The Count stood to greet Miss Redley, bowing politely. For the sake of the older lady in the room, he made a point to exhibit better manners than what he displayed previously. “Miss Redley.”
“I came to inquire after you, Miss Redley,” he spoke smoothly. “I also came to inform the Mayor about the situation on the bridge.”
“Ah,” she faltered, not quite certain exactly how much detail he had provided thus far.
Her grandmother interjected, mistaking the hesitant manner in which the girl responded for shyness. “We have been spending a few moments acquainting ourselves.”
“Indeed,” he answered. “I have not been a very good neighbor. Quite often I’ve been away from this area and so have had little opportunity to engage with the townsfolk.”
This was only half true. He was not always traveling as much as he implied. Rather, he had not engaged with either the Mayor or the townsfolk because he did not deem it to be a wise move on his part. He was well too aware that with sufficient exposure over a period of time, it would become impossible for the townspeople to overlook his rather unnatural ability to retain a youthful appearance.
But he had now broken precedent and crossed the threshold of this house to instigate the acquaintance of arguably one of the most important figures in the small town. He had placed himself squarely in a spotlight that he had avoided for nearly a hundred years, to ensure that he would have access to the puzzle that had placed itself before him. It was rather troublesome that the puzzle had taken shape of a strange girl with the ability to make things around her behave abnormally, but he felt she was not something to simply let pass by, uninvestigated.
If there was something more to this Miss Redley, he wanted to cultivate an advantage over her.
Miss Redley turned to her grandmother. “Forgive me, I have been delayed because of that ‘situation’. I’m glad that the Count has taken it upon himself to explain it.” She turned her eyes towards him, her expression intelligent and wary. “I do hate to make you repeat any information you may have already explained to my grandmother– but it would help me understand what new news you bring.”
“Indeed,” the Count continued, slightly amused by the way in which she cleverly played along with his ruse while revealing absolutely nothing of the previous nights’ events to her grandmother. “Miss Redley, I have just finished explaining to your grandmother my reason for this impromptu visit. I had just told your grandmother about the shadow creatures that are about and that you encountered the previous evening. I did not mean to deprive you of providing her this account first hand, but I did mean to provide you an update on that situation. Furthermore, given the circumstances I think it would be better for someone like her who is more familiar with the lore, to advise you on how to conduct yourself while here.”
“I see,” Elanore used this opportunity to set her basket down and hide her face, perhaps to allow her to recompose her thoughts.
“Darling, after such a terrible ordeal… and such a long journey, you must be so tired.” Mrs. Winchester put a gentle hand on her Elanore’s shoulder and encouraged her to sit. “I should have asked Edmund to wait for you in Crossroads—“
Elanore obediently sat down and took her grandmother’s hand in her own. After she was certain her grandmother was seated comfortably, Elanore looked up at the Count once before turning her attention back to her grandmother. “You’ll have to forgive me, grandmother. I did not want to arrive and have you already upset about something that happened to me. What else has the Count told you?”
“Simply about the shadow things and how you took refuge with his family. He was about to say a few other things when you arrived.”
Elanore nodded and turned a pointed gaze back at the Count, who had resumed sitting in a chair across the room and was watching them intently. “I suppose that brings back us back to the new news that you must have. As you are a very busy person, please feel free to skip the pleasantries and tell us what brings you here.”
He resisted the urge to chuckle at the challenge in her voice. His somewhat unplanned maneuver had ruffled some proud instinct in this girl. Her turnabout in behavior was unexpected, but not altogether unpleasant. “I went back to the bridge to inspect a few things. The creature was definitely gone.”
“Gone or destroyed?” Elanore took her grandmother’s hand in her own.
“The stone guard on that bridge did its job as did the sunlight” he answered. “That specific creature was destroyed. As for whether others like it might come this way, I do not know.”
Mrs Winchester frowned. “Is that really possible? I had never seen anything like that before. My husband said, though, that he knew of them, but an old magic kept them out of this area.”
“Magic or luck, I don’t know,” he answered truthfully. “I’ve never seen one here before until yesterday evening. However, I have heard stories of those things in other places that receive little light overall, and the stories are more frequent in lore from periods of double eclipses. Even though this is not the right place or time for it, I do believe that what your granddaughter saw was the real thing, and therefore, increased caution is necessary. As for the stone guard–” he paused.
“The stone guard?” The Mayor suddenly looked concerned. “Is it damaged?”
“It is not looking all that well,” the Count said grimly. “What that means to your townsfolks, I don’t know—“
The Mayor shook her head. “Some believe it is nothing but a pretty ornament–”
“Grandmother,” Elanore had grown somewhat pale. “When I saw that thing last night, it was the stone statue that kept it from moving beyond that point. If it’s damaged— “
Mrs. Winchester folded her hands her lap and looked at both the Count and Elanore. While she may have been ailing, the woman was all business now. “You are both telling me that we have a problem developing. Sir, do you have any other news or advice for us regarding these creatures?”
He tapped his gloved fingers on his mouth for a moment, thinking about what to say. There had been stories passed down over many years, ones that were commonly cited. It was to these he referred to when he continued to speak. “For now, the best thing is to advise your townspeople to show caution traveling at night or through very dark places. Lights, of course, are one potential safeguard. If possible, I’d advise the townspeople to keep their streetlamps lit at night.”
“Seems to be easy enough,” the Mayor responded. “Elanore can help tell the others.”
“Regarding Miss Redley—“ he turned an intent gaze upon Elanore and observed her closely as he continued. “She must show extra caution. I believe that she may see them again in the future.”
Elanore exhaled. “Do you mean to say that you observed more lingering about?”
He shook his head. “I did not observe any this morning, but the stories say that where there is one, there may be others. This winter, in particular, has been unusual enough as is that it would not surprise me if it should be the case. This weather has brought out a great many creatures already outside of their usual habitats , hungry for food.” He held the young woman’s gaze. “And to them… you are food.”
There was a flash of something – perhaps fear, or anger – that crossed the young woman’s face. But whatever emotion had been there quickly disappeared under a more calm expression.
If before he had been amused by the young woman, he was now very much fascinated. There was nothing more to convey here, however, so he stood. “I do not mean to tire you further, madam, while you are recovering. As for warning the travelers that might come this way, Mayor, I will send a messenger down the road and see if we can deter the townsfolk at the Crossroads from sending more people this way without adequate warning.”
Mrs. Winchester nodded. “That would be enormously helpful. And if you do find anything useful as far as additional measures we can take as precautions—-”
“With your permission, I will send word to you and your granddaughter should anything change–”
“Yes, please do,” the elder woman replied. “If there’s anything else to say about how to deal with the creatures, please do send word through Elanore. We should learn as much as we can about how to deal with these strange creatures.”
He nodded before he put on his hat. “I shall. Good day ladies.”
“Good day to you,” Mrs. Winchester returned in kind . As the Count proceeded out of the room, he paused on the doorstep, adjusting his cloak. The girl, at her grandmother’s urging, followed him out, drawing the door shut behind her.
Coolly, he turned away and proceeded around the side of the house, where he had secured his horse out of sight from the road.
“Your visit caught me by surprise,” she spoke as she followed after him. From the tone in her voice, he could tell she was displeased. “You had said you did not wish for my Grandmother to know about your assistance—“
“Miss Redley,” the Count began to untie his horse’s reins. He spoke softly so she would have to come closer to hear him. “That was the case this morning, but after additional observation of the bridge, my mind was changed. Unlike the townspeople you will meet here, I do believe in the ‘old magic’ that your Grandmother refers to. Therefore, what is of little concern to them, is a matter of utmost importance to me. There may be more of these things in the future, but specifically I am concerned for your future.”
“On what basis do you make that conclusion?” Elanore frowned. “Do you really believe they will come for me? Or were you trying to scare me?”
He debated how to answer her, when he became suddenly aware of the young gentleman hiding himself near some trees, eavesdropping and doing so rather clumsily. Wolfram realized instantly what was going on, and brought his horse alongside Elanore as to block her view of the hunter.
He dropped his voice low. “As the stories say, there may be more. Will they seek you out? I do not know, but –” he continued more loudly, for the benefit of the hiding young man. “I caution you because you are much too interesting and pretty to waste on an Unthing.” With a deliberate smile, he continued. “I decided quite suddenly after you left that I did not wish to squander the opportunity to continue our acquaintance. Coming here this morning made it easier to do so. Now we are allowed to speak and meet more freely.”
His rather forward statement provoked a sudden blush out of the girl, artfully deflecting what he had foreseen as rising suspicion on her part towards him and playing off his capricious appearance at her home as the result of some kind of romantic overture. He was certain his words would also antagonize the young hunter, who he suspected harbored some feelings towards the girl.
It was for the hunter’s benefit, that the Count continued his none too subtle advances on the young woman. “Miss Redley,” he suddenly reached out with gloved hand to grasp one of her own , drawing a look of shock upon the woman’s face. “I would rather you not wander outside where something might come to harm you.”
He studied her carefully before finally letting her hand go and mounting his horse. “Good day.”
“Good day,” she echoed distractedly, for the moment confused by his calculated gesture of warmth. A short moment later, she remembered to wave as he turned his horse towards the path. He nodded before he continued down the path, fully aware that the young hunter was glowering from around the corner.
Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Miss Redley returning to the door, with the young man traipsing after her.
He was certain he could predict the subject of the argument that appeared would follow. The Count did not, for one moment, feel particularly bad for giving cause for one. The idea that he had created some discomfort for a hunter pleased him to some degree.
Moreover, he was satisfied by his discoveries this morning. He had a clear idea of the young lady’s home and further insight on the relationships of the girl, the grandmother, and the young hunter. Most importantly that last touch had given him a good idea of what exactly the girl might be. As for why she was here, that he did not yet know. However, he was certain her reasons could be discovered in time and with patience.
He was certain she would come to him, and quite soon at that.
As he flew down the road on the back of his horse, he permitted himself a smile.