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 carefully plodded its way down the snowy road through town. However, he did not volunteer to divulge those thoughts to the guildmaster riding ahead of him.
Unlike the majority of his guildmates, he found there to be something rather unsettling about Wilhelm Cadeyrn. He was a large bear of a man, sleepy and jovial in appearance and yet, superior in strength and speed to most of the current hunters and lethal to the beasts that he tracked.
Wilhelm was also a model leader, keeping order in an expanding guild. Edmund had noticed soon after joining, though, that those who defied Wilhelm soon found themselves left out of the more desirable and important hunts by others. Those who opposed him outside of the guild often were sold lesser choice spoils from a plentiful hunt. As far as Edmund could tell, however, these actions did not reflect the master’s wishes. Certainly, something so petty did not fit the image of the man who was considered generous to many, blessed with a saintly wife, and a pillar citizen.
But what Edmund knew that the others did not, was there was at least one person who hated the man. Mrs. Winchester hid an extraordinary level of animosity towards the guildmaster. As she was determined to maintain an outward appearance of civility between the offices of Mayor and Guildmaster, she only warned Edmund that Wilhelm was a proud man and said nothing further. He had not dug deeper on this because he did not want to unsettle the balance of affairs in this town. But Elanore was accomplishing that simply with her presence and her story. He gripped his reins, willing himself not to think about her for the moment, focusing his attention back to the guildmaster who was intent on studying the road.
What the man was studying did not become clear until after they had passed beyond the town. Wilhelm circled his horse about, bringing it back alongside the younger hunter’s own steed. “Looks as if a coach came in of some sort,” he pointed at ground, indicating a set of long grooved impressions in the snow. “Did you see one about this morning?”
Edmund now understood what had kept the man transfixed for the better part of a quarter hour. The man had been counting number and type of tracks in the snow. The guildmaster was hunting people. With that insight, he wondered what to say about his morning encounter with Elanore. He offered a statement as neutrally as he could manage, “I did see a coach from one of the outlying homes.”
Wilhelm looked further up the road, following the tracks as far as his eyes could see. “It looks like the same vehicle headed back out of town. 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, while looking at the tracks. He was fairly certain these came from the coach that he had encountered in the morning. “The tavern was quite 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 before turning his horse back about and resuming his brisk pace down the road.
Occasionally Wilhelm would slow or pause to study the houses near the road before moving forward. It was apparent what the man was doing – taking mental notes on the comings and goings of the townspeople. He continued like this until they had arrived at the last inhabited residence before the bridge, eyeing the gate that marked the Wolfram estate. As Edmund caught up to him, Wilhelm said nothing. There was no need to note the obvious; the set of wheel tracks they had been watching had disappeared behind the heavy iron gate. Wilhelm nudged his horse forward, directing it to the bridge that lay ahead following a set of horse tracks that appeared to have gone south from this same gate.
As they approached the bridge, Edmund assessed the area. There were three distinct sets of tracks: two from riders, one from a person on foot. The guildmaster dismounted and motioned for Edmund to do the same. Edmund observed as the man knelt down slightly to look at these scattered tracks.
“It seems as if we weren’t the only ones out here,” the guildsmaster looked about, his eyes narrowing as he began visually following one fresher set of tracks down the bridge. “This other, older set,” he pointed out to Edmund, “is a smaller person, running.”
Edmund knew quite well that the smaller person was Elanore. He let his eyes wander over to the other, newer horse tracks. Quietly he followed his guildmaster as the man discovered the spot where the horse’s rider had dismounted, leaving a heavy footprint in the snow.
There was a slight awkwardness to the man’s gait. Edmund pondered that, before turning his attention to an area of snow where the rider’s tracks seemed to stop. He looked up at the stone lion statue that guarded this particular end of the bridge. “I suppose our rider spent some time here looking at this fellow,” he mused aloud to his guildleader. He found it peculiar but interesting. Instinctively, he reached out to touch the lion and clean some of the snow off from its head.
As Edmund’s fingers brushed against the cold stone surface of the statue, he felt a sudden and quick sting. He looked down at his gloved hand and frowned. Seeing no rent or tear in his glove, he thought perhaps he just imagined the sensation. Edmund reached out again to touch the lion when the guildleader interrupted him.
“Come look at this,” Wilhelm had already moved a few feet away, studying an area that had been disturbed. “Do you have a match?”
Edmund fumbled and reached inside his pockets. He waited for the guildmaster to unfold a screen he had in his own pack and sift what snow he could through the mesh, before Edmund used a match to help melt the rest of the snow.
“Seems we have a bit of wolf fur,” the expert huntsman grinned as he looked down at the mesh surface. “Odd thing isn’t it? Don’t usually see the likes of them around here. Unless they were hunting something, perhaps.”
Edmund could not help but feel a cold chill run through him. Suddenly it was much clearer to him that 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 for just one wolf. Likely we have a pack,” he looked thoughtfully at the wooded area by the road.
Edmund noted grimly that the man’s assessment was consistent with Elanore’s earlier story.
“Let’s split our search here,” Wilhelm stood up suddenly, signaling that he was done with his investigation. “I’ll go west,” he looked at Edmund. “You check east of the road.”
Edmund agreed, although instinct told him to turn south and trace Elanore’s steps backwards to the next town, to trace the third set of tracks that he had noticed alongside the others. But his guildmaster was now much more interested in the wolves. He obeyed the man and headed east, in spite of this directive bringing him rather close to several abandoned properties.
After departing the road,he spent a good hour carefully looking for signs of tracks or disturbed portions of the woods. Eventually the cold began to gnaw at him, chilling his hands. Frustrated by the lack of any discoveries, he turned his horse back and followed along the sides of the creek that would eventually pass under the bridge. His horse neighed softly at the sight of the creek, apparently thirsty. Edmund dismounted and led his horse up to the creek’s edge to let it water.
There, he noted that the waters had melted the snows, bringing the creek levels up higher than normal. With a full winter still ahead of them, he wondered if there would be flooding come spring. As the winds picked up, he rubbed his cold fingers together as best as he could. Somewhat distracted by the sudden cold, he let his eyes wander over the area once again, eventually coming to rest on the bridge ahead of him. He wondered if there might be more tracks under that bridge and began to wander towards the bridge’s shadowy parts to investigate.
As he stepped softly on the muddy ground, he had the odd sensation that he was being watched. His fingers moved towards 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. As Edmund turned fully to face his attacker, he was startled to find himself parrying the walking stick of Count Wolfram.