One party returned to the estate — one party of men and wolves, all equally grim. They had left the Wolfram compound hoping to find good news. Instead, the world outside was proving to be far worse than they had imagined.
As they passed through the gate to Lord Wolfram’s home, the hour was late. Only a lady and a gentleman appeared on hand to receive them.
Selva and Marrok were a peculiar pair. Their different natures and temperaments were in full evidence this evening.
She wrapped herself securely against the cold with an odd-shaped patchwork coat of fur while he stood there without any cover at all. She bid them to come inside and rest in the hall where it was warm while his eyes burned through each returnee, as if some stranger might be among them.
Many avoided looking at Marrok. It was to her, they nodded their thanks. They lacked both energy and will to do much more than that.
But Edmund stopped in front of her. He ignored the intense gaze of this man who might be his uncle and offered his kinswoman a “Good evening.”
Her response was not expected. Selva threw her arms around him as best as she could in her bulky awkward attire and patted him like he was a small child.
Several additional pairs of eyes slid their way. Edmund realized how foolish they appeared. The woman’s increasingly open affections for him were not well understood by the wolves or the guild. None present were privy to the Count’s suspicions about the depth of the connection between the Countess and the hunter.
Edmund was relieved when the lions appeared from everywhere, pressing themselves closer to him. They provided sufficient reason for Edmund to extricate himself from the lady’s arms. He enthusiastically patted them, offering them the affection and attention they demanded.
But they ignored his greeting, fixing their eyes upon his shoulder. Edmund felt a chill run down his spine as he saw them shift on their legs. Edmund instinctively held up his hand out of the lions’ reach, allowing the small guest riding on his shoulder to climb up to his fingertips. Once there, the bird decided to fluff up its feathers as if that might increase its size and loudly screeched at the lions.
They did not like one another, owl and lion. There was good reason not to. The lions did not forget that the birds’ allegiance to Selva was transient.
“Countess,” Edmund continued to step out of the lions’ way. “The owl will not move without your command.”
Before there could be any further trouble, Selva raised her hands to receive the small creature who sidled its way up the lady’s fur-covered shoulder. Once there, the bird did not quiet down.
Selva sighed and asked the lions to temporarily retreat. When the owl had calmed down, Selva glanced Edmund’s way. “I had not expected her to take to you so well. But why has Lord Wolfram not returned my owl to me directly?”
Her face openly betrayed her feelings and concern. Edmund realized too late that he should have explained what had become of the owl’s temporary caretaker. “He is fine,” the hunter apologized. “There was really no opportunity for me to hand back your owl to him. He’s been rather busy this entire time in discussions that I dare not interrupt.”
“Of course not,” interrupted the male Wolfram standing next to her. “He’s most likely discussing revisions to plans with the guildmaster.”
Selva straightened up as best as one could in a round fur wrap. A line creased her forehead as she began to frown. “I see.”
“My lady,” Marrok was no fool. He had observed her change in mood and knew that something was amiss. “Are you unwell?”
“I am fine,” she said firmly. She toyed with the fingers of her gloves as she removed them from her hands. She then turned a pleasant smile upon her kinsman. “Edmund, there is no need to wait with me. As you can see, I am well taken care of. Elanore is waiting inside the library. I am afraid you’ll have to first show yourself to her and prove that you’re fine before she’ll go to sleep.”
Edmund paused to study the woman. Her smile was brittle and false. The gentle look in her eyes had disappeared — only to be replaced by something rather severe. But the change in topic had been intentional. Edmund played along for the moment, wondering why he felt uneasy. “Does Elanore know what happened?”
Selva twirled the end of her fur stole between her fingers. “In vague terms, I’m afraid. What the owl shows me is filtered through its own perspective. It is not entirely the same as being there in person. So what I shared with her may not have been that useful.”
“And yet I know so little myself,” Edmund said quietly. ” But if you think she should know what I can share, I will try.”
“She expects it, Edmund.” Selva’s hand went up to his cheek. “You are her other half. Even if you have little to say, she knows that it must have been hard for you. Don’t think to protect her by not talking at all. She is a strong person in heart — stronger than you or any of us, I think. For that reason, you ought to tell her what you can.”
The young man nodded slowly. He was sorting through her words, trying to understand what Selva hinted at about him and his relationship with Elanore. As she let him go, he had an impression that Elanore would have an answer for him, if he asked. He wondered briefly if that impression had been Selva’s doing. But he decided not to confront the woman. Selva’s display of open fondness had earned him another baleful stare from Marrok.
Edmund smiled tightly, knowing that his presence was setting the other man on edge. Edmund bid them both a hasty goodnight and retreated through the courtyard to find Elanore.
The number of men and wolves milling outside had decreased significantly. But Selva did not move from her spot, continuing her vigil. Sometimes her lips moved quietly, counting their numbers. At some point, she could no longer do that from where she stood. Slowly, she began to make her way towards a small band of men who lingered near the gate. Her attention was fixed on one man in particular.
The guildmaster was the first to intercept her, bowing first before he spoke. “I must apologize for our late return. We did not expect to be so delayed.”
She shifted her focus to Wilhelm who seemed grayer than when she had last seen him. “I heard the reasons why. I am sorry for your loss,” she said quietly.
“Ah.” He glanced down at the ground for a moment. “I was not as close to them as was Giles. But they are our neighbors. We could not leave them be to see to the guild hall.”
“Of course not,” she assured him. “You did the right thing.”
“And so it seems we must continue to impinge upon your hospitality,” he apologized again, uncharacteristically talkative. “At least tomorrow I think we shall go again, weather permitting.”
“We should be glad for your men to continue as our guests,” she answered graciously.
Wilhelm raised an eyebrow. His eyes wandered to Marrok, lingering behind her, trying to confirm whether this was true.
However, Marrok proved unreadable. Wilhelm’s gaze shifted back to the tall woman before him whose look was quite kind in comparison. “I believe we owe you for much more than your hospitality. And there is much I wish to ask.” He hesitated as a dark expression formed on Marrok’s face and then abruptly bowed. “But please forgive me for leaving our discussion for another time. I have to speak to several people and turn in early. Good night.”
Wilhelm, too, had quickly disappeared even though he had clearly wanted to speak to her further. Selva frowned further and glanced Marrok’s way. She wanted to reprimand him for scaring off the others but a whisper from the owl caused her to glance towards the gate.
Several Wolframs were barring the ugly solid door with a metal bar. The bar was smooth on its surface save for an opening for a key. The sound of a click from the turn of the key signaled the gate was shut. A few seconds later, the metal bar began to groan as it began to change. It flattened and thickened a few times before it began to spread in lace-like patterns across the door and walls near by. As it reached the top of the wall, part of it curved skywards, its topmost ends sprouting a sharp mass of spikes.
The wolves grew quiet as they witnessed this sight. Few had witnessed elven wizardry at work. Artifacts were now harder to find since the elves had moved away from their usual places. And of what remained, the Wolframs or humans could not operate. Many lacked the blood line to make the items act.
Selva did not enjoy the scene to the same extent they did — for she was not unfamiliar with such artifacts. But she smiled. She, too, took pride in their lord who could command their use.
Count Wolfram’s presence drew her to the edge of the crowd where she had to wait. Her eyes were caught up by his tall figure, her ears trained to capture the tone of his voice. But she waited patiently for him. She knew that repairing his relationships with his clan of cousins was important to him. For too many years, he had kept them all away. But now, he was becoming their lord in more than name.
Eventually his gaze did move in her direction and the crowd parted slightly for her.
But as she pressed forward he turned his back to her.
The owl on her shoulder abruptly departed but Selva did not notice. She raised her hand to her own cheek, confused. “Lord Wolfram, will you not let me tend you?”
“No,” he threw back over his shoulder as he began to move away. “Go back to the house.”
They watched her — these wolves — wondering what had transpired as their lord continued his walk in the opposite direction, moving quickly towards the stables and other buildings.
“Come.” Marrok reappeared, offering his arm to the trembling woman. “When he has something on his mind he cannot think of anything else. Likely he will retreat to think by himself. Do not worry. He will be safe at least — we are sealed in for the night. You should rest and seek him in the morning.”
She should have taken this advice. Marrok was, after all, the most stoic and mature of Wolframs. He, too, knew the lord quite well. But Selva pushed his arm away.
She ran after the Count — her face white with fury.