As of late, the Hunters’ Guild was often described by outsiders either as a guild of oafs or a guild of mercenaries. Edmund was not either, as it turned out, but he could not argue with the opinions that had formed over many years.
The former label had something to do with the Guild’s apparent disinterest in the larger affairs of the Northlands and even more so, the affairs of the more distant realms. The Northlands were bordered to the west by an impenetrable forest, and then by the seas to the east. Therefore, like the majority of Northlanders, they viewed their geographic isolation from the rest of humankind as reason to pay little attention to anything outside their immediate domain.
Of the Northlanders, the hunters were an even more independent and isolationist sort. The first hunters who founded the guild were among the first humans to break away from small settlements in the loosely inhabited areas to the south and near the east coast. Many had come from the small coastal port of Capestown on the eastern shores.
However, once the cities across the seas had acquired a taste for the beautiful wood from the Northlands, Capestown shed its image of frontier town for a growing cosmopolitan city. As such, where there is money, the nobles and the vermin that circled around them, came. Those who had come to the Northlands to escape the outside world found themselves pushed west from the coast. Hunters, adventurers, and families looking for opportunities all pushed past the hills and conifers that typified the Northland terrain and ignored the Wood elves who still inhabited parts of the eastern Northlands. They founded small villages along the way, including those that would later become Crossroads and Winchester.
The first incarnation of the guild came about during the last double eclipse, a period of great darkness in the Northlands. It was the intent of several forward thinking frontiersmen and adventurers to use a guild structure to help pool knowledge that would keep them and the small villages alive. These men carefully logged their collective knowledge and added to it. What they learned about the unusual rotation of the two moons in the sky, the migration patterns of animals in the region, and other tales and stories – they committed to paper and to their sons.
That said, the current hunters were nothing like their forebears. The initial guild members were men living on the edge of an unknown wilderness, varied in origin and education and united out of their mutual fear of a long period of darkness. The current generation consisted of men who had largely inherited their position from their own families and who had grown comfortable with their environment and profited handsomely in their dealings with the nobles who came to these areas to hunt.
Edmund, however, was one of the few not from that tradition. As the ward of a merchant, his entry to the guild differed.
As it were, most persons in Winchester tended to inherit the same roles or trade that their parents possessed. Edmund, however, had not wanted to continue in the trade business. Winchester had never been as robust as some of the villages to the east and south. With the exodus of younger folk from the area and few persons to replace them – Winchester was too small in population to sustain much trade. It was not pragmatic to own a shop in town that did most of its business in a few concentrated months during the year.
His elder siblings had realized this some time ago, leaving Winchester for busier towns. Left behind, the youngest child took up the only other trade in town that would put food on the table and also not upset the harmony of its quiet existence. While there could only be one blacksmith, one teacher, or one preacher — the number of hunters that could be accommodated in the Northlands was unlimited so long as there continued to be game to tap within the Northlands.
He realized that this choice was a disappointment to his family, who had taken him in and formally adopted him with the idea that he would help run their business. But his skills now were what kept them eating, even in the lean winter months. And as a guild member, the access to a repository of information, of maps, and of stories and illustrations about the land proved even more useful. He had begun to learn about creatures that could be hunted and eaten safely, and of those that should not. This was far more useful information than could be acquired sitting all day in an unpatronized storefront.
As Edmund left the Winchester’s home that morning, he was thinking deeply about the stores of information at the Guild Hall and whether there might be some clue as to the strange and almost mythical creatures that had followed Elanore the previous evening. He was certain that there was at least some information to be read and analyzed there on that subject.
However, on the subject of Elanore herself, he felt there would be nothing to be discovered. The secret to understanding Elanore could not be answered by a book.
The conversations this morning had made it clear. What existed between them was not understanding, but kinship based on shared childhood memories and a mutual love and respect for Elanore’s grandparents. But childhood experiences were not a certain foundation to indefinite friendship. He was not sure memories alone would be enough to sustain a bond now, as adults.
It was the question about Elanore that led him to drive his horse back to town, to his parents’ storefront and home. He had initially intended to go back to the Guild Hall, but he wanted to give his parents news of Elanore.
The Ormond home was located in the center of the small town. It was a modest one-floor affair; its only real luxury was the stained glass that lined the windows to the front of the building. Edmund went around back, not willing to drag his boots heavy with snow through that front room. (Such an action would cause his mother to immediately set to cleaning it). He eyed the woodpile, making sure it was filled, before he proceeded through the backdoor of the building.
Carefully, he kicked the snow off his boots before he opened the door.
“Did you find Miss Elanore, Edmund?” A short lady with impossibly brown hair peeked into the kitchen and greeted him warmly.
“Yes, mother,” Edmund responded, shutting the door behind him. He leaned down to give her a kiss on her upturned cheek, and handed her a small parcel. “She gave you and father her regards.”
Mrs. Ormond beamed. “Is she looking well, Edmund?”
“Ah yes,” he reddened slightly, betraying a bit too much of how he did perceive her.
Her eyes suddenly gleamed. “Yes, you haven’t seen her in quite a while Edmund. Elanore is quite a lady now.”
“I suppose, I mean—“ Edmund coughed, to avoid having to address that last statement. “Well, she would pay a call but her grandmother is feeling a bit poorly this morning. She will be by as soon as she can.”
“It’s well enough,” his mother was fluttering about in the disarray of the kitchen. “We hadn’t expected her yet. We thought the snows would keep her away for some time.”
“It almost did. But Elanore persisted in walking from that last town.”
“Oh my,” the woman chuckled to herself as she noted the frown on his face. “You seem to be troubled by such an action. I think Elanore has become like her mother in many respects.” Edmund noted that she was only half-listening to him now, apparently caught up in unwrapping the small parcel that had come from Elanore. “Elanore’s mother was a good girl, but too independent-minded for the likes of the lads here. And that’s why no one in Winchester would do for the good Mayor’s daughter. Oh, the troubles she caused when she refused that young man–”
“Troubles?” Edmund reached over to help her with unfolding the small packet of paper.
“Never mind that,” his mother looked up from the packet and patted his hand reassuringly. “Elanore did not have any trouble, I hope?”
Edmund paused, sensing that his mother had revealed something that she had not intended to. Cautiously, he continued. “She ran into an Unthing,”
“An Unthing!” Mrs. Ormand blinked rather owlishly. “I thought those were fairy tale creatures.”
“I’m not sure exactly what she ran into,” he answered. “I have never seen one myself, but the Hunters do talk about them from time to time. I’ll have to look more into this matter myself when I go to the Hall.”
“Ah, I’m sure they’ll know more about it,” she seemed unconcerned about the Unthings, likely distracted by the revelation of the packet’s contents. “Flower seeds! We’ll have to get started on planting these soon! There’s so little time.”
Edmund smiled at the obvious delight of his adopted mother, but did nothing to correct her statement as she continued to bustle about looking for a jar to place the seeds within. According to what he had read so far in the Guild’s stores of information, it would be some time before they would be able to till the earth again.
The darkness was coming, and winter would be long.