The woman leaned towards the lord and wrapped her arms around her husband’s neck.
Wolfram knew well enough to mistrust sudden displays of affection. “My dear wolf,” he chided her. He repositioned her closer to him, tilting her chin so that she could not look away. “What favor is so large that you attempt to seduce me?”
A crease formed on her forehead as he tightened his grip around her. Her predicament became evident to both. Unless Selva could reign in her husband’s attentions, the conversation appeared to be heading in a more amorous direction .
She spoke hurriedly, avoiding an impending kiss. “A message, my lord! I would ask that one be taken by the owls to my former mistress.”
Wolfram’s ardor for his wife evaporated quickly. He sat back on the bed, perplexed by such a request. “You have never asked my permission to communicate with someone.” Nor had he tried to insist as he might with his cousins. He was well aware that she was far more adept with dealing with outsiders than he. He leaned forward to study her, catching the tightness around her mouth. “I see. Perhaps you have asked but your queen refuses to answer you.”
“Why would she?” She lowered her eyes, refusing to betray her feelings. “I have no right to expect anything from her after I chose not to return to her. She is not as forgiving as my lord. But she would receive a message from you. She recognizes you as a king.”
He did not understand this protocol. The wolves had lived for a long time because they did not care the beliefs and traditions of other peoples and races.They cared only about family and hierarchy.
His grandfather had only taught him to tend for his own. His only insight into politics and protocols had come from women — one his mother and the other, his captor. Wolfram felt a hot anger stir from within him as he faced those memories. His mother was always a fugitive due to worldly politics. And the Sea Witch was a slave to them; abusing him had been a part of her own so-called policy.
Somewhat harshly he responded to his wife. “There is nothing we have to offer this queen. A few dead humans are of no concern to her as they belong to no king. Nor do you know what your owls might tell her or show her.” His fingers rested lightly on her womb. “What would she do if she knew you carried twins?”
Selva tilted her head, puzzled by his sudden anger. “I do not think she would find it a threat.”
“And yet, she raised you to care about stories and legends.” Wolfram chastised Selva. “If her predecessor had been defeated at the hands of two children so tightly bound to one another — then she would might fear the same end. You are intimately familiar with her domain and its weaknesses. If I were her, I would view our children with suspicion. Perhaps we might raise them to one day defeat her.”
Her mouth opened in horror. “I would not do something as treacherous as that!”
Wolfram flashed his teeth in amusement. “And I would. You, my precious wife, do not fully understand how a wolf’s mind works. She is a witch from whom I have stolen one prize from. Perhaps I dream of stealing more.”
“Is that what you think I am to her and to you?” Selva pushed his hand away from her abdomen. “I am a token? A vessel through which magic or children shall be carried?”
Wolfram caught several strands of her golden hair between his fingers and raised them to his lips. “I mean no insult. But you are my prize — your love is my undeserved reward. And for all that have you done, I shall be this king you want me to be. But I can only act in a way I understand. My motives will never be as unsullied or untainted as yours.” He had far too much baggage, far too much regret and hatred to see the world as she did. “I am one step from being a shadow for I have something left of a heart. Your former mistress has none whatsoever.” She had never had one for she had been fashioned of wind, magic, and snow.
The sad look on her face gave away her unwillingness to believe as such. “You are better than a shadow. And she is not a cold witch. She could not be as wicked as you believe for she would never have protected and taught me as much as she did.”
He clasped her fingers to his lips, grateful for at least that. He paid great deference to them, his mouth moving to her wrist and to her arm as he tested the softness of her skin.
He would have persisted in his attentions had his wife not been so relentlessly inquisitive. “What of the church, my lord?”
The Count sighed. “I have tried to converse with this friar of this town. He is well-traveled but for a friar, not as religious as I expected. As soon as someone brought up witches and demons as one possible explanation for the deaths, he immediately expressed his irritation at the idea that blame might be assigned to such entities.“
Wolfram had grown up understanding that the clergy and witches were natural enemies, at least based on what other children had once told him. “In his mind, he blames the evils of drink and gluttony as causes of the murders. That is as far as I believe he is willing to think. If we are to learn anything, we will have to hope that the men dispatched by the guildmaster or my cousins will be able to glean some understanding of the bigger picture. Unfortunately, there is no outsider we can trust.”
“I disagree my lord,” his wife softly interjected. “You have forgotten someone.”
He quirked his eyebrow at her.
“Oh.” A smile wavered on Selva’s face before it fell apart.“The woman whose portrait you keep in your study. The one you look at often. The one your grandfather wanted you to marry.”
His mind blanked for a moment, taking in her deliberately neutral look and the small twist of her mouth. He was confounded by her statement, disturbed by what she appeared to have uncovered. “That was long before your time..”
Selva pulled away from him, choosing to pick at the blanket on her legs. “They talk about the portrait in your study. The wolves do — they say that she is the one you really loved. They have said this all these years, even before I first came here. She was the reason you turned away everyone. She was always your true prize.”
“They were fools,” he interrupted her sharply, perturbed by these revelations. “And if those cubs were still alive, I’d punish them for filling your head with nonsense. There is a difference between fantasy and reality.That journey I took as a young man was not because I was obsessed with her. Rather, I was out to prove myself as my own person. If I refused a companion, it was not because of some obsession with a distant figure of legend. It was because I was broken and unfit for company.”
She looked down at her hands for a moment and then smiled weakly. “You were quite a beast.”
He leaned forward to catch her eye. “I was insane. You underestimate your influence and skill. Now Selva,” he carefully returned to the topic of the Swan Queen. “The elves said it was rare she would appear. Once they departed from this land, I have not heard of her.”
Selva did not look up. “It does not mean she is not there. Only that she has been forgotten. From time to time, the winds and land will allow men a glimpse of the path.“
He recalled why. “She entertains those who would court her. Then if you know the path and means to seek her out, then it should be easy enough to send a few of my cousins. Gareth, for example,” he said wryly. “He is always looking for a challenge.”
‘It is not as easy as that,” Selva appeared to take insult. “Even with knowledge of where it is on a map, they cannot be assured they will find it. Her home is a place guarded from the outside by a magic that is as old as this world. The impure cannot approach. The violent cannot enter. And those who seek glory and power will be forced out.”
“Selva,” he felt his patience wearing thin. “Speak plainly. You suggest we seek her out but then argue we cannot easily find her. What is it your propose?”
“Long ago, all manner of creature lived in the garden where the queen resides.,” she said quietly. “But the disappearance of the first caused many to leave. We did not and so were present when this queen was installed. But our numbers dwindled and we had to leave in order to find a way to have children. But our longing for it never leaves us. And so we know how to return.”
She stared dreamily off into space, as if she was already there. Wolfram felt a chill run down his spine. He seized her hand.“You do not mean to go. You cannot!”
“My lord.” Now she was the one who was calm while he was the one who felt uneasy, uncertain. Selva folded herself against him, trying to reassure him. “You need not worry. I will keep my promise to you and remain a wolf until you cast me out. But if you will not let me carry the message, then only one other can go in my stead. Someone who shares my blood and my dream.”
He brooded, knowing very well who that someone had to be.
Incentive: Elanore and Edmund are up to no good.