I have reduced her number of contacts. You have many disappointed cousins who will wonder at this mark of favoritism for outsiders, Lord Wolfram.”
Again, his cane tapped against the floor. “If they complain, send them to me. That should silence them.”
She sighed. “And what do you mean for them to do?”
“What I admit I lack skill in doing myself. They understand how to make my wife feel more comfortable.”
Tala coughed. “Well, I think they will be good helpers to my daughters. They seem to have no problem with orders. Or keeping things tidy.”
He raised his brow wondering exactly what Selva had told his cousins about his habits. “I am afraid that you and I cannot continue to keep watch like this on an indefinite basis. Even with the townspeople out, the wolves are restless. Marrok and Giles cannot keep order without us standing with them. The Silver Wolf appears to be biding his time until the naming ceremony.”
“You do not need to worry. He is only thinking of his sons.” Tala’s mouth crinkled upwards. “They will take mates as fall approaches. They need to return home unless you plan to tend a nursery of children next spring.”
“Ah,” Wolfram puzzled over this information. “I did not know. A considerate wolf.”
“He is,” Tala’s eyes sparked with humor. “But I thank the stars that my daughters do not go with them.”
“Not clever enough to satisfy their mother, I suppose.”
She snorted lightly, not willing to answer such a question. “I am glad you have not lost some of your usual shrewdness, my lord.”
Her friendly expression faded away when they heard the approach of steps. Hastings appeared, followed closely by Miss Redley and Edmund, each wearing the white garments that had been provided to them by Tala’s assistants.
Lady Tala began her inspection of the two arrivals with a curt greeting. In spite of Hasting’s assurances that they had followed her protocols to the very letter, she thoroughly examined them for herself.
When she was satisfied, she opened the door to the room where Selva slept and ushered them inside.
Several of Tala’s daughters and nieces greeted them as they entered. Wolfram left Miss Redley and Edmund to make their introductions while he immediately went to his wife who was busy nursing his youngest child.
Selva’s eyes brightened as she saw him. And she smiled at their guests who were shyly standing back and admiring the children.
If Lady Tala had objected to such a visit, she dared not complain now. Quietly, Tala and her daughters yielded the babies to these new helpers before they disappeared from the room.
Miss Redley was delighted and pleased to find herself holding the Wolfram’s middle son in her arms. “They are all looking so well. As are you, Lady Selva! I was worried.”
“I was worried too,” Selva glanced down at the child she held in her own arms. “I still worry.”
Wolfram sat down next to his wife, pondering her state of mind.
“They have such beautiful eyes,” Elanore said as she peeked at Edmund’s charge. Edmund had somehow ended up holding their eldest daughter — the most fiery and tempermental of the three. The girl yawned in his arms and blinked steadily at the blonde-haired young man. “Although I think hers are prettiest. I wonder what color they are? They appear a bit green. And his,” she added as she looked at the boy she held. “I think they are somewhere between grey and blue.”
“I think my youngest’s eyes were always the most beautiful,” Selva said to herself. When she caught her husband staring at her, she corrected herself. “I mean… are. I was just confused.”
Wolfram placed his hand on her skin to check for signs of fever. Finding none, he was not certain he should feel relieved. “Has he finished feeding? Our daughter is becoming impatient.”
She gave up the child to him almost reluctantly. But as soon as Edmund placed the eldest in Selva’s arms and the girl began to nurse, her look of near panic disappeared.
Wolfram’s youngest did not care to lie still in his father’s hands. The straw-haired baby turned his head and openly stared at Edmund.
The Count was had guessed the young child might show an interest in Edmund. Before Selva could interfere, he placed his youngest in Edmund’s arms.
Neither reacted with much surprise. Instead, the two silently studied each other before the child began to babble nonsense.
The Count sat back down at his wife’s side and watched the two play together. And then with great care, he spoke to his wife. “They are very alike, aren’t they?”
Her expression grew cautious as she found her husband’s gaze upon her. “My lord? And what of it?”
For a long time he had avoided talking about the child they had lost. His conscience had argued that it would be kinder to say nothing of the past. He did not wish to provoke her into sadness or anger. However, he knew he could not keep silent. To tie up his youngest child’s life in some kind of awkward fiction of her creation would be wrong.
Wolfram studied his wife. “Our youngest son has prompted you to speak of the past. I heard you say things that implied you believed that our child to have returned. Or did I misunderstand your words?”
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Edmund stiffen. And he heard a gasp. That sound would be from Miss Redley, in shock.
Selva did not answer at first. But a spot of color formed on her cheek. “I was ill. I do not know what I said.”
“You said your child had come back to you,” Wolfram reminded her. “Many who were present at delivery heard this. Some will forget it. But others may not.”
A spot of color formed upon her cheek. “And is such a belief heretical?” Selva asked.
“It is not our way,” he said. “It would be hard for me to understand such an idea. In my mind, when I hear of our son I see a young man. He would be Edmund’s age.” He paused. “And as a young man born of two such parents, he might have unusual powers that reflect his birthright. Authority and command over the magic in this estate. And an intuition not unlike his mother’s.”
“I–” Selva looked at him, startled by the direction this conversation was taking. “I said he was kin did I not?”
“Yes, kin.” Wolfram looked at them together. “Still, did it not occur to you that there are too many coincidences to leave it at that?”
Selva shook her head. “And as much as I love Edmund, it never occurred to me. I could feel our baby anywhere he would go. I could sense his feelings. Edmund is not the same. ”
She was nearly convincing. Enough so that Miss Redley looked ready to fly into a rage when Wolfram continued pressing the matter. “If our youngest was reborn, somehow… how would it look to you? What do you see when you look at our youngest?”
Her brow wrinkled as she studied their son in Edmund’s arms. Slowly, a look of clarity dawned on her face. She quickly glanced at her two other babies. “I see no string of fate on him or any of them. They are free of such things.”
He knew then she would speak no more of this idea of a reborn son. “And what of Edmund? Is there no way our son might have lived? And that fate intervened to raise him in a normal home before drawing us back together?”