A courtyard full of living statues was more than Gawain could manage. In their wakened status the lions were extroverted and energetic. They talked endlessly about the old days and magic to any and every Wolfram within their sights. As charming as this idea might have seemed at first, there was a limit to how much they could speak to the Wolframs without exhausting their patience.
Even if the lions moved and spoke, it did not mean they were understood. These Wolframs were not their creators nor did they share the same words and traditions as those who had previously lived on these lands. The creatures spoke of things that held no context or meaning to their new masters. Riddles.
Without their lord and master to make headway of this chaos, the light-eyed men returned to their work and the lions turned to entertaining one another.
When Gawain asked for order, they did not file into lines like humans did. Instead, they began to leap, jump, twist and run.
Elanore lingered outside to watch the creatures swarm about. She shivered in the cold, for she was not impervious to it like the grizzled men who also watched the magic beasts. But unlike them, her eyes shone in spite of the conditions.
Close by, Giles stood watching the same sight. He did not appear as enthralled by the creatures’ antics. A frown creased his face. “Damn cats,” he muttered as his eyes followed some pattern he had observed in their movements. “They’re up to something.”
Elanore found herself drawing up to his side to ask him what that might be.
He grinned at the question she posed. But he did not wink, for his eyes were fixed to the beasts’ movements. “Communicating,” he said. “But I have no idea what.”
They watched them in companionable silence for more than a quarter hour before they were interrupted. Elanore felt something heavy wrap around her and a pair of hands settle upon her shoulders. She knew Edmund had come back to her at last.
He was tired, she could tell. A pang of worry invaded her thoughts but Giles’ presence kept her from reaching out to touch Edmund’s face. “What have you brought me?” She asked, gingerly patting the fur stole that rested on her shoulders.
“I believe it might have been a bear once,” he said drily. “Your grandmother insisted that you have something warmer than that cloak. That was the best that Lady Tala could procure on short notice.”
“It most definitely is bear,” came a smirk from Giles who was unabashedly eavesdropping on what might have been an otherwise tender scene. “A rather rude one too who tried to attack our young ones. He is looking very improved, I have to say.”
Edmund’s fingers tightened around her shoulders briefly when the older man laughed at his own joke. Elanore winced at the pressure but bore it quietly. “Did my grandmother turn in?”
“Yes,” his anxiety seemed to dissipate. He was smiling, if a bit weakly. “She’s asked me to make sure you don’t linger in the cold. May I see you inside before I leave?”
The tone of his voice did not offer much choice. She waved to Giles who seemed determined to keep vigil by the lions.
She took Edmund’s arm as he supported her through the snowy paths back to the house itself. They did not progress as quickly as they should have, for Edmund took them on a path that sidestepped the main entryway. She wondered aloud if he wished to avoid the dozens of servants that seemed to always hover around there.
He smiled slightly in response and took her hand.
She nearly faltered then, somewhat startled by her body’s peculiar reaction to his touch. Elanore wondered if the sudden warmth and happy feelings could be a side-effect of the magic that had run through her during the lions’ awakening. She wondered if it had made her rash enough to kiss Edmund during a moment of uninhibited joy.
Elanore said nothing as they paused at the step of a modest, wooden door. She did not dare look up, embarrassed he’d see straight through her thoughts and see she was thinking about him again.
She was naive to think he was not thinking about her in kind as she stood close to him. So close was she, that all he would have to do was to simply turn his head in order to return the kiss she had given him earlier. Had Lady Tala not opened the door suddenly, he would have succumbed to the temptation and succeeded.
Edmund flushed. As for Elanore, she could only blurt out an awkward “Hello” while the sound of giggles erupted from a few other women standing inside the door.
They divested her of her strange wrap as he whisked her past them through what appeared to be a servant’s kitchen and towards a long corridor.
Elanore eventually recognized that they were moving in the direction of the parlor. As they approached the room, she could hear the low murmur of two voices deep in discussion suddenly stop at their approach.
Edmund relinquished Elanore’s hand and she began to straighten her skirts out of habit. It was not her clothing that was in disarray but her feelings. When she felt brave enough to look at him, she did. “Should we wait here?”
“No,” he sighed to himself. “After all, they are expecting you.”
She did not understand his sudden shift in mood. A veil fell over his face as he escorted her through the parlor doors. Edmund was frustrated, she knew. About what, she did not.
Elanore found herself seated at a warm spot by the fire while the gentlemen rearranged themselves accordingly.
While Edmund handed his coat to the butler, the master of the house seated himself in the chair that had been previously occupied by her grandmother. If he noticed the knitting, he said nothing. Instead, Count Wolfram studied her before offering an apology. “I have monopolized Edmund’s time, thus depriving you of his company. I must send him home early as well for it will be quite dark soon. But before I leave him to your care, we both wanted to inquire of something.”
She glanced nervously back at Edmund who had taken his seat next to her. Edmund’s expression was far kinder as he spoke. “Elanore, have you interacted or talked with the lady boarder at my home?”
“The lady Ilva?” She was perplexed by such a question. She looked first at Edmund and then at the other faces before she shook her head. “No. I may have spotted her at the inn once, but I’ve never spoken to her.”
The gentlemen each exchanged glances.
To Elanore, their relief was evident. She worried for a moment, wondering why this was so. Her eyes drifted to the young man next to her. “Is she a bad person?”
The three men’s faces did not agree on that point. However, only the Count spoke. “She’s a person with a great deal of magic, Miss Redley. If you do see her, be careful.”
His answer was non-committal, even neutral. However, she felt her some of her earlier concerns for Edmund return. He lived with the woman. In her mind, if the magic was a threat to her, it would be the same for him. She thought to press the Count on this point but he had already stood to take his leave.
Wolfram’s eyes slid past her towards Edmund. He held out a slim book to the young man. “You may give that to the lady when you next see her. My response is noted. She will understand it if she is who she claims to be.”
He offered the both of them a grim bow before he quit the room with Hastings hurrying behind him.
Elanore’s eyes drifted to the book, her interest piqued. She waited for just a moment before she pressed her hand to her companion’s arm. “Are you in trouble? Is she in trouble?”
Edmund sighed as he put the book away in a pouch he carried. “I don’t know. There is a history between this woman and your host that runs tangled and deep. If she had not broken off an engagement, I believe she would be the closest to a wife for the Count that we could imagine. But her magic and her long absence makes him doubt her.”
The lady felt a twinge of surprise at the idea that the Count had any romantic history but she bit her tongue. Edmund appeared poised to say something more. She pressed gently. “But what do you think, Edmund?”
He tapped his fingers on the back of the sofa while he thought aloud. “If we were married and we fought terribly, imagine that I was angry enough to threaten to leave home. What would you do if I then did so?”
“You wouldn’t get out the door before I tackled you,” she said without hesitating. “I wouldn’t let you leave me! I’d make you talk to me and figure out how to work things out!”
His face crinkled in amusement at her tirade. She had proved that in some respects that she had not changed much over the years. “But what if we were strangers coerced into marriage? And we were both quite proud and strong-willed?”
She thought for a moment, well aware that he was not talking about the two of them but the Count and Ilva. “I think then it becomes a battle of wills, does it not? It seems that even if I wanted to stop fighting, my pride would make it hard to meet the other person somewhere halfway. I don’t know that I would find it easy to be the first to apologize. But still,” she softened. “Even if I didn’t know how to express myself, don’t you think that if I loved you I would come find you?”
“But what if we weren’t human? Or cared only for magic?”
Elanore mirrored Edmund’s frown. “What do you mean?”
“He’s not human. Or was and isn’t now.” Edmund ran his fingers through his hair. “I don’t think any of these Wolframs are very human, or if they were … not anymore. There is something else mixed into their blood — something that causes them to shun outsiders and behave differently. Lady Ilva said it was the blood of wolves and I’m inclined to believe her.”
Elanore’s sense of unease grew. “What does that mean then? Are they dangerous?”
“Am I dangerous, Elanore?” He suddenly asked.
“No,” she shook her head, puzzled by the troubled look that flickered across his face. “But what does that–”
“Elanore, you are going to have to decide all these things just as I have. People are dangerous. Wolves are dangerous. Those lions are even dangerous, for one swipe and they could knock a man senseless or break his neck. Life is dangerous.”
She pondered that for a moment, surprised by his sudden change in philosophy. “I thought you would be telling me it’s time for me to come back home with you.” In fact, she could almost hear him telling her that now that they had wakened the lions, that she had done enough.
“No,” he answered slowly. “I do not believe that is wise. It is far safer for you to be here than anywhere else. Your host family may not be what they seem — even be frightening at times. But as much as their master denies it, he is still capable of good.” He paused for a moment to take hold of her hand. “If in doubt, keep to Giles and Hastings. I’ll be back to stay with you in a few days. I have been permitted to take Lambegus and Galahad to deal with a few other matters.”
“So,” she murmured to herself. “He did take your suggestion.”
“You did very well today, Elanore,” he squeezed her hand. “But I do not know if he means to be magnanimous. He did say that they were quite good at reading people. They would be able to see through Ilva. And I suppose he means to keep an eye on her. But I will use them to help with the townspeople in kind. And I’d like them to talk to the bookmaster and the guildleader. I think they might help decipher a few other things — including what the lions spoke of during their waking.”
Elanore felt guilty for allowing the lions’ riddles to slip her mind. “I’ll ask the lions, too. You should as well. Galahad is a sensible beast — I believe he will be much clearer than the others.”
“Not ‘it,’ but ‘he’?” He smiled at her use of the pronoun. “You seem to have grown rather fond of them.”
“They are very much alive,” she insisted. “And they are attached to their names. I have at least a few dozen new ones to learn and remember.”
His fingers reached out to caress her cheek. “I am as fond of them as you are. But they are tiring, so do take care. I will talk a great deal to them if I can somehow teach Lambegus to not shout so much. But if I do all you ask, will you rest until I return?”
She leaned into her suitor’s hand and smiled for him, soothing away whatever silent worries he had kept to himself. “Only if you promise that you will hurry back.”
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