He had to take care to not show his frustration with the lack of information he had. Ilva had told him to seek out opportunities and to make his own luck.
So Edmund turned his thoughts towards lady Wolfram, who currently sat at the window to watch the activity outside. She was part of an apparent hierarchy of power that surrounded the Count. He did not fully know her rank or degree of influence within this household. But he knew that the Count must trust her as he did her husband, Marrok.
More than likely she intended to report to her lord whatever transpired in this room. Having a spy in their midst should have aggravated Edmund but for now he saw her as the Count’s proxy.
For the moment, Elanore paid the woman little attention. She was intent on pouring another cup of tea for her grandmother and tending to her elder’s needs.
When she came over to refresh Edmund’s cup, he put up his hand to stop her. “Thank you, I’ve had enough.”
She would have gone over to the window to see to the Lady Tala’s tea had he not stood up and stepped in her way. Elanore’s eyes questioned the young man as he gently took the pot in hand and guided her back to a place on the sofa. He chose to seat her next to him, drawing a pointed look from Elanore’s chaperone and a curious one from the Count’s family member.
Edmund carefully set the teapot on the table in front of him with one hand while his other kept Elanore’s hand. He knew his behavior towards Elanore pushed the boundaries of propriety, yet he did not let her go.
The gentleman was more than aware of his audience as his thumb brushed the young lady’s palm. She shivered, forgetting all about the tea. “I have some good news for you, Elanore.”
She wanted something to be pleased about, so much so that she held his hand as tightly as he held hers. She leaned to better hear him — to such a precarious degree that a small tug would have caused her to fall sideways against him.
Mrs. Winchester saw the danger. She cleared her throat several times at her young charges, causing the third woman in the room to once again look their way.
Adele Winchester caught Lady Tala’s eye and mistook the look in them for horror. She did not know what Edmund did about her true nature. “Elanore,” she called out a warning. “Sit up straight.”
Elanore snatched her hand back and pretended to fix something on her dress. Edmund readjusted his seat, turning slightly so he could see Elanore’s face as he spoke to her. He knew the news interested all of them but he directed his attention to the one closest to his heart. “I received the guildmaster this morning at home. He wished you be told that he will be helping the townspeople.”
“Oh!” The sound from Elanore was less an exclamation than a long-drawn out sigh of relief. Her shoulders relaxed slightly, as if to say that some burden had been lifted from her. And then her cheeks dimpled as she smiled. “I’m so glad! I had been afraid that nothing good would come of yesterday.”
Her happiness washed over Edmund like a strong wave. For a moment he forgot himself and they were both lost, dwelling in each other’s smiles.
A cough reminded them, however, of their audience. Mrs. Winchester put down her cup to pick up needles and yarn in her lap. The needles began to click, forming yarn into shapes, while she began to ask the questions that her granddaughter had not. “This is not like other winters where an extra set of provisions is all that’s needed when the days grow shorter. What does the man think to do?”
Elanore gasped slightly at her grandmother’s faint condemnation. She looked at Edmund, wondering what to say.
He had not expected the mayor to respond as Elanore had. After all, he himself had disliked the man’s confidant, almost arrogant exterior. But he had come to glimpse the man’s anger and insecurity about Miss Redley’s mother. Edmund could not say yet that he liked him, but at least he had come to feel sympathy towards him.
Edmund squeezed Elanore’s fingers. It was his job to defend the guildmaster, not her’s. “Whatever Elanore showed him convinced him to do more. I believe he is preparing the guild to shelter those who wish it. There may be some who won’t relish the idea of living in bunkhouses and the spare homes we have set up for guild men. But I think those who believe in the old stories will come to the compound for there is safety in numbers. As for the rest who will not, the guild will do what they can to advise on how to protect their homes.”
Miss Redley’s expression softened for a moment as she thought through what he said. She tried hard to smooth out the disagreement between the two people she loved dearly. “A whole guild of people helping others like Edmund does would be a blessing. The guildmaster must not be a bad man.”
Edmund’s contribution to Mrs. Winchester’s welfare all these years was indubitable. The elderly woman sighed at Elanore’s wistful declaration and rephrased her concerns. “It is an odd arrangement. I do not know how that will fare.”
“It’s a start,” Elanore quietly pleaded with her grandmother. “The guild is strong and resilient. Their collective knowledge has kept them alive for many years in a place that people said couldn’t be settled. Grandfather even said they were a well-run group under the current and previous guildmaster. What they do is better than we could have hoped for. Shouldn’t we support them as they try everything they can?”
“But not everything is being done, is it?” Mrs. Winchester shook her head. “I don’t mean to sound as if I am casting doubt on the townspeople and the guild. But consider this –these Wolframs have gathered in similar fashion within this compound. And they have you here, rounding up strange creatures for their own use. They are days ahead, maybe even years ahead in preparations.”
The contrast the Mayor drew was an astute one. Both Edmund and Elanore fell silent as they realized their short-sightedness. They had not seen the similarities in how the two groups were going about preparing for the worst of the winter in similar ways. And worse — they had not realized the vast differences that existed between these two camps — differences that might be critical to survival.
Edmund turned to look at the woman at the window, whose attention had conveniently wandered to the lions outside. She pretended not to hear them, but it was evident that she and the gathered Wolframs knew much more than all of the townspeople combined.
Mrs. Winchester sighed. “I can only hope that by coming here, I will learn something useful to help the townspeople. However–” she turned to address Edmund. “Perhaps Gregory has some news. I presume you have seen him?”
For a moment, Edmund considered what to say. With his eye at the lady at the window, he spoke. “In fact, I have seen him today. He spoke of the possible return of bears and wolves during the eclipse.”
“But that’s no surprise is it?” Elanore frowned at the weight of importance Edmund had attached to the words. “Even Grandfather said that they had once been more than a few of them here.”
Suddenly, the lady at the window stood and stretched. Edmund did not wish her to suspect how much he really knew. “Gregory thinks the beasts will migrate here for the winter or should. Animals often return to their ancestral spawning grounds. It would not be unreasonable to think this is part of their behavior. But there may be other things that follow them.”
“The Unthings?” Elanore wondered aloud.
“Yes,” Edmund answered slowly, aware of Elanore’s unease. “But there may be other creatures as one might expect. What those might be is beyond what the guild can find out. Those who have lived here longer might know. And, in their absence, folklore might guide us.” He paused again. “My friend is quite good at tales. I shall ask.”
The old woman stopped her knitting for a moment. “You shall have to return as soon as you can then. We must know what he thinks.”
Edmund did not correct the mayor. He thought of Ilva, not the Friar. He changed the subject with a light answer, looking sideways at Elanore as he spoke. “And here I thought you both might invite me simply to see me, although I also doubt your host will agree to another invitation.”
“Of course we both wish to see you,” the old woman responded seriously. “I made it clear that I must maintain clear visibility on the town as much as I can. I need you to assure my dear friends that I’m recovering in a place where Elanore will have more help.”
“That can be done,” Edmund nodded slowly. “Although what shall be done about messages sent to your home?”
“There will be very few after this week,” Mrs. Winchester stated. “It may be another month or so before we see any from the outside. Pick them up from the innkeeper’s wife if you can.”
“I will see to her later, then.” Edmund answered.
“Now,” the old lady sniffed. “As for the people here causing you trouble, everyone knows that Elanore has been waiting for you all morning. That tea tray is wastefully overloaded with all these things the housekeeper wanted you to try. But we shall make it clear that you don’t require such things. And if that is the case, if I ask the Count to admit you for Elanore’s sake, why would my request be denied?”
“Grandmother!” Elanore protested softly. “This isn’t about the tea. You know how they do not often have visitors. But given the circumstances, I can make the request for myself!”
Her grandmother raised her eyebrow. “Is that so? Then do so. Far better for it to come from you than myself when young gentlemen are concerned. I think that would be their preference!”
As her grandmother resumed her work on what appeared to be a mitten, Elanore exhaled softly. She was clearly embarrassed by the scolding she had received from her grandmother as well as what she had alluded to about Edmund’s preferences.
When Elanore spoke again, she was suddenly shy. She couldn’t quite meet Edmund’s intense gaze. Instead she looked down at her lap and at his hand holding hers. “This morning I was asked to prove myself to several of the Count’s family members. He means for me to immediately wake more lions.”
The older woman angrily picked up the speed of her knitting and bit her tongue. Edmund saw the troubled expression on Elanore’s face and it finally occurred to him why Mrs. Winchester had been uncharacteristically sour this entire conversation.
Elanore toyed with the fabric of her skirt. “I lost my temper when he made that demand. I didn’t mean to. I understand that the more lions there happen to be, the more that might be done. But I felt uncomfortable and as if he didn’t care what happened to me. So we insisted that we wait for you.”
She didn’t look at him, but he knew that Elanore was scared — less about being found incapable but more about her own well-being. If at any point she had been excited to possess an unusual power, she had come to face her own body’s limits. Ilva had told Edmund that humans were frail vessels for magic — vessels that could break.
As strong willed as she might be, she could not will herself a new body should magic ruin it. Edmund was grateful that Elanore had realized this for herself. But there was one thing that Edmund puzzled over. “But couldn’t the Count help? Didn’t you wake the first one under his guidance and with his assistance?”
She flushed — not due to embarrassment but irritation. “Truthfully, it happened by accident. I wasn’t even really trying. And the second time, he sent me off alone– until you were there to help me.”
“And so he permitted the delay.”
“Yes,” she nodded. “But now that you are here, I’m certain they will make the same demand shortly. If you would help, perhaps he’d allow us to take a lion to the townsfolk. I’m sure the lions would go if asked. They are very kind and like people.”
He knew it would not be their decision. “Think through this a little more. Only one of four right now can speak to anyone other than yourself. Would the Count spare the one that talks?”
“There might be others,” she said optimistically. “The lions could help pick one more suited to that purpose.”
That seemed reasonable enough, although compliance was not exactly a predictable trait of the creatures. “Alright,” Edmund sighed. “I’ll help.” Unlike Elanore, he did not care if he had to challenge the Wolframs. “But do tell me then why you still seem so worried. One lion should not be a problem.”
She glanced at the window, listening to the sound of the wind as four lions danced outside, singing a tune that only she could hear. Again her face betrayed the direction of her thoughts. “They say that one is not enough.”
He felt his blood run cold as he followed the direction of her gaze past the lions and towards the courtyard beyond them. “There are at least a hundred out there.”
She bit her lip, well aware of the problem. “We don’t have time to do one a day. One more won’t be enough. Nor will four or five. We need an entire army.”
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