As the sun began to sink in the sky,a summons came to several of the temporary residents of the estate. They made their way through the maze of hallways and floors, past servants who were busy lighting lamps and candles, and to a place where a small quorum of humans and Wolframs were gathering.
Edmund and Elanore slipped into the library, choosing to seat themselves in a corner of the room next to the coachman and occasional spy, Giles. Like him, they were to be mere observers while their elders discussed matters around a large table. The man grinned as soon as he caught their eye, offering them a friendly wink. Both responded with a careful smile, for as much as they liked the man, he often teased them when the opportunity presented itself.
Twelve individuals sat around the table. Six of these were Wolframs — including Lord Maximilian Wolfram, his companion Selva, the Lord’s cousin Marrok, and Marrok’s mate Lady Tala. This cousin and mate were far less flamboyant in appearance than the Count and Countess. Their plain appearance, however, did not mean they were dull or less important. The two were leaders of a large group of wandering wolves who often masqueraded as craftsmen or minstrels. The two other Wolframs at the table were not well known among the humans in the room. They were Wolframs who led two smaller groups of cousins who had joined the residents at the estate shortly before the eclipse that had plunged the region in a month long period of darkness. Edmund knew these men only as wolves who had traveled from the river and vale regions to the west.
Joining these halflings at the table were six humans. Most prominent of them would be the Hunter’s guild leader Wilhelm Cadeyrn and Elanore’s grandmother, Mayor Adele Winchester. Given their past personal animosity, they chose not to sit next to one another. Between them sat the madam innkeeper and the blacksmith. Rounding out the humans at the table were Father Lorrence and another gentleman. Both of these men appeared exhausted and slightly nervous.
The assembly began with seemingly mundane reports on food stocks and supplies.
Elanore wriggled slightly in her seat, her eyes never leaving Selva’s face during the entire conversation. She did not relax until the discussion moved on to the conditions of the roads outside.
The Count spoke only a few words at this point, offering intelligence regarding what the lions had found — and while there were no shadow monsters lurking in the woods — he mentioned that the creatures had spotted remains of deer eaten in such a way that suggested a sloppy hunter was loose in the woods.
Several glances were exchanged around the table at such a verdict. Marrok and Wilhelm, in particular, seemed almost eager to follow-up on such a claim.
“What of the pub?” Mrs. Winchester spoke up. Although many of the town residents had evacuated to the estate, there were several who had not.
“We had not sent the lions that way,” came the response from the Count. “We did not think they would be especially welcome.”
“–But we can do that if it would help,” his mate responded more kindly, her head turning to the guildmaster to see if he also concurred with that suggestion.
Wilhelm Caderyn tapped his fingers on the table. The dwellers at the pub had refused to join the townspeople at the estate during the eclipse because of the rules they knew would be imposed upon them. The guildmaster had no use for gadabouts and slackers, particularly drunk ones. “Those men are particularly aggressive. They have weapons and will use them. But if you were to send a small band to survey the area at night, that might do. But Madam Mayor,” the guildmaster addressed the older woman sharply. “To talk to them directly cannot end well.”
This declaration stirred up an intense discussion at the table, one that was clearly about more than the pub and its surly inhabitants. With the friar present, the assembly realized that they were not only arguing over their obligations to the residents of the town but also regarding future requests for assistance.
“Please,” the Countess spoke above the din. “None of these things have to be decided in this room and today. May I suggest a break for tea before we continue with the Father and the merchant?”
Her suggestion was greeted with a few sighs of relief. As the others in the room milled around to find food and drink, she delayed standing. Several people made to approach her but Count Wolfram intervened. He gave the interlopers a rather tight grimace. “I’d like a moment with my lady, if I may.”
Edmund watched with interest as the two disappeared somewhere outside of the room; he was aware that their removal from the room was likely intentional. Lady Selva was known to be soft-hearted. The others would apply to her for whatever they wished during opportunities to speak to her alone, for she was more likely to listen. But her lord was an entirely different matter — cautious, less interested in what happened to other towns, and certainly not as forgiving as she.
What they discussed could only be left to the imagination of the others. In their absence, Edmund found his opportunity to introduce himself to the Harriman Winters, the man who accompanied the friar. Winters was a merchant and adventurer — friends with the Friar and Elanore’s grandfather, Alistair Winchester.
In spite of Winter’s age, he firmly gripped Edmund’s hand in greeting. “It is good to see you Edmund. Your parents are well?”
Edmund was pleased by the direct manner of the man. “Yes, Sir Winters.”
“Harry, please.” The man squinted at Edmund from under a pair of particularly bushy eyebrows. “You make me sound so old.”
Elanore drew up alongside him, waiting for her turn to be introduced. The older gentleman immediately beamed at the pretty young woman.
“And this must be Elanore.” Harry clasped her hands and shook them exuberantly. “You look so much like your mother I could not fail to recognize you. How is she?”
“Ah,” the young woman seemed to falter a bit under the attention. “We haven’t had any news for some time. Are you staying for a while?”
Harry sighed. “That remains to be seen. It’s a matter that depends largely on what I hear here. Conditions are changing by the moment. I expect to discuss this more once the lord and lady return.” He motioned towards the doorway. “Speaking of which, she seems unwell.”
“I think she is tired,” Elanore offered somewhat defensively. “She sacrifices a lot for her lord. She works very hard to keep us fed and entertained.”
“My apologies,” Harry chuckled. “I see you two are friendly. I only meant to say what I observe. Twice today she has appeared to escort me back to this place. Her lord was right to take her out for some air.”
When the Count and Countess returned, many did look at them carefully and tried to guess at what they might have discussed. Edmund and Elanore returned to their seats in the corner and observed the conversation that followed.
Where the Friar might have been polite and gentle about what he related, Harriman Winters was far more direct. The merchant adventurer tapped his fingers on the table. “The town is a shambles. The food stores were not being properly managed until recently. The mayor thankfully is gone from his position and the merchants are working with the provisional government.”
The guildmaster interrupted, asking the question that weighed heavily on several minds in the room.“Who is the provisional government?”
Those seated at the table gave the merchant their full attention as he responded.
“Well,” Harry scratched his chin. “They don’t call themselves that, but more or less, they are the government now. They’re from a group that calls themselves the King’s Guard.” His eyes roamed the room searching for any reaction. “When asked which king they serve, they say it’s the one true king from the east.”
The guildmaster made a disgusted sound while Mrs. Winchester leaned forward in her chair. “Do they carry any proof of their identity? They sound as if they are emissaries of that young Artek–“
Harry shook his head at the guildmaster. “What proof is needed? They have magic and have sense. Coping with monsters that consume people is not a particularly easy thing to bear for most of these types. So in the absence of a proper ruler, people will grasp at whatever stability they can find.”
“Not all,” the friar gently reprimanded his friend. “The church forbade its use long ago alongside the eastern kings. The faithful know it.”
This remark drew keen interest from the Count. Edmund observed the man cast a long look at the clergyman before his attention was drawn to the next speaker.
“Kings can change the rules whenever they want,” Wilhelm vocally dismissed such ideas. “History becomes irrelevant over time and particularly when they feel something can give them an advantage.”
“They have come to Crossroads but not here,” Mrs. Winchester said abruptly. “Why did they not come to us before the eclipse? I have written asking for assistance for some time now.”
“Because the town is inconsequential,” the Count interrupted. “You have barely a few dozen residents. The terrain is difficult to farm and is difficult to travel except by foot. Compared to that town and the port cities to the east, Winchester is nothing more than a hunter’s retreat.”
The mayor bowed her head. “Then in your mind, we have been dismissed. Our fates are not important to our distant king.”
“This distant king is not a king but a fool,” Wolfram answered. “Particularly one who has yet to set foot upon the land he claims he owns.”
The others around the table were not inclined to disagree.
“If I might change the topic,” the Countess stared intently at the friar and merchant Winters. “What kind of magic do they use?”
Neither were aware of who she really was and the magic power she possessed. Had they, they might have chosen their next words more carefully. The merchant continued to scratch his chin. “A rather gaudy trick. They use a yellow stone to shine light.” The merchant glanced at the friar as if to make sure his recollection was accurate. “Only a few of them seem to have this little skill. I think it’s largely one woman and one man in their party . The others call them Red Cloaks.”
“Miss Redley,” the Count was not alone in staring at the young woman seated in the corner of the room. “Does that term or the Guard mean anything to you?”
Elanore opened her mouth, startled to have everyone’s eyes upon her.
Her grandmother interrupted sharply. “She doesn’t know anything,”
Elanore ignored her grandmother’s concerned look. She knew they questioned the red cloak in her possession. It had been borrowed from her mother when she first set out on the path to become a wandering healer. However, she never imagined how much trouble it would cause once she came north. She took a deep breath and then answered, speaking as one who had nothing to hide. “I am not either if that is what you are asking. But I believe that these guards aren’t new to the region. When I first arrived in town, Novice Wyte chased me down asking for news. At the time, I thought it strange that he might think I was a traveler or messenger of some sort. But if I recall, he is from the port town and may have seen them before.”
Her statements caused a stir in the room. “We should ask him then,” several of the attendees murmured.
“He was eaten by the Unthings,” the friar said soberly inducing a moment of awkward silence inside the room. “And it is possible he has seen them before. His experiences in the port town were significant.”
“Harriman,” Mrs. Winchester finally spoke up. “If they have been on this soil for at least a year or more, what do you think their aim is? Have they come to help govern the town?”
“I think that’s it,” Harry nodded. “There’s only twelve — certainly not enough to do much in this region.”
The Wolframs around the table exchanged glances before Marrok – a trusted cousin of Lord Wolfram — spoke up. “We have never heard of any such group on our travels. This concerns us – should there be many spies from other countries here we can only suspect that they mean mischief. Perhaps this king you speak of uses them as spies.”
“Spies yes, but conquest?” The guildmaster seemed bemused by such an idea. “This is a terrible place to try to colonize. Outside those ocean-side ports, what exists here to interest them?”
“A young pup sometimes simply wishes to find glory,” stated another Wolfram cousin who went by the name Frey. “That port town is a good choice to establish a stronghold.”
They could not disagree on that point. But it was unfortunate that the group could not speculate much more without real information. Winter made it difficult to understand what might be going on in other towns and cities, particularly in one as difficult to access as the port town.
“Even then,” Mrs. Winchester shook her head. “Capestown would not give up their freedoms so easily. They are well defended.”
The Count and Marrok nodded at each other from across the table. “We will gather information on Capestown.”
The humans around the table were too polite to ask exactly how that would be accomplished.The town they spoke of was days journey in good weather and likely impassible in the cold.
Their host would not have entertained that discussion anyways. He was impatient to move on and he did, diverting the flow of the conversation to query the merchant. “What is the likelihood your townspeople will come here demanding resources?”
Harry shook his head. “For the longest time these areas have had nothing to offer such a town like Crossroads. They depend primarily on their trade lines with the south. Supplies have stopped, however, so it is hard to say whether they might come this way– although it is more likely they will send a group south to determine what happened. There are rumors of creatures in your woods that frighten most away.”
Guildmaster Wilhelm frowned. “Why are you here, then Winters? You have a profitable trade in that town. I’m sure you have stores of supplies.”
“I do not have food to trade. All other goods, save spirits, are worthless at the moment.” The merchant shrugged. “Given the position of the church on magic, I also thought it best to remove the friar and his charges while we could.”
Wolfram narrowed his eyes as he read into that last statement. “We should reevaluate exactly what we are willing to and not willing to offer should they turn their attention this way. I suggest we reconvene tomorrow at this same time for discussion, after we have considered our options.” He turned his attention back to the mayor and the guildmaster. “We’ll leave acquainting these new visitors to their new home to the both of you.”
He rose and left the room without offering much more than a terse good evening. Selva offered the others a far more gracious smile and curtsy before she, too, retired for the evening.
And then the rest of the meeting’s attendees scattered, many with a frown on their face.
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I think I still have a crush on Count Maiximilan Wolfram. 🙂 Please don’t send Selva after me.
xD She probably wouldn’t mind. I think she’s the kind of woman who would just smile and say “oh yeah, I know it.”