As the Count predicted, a quarrel eventually did occur.
However, it did not occur immediately. Whatever concerns Edmund had, whatever he thought he had seen, the young man could not address while Elanore settled her Grandmother with her morning meal. He breakfasted with them, eating the food quietly in the warm coziness of the kitchen while listening to the two women rehash the contents of their earlier conversation with the elusive Count.
The reason for the Count’s call to the grandmother seemed reasonable enough, although perhaps a bit fantastical if one were to accept that what the man and Elanore said was, in fact, true. He did not dismiss the information about the statue on the bridge or the assertion that more creatures could soon appear. Information, good or bad, was still valuable.
As he dug into a jar of preserves to spread on to a piece of warm bread, he noted that in the course of the conversation thus far Elanore had said nothing about the exchange outside with the Count. The omission of this from the conversation was troubling and confusing.
As Elanore cleared the table, he occupied himself with checking the status of the woodpiles in both the kitchen and drawing room. From time to time, he would steal a glance back at Elanore, as if finally seeing her for the first time. When he had first seen her this morning, glaring at him from the coach, he had treated her only as his clumsy playmate. Watching her with the Count, however, had made him realize that where he saw a child in pigtails, other men saw a pretty, young woman.
This realization made him feel awkward. Suddenly, he was no longer certain of how to speak to her, particularly as to how to initiate a conversation about his vaguely formed thoughts or concerns about what he had seen. He stayed quiet while helping Elanore with the task of putting her grandmother to rest in her room on the second floor.
Once she finished, Edmund knew he would have to speak or leave as there was no obvious reason to loiter here as he had other business to tend to.
“Lanny,” he pulled her gently to the window before she disappeared to fetch his coat. “Before I leave…. There is something I have to tell you.”
“Yes?” She looked up at him, but her attention was not wholly there.
He gritted his teeth, thinking perhaps her thoughts were with the Count. “I hadn’t meant to eavesdrop, but as it happens I heard your conversation with the Count outside…”
“Oh,” she colored slightly. “Is that why you have been so quiet all morning, Edmund?”
“It’s not my place to bring this up in front of others, but—“ he placed his hand on her shoulder. “You should be careful with that man, Lanny—“
“I understand,” Elanore chided him gently. “It’s not as if a few pretty words from a rich man have suddenly turned my head.” Her tone of voice was firm. “You do not need to warn me about the danger of strange people simply because I come from the Southlands—“
While it was true Elanore was from an entirely different sort of setting, and had a propensity to be somewhat unguarded around people, Edmund thought … or rather knew…that she seemed to miss the point. “It’s not that,” he dropped his hand and frowned. “That man is a recluse. We know nothing of him other than what people have observed about a few of his servants.”
“Is that not true of myself as well?” Elanore looked out the window for a moment. “This place has so many new settlers; to them I am another stranger.”
Edmund shook his head at the comparison. “They know your family, Elanore. And in particular, your grandmother has their respect. As did your grandfather. As such there’s an expectation for you.”
“I see,” Elanore looked troubled for a moment. “My business here is not for them, Edmund— I should not worry too much about what people would say.”
“If not that, then—“ Edmund paused. “Earlier you had wanted nothing of this mentioned, and yet now you seem perfectly happy with how things have turned out. It’s odd, Elanore.”
“Edmund,” Elanore’s frown started to mirror his own. “I know so few people here. Of course I would be glad to have an additional acquaintance, even if he happens to be the village pariah.”
“I wasn’t calling him that,” Edmund returned a bit more sharply. “But he is barely known by anyone in town—“
“Neither am I,” Elanore said pointedly. “By your logic, I too, should be ignored.”
“That’s not what I’m saying,” Edmund started to wish he hadn’t begun their conversation this way. “It’s just that he’s a man of unknown reputation, and you’re a woman—“
At that statement, her face flushed. “I’m well aware of that. And if he is too, then my credit to him. For you seem to forget that I am a woman, and a grown woman at that. Or maybe you’re like the rest of the Hunters and believe I should be sitting at home, cooking and having children while–“
Edmund knew he had overstepped some boundary. “Lanny-“
“Edmund—” she replied, her voice tight as she turned away. “My name is Elanore.”
Elanore nervously stroked the apron covering the skirt of her dress while Edmund — gentle soul that he was– fidgeted and debated what to say. He worried as he watched her during the lengthening silence. Neither of them knew how to continue the conversation, for there was no experience to draw from. As children they never fought. Rather, Lanny would simply go along with whatever Edmund had said or done because he had been, to her, so much older and smarter then. But Elanore, grown up and grown apart from Edmund– no longer could idealize him in the same manner as she had as a child.
She resumed speaking, her voice calmer. “That little girl who you keep invoking no longer exists, Edmund. She grew up and learned how to finally be useful.”
Edmund reached out a hand to touch her shoulder, but Elanore had already moved away. He filled the space that developed with the first words that came to his mouth: “I heard from your grandmother how you were apprenticed to your village healer—“
Elanore leaned up against the glass to cool her face on the window pane. “Do you know what that entails?”
Edmund cautiously joined her, not looking at her but watching a few stragglers who were wending their way down the road through the snow.
“I’ve seen all sorts of people, Edmund. Perhaps they’re not as grand as the Count or as well-traveled as you and your guildmates, but I’ve seen the world through them – the good and the bad. Love, hate, depression, bitterness, kindness – these are the things I’ve learned how to see.”
Her words, eloquent as they were, were delivered with such sense of conviction that surprised Edmund yet again. “Elanore,” he spoke softly. “If I gave you the impression that I was questioning your character or judgment, please attribute it to my being an utterly inattentive dolt.”
“Edmund,” she exhaled softly, rewarding his gentle humor by turning to look at him and giving him the first hint of a smile.
“Forgive me for being overprotective—this is a role, a habit that I have been used to all these years. It is a bad habit—“
She shook her head. “You’ve always been my protector, Edmund because that’s what everyone asked of you. Including myself. I should not have lost my temper and been so irritable.”
There was no correct way to acknowledge that last statement. Instead, he said, “Well I’ve been terribly clumsy about this. I’m a simple hunter, who doesn’t really understand politics or women—“
She laughed at his clumsy and perhaps somewhat excessive apology. “Edmund!”
“Well, the rest of the hunters have said as much, so it doesn’t hurt my feelings if you happen to agree with them.”
“I wouldn’t dare say that,” Elanore shook her head. “Neither you nor I can claim to understand one another as we are at this moment.” She toyed with her skirts for a moment, her fingers smoothing down her apron. “It’s both a sad thing and strange feeling to come back and discover that you have forgotten how to interact with your best friend.”
Edmund chuckled. “Well, I haven’t changed, really. That’s my problem. ”
“It’s fine that way, Edmund-who-does-not-change,” Elanore leaned forward to hug him. When she let go, he felt Elanore slip her fingers into his hand. She brightened as she addressed him. “You and I will make up for years lost. We shall start over and learn how to talk again and become proper best friends just like we used to be–”
“Alright then,” he squeezed her hand and allowed her to continue chattering as she pleased.
Upstairs, the old woman turned in her bed, obviously having failed to fall asleep during the conversation that occurred below her. She had not meant to eavesdrop, but in a small house like this one, it was impossible to avoid doing so.
Once Elanore and Edmund had resumed conversing in more normal, cheerful tones, Adele Winchester adjusted the sleeping cap on her head, trying to block the sound.
However, sleep did not come easily to her still.
Her mind was very much preoccupied with Elanore. She looked well, pretty and fresh, and was certainly capable. It was obvious that her daughter and son-in-law certainly had done quite well in raising her granddaughter these last few years. However, clearly they had not been able to shake the girl of her decision to wear her mother’s red hooded cloak. That was a development that concerned Elanore’s mother deeply.
Adele Winchester knew what Elanore’s mother wanted most was for Elanore to come to her senses. But the older women knew that somehow history, once thwarted, was recycling itself. She did not know how much she could interfere this time.