Satisfied that all trouble had been dispelled, the woman shut the window and drew the curtains closed. She did not need to relight the lamp –extinguished by the great burst of wind and magic that she had unleashed moments prior. Her eyes were quite sharp, or at least keen enough to see the metal object glittering ominously from the corner of the room.
The lady took the shawl off her back and used it to secure the wretched thing somewhere in the folds of her long, woolen night gown. She would not hold it willingly with bare hands. She — who saw magic and unseen connections between beings and objects — could see the aura of death and despair that surrounded the item.
Clearly something was missing from the item’s design and in its absence, it had tried to attach to and possess the young man. If it had not been for her hand cutting through that blackness and slapping him outright, he might have succumbed to the object and become something different, something monstrous.
“Edmund?” Ilva’s eyes fixed upon him, waiting for him to speak.
His eyes were far away, focused on something distant and unseen. No answer would be forthcoming.
She stretched out her hand towards that golden head of hair. As her fingers slid from the crown of his head, she let her fingers pause at the deep red mark she had left on his cheek.
“Edmund,” she repeated his name again experimentally as she stroked his face with a surprising amount of tenderness.
Her persistence was rewarded; his gaze shifted towards her.
“Do not fret,” she whispered in his ear. “Do not feel empty for now I am here,” she said before pressing her lips to his cheek.
* * *
A white haze clung to the earth at dawn. From it, four lions emerged to seek out their master.
He was waiting for them under the frame of the wooden door that continued to change in subtle ways each passing day.
While they continued to have no news of magic artifacts, the lions had much to say of owls and birds. There were distressed by their presence for reasons they could not articulate.
They pawed at the earth. They paced the stair steps. And they pouted. But the only words they offered the Count were, “WE OUGHT TO BRING THEM HERE.”
Their lord found the insistent concern over the two young humans to be puzzling. “Did you perceive either Miss Redley or Mister Ormond to be in danger?”
The lions murmured in their own tongue for a moment as they discussed the question amongst themselves.
“NO,” Lambegus eventually concluded on their behalf.
Wolfram fingered the crook of his cane and tapped the bottom of it on the ground impatiently. They were demanding creatures who sometimes exhibited a frustrating lack of logic. “Then return to your positions and await further instructions.”
Reluctantly, they did so. They dragged their legs as they each walked to the bases from which they had initially sprung, alive and awake. He almost pitied them. They were wanting to converse and play, but he had little time to accommodate such trivialities.
Instead, he retreated to his study to ponder the continuing obsession of these creatures with humans.
He threw himself to the chaise and stared up at the ceiling of the octagonal room while he tried to understand their behavior. There was a certain rationality to their interest in Miss Redley. All four knew her gifts would be needed in order to wake the rest of their kind. And this was a pressing matter for all — instinct told them it must be done before this land fell dark in the totality of the eclipse. But their continued doggedness on the matter of bringing the young man to this estate irritated him. He would not admit that their fawning over the boy pricked at his pride. He would prefer they put more stock in his orders and focus on the search of the area rather than obsessing over Miss Redley’s would-be suitor.
His annoyance eased as the conditions outside improved. A bright morning light began to filter through the stained glass windows, setting the room alight with a fairy-like mélange of colors — blues, reds, greens, and the occasional gold pieces. Long ago, his grandfather had installed the fragile windows against his uncles’ wishes. They thought the items gaudy and unnecessary, but the old man’s desires prevailed.
Although he had never admitted this openly, he was rather glad his grandfather had made such an eccentric decision. The light from the glass made the room a little less dreary during all the times he must sit there, studying.
It was under this light that Maximilian began to read through the Book of Tales again, mulling the question that had bothered him previously. He wondered what dark things might emerge once the sun disappeared for the winter. As he leafed through the book’s pages, he came to realize that the answers were not likely found within these pages.
A carefree whistling noise came from down the hallway, interrupting his thoughts. Unusually heavy steps announced Giles’ approach. The count’s eyes wandered to his cane, resting by his side and waiting to be used again if necessary. But he did not pick it up.
A light rapping sound came at the door before it was opened.
The coachman hesitated at the door’s threshold while waiting to be acknowledged.
Permission to enter did not come immediately. Instead, a long period of silence hung between the two Wolframs as they warily studied one another from their respective spots. Giles’ green eyes flickered with a mix of shame and uneasiness. It was evident that he clearly recalled what had transpired the previous evening and was well aware of the punishment he deserved. After a moment, the coachman was forced to drop his gaze, affirming his acceptance of the Count not as an equal but lord and master.
The Count did not directly acknowledge Giles’ submission. Nor would he demand an apology or coddle the younger man. Instead he pretended nothing happened at all. “You walk like a bear, cousin. Take a seat.”
The man’s head lifted at the apt and unexpected humor on part of his cousin. With a hint of a relieved smile, he verbally batted back at his master. “Ah, and you look the part of a ghoul intent on scaring young, magic-wielding ladies with that pasty complexion of yours.”
The Count raised an eyebrow at his coachman’s rather flowery descriptions. “I have the appearance of the dead only because I haven’t slept. It’s impossible to do so when one’s servants appear to be going mad.”
Giles dropped down onto the chair with a sigh. He ran his hands through his shaggy hair and rubbed his eyes, still rimmed with red. “I suppose this is the part of the conversation where I am to grovel at your feet. I know I am an idiot. Namely, I am acutely aware now that I shouldn’t have wandered so long in creature form. It slipped my mind really, or rather, I let it slip my mind.”
Wolfram took a sip of his tea while Giles exorcised whatever thoughts plagued him. He bore it patiently, understanding that his youthful cousin was a man who could not keep his emotions or impulses all that contained.
The coachman stroked his goatee as he rambled. “It’s the darkness. You can feel that other blood stirring, almost as if there’s another part of me wanting to break out when night falls.”
The lord recalled the words of his grandfather, words he repeated for the sake of the younger man. “But it can be helped. We are not all animals, for we are also human and elf.”
Giles brooded. “I wasn’t trying to excuse my disobedience. It’s just that at times I want to forget our normal rules and run free like those lions, completely content being incomprehensible.”
“They still abide by rules, just not the ones that bind you,” Wolfram corrected his cousin. “Ultimately they are still responsible for themselves just as you are for yourself.”
“Yes, yes,” the man rubbed the back of his head nervously. “Speaking of that — I’ll take whatever punishment you choose to dole out.”
“The medicine is punishment enough, Giles.” The Count responded. “I am not going to add on to what I said yesterday. I simply want you to recover in order to your job. If members of our clan come–”
Giles looked up quickly. “Not if. But when! The Unthings have them spooked enough. They won’t be testing their abilities to stand their ground out west for certain. I was quite persuasive on that matter.”
Wolfram wondered exactly what the messenger had done to persuade his distant cousins. He hoped Giles had behaved himself, otherwise he feared the younger man would not be alive for very long after the female members of their clan arrived. “How many do you think will come?”
“That I don’t know,” Giles shook his head. “The matter of communications with the other families was left to your kinsmen from your youngest uncle to handle. They told me to return here while they summoned all who were willing to attend this estate.”
They would be thorough, the Count was certain. The question really would be who would choose to come here. His uncles’ descendants and followers had scattered far and wide. Given how rare a summons from their ancestral home was, there was a reasonable expectation of a very large assembly of Wolframs gathering here over the next few weeks. “I wonder if she will come,” Wolfram said suddenly.
Giles’ gave his master a puzzled look. “She?”
“The wandering one–”
Giles chuckled to himself. “Every time I heard a story about her, she’s always amongst the elves or lost in the land of dragons. The rest of the ladies think her odd and seem to loathe her.”
“Indeed,” the Count turned a sharp eye upon his servant. “She once was my betrothed.”
“Oh,” Giles flashed a rather terrified look at his master as he realized he had said a bit more than he ought to.
“Really,” the count tapped his fingers on his cane. The younger man likely had not been informed of the situation for it was simply easier to forget these things. She had been a very distant cousin with more elf than Wolfram blood within her. “I do not harbor any feelings for her. It was a match made by the houses, not I. She was the last of her line as was I.”
“Ah, that explains why she has no advocates amongst our many distant cousins,” Giles tread carefully. “Plus she constantly travels alone. The others think her mad.”
“I’m certain she thinks the rest of us equally worthy of loathing,” Wolfram almost smiled.
“Present company included?”
“Perhaps.” The lord sat back in his chair, his expression suddenly unreadable. “She did not seem too pleased to discover that I had no usable magic. Once I revealed this to her, she left my side rather hurriedly.”
“You could have ordered her back,” Giles said pragmatically.
“I have no need for female companionship.” The Count drummed his fingers on the armrest, wondering why this topic seemed to present itself more often than was considered polite.
“Well, from what I heard she doesn’t care about men either. But if you had ordered her to stay until she had produced you a child then she would have done so.”
At the mention of a child, Wolfram narrowed his eyes. “I don’t need one underfoot.”
“But they do,” Giles muttered. “They want it still. They still talk of one. All of them.”
The debate had started some time ago, long before Giles was born. Many had come to believe that the King of Wolves could not be without an heir, for the simple reason that if his house and line were to die out through his death, it was likely there would be conflict between all the other houses.
He had not seen fit to squash the arguments. He never told them that he would outlive all of them. Instead he had allowed them to waste years looking for suitable candidates to accomplish their goals.
The woman they sent him was the last of her line and of no importance to them either. No one could curry favor through her or be said to have gained an advantage should their second Maximilian keep her.
She was, to his surprise, only interested in him because of his rumored magic. She had run off as soon as she found he could no longer manipulate it.
It was just as well that she had done so.
He did not want to have a child who could inherit this cursed gift — a near immortality that would forever mark the poor thing as an object of curiosity and forever isolate it from normal society.
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