That idea was a novelty to Edmund. He was a far more straightforward man — one who did not think there was any dishonor in being plainspoken and emotionally honest. He did not care for or use games and manipulation in his dealings with his loved ones.
He knew this made him different from the Count. And he found it difficult to believe they could share the same blood.
When Edmund and Elanore continued to speak of their plans, they were based on the idea of a life outside this estate, free of the expectations of others.
The man Edmund had silently rejected as his father had no idea of the radical shift in Edmund’s thinking. While the hunter and healer spent the evening with their families, the Count had entangled himself in a conversation with his wife over the fate of the guild.
It was evident that the guild could not leave the Wolfram estate as all parties had hoped. But the solution Selva presented was drastic and unprecedented.
She suggested temporarily giving the nearby abandoned homes to the guild. She cited safety and convenience as her primary reasons. However, the Count deflected making any sort of decision on the matter.
Selva misattributed his reluctance to do so due to his age and disinterest in worldly affairs. But it was not that at all. In his mind, what she proposed went against the natural order of their world — the one that promoted isolation over cooperation of the races that inhabited this world. This isolationist stance had not been adopted ad-hoc but as a result of multiple betrayals at the hand of other races.
She would have kept up her debate had he not put an end to it. “Do not be so impatient,” was what he had told her as he carried her off to his room. “I will think about this some more and consult with my cousins.”
His wife did not like the idea of being put to bed while he stayed awake. But he had no desire to rest until he was certain his cousins had safely returned. While he paced the floors and hallways of his estate, he pondered the many things she had given him to consider.
Selva was a fount of both compassion and ideas. Every day, she posed new questions and problems he would have otherwise ignored. The guild matter was one of many things on his mind. He would decide what to do eventually. For now, he was far more concerned about a larger matter — specifically whether the eclipse had allowed evil things to enter this part of the world.
He had not told her that the pub had troubled him for a while. More than a year ago, Giles had noted the unusual clientele that would stop on their journey south. He had drunk there occasionally but began to frequent the establishment more regularly. It was Giles who had brought the fare to the Count’s attention. Wolfram had tasted some of the food — finding a hint of the familiar in the samples Giles would bring or send back. The last sample before the eclipse had unsettled him deeply.
He had detected something foreign and problematic in that food but had responded emotionally, focusing on the trauma associated with the memories that the food’s taste had stirred up. Wolfram returned to that specific incident and tried to disassociate himself from his emotional response. He was determined to see if it fit to the narrative of a story that seemingly refused to be pieced together. He puzzled over that peculiar taste and contrasted it with other observations — including the scent of blood on a tree near the road and the mutilated animals that had turned up in the woods. All eerily reminded him to some degree of the pieces of humans discarded on trash piles and on the floors of the cabin.
Wolfram had come to feel that the pieces of humans had smelled like that pie he had thrown away. He could not shake the feeling that the humans had been seasoned for consumption.
Prior to their departure from the estate, he had told Marrok and Gareth of his suspicions and reassigned each of his cousins to different roles. He suspected that the humans were harvested for something. Whether that purpose was to fill the stomachs of a hungry human or a monster or to be sacrificed for some unseen purpose, he did not know. But he did not believe the problem over.
While the guild had wandered north during the daylight hours, Marrok’s party left the estate as men. They crossed the bridge, accompanied by lions that watched for the magical and unpredictable Unthings as they explored the woods. Once the Wolframs were well out of sight of the road and the estate, the majority of them shed their human form.
His brethren fanned out into the woods, running lightly across the cold ground as wolves. They trained their eyes and noses to the ground and trees around them, looking for a scent — one of human blood.
Marrok alone did not change. He chose to keep a horse and to keep an eye out for others.
They were thorough in their inspection and wandered about well into the afternoon before they took a break in a clearing of the lions’ choosing. Shortly before sunset, Gareth’s sleek wolf face peered around a tree trunk. He grunted at Marrok and then promptly disappeared. When he reemerged from behind the tree, he did so as a human. Gareth whistled for his pack once before he sauntered up to his older cousin. He revealed an impressive set of canines as he greeted Marrok.
Marrok shot a stern look at this younger man who stood half a head taller than him, a look that put him to heel. Marrok, grey and bland, was not intimidated by the elvish blooded side of the family — as tall and colorful as they might be. “You are late.”
Gareth bowed politely. “My group was intrigued by what we found. The lions claimed the woods are empty and they are correct — it is empty of living things for many miles around. But the dead are an entirely different matter. Something disturbed a campsite nearby. A great deal of ground has been dug up.”
The wolves gathered around quickly, most choosing to retain their four-legged form as they discussed the discovery. The humans wanted to believe some ogre or giant had come down from the woods and plucked people out from the pub. However, as the wolves continued to deliberate, they agreed that there had been no evidence of large, heavy tracks to suggest those kinds of monsters.
But something had indeed preyed on other creatures. The fresher nature of their discoveries suggested that what they tracked had moved south.
“We continue to the town,” the circle of wolves concluded. They seemed unanimous that whatever they hunted was more likely to have moved there.
However, what they would do when they arrived remained a contentious topic. Gareth’s men were keen to sneak inside and spy out the town. Marrok did not agree. He was not willing to test the Red Cloak’s strength with magic. They had too few lions and wolves to overcome a handful of magic users.
Nor did he wish to test the human’s tolerance for wolves. Marrok had traveled enough to know that the humans’ stories about wolves revealed a hatred for their kind. He urged his relatives to temper their recklessness. He did not wish to be digging arrows and bullets out of his cousins’ sides.
But as they neared the town, the eerie quiet forced them to reassess their ideas. The lions’ ears flattened against their heads, signaling discomfort with their surroundings.The wolves took their cues from them, choosing to hide in the forest while a few scouts took a wide circle in the forest around the town.
When they returned, the scouts told the others of how tightly closed the town was against the outside. And they spoke of a familiar group camped nearby.
Marrok left his horse and the others behind in hiding. He alone approached the humans, recognizing them as the guild men who had left the estate earlier. His eyes were quick to take in their tension and their smaller numbers.
The guild men were cold and frustrated. They spoke to him of how no one had come in and out the entire day. Their instincts and experience told them to keep watch. In the confusion over separating the groups, the merchant had somehow slipped away.
Marrok heard the soft padding of feet moving around him. Their admission prompted Gareth to act. He knew Gareth would divide their parties in order to look for the other guild men hiding by the other gate and the missing merchant.
As for the Grey Wolf, he stayed with these guild men and offered them extra security as they sat in the dark woods.
Sometime after midnight, noises began to build in the woods around them. Marrok listened, picking out the movements of nocturnal creatures in the treetops. He felt uneasy as he realized the creatures never drew close to where they hid. It was as if they refused to come near the town.
It was several hours before he heard the approaching footfalls of lions and men. He rose from his spot where he had hidden and silently greeted his cousin, still in the form of a man.
His eyes fell upon one lion, carrying a body. The lion did not stop to acknowledge them. He moved with a determination and focus that seemed almost unnatural for the magical creatures, continuing north into the woods with several of his fellow beasts tagging alongside him.
Gareth quietly urged all of those who had gathered to go back without him and Marrok. The guild men were at a disadvantage in the dark forest but the Wolframs, now back in human form, would guide them. Marrok did not understand this request but waited until the humans were out of earshot before he returned his attention to his cousin.
With the others gone, Gareth yawned and shifted back to the form of a wolf. He nuzzled Marrok’s leg, pressing him to join him. Marrok then suspected the other Wolfram had discovered something. He expertly assumed the form for which he had received his nickname and followed the tawny wolf south.
They gave the northern gate of the town a wide berth and stayed within the line of trees. The wolves paused at an abandoned well before they began to wind down a hill.
Gareth raised his nose to the air, signaling for Marrok to do the same. They chased a thread of dank air down many rocks until they found themselves standing near a hole.
The younger wolf pushed aside a mess of leaves and sticks, revealing a hole. Marrok peered into a dark space, observing a small hollowed out cave with enough room for a person or two to take shelter.
Gareth barked quietly. “ A pile of animals bones are scattered to suggest it once was home to a bear. Perhaps it was but that would have been long ago. Another hole lays under rocks and that drops into a cavern in which you can smell fresher remains. Without help of younger hands, the merchant could not go down the hole. We found him struggling with untangling a rope ladder he had in his pack. We did not allow him to go further.”
Marrok sighed as he realized that the unconscious state of the merchant was not due to some injury suffered here but to the wolves. “Was it necessary to give him a lump on his head?”
The tawny-colored wolf spoke with a cold finality. “Better he have a headache than be dead.”
Gareth turned tail and walked carefully away from the hidden entrance to the cave. His ears were now trained towards the ground, listening carefully to the sound of the earth under his four feet. Marrok followed as his cousin moved overground and attempted to guess at the path the cave tunnels took. They wound back around the hill and through the trees. To neither’s surprise, they eventually found themselves at the wall that surrounded the town.
The two wolves stared up the sheer height of the town’s wall. They did not speak, for they had no suggestions to offer one another. Neither dared call out to those strangers that perched in those wooden lookouts.
One more time they circled the walls before they, too, disappeared back into the woods.