The guildmaster and bookmaster stayed a bit longer to talk of the guild’s plans for the remainder of the winter. Edmund added little to the conversation, choosing to observe the others interact and absorb what he could that would be of interest to himself and other townsfolk.
If Ilva had been quiet before, she exerted herself now to be helpful. The lady joined them at the kitchen table, talking of her walks in the woods and of what she had observed so far.
Edmund noted the way she held their attention. Whenever she spoke, Wilhelm and Gregory leaned in to listen without interruption. And he could see her more fully now — how her charisma was a facet of the magic she claimed to possess. Now aware of that power, he viewed all that she said with caution.
The two older men were charmed, but he was not. As soon as the men had departed, Edmund cornered the lady boarder in the kitchen. “What are you planning now?”
She was seated at the table, tearing apart a scone that his mother had made the previous day. Ilva abandoned it for the moment in order to afford Edmund a rather innocent look. “Planning?”
The young man’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Why did you tell the guildmaster about what we found while exploring the woods? And what was that negotiation about not hunting wolves really about?”
Ilva put her knife down in surprise and studied it for a moment.
He could almost see her thinking to herself, debating what to say. Rarely did Edmund reveal the perceptiveness that lurked behind his kind exterior. At times, his gentleness was misunderstood as simpleness. However, Edmund was not as unobservant as others might believe.
She turned her attention back to the scone and exhaled softly. “I thought that securing a promise to not hunt wolves would please the Wolframs greatly. It is an important tool in any negotiations you might wish to undertake.”
“Was that really all you thought?” Edmund crossed his arms over his chest. “You yourself spoke of a past history with the Wolframs, so I must ask you plainly as to your intentions. The lady you serve… does she collude with the Wolframs? Do you mean to manipulate me to do her or their bidding?”
She considered the look on Edmund’s face and dropped her eyes. “You worry that I may be tricking you. I suppose that is to be expected. I have not given you reason to trust me.”
The young man considered that she had done an excellent job of making herself indispensable to him. “You have not given me a reason to mistrust you either, but I can’t be blind to the effort you have taken to involve yourself in my decisions. You claim that we are related somehow and imply that my survival and well-being are important to you. On the basis of that you offer me advice. But forgive me if I question what other interests you have beyond my welfare.”
To her credit, his expression of doubt did not appear to offend her. She even looked pleased as she took a sip of tea before speaking. “The lady I serve is real. I do not lie that I am not a free woman and that I serve someone else. This woman taught me what I know of magic. I am here on her behalf, observing the effects of this winter and the darkness upon this region. But I am not allowed direct interaction with the Wolframs. Perhaps she feared my loyalties might be tested. Perhaps she tests me. I don’t know.”
He frowned while he thought through her statement and reconciled it against others she had made previously. He became uneasy as he recalled the way she had spoken of the Count. Lightly, carefully, his questions began to circle in a different direction around the woman. “Then your lady has no connection to the Count?”
She took another sip of tea before she spoke. “My lady is interested in him but only in an academic sense. Her concern is about the balance of lives in this part of the world. The dark things are a part of the balance. They come to purge what is necessary to remove. And if that includes wolves or humans or other creatures, she will not interfere.”
Edmund knew then that her earlier statements had not been quite the truth. “So the woman who served the Count was you, not she.”
Her eyes widened as she had realized that he had caught her mistake. “Yes,” she answered, owning her lie. “I served him once, but it did not end well. My lady had no connection to him other than through me.”
He should have been angry at this deception, but he already experienced enough half-truths and lies in his young life to know that he ought to expect as such from others. “As for Elanore and I, are we part of her plans? Does she know what we do?”
“No,” she blinked. “I don’t believe she has any idea about you two. She does not concern herself much with the humans. It was the girl’s magic that first caught my attention for it was unexpected. But you also were unexpected as was the story between the two of you. I was fascinated by what I saw. But with the wolves in the picture, I fear it now has become complicated.”
“I’m not afraid of them,” he answered her calmly. “As numerous as the Wolframs may be or varied their powers seem to be, they are wolves. I know well enough how they work. I think I understand how to arrange the situation such that I have access to Elanore.”
She might have asked him then what he was planning, but Edmund’s demeanor did not invite questioning. His features had drawn into a mask, revealing less and less by the minute. Edmund had come to understand the woman far better but, as such, could never wholly trust her again.
The lady tapped her fingers on the table, dissatisfied by the course of this conversation. “You have nothing to fear from them as long as you don’t cross them. But I don’t want you to be caught up in games that fate might be playing. Edmund, you are a hunter, she a red riding hood, and the lord of the estate is a Wolf. Do you not know your stories? The one of Red Riding Hood?”
He offered her only the smallest of nods. “I am familiar with that particular tale. Is it not some sort of warning for children and young women against the unknown?”
“It is. Many of the folktales happen to contain a sort of shaded truth or lesson. But others are curses in themselves — stories that fate stages time and again with different actors and different settings, until those persons or places die or the Unthings claim them.”
He rested his chin on his hands and stared at her. She spoke with conviction and sincerity but Edmund was unable to believe what she had just claimed.
Her hand tightened around the handle of a fork, but she did not waver under his study. “Your eyes tell me that you think I’m rambling insanities. But my fear is for you. I do not wish for you to become a puppet to fate who contrives to enact that same Red Riding Hood story to its satisfaction with you as one of its principal characters.” She dropped the fork and pushed the plate in front of her away. “You do not understand that I had been caught up in a tale of my own long ago. When I failed, fate abandoned me and the Unthings came for me. It took them months to find me in the woods, but they came.”
“And yet you are here with me today. Explain that.”
“My life would be forfeit if the lady had not found me. She gave me a new purpose, a new tale to play out. The Unthings will come for her one day she knows, but she intends that I take her place so the balance of power is not destroyed. Seasons will continue to come and go. Nature’s elements will act to keep creatures from overpopulating this land.”
“Who is your lady,” Edmund’s voice tightened, suddenly quite afraid. Not only of the woman who Ilva served, but the future that Ilva had embraced.
Ilva’s gaze drifted to the window. Outside, the sky had opened, throwing a white cover upon the ground. Her voice fell into an awed, fearful whisper. “She who controls the snow.”