He continued to silently brood over this problem, replaying the morning’s conversations in his mind.
The Count had told them he could change the guest back to his true form if the patient would not do it on his own. But a conscious patient was not guaranteed to cooperate with such intervention. A certain level of distrust could mean that any such attempt to use magic upon the ill patient would be undermined or even rejected outright by the patient himself.
This was one aspect that Edmund found problematic with the magical intervention Wolfram wished to employ. “I don’t know that this will work,” he admitted aloud to Elanore.
She misunderstood his doubts. Elanore’s eyes widened and she leaned forward. “Does the Count not really control a shape-changing power? You said he was telling the truth. Is that not why you have been attending us all morning?”
Edmund did not respond. He was lost in his doubts about the Count’s plans. He had objected to them previously, for he did not think the act would be ethical under certain circumstances. He had stated this openly to the Count, indicating that forcing magic upon someone else could be viewed as an attempt to control another being.
The Count had been puzzled, perhaps even irritated, by his remarks. But the Count gruffly explained the consequences of leaving the owl alone. He warned them that madness or wildness was almost always an end-result for one who spent too much time in a feral form. His arguments were convincing for he had lived such a nightmare himself. It was this confession that convinced Edmund to assist the lord.
There was still quite a lot Edmund did not understand about the rules of magic. He had been informed that little magic was required for the purer-blooded halflings to change back and forth on their own. However, those like the Count with mixed heritage had a more difficult time. Even then, it would be a rare individual who could change anyone or anything besides himself. To change the form of another creature or thing required a skill and talent beyond what many, including normal halflings, possessed.
Edmund had not realized the significance of seeing the Count transform from a large shadow beast back to a man months ago. At that time, he had given Selva the entire credit for the breaking of the curse that afflicted the Count. But he was certain now there had been more to it. He suspected something knowledge or some change had come to the wolf lord to give the Count a great deal of confidence in himself.
Even then he knew that much of what he had witnessed before was magic conducted in synchrony. The act of changing another, however, carried risk.
A hand touched his knee, bringing his thoughts back to his present circumstances. Elanore sat across from him, gently calling his name.
The young man snapped back to attention, finding her brown eyes affixed to him. He offered Elanore a reassuring nod, letting her know his silence was not related to his earlier illness. He tried hard to recall what she had asked of him.
She prodded him. “I was asking if you believed this might work? Is the Count telling the truth?”
“He is. Or he believes it at least. I also, for no reason whatsoever, find myself believing it too.”
Her eyebrows shot up, puzzled by his answer. Perhaps she was even concerned at his lack of confidence.
Edmund tapped the tips of his shoes against the floor, sifting through the rest of what the lord had told him. Count Wolfram had stated that changing someone else into the right shape required more than raw power. It required direction and purpose. In this case, it needed to be guided by knowledge of the true nature of the other being. That guidance, according to the older man, to be Edmund’s task or role. Wolfram did not wish to act alone — stating that his past made it difficult to do so.
The young man glanced at Elanore, wondering how he would have felt if it were she who the Count had selected and not he. Elanore had volunteered but the Count had declined, stating that Edmund was a far better suited to the situation.
The man had offered his explanation as thus: “The blood that runs within him is the same as hers.”
Edmund dropped his gaze, concerned that so much responsibility rested upon him. To Elanore, he tried to explain his concerns — that whatever instincts he held, whatever gifts they saw in him — it was a pale shade of the woman he was being compared to. “I’m not Selva. I cannot draw our guest into some sort of dream or vision and unearth his true nature.”
Her chair scraped along the ground as Elanore rushed forward. “No you’re not,” she blurted out as she embraced him. “You don’t need to be like her. You have all of us helping you.” She buried his head against her chest, standing awkwardly over him. “You have me and the lions and your guild men to help you see the truth of this poor thing.”
Her need to comfort him touched him. She might have fallen if he had not caught her up and resettled her on his knees. Edmund took care to perch her lightly on his lap, allowing her to use his shoulders to balance herself. Her gaze did not hide her strong belief in him and what he could do.
He opened his mouth to speak but Elanore pressed her fingers against his lips, silencing him. “I know he said it would be your duty to provide the answers. Even so, he didn’t say you had to do it alone. I am going to be there with you when we help our guest.”
Edmund had known this — that she had intended to stand with them when it came time to administer the rites that would change the creature back to its human form. It went without saying that she would never let him act alone, never leave him to struggle by himself. But he had not fully understood that, in her mind, his burden was hers as well. He took her hand away from his mouth and held it while he contemplated this strange reversal in their roles. “Is that why you have been haunting that shack, Elanore?”
Her fingers drifted up to his cheek and rested there. That gesture comforted him but also offered him some hint as to her resolve. “Yes, partly.” she admitted with a smile. “That and to keep you from getting too morbid. You have become so serious lately. I have to keep an eye on you or you’re likely to frown yourself to death before we get married.”
He made a face as she poked him in the side. “It’s not like there has been much to laugh about.”
“There’s always something to laugh about.” She let go of his face and pressed her forehead against his cheek.
He thought she might reward him with a kiss. Instead, he felt his nostrils clamped shut.
She started to giggle as he sputtered aloud, having been caught off-guard by her decidedly unromantic action.
Edmund retaliated quickly, tickling her until she let go.
* * *
Elanore’s shrieks of laughter eventually drew her grandmother back to the room, who promptly issued several choice words of censure for their improper behavior.
The young woman bore the scolding with good humor, not caring much about the warning they received about unsupervised visits. She simply slipped her hand into the crook of Edmund’s arm and dragged him towards the makeshift infirmary where Thomas was waiting to be relieved.
On their way there, they spotted saw a familiar figure shuffling about between the lions. Edmund saw the sad, wilted form of Pepin (or Pip) — the young man who had survived an encounter with the Unthings. He paused to study him before sending Elanore ahead.
He did not call out to him. He did not know how best to address the recovering invalid. At times Pip still wandered aimlessly around the grounds, disturbingly unaware of the others. When he was lucid, he could be skittish or even paranoid.
The Count had not offered much guidance as to how to handle the young man. He had known of others who had escaped Unthings but he had little evidence to suggest they were capable of returning to fully functional lives. He only could suggest that Pip’s care be handled by those who knew him best — those who could anchor him to some kind of life or pattern that would keep him from slipping into total despair or insanity.
Edmund could not even offer Pip this comfort. He, who had a family in town to tend to, did not spend as much time with the younger guild men as did the others. Regretfully, all Edmund had to guide him were the traditions they had shared and the small pieces of information the lions confessed to him — things they had discovered on their own.
But Edmund stood still, waiting to see where the young man traveled. He stood with the patience of someone far older and older– someone who cared greatly for this person he did not know all that well. When his eyes caught the youth’s he thought Pip might veer away. He was surprised when Pip continued in his direction.
The younger hunter paused several feet away from Edmund. His eyes darted Edmund’s way and he shifted uncomfortably in his spot as he opened his mouth.