Edmund did not feel overjoyed but mortified at what he had done. But his sense of politeness and his feelings of respect for Mrs. Winchester would not allow him to quit the house at that very moment. Habit brought his feet towards to the kitchen door but could not help him pass through it. Instead, he stood outside for a few moments until some of his senses had returned to him.
His voice strained slightly as he announced his intentions. “Mrs. Winchester, I shall take my leave.”
The lady stopped stirring the kettle and turned about to peer at him over the top of her glasses. The expression on his face spoke for his mood. “I see. Did she say no?”
He exhaled slightly at her bluntness and pressed his hand against the wall for support. “I made a mess of it, I think. I might have frightened her into silence. Actually–” he confessed. “I am not sure.”
The old woman went back to stirring the kettle’s contents. Youth had its advantages, but it also had its follies. She smiled to herself as she inhaled the smell of fragrant herbs that wafted up from a stew assembled from a haphazard collection of foodstuff. “A mess can be cleaned up, dear boy. The mistake would be to leave it there.”
Edmund took a deep breath, understanding the meaning of her words. Slowly he retraced his steps, drawing up just shy of the open door to the parlor. He paused to look at his coat, hanging on a peg on the well. Had he wished to, he could perhaps maintain his dignity a bit longer by grabbing his things and walking out the door. Instead he continued past them, reminding himself he had been raised to not run away.
Elanore was fussing with her blanket when he crossed the parlor’s threshold. At the sound of his steps on the floor, her head swiveled in his direction. She dropped the blankets from her hands in order to bring her hands to her face. “I seem to be tangled,” she blurted out.
Edmund averted his gaze and knelt down to address the twisted wrappings about her, not daring to ask how this had happened. He was relieved that she did not shrink back from him or resist him as his fingers occasionally brushed against her leg. “There,” he said as he finished freeing and then setting aside one mischievous cushion and several blankets that had apparently decided to interfere with Elanore’s wrap.
Before he could rise from the floor, her fingers came to rest on the crown of his head. “You surprised me you know.” She stopped and flushed as he looked back at her openly. Her fingers once again fiddled with the blankets and twisted them about. “I’ve no experience in these types of things. I didn’t know what to say to you and then you ran out before I could explain.”
His stomach clenched when he realized that he had stolen her first kiss. If he had found another man in this same situation, he would have punched them out for such a thing. “I was too forward–”
Elanore’s fingers reached out delicately to silence him. “It’s alright. You’ve had much on your mind.” She pursed her lips, trying hard to look severe. “You must take care of yourself, though. Don’t forget that I’ll be waiting until the spring to give you an answer.”
If she had been trying to sound stern, she failed miserably. Her voice was sweet and light when it could have been indignant and proud.
Edmund ran his hand through his hair at her apparent forgiveness all the while trying to discern exactly what she was saying. He realized that she had not provided him with a yes or no to his proposal but with a request that he come back and try again. Solemnly, he responded. “Then I won’t be reckless.”
She rubbed her eyes before turning them upon him, her expression now more at ease. “If you could spare a few more minutes, would you read to me just a bit? The bookmaster said it was important to read these pages. But my eyes are tired.”
Edmund consulted the clock on the wall. A mysterious weight pulled the pendulum back and forth, quietly reminding him that time was slipping away quickly, time that he could use elsewhere..
She was not unlike that weight, pulling him along this way and that way with her own intangible power. In spite of the things he must do, he willingly put himself at her side..
He took one deep breath and began to read, determined to ensure he’d leave her with a smile upon her face.
* * *
And now the sun passed the high point of its trajectory, traveling well over Winchester as it moved westward in the sky. Underneath that mid-day sun, the hunters returned to their cabins to warm themselves and rest.
They had settled in at a group of cabins one’s day trip from the outskirts of Winchester. It had been a hard day’s trek to come this far, but excitement had lent them both speed and energy on the journey. Although the winter had been hard and animals seemingly scarce near the towns along the Highway, they found the animal tracks increasing in number the further west they walked. It would seem that for whatever reasons animals were to be found here, emerging between each snowfall for a frenzied feeding.
Their guildmaster had gambled in bringing them here. Wilhelm thought it an ideal place — conveniently located by a deep creek that drew hungry and thirsty animals all year round.
The members were pleased. The cabins were well equipped and hardy compared to their other properties. So their routine in such a place was simple. They would rise early and hunt deer foraging for food before returning to their lodging to eat and smoke the meat they caught. They would pass a few more hours this way before returning outdoors for another round of hunting.
The men devoured the fresh meat greedily. At times he had to remind them to actively preserve a portion of what they took now, rather than rely on saving what they caught later. Every piece of meat they could take back unspoiled and preserved would become food when it became too dark to hunt or bartered for other goods.
They did not balk too much at their orders. If their master was strict in this one regard, he relented in others. He permitted them to do whatever they wished with their free time, even partaking of drink and snuff.
He did not join them in their revelry. It was not his habit to touch either of the items while on a hunt. Wilhelm wanted to have his fullest senses about him. For when the sun began to drop in the sky, he mistrusted the darkness. A faint unpleasant smell would occasionally drift in from the west — a fragrance that he could not identify and that no one else apparently observed.
That smell made his sleep uneasy, made him dream of things watching him from the woods.
But each morning he would wake and immerse himself in the activities that came with guiding his men. He was not a man who could afford to do anything except shake off and forget unpleasant dreams.
And with a hefty portion of meat collected after several days of hunting, this cycle of restless sleep would draw to an end. As night fell on this good day of hunting, Wilhelm declared he would like to break camp the next morning.
The guildmaster sighed loudly at their muted disappointment before reminding them of what the bookmaster had told them. “If we linger too long the snows will be back and we’ll be stuck again for a while yet. While we have plenty of food here, we need to tend to those at home.”
They smoked pipes around the dying light of the fire, full and content with meat. “You’re a kept man,” the younger ones crowed. “We have no wives or women to bind us.”
“Of course,” the older man’s eyes glittered at their teasing. “If I want to sleep in my own bed, I do keep my word with the wife and return home when I say I plan to.”
They laughed and exchanged sly looks, interpreting his words through the filter of their own more carefree and lusty existence. He chuckled with them, although that he did so was ironic. His wife was a pious woman but a cold fish. She would not miss him all that much if he continued to stay away.
To his surprise, they pushed hard to stay and hunt for a few more days. Even though each of their shares of the meat would have earned them considerable popularity and gold in Crossroads, they seemed reluctant to abandon their run of luck.
Wilhelm could find really no argument against them staying. They had demonstrated their own competence on most matters these past few days. He relented, with only a warning to them to be mindful that snow was expected and to prepare accordingly.
The half-dozen men were cheerful as they waved off their guildleader and the remainder of the party. A few extra days would afford them more spoils to take back and flaunt.
Or so they thought.
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