Edmund was among the last to make his way back through the gates that led to the Wolfram lair. He was last, save three other men who rode with him. As the doors were shut behind them, the guards commented on the lateness of their arrival. Giles and Wilhelm were silent — irritated perhaps at the third man in their party, Smith.
Smith had been insistent that they stop at several more homes. Edmund had not protested; the blacksmith was simply doing what the townspeople felt necessary. If the blacksmith apologized, it was to those who had delayed closing the gate for the evening. He did not say anything to the guildmaster other than to offer him a good evening as he marched towards the stables.
As for Edmund, the young man could barely move his horse down the path. Lions had come to greet him as well as those lions that had accompanied him. Edmund was forced to dismount and hand his reins off to a fellow guildmate in order to herd the growing number of lions off the path and out of the way of the others.
In this confusion, the guild members scattered and Giles reluctantly left his horse to another to manage to come to Edmund’s assistance. Giles swatted the backsides of a few lions before he realized that he would not be allowed to trail Edmund anymore. With a sigh, Giles turned around and disappeared in another direction. Where he went in the chaos Edmund could not see but the lions hinted that Giles had reappeared by their lord, the Count.
Edmund did not ask the loyal creatures to tell him more than that. He knew it was inevitable that the Count would be privy to all the day’s details. Instead Edmund tried to watch the lions as they shared what they had learned with their castle-bound brethren in their strange, dancing fashion. The twisting and leaping was done before he could grasp the pattern to it. The lions immediately returned to brushing their noses against his coat, many demanding to know if he was well and whole. He had to repeat his answer a few times before they were all satisfied.
Amid their chatter, the Countess floated his way. Even before the lions whispered of her approach, he felt the changing warmth of the ground under his feet. When he turned in her direction, he blinked twice. Selva walked with an unusual grace, her long hair flowing about her as if she were being carried along on a gentle breeze of her own. “How now, Edmund? How did your group fare?”
He suddenly realized the nature of what he saw. Before she could touch his cheek, Edmund caught her wrist in his hand and closed his fingers around it. Elanore had told him that some who used magic had fingers that functioned like eyes, reading what they touched.
Selva did not take offense. The breeze about her faded and she laughed lightly. She withdrew her hand and placed it back in a muff that she carried with her for warmth. “Elanore has been teaching you, I see.”
Edmund bowed politely. He had erred previously, leaving himself unguarded around Selva. He did not know what she had gleaned from him thus far. But he would not longer casually allow a powerful woman like the Countess to access his thoughts and feelings. And so Edmund cleared his throat, intent on conversing with her instead. “You may have heard that the guild property was in peculiar condition. We seem to have had an unusual theft but the details of what has gone missing will require further work by the bookmaster. Regardless, it would seem that the guild will not recover in time for a spring hunt.”
Selva lowered her head slightly, considering the information for herself. “That is indeed what I had guessed from the looks on your fellow guildmates’ faces. This discovery is a bad blow for Gregory. I shall speak to him and see what can be done. But for the rest of you, I imagine this is difficult as well.”
Edmund glanced down the pathway in the direction that Wilhelm had taken to the estate residences. He knew that Wilhelm and the others were certainly inconvenienced and frustrated. But the situation was not all that different than any other bad year. He smiled tightly at Selva, acknowledging her kind words. “Do not worry too much. You gave all of us our lives. The guild will not accept more from you without a fight. The guild is proud of its ability to survive. The men will want to figure the rest of this out on their own.”
She seemed intrigued by that idea. “As for you — how did you find your group today? I hope they did not trouble you too much.”
He glanced around and made certain that none in his group was present before he spoke freely. “Giles was overprotective but is always a fine horseman and reliable company. ”
“He is loyal and disciplined when given a job,” she responded graciously. “My lord trusts him like his own.”
Her choice of words was coincidental but struck Edmund in a queer way. The young man continued to speak, ignoring the tinge of uneasiness he felt. “Compared to the Count he is far easier for the others to deal with. Your lord’s presence unsettles the others — for he is too difficult to read.”
“So Giles lacks subtlety.” Selva’s eyes glittered in amusement. “But perhaps that is not a bad trait to have in a traveling companion. Most humans prefer not to be surprised. And the convalescent?”
Something about her line of questioning made him wary. Still, he did not see reason to hide this information from the woman. “To his healer, I venture the opinion that Pepin is still unfit for travel. He proved anxious even on familiar roads and required constant supervision.”
Disappointment and concern flickered across her face. “I had hoped he would rally a bit outside the gates but the sickness he has is strong. Something must be done. I will have to ask my lord what he thinks.” Selva glanced away for a moment to look at her lord, walking abreast with Giles. The two were moving towards them. The lady patted Edmund’s arm. “However, that is not your concern but mine. You should escape now before my lord decides to interrogate you. Go and tell Elanore what you found about her family home. She is in the parlor.”
Edmund raised an eyebrow, wondering how the Countess had known of where he had traveled that day. “Did Elanore tell you this?”
“There is little we keep from each other.” Selva pushed him slightly forward, hurrying him off. “Go. Tell her what you found out.”
He complied, quickly seeking out his bride-to-be in the parlor as instructed. He stepped through the door to the elegant and decidedly feminine room, not quite sure what he ought to find. But true to Selva’s word, Elanore was sitting in the dimly lit room, perched on a chair near the window.
Elanore did not rise as he called out to her. Instead, she continued to sit in the chair watching the darkening scenery.
Instead of calling to her again, Edmund pulled up a stool at the foot of her chair and waited for her to gather her thoughts.
A moment later, Elanore’s head turned his way. A smile lit up her face as she reached out to touch the front part of his hair. Her delicate fingers straightened one errant curl before she shyly pulled back her hand and spoke. “I’m sorry I didn’t come outside to greet you. Did you have good weather? I prayed for your safety the entire time.”
Her words testified to her generous and kind nature. In that moment, Edmund could truly say he loved her more than any one thing in the world. He felt an urge to sweep her up into his arms and press his lips against her brow. Instead he forced himself to glance at her more critically. His eyes caught the tell-tale marks on her cheek showing where her sleeve had imprinted upon the skin. They saw her eyelids drooping, still heavy with sleep. He realized she had not come outside because she was exhausted.
His chest constricted automatically in fear. He folded his hands over her shoulders, needing to know if she had used magic. “Were you the reason our weather held up? Did the lions or Lady Selva convince you to aid us?”
Her hand came to rest upon his and she glanced up at him. “I’m fine,” she said. “I am just a little tired from studying.”
He did not let go, he was still weighing out the truth of her words by evaluating the look in her soft, brown eyes.
She knew he did not quite believe her. Elanore took his hands and pressed them to her cheeks while she spoke, as if she might will him to feel her sincerity. “It is not possible. I will never have her power, Edmund. That specific power over the weather elements is directly dispensed from the one, true Snow Queen. Selva had her share but she chose a future with the wolves. Even she will lose it in time.”
He was relieved, grateful actually to hear so. He did not like the idea of Elanore learning such a deep and powerful magic. Nor did he want to see her or Selva pay the cost of the use of such a power. “Then why are you tired if you did not use magic?”
She swiped at her eyes with her free hand and laughed at herself. “I have been trying to find what I can on the twelve races who first came to this land.”
“You are still reading those books, then?”
“Yes,” Elanore admitted. “I sometimes think she expects us to ask her questions in an indirect way. She said she cannot lie about it if we were to figure it out.”
“But for you to lose sleep over what should be my matter–” Edmund took a step back and ran his fingers through his hair. “Elanore, this is not right.”
“But what matters to you, matters very much to me,” Elanore cried out. “You are busy with other things. It is only right I help you. And I should so like to know about what our future children—”
He interrupted her worrying with a kiss. She responded eagerly, entwining her hands around his neck and pulling him close. He indulged her for a moment before his better half prevailed. He pulled away, intent on sorting through one problem he believed to have uncovered. “Elanore, when I spoke to Selva earlier, she acted as if she knew of my plans today. Did you let her know what we had discussed before?”
She leaned towards him, suddenly anxious that she had done wrong. “We often talk of weddings. She wants to know what one would be like in our customs. Of course, she knows that we wish for ours to be held in my grandmother’s house and that Grandmother has left us her home.”
“And yet she supports this?” He brooded. “She does not echo her Count’s sentiments that we affix ourselves here?”
“She does not,” Elanore assured him. “Have I done something wrong to tell her all this?”
The young man shook his head. “No, it isn’t that. I simply am troubled by the idea that he designs to keep us here while she seeks to help us reassert our independence. But given what you have said about her powers, how can she be unaware of what he offered and why?”
Elanore’s fingers came to rest upon his arm. “Edmund, there are limits to even her gifts of magic. It is precisely because she cannot read him that I think she loves him. I think it is why he values her as well. Mystery is what draws them together and ironically also keeps them apart.”