The band of Wolframs that accompanied him was not a small one. When they materialized out of the wet fog, they barely could fit under the carriage-porch at the Ormond home. In spite of Marrok’s directives, Maximilian kept them outside waiting while he and Lady Tala entered the Ormond home.
Edmund’s mother and father were surprised to receive such a gentleman at home.
“We are kin of the Lady Ilva,” is what the Count stated as they exchanged introductions with the man’s family members.
The Count did not know what to make of the young man’s complex expression at such a statement. Mrs. Ormond, however, greeted them warmly. She was relieved greatly by their arrival and quickly established a sense of rapport with lady Tala. They fell immediately to discussing the situation of the woman patient and disappeared down the hallway to tend to her.
Edmund’s elderly father politely dismissed himself to the shop, leaving the Count and Edmund alone in the hallway.
As always, the young man seemed to frown around him. The Count felt compelled to address what he had been told by the lion. “I suppose you called me here for this wish of yours. What shall it be?”
“It can wait,” Edmund said sharply. “You should see to your ‘kin’ first.”
Wolfram bowed his head slightly before he continued along to the room in which Selva lay. He stopped short of the door, choosing not to step inside. Instead, he stared across the threshold as the two women tended their patient.
His face was blank – reflecting nothing of what he felt to the young man watching him. However, he himself did not know what he felt at that moment. Wolfram spoke for the young man’s ears only. “Galahad did not tell me what happened.” There had been no time with all the hustle of preparing to take a group of men out of the estate. “What were the circumstances around her discovery?”
The young man spoke carefully, sparing no detail about the activities of the woman prior to her being found at the Winchester home. He mentioned Galahad’s concern about the creatures that had been found with the woman.
He forgot to ask more, falling into silence as he observed the Lady Tala adeptly assessing the body of the woman. They were not alone in waiting, for the lions were at the window peering intently through the frosted glass.
When Lady Tala had concluded her efforts, her eyes roamed the room seeking out the Count. When she discovered him standing far away at the door, she frowned.
She sighed before she strode over to him, her eyes full of questions and worry. With a tight smile at Edmund, she acknowledged the young man before addressing the gentleman. “My lord, I spent a great deal of time looking at her. There is evidence of past injuries that have largely healed. These are the sorts of things one might expect of a woman with a difficult upbringing.” She paused, her brow wrinkling before she continued. “Her current sleep is quite deep, but I see no evidence of contusions or bumps on her head. I suppose she is simply exhausted. It is safe to move her and Mrs. Ormond has agreed.” Her glance shifted back to the young man to include him in the conversation. “Mrs. Ormond is also aware of the offer given to Edmund and has consented to assist with caring for the woman at the estate.”
Lady Tala invoked a protocol that would apply for any rescued wolf. She did not know the treachery the woman might represent. All she saw was a missing person restored to them. He kept his eyes from wandering to Selva, from betraying anything that concerned him. “That is a generous gesture,” he glanced at the two women. “Perhaps you two ladies might discuss on your own what is needed to transfer her. I do not know if the covered sleigh will be enough. We may have to send for another.”
“Yes, sir,” Tala responded.
He frowned at her for not immediately complying with his suggestion. “And perhaps you will also determine what help will be needed to comfortably establish the Ormonds in the residence? I do not know much of household affairs and what preparations would have to be made. In the meantime, if there is no objection, I’d like to see the Lady Ilva myself. Edmund will assist if something happens.”
Neither woman appeared to like being asked to leave the room, Lady Tala especially so. She was displeased by his behavior, but dared not argue in front of the others.
With them gone, he could look at her more closely. He was cautious. He knew he had been fooled at least once by magic and took great care to confirm that people were who they claimed to be. Slowly he came to stand at the woman’s bedside, his fingers trailing along the side of the bed, brushing against the gold hair of the woman that fanned out across the pillow and sheets.
Wolfram took a moment to study her face. The lions had vouched for her — they were not so easily misled. He could not keep denying them their truth. Her truth.
An unexplainable anxiety filled him as he confirmed for himself that it was Selva lying there, more beautiful than his memories had permitted. He had to look away, uncomfortable with himself and the situation. As he did so, his eyes shifted to the table next to her bed, catching sight of the book she had sent him.
The young man cleared his throat, reminding him that he was still present.
“She read it.” Maximilian touched the book carefully.
Edmund stiffened, offended by the casual manner in which the Count spoke about the entire situation. However angry he might be, the young man spoke his mind calmly. “She fought me for it. It was the only thing she wanted from me when I found her at the barn. When she finally did read it, she blamed herself for your apparent anger. After she told me as such, she drifted off into a deep sleep and the snow became all ice and teeth. It is as if she punishes herself because of you. As if she cannot forgive herself.”
The Count watched the rise and fall of the woman’s breathing. “I believe we have spoken of forgiveness before. I remind you that wolves do not belabor over such kinds of things.“
“If I did not say this earlier, then I must remind you that she also claimed to be human. The lions reminded me she was not like you. At the very least, she craved warmth and kindness. Is that not a part of your vocabulary? Mercy? Compassion?”
Wolfram glanced sideways at the young man who spoke of forgotten concepts. “And what would be that kindness give her now? She cannot hear us while we speak of such things.”
Edmund’s face nearly caved at the Count’s brutal assessment. “I don’t know,” the young man was pained to admit. “If only you had been here sooner.”
Wolfram squeezed the handle of his cane as he acknowledged the sentiment to be correct. He was not hours late, but decades too late. “Allow me a moment alone with Selva. I will reflect upon what may still be done. There may be something yet that can be of help.”
The expression of optimism on his part appeared to confuse the young man, but Edmund withdrew.
Left alone with Selva, Wolfram drew back to the side of the bed. He rested the cane against the table and reached for the lady’s hands — turning them over as if they might offer clues.
He wondered what she had done all this time to make them so rough and calloused. So absurdly cold.
Wolfram removed his gloves to verify that he had been correct. And he winced — for it was not just her hands, but the whole of her, that was like ice.
And yet Tala had not mentioned this. The skilled nurse had said her body was fine by all normal standards. Perhaps this was magic at work again — an ailment that could only be seen by those with magic itself.
He leaned forward to study the sound of her breathing. As he did so, his nose was caught fast by the scent of her hair. He paused as the fragrance reminded him of the woods in spring. He closed his eyes, struggling for a moment against certain instincts.
Maximilian could not win against this awakening part of himself. He buried his face in the nape of her neck, his breath jagged and quick as he drank in the woods of his past. He lost himself there for a few moments, ironically offering her the kind of affection he had failed to provide her in the time she had been with him.
But she was still cold.
He forced back these hazy, irritating instincts and sat up straight in his chair. As peculiar as it might be, he found himself speaking to her aloud. “I’ve been told you serve a new master who is stronger than anyone in existence. I admit that the news angered me, for I never released you.” Wolfram looked up at the ceiling. “Had you asked, I would have. But I did not, so I protest this business of hers, making you pour snow onto my lands without just cause, and causing these good people so much trouble with your condition.”
He caught a glimpse of the lions out of the corner of his eye. They shook their heads as if his words and manner were a failure.
Wolfram deliberated again over something Edmund had said about the lions assessment of Selva’s suffering. He had caused it, in their accounts. Because he lacked understanding.
How little he remembered what that meant. His mind wandered back quite far, to his impressions of his mother and father. It was odd how much his grandfather worshiped his eldest son. But his grandfather was suspiciously soft, a likely hidden romantic who reminded him that in spite of his father’s impressive gift with a sword, it was a mere kiss that ended up saving his bride from death.
He thought of that quaint story as he leaned over Selva, his breath warming her face as he tried to think about how such a small thing could work.
Magic could be transferred, he realized as he studied the curve of her lower lip. But he had little of it, he thought with regret as he pressed his mouth to it.
It was a sad story, this. She was the last of her kind, deserving of much more than a kiss of a king with little magic and a land with so little to offer.
He tried not just once, but a second time — a little less roughly, a little more patiently. She did not stir, even after a third time.
Wolfram leaned back in his chair and groaned to himself at the futility of what he was doing. The lions were angry, he was certain. He could hear them fussing outside the window. He did not realize that they were simply laughing, distracted by the falling of a new, soft snow.
“Wife,” the Count voiced his frustrations aloud. “Why will you not come back? What must I do or undo?”
The woman on the bed jerked slightly, as if in pain. Maximilian lifted her up into his arms, intent on keeping her still until the tremors eventually subsided. But instead he felt fists beating upon him and heard a muffled, confused voice speaking into his chest. “You smell like my lord, but you cannot be him. Please unhand me at once!”
He complied immediately.
Selva’s hands were still clenched as he placed the woman back upon the bed. Her light-colored eyes openly studied him, curious and wary.
His feelings were conflicted. On the one hand her haughty demeanor should have repulsed him, but he felt both angered and excited at her standoffish behavior. He raised his chin. “Do you mean to say that you refuse to recognize me?”
Selva’s eyes sparked defiantly. “My lord is angry with me. He would never condescend to show such affection to a runaway servant.” She almost sounded proud as she corrected him further. “Nor would he have called me his wife.”
He realized she had heard him after all. His mouth quirked up slightly. “Surely you know I am the same man. If I am different it is only because I have been instructed to reform my ways.”
She clutched the blanket with her fingers, her eyes narrowing in suspicion. “Your attempts to smile confuse me even more. As do your attempts to hide your anger.”
How she saw through him, he never had understood. It was a part of her own mystery – that she could see the truth where others could not. “Yes, I am exceedingly angry at you,” he admitted quietly, trying to avoid using the offending grimace that so troubled her. “But I have come out from the tower to tell you so.”
He could tell that his words had assuaged her doubts. But she responded, taking care match his tone of voice. “I am grateful for your honesty. I suppose you came to hear why I am here.”
“I have,” he told her. “But I also want to know if what Edmund said you spoke was true.”
He saw the corner of her mouth turn down. She was offended that he questioned her integrity.
“Do not be so hot-tempered,” he told her. “I thought you left me, Selva. But I was informed that I thought incorrectly.”
“You did!” She said abruptly, before she realized her rudeness. “I loved you,” she amended just as strongly. “Without magic you were despondent. I saw you closing yourself off. I knew I had to find a way to undo what was happening to you.”
Wolfram bowed his head, afraid of looking at her. He struggled to maintain his sense of calm at her confession. “An unfortunate circumstance. And so here we are.”
Her hands stroked absently at her stomach. “Here we are,” she echoed him softly. “It was unfortunate that I did not know that by leaving your side, I would have Unthings hunting me. They were intent on fixing my behavior by trying to erase my existence. I didn’t understand what they were doing, so I was always running in the woods. And when I went home, I thought it would be alright. But they ate my village. And so I had to keep running.”
He knew that he should say something, for such a thing was horrible beyond comprehension. But had he, her pride would have been hurt. She was not looking for sympathy from him, he knew.
“And then the Snow Queen found you.”
“She saved me from them and myself. I didn’t know what to do. She was the one who told me that the only way I’d stop them from coming was if I were to leave the past behind. She gave me a new purpose by allowing me to help her with her work, bringing snow where it was needed. And so they left me alone.”
He could have pressed for details, asked her if the work had been hard, or painful. But he felt he should not. “Why are you here now?”
“I don’t know,” she looked out the window. “She knows about you and the rest of the wolves. But she doesn’t care much. What you do matters little, for all she cares about is the seasons. But there isn’t supposed to be any magic here and so she permitted me to stay longer to observe. But I was told to avoid speaking with you and your men.”
His eyes traveled from her lips to her cheeks, where two spots of color had formed, betraying her embarrassment. “Why would it matter?”
She glared in kind. “Is it not obvious? I’m not trustworthy.”
“No,” he said tersely. “That can’t be the reason. You were always clever and headstrong, but you were far more upright than I. Have you ever done anything to disobey her?”
“I have not,” she snapped indignantly. “I would not make the same mistake twice!”
Her admission did not go unnoticed. Maximilian was fascinated by her fierce honesty. He leaned forward in his seat, his expression shifting as he brought his mouth to her ear, intent on provoking her even further. “I suppose she deduced that you must love me still.”