None of the Wolframs stood in the way of Selva, their lord’s wife, as she sped across the grounds with the grace of a wild feline. They simply observed as she took hold of her husband’s cloak.
Count Wolfram turned slowly in her direction, displeasure evident on his face. “Kindly let go.”
But she did not.
The air around her crackled with magic — stirred up by her feelings of anger and indignation. Her voice trembled as she addressed the lord. “You dare to turn your back on me?”
The lions circled around the pair, concerned. Their tails switched back and forth erratically at the tension between the lord and lady, their masters.
The Count broke the silence. His eyes glittered as he took a step towards his wife.“Facing you, I tell you the same thing. I do not require you at the moment.”
She twisted the ends of his cloak between her fingers noting with muted horror as her gloves began to stain with a rusty color. “Here you are, increasing the distance between us. Telling me to simply leave. We have been down this path before. You ask me to be kind and allow you to go your way. But this is not kindness. It is simply cruel!”
Her words surprised him. His grey eyes widened as they took in her fisted hands and tears in her eyes. Softly, so as the others could not hear, he spoke. “You would have me take you into my arms and soil you with the remains of the murdered? Be sensible and be strong, woman. There is no need to shed tears. You are not being slighted.”
This statement only infuriated her more. The ground beneath them began to warm as the woman of magic fought him. “It is not weakness to show my distaste for how you treat me. Nor is it wrong I question whether you have any respect for me! At no point when you sent my owl away did you ask me if that is what I wished. Then, when you returned, all save you acknowledged me as I stood there. Do I feel slighted? If only it were that!”
“Selva,” he sighed. “I am unable to see you now regardless. I am covered in blood and filth. I cannot allow myself to defile you or my child even more. Let Hastings draw me a bath and attend to my dress.”
“But if you are injured–”
He kept her at arm’s length while she tried to touch him. “I am not. I can assure you of that.”
She frowned, confused by the smell upon him. She knew there was something more to his pushing her away, something that went beyond his clothes being unclean. “My lord. You know I have become used to blood. I can help you. There is no threat to our children. They have your blood too. I promise–”
He growled angrily at her. “Do not be stubborn. You forget that blood has an effect on me as well. As I am right now I might hurt you. My patience is worn thin. And I need a bath and food — neither of which you should trouble yourself to provide. Go, please.”
She relented slightly, loosening her hold on him. “You will come and speak to me afterwards?”
“Yes,” he said wearily as he pulled the cloak from her grasp. “You may ask me anything. And I will tell you as much as I understand myself.”
Her gloved hand reached for his. Her eyes did not leave his face as she held his hand. Satisfied that he spoke truthfully, she finally let him go. “You have an hour,” she said. “I will only wait in our room that long. ”
And with that declaration, she dropped his hand and abruptly walked away.
However, in hindsight, he realized he had been heavy-handed in dealing with his wife. He was too used to being unquestioned and to not explaining himself to others.
He stole into his room through a side door, taking care not to disturb the woman who had fallen asleep on his bed. He stood in the doorway for several minutes, uncertain of so many things.
He had long known that her life would have been easier and less troubled had she married an elf. But his family’s meddling had drawn them together. Years ago, she had endured him for as long as she could before his temper and silence drove her away. She had come back to him because she was kind and loyal not with any assurance he had changed.
Here, she had forced herself to condescend to mix with his kind and their bloodthirsty ways. And he was aware that he still lacked the gentle spirit that her kind was often attracted to.
Hastings had thoroughly scolded his lord for the entire duration of his bath and meal. The man was not aware of how he had treated Selva. Rather, he had taken issue with some things he had been hearing. The manservant had become quite irritated with these cousins of his lord who all spoke highly of the Countess. But they did so for skills in magic and her ability to bear his children. They measured her as they might another wolf. But she was barely one, Hastings had pointed out.
The implication was that Selva deserved better.
The shadows inside him stirred at the guilt and uncertainty he felt. Wolfram knew Hastings was right. Little could be done now. He had accepted her love. Now she was too far interwoven into his life and his future.
Wolfram pondered what to do with this woman before him. He did not have the courage to wake her and ask her. But Selva suddenly sat up. She called out to him in the dark. “My lord?”
He moved quickly to her side, worried. He placed a hand on her shoulders. “Are you unwell?”
“No, you made me wait more than an hour so I fell asleep.” She scolded him soundly, not realizing he could see her smiling in the darkness. In spite of her threats and her brilliant displays of temper, she always seemed pleased to see him.
He did not understand these sudden changes to her moods. She was hard on him one moment and then tender and sweet in the next.
He stood, fascinated by how she ran her fingers through her hair. That ritual, combined with her sliding across the bed to make room for him, made his pulse race. But he focused on the cup in his hand.
He forced himself to put it down for a moment, keeping his eyes from straying towards her. He lit the lantern at her bedside and then offered her the teacup.
She took it without question, her fingers grazing his as she accepted the drink. He was tempted to grab her fingers and pull her to him but did not.
Selva was rarely aware of the danger she was in when near him. Instead, she puzzled over what her husband had brought her. She sniffed at the steam rising from her teacup before she took a sip. “Mint and garlic?” She laughed. “What peculiar tastes Hastings has, my lord!”
He watched her carefully, looking at the outline of her belly as she shifted on the bed. “Hastings did not brew this. I did. Both are good for cleaning your blood.”
To his surprise, she did not tease him. “You made it for me?”
“Yes, of course,” he answered.
“Thank you,” she said simply, offering him a dazzling smile. “Then I shall drink all of it.”
Why she looked so happy, he did not know. But he waited until she had finished the tea before he spoke again. “I need to apologize to you for earlier. I was furious with you. I expected you to be inside, away from the cold and from our returning party.”
She put down her cup on the bedside table. “I did not know how you were feeling in that moment. I am sorry as well. Although, even if you had asked me not to be there, I was worried. I needed to see you.”
His fingers reached for her jawline, skimming it slowly. He was startled at times by how open she was about her feelings for him. Even now when he showed her the briefest hint of affection, she rewarded him with a greater response.
She stood to meet him, to lean against him and show him that she had forgiven him.
He should have been ecstatic but he worried. “Tell me, Selva. Our children — are they safe like this? Can I trust that when you act as you please that things will be all right? And that whatever you are exposed to will not hurt them in any way?”
She froze. “Them?”
His other hand darted to her waist and caressed her rounding belly. “You said something earlier that led me to presume you are having more than one child.”
She covered his hand with her own and pressed it eagerly against her abdomen. “Can you tell? They leap with joy when you and I touch like this.”
He closed his eyes for a moment and waited for some revelation to follow. She claimed insight into those she touched and her expectations were that he would, in time, be at least able to learn to perceive her feelings in return. So far, he had yet to develop any special sensitivity towards her. “No,” he admitted gruffly.
She tried not to show her disappointment. “I am sure you will soon. I, myself, did not know until recently. Tala confirmed my suspicions. She thinks it’ll be a few more months until they are born. Unless they decide it’s time before that.” She smiled to herself. “I think they are impatient to meet you.”
He felt a little disconcerted by her strange words. He had never heard of any wolf claiming to understand their yet to be born children. But then again, she was not a true wolf and her magic afforded her some rather strange gifts. Wolfram buried whatever concern her remarks raised in his mind and instead pressed his lips to hers. He kissed her greedily until she pushed him away.
He smirked at her look of irritation. “Forgive me. I am impatient as well.”
“I could tell.” She cradled his wandering hands between her own. “Speaking of impatient — the guildmaster sounded as if he would resume his plans to inspect their compound tomorrow. Do you go with them?”
Wolfram was caught off guard by the sudden shift in topic. The Count sat down on the bed, buying himself time to think about how to present the situation to his wife. She sat next to him, turning herself slightly so she could see him.
Wolfram did not relish the thought of describing the inn in detail. He thought to explain the easier things first. “Marrok goes with the guildmaster tomorrow. I will stay here and let my cousin Gareth take the party to the south. He seems to be fine around humans. He’s certainly more elf than wolf.”
“Yes, he’s almost charming,” Selva said lightly. “I believe he comes from across the Silver River, correct?”
Wolfram did not like the way she casually complimented his cousin. He was well aware that Gareth’s elven blood made him very intriguing to the women of the clan. And Gareth was not above looking for a new mate in larger gatherings. “He is from far west, yes. But it should be no concern of yours. Giles will be going with him.”
“Oh?” She raised a hand to her mouth. “Now that is not what I expected. Why are both needed?”
He knew she was prompting him for information on what they had discovered this afternoon.
Wolfram carefully placed her hands back on her own lap. He was not willing to risk her using her gifts to skim stray memories from him. He had no desire to share with her any images of the bloodbath he had seen today. He sat back against the pillows, keeping his eyes upon her while he began to speak. “We found a scent not far from our gate this morning. It was a bit old but distinct. It was not unlike the smells we found around the town square. I am not sure which of the two is more current.”
She would have to rely on her own deductions now as well as her understanding of the way he thought. “So you believe them related and send your men south. Earlier you said you believed the bodies you found were murdered. By someone who escaped?”
“If you saw the condition of the bodies, you would know. Their wounds were not the result of drunken fighting. We found that pieces of them were missing. Why I do not know. Cannibalism maybe. But then why leave so much?”
A shadow passed over Selva’s face. “In our stories, those who eat men do not necessarily eat the entire person. Sometimes they want an organ or a bone. These are ingredients that are used to keep them young or give them power. It is wickedness to harm another creature for such a purpose but that does not keep it from occurring. My kind and others have disappeared because of such evil thinking. It is not impossible that someone has found a use for humans.”
Wolfram brooded. “I had thought the dark witches were largely gone.”
Selva shivered suddenly and drew a blanket over herself. “Quiet, perhaps. But not gone. For many years, the great queens kept them under control. My former mistress, among them. But this long period of darkness may have unsettled the balance of things.” She fell silent then, deep in thought.
He felt vaguely uneasy as he waited for her to tell him what was on her mind. For so long, the two of them had focused on his affairs and his own problems. But in this moment, he was reminded that she once had a full life apart from him — and a piece of her history that she had yet to explain.
The hand that reached for his was cool and light. “King of Wolves,” the woman across from him smiled. “Please grant me a favor.”
Incentive: Sleeping Beauty!