That brief, but unexpected statement had the same impact as a blow to the face. Edmund might have had the upper hand over Giles earlier, but now the roles were quite reversed. Edmund reeled momentarily before demanding, “Where?”
The man turned over in the bed, shivering. “The deep woods near the Silver River.”
The younger hunter started, his mind performing several mental calculations related to the distance and time to the river. He gave the man a suspicious look. It was an impossible trek for the man to have made there and back in a week’s time or less, particularly with this snow. “You have confirmed this yourself?”
“No,” Giles made a sound of irritation. “My kinsmen have said so. They are never wrong.”
“Your kinsmen,” Edmund repeated thoughtfully. He had heard that the man was not connected to any one in these parts but never had known exactly where the man came from.
He had opened his mouth to ask more questions when a stern voice at the doorway interrupted him. “Edmund.” Mrs. Winchester passed him, with a generous load of blankets in hand. “Leave him be.”
Respectful of her wishes, he said nothing more, instead helping the older woman with her task of making the man comfortable in his bed. They worked in amicable silence, wrapping the ailing man carefully in order to keep him warm and allowing the man to lie quietly.
When they had both withdrawn from the room, Edmund broke his silence. “You overheard what he said—“
She nodded. Mrs. Winchester gathered her words slowly, perhaps thinking through things for herself before she responded. “His master had warned something like this might be possible to both Elanore and I that day she arrived. I believe that is why Elanore is with the Count at the moment.”
Edmund felt his chest tighten at that particular piece of information. “You sent her to him?”
“He called for the both of us,” Mrs. Winchester answered in low tones, likely not wanting to be overheard by the other person in the home.
He was surprised by how much he was relieved by her admission. That sense of relief opened his eyes, though, to something about himself that he didn’t like at all.
The older woman was worried enough about Elanore to not notice that talk of the Count had made the young man jealous. “I had expected her home some time ago. Perhaps you can aide both the coachman and myself by taking the message to his master and bringing her home?”
He did not tell her that he was not exactly welcome on the property of the Count and that his presence might cause more problems. Edmund was in no position to refuse the old woman anything. He owed her and her husband too much to even consider anything but honoring the request.
“I’ll do exactly that,” he took her hand in reassurance. “Will you be alright here with the coachman?”
She raised an eyebrow. “Are you afraid he might do something to us?”
His mouth twisted a bit. Giles and women were generally a poor mix – not because he was dangerous to them, but dangerous for them. “I was more that I was concerned he would try to escape. And then there’s his propensity to flirt with any woman with any age.”
That admission caused the old woman to narrow her eyes. “That sort of man, is he?“
“A wolf in sheep’s clothing,” Edmund said lightly. “But I have heard that he is quite susceptible to a pot or a rolling pin.”
“Indeed!” Mrs. Winchester smiled faintly, understanding the hint quite well. “If that is so, I do not think Mr. Giles is any danger to either of us. Mrs. Reyes and I are quite good at wielding kitchen implements.”
Two elder women, wise to the ways of the world might be more than a match for Giles. Edmund was certain the women would be fine. Nonetheless, he would hurry .
As tired as he was, Edmund did his best to ride quickly to the estate. He warily approached the metal gate, noting it was open.
He felt uneasy as soon as they found themselves on the gate’s other side. His horse did not care much for the property either, snuffling all the way down a gentle path lined with many trees. Edmund studied the various sets of tracks that had apparently gone done this way before. There were a fair number of ordinary tracks, and then there was something odd that had also left its imprint, something quite large.
His mind was a whirl with speculations as to the type of creature that might have stumbled this way when he encountered a rather peculiar sight. The path had opened into a clearing and along this clearing stood grey beasts of stone, watching the land about them — their eyes trained in every which direction except the large buildings behind them. A cold chill moved through him as he finally understood the direction and meaning of Giles’ ramblings. The man had claimed to be tracking a stone beast, one that turned out to be very much like hundred or so that stood in front of him.
Edmund nudged his horse forward, watching these statues carefully. It was almost laughable that he should be so cautious, but the normally quiet and uneventful town of Winchester was starting to fill with extraordinary creatures, people, and circumstances. He rode past them, gripping the reins of his horse tightly – so tight that his fingers twinged with pain.
At the end of the path stood a man at an open door, an elderly gentleman who he vaguely recalled from before. Politely, Edmund lifted his cap, recognizing him as the man who from the coach that had carried Elanore towards town when she first arrived.
There was a faint look of confusion on the older man’s face, and Edmund wondered if the man did not remember him from the other day.
“My apologies for coming unexpectedly,” Edmund stayed on his horse. “I’m Edmund Ormond. I’ve come for Miss Redley at her grandmother’s request. She has a patient waiting for her.”
“She’s resting inside,” the man’s smile appeared nervous. “Will you come in and wait?”
He shook his head. “No, I shall wait here.”
“Very well,” the man bowed before disappearing behind a partially closed door. Edmund dismounted his horse and waited at the bottom of the steps. For several long minutes he waited, staring up at the grotesquely carved door. He did not know what to think of such a strange gothic place. His home was far humbler, his origins obviously less noble. He did not feel envy but simply inadequacy. The gap between himself and the Count — their value, their material wealth, and stature — was becoming ever clearer by the minute.
From the empty trees around him, he could hear faint catcalls. The bird cries offered a mocking chorus to his own internal doubts.
Suddenly the man to whom he must inevitably be compared materialized in front of him.
“The trespasser returns,” the Count said. He turned a cold pair of eyes upon him, as his manservant caught up from behind him. “I did not expect to see you again. And yet you came,” he looked rather amused. “You must have heard Miss Redley was here.”
Edmund refused to give the man any leverage over him. He matched the Count in tone and manner. “She has a patient waiting for her.” His voice sharpened. “Your coachman.”
There was a flash of emotion on the dark man’s face. Perhaps it was concern or perhaps irritation. Edmund could not tell, for it had disappeared rather quickly. “Giles is a strong and capable man,” Count Wolfram continued to question and to challenge.
The manservant coughed politely. “Sir, may I ask how Giles fares?”
Edmund nodded. “As strong as Giles is, he could not subdue some sort of strange catlike creature he had been tracking. When I found him, he was also improperly attired for the weather and so is both tired and suffering from overexposure.”
The Count suddenly turned his eyes towards the courtyard. His eyes came to rest on the statues as if he finally understood something. “Giles has some odd habits,” was all he could say. “Is he wounded?”
“No,” Edmund was relieved that the conversation had turned towards something normal. “Of that I’m certain. But his behavior is worrying. Mrs. Winchester sends for her granddaughter to see to his recovery. And Giles sends a message to you which he said could not wait.”
“I suppose you bring that message?” Edmund felt uneasy as the Count’s sharp, searching gaze turned back towards him.
The sound of a woman’s steps came from behind the Count and his manservant. Edmund pressed forward with an answer, now anxious to leave the message and this place behind. “He’s heard from his kinsmen that the unthings are gathering near the Silver River.”
The Count stiffened. To all present, it was not clear whether it was due to this unwelcome news or the look that Elanore offered him.
Edmund felt a prick of anxiety; the look was one full of unspoken meaning and communicated something that excluded the rest of them. But as she turned to look at him, her face brightened, and he brushed the other feelings aside.
“My man Giles waits for you at your home,” the Count stepped aside. He did not look all that pleased as he addressed Elanore. “But wait for a moment,” he said and ordered the manservant, apparently named ‘Hastings’ to some errand.
They made an awkward tableau – two men and the one woman that inevitably tied them together – standing under the doorframe. Elanore glowered at the Count, clearly unhappy about something. Exactly what Edmund did not understand.
“Hastings will give you a restorative to administer to Giles,” the Count did not acknowledge Elanore’s apparent frame of mind. “It is infused with verbena,” he stated in a manner that did not invite further questions.
“Alright,” she agreed, somewhat unwillingly.
As Hastings returned with a small basket, Edmund took all of Elanore’s other things and quickly secured them on his horse. “Elanore,” he held out his hand for her’s. “It’ll be faster if we ride together.”
“But my horse,” she protested gently.
“We’ll come for it tomorrow. It’ll be faster this way,” he pleaded silently with her, not wanting to delay. The Count, the setting, nearly everything about this place was putting him on edge.
He was relieved when she gave him her hand, placing her trust in him. As he lifted her to his horse and then seated himself behind her, he kept a stoic expression on his face as his arms encircled Elanore around her waist to take the reins.
The Count watched, his eyes narrowing slightly. “I will send a coach in the morning. Please return with Giles on that coach.”
Elanore turned back to look at the Count, almost glaring. “No matter his condition?”
“He will be fine by then,” the Count responded.
She opened her mouth to argue, but Edmund placed a hand upon her arm, reminding her that this was only prolonging the conversation. She understood and said nothing, turning her face straight ahead.
Satisfied, Edmund kicked his horse into motion and did not look back.
But Elanore did, catching the sight of the Count staring at a lion in the courtyard.