In spite of what he had accomplished, Edmund left the guild unsettled and dissatisfied. The young man wandered away from the compound troubled over Wilhelm’s parting words.
To Edmund, Elanore had always been a reliably cheerful, kind, and transparent companion. As a child, she had always brought joy to his life. When she had returned, he had not even considered that she might be anything but the same constant presence she had been before.
However, Wilhelm had played his hand too well in their conversation; whatever peculiarities Edmund had observed this past week or so bloomed into full concerns.
Doubt took hold of Edmund and did not let go, forcing him to reconsider what he had observed this past week at face-value. She was too easily charmed by the Count, too easy to trust the man, and had become quick to argue. Her feelings were unsteady and unpredictable. He had dismissed these things earlier simply because of her obvious fatigue and anxiety over various family circumstances. But now he wondered if he had failed to understand how much she had changed.
He brought his horse to a stop in the road back to town, realizing he was not prepared to see Elanore just yet. After a moment, he turned around and diverted from the path that would have quickly taken him to the Winchester home. Instead he let his horse wander off elsewhere, arriving at the small, mud and brick building that served as hall, school, and chapel for this small town. Edmund hoped to find the Friar here.
After Mr. Winchester passed, Edmund had come into a habit of seeking the man for counsel. The three men — the former mayor Winchester, the Friar, and his father – had been thick as thieves as younger men. The friar and mayor were surrogate uncles, making up for his own father’s lack of experience with the world and certain skills by taking him in hand and teaching him what they knew.
Edmund had not seen the friar all that much as of late. The friar’s duties often involved quite a bit of foot travel that made the man hard to locate. And with a new novice to train, he was traveling even more. That afternoon, however, fortune was with Edmund. As Edmund pushed open the door to the building, he discovered the short, elderly round man and his beanpole of an assistant anxiously staring at a stove in the corner of the large room.
“Edmund,” the man brightened and hurried over to the doorway, leaving his assistant watching the fire pertly. “The new wood burning stove has us all worried so we’re testing it. Can’t be bringing in the children here unless we’re sure it won’t smoke them out.”
“Father Lorrence,” Edmund gave the older man a fond hug. “Do you intend to continue classes this winter?”
The man nodded energetically. “After a short break. Novice Wyte and I are going to travel south for a while. I promised a New Year’s service to a good innkeeper in Crossroads. If things go well, we’ll be back when there’s enough light to travel. The children won’t mind. There are so few of them and books enough thanks to the novice–”
“It’s a shame the last teacher had to leave,” Edmund looked around the rather shabby interior of the building. “But I can’t imagine she liked it much here.”
“If only the gentlemen of this town were nicer,” the Friar winked. The friar’s blue eyes danced merrily. Apparently he, too, had heard some of the false rumors about Edmund and this teacher.
Edmund bristled slightly. “I was barely acquainted with the woman. I had no quarrel with her or misunderstanding.”
Father Lorrence’s eyes went from dancing to gleaming. “I suppose it worked out for the best. I heard the good news about the Winchester girl.”
The young man scratched the back of his neck, now more nervous than annoyed. It was clear that the friar indeed had heard all the rumors.
The man’s belly shook as he laughed hard at Edmund’s apparent discomfort. His voice was so loud that the floor boards and walls shook around them, earning the friar a startled look from his novice. “My poor boy! You’re usually much more receptive to my jokes. I suppose this one is a bit trickier than the last case.” The friar rubbed his beard gleefully. “Several folks asked me if I was returning at any particular time. They’re fishing for a wedding date for you.”
Edmund narrowed his eyes. “Is this the innkeeper or the pub keeper who is asking?”
“Neither is guilty of starting the rumor.” The friar turned slightly to acknowledge the ever quiet Mr. Wyte, who looked on with silent disapproval. “The novice was at the Winchester home and heard the whole mess of it. Miss Redley denied an engagement, but it seems Mrs. Winchester’s neighbor took it upon herself to conveniently ignore that part and she’s been running about telling anyone she can about the secret engagement and preparing them to standby. She means only to be helpful is what I gather!”
The face both men made expressed clearly that it was rather the opposite case. The friar tried his best to look serious. “Your mother is most concerned about all of this, of course, for some reason or other. She talked my ear off this morning about how I needed to talk to you about proper courtship and all. To counsel you against manly urges.” He started to laugh heartily again, clearly amused. “Me! A friar–”
Edmund winced. From the sound of things, his mother apparently did not quite trust him with Elanore. Whatever he had done to deserve that lack of trust, he had no idea. While he was affiliated with a guild of men who were not known to be all that proper towards ladyfolk, he had never given her any reason to suspect that he had picked up their loose habits.
From the continuing sour looks emanating from the corner of the room, both he and Father Lorrence could tell that he didn’t exactly merit a lot of goodwill at the moment from the young novice Wyte either.
“Hm,” the friar took Edmund by the arm. “Let’s have a look at how the chimney is doing. Worried it might be stopped up, you know.” It made little sense really to do so, for the stove seemed to be working properly. However, Edmund obliged the man. At least outside they would be able to chat without the silent commentary from the novice.
Edmund helped the man step down the steps and through the snow drifts around the building. Edmund was sad to observe that the Father was not as spry as he used to be.
“The young man seems to be one of these new initiates that came from a rather strict upbringing,” the Friar apologized after he stopped in a spot around the side of the building. He looked up thoughtfully at the sad trail of smoke coming out of the chimney. “Miss Redley’s high spirits seemed to have made a poor impression on him.”
“Elanore denied the engagement rather violently, did she?” Edmund was half-amused and half-affronted at the idea, but did his best to pretend indifference.
The man chuckled. “Well, he said she was rather red. The novice interpreted her behavior as indication of guilt. Even if there’s no engagement, he seemed leaning towards the idea that with or without it, the two of you were up to something. He will be praying for the both of you and a speedy marriage, I’m certain.”
Edmund felt a flash of irritation. With a certain degree of gravity, he lifted his chin and looked directly at the good Father. “I can only assert that the lady is innocent.”
The Friar shrugged. “I told the novice that he was completely mistaken about the both of you. Having seen my share of philandering, bad, or foolish men in these parts, I feel fairly confident about my assessment of you as a good man.”
Edmund colored faintly at the praise. Coming from someone who he had known for a long time and generally admired, he could not help but be pleased. “I’m glad to find someone thinks well of me.”
“You’ve turned out well,” the man looked up at the chimney, relieved that the smoke looked much more vigorous. He turned around and gave Edmund a friendly slap on the back. “How everyone worried over you when I first brought you here. Your parents thought you were mute.”
“Really?” Edmund gave the man a startled glance. He had no recollection of such a time or any awareness of how much the Ormonds had ever worried on his behalf.
“Oh you were just a wee lad, so I suppose you don’t remember much of anything.” The Friar paused to collect some of those long-ago memories. He took Edmund’s arm for support as the two continued their way back around to the front of the building. “I remember your father and the old Mayor fretting over the fact that you didn’t speak. But I thought you were simply scared of people. You warmed up to everyone soon enough.”
There was a pause while the man looked off into the woods likely still caught up in his past recollections. Abruptly Father Lorrence smiled and shifted back to the topic of the hour. “Well, I’m relieved to hear the truth from you directly, Edmund. I wouldn’t have minded very much, however, if you did have a wedding on the horizon. As long as you pick the month of April for a ceremony and not some cold winter month, I’ll be content!”
“Father!” Edmund gave him an exasperated look. “In all seriousness, this idea of marriage is rather foolish. No woman would have me. I have no status or family to vouch for me—“
“Does it matter what others think about your credentials?” The Friar said sternly. “You made it fine so far without the good opinions of people who do not know you like we do. So why do you need these so much now? What brought this about?”
The young man made a small noncommittal noise and looked down at the ground.
“Edmund,” the Friar clamped his hand down on his shoulder and gripped rather firmly. “This town is a small place with small ideas. What they say you shouldn’t take to heart. Moreover, you will waste your young life if you fret over things that you can not change or control.”
“If I only knew something of where I came from—“ Edmund responded quietly. “If only I could silence their doubts—“
The Friar shook his head. “It doesn’t matter to me where you came from. It certainly never mattered to your parents – and by that I mean your real parents, Edmund.”
“But it might matter to a young lady,” Edmund said glumly, again rubbing the back of his neck while he thought about what the guildmaster had said.
“I see,” the friar inhaled suddenly.
Hastily, Edmund amended that statement. “Hypothetically speaking, of course.”
The friar began to shake his head. Years had honed his ability to understand people, to perceive their thoughts and feelings quite well. He read the young man’s heart, but wisely kept what he saw to himself. Instead he offered the young man a question. “Does the past really determine your future Edmund?”
“I don’t know,” Edmund admitted, crossing his hands over his chest.
“It shouldn’t,” the Friar said as he climbed the stairs back to the door of the hall. Before he opened the door, he looked backwards at him, a kind smile on his face. “Not to you or those who are important to you.”
Edmund pondered the Friar’s words as left the old man to his assistant’s care. In spite of the cold, he walked – pulling his horse along the edge of a small creek that ran parallel to the road that led back in the direction of the Winchester home and the town.
It was not the most ideal place to be wandering as the sun fell low in the sky, but at least by taking this back trail he avoided other townspeople.
From downstream came a sound of crunching snow. It was a heavy sound, one that did not belong to horse or carriage, man or deer. Whatever it might be, it sounded unnatural to Edmund. Even dangerous.
Quickly, he mounted his horse and pulled back out of sight into the line of trees. He thought through the options of what that beast might be, his fingers never straying far from the sword at his side.
Should it be a bear, it was best to lie quiet. And yet, the sound grew louder and heavier as it quickly came closer. Edmund tensed, wondering what bear could move so fast. He looked about while wondering how best to leave the area, full of snow and treacherous drifts. He could hear the beast advancing more slowly now, as if it were searching for something.
Just when he thought the thing might discover him, there was a strange cry from across the creek. A man burst from the trees and moved in the direction of the creature.
A great racket emerged as the two things crashed in the snow and began to tussle. Edmund quickly leapt off his horse and drew his sword, prepared to lend the man a hand. Cautiously he circled around the strange sight of the man and beast wrestling in the snow.
He could not see the man or creature all that well. He could hear the man, however, muttering in some language he did not understand. The words he used were harsh and guttural, more like a curse than a prayer.
After uttering a sound that sounded like pain, the grey thing whimpered and drew back. It looked at Edmund once before it jumped back in the direction from where it had originated. It ran as quickly away from them as it had arrived.
The man who had challenged the beast stood unsteadily on his feet. He stumbled as he began to give chase half-heartedly. He made it only a few steps before he fell headlong into a deep pile of snow.
With a sudden exclamation, Edmund moved to the man’s side and looked for obvious injuries or blood. Seeing none, he carefully turned the man turn over, looking for signs of more hidden wounds on the shabbily dressed man.
Green eyes glared at Edmund, full of suspicion and defiance. And then the look disappeared once the man understood who his apparent rescuer might be. Edmund, in kind, started as he recognized the coachman Giles — philanderer and occasional drunkard buried underneath a pile of rags.
“I’m fine, lad.” Giles slowly pushed himself up and looked about, still on the alert for something.
“What was that?!” Edmund could not contain his curiosity and concern.
Giles rested on his knees. He shoved something into his pocket before looking away, southwards in the direction of the escaped thing. “That, my boy,” he sighed, “was the stuff of legends.”