The Count’s absence from breakfast was the topic of many whispered conversations in the dining hall. Why he was gone, no loyal Wolfram would divulge. But the servants gossiped that he had disappeared after the Countess dragged him head first out of the library the previous evening.
Elanore was as eager as they were to know the full truth of what had happened that night. However, the few Wolframs who were spotted at the morning meal would not reveal what demands, if any, Selva had made to their lord.
The young healer had no choice but to quietly finish her meal. Elanore wandered outside to find the lions busy with activity, digging holes and then refilling them as they pleased.
She did not stand there idling very long. The wind poured through her red cloak, biting at her and reminding her of the work to be done. She quickly called for Gawain.
Two lions trotted at her summons. She looked back and forth at them, trying hard to tell them apart. At times only their voices could help her distinguish them from one other.
“Hiiii,” said one, clearly Gawain.
“What shall it be today, young miss?” Uwain grinned.
“I see you two are in a good mood today.” She reached out with her mitten-covered hand to find them both anxious to sniff it. “I did not see your lady last night again. Have you?”
“Noooo,” came the smug response of Gawain. “Except at their window this morning. My lady waved before she was dragged away by my lord.”
The wind picked up then, fueled by a blast of delighted laughter that echoed throughout the large yard.
Elanore blushed at the lions’ reaction to Gawain’s statement as well as the answer he had provided her. “Well, I’m glad you all seem pleased.” But then her brow furrowed as she looked at the crowd of lions, continuing to enthusiastically dig more and more holes. “However, if that is the case and you have not spoken to either of them… may I ask exactly who gave you permission for what you are doing now?”
Mrs. Winchester, Giles, and Marrok stood underneath a smooth, wooden door-frame while watching the band of men approach. If the guild numbers looked small, they did not say anything as they offered them all a warm reception. The hunters, however, could not help but look startled at the appearance of the grey minstrel.
Many watched with interest as Wilhelm shook the man’s hand with a solid, unrelenting grip. The huntsman said nothing else before he turned to greet the others.
It was not until later after the guild items were stored and the men shown their temporary housing that Marrok’s unexpected presence at the estate was to be addressed.
At the midday meal, Wilhelm sought out Marrok. Instead of following his men to a group of tables, he abruptly veered away from them and took a seat across from the grey man. “It is a surprise to see you here,” he said in an overtly cordial manner as the ‘minstrel’ looked up from his plate. “I thought you would all go south.”
Marrok put his knife down, giving the guildmaster his full attention. “Fortunately we did not have to do so. My lord was willing to take us in.”
The red-haired man raised his eyebrow. “So the part about being a minstrel was a cover? This estate was your goal all along?”
“Well,” the man smiled tightly at how the question implied deception on his part. “We are minstrels. Not all of us perform. My wife does as do some of the others. The rest of us are simply handy with other things. We are good with hard labor, here and there, as well as hunting like you. The Lord Wolfram is our cousin and benefactor. We rarely visit for we can only approach him at his pleasure.”
“Rarely visit?” Wilhelm studied the other man. “I have never seen any of you before this winter.”
“It is the first time the rest have traveled this way. I have been here before.”
Satisfied that the man was speaking the truth, Wilhelm sighed. “Your family is full of many secrets. What else should I know? And what else can we expect from your lord? Our last conversation left a lot of things unresolved. In spite of that, we are here.”
Marrok tapped his fingers together at those provocative last words but was careful to avoid flagrant speculation as to his master’s wishes. “For the most part, our lord allows me to manage my men. He expects the same of Mrs. Winchester and the townspeople. I gathered it should be the same for you and your men. You may notice several other Wolframs who speak for others. They are their own family leads coming from much smaller houses further west. Your men should be clear — we don’t speak for the others’ families. And as leaders, we are to discipline our own and ensure that they play nicely with each other. We put down fights quickly for we do not have lives to waste. Everyone will have a job or duty to perform and there is little room for any free rides.”
“It is the same in our guild,” Wilhelm said cautiously, thinking through Marrok’s scattered instructions. “And do not think we will be lax in discipline.”
“We know that already,” his counterpart nodded. “We’ve all kept a close eye on the Ormond boy. He doesn’t slack. However, with your guild here, my master doesn’t wish him to return to you. He is assigned to his own duty, one that only he can manage.”
The guildmaster’s eyes glinted. “I see. And what duties do you think the guild can help fulfill?”
“The defenses are largely my men’s responsibility because our group is largest. But we cannot watch every vulnerable part of the estate all day, every day once it becomes dark. I planned to ask if we could augment our numbers with your men to help finish preparing the grounds as well as help us with the burden of guarding the estate at all times. It appears you don’t have enough to take on a whole shift so we might have to blend your men with our own teams.”
Wilhelm chewed his food while he thought about that option. “I did fail to mention that what you see now is probably two-thirds of our total strength. We have more supplies to bring and several things that still had to be wrapped up before they could come along. Among the stragglers are our group of artisans. They were very reluctant to leave the guild property for they love their equipment and quarters dearly.”
“We will do what we can to make their transition easier.” Marrok took a long drink from his wooden mug. “And they will do well here. We do not make our own weapons or do anything beyond minor repair. We often have to barter for services like that out west.”
Wilhelm again kept quiet, puzzled by the mention of artisans out west. He had not heard of settlements beyond the river until now. “I should have liked to tell this to your lord. I am surprised that we have yet to see him.”
A woman next to the guildmaster cleared her throat, startling the hunter.
“My wife, Lady Tala,” Marrok’s eyes seemed to gleam.
“We’ve left him time alone with his wife,” the woman explained. “I’ve heard that when you saw him last, he was distracted and impatient. He may not have said so, but she had fallen ill and he was in a hurry to return to her.”
“I’ve met her once,” he said a bit less roughly. “That was before I was informed by Edmund that she was your lord’s wife and responsible for his overture of hospitality to the guild. However, she was very kind to concern herself with our welfare. I hope she is recovering quickly.”
“We do as well,” the lady nodded. “She seems better from what I hear this morning. We, of course, are concerned for her as she is our lady and valuable to her lord. She is a lady of magic and learning.”
Wilhelm rubbed his beard, trying not to convey the discomfort he felt at the mention of magic. He was unsuccessful, for there were many things that had made him feel ill at ease as of late. But after having seen the grounds and the strength of the family that managed this estate, his mind was in a better state than early this morning. These were not insensible people. Rather, they appeared competent – even more so upon repeated acquaintance.
The guildmaster exhaled for a moment and decided to simply lay out what lay heavy upon his mind. “Perhaps you can advise me on what to do. I had wanted to explain one troubling matter concerning a few of my men.”
The hunter did not succeed in masking his uneasiness. Marrok and Tala glanced at one another before the Wolfram leader spoke. “I will listen, but what I can do will depend on how much I can manage on my own. I may have to wait to consult my lord.”
“That is what I expected,” the guildmaster responded. “I know it is burdensome that we all arrive in separate parties. I know we burden your staff and servants in the kitchens and stables. We do not mean to be so rude, but we had a few matters to wrap up before we could all regroup here. I do not know if Mrs. Winchester told you that our townsfolk splintered amongst themselves. In particular, there is a group that will not leave the pub. They never listen to anyone. And yet, because Mrs. Winchester is the sort of woman who would not feel easy about leaving them to their devices, a group of our men has gone to tell them where we have gone and renew the offer of shelter one more time.”
“I believe Mrs. Winchester mentioned that they prefer to drink than to work,” came the terse response from Marrok.
“And they do not like orders of any sort. We both understood that all residents here could not simply exist without some sort of leader or authority figure sponsoring them. But they did not want either of us,” Wilhelm grimaced. “For they would have to work.”
“Indeed,” Lady Tala sounded rather annoyed. “One day here and they would leave. ”
The red-haired man cracked a smile. “Yes, I think you and I are like-minded in how we deal with drunkards and womanizers. Of course, I mentioned the artisans and craftsmen and how they have much to resettle and so will straggle in later today. And then there is one last group that may be more of a problem.”
“How so?” Marrok leaned forward slightly, interested in what could make the formidable man so uncomfortable.
“When we encountered your group in the woods, I had left two groups of men behind for they wanted to hunt more. They were given a timeframe in which to return. One group did, but the other did not. By the time this was discovered, we also heard of a troublemaker invoking our name in the town south of here. Of course, we immediately suspected our delinquents were the cause as they, too, have a history of doing foolish things. I sent a man named Gerald to resolve this problem. He found one of our missing men, but not the others.”
Marrok pushed his plate away, no longer interested in picking at his food. “Do you have a good idea of where they were last seen? Perhaps they left town and ditched your one man.”
He felt uneasy at the man’s reaction, for it confirmed the validity of the nagging worry he held in the back of his mind. “No. Gerald is pretty certain they never arrived. The last we had seen them was in the cabins we hold far west of here.”
“I see.” The man nodded his head slowly, thinking through the implications of Wilhelm’s words. “Depending on where that is, I think there is cause for great concern. We’d best see a map of the cabins’ location if you have one. If you don’t, we’ll have to hope we can scrounge up a few from the library.”
Wilhelm felt his chest tighten as he saw the Lady Tala’s eyes widen. “We should.”
“Good. Let me roundup a few of our men to look at what you have. If you could give us a half an hour, we can reassemble in the library. My wife can show you there.”
Close to twelve leaders sat around the table to look at the map while some of the other accidental guests hovered nearby. They listened to the man Gerald, who was unremarkable except for a sharp pair of eyes that dared anyone to challenge him as he began his account. “I was tasked to determine whether four of our young hunters might be responsible for a problem in our neighboring town. I found one, holed up with drink and women, in town. He did not know where the others were.”
Marrok’s gaze was hard. “Did he not look for them?”
“Oh,” Gerald’s face broke into a rather unpleasant smile. “He made some mention of it once I found him. But he rather liked the town and its warm places and warm beds. Had the townsfolk who not spoken so loudly about how no one should venture into the woods, I might have tossed him back on the trail with a gun at his back for leaving them behind. Those young men were expressly told not to travel separately. I’ve left that unrepentant scalawag back there waiting for them in case they show up while I consulted my leader.”
“Abandoning his friends makes him worthless in my eyes,” Marrok said harshly. This sentiment was echoed by many in the room. “If he returns, he would find few friends here without a profound rehabilitation of his attitude. However, it is a good thing you did not send him into the woods. The area west of where we met you all is likely not safe. And to the north of that is also trouble.”
Another man spoke up, his eyes light and lacking in humor. “We could not pass that way our cousin Marrok came before. We had to drag ourselves upstream a few days to avoid the woods. The smell is cold and strange. Your map shows your property to be a part of the area we could not pass through.”
Wilhelm set his jaw, trying hard now to respond to the sound of judgment in the Wolfram’s voice. “We were there because it was teeming with game.”
“And likely that is why it is dangerous now,” Marrok said bluntly. “Any hunter would be attracted to that area. Including those that do not walk on two legs.”
“Is there nothing we can do to help them?” A faint voice came from the back of the room. When the men turned to see who had interrupted their conversation, several did not look all that pleased to find a young woman in their midst.
“Elanore,” Mrs. Winchester spoke quietly from her place at the table. “I’m sure both men have been considering that.”
“I know it’s not safe for people to go.” The girl stepped forward and looked first at the guildmaster and then Marrok. “But we have other friends who might help. If you will let me ask the lions what to do about this situation, perhaps they might at least try or come up with another idea.”
“They are so few,” the guildmaster looked puzzled. “And the area vast. Could they be trusted to such a task?” Then his voice sharpened as he considered the bearer of the idea. “You don’t mean to guide them do you, riding around on their backs like the last time?”
A shadow melted from the wall and its owner interrupted the red-faced hunter. “Of course she won’t. There is no need to.”
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