Wolfram’s lip curled in irritation as he considered those two choices. He did not particularly like having to question himself, but Hastings had necessitated that he must. It would appear that there were aspects of his own behavior related to Miss Redley that he apparently did not control all that well. He wished to identify the cause, as if doing so might help him manage his interactions in a more appropriate manner.
The Count had already dismissed any possibility that he was attracted to her on a physical level. The man did not allow himself to consider her beautiful, out of deference to the elven women he had seen long ago.
With that notion pushed firmly out of the way, he weighed out the matter of the red cloak. Since the moment he had first spied her, the red cape she clung to had made him feel uneasy for reasons he did not quite understand. He was aware of the stories about the red hooded women, including of the most famous Red Riding Hood, but could not fathom what relevance these stories had to him or to Elanore Redley.
It was not until Giles had made the comment about the smell of magic upon her that he realized another possible cause for his haphazard and sometimes forward behavior. Magic clung to her – creating a kind of fragrance of sorts that was obvious to Giles but subtle to Wolfram. At one time he had been wary of anything magic, but once had become intimately acquainted with the gift, he found magic proved to be quite fulfilling in its own way. Its absence had surely contributed to his slide into a life of isolation and depression.
To find a trace of magic after all this time could have made him edgy and hungry. He would not be at all unlike a parched man in a desert finding water or an addict confronted with a favorite but unattainable object.
Wolfram bit down on his lower lip as he considered the latter analogy, gnawing it absently.
“Sir? Are you unwell?”
Wolfram looked back at his manservant, his mouth turning upwards into a grim semblance of a smile. “I’m fine, Hastings,” he lied, suddenly feeling uneasy. Perhaps his loyal servant had every reason to scold him regarding what he had observed thus far. Wolfram needed the girl to protect this place, but he knew if he could not control himself he could either chase her away or ruin her. “I’ll leave the watch to the servants and take a bath.”
Hastings blinked, surprised by his master’s uncharacteristically mild and agreeable response. He flashed his master a pleased look before uttering a “Yes, sir!”
As the Count allowed himself to be hustled along to attend to his appearance before the expected arrival of said lady, he wondered if his forefathers would mock him in his current state. Long ago the Wolves of the Northlands would not worry about dealing kindly with normal humans. Instead they acted according to their own laws, no matter the consequences. That belief had served them well in surviving among the wild things that lurked in the Northlands. But a love for the land and the elves had shifted those beliefs, as had one woman who was fated to tame seven brothers, an old foolish man, and one small boy.
The guildmaster made no pretense that the men of the guild were much to look at. None of the men considered to be full members had any claim to elegance. At one time, the guild may have had its equal share of common and noble men, but these were different times. Today, the only nobles that came near the guild were summertime customers.
Frankly, they were fine without them. He didn’t care how the men looked or what their family lineage might be. As long as a candidate proved capable and trustworthy enough to be of some advantage to the guild, he would tolerate all sorts of manners — whether fine or poor.
The young ones were proving to have the rather crude sort this morning. They were giddy with anticipation of the promised hunt, entertaining themselves with stories of the conquests to be had once they returned with game and meat for the entire village. In the village there were few women eligible for that dubious honor, but as they passed each home, the lads offered their commentary on the prospects to be found inside anyways.
Wilhelm did not interfere with their conversation. Deeper in the woods he would be justified in enforcing strict discipline as noise would become quite troublesome on the trail. Near town, however, he allowed them to joke freely, for they had earned their right to be merry.
They had otherwise been diligent these past few days. He had not asked them to go back to the mysterious clearing he had shown the Ormond boy, but they did so. A few of them had dug through the snow and dirt to examine whatever animal droppings had been left behind. From their somewhat tedious and unpleasant sleuthing, they ascertained that a moderately sized pack of creatures had been following some sizeable game.
Their find had helped determine the direction they would head for this excursion. The bookmaster in the guild had advised not going. When he saw they would not listen, he suggested they head north. The young ones persisted in stating their case. It did not please Wilhelm to see them act belligerently towards the librarian but he understood their reasoning. They wanted to follow the creek waters south and then west, where the pack of creatures had likely come from.
He, too, was tempted by the course the young ones plotted. Even if there turned out to be no game to find, following such a path would allow him to freely and openly investigate the origins of the dead pack of wolves. He had not told the other men what he had heard from Edmund. Had he, several might have reconsidered the hunt entirely, particularly those who did not care for the younger men in the guild.
Wilhelm was determined to keep the young ones from relieving their boredom with a long stay in Crossroads. Had there been no mid-winter hunt, the younger men would have already traveled south to the more lively town where women and wine were plentiful. Unfortunately the town also had its share of swindlers and diseases. Wilhelm had worked too hard to train these young ones to lose them to the temptations of a town. He entreated his closer friends in the guild to assist him with keeping the young ones from ruining themselves.
This was all they could do, for Winchester did not have much to offer. Wine could be bought, but not women. While a few women worked in the inn and the pub, they were not enough. Nor were those sort for the more respectably inclined gentlemen to seek. There had been a delicate sort of schoolteacher some time ago, but she had set unwisely set her sights on the Ormond boy and left a short while ago. The rumor was that she was too humiliated by the rejection she received from the young man to stay in town and try her fortunes elsewhere.
As they moved past the Winchester home, the guildmaster reflected that the rejection, if it did happen, might have been caused by one of its current inhabitants.
As for the other men, they were not so polite in their thoughts as they spied the home up the hill.
“I wonder if she’s home,” one young man named Rolf said to another as the troupe began to pass near the backside of the wooded area below the Winchester home.
“You plan to go knock on her door if she is?” The red-haired man sneered back at the younger hunter.
“I’ve an ache of sorts,” Rolf grinned back at the man, who Wilhelm recalled went by the name Smythe. “I fancy I need a healer.”
“An ache,” Smythe rolled his eyes while the other men around them grinned knowingly.
The guildmaster did not openly look their way. He would not allow it to be known how closely he was observing their conversation.
Miss Redley had been on his mind on and off over the past few days. He had made up his mind to dislike her just as much as her grandmother, but he had not anticipated that the girl would look so much like her mother, even smile as Evelyn once had. Wilhelm had stumbled away from their first meeting, attempting to flee before some long forgotten memory could make him act even more the fool.
As for the boy who some believed would marry the girl, he wondered if he had been wrong to say what he had to Edmund Ormond. He had said that the girl was just like her mother, but he did not, in fact, know that to be true or that history was bound to repeat itself. There was no reason to believe as such.
In truth, he really should not even care. Evelyn was part of the past and he had no connection to either her child or the Ormond’s adopted ward. If the Ormond boy believed Evelyn’s child was key to his happiness, he should have simply kept his mouth shut.
Smythe continued to goad the foolish Rolf. “You fancy you had a chance with her–” he man sniggered. “The mayor’s pretty granddaughter with her fine clothes and boots? She’s got a profession of her own. She doesn’t need your sad pathetic skills as a hunter.”
“It’s not my skills as a hunter that matter,” Rolf preened. “I’ve plenty of things that make me a great match. Jenny at the inn will attest to that. All I need is a chance at her, an introduction. I know Edmund is good friends with her and he’s obliging enough—if I can get her alone.”
Wilhelm shot a glance at the two young men, his eyes narrowed.
“Ormond is nearly married to her, you idiot.” Smythe punched him in the arm. “You know he’s quite close to the old woman at the house. He’s been seen riding around town with the girl.”
Rolf’s face fell. “He had that schoolteacher too, you know! She would always run to him if someone else tried to chat her up.”
“You mean just you, you idiot,” Smythe hissed. “You pawed her dress like a creeper, so of course she’d run away.”
“I bet he’s already had his way with the girl then,” Rolf spat. “What a h-“
Wilhelm suddenly closed the gap between himself and the pair of men. “Lads,” he boomed out while clapping them soundly on their backs. The sound of his voice and the force of his hands not only stopped the young men but all others in their tracks.
The look on his face must have been dark, for the two young men involuntarily stepped away from the man. “S-sir,” they looked rather afraid. They both had been caught talking about another guildmate and were well aware that kind of behavior might, under normal circumstances, result in a boxing to their ears.
The guildmaster roared, obviously in a bit of a temper. “Are you fools!?”
The two men looked as pale as the snow they stood upon. “Sir?”
“You’re so busy talking about your failures with creatures of the female sort that you’ve completely ignored this!”
The guildmaster placed his hands upon their heads, forcing them to look down at a strange set of tracks running along the creek, a set of tracks that they had been about to destroy with their careless walking about.
Wilhelm was a sight to behold as he raged, “Seems we have an unidentified beast that came this way!”