Elanore approached the kitchen fireplace, carefully balancing a bowl and its contents.
Several pairs of eyes rested upon her, watching as she began to divide vegetables and broken meats into hanging kettles.
There were no jokes or quiet encouragement as she successfully completed her task. However, she was grateful that she did not have to hear any clucking tongues or fretting either. Her proctors might not be healers or witches watching a young apprentice mixing medicines or potions, but they took the work of preparing meals equally seriously.
Elanore stood near the heat of the cooking fires and wiped her brow once before she reached for a large wooden spoon strapped to her apron. She began to stir each pot.
Every so often she would look up to find one of the old women staring hard at her. The young woman would smile and go back to watching the ingredients simmer.
Over the past few months a great deal of work on the estate had shifted to the resident guests. Lord Wolfram’s servants were still there in the background doing what they normally did. As capable they might be, their numbers were too small and his staff too old to keep up with the demands of so many mouths to feed. All the women, whether Wolfram, villager, and even the guildmaster’s wife agreed to take a turn every other day in the kitchen.
Elanore rarely was allowed to come near the food during its preparation. Her rather poor skills at cooking were well-known. If the new arrivals to the estate hadn’t required the attention of several women this morning, Elanore might have been regulated to washing dishes instead.
She tried to keep her focus on the food in front of her but was drawn instead into the flow of conversation that surrounded her. Here in this kitchen the ladies talked openly about what the men had discussed the night before. The men often gathered during the evening to talk, drink and smoke. The contents of these conversations were rarely ever kept secret from their wives and mothers. Come morning, the evening “widows” would share what they learned with the other women.
The arrival of the friar and the families from Crossroads had stirred up the townspeople. Several men had claimed they would organize to send a scouting party to see to their homes as well as “rescue” the town to the south.
This might have been the boasting of a few tipsy and bored men. However, they were restless and longing for home. Elanore sympathized with these families but could not say she shared their feelings. Unlike them, she had grown used to wandering. Home was not a house on a plot of land but a place where she had someone to return to. As a young woman in love, she saw the world differently than others.
Her eyes lit up from within as she thought of Edmund. He had promised her that he would be at her disposal later in the day. Even when weighed down with heavy trays Elanore walked lightly back and forth between kitchen and dining hall. While doing so, she caught a piece of an argument between two servants standing behind her. Two maids argued over whether to take a tray to the countess. Elanore did not mean to eavesdrop but she had a vested interest in the whereabouts of Selva. The lady had promised to accelerate Elanore’s lessons on the magic and its execution. But the details of when and where had not been fixed.
The woman had yet to appear as the morning meal began to wind down. Elanore helped with the cleanup , after which she continued to linger in the dining hall. She hoped to receive some word about the day’s plans. With nothing left to do, Elanore found a corner table far away from the kitchen and sat down with a bowl of warm water.
She touched the water in that bowl with the tip of her finger, watching its surface ripple and the waves she created amplify. She imagined the voice of the Count in her head, using the water in a cup of tea to explain magic to her for the first time.
One touch could cause the physical alteration of something else. Something acted and something responded. His approach to magic was ordered, logical. Magic was constrained, finite, bound by rules.
Lady Selva did not accept his rules. She called to snow, to wind, and to creatures as if they were all live things that had a mind and consciousness. She persisted in ignoring its toll on herself. To her magic was relational — intuitively woven and meant to be tested.
The lions had never offered her or Edmund any explanation for the things they said ought to be done. Edmund had noted their obsession with harmony and balance between those actors using magic. In this particular way, they seemed to treat magic like Selva.
But they also believed in limits.
Elanore suddenly pushed the bowl aside.
At times she still had dreams of the monster the Count had become during the height of the eclipse. He had assumed a shadowy wolflike shape. Once in that form, the lions had cried for they did not believe he could be changed back. Had Elanore listened, that might have been the end of the man she knew as Maximilian Wolfram. But she had listened to intuition; a voice in her own heart had told her that Selva — who did not honor rules and loved the lord more than he loved her — must have been fated to come back to this estate to save him. Elanore was greatly relieved to be correct; had she erred both the lady and lord would likely have perished.
Elanore would then have never gained the friendship of the first true witch and magician she had met in her life. In these past few weeks Selva had proved to be a wise and patient teacher. Unlike the lord, the woman took great care to explain things to her. She did not hold back at explaining the mysteries of this home. Elanore now knew that the hazel door at the main entrance could shift its shape in response to the presence of magic. Likewise, she understood that doors and walls in this castle could change – even appearing and disappearing in response to those who were deemed the caretakers by the castle itself.
A deep power lay in this estate. The count had only scratched its surface because he did not possess the strength or training to understand it. So far all he seemed to show was his capability to tap the light energy from stones mined from the earth. And only under great duress could he change his own shape.
As for Selva, the lady would admit only to being able to manipulate water and wind. But others who watched her knew there might be more gifts and secrets hidden underneath the woman’s sometimes sad exterior. Elanore, the Count and the lions all could sense this. Edmund must have felt it as well, for his brow would furrow in worry whenever the topic of Selva came up in their conversations.
Elanore knew he had some gift, although no one would say what it might be or take interest in it. Why neither the lord or lady trained Edmund made little sense to Elanore. As near or distant kin –the probability of the young man possessing magic like theirs was great.
The young woman tapped her fingers on the table while thinking through this issue further. She knew Edmund was not a poor student or lacking in any discipline. Only the lions seemed to take an interest in whatever latent abilities he had. She stood up, thinking she ought to talk to them. It had been a few days since they had conversed. She knew they would have an opinion on Edmund’s training and the latest news that came via the friar.
The countess’ appearance in the hall made Elanore forget her plans entirely. She wondered if she might speak to the woman. However, a stream of servants and other ladies began to crowd the Lady Selva.
They drew back, however, when the Count rushed into the hall, glowering at those who had gathered around the woman.
Elanore braced herself for the start of another one of the squabbles that comprised a good portion of the couple’s public interactions. However, the countess turned to her lord and offered him a lovely smile that softened his otherwise terrible glare.
The lord stepped away from the assembly and went to address his manservant Hastings, who had scrambled in from somewhere to speak to his lord. During this interlude, Selva patiently addressed the women who needed her.
Elanore continued to wait her turn, resting her elbows on the table in front of her. She placed her chin in her hands and rehearsed how she might later describe this scene to the lions. They were unrepentant fans of the count and countess and demanded regular reports on the state of the relationship between the couple. Gawain, in particular, routinely asked anyone who would listen if there might be more cubs to play with in short order. They would be pleased by this morning’s report. The lord Wolfram’s manners, she could claim, were improving.
She nearly jumped when a hand came to rest upon her shoulder.
Elanore cringed as she looked up at the hand’s owner towering over her. Fortunately the Count had not noticed the foolish smile on her face. He was polite as he addressed her. “How is your grandmother’s health?”
The young woman nodded. “She is resting but is well.”
His gaze briefly moved around the hall before he continued. “And how fares Edmund? I am surprised he is not here with you.”
Elanore blushed slightly, wondering why he had raised one eyebrow. “Many of the townsfolk were up late talking with the friar. He was sleeping this morning when I went by his family’s quarters.”
“Of course.” The Count leaned slightly upon his cane as he continued to speak. “I have forgotten how the townspeople do things. I’m sure that many decisions will be need to be made now that the road appears partially open. I’m certain your grandmother must be thinking carefully through her next steps.”
The young woman realized that he was not idly chatting with her. She spoke calmly and firmly. “She does not inform me of her decisions in advance.”
He dragged the bottom tip of cane on the stone floor. “I do not know if you have spoken to the lions this morning. But they have a strong opinion on what must and must not be done. They do not wish for anyone to ride them outside of these gates.“
She knew that he did not mean just anyone. Only she and Edmund had attempted to ride the lions previously. “It hadn’t occurred to me to try,” Elanore answered sharply. “Your lady and I have many lessons to complete, after all.”
He did not blink. His grey eyes studied her, perhaps weighing out whether she might be lying. After a long moment, he spoke again. “I am glad to hear that. A great many would worry for you and perhaps pursue you, including Edmund and my dear lady.” His eyes flicked away for a moment, locating the lady herself in the hall. Assured she had not wandered off, he turned his attention back to his guest. “I do not begrudge your need for lessons but must remind you that my lady is not all that well. You saw her in the library yesterday did you not?”
Elanore nodded slowly, confused by the man’s stern words. “Her lessons so far do not involve any demonstration of magic on her part. But she is well enough now for its use, isn’t she?”
“Well enough for her, yes.” His mouth turned up slightly at its corners. “But well enough for herself and the child she carries, I do not know.”