Mrs. Winchester’s wisdom was like a knife, cutting through the various mysteries and confusion that permeated the ordinary lives of her townspeople and leaving behind both structure and purpose.
Her morning warning was not intended to devalue the unresolved feelings and matters of personal importance for both of her favorite young persons. However, she could not ignore the yet to be explained danger that the reclusive Count had brought to her door.
Her granddaughter was silent as she rode in the coach that would take her to the man who had that premonition of unspecified trouble. The count’s servant, Giles, was draped in ungainly fashion in the seat across from her; he was uncharacteristically quiet as he stared up at the ceiling of this contraption he called the “leather coffin.” The carriage moved too slowly for his taste, commanded by a sleepy looking servant who he called “Charles.” But he had not pushed aside his substitute. His fingers had begun to ache and tremble — a sign that the effect of the medication prepared for him by Hastings under Wolfram’s orders was beginning to wane.
Elanore was not cognizant of the subtle deterioration in the state of her companion. Her mind was elsewhere, contemplating both the stern words of her grandmother and the strange and sometimes unreadable demeanor of Edmund. He had always been open and transparent in nature, but at times she felt him closed off to others. This perception that the distance between them was increasing troubled her.
As for the stern words from her grandmother, Elanore knew that the scolding had been rightly administered. In fact, both the lady and the gentleman sitting in the coach were acutely embarrassed that neither really could express to the Mayor what caused the Count to be afraid.
Chastened by their ignorance and tired from the previous evening, both parties did not pay heed to their surroundings. They did not see the pale woman who passed their coach as she walked along the treeline near the road. The woman –an odd bundle of furs and accessories– was heading north, back towards town.
Due to their lateness in setting out, they did not cross pass with the hunters who had followed the ridiculous mess of tracks in various circles before stumbling on the road, irritated and annoyed. “The blasted thing was playing,” was the disgusted conclusion of the guildmaster before he led his men away to look at the odd circular clearing full of wolves tracks nearby. By the time the Count’s coach approached his estate, the hunters were already well west of the bridge of the guardian lion trekking deeper into the woods west of the Northern Highway.
These hunters passed quite near the Count’s estate but did so largely unobserved; the usual guardian was not at his usual post. Even if he had observed them and had ridden out to meet the large party, he would have had little to say that would mean anything to them. Strange woodsmen had wandered into towns like Winchester in the past, telling stories of elves and strange creatures; none had seen evidence for themselves and would care little for such stories or warnings.
And what of the Count this dreary morning?
Wolfram waited for the arrival of Miss Redley and Giles, standing still at a window along the staircase that led down into the hall. He watched from his vantage point as their coach made its way around the windy drive, observed the girl as she was helped down from the coach by a rather pale looking Giles, and stared as a stone lion broke off from the pedestal and ran around the girl in greeting.
She laughed and reached out to the creature with her fingers. Like a tame dog, it sat before her on its haunches, its tail flickering erratically. They appeared to be conversing, for he could hear her light tones contrasting with strange windy sounds that signified that the beast was saying something in return. He did not have much time to wonder exactly what their conversation was about for it was all but two minutes before the young lady and his coachman turned their heads to look in his general direction.
No longer able to watch unobserved, Wolfram stepped back from the window and walked down the stairs towards the front hallway to receive his guest and see to his servant.
There in that hallway, the three evaluated one another while Hastings fussed about in the background, tending to the assortment of cloaks and coats they had in hand.
Wolfram was quick to note Giles’ hands were trembling slightly.
Nonetheless Giles grinned in greeting. “You look like you’ve had a rough evening, sir.”
Giles’ attempts to distract the Count failed. The Count simply turned to Hastings and ordered him to take the man into the kitchen and feed him. He made it clear that he wanted the man to be well rested by evening to be ready to work.
The young lady could not keep still. “He’s just eaten,” she gave them both a look of mild consternation. “And he should not work until at least tomorrow.”
“Don’t worry, princess,” Giles reached out and mussed the young lady’s hair, to her chagrin. It was only after she shot a glare in his coachman’s direction that the Count noted the effort she had put into her general appearance.
If he were a more amiable sort of man, the Count could have complimented her appearance at this moment, thus smoothing over the situation. Instead, he frowned at the rather familiar means by which his employee addressed he lady, pondering how the two had managed to become so friendly. “Miss Redley, we thank you for your efforts in treating him last night, but from now Hastings and the others will be managing his care as they have done in the past. We have other things to worry over in the parlor.”
Rather quickly, he took the girl’s gloved hand and placed it in the crook of his arm to lead her away, effectively dismissing both Giles and Hastings.
His abruptness was calculated. He knew exactly what was happening to Giles and did not desire for the man worsen in front of the girl. She would not be able to handle the truth about his situation quite yet.
Miss Redley suspected something, indeed, but it had little to do with Giles’ health. She blushed as she walked arm in arm with the Count down the hallway towards the parlor. “The lion came to greet me this morning,” she gave him a sideways glance before she rambled somewhat nervously. “I did try to scold him for running about and tackling Giles. I’m not sure it really was all that sorry for what he did yesterday, but I did tell him that several people now know about him and might try to bother you as a result of his behavior. He promised not to go anywhere while I was here. But beyond that –”
“Who knows about it?” the Count stopped his walking.
“My grandmother, Edmund–” She trailed off when she realized he had dropped her hand rather ungraciously. “Does it matter that much? That cat admitted he’d been all over here and there, tracking interesting smells. He isn’t capable of remembering half the things you tell him. Why do you insist on hiding it?”
He looked displeased. “Curious people like you will flock here in droves, either to attack it or to play with it. I don’t want people meddling about here while you’re training and drawing even more attention to this place.”
“I see,” she had followed him into the parlor and taken a seat at the chair that he had pulled out for her. Elanore frowned slightly as she glanced at the windows over which the curtains appeared to have been drawn shut. “And exactly what is my training for? You showed me stones with interesting properties — namely a tendency to cause light and heat. I can only presume your demonstration had a direct relationship to the Unthings.”
It was now his turn to frown. “Did I not mention before that to be so? The light and heat should be able to turn back and dissipate the shadows.”
Mindful of her grandmother’s earlier scolding, Elanore plunged into the topic further. She had found her opportunity to demand more information. “You expect them to come here then.”
He studied her for a moment, noting how eagerly she waited for an answer. “It is plausible and possible. It has been a rough winter and not much has been present thus far for them to eat. Their motivation to move has been little and the light has likely kept them from moving far beyond their gathering point in the deep woods. However, when darkness comes things will change.”
“What happens then?”
“Stories say they flourish in darkness. They have an affinity to it, although they can for some reason tolerate weak light but not for particularly long. Your recent experience is an example that should be an exception rather than the rule. And yet – well, I don’t quite know how infallible the stories might be. But most creatures hibernate save the stray deer.”
“–And humans,” Miss Redley interjected. “So we are a food source perhaps for them.”
“That is correct,” Wolfram paced the room. “But humans haven’t lived here all that long. I do not think they can multiply so much for the off chance at deer and an occasional person. That made me wonder if perhaps there was something else the Unthings consume — something that emerges only during a time of complete darkness.”
“What manner of creature only comes out in the darkness?” Elanore’s eyes widened.
“You tell me, Miss Redley.”
Elanore shuddered as she recalled stories of imps and werecreatures. “I’m afraid my knowledge is rusty and corrupted by old wives’ tales. Does your book tell you so?”
“No,” he sighed. “It is a copy of accounts that my grandfather transcribed from other sources and felt to be reputable.” Wolfram added lightly, “He was not here for the last eclipse, but the elves that were would never venture out willingly into the dark unless they were very strong in magic. Even if they did, they would stay away from the deep woods and choose a place like this, with plenty of water and lightstones at their disposal.”
“I’d like to see your book if you would indulge me,” the young lady stood suddenly. “I understand you mean to train me to do something against the Unthings, but I am now quite concerned about what they might hunt. Grandmother was similarly interested in what the darkness might bring. She means to engage the guild bookmaster for his assistance.”
The Count hesitated for a moment, perhaps uncertain what this time spent might yield. “I will do so, but your viewing of it must be second to learning. Your lessons must come first today.”
“I understand,” Elanore sat primly in her chair, offering the man her best impression of a good student.
Her desire to please him had an unexpected effect of endearing her to him. He looked away for a moment, suddenly feeling rather unsettled by the sensation. He feigned a cough before withdrawing a folded piece of paper from his pocket. “Study this, Miss Redley. Memorize the contents therein while I retrieve the book.”
Elanore took the paper in hand with a nod and opened it after the Count quickly disappeared out the door. She looked down at the piece of paper, expecting to find a passage of text. Instead, she found herself staring at an odd pictogram.