As she came out of dimly lit home, Elanore raised her hand to her eyes to shield them. 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, she 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 spotted the coach down the path. Very quickly he disappeared out of sight, leaving only a trail of footprints to follow.
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. 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 him as he ran about in erratic circles chasing after a vehicle driven by a yawning coachman.
Upon spotting her, the coachman drew his vehicle to a complete stop. Hastings, caught by surprise, ran past the vehicle before he circled back to join them.
“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 flashed a grin before graciously leaping from his seat. He tipped his hat at the young woman, revealing a crown of reddish-blond hair and twinkling green eyes. “My name’s Giles.”
She bowed politely. “Elanore Redley.” She waited for Hastings to step inside before Giles handed her in to the coach with a wink and a whisper. “Don’t worry, miss, about my driving. I was just making sure Hastings gets his morning exercise.”
The butler crossed his arms and put his nose up in the air. “I heard that!”
The young guest opened her mouth to say something conciliatory, but thought the better of it. And so they rode in silence as the carriage made its way around a path back to the main highway.
A stranger to winter, Elanore was entranced by the peacefulness of the scenery about her. She lifted the shade that lined the window in order to look at the snow, softly clinging to the trees. As the carriage finally pulled up to the gate to the road, she pressed her face against the window in order to look at the entryway to the estate. She was surprised to see that her tracks from the previous night were nearly wiped away by the wind and snow. Whispers from her mouth fell in appreciation. “Snow is a mysterious and powerful thing.”
The elder man’s brow wrinkled with concern. “Are you all right, Miss?”
The window shade dropped as Elanore primly reseated herself. She flushed at being caught doing something foolish by the older man and quickly apologized for her behavior. “I meant only to say that the snow is quite pretty. I had never seen it until this journey. It was always something I had heard described to me by family.” Her eyes brightened. “It’s far better than I could have ever imagined.”
“Ah,” Hastings coughed politely. He did not appear to share her enthusiasm for the weather. “We see it all the time, I’m afraid. This year, more than most years. It is more an ordinary nuisance than a pleasantry.”
She reflected upon his words. Graciously she agreed. “It does make many things inconvenient. The walk from the next town took far longer than it normally would.”
The elder gentleman nodded vigorously. “It’s best if you don’t wander about on foot while outside of town in the future. A carriage or horse is what you should take when the roads are good enough. I can’t say it’s always convenient waiting for either, but our master doesn’t permit us to leave the estate without them. We listen because he knows this area better than most.”
Elanore reflected on the state of the lord’s study, full of books and exotic trinkets from other places. “Count Wolfram 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. “You doubt me,” he gently scolded her. “But if you believe in shadows, you might as well accept the other stories about these parts to be true as well, Miss Redley. And it isn’t all stories either. I’ve actually seen the master talking to them before.”
She rubbed her mittens against her skirts, feeling strange about this turn in conversation. “My grandparents and mother have told me stories about elves. They make for pretty tales, although many people do not like these stories.”
The butler sighed.
“But I do believe you,” she spoke kindly. “However, many strangers from outside the area might not. Or if they did, not all persons would look kindly upon your master for his past association with elves.” In the Eastlands, admitting to conversing with elves might be considered by some as almost treasonous by those who believed in their existence.
The man bristled slightly. His devotion to his master was in evidence as he proudly told her, “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.”
Elanore’s eyes twinkled in amusement. “Present company included?”
“Yes, you too, for wandering about in the snow last night,” Hastings chuckled.
She could not argue that point at all. Instead, she looked out the window, thinking back to the elves who had disappeared. “Did they leave after 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 known by them as the Dragon’s Path. Once the humans expanded it, it became known as the Northern Highway. The elves 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 their exodus, but could not follow.”
“Were the Unthings also here?”
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 appearing to watch the trees. But his mind was far away in that moment. What memories or stories crossed his mind, Elanore could not tell. He smiled to himself. “Whether the stories are true or not, I don’t care much to find out for myself. I’m not an adventuring type. I was sent here to look after the young master and not to seek out trouble.”
She smiled, teasing him gently. “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 tried not to look too startled by this reference to dragons. She swallowed. “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 claim to have seen them. Giles told us, though, that if you ask them, they become cagey. He means they might be lying.”
Elanore considered the coachman. Apparently he was more than what he presented himself as. She wondered if Giles was his master’s eyes and ears in town.