The horse moved carefully down the road. With two riders on its back, it could not make a fast pace, nor was its driver all that willing to risk spilling his fair companion to the ground.
As for Elanore, she did not mind the slowness. Having been informed by the young hunter that her grandmother had been looking well earlier in the morning, she urged Edmund to choose caution over haste when it came to navigating these last few miles home.
If he smiled slightly to himself at such words, it was not mean-spirited. Elanore Redley had known Edmund Ormond for most of her life, and for most of what he knew she had been the one who had been anything but a picture of ‘caution.’ As a small child visiting Winchester many years ago desperate for companionship, she had run after any other child within her sights.
There had been few girls then, and Edmund was the only lad even remotely close to the age of the pig-tailed ‘terror’ as the girl had been dubbed by the boys about town. Elanore was a terrible play companion, as she had rather no experience with woods or with the wilderness. Unlike the others, Edmund endured Elanore’s company and did not complain when she had a hard time keeping up with Edmund’s tromps about the forest trails. He was patient for the sake of her grandparents, who had showed repeated kindness to his own family.
The Ormonds were far from being social pariahs in the tiny town of Winchester. However, as the owners of the sole tradepost in town, they were oddities when compared to the rest of the town inhabitants. Most of the persons affiliated with Winchester were adventurers and hunters who would leave families and disappear for months at a time on quests of their own making or as hired guides.
Given his family’s unfamiliarity with the skills needed to endure this rustic life, it had been Elanore’s grandfather who had taught Edmund to hunt and to read the trails. In kind, it was Edmund who taught his tiny companion over several summers how to navigate about the woods that surrounded Winchester and then filled her head with stories about what it was like in other seasons. For several years, these two played together every day during her visits.
As they grew out of childhood, their time for playing ceased. Elanore began her studies in earnest, as did Edmund. Initially, there were letters passed back and forth between them. But in time, these letters grew less frequent.
Edmund’s correspondence consisted of methodical updates –simply letting her know how his family was doing and about schoolwork. When Edmund began hunting formally as part of the Hunter’s Guild based in Winchester, he wrote intermittently about the testing and training he had been undergoing. Still, she read his accounts with great interest – the life of an adventurer/hunter was not one she would ever be permitted to undertake or ever get closer to.
But his last letter was full of uncertainty… the winter was cold, the nights were long. Families were deserting Winchester for the south.
Elanore broke the silence. “The townsfolk in Crossroads said that several families passed through last month heading South because of rumors about the impending eclipse—“
“Aye,” Edmund answered glumly. “We’ve lost some of the tradesmen. I do not believe they left for any reason, however, other than the town being unable to offer them much of a paying market for their goods. One has no need of finery or entertainment here.”
She wondered if this might explain some of the disinterest she encountered when attempting to secure a private ride to Winchester. “As such, it was hard to find any passage here once I found out that the snows would be delaying the coach. I began walking instead based on the information I had been provided, but unfortunately found myself forced to stop along the way yesterday. “
Edmund turned his head slightly to give her a rather worried look. “I don’t think I heard you correctly. Stopped where?”
Elanore bit her lip. “You must not mention this to Grandmother, but I ended up spending the night at the estate of a Count Wolfram.”
She was surprised to see him narrow his eyes. “What pray tell were you doing there?”
“Foolishly I had been caught on the roads later than I had planned. A pack of wild animals seemed to have caught my scent and were likely following me. Had it been just that, I might have managed.”
“Without a gun?” Edmund stopped the horse so he could turn to fully look at Elanore. “You know you can not win against a pack of animals with a small knife—a gun perhaps might have given you a chance– ”
“I do not have a gun, but I have something my mother gave me,” Elanore looked away, contemplating whether or not to tell him what exactly it was. After a moment, she decided to say nothing of it. Edmund – typical hunter that he was – was not one who would understand anything about other types of knowledge and methods of defense. “But aside from the wild animals, there was something worse than that. Some kind of shadow thing, the Unthing, as mother likes to call them, was there too. If I hadn’t been able to seek shelter at the Count’s estate, I’m not sure what would have happened.”
“I see,” he answered slowly, before nudging the horse back into motion down the path that would allow them to skirt the edge of town. He was silent for a few minutes as they passed close to some townspeople out and about. Elanore and Edmund were drawing a number of curious looks, as it were… discussing such serious matters in the open was not wise.
As they put the major buildings behind him, Edmund resumed speaking, if quietly. “The shadow things are, in fact, unusual. I’ve not seen them myself, but have heard more stories about them recently from other hunters who have gone far afield. I don’t understand it, but perhaps if we ask the Guildmaster– ”
“No,” she responded a bit too strongly. The vehemence of her answer drew another suspicious glance from Edmund, and she was forced to reframe her response. “I don’t want grandmother to know all of this at this time. The strange incident with the shadow may alarm her. As for the Count – I do not believe that she would be comfortable with the idea that I stayed at a strange man’s home (even though there were plenty of other persons about). In addition, having the Guildmaster know more than she does would be a blow to her pride.”
Of all the people in town, the Guildmaster was the last person who should know anything that her grandmother did not. From her grandmother’s accounts, she knew that the woman did not like him insofar that she said that if she ever were asked to help heal the man, she’d let him die in good conscience.
“Ah,” Edmund winced. He was aware of the long-standing animosity between the Guildmaster and the past and current Mayor. “There is that problem indeed.”
“Edmund, you must not say anything to her,” Elanore asked quietly. When he turned his face away from her, she could tell he did not necessarily agree with her statement.
Edmund was not one who liked being indirect or sly. What she did not know was that he took particular exception to being less than truthful with Mrs. Winchester. He owed the woman too much to play games with her. And then there was the fact that the Mayor, while ill, was certainly quite sharp and not easily fooled.
“Please, Edmund. Promise me you shall not.” Elanore insisted again, softly.
With a disgusted sigh, he finally acquiesced. “You know whenever you ask in that way I can’t say no, Lanny. Even if I know I’m being an utter fool. ”
“I know we can’t keep this from her for long,” Elanore acknowledged. “But at least until we’re certain she’s strong enough to deal with this—“
He nodded. “At least until then,” or at least until he had figured out how to persuade Elanore to change her mind.
* * *
His resolve was nearly undone the moment they rode past the iron gate and up the short path towards Grandmother Winchester’s home. The subject of their mutual conversation stood blithely at the window, waiting patiently and faithfully for her unarguably two favorite young people in the world.
“Oh, Edmund, please help me down this horse before she runs out in the cold,” Elanore interrupted eagerly, her hands outstretched for him to catch her.
Edmund could only but obey a delighted Elanore. He lifted her off the horse and had barely turned to tie up his horse when Elanore was already running up the path to the door.
“Grandmother!” Elanore exclaimed as the tall, slightly pale woman opened the door. Elanore clasped her grandmother’s hands in her own. “I am sorry for being so late, I—“
“Hush my darling,” her grandmother smiled as she led her inside. “You can tell me later. We have a guest.”
“A guest?” Elanore was confused, but obediently hung her cloak on a wooden peg and smoothed down her skirts as she followed her grandmother in the direction of the front parlor.
She nearly dropped her basket as she stepped inside.
Looking straight back at her from a chair was none other than the Count.