As she came out of the dimly lit home, Elanore had to shield her eyes for a moment. The light that danced off the snow was blinding.
“Where is that man,” Hastings muttered. “Told him to meet us right here and not to move from this spot.”
While he flitted here and there, Elanore rested against the wooden doorframe that she had so admired earlier. She studied it one last time before she tried hard to catch up to Hastings, who had apparently spotted the coach down the path. Very quickly he disappeared out of sight, leaving only a trail of footprints to follow.
Elanore sighed. Where the manservant was surprisingly quick and energetic, she was slow and hopeless walking in the snow. She trudged past the stone lion, her skirts dragging behind her on the top of the snow. A flicker of movement out of the corner of her eye caused her to stop. For a moment, she held her breath and stared at the lion.
Had it blinked?
She rubbed her eyes and frowned, thinking that perhaps the light reflecting off the snow had created a mirage of sorts. The sound of an irate Hastings cursing up a storm interrupted her study of the lion and she turned her full attention back to Hastings, who was now running about in erratic circles chasing after a coach driven by a yawning coachman.
Upon spotting her, the coachman drew his vehicle to a complete stop. Hastings, caught by surprise, ran another circle before he brought himself to a stop, stamping all the way.
“Morning to you both,” the coachman said cheerily. “Didn’t see you there, Hastings.”
“As if you can’t hear me either!” Hastings raged comedically. “Driving all about like a drunk good-for-nothing!”
“Not drunk this morning,” the coachman grinned, before graciously leaping from his seat. “Name’s Giles,” he tipped his hat to Elanore before opening the coach door.
Elanore bowed politely. “Elanore Redley.” She waited for Hastings to step inside before Giles handed her in to the coach with a wink and whispered, “Don’t worry, miss, about my driving. I was just making sure Hastings gets his morning exercise.”
“I heard that,” Hastings crossed his arms and put his nose up in the air. Elanore opened her mouth to say something conciliatory, but thought the better of it.
They rode in silence as the carriage made its way around a different path back to the road.
A stranger to winter, Elanore was struck by the seeming peacefulness of the scenery about her as they rode down a different path back to the main road. As the carriage finally pulled up to the gate to the road, she strained to look outside at the point where she had entered this estate. Her tracks from the previous night were nearly erased by the wind and snow.
“Snow is a mysterious and powerful thing,” she whispered to herself.
“Miss?” Hastings looked at her from across the carriage.
“I’m sorry,” she flushed. She had rather forgotten about the elderly man in the carriage as he had said virtually nothing for some time. “I just have never seen snow until this journey. It was always something I had heard described to me by family. The truth is, it’s far better than I could have ever imagined.”
“Ah,” Hastings coughed politely. “We see it all the time, I’m afraid. This year, more than most years. It is more an ordinary nuisance than a pleasantry.”
“I supposed it does make things inconvenient,” Elanore reflected. “That walk from Crossroads would not have taken so long if it weren’t there.”
The elder gentleman nodded. “Best be minding that you don’t wander about on foot while outside of town in the future. A carriage or horse would be better, miss. Our master doesn’t let us meander around alone as is, and although some of us don’t like waiting for a horse or carriage, he is the most knowledgeable about these parts among the whole lot of folks that settled here so we are inclined to listen.”
Elanore reflected on the state of his study. There had been a great deal of books as well as obvious trinkets from other places. “He seems to be quite a learned man.”
Hastings sniffed. “Of course, he is. His family has been here forever, long before the townspeople came in with their airs and titles and fancy education from the East. His family was here when the elves still roamed these parts and shared knowledge with them.”
Her face must have betrayed her confusion, for the old man started to shake his head. “Don’t be so doubtful,” Hastings scolded. “If you believe in shadows, you might as well accept the other stories about these parts as true, Miss Redley. But it’s far better than a story, I’ve actually seen the master talking to them before.”
His devotion to his master was quite something, Elanore realized. That said, she wasn’t quite sure that Hastings should be offering her such information so freely. “Elves have always been part of the stories told by my grandparents and my parents. However, they are simply rumors and fairy tales to most humans to the east and south.“ In the East, in particular, admitting to conversing with elves might be considered by some as insane, and by others who believed in them, an action tantamount to treason. “But I do believe you,” she spoke kindly. “Do be careful, though,not to tell these things to other strangers. Not all persons would look kindly upon your master for his past association with elves.”
The man bristled slightly. “There is nothing wrong with speaking to the elves.”
She thought of the things her family had said over her lifetime about them. With absolute sincerity, she agreed. “No there is not, but people will always fear that which is different.”
“Nonsense,” Hastings’ face soured. “Easterners and Southerners are all nonsense, it seems.”
“Present company included?” Elanore’s eyes twinkled in amusement.
“Yes, you too, for wandering about in the snow last night,” Hastings chuckled.
Elanore could not argue that point at all. Instead, she looked out the window, thinking back to the elves who had disappeared. “Did the elves leave this area once the humans built this road?”
Hastings shook his head, “This road was not built by humans. According to the master, the road we are on was an elven path. It was once called the Dragon’s Path. Once the humans expanded it, it became known as the Northern Highway. They were here for a short while, before they realized that the area could not support both communities. They left for some other place after that. The master’s family was quite disconsolate over it, but could not follow.”
“And the Unthings, were they here too?”
He shook his head. “I grew up hearing about the Unthings when we first arrived here, but as I had never seen one, I had thought it was one of those tales that were meant to keep children from running off into the woods. Until yesterday, I had no idea that there might be some actual truth to those stories.”
“You were not born here?” Elanore asked, suddenly quite curious.
“Oh no,” Hastings shook his head. “None of the servants in the house were born here.”
She found that strange, but kept her surprise to herself. “And yet you seem to know so much about this area—“
“It is our duty to learn it,” Hastings looked out the back of the window for a moment, his eyes watching the trees. “Whether the stories are true or not, I don’t care much to find out for myself. I’m not an adventuring type, miss. I was sent here to look after the young master and not to seek out trouble.”
“What of the elves, then? Do they qualify as trouble?”
Hastings chuckled. “I suppose they must be. I heard they were the ones who long ago had fought back the wild things from the area, especially the dragons.”
She hesitated. This was getting to be a bit too much to believe. However, there was only so much she could openly question without being rude. “Should I also be looking for them as well?”
“Well—“ he started to tap his chin, deep in thought. “I haven’t seen those myself, but some of the hunters in town who’ve gone far north have. Giles told us, though, that if you ask them, some are likely to become cagey.”
Elanore looked at the coachman again with a different sort of appreciation. Apparently Giles was more than a mere coachman. It seemed that Giles was his master’s eyes and ears regarding the town.