Time moved quietly in Winchester.
For three consecutive days the snow fell and the brave and stubborn found various ways to entertain themselves. In that time, the town’s current residents did little that qualified as interesting or exciting, but they went about their lives in ordinary ways. Letters were written and books were read. Stories were told. The young dreamed. The old slept.
But Mr. Williams watched. He was not very agile in his old age, but his mind and eyes were still much better than most of the young folk realized. Even though barely a soul wandered out and about, he sat near the curtained windows and looked outside.
Only the stubborn or those with extraordinary reasons wandered outside while the snow rained upon the town. He had observed a few odd passersby thus far. One — a woman who swept by in her large cloud of furs. She would always be going in and out of the inn. He could see the children waiting for her, their warm breath unfogging the upstairs windows while they looked outside for her.
He would see a young man as well, sometimes with her and sometimes alone. He knew the young man and guessed correctly as to where he would be going.
And, lastly, useless drunks ignored the snow and would wander to and from the pub at all hours.
At night, something else repeatedly moved in the treeline beyond the buildings across the square, something large. He mentioned the lurking shadow to his son-in-law who laughed kindly and said it must be a bear or a wild dog. But he doubted. It moved with a stealth and quickness that suggested a different purpose.
He wished the leader of the hunter’s guild would return. Or even the novice of the friar. They would listen. The hunters would seek out that creature. The novice would utter prayers.
There was something wrong outside, he was certain.
The stone lions had ventured towards the center of the town several times. They had come as close as they dared to the square to look at the fountain. It was a nuisance in their eyes, because it had been introduced there by humans and interfered with their various sniffings and diggings in that area.
They told Giles what should be done with the fountain. He gritted his teeth and told them to go on their way. And so they did, running about looking now for ten things, not eleven.
When they could remember, they would use the creeks and avoid commonly used footpaths to avoid detection. But quite often a hole in the ground or odd patch of land would catch their interest and they’d run with abandon towards it, leaving tracks everywhere. As long as the snow continued to fall and covered their tracks Giles would not scold them. He was not interested in sacrificing timeliness for carefulness.
Edmund would look for them as he walked down the road towards the Winchester home, sometimes taking a different path near the creek, hoping to find them. He had not seen them since that strange day at the estate. He sought them, wanting to ask them what was wrong with Elanore. He wanted to know specifically why the act of reviving them had taken so much of a toll from her. Occasionally he thought he’d see a beast out of the corner of his eye, but whenever he turned to look there would be nothing there.
He said nothing of them to Elanore when she was finally allowed out of bed to receive visitors. For a better part of a week she had rested in her mother’s room, with only the neighbor to help her grandmother tend her. His first visit to her would be her first out of the confinement of her room.
He carried her down the stairs to the drawing room while her grandmother hovered nearby with a blanket.
Once assured the young lady was settled comfortably on the sofa, the elderly woman gave the two young persons a meaningful glance and announced that she would be busy making the midday meal. She then withdrew from the room.
Aware that old lady had deliberately afforded them privacy, the two young persons fell quiet for a few minutes. Edmund paced the room while Elanore adjusted her blankets.
“Edmund,” the young woman called gently to her friend. “Would you sit so I may see you?”
Chastened, he took a stool and placed it near her. Upon sitting, he rubbed the back of his neck with his left hand. “I’m afraid I can’t stay the day, Elanore. We have a boarder now. A rather fine lady, too, so Mother has a long list of things she says must be done around the house each day.”
She had noticed that he was dressed more formally than normal but was now in a better position to understand why. He looked well in shirts and coats, she had to admit. But she could not let the circles under his eyes go unremarked. “Have you been otherwise well? You look tired.” The healer reached across the space between them and placed her fingers over his free hand. “Are you working too much? Or is it your arm again?”
“No,” Edmund’s eyes moved to regard her hand, cold and dry to the touch. He turned his gaze back towards her, wondering how she could ask of his health! He paused, perhaps searching for what to say that would reassure her. “I’ve been keeping late nights reading. I suppose that I have had a lot on my mind. I’m trying to look for information about the kinds of things the old hunters were warned about in this area.”
The mention of ‘work’ appeared to satisfy her. She patted his hand. “I’ve heard grandmother and your guild bookmaster also talking about those things.”
He nodded. He had been privy to those conversations and generally understood that they had a time of trying to make sense of all the various books and tales. “I’ve been also considering some other things,” he deftly changed the subject. “I was told by your grandmother that you decided to move in to the Count’s estate.”
She withdrew her hand from his, startled by the sudden change of topic and the edge in his voice. “I realize how inappropriate it must seem. I know he hasn’t apologized to you..”
“It’s not just that,” Edmund exhaled sharply. “I know you likely will be working on your craft, trying to do whatever is asked by the Count and the lions. I don’t want you to fall unconscious or ill every time you do something they demand. Look at you now. If you keep at it like this, you’ll be dead within weeks at this rate–”
“Grandmother will come with me and keep an eye on things,” she raised her fingers to his lips to quiet him. “And when the preparations are done, you and your family and the others will be safer for it.”
He took her hand away from his mouth but did not release it. “I know your reasons,” he shook his head slightly. Her grandmother had told him and begged him for understanding. “Should we trust someone who seems so willing to let you sacrifice your own health to accomplish whatever he wants?”
“It’s not him I have put faith in.” She dropped her eyes and looked back down at the blanket. “It’s this magic he helped me find. I can do more than just wander the world carrying messages and parcels back and forth between my mother and grandmother. For the past few years, I thought what I was supposed to do was find a trade of some sort so I took up with a healer. I’m alright when it comes to that sort of thing, but I have no specific talent for it. But this–” her voice trailed off and she gave him a lopsided smile. “I thought maybe this might be the one thing I can do myself that would make a difference if I’m able to prove the Count correct.”
Edmund understood. He did not particularly want to and would have preferred to argue with the young lady, but he would be a hypocrite if he did so. After all, he was a humble hunter looking for his past, hoping to find a future. “Even so, I want to find a way to help you. I don’t believe the Count values you the way we do.”
“Of course not,” she answered lightly. “I have no delusions that he actually does anything more than tolerate me. I’m much too plain and poor to interest such a man. It’s the magic that he cares about.”
“Now don’t be foolish,” he snapped at her for reasons she was too naive to understand. “People will presume that something is happening just like they did with us.”
“Old ladies always say things like that,” she scolded him. “Surely you aren’t worried about old wives’ tales?”
Edmund sighed. “I’m afraid it’s not just the women in town, but the guildmaster as well.” He found himself explaining himself rather quickly. “Whatever misunderstanding he has is my fault. I had approached him to tell him you wanted to speak to him about your mother. He was not pleased by my apparent knowledge of his relationship with her. So I explained to him that I was going to ask you to marry me and that what happened with your mother was of direct personal importance to myself.”
“Oh, Edmund!” Elanore reddened. She looked down at her blanket where her fingers nervously bunched up the quilted material. “I hope I haven’t ruined your relationship with him. He will never trust you if he believes that we were to be married.” Her eyes began to water suspiciously as she continued to ramble. “Although, I suppose he’ll pity you once everyone hears where I’ve disappeared off to. To him I’ll be another hussy – just like my mother.”
“You aren’t,” Edmund retorted. “I won’t allow it to be said. And he can’t find fault with you — I had said I was considering asking you. There’s a difference.”
The lady’s voice was grave as she admonished her friend. “Something like that shouldn’t be used as a trick. Think of the poor teacher who wanted to marry you.”
“Elanore,” he responded with equal gravity. “The only person I am concerned about is you. If he thinks poorly of me, I don’t care. There is nothing he could do to me to hurt me. But if you must hold me responsible for such a small thing, then I must ask you to consider how then we must take responsibility for how I compromised you.”
Her color deepened as he referenced the incident from the other day. “It was I who compromised myself,” Elanore protested softly. “I thought I told you the kiss was their idea.” Elanore’s recollection of her various explanations were hazy, a likely effect of the enormous power she had used to waken the lions. “Hadn’t I?”
Wryly he responded, “You had, but I think the lions were full of mischief that day. They wanted me to feed you first. How they could demand food one moment for you and then that you kiss me the next is incomprehensible.”
She braced herself for a scolding, for being so gullible and trusting. Elanore fully expected she deserved a knock on the head for that.
But instead he smiled to himself. “These past few days, I’ve wondered what was on their minds that day to make such a peculiar request. Their view of us is childish in some respects, but as I thought through what happened, I realized that they were more intuitive than I first understood.”
She glanced his way, noting that his voice seemed suddenly clearer and stronger. “What was that you think they knew?”
He reached out for her face and let his fingers rest upon her cheek. “They knew that I wanted you to kiss me.”
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