Even if she had seen that look, there was little Elanore could do. She did not know how to leave this strange place, nor did she have the ability to see in the dark.
The Count had this advantage over the young woman. Only Wolfram could lead his newfound treasure out of the underground caverns. And so he did, walking with a light step. What expression was on his face, no one could tell in the darkness.
But perhaps he might be grinning.
If that were so, she would not know. Elanore could not see anything except the faint outline of the man’s back as she held fast to his sleeve and followed.
The Count may have exulted in having proven her apparent gift for magic and in obtaining an important ally for whatever plan he was forming, but he had unwittingly gambled away something intangible of importance.
Elanore might be a dreamy-eyed girl on occasion but was not blind to the faults of others. She had been disposed to offer the man sympathy and perhaps even more if he had shown her kindness instead of cunning. However, the wolf had figuratively bared his fangs, revealing to her that he was capable of ruthlessness.
And left alone with him, she was shivering. Elanore told herself it was simply due to the long walk in the cold deep caverns. Or perhaps she was simply missing the warmth of the light stone in her hand. She gave herself many reasons, not allowing herself to consider that she had come to be slightly afraid of her newfound teacher.
Sleep chased her as she followed her host in the darkness, putting one foot after another down the mess of passageways she had come through previously. Every so often, her eyelids would flicker shut and her fingers would loosen their hold on his sleeve, but she refused to ask the man to slow or stop. He did not observe how her steps would occasionally falter for he was too swept up in his own thoughts to notice her pale face.
Hastings wasn’t so unobservant. He moved quickly to Elanore as she stumbled into the parlor.
“Tend her hands,” the Count spoke and said nothing more.
Elanore blinked slowly, letting Hastings take the basket from her hands and guide her to a chair. She turned a weary gaze at her host, who had stepped to the window to pull the curtain aside. She looked at the profile of the Count’s face as he gazed outside with a strange, watchful expression on his face.
He was a cold and aloof man, she reminded herself as she sank into the chair and allowed herself to close her eyes.
A few miles away, a huntsman squatted in the snow, trying to understand the mumblings of a disoriented coachman. For a few minutes, Edmund listened patiently to the man’s rambling and cursing about legendary guardians and moonstones while he took a more careful look at the man. The man, Giles, would have him believe that he had just attempted to wrangle himself a stone beast that happened to look like a large mountain cat.
There were no visible wounds but Edmund felt something was still wrong with the man. The coachman was usually fairly dapper as one would expect of an unapologetic womanizer, but at the moment he looked rather sloppy. It was not his untidiness due to his scuffle with a creature, but the mismatched garments and their inadequacy for the cold temperatures that puzzled Edmund.
As the strawberry-blonde hair man stood shakily, Edmund’s eyes narrowed. He could smell both snuff and alcohol on the man’s breath. He kept close as the coachman took a few steps in the direction which the beast had disappeared. “You don’t mean to chase it, do you?”
“I have to track it,” the man said helplessly. “Make sure it goes back to where it—“ Suddenly Giles frowned, apparently confused. “Damn.”
Nervously the man ran his fingers through his hair, thinking for a moment before he made an abrupt demand. “Lend me your horse. I can catch up with it still.”
“No,” Edmund clamped one strong hand down on the man’s shoulder. There was something off about the man. His apparent confusion might be an early sign of overexposure to the cold. “You’d simply fall off and then break your own neck. The Winchester home is nearby. We shall see Miss Redley—“
“HA!” Giles started to laugh. It was a wretched sound; the horse started to paw nervously at the ground. He sputtered, “What can Miss Redley do about the beast?”
“It’s not the beast you should care about,” Edmund loosened his grip so he could take off his coat. He did not like how the man was shivering. “You need to warm up and sleep off whatever it is that ails you–”
“I’m fine,” the coachman nearly snarled as he tried to push Edmund’s coat away. “Nothing I can’t handle. World is going to pot and all you and the master want to do is fawn over Miss Redley.”
Giles should have stopped there, for his comment caused Edmund’s eyes to glint somewhat dangerously at the mention of both the lady and Giles’ master. But he continued to blather deliriously. “Everyone wants me to stop by Miss Redley’s home when there’s much to do,” the coachman complained. “Messages to be taken and retrieved. Creatures loose everywhere. I can’t be stopping there to ogle a girl like she’s a piece of meat or cuddle up to her in this cold– ”
Suddenly the man crumpled to the ground.
Edmund uncurled the fingers of his right hand, having successfully wiped off the leer on Giles’ face. He was eerily calm as he addressed the coachman. “You’re going to go to the Winchester house quietly now. There you can argue with the piece of meat yourself as to whether you’re ill or hungover.”
Giles looked up, a bit glassy eyed and shocked at the young hunter’s behavior. “You punched me!”
“Not that hard,” Edmund answered drily. “Not enough to make you fall over at least.” Giles was not the sort to be taken by surprise that easily. He was certain that the man’s fight with the beast had drained him of energy. “You clearly are not well enough to return to your master’s house. The Winchester house is just up the hill. Will you go or will I have to knock you out and drag you there?”
“Yes, yes.” Giles muttered morosely to himself as he allowed Edmund to help him to his feet and help into his coat. He rubbed his jaw repeatedly, apparently surprised by the strength of the younger man. “If I were feeling like my usual self, you’d not have landed that one so easily.”
“I know,” Edmund dragged Giles along to his horse, knowing full well that under normal circumstances, he might be the one knocked out on the ground unconscious and without a horse. Edmund hoisted the man on to the horse, draping him rather awkwardly over the saddle on his stomach with legs and arms dangling over the sides.
“Urgh,” the man groaned as the horse began to move. “Have no choice now to play patient do I? I’ll have to tell the master that you’re more of an ass than he is and beat me into it.”
“You do that,” Edmund responded somewhat automatically. He was focusing on leading the horse through the snows and up towards the Winchester home.
“You don’t want me to do that,” Giles mumbled. “He doesn’t take kindly to any encroaching on what he believes is his — and that means servants, family, and perhaps even a woman.”
Edmund’s eyebrows raised for a moment at this unexpected admonition and the implied warning about Elanore. He said nothing else while the horse moved about none too gently on the snowy path, provoking an occasional complaint from the man on its back.
It was only a short trot up a small incline, but the trees were dense and the path a bit slippery. Edmund’s eyes were observant. This would not be a good place to walk once the snows began to melt. Ice would form and cause trouble for any person or creature walking this way. Edmund frowned. There were plenty of tracks here and there to suggest that this would be possible.
Their approach to the Winchester home did not go unnoticed. As soon as Edmund pulled his horse up to the back gate, Mrs. Winchester was at her home’s back door and her neighbor was crossing the snows of her own property to come and assist Edmund.
“Edmund,” the elderly Mrs. Winchester was pleased to see him, but glanced at his horse aware that this would not be a social call.
“Where’s Elanore?” Edmund gritted his teeth as he attempted to pull the man off the horse. Giles, by now, was in too poor shape to remove himself from the horse on his own. Much to Edmund’s annoyance, Giles was proving to be remarkably heavy for a man his size and not exactly the most pliant of patients, squirming all the way.
“She’s out paying a call,” the elder woman worried. “What’s wrong?”
“Found him in the snow,” Edmund shook his head as the women came forward and helped him stand the man up and lead him inside the home. “He had some kind of scuffle with an animal. He likely suffers from hypothermia“
Mrs. Reyes piped up. “Adele — I’ll get some soup together. He looks like he hasn’t eaten at all either.”
“I”ll get the blankets,” Mrs. Winchester nodded. “Put him in the back room. The one you used to use.”
Edmund complied, glad to have such capable women to assist him. Giles grunted a bit as they made their way awkwardly to what had once served as the guest room. “Don’t let me sleep too long,” Giles grumbled. “Have to get back to the master.”
“Persistent, aren’t you!” Edmund placed Giles on a low bed and began to remove the man’s sorry shoes. “What message is so important that you refuse to rest?”
Giles lay on his side and stared at the wall, his eyes unfocused and unblinking. For a moment, Edmund felt a pang of fear, wondering if the man might have drifted into unconsciousness.
He was relieved when the man finally blinked. However, that relief dissipated when the man finally spoke – his voice hollow, angry, and fearful.
“The unthings are gathering.”