He was not doing things according to any plan.
In fact, when his guest had quitted his study earlier, the Count had followed her quietly down the hallway. He had simply wanted to ensure she had left before returning to the solitude of his study to carefully reflect over the situation.
However, as she stopped to look at both the doorframe and the lion, he felt uneasy. Once she and Hastings had disappeared safely out of sight, he came outside wondering what had caught her eye.
His eyes scanned the entire doorframe, trying to understand exactly what might have caught her notice. It took him a few seconds to realize that a subtle changed had occurred. The primary carvings were identical to how they had been since the door was first brought here. Yet the trees, once bare, were now populated with fruit. And of all things…apples.
“I’m going out,” he suddenly snapped at one of the nearby servants, taking care to retrieve both cloak and staff before he ran towards the stables. He found his fastest horse – a temperamental stallion and moved quickly, intent on looking at everything again with a fresh perspective.
He was certain that the girl was not ordinary. What she was or what she possessed, he did not yet know, but it became important to find out.
His pushed his horse, making a frantic pace up the path to the road and back to the bridge. Mindful of the previous evening’s events, he gave the area surrounding the bridge a careful sweep with his eyes before dismounting his horse. With a staff in hand he began a quick survey of the bridge and its guardian.
The staff in his hand was a rather curious (and according to Hastings horribly distasteful) piece of work. The body of the staff was made of wood of an ancient tree. It was inlaid with silver, the most predominant use of it for an ornament at its top molded into the shape of a wolf. As gaudy as it was, the Count carried this staff as did generations before him. It was the same as it was many hundreds of years previously; the only modifications were the inset of rubies as eyes into the figurehead – made by his Grandfather before his passing.
He used the silver end of the staff to pick through some of the layered snow on the bridge. As he dug further, he managed to unearth only the smallest traces of fur and frozen blood. Grimly, he determined that nothing else was left, suggesting that the shadow thing had done an otherwise thorough job of dealing with a group of wolves.
Maximilian spent a few additional minutes inspecting the stone lion. In contrast to the landscape around it, the statue stood naked of snow thanks to the attentions of the Unthing. It was, however, still intact – a fact that relieved him immensely. Still, he was concerned. The Lion, unlike its younger ‘siblings’ on his property was starting to show signs of age and wear. At this, he frowned.
Not finding anything to support or debunk a particular theory he was entertaining regarding the girl, he quickly departed from the bridge and took his horse to the unmarked paths in the hills in order to catch up with the coach unnoticed.
Wolfram did not have long to ride, as his horse was quick footed and familiar with the terrain. His coachman also had made the expected morning stop at the craftwoman’s home, which had certainly helped him move ahead of the party to scout the road. The Count had withdrawn into the tree line and been ready to dismount when he had noticed a rider on the road heading towards the coach. His eyes narrowed into slits as he watched the coach draw to a stop, but patiently he waited to see how his coachman handled the situation.
Hastings was not a useful man against robbers or troublemakers, but Giles was a different matter altogether. Underneath Giles’ cheerful demeanor was a man who was deadly and highly perceptive. The Count trusted the man’s feelings and intuitions about people. While the coachman’s familiar behavior towards the townspeople was not to his taste, he patiently allowed it as Giles’ social connections enabled him to have some idea of what transpired in Winchester without him having to muddy himself in the mundane affairs of the town.
The Count put his keen ears to the test, but could not hear all the words going back and forth. Still, the interchange looked friendly enough that he kept to his position, hidden among the trees. He studied the man, and discerned that he was wearing the colors of the Hunter’s guild. Considering that their numbers had grown in previous years, he supposed it was inevitable that Giles had connections in there as well.
What did surprise him, though, was the observation that the girl and the hunter knew one another. From what he recalled, after the guild leadership had shifted the Winchesters and the new guild leader had often been in conflict. The patriarch and subsequent matriarch (the grandmother of the girl) had opposed many of the policies of the new guildleader. Unlike the previous guildleader who had been careful where and how much was hunted, these new hunters largely saw gaming as a means to make money more quickly. New people were often coming into this region and with them, their problems.
He brooded while watching this apparent reunion between Miss Redley and the man. There was much to dislike about the connection, and it could complicate his investigations. Their affection for one another was obvious, and that too was problematic.
As he observed the girl and the hunter wave at his servants and ride away, he debated whether to follow his coach as it went to its next errand or to follow the strangers.
In the end, he decided to gamble on the path of strangers. He veered away from the main highway and began to ride quickly through hidden paths ahead to the grandmother’s house.