The old man continued to display his knowledge for his captive audience. “Dragons are not particularly friendly either. Thankfully for us, the elves seemed to have pushed them back from this area. Haven’t heard any stories lately from the villages further north about dragons blasting their fiery bits and eating up the young and old.”
Elanore’s face reflected a mixture of horror and fascination with the gentleman’s colorful statements. “How terrifying.”
“It’s probably an exaggeration again,” Hastings said somewhat too cheerfully. “Dragons are too smart to hunt humans. Why fuss with a meal that carries weapons? Even so, we don’t really travel alone out here unless it can’t be helped. ”
Both Elanore and the butler turned their attention to the front as the horses began to noticeably slow in tempo. Hastings rapped at the window, summoning the attention of the coachman riding up front. “Giles, what is the matter?”
The coachman waved his hand dismissively. “No worries, Sir. Just stopping here to pick up some things for the ladies of the house.”
Elanore expected Hastings to scold the coachman, but surprisingly he said nothing as they came to a stop and a woman came alongside the coach with several baskets of items. After a few minutes of apparent friendly banter, the woman handed each of the baskets up to the coachman.
“That lady brews quite a bit of strong drink from time to time,” Hastings muttered under his breath. “Underneath the wool in the first basket is a vial of that liquor which Giles thinks no one else notices he sneaks from time to time…”
“Ah,” Elanore coughed to hide a laugh that had threatened to escape. She did her best to maintain an expression of utmost seriousness. “My father does the same from time to time. His weakness is spiced tobacco.”
“Spiced tobacco is not all that bad,” Hastings muttered. “Compared to this lazy driver who drinks and softens up women in his free time. Makes my job utterly difficult.”
“And at the same time, without that difficulty you would not be able to display your skills in handling the other servants.”
“Aha, true!” Hastings chuckled, obviously pleased by Elanore’s compliment. “Giles isn’t a terrible person. He’s reliable when you really need him. Just makes you crazy on all other occasions.”
“I think I understand that,” Elanore smiled. “My mother describes my father the same exact way.”
“The tobacco smoking father again—“ Hastings rubbed his hands together, betraying his amusement. “He seems like a rather good fellow—the kind we don’t see too often here, I’m afraid. Well, hello–” Hastings stopped his train of thought as the coach began slowing again.
Hastings rapped on the window. “Giles—now what is it? We can’t keep stopping for your mistresses along the road–”
Giles snorted. “Your imagination gives me too much credit. There’s a young man uproad on a horse waving us down. He’s one of the townsfolks who keeps an eye on the road. We’ll just see what he wants and keep going.”
As they slowed to a stop, Hastings pushed open the window. Elanore adjusted her seat slightly, curious if she could see what Giles was up to this particular instance.
“Morning, Giles,” a young voice called out in friendly tones. Elanore could not see well, but she determined that the man had drawn up alongside the coachman. “I’m sorry to bother you and your passengers, but how is the road the other way?”
“All snowed over, I’m afraid,” the coachman answered. “Are you riding that way?”
“I wasn’t sure if I should,” the man answered. “If it’s snowed over, I suppose the next coach from Crossroads won’t be here for a few more days.”
“Ah, Sir” the coachman answered. “Likely that is so. ”
“I see, “ the man sounded a bit disappointed. “ I’ve been asked to keep an eye out for a traveler, you see. Somewhat likely to get lost and all if there’s this much snow. Hopefully she has had the sense to stay back in town—“
Elanore spoke through a small opening in the window. “The coach is not running so your guest may be stranded there for some time.”
At the sound of her voice, the gentleman suddenly turned his horse about. “Sounds as if you just came from there. You wouldn’t have run across a young woman, would you? She’s fair and dark-haired, typical wandering Southerner. Likely not carrying a whit of baggage, for her bags came ahead of her a week ago. Her name is Miss Redley.”
Elanore frowned as she pushed the window open as wide as she could to get a better look at this man. She could not tell much, for in this cold, he had a scarf and hat securely in place. “I am Miss Redley. Did my grandmother send you? ”
“The infamous Miss Redley at last!” From the sound of it, the man was clearly amused. “Mrs. Winchester is not expecting you for a few days yet, but I had a feeling that you might not wait for the snows to stop.”
She bristled slightly at the familiar manner by which he spoke about her. “Who are you, sir that you know my habits? You have me at a disadvantage, I’m afraid for I don’t know your name.”
Her grandmother had mentioned that there were several annoyingly curious neighbors that had come to settle in town that asked far too many questions about her grandmother’s family. As he dismounted his horse, she glared in his general direction.
In the background, Hastings nervously cleared his throat, “Miss, please do not cause trouble. See that man is from the–“
The gentleman took off his hat, revealing a young face framed by mischievous light-colored eyes topped by a mop of pale, gold hair. “I’m that forgettable, am I, Lanny?’
Elanore started. There was only one person who would dare call her that wretched name from so long ago. Instantly she moved out of her seat and pushed open the door. She was half angry, half delighted, as she threw her arms about the man. “Edmund!“
His laughter continued even after she stepped back to hit his arm with her fist. “All indignant are we?”
She continued to hit his arm. “You hid your face on purpose so I wouldn’t know who you were while you went about saying such terrible things about me in front of these kind gentlemen– you ill-natured, oaf!”
When Elanore stepped back to look at him again, Edmund looked quite the smug gentleman. He flashed an apologetic smile at the two other men, both of whom were a little embarrassed by the outburst of affection as well as the lack of propriety. “What I said earlier is all true, nonetheless. As expected, you did not stay in the next town over, therefore depriving me the opportunity to serve your grandmother by retrieving you from that mess of a place.”
“It was not the most pleasant place to wait,” Elanore shook her head. “And I was anxious to see grandmother—“
“And she is anxious to see you—” Edmund grinned.
Elanore turned back to the other gentlemen. “If it is alright, I’ll take my leave here—“
Hastings nodded weakly, handing Elanore the basket she had left on the seat of the carriage. “My best wishes to you, young miss.”
“Same here,” Giles waved from his perch atop the coach.
“See how quick they are to turn you over?” Edmund affected a serious demeanor. “You’ve been torturing them obviously with your backward Southern ways –“
“Edmund!” Elanore forgot her entire sense of propriety and, as she did often when she was a child, tackled the young man to the ground to beat him with basket and fist.
From a distant hilltop, the Count sat on his horse watching