Elanore did not rise. She sat, her thoughts still lingering over a book that had caught her fancy. She liked the feel of the paper under her fingers and the smell of ink from what promised to be a far off place. Edmund’s hand rested on the back of her chair, his nearby warmth offering her comfort. Not until Gregory uttered a strained “Goodbye” and slipped out of the library did she fully grasp the tension in the room.
These men who had entered the library were not from Marrok’s band but from two smaller ones. One group was led by Gareth — a handsome, youthful looking man from the far north. He had been the one who had first brought news of the Unthings’ movements, warning his cousins that they had spread far from their usual haunts in the denser forests. The other group was led by a heavier set man, a wolf from a clan that wandered alongside the Silver Lake and rivers. As such, they called him the Silver Wolf.
It was true that many of the Wolframs were grateful to the young couple for their assistance to their lord, but gratitude and friendship were entirely different concepts. These two men and their entourage tolerated the humans but were not inclined to be friendly.
Edmund offered them a polite “Good afternoon.” That greeting was met with a stiff nod from the two men.
But when Elanore put her book down to stand and curtsy, they bowed deeply in return.
The men who accompanied them followed their leaders’ example. Edmund’s face settled into a grim expression as the Wolframs passed him by and bowed instead at Elanore.
Elanore rested her hand atop Edmund’s hand, now gripping the back of the chair. She felt the heat of his anger, the indignation at the way they slighted him. It was perverse how they treated him. If they only knew what the Count believed about Edmund, how differently they might see him!
She took his hand and stroked its side with her fingers while trying to think of how to ease that hurt. “Edmund,” she said in a small voice. “I’d like to find a less crowded place to sit.”
Her words shifted his focus immediately. Edmund’s gaze turned gentle and sunny once more as he picked up her book and led her to a space by the windows. There they spotted Giles, the Count’s distant cousin and coachman, slumped in a soft wingback chair.
“Hello,” Elanore offered the man.
“Hello princess and knight.” Giles greeted the two in a familiar, casual fashion. “You two look as grumpy as the rest of my cousins. Especially you Edmund.”
“I do not think I am welcome here,” Edmund answered gravely.
Giles shrugged. “Neither am I on most occasions. My manners are too deplorable for them and I let them know when their company bores me. But my lord wishes me to be here, so they can all eat rocks for all I care.”
When that statement did not earn him a laugh or two, the coachman grinned. “Now seriously. You should know that it is the old wolves job to look pissed whenever they think a young pup ought to kowtow to them. Do as we do, ignore them.”
These were words easier said than done. However, Edmund exhaled and offered Elanore a chair. He then leaned against the window and folded his arms across his chest while waiting for the meeting to begin.
Elanore had no choice but to talk to the man next to her. She inched her seat closer to the coachman, still curious about what Giles had stated. “Do they act that way with every man they cross paths with?”
Giles ran his fingers back and forth over his strawberry-blonde goatee while gathering his thoughts. “To some degree they do. Edmund strikes a nerve because he has the lions’ favor. This castle is ours alone to guard and anything that challenges that very idea — including those pests’ wavering loyalties — makes my uncles and cousins uneasy. Selva’s child should ease their anxieties. They feel certain that child will have magic and secure the lions’ favor. They may not look it, but my family is quite pleased by this development.”
Elanore glanced up at Edmund, worried. He had not heard Giles – for the room was loud and noisy. Had he, she wondered how he might have responded to such a statement.
She would have to wait to speak to him. The last of the previous day’s council members had arrived. A path to the table was cleared and the townspeople’s representatives seated themselves at the table. Mrs. Winchester, Guildmaster Wilhelm, the merchant Harry Winters, the town innkeeper, and blacksmith, once again represented the Winchester district while the Friar and Harry Winters rounded out their numbers. Again they faced the Wolframs — Gareth and the Silver Wolf had been joined by Marrok and his wife Tala.
The Count was not far behind them. He entered the room with his fair lady leaning upon his elbow. He was not a warm man but he greeted the others at the table without prompting.
Unfortunately that was the last of the pleasantries. After the assembly took their seats, the Count did not waste time.
“I have consulted with the lions,” began the lord as he glanced around the circular table. “A few ventured south last night and turned back. It seems that someone has created a barrier that will be difficult for them to cross.”
“What do you mean?” The merchant Harry Winters appeared startled by such news. “We saw no such thing.”
Count Wolfram shook his head. “It is not something you can see unaided. It is a weak magic designed to repel or annoy intruders. Perhaps these people who have come to Crossroads have attempted to set up something to keep away Unthings. But the lions have said it would be worthless if that were the case. There are no such creatures to be found anymore. They are certain of that.”
The guildmaster spoke up. “Has that been verified by anyone else?”
Marrok spoke up. “My men will go out to hunt tonight with them to confirm that. Provided that is the case, then tomorrow we will venture out to look again at your town. The lions’ accounts of the road north of here have been very confusing.”
“Just what did they claim,” Mrs. Winchester interjected sharply. “You said there was no sign of Unthings.”
“There are no sign of them anymore,” Marrok emphasized that last word. ”But they also said there was no sign of life at all.”
A stunned and uncomfortable silence fell over the room.
“I think some of my men should join you.” Guildmaster Wilhelm glanced up from the table. “I’d like to go as well. We will also send a party south. We do not fear magic.”
“Guildmaster,” Mrs. Winchester could not help but interrupt. She seemed aghast. “Could they not wait? It could be dangerous.”
His eyes were cold as they turned her way, as if to rebuke her for the question itself. He was a well-known doubter of magic and superstitions and the guild members were known for being similar in their thinking. “They are free men. They will do as they please.” His eyes roamed the room, daring someone else to echo her doubts. “Even if I could command them, would it be to tell them to hide from danger? If we made that our practice, none of us would ever leave this place!”
His words resonated with many of them.
The Count tapped his fingers on the table. It was obvious that the lord was not interested in a debate. “We will not stand in the way of your men but it is likely we will not be able to grant any assistance to them beyond where the lions will go. The same is true for you, merchant and clergyman. Our assistance is for shelter, not for hunts, or fights, or entering another town.” Wolfram waited for the two older gentleman to acknowledge his warning before he spoke further. “Then, assuming there is no business to discuss together… I suggest we dismiss the others and work out the details of tomorrow’s party.”
Several faces did not look all that pleased by the abrupt conclusion to the meeting. However, those without a request to stay by the Count and guildmaster had to leave.
Edmund and Elanore, not having received an invitation to join the party, picked up their books and left.
* * *
Although many of the townsfolk had no particular love for those who had turned down the invitation to shelter in the castle, none wished the pub keeper and his customers ill. The good folk ate their evening meal but many offered the Countess their congratulations before wandering off to their own quarters to spend a more somber evening.
The few that stayed in the dining hall found the toasts numerous and long-winded. The wolves were fond of formalities that involved reciting their genealogies and other deeds of past ancestors. They had spent an hour already on one such complicated toast before Elanore excused herself. She apologized to the Lady Selva for leaving the affair but her grandmother could not sit for such a long affair. Subsequent toasts weeded out the rest of the guests. Soon none of the humans were left, save Edmund.
Edmund endured the wolves’ celebration. As Selva’s declared kin he was obliged to stay with her, sitting at her side at the head table to witness the various declarations of loyalty, fealty, and protection buried within these unending toasts.
His only hope was that the wolves would grow drunk and fall asleep in the middle of their carousing. But after the third hour, he saw no hope of relief.
Selva saw Edmund’s boredom. She leaned over and whispered to him. “My lord used to hire someone from town to create a particularly strong brew. But she does not have her equipment here and so we have been left with a quantity of spirits in storage. It will take them another few hours to exhaust themselves. But my lord has permitted me to leave at midnight to rest. At that point you should be able to follow.”
The young man’s mouth twitched. By his estimation he still had another hour to wait. “Is every child heralded in such fashion? It would seem wiser to wait until after it is born.”
The woman looked confused for a moment before she understood why he asked that question. “The actual birthing is a somber affair. You misunderstand what we are celebrating. This event is a marriage feast.”
A small ironic smile played about her mouth as she noted Edmund’s surprise. She colored a bit. “It may sound crude to you. But once a woman conceives, she is deemed a wife. This celebration being observed now is their recognition of my title. And as I am now the Count’s wife, he will be allowed to legitimately claim the child when it is born.”
The word ‘legitimate’ sliced through Edmund’s gut. He was glad for the poor light in the dining hall that made it easier to hide his face from the woman next to him. “So your previous child did not make a difference to them?”
“They did not know I conceived,” she said softly. “And even if they had, I was not here under my lord’s observation when the child was born.”
Edmund quickly drank from his cup, unsettled by the turn in conversation. Selva glanced his way, likely sensing his discomfort.
The young hunter moved their discussion on to safer things. “I am glad to have my customs. The sequence of events with humans is far more straightforward.”
The lady smiled. “But how frustrating for you Edmund. You and she are constantly chaperoned, I gather. A young man like you having to wait must be a burden. When will you wed your young lady?”
He flushed deeply. “Our customs and values aren’t like yours. Any time, I suppose.”
“You mean her customs aren’t like the wolves,” Selva corrected him. “I was not governed by his except by choice when I accepted my lord’s offer to become his mate. Should you wish to accept Elanore’s ways it would be equally valid. Our kind are meant simply to follow our inner convictions, to seek out truth in big things and in the small. You will learn to find your voice and no longer have to rely so much on others to tell you what you ought to do and not do.”
Edmund knew she was trying to explain more about what and who they were. But what she said was vague and difficult for him to grasp. “And if it tells me to not listen to what the others say? What then?”
Selva did not understand. “Tell me what disturbs you.”
Edmund glanced in the direction of the Count. “I cannot.”
She let her fingers drift across the surface of the table towards Edmund’s arm. “With your permission?”
He blinked for a moment before nodding, wondering what she meant to do next.
Her cool fingers clasped his wrist. He began to feel something building up in the back of his mind before he heard a voice in his head. “I will not intrude on your thoughts, Edmund. But tell me what you mean to ask.”
He stumbled through how to respond. He simply thought of the barrier that Marrok had mentioned that afternoon.
Her eyes widened as she grasped the word in his mind. She spoke aloud, her brow furrowing deeply. “You were not planning to go see it were you?”
Edmund answered. “The lions do not wish it.”
“Of course not,” she answered aloud. She bit her lip and then let her fingers clasp his wrist again. His skin warmed as she took over his thoughts. “The magic my lord spoke of is not strong. It is crude, as if it was made by someone who understands it very little. The lions do not wish you to go there until it is dealt with. Or rather they understand who made it. The party you speak of, the guild men… they slipped away when the wolves were drinking. My lord and your guildmaster worked it out this way.”
Edmund could not help but look at the Count. He was confounded by the thought of Wilhelm and the proud lord collaborating behind the scenes. “Even though the lions said it was dangerous.”
Selva shook her head. “Listen.” She bit her lips, continuing silently. “The men who left have no magic to speak of. They may be in danger from things in the woods but they, at least, can pass for ordinary men. You, my lord, and the other cousins cannot.”
“Then what of the northern party?” Edmund recalled Marrok’s words from that afternoon.
“The lions will go as well. If you should wish to join them, minus Elanore, they cannot stand in your way for any particular reason. They will assemble in the morning.” She patted his arm. “And they are short on swordsmen.”
The Wolframs: Tala, Marrok, The Silver Wolf, and Gareth