The old man continued to blithely display his knowledge for his captive audience. “Dragons would not be particularly friendly either. Thankfully for us, the elves pushed them back from this area a long time ago. I haven’t heard any recently stories from the northern villages about dragons blasting their fiery bits and eating up the young and old.”
Elanore’s face reflected a mixture of both horror and fascination at 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? But even then, we don’t really travel alone out here unless it can’t be helped. ”
Their conversation dwindled as both passengers noted the coach slowing in tempo. Both passengers turned their attention to the front where the coachman sat. Hastings rapped at the window and spoke loudly. “Giles, what is the matter?”
The coachman waved his hand dismissively and did not turn to look at them through the front window. “No worries. 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. Instead they both watched through a lifted shade as 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!”
Elanore coughed to hide a laugh that had threatened to escape. She did her best to maintain an expression of utmost seriousness as she considered this apparent troublesome news. “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 the vice of this lazy driver who drinks and softens up women in his free time. He wastes his wages on both and sleeps far too much. 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. However, he 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 sounded indignant as he rapped on the window. “Giles—now what is it?! We can’t keep stopping for your mistresses along the road!”
The coachman snorted. “Your imagination gives me too much credit. There’s a young man up road on a horse waving us down. He’s one of the townsfolk who keep an eye on the road. We’ll just see what he wants and keep going.”
As they slowed to a stop, Hastings lifted the shade and peered out.
“Morning, Giles,” a young voice called out in friendly tones.
Elanore could not see well past the butler, 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 difficult to pass, 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 – one who is somewhat likely to get lost in this much snow. Hopefully she has had the sense to stay back in town.”
Elanore spoke over Hastings 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. “It 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. She is not likely carrying a whit of baggage. Her name is Miss Redley.”
Elanore reached over the butler and pushed the window open as wide as she could to get a better look at this man who claimed to be waiting for her. 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!” The man sounded 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 in 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.” She suspected he might be one of several annoyingly curious neighbors who had come to settle in town. Her grandmother had complained that some asked far too many questions about their family. As the man dismounted his horse, she glared in his general direction.
In the background, Hastings nervously cleared his throat, “Miss, please do not cause trouble. 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 long ago. Instantly she 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 saying such terrible things about me in front of these kind gentlemen! How would I know it was you?”
When she stepped back to look at him again, Edmund looked to be quite the smug gentleman. He flashed an apologetic smile at the two other men, both of whom were a little embarrassed by the public outburst of affection. “What I said earlier is all true, nonetheless. As I guessed, 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—” the youth flashed a warm smile.
The girl turned back to the other gentlemen. “If it is alright, I’ll take my leave here—”
Hastings nodded weakly, tired by this loud reunion. He handed the young woman the basket she had left on the seat of the carriage. “My best wishes to you, Miss Redley.”
“Same here,” Giles waved from his perch atop the coach.
The young man affected a serious demeanor. “See how quick they are to turn you over? You’ve been obviously torturing them with your backward Southern ways –”
“Edmund!” Elanore forgot her entire sense of propriety and, as she did often when she was a child, tackled him to the ground and beat him with basket and fist. They laughed and laughed while the coach began to disappear out of sight.