“Not all of their dead,” he frowned slightly, correcting himself. “The elves were quite mysterious about who and what was buried there with them, but the ashes of hundreds, perhaps thousands of elves lies under this earth. Over time, these ashes have become the soil upon which we stand.”
This news, so nonchalantly delivered, had a most striking effect on the Count’s guest. It was a rather morbid revelation in her mind. In effect, this house and its grounds was set upon on an elven version of a cemetery. “Then the statues are elven headstones?”
The Count took a moment to take a sip from a teacup composed of a delicate china. “I suppose in a way they might be considered that,” he mused. He put his cup down and turned his attention back to the statues outside the window. So interested was he in the view that he failed to observe the effect his words had upon the lady across from him. Elanore had placed both of her hands over her mouth, horrified by what had been conveyed to her.
Hastings scurried over to be of assistance. “Are you unwell, Miss Redley?”
“Had I known what lay underneath the courtyard, I would not have walked through so ignorantly, disturbing the spirits within the earth,” she spoke faintly. A look of remorse plagued the lady’s otherwise usually gentle features.
“Sir!” Hastings prodded the Count, who was still quite focused on the outside scenery.
The Count’s attention shifted back to the guest and the butler, who he found worriedly hovering over the lady. He responded by standing and drawing the curtain shut. In a low voice, he addressed his manservant. “Remember the story I told you long ago about the statues moving and acting on their own?”
“Of course I do,” Hastings frowned. “It always was on my mind when I had to go out there with the groundskeeper. Oh–” his voice trailed off as he suddenly realized something for himself.
“Miss Redley,” the Count leaned down to address the stricken woman and spoke to her as patiently as he could manage. “You were not being cursed by some vengeful spirit upset that you walked all over some holy ground. I have perhaps been too careless with the analogy. Those statues are not gravestones possessed by the spirits of dead elves. I suppose they would be more like golems–”
“Golems?” She raised her eyes to the Count’s, confused. “What pray tell, are those?”
A small crease formed on the Count’s forehead. He averted his gaze from her and instead towards the roaring fireplace before setting about the room in a frustrated manner. Meanwhile Elanore looked down at her hands, ashamed of her ignorance.
“Forgive me,” the Count found his composure and walked slowly back to her. To fault Elanore for her lack of knowledge would be tacitly unfair. “Perhaps it is better not to use such a term. The statues were created by elves with magic in the shape and manner of the main guardian on the bridge. An homage to that statue, I suppose. They were given a purpose –to mark and guard the remains of the elves that were left here.”
She hesitated for a moment before quietly inquiring, “How is it that they move and speak as they please?”
He shook his head. “I do not know. I don’t think most elves would understand either. An ordinary elf could not replicate these. As for the manner in which move and speak, their creators were whimsical allowing them a matter of their own will in executing their purpose. However, it seems that these creatures do not always move. They move based on both need as well as the presence of someone capable of encouraging them to do so.”
“Would that be you?”
“Yes,” the Count now had taken up standing right next to the lady. “At least at one time–.”
“–But no longer,” Elanore finished. “I apologize,” she added hastily once she saw the gentleman stiffen. “But the lion told me so.”
“Ah,” he looked away for a moment, his fingers running back and forth over the back of her chair. As she looked up at the profile of his face, she saw that having to make such an admission angered him. Kindly, Elanore patted his hand and offered a small concession. “If it is not you then who caused the lion to shift and speak, then certainly I can see why you believe I had done so. For the sake of argument, I will accept that it is plausible, but why and how?”
“Elven blood, perhaps.”
She responded with a rather curt shake of the head. “I am almost certain that I have do not have any elven ancestors.” Elanore now understood why he was so keen to inquire if she might be a witch. His belief was that only an elf or being with magic might be able to cause the statues to wake. As she turned over the half-finished scone on her plate, she could not decide what she though about the latter theory. “If I may make an observation, earlier you had said that the statues were made from stones quarried from this land. But the statues are rather alike. It would be quite a feat for a master to carve that many identical statues.”
“Yes,” he looked a bit surprised by her insight. “I suppose it would be. Perhaps Miss Redley is familiar with the practice of casting?”
She nodded. “Although only with metal.” Even then, how it was made did not explain why the inanimate objects could move freely like creatures of blood and flesh.
For a moment, Elanore was gripped by a strong desire to inspect the statues again. Her face must have betrayed her interest, for the Count spoke again. “Miss Redley,” the man’s voice warned. “Please do not experiment with the creatures outside. Although not of danger to you, they are not controllable once they are woken from their regular state.”
She wondered if he spoke from experience. Had the Count tried to control them unsuccessfully? Earlier, a single creature demanded her full attention. A legion of them would need many caretakers. As she pondered that, an image came to mind in which the Count and his household of servants comically attempted to placate several dozen creatures’ constant demands for adoration and entertainment. Quickly she picked up a scone and bit off a part of it, anxious to cover the smile that threatened to form on her face.
“Miss Redley?” The Count noticed the lady’s silence. “Have I satisfied you on the matter of the statues?”
Elanore nodded. He had given her quite a bit to consider. “If I may then ask again about the door frame… was it also carved by the same elves that made the statues?”
He sighed at her persistence. “I suppose you do have a right to know this as well. It was not assembled or carved here,” he admitted. “It was brought here when I was away. The information passed to me was that the wood used for the door frame came from trees that were felled by Mirror Lake.”
“Ah,” Elanore brightened, recalling the map on the table. Somewhat eagerly she retrieved it and placed it flat on the table in front of her, and the Count quietly moved his chair closer to hers in order to assist in her study of the map. With his hand, he guided her fingers along towards the left end of the paper to a body of water nestled in the foothills of a large chain of mountains.
Elanore leaned forward, her interest piqued by this additional information. As she did so, a tendril of hair came loose from one of the pins in her hair. The man next to her watched intently as she tucked it behind her ear. “Is the water in the lake very clear?”
“Indeed, the lake is rumored to hold some of the purest water in the world.” His eyes remained fixed on his guest. “At certain times during the cycles of the moon it will show anything a person desires.”
She understood the connection he wished to draw between the lake and trees. Any tree raised on that water might be expected then to have some unique traits. But a hazel tree held even more possibilities. To southerners, hazel trees were sacred; to them, they were trees of wisdom, divination, and protection. “Even so,” she continued somewhat hesitantly, and turned her head to look at the Count. “Doesn’t that make any magical traits that the door frame possesses inherit to the material itself?”
The Count stroked his chin. “And yet, I have never seen it do anything until after you crossed underneath the frame.” He shifted in his chair restlessly, likely impatient with her continued questions. “Miss Redley, you speak as if you have never witnessed anything out of the ordinary in your entire life. Have you not once seen anything unexplainable?”
Her continued resistance to his ideas must seem quite stubborn, perhaps even rude. Elanore wished to be polite and responded with an apologetic tone. “Our method of living in the south is quite practical. I have not seen one thing that qualifies as extraordinary. However,” her fingers tugged at the high collar of her dress. “There was something that happened when I was quite small. I later thought it might have been my imagination — a waking nightmare of some sort.”
He seemed pleased by her admission, flashing her a glimpse of his teeth – his version of a smile. “Tell me of that one nightmare.”
As she related the story of her mother using a stone to scare off something in the woods, he began to sit upright. He then withdrew something from his vest, and pressed it into her hands. “Was it like this, Miss Redley?”
Elanore looked down at a silver chain with a stone attached to it in a cradle of silver. She shifted the stone back and forth to allow the blue jewel to catch the light from the fire. While she did so, the man’s eyes glinted as he watched her and the stone very closely.
“I don’t think so,” Elanore returned the chain to her host. A look of profound disappointment crossed his face as he pocketed the chain.
Again Elanore tugged at the collar of her dress. She was attempting to locate a bit of cord that ran underneath her collar and kept a pouch securely fastened to her. “But I have the stone here,” she tugged the collar again. “Perhaps you might be able to make a more informed assessment than I can.”
Wolfram was quick to lean forward and provide assistance. But the excitement on his part, coupled with her sudden nervousness as she felt his breath upon her neck, caused their fingers to entangle as they tried to coax the pouch out from under the high collar, Had it not been for Hastings’ intervention, the two might have become hopelessly stuck together.
With some relief, Elanore hid behind Hastings as he refreshed their tea. While the Count moved his chair to accommodate Hastings at the table, Elanore took a moment to settle the nervousness that close proximity to the Count had created. Hastings retreated, leaving her still not wholly in command of herself. Elanore’s fingers still trembled as she worked at the opening of the leather pouch under the watchful eye of the Count and shook its contents on to the table.
As a yellow stone rolled out for inspection, the Count’s confident look faded. He stared at the stone, somewhat puzzled. “I’ve not seen this particular type before. Was it mined from the south?”
“I don’t believe so,” Elanore shook her head. “It was passed to me only with the promise that it would be of help when I was in trouble. I was provided no instruction other than having been told that it was a protective charm that I would know how to use if necessary.”
He reacted as if he was somewhat unsettled by her words. “And have you tried?”
“Of course not,” she toyed with the stone for a moment. “I had thought I might have to when I first ran across the bridge, but no method as how to do so came to mind. That it could protect me when I had no idea how to use it was rather silly.”
“Was it silly?,” a strange light came to his eyes. “Your mother did not seem to think so by your accounts. I do not believe it silly either.”
It was unfortunate that the man in his attempts to persuade her about her abilities had chosen to ally himself with her mother. He could not have known how much Elanore doubted Mrs. Redley’s trustworthiness, nor the anger she felt towards the woman.
“You’ll forgive me if I ask you why I should put faith in what you believe.” Elanore’s temper flashed unexpectedly. The anger she could not express towards her mother had suddenly transferred itself to the Count. “Explain your actions towards Edmund Ormond.”
“It should be obvious,” the Count furrowed his brow, undoubtedly puzzled to have drawn such an unexpected response from the young lady. “I can not have every young silly hunter in this town wandering my grounds.”
“Edmund is not silly,” Elanore twisted the fabric of her skirts with clenched fingers. “Nor is he just another guild lackey. If he had been any one of those other hunters, he would have tried to kill you in kind.”
“If he had been any other hunter, I might have killed him,” the Count responded indifferently.
“He was there because of what happened at the bridge,” Elanore continued. “The account I had given him was too unbelievable to accept at face value— the creature is something from a story, the kind that people tell children for fun.” Her voice shook with emotion.
“Ah stories,” the Count studied her. It was obvious to them both that Elanore was really not all that angry with the Count, but afraid of what he represented and believed. “Again we come back to this point, Miss Redley. This entire town seems to believe everything to be simply just stories, none of which they seem to make time to read or understand.”
“We can only believe what we see,” Elanore responded passionately. “That is how men and women are raised.”
“As I am learning,” he answered sardonically. “Well, then, Miss Redley, let me then show you more unexplainable and heretical things.”
Before she or Hastings could protest, he snatched her hand and pulled her towards the back hallway and down a long, dark corridor.