It took Elanore a moment to comprehend the nature of the Count’s warning. Once she had, her congratulations were immediate.
He did not smile at her effusive response.
She might have thought his lack of response odd if she had not already come to understand that his long period of isolation from company made him difficult to interact with. He followed no societal norms or offered cues as to his inner thoughts.
Elanore spoke more calmly, taking care to respond to his original concern. She had no desire to excite or anger the lord given the situation. “I will be mindful of our lessons. I would like nothing more to see her well-rested so she can deliver her child safely.”
“So would I.” He responded in a flat, humorless tone of voice.
Elanore might have called it a cold sort of answer but she noted the man’s hand tightening around his cane and the lines forming on the man’s brow. She slowly reached out to pat the lord’s arm, offering the reassurance she felt was needed. “She’ll be safe here.”
This small gesture of comfort did not go unnoticed. The Count expelled a short breath and almost smiled as he looked down at the young lady sitting on a bench. “Yes, this place and my cousins will fully commit their powers to her safety. But there are far more mundane dangers that might prevent her from carrying a child to term. And I have no reassurance she will stay if she is unhappy.”
The young lady wondered how he could say such a thing. She had heard that the gentleman and lady had a painful and flawed relationship years ago but she believed that past long behind them. There was no question in her mind that both cared deeply for the other. “I would say that this situation is demonstrable proof of your happiness. ”
A sharp bark of laughter erupted from the lord. “As expected of Miss Redley — direct and to the point.”
The young Miss Redley reddened, wondering if she had said something improper.
But his eyes glittered and a small, secret smile had returned to the man’s face. “I trust you will share this news with others?”
The young lady stood and curtseyed. “If it is your wish. Is there anyone specific you had in mind?”
He absently dragged the bottom tip of the cane along the ground before he answered. “This sort of matter is usually something a wolf must tell his fellow wolves. However, there is at least one who would do better if he heard it from you.”
From the gleam in his eyes, Elanore knew he could only mean Edmund. She did not think too long on why he wished this so, but she agreed. “Of course I shall.”
“As for the lions, it is something I ought to tell Gawain first before I speak to the other lions. Gawain would not like it otherwise. However, things have become very delayed this morning. I likely will not reach him before you do.”
“Is it your wish I tell him as well?”
He paused. “I will still speak to him formally. But I wish for the lions to be careful with her. Sometimes they do not understand their strength. They must not startle her or pounce upon her. Should they, even by accident, I shall do everything in my power to put them to sleep until the child is grown.”
The young lady winced at the sharp declaration. “I will speak to him when I can.”
He nodded his thanks before the sight of Marrok entering the hallway caused him to stride abruptly away.
Elanore was caught off guard by the hasty departure of the lord. She stood awkwardly on her feet in his wake.
A low throaty laugh startled her. The young lady turned her head as the Lady Selva slipped her hand through the crook of Elanore’s arm and offered a pleasant greeting. She then nodded in the direction of her departed master and lord. “What offense has he rendered now that you should be unable to move or speak?”
Elanore swallowed. She was not sure whether she ought to repeat such threats to a woman currently with child. She decided to say nothing of the lions. “Your lord teases me, I think. But is it true that you are going to have a baby?”
Several heads turned at the question. Selva did not scold Elanore for speaking loudly. Instead, she closed her eyes and rested her hands upon her own belly. She seemed to smile as she spoke her thoughts aloud. “Every hour I grow more certain that it is true. I feel the fluttering within me growing stronger as if the tiny one is reaching out to me to say hello.”
Elanore was startled when Selva clasped her hand. The woman placed it on the front of her abdomen as if to ask Elanore to verify the story for herself. The young lady knew she ought to calm herself if she wished to feel for any sign of movement. But Elanore’s thoughts raced, confused by what she already understood about pregnancy. The lady could not be very far along from conception so feeling for a kick from a child in the womb was futile.
But what she did feel was Selva’s emotions radiating from deep within the woman. Elanore’s eyes watered — shocked by the complex mix of joy with fear and longing. And then she felt a flutter of energy that surprised her.
The lady watched Elanore — her eyes showing that she had felt it too. Elanore thought to withdraw her hand, but the lady would not let go.
And then Elanore felt another flutter — an echo from somewhere else within the woman. The healer’s eyes opened wide and her mouth opened.
“Shh.” The lady’s eyes shone with mischief and with delight. “That part he must find out on his own.”
* * *
The majority of the guests had taken over a complex of modest buildings that had once housed the estate craftsmen and servants. The guild men had arranged the assignments of rooms such that they did not end up sharing specific quarters with the other townsfolk. Their argument for the segregation was that the hunters worked shifts in order to assist standing guard for the estate. They did not wish to disturb the townspeople with their many comings and goings.
The guild members preferred living separately from the other residents. The guild was not open to outside meddling whether it be for guild matters or pleasure.
Their guildmaster stayed in the main house per the Wolframs’ invitation. Had it not been for his wife (who preferred living with other womenfolk) he might have otherwise preferred lodging with his men.
At the moment, he was not with the guild as they held an informal assembly. The friar and merchant had spent the previous evening answering the questions of the guild and townspeople. Today the guild members openly discussed their reactions to the information they had been provided.
Edmund sat among them, listening to the ideas that the guild men said they should consider.
With less to do in the daylight hours, the guild was growing weary of their situation. Their restlessness ensured that they would attempt to seek any and all options to leave the estate. The guild men knew very well that the main threat — the Unthings — had not been spotted since the eclipse had passed. They were not willing to worry about other monsters. Even the great wyrm that Edmund and the Wolframs had previously encountered did not phase them. They were proud hunters who were trained for anything.
Wilhelm Cadeyrn’s presence would not have changed the direction of the conversation. He would likely not choose to stand in the way of his men. When it came to a hunt or matters that directly impacted all of the guild, his decisions were not to be disputed. However, these men were not speaking of permanent removal but a simple scouting party. No amount of information from the Wolframs or a clergyman would satisfy their desire to confirm for themselves what was happening outside.
Edmund considered that Wilhelm’s absence from this meeting was quite shrewd. The leader could always later claim to have been unaware of such problematic discussions should there be trouble or the party fail in any respect.
But he would also not know who among those gathered was not keen to participate in a scouting mission.
In the corner, the old bookmaster Gregory smoked a pipe as he sat with Pepin — the young man more commonly known as “Pip.” Gregory was too old for such a mission. As for Pip — he was physically capable but clearly not in fit condition for an excursion. Pip had recently faced an Unthing and survived. He had been mostly unconscious when he had been dragged back here by the lions and incoherent.
He had improved over time. However, in the eyes of the hunters, he had come back half a man. His face, at times, paled every time the conversation turned to monsters and creatures in the woods. Only Gregory seemed to take care to soothe the young man’s quiet agony, handing the young man some snuff or the pipe that calmed the lad.
Edmund frowned slightly as he watched the two from across the room, wishing that Pip would speak his opinion. But he knew there was nothing the young man would offer.
In spite of the patient efforts of Elanore and the lady Selva before, Pip’s memories continued to be faulty. He could not describe in great detail the incident that had claimed and killed his fellow guildmates. The lady Selva had said that she believed the man would physically recover but could offer no prognosis for the man’s inner state. He had his mind and wits up to a point, but he lacked drive and purpose.
When it became clear that the conversation would stay focused on the formation of a scouting party, Pip was among the first to slip out of the meeting room. Edmund lingered for a while before he, too, felt other matters could not wait.
Once Edmund had gotten far enough away from the rooms a few lions appeared in his periphery. He continued to walk towards the great circle driveway at which the courtyard of lions usually stood. But they did not draw closer to him.
He saw a spot of red in the distance. Edmund changed his direction to intercept the young woman and the lion she conversed with.
Elanore must have known he was approaching for she turned in his direction. But she did not run to greet him. Instead, she stood with her hands clasped in front of her.
He increased the speed of his strides, wondering why her expression was so serious. Upon reaching her, he quickly took her hands and glanced at her upturned face. He tried to grasp her mood but could not. “What is it?”
She appeared to tremble for a moment. “She’s going to have twins,” she finally gasped out. “And the lions know they aren’t to bother her or tire her out. Neither can we!”
Her excitement made her difficult to follow. Edmund tried to slow Elanore down so that what she would speak better conveyed what was likely running through her mind. “Who is having twins?”
Elanore shook his hands, her little mouth pouting at the way he teased her. “You know who! But we can’t tell the Count because she wants him to figure it out himself.”
Edmund patiently asked her to start over and tell her what she had found out and how. Once she had repeated herself a few times, he was able to piece together the two conversations Elanore had with both Selva and the Count that morning. Edmund was pleased to hear Selva was happy.
His eyes moved to look at the lions who were listening to Elanore. He wondered what they had thought of the Count’s words. He looked at the one sitting closest to them and addressed the creature. “Is it true that you feel it to be unsafe outside these estate walls?”
The lion stretched and smacked his mouth in such a way that Edmund knew this must be Gawain. “Master speaks true. It is not safe yet for wandering outside. His clan will not go out for another few days. But what do you command us?”
Edmund frowned at the question. “Would you really defy him if I asked you to take us out?”
Several of the lions tilted their heads as if he was asking a bizarre or foolish question. This time another lion spoke — the wise and less impulsive Galahad. “You have granted us many favors. We would be rude to ignore any request from you. If you wished to leave, we would be compelled to help you.”
Edmund glanced Elanore’s way as he responded to the creature. Such power offered so freely could only tempt him and Elanore into making impetuous decisions.
He glanced Elanore’s way before he looked at the lion Galahad. “I would not ask you to defy what makes sense to you. You spoke of danger. What danger?”
“It is true we have not seen Unthings. They have withdrawn or disappeared. They are satisfied for now, we think. But other things woke in the eclipse that do not fear the light. We have not yet seen them but that does not mean they are not there.”
This was a sensible statement on their part. Both Edmund and Elanore understood this to be so.
Edmund continued to press for the lions’ honest assessment. “Then if it were your choice and no one commanded you to do so, would you wander outside to explore?”
The lion seemed confused by the question. “We do not fear what is out there but that does not mean you should not.”
Elanore softly interrupted. “I should tell Grandmother about this. I know the friar and merchant want our help but it seems a bad idea.”
“I don’t think the others will listen.” Edmund shook his head. “You and I think nothing of trusting a lion or the intuition of these Wolframs. But we have seen more things than the others. The townspeople and the guild have no reason to believe in what we do.”
Her face fell at that statement. She knew he must be correct. “I hope that some will listen at least.” And then she stiffened slightly.
Edmund heard the sound of the cold ground crunching under the weight of someone or something close by.
They both turned their heads towards the sound, catching someone peering out from behind a nearby building.
Edmund murmured, “It’s Pip.”
Somehow the hunter must have followed Edmund after the meeting. It was not as if Edmund had taken great pains to hide where he was going but the other guild members did not care much for the courtyard and the strange magical beasts that roamed there.
Several lions were already on the move, padding slowly over to the young man. They knew of this one — he was the cub they had rescued.
Edmund wanted to call them back — uncertain if they might scare the young man off. But to his surprise the young man did not run away. Instead he extended his fingers as if to touch the lions.
The creatures needed no further encouragement to swarm him, offering a great deal of affection and a mountain of questions.
“Poor thing,” Galahad stepped up alongside the young couple as they watched the lions attempt to play with and comfort the lad. “He has a hole that cannot be filled as long as he stays here. Lambegus should not have brought him back here. It is obvious he will only worsen.”
Innocently, Elanore asked. “Then where should he have gone?”
The lion blinked. “Anywhere except here.”