It took considerable effort to persuade the patient to lie still and rest. Giles would not close his eyes until after he had been doubly assured that his messages had been taken to his master. Only then were the two friends able to withdraw from the room and join the two elderly women for a quiet supper.
The meal was not an easy affair either. Gradually Edmund became aware of Elanore’s continued refusal to engage her neighbor in conversation. He recalled what he had been told of Mrs. Reyes’ responsibility for the rumors circling about town. It pained him that he had contributed to the rift; as a result he took great care to behave as neutrally as he could throughout the meal.
Mrs. Reyes left after dinner, perhaps a bit disappointed and bored by the lack of excitement that the meal had afforded her. Edmund lingered only to bring in firewood for both the kitchen stove and the fireplace before he made his polite excuses to leave. He had much he wanted to discuss with Elanore, but it was clear she was not her usual self. Reluctantly he waited for another opportunity to tell Elanore of his conversation with the guildmaster. What he had to tell her would do little to brighten her mood.
He would have left if it were not for the hand of Mrs. Winchester intervening in his affairs. With an eye towards helping her two favorite young people, she begged Edmund to stay the night and assist Elanore in minding the roguish patient in the back of the house.
He was not sure exactly how much help he’d be; Elanore seemed to be quite capable of taming the man herself. But he stayed—more for Mrs. Winchester and not Elanore.
Edmund and Mrs. Winchester had often kept company together these last few months, and it was he who understood best what she wanted and when. Elanore could only but follow his lead as he patiently settled the elderly lady into her chair by the warm fire. The young lady could only listen with gentle surprise as he explained quietly to her that her grandmother, as energetic as she often appeared, was showing signs of fatigue.
The grand lady of the home took up her place and beckoned the two young things she loved dearly to her side. There they began their conversation about the Count’s estate.
Mrs. Winchester led the conversation, asking pointed questions while Elanore answered with as much detail as she could supply. Edmund could add little to her vivid descriptions as he had only seen the estate’s exterior. But he agreed that the words ‘beautiful,’ ‘terrifying,’ and ‘vast’ were words that could be used to describe the grounds.
It was when they were asked to speak their opinions of the Count himself that Elanore faltered.
There was a polite beginning to what she had to say. She bit her lip as she admitted that the man seemed peculiar as might be expected of noble sorts. Her face betrayed her fascination while her voice spoke of feelings of aggravation towards the man. The contradictions were perplexing to Edmund, who could not understand or determine whether she liked or disliked the man. The only admission she made was that he was quite superior in his knowledge of arcane mythology, particularly as related to this land. It was to this she hesitantly added, “He means to teach me more of it so as to help find some ways to deal with the Unthings.”
While Mrs. Winchester nodded at this last statement, a shadow of concern passed over Edmund’s face.
“I have to accept his tutelage,” Elanore suddenly sat back in her chair and pressed her fingers to her face. “I see that I must at least try for a few days or more. But I’m afraid I’m abandoning my duties to you, grandmother.”
“Mrs. Reyes is always next door,” the mayor responded gently. “And what you may learn may help others. I am but an ill and ineffectual shepherd for the townspeople. At least this way–” the proud woman sat up straight in her chair. “This way our family is still doing its duty.”
Her granddaughter nodded and she, too, sat straighter.
“Elanore,” Edmund had his reservations, but compassion for both women won over worry. “The hunters leave for a week or so. I will stop in to help each day. “
“Indeed, we will all manage somehow,” Mrs. Winchester nodded. “We must. And as for Mrs. Reyes and the other old ladies of this town, I’m sorry I can not chaperone you to protect you from what they might continue to say about you. But the invention of a sickly servant for the dear Count should help most people dismiss your regular visits there.”
As old as the woman was, she was still quite clever particularly when it came to people and to planning. Neither of the two young persons had thought through things all that far. They continued to be guided along when Mrs. Winchester continued her suggestions.
After a kind and meaningful glance at Edmund, she addressed Elanore. “It is your traveling back and forth as the daylight begins to disappear that concerns me. If you could find yourself a companion who knows the area well and can offer you protection, I would feel easier about your trips back and forth.”
Having made the arrangement more about her own convenience and concern, neither of the two dared question it. Nor could they, for Mrs. Winchester dismissed herself from their company at that point to rest and disappeared upstairs, leaving the young ones to themselves.
For a few minutes, Edmund sat on a bench near the kitchen fire, tapping his boot against the stone floor while Elanore cleaned up the remnants of their dinner. Whatever thoughts she had on her mind he could not observe while she did so, nor draw out, for she said little.
But after she finished, she sat down next to him and took his right hand to inspect it. She smiled as she mocked herself. “In all this craziness, I forgot to see how you were doing.”
His fingers twitched slightly at Elanore’s touch. He opened his mouth to respond with something, anything, but words would not be appropriate to describe his feelings of relief that she was concerned over him.
It was not that he desired to be fussed over, but that he wished to be assured that he was still of some relevance to her. All of these things he could have told her, but he did not wish to ruin the warmth and the loveliness of the moment. Instead he answered simply and selflessly. “It feels well enough.”
Elanore did not notice his hesitation or his sudden shyness. She remained focused on her task of assessing Edmund, calmly testing his reflexes, occasionally glancing up at his face to see his response to her gentle ministrations. She was half-smiling as she concluded, almost teasing as she spoke. “I suppose so. Well enough, at the very least, to ride out and drag me home even when you should have been resting.”
“Your grandmother wanted you back.” With a look towards the floor, he admitted, “And I did as well.”
He did not see how she colored a bit at the latter part of his statement. Had he, he might have continued to speak. Instead, Elanore was left to fill the silence. “You don’t approve,” she smiled a bit awkwardly. “That’s so like you, Edmund.”
“He’s a difficult person,” Edmund pressed his lips together. “Perhaps he hasn’t shown that side to you—“
She shook her slightly. “No you are right. He is a hard teacher.”
He turned her hand over – the one that had been holding his for inspection – and bared her palm. Edmund had dared not say anything in front of Mrs. Winchester, but her comment now made it imperative for him to know the cause of the angry blistering on her hand. “Did he do this to you?”
She winced at his touch and at the suppressed anger in his voice. “No. It’s from the magic items I touched.”
Elanore’s eyes blinked heavily, her deepening fatigue showing. “It’s what he’s teaching me,” she spoke softly. “That’s what I meant about dealing with the Unthings.”
It was the first time that Edmund truly understood what it meant to fear for another. Magic was an anathema to many of the older folk in these parts. Anyone who used it likely would be treated as such. Patiently, kindly, and with no judgment on his part, Edmund explained to Elanore the precariousness of her situation. “The clergy in these parts generally hate that sort of thing. And then there are those who believe it ridiculous – wishful thinking or foolish tricks.”
“They don’t appear to believe in anything,” Elanore wearily responded. “Anything except in what they can grasp themselves.”
Edmund knew that what she had said held merit. The huntsmen were self-reliant, but to the point they cared little for the town and improving its situation. As for the townsfolk, they were always fixated on the procuring of food and drink due to the harsh winter they faced every year. They did little else except talk about one another and make merry when they could.
Elanore was an outsider, observant of its problems but unaware of the power she wielded over someone like Edmund, who already felt uneasy about his place in this town. He dared not tell her how precious she was to him as one of the few true friends he had. He held her hand fast, wondering in how many ways he might lose her as a result of these choices she had to make.
“It’s what he believes is one way to deal with the Unthings should they come this way.” Elanore closed her eyes. “Or maybe it’s the only way he understands. But it’s still better than sitting around and denying things.”
Edmund puzzled over the meaning of that last statement as well as her sudden bitter tone of voice. He did not press that point, instead telling her what was first and foremost on his mind when she turned her troubled gaze to Edmund. “I wish others could help you,” he said honestly. “I wish I could help you.”
She responded with a squeeze of his hand. As he looked at her, smiling slightly at him, he thought he might be able to tell her everything he was feeling at the moment. He wanted to tell her how she made him feel braver than he really was, how she made his life happier and more frightening than he could comprehend, and how he wished she would not leave when it came to be spring.
But two things kept him from speaking openly at that moment. The first was a nagging sense of inferiority or incompleteness about his own past history; this prevented him from asking her what she thought of him. The second thing was a large thumping sound that came from down the hallway.
As Elanore stood suddenly, that brief opportunity to speak vanished.