A man went a-hunting at Reigate,
And wished to leap over a high gate.
Says the owner, “Go round,
With your gun and your hound,
For you never shall leap over my gate.”
– The Hunter of Reigate
Edmund’s thoughts were full of questions as his horse plodded its way down the snowy road through town. He did not volunteer, however, to divulge those thoughts to the guildmaster riding ahead of him.
By all accounts, Wilhelm Cadeyrn was the ideal sort for a young man like Edmund to consult. He and his wife were deemed generous to many, intelligent, and respectable. But Edmund found there to be something rather unsettling about the man. As jovial as the guildmaster might be, he was a vicious hunter –– superior in strength and speed to the rest of the guild. His skill with a weapon was equaled by his skill as a leader; he kept tight order of the expanding guild.
Edmund had astutely noted that those within the guild who defied Wilhelm were left out of the more desirable and important hunts. Also those outside the guild who opposed the man often became the last in line to buy the remaining spoils from a plentiful hunt. While the guildmaster did not ever demand such acts of loyalty from his men, neither did he make any movement to stop such practices.
Edmund knew he was not alone in his observations. Whereas he disapproved of the man, Mrs. Winchester actively disliked him. But she was always coldly civil to Mr. Cadeyrn, choosing to maintain some appearance of cooperation between the offices of Mayor and Guildmaster.
Edmund wisely avoided becoming embroiled in whatever dispute the town’s most prominent figures shared. His father’s livelihood was dependent on staying above the fray of small-town drama. And so he did not often confide in the guildmaster.
The men continued to ride in silence as they passed the town’s borders. The number and type of tracks decreased sharply and Wilhelm circled his horse around, bringing it alongside the younger hunter’s own steed. The guild leader pointed at ground, indicating a set of long grooved impressions in the snow. “Looks as if a coach came in of some sort.”
Edmund hesitated for a moment, wondering what to say about his morning encounter with Elanore. He played along, choosing to speak the truth but in a careful manner. “I did see a coach coming from the direction of the outlying homes.”
Wilhelm looked further up the road, following the tracks as far as his eyes could see. “Probably some of the folk coming to town for supplies. With the Crossroads suppliers not able to come in for a few days, I expect that some of our less prepared folk might be anxious for a bit of ale and food.”
“That may be the case,” Edmund agreed. “The tavern was full during the lunch hour. I believe that most families, however, are managing.”
“Of course they would,” the man grinned. “I’ve made sure to distribute what we can spare from our own stores. The guild takes care of this town,” he added proudly before turning his horse back about and resuming his brisk pace down the road.
Occasionally Wilhelm would pause to study the houses near the road before moving forward. It was apparent the man was taking mental notes on the comings and goings of the townspeople. He continued in such fashion until they arrived at the last inhabited residence before the bridge.
A set of wheel tracks ended at the gate that marked the Wolfram estate. Oddly enough, Wilhelm said nothing of them, instead leading his horse to the front of the bridge where he dismounted. The young man left his horse and joined Wilhelm, watching as the man knelt down slightly to look at the snow.
A look of concentration etched itself across the leader’s face as he stared at several sets of tracks. “It seems as if we weren’t the only ones out here,” the leader began to point at tracks running down the bridge. “That set,” he pointed out to Edmund, “is a smaller person, running our way. The other set from a horse lead in the opposite direction. Those were likely made later.”
Edmund let his eyes wander over to the newer horse tracks. Quietly he followed his guildmaster across the bridge towards where the horse stopped. A heavy footprint in the snow marked where the horse’s rider had dismounted.
The young man followed the uneven prints to the bridge’s end where a stone lion statue sat. “I suppose our rider spent some time here looking at this fellow,” he mused aloud to his guildleader. “It’s a rather peculiar thing, this lion.” He reached out to touch the lion, whose head was devoid of snow, subconsciously mirroring what the owner of those tracks had done before him.
As Edmund’s fingers brushed against the statue’s cold surface, he felt a sudden and quick sting. Wondering if he had mistakenly imagined that sensation, he reached out to the statue again.
The guildmaster interrupted him. “Look at this,” Wilhelm ordered.
Edmund moved away to where his guildmaster studied a disturbed part of the ground.
Wilhelm held out his hand. “Match, please.”
Edmund fumbled and reached inside his pockets while the guildmaster unfolded a screen he kept in his own pack. The guildmaster sifted what snow he could through the tool before Edmund lit the match to help melt the rest.
“Seems we have a bit of wolf fur,” the expert huntsman grinned. “Odd thing isn’t it? Don’t usually see the likes of them around here. Unless they were hunting something, perhaps.”
The remarks sent a cold chill through him. Edmund could not help but feel as if these woods he had always known were suddenly a threat to curious, vulnerable Elanore. It perturbed him how closely she had come to fending against a lone, likely hungry wolf. “Where do you think it came from?”
“It?” Wilhelm shook his head. “I don’t know that it was simply one. There’s too much disturbance of the snow in this area. Likely we have a pack,” he looked thoughtfully at the wooded area by the road.
Edmund grimly noted that the man’s assessment was consistent with Elanore’s earlier story.
“Let’s split our search here.” Wilhelm stood up abruptly, no longer so sleepy. Edmund recognized the man’s interest was greatly piqued by this discovery. “I’ll go west,” he looked at Edmund. “You check east of the road.”
Edmund nodded, regretting that he could not go further south. He had wanted to trace Elanore’s steps backwards towards the next town, to look for signs of something or someone else following her north. But his guildmaster seemed more interested in the wolves and determining their bearings. He obeyed the man, in spite of this directive bringing him close to several abandoned properties.
After departing the road and wandering east of the bridge, Edmund spent a good hour carefully looking for signs of tracks or disturbed portions of the woods. But this proved futile. Elanore’s accounts had placed her at the bridge during snowfall. By now, the wind and the falling snow would have likely obscured anything worth noting.
Eventually the gnawing cold could not be ignored. His hands were chilled thoroughly and he turned his horse towards the creek to find shelter at the bridge.
But his horse neighed softly at the sight of the creek and Edmund saw it was thirsty. Automatically he brought his horse up to the creek’s edge to let it water.
There, he noted that the waters had melted the snows. As the winds picked up, he shivered and rubbed his mittens together as best as he could, letting his eyes wander over the area once again, eventually coming to rest on the bridge ahead of him. The sound of lapping water reminded him that all creatures eventually needed both food and water, and he looked carefully about the creek to see if, by luck, any tracks had been left by creatures of any sort.
As he began to wander toward the shadowy parts under the bridge, he had the odd sensation that he was being watched. He heard a faint sound, a rustling of the earth and his fingers moved to the hilt of his short sword strapped at his side. Quickly he turned about on his heels and drew the weapon in front of him.
There was a strange sound of metal upon wood as he intercepted a blow that was meant for his head. Edmund was startled to find himself parrying the walking stick of Count Wolfram.