He stood stiffly for several moments near the closed door, sifting through the words the strange woman had offered. As he did so, Edmund’s fingers wandered to the small knife hidden in his pocket.
In uncertain situations Edmund was not a man of action but of contemplation. He would not run or raise his weapon without direction or purpose. And so he brooded; his normally impassive and sometimes cheerful expression transformed into a look of intense concentration.
He was a man who liked to puzzle over mysteries. Edmund was certain that the woman’s reason for visiting the store was contrived. She may have cultivated an image as an eccentric noblewoman looking to satisfy boredom, but her eyes spoke of cunning and intelligence. Her admission that she had seen his parents betrayed that she knew he would be alone when she arrived. Clearly she had wanted to see him, but why?
Could it be Elanore was her aim?
His free hand clenched slightly. He would have to find Elanore and sort out what she had been doing to catch the eye of a stranger. But he stopped himself. The lady’s words ran through his mind one more time, teasing him about something long forgotten.
‘As the daylight begins to wane…’
An impression surfaced, as Ilva’s voice melted into another voice uttering the same words. The voice was a familiar one, part of the rare memories he had from the time before this life as Edmund Ormond
Edmund hunched down and closed his eyes, his body echoing the posture of his younger self, a child of the woods. In this instance, he was curled up next to someone warm who smelled faintly of pine and milk. He searched hard for the face of the woman, but in this memory he could only hear fragments of her sound.
… beware the forest at night…
He felt the woman’s hand tousle his hair. In his hand, he held a small white object.
…a Shadowgoers delight
He started at the term ‘Shadowgoers’ and opened his eyes. “Shadowgoers” or the “Spirits of Elsewhere” were hapless shapeshifters from an old lore that came from the East. Perhaps they were connected to the creatures Elanore described? Edmund pondered whether he might find something of note in the guild records after all. Suddenly it became clear what his immediate task should be. Quickly, he dressed for the cold and dropped a note in the kitchen before riding for the Guild.
Gregory was pleased to see him, although admittedly Edmund considered the man a poor substitute companion for fair Elanore. However, as the young man listened to the records keeper prattle through the entire goings on of the guild during his illness, he sat patiently.
As it turned out, the reason for the mass gathering in town of hunters was not ominous. The men were enjoying a last moment of revelry before the majority of them left for their last hunt before the new year. Another wolf had been spotted nearby the town; to the hunters this was a sign of possible deer nearby.
If he did not have so many things on his mind, Edmund might have taken affront at not being included in this apparent party. But secretly he was relieved by the freedom that this unexpected hunt offered. The presence of other guildmates in the hall waiting on the weapons master, however, was an obstacle to speaking freely with the records keeper. He had to be careful as he exchanged his books for new ones.
“Take your time recopying those ledgers, Edmund,” the old man nodded meaningfully. “No need to bring them in every day. The almanac said the temperatures will be dropping quite drastically and it’s best to stay warm.”
“Given the extreme cold, they still go to hunt?” The young man raised his eyebrows.
“I’ve already spoken what’s on my mind,” the man sighed gloomily. “Doesn’t matter if the guildmaster agrees. The hunters are all stir crazy. Even he can’t control them like this–”
And yet, even if Old Gregory did not believe so, the man still could silence an entire room with his mere presence. As Guildmaster Wilhelm entered the Hall, conversations ceased and dozens of pairs of eyes turned to look at the man who decided all things of importance with respect to their lives.
Before Edmund could even stand, the others had begun to swarm their leader. Eager and inquisitive voices began to pepper the man about the hunt to come. Edmund looked back to give Gregory a smile, but the man had already slipped away back to the storeroom. With a sigh, he gathered his things carefully and joined the throng of men, hanging back at the edge of the crowd and waiting for an opportunity to speak to the guildmaster.
His chance came after a few minutes of patient attendance. As the man turned his eyes to him, Edmund was surprised to see the man smiling.
“You’re looking less pale than usual, Edmund. Almost well enough to join us but–
“I’m not offended to not have been included. Gregory warned it would be fairly cold.”
“Yes,” the man rubbed the back of his head apologetically. “I know he’s likely said something to you. And he’s not pleased by this trip, particularly since I’ve left it open ended. The younger ones want to take as much time as we can manage, but I’ll teach them yet,” the man muttered to himself, his eyes determined. “They’ll learn to respect the cold.”
There was something hard in that look, one that made Edmund realize this wasn’t necessarily merely about sport. “Regarding the creatures I mentioned the other day–”
Wilhelm’s mouth tightened at the corners. “Haven’t seen anything else of note. I sent a few men out to look about for more tracks or anything of note. But nothing other than the normal sort of thing. However, if there are such things, the men will have to learn how to fend for themselves. We have a long period of darkness coming up. This last hunt will give them extra meat for our long nights ahead and practice for whatever may come.”
Edmund suddenly understood the wisdom of the guildmaster, who proved that he could use even the silly desires of men to accomplish something quite practical.
“There, there,” the man mistook Edmund’s look for envy. He patted Edmund on the back. “Once the eclipse passes, we’ll likely have a few good weeks or more of additional hunting. For now, you should focus on staying well. No need to worry about sitting out of guild duties. You should not give your lady healer additional cause to fret over you. And if you spend all your time under her care, I’m sure the men will not hold it against you.”
Edmund could only wonder who hadn’t heard the rumor about himself and Elanore. “Sir, about her,” he interrupted his leader, “We are not engaged. But if I may talk to you privately about that–“
“Of course. Follow me outside for a bit, won’t you?”
Edmund quickly pulled together his coat and hat before trailing after the man out the hall. They ventured towards one of the smaller buildings that doubled as a weapons storage shed and occasional office for the guildmaster.
“I won’t keep you long,” Edmund apologized as he shut the door behind him. He stood awkwardly while Wilhelm wandered over to inspect some of the bows lying on the table. Edmund had not quite planned to bring this matter up today but, with the unexpected departure of the hunters, he had no time to address the matter. He would hope Elanore forgave him later for the lie he was about to deploy. “I don’t mean to mislead you, sir. While there is no engagement, I would be remiss in not admitting that I am considering making an offer to Miss Redley. Her grandmother encouraged the match before she arrived –”
His leader suddenly put down the bow he had in his hands. ”Indeed?” the man’s expression was rather strange as he looked back at Edmund. ”Her blessing is one less obstacle for you — an important one to overcome, particularly for you. Congratulations.”
“Sir,” Edmund narrowed his eyes at the backhanded compliment. “You don’t sound all that pleased. Does this strike you as a bad match?”
“Edmund,” the older man placed both of his hands flat on the table for a moment. “Do not hate me for what I tell you. I only mean to spare you trouble down the road. The Winchesters are proud. Their family goes back to the Eastlands. Mrs. Winchester’s line includes the blood of knights and lords. And you—“ Wilhelm shook his head. “You are a foundling with no name other than the one given to you by a merchant with no fortune. When she realizes that we hunters do not make enough to honorably court the daughters of families like theirs, mark my words – she will withdraw the blessing.”
Edmund was momentarily silenced by the brutal assessment of his position. He grew angry at the words, but could not respond for they reflected the harsh reality of what he was. He could not argue anything except that last statement and, before he could reconsider, he lashed back. “Is that what happened with Miss Redley’s mother? Was that why your engagement was broken?”
The guildmaster growled. “Tread carefully, boy. I suppose your mother told you—“
“Miss Redley informed me,” Edmund did not waver in light of the mortification that spread itself over the other man’s face. Edmund might be hated by Wilhelm after this conversation was said and done, but he was determined to have something to offer Elanore. “And she doesn’t know why and asks to see you.”
“To indulge her sense of womanly curiosity?” Contempt dripped from the leader’s voice.
“No, you mistake her motives,” Edmund attempted to calm himself, all too aware that he had handled this conversation badly. ”Elanore is tormented by the lie that her mother told her all these years. She had never known about her mother’s previous engagement. She never knew why she and her family were separated all this time. Her grandmother had no answers–”
The man slammed his fists on the table, unsettling the bows that sat there. “That makes two of us, Ormond! I never let go of that engagement. I was prepared to honor it as soon as she returned to wherever she had gone off to! I waited for months for that woman only to find out she was faithless in the end. I did no wrong–“ He stopped and turned an accusatory glare at Edmund. “But I suppose you will tell me otherwise.”
Edmund had far more control over his anger than did his leader. Bravely he pressed again. “I am not here to judge you. It is for Miss Redley I am asking. She wants an audience with you in order to find out the truth.”
“I have no comforting words for her,” Wilhelm’s angry response was tinged with anguish and something else. “Whatever I would tell her would be tempered by the hatred that replaced the love I had for that woman. I would tell her of every weakness of her mother and every wrong she has done me. Can you bear to see your young lady’s tears then when I diminish her mother’s reputation even further in her eyes?”
Edmund stared at the man, He had seen the guild leader upset in other situations, but once his anger had been unleashed it disappeared quickly. Twenty years, however, was a long time to hold grievance against one person. Evelyn Winchester’s withdrawal of her love from the man had left wounds that ran far deeper than would ever be healed in this lifetime. This finding was so out of character for Wilhelm Cadeyrn, that he was forced to redraw his opinions of the man.
But the youth could not exactly hate him. Beneath the anger, Edmund grasped what had eluded him. The man was angry and afraid. Of what, he was not so certain. However, it would be foolish to hand Elanore over to him — a man who might lose control and lash out at the girl who was the proof of her mother’s affections for another man.
As Edmund watched the man struggle to control his emotions, he struggled himself with the promise he made to not overprotect Elanore. He wished he could break it. “If it were my choice, this conversation would never have needed to happen. But she would have come to you already if I had not stepped in her way. I will warn her but I have no delusions that she will heed anything I say.”
“Ah,” The man rubbed the bridge of his nose, sounding tired and older than his usual self. “So her similarities to her mother do not end with her looks. She is also headstrong and impatient.” The man’s shoulders drooped as he resigned himself to the inevitable. Wilhelm looked out the window for a long time, his face paler than it ought to be. Finally, he bowed his head and relented. “Tell her I won’t see her until after the hunt if she insists.
“Thank you, sir,” Edmund responded, gathering up his things. He would leave Wilhelm to his thoughts.
“You!” Wilhelm squared his shoulders, attempting to gather what modicum of pride he could muster. “For the record between you and me, I have nothing to be ashamed of. I never raised my voice against the woman. I gave her every thing I had to give. I protected her every moment I could. Your mother will vouch for me—“
It was disconcerting to see such a powerful human momentarily broken. Edmund could read the raw pain on the man’s face while he denied his fault. It occurred to him then what he had not understood earlier. There was a part of the man who still loved Elanore’s mother.
His face reddened at the insight but he pushed it aside, offering the kindest words he could offer in such a situation. “My mother already has vouched for you and your very character. You were devoted to the woman, in her eyes. I believe it so, as well.”
Wilhelm looked away.
“I’ll take my leave, sir. Be safe with your hunts.” Edmund put his hand on the door, anxious to leave the man alone with his thoughts.
“One last thing.”
Edmund looked back to find the man staring at him. “Remember Miss Redley is her mother’s daughter. And should she take after her,” he murmured, “she will hurt you in the end.”