It was a peculiar and yet oddly elegant weapon but wholly inappropriate for a fight. And yet, in spite of what his reasoning told him, it was not so easy for Edmund to turn his sword against the wooden staff.
The Count jabbed at him with a cold ferocity, forcing Edmund towards the creek waters. There was a sound of splashing as their feet flirted with the waters of the creek. In addition to the tapping and hitting sounds of weapons came the crow of blackbirds that had suddenly gathered above, hungrily watching the two men circle about one another like beasts at play.
As the Count moved swiftly towards him, Edmund knew he did not have much time left in this fight. He called to the Count, hoping to defuse the situation. “I am neither robber nor assassin!”
But the staff swung again. Edmund’s blade countered against the staff. The force of the blow caused his hand to twinge. Ignoring that pain, he summoned an extra reserve of strength and pushed against the weapon that crossed with his sword. He forced the taller man to take several steps back. The birds screamed, laughing as the young man tried to reason with his opponent. “We are neighbors, sir! Do get a hold of yourself!”
Across the creek, the Count stood silently, his hair covering his eyes while he contemplated Edmund’s words. The wind lifted his shaggy mane for a moment, revealing a glittering stare.
Suddenly, the water exploded.
Wolfram leapt at Edmund. Once again they locked their weapons. This time, the hunter faced Wolfram and could see the unfocused hollow look within his opponent’s eyes.
Beneath that look was something more. Edmund did not have a complete grasp on what it was, but he saw the look of something angry and frightened. With that insight, the young hunter could have chosen to kill but he instead he pushed his sword forward, restraining the madman from moving. His free hand reached back and punched the Count squarely in the face.
The Count staggered back, surprised. Edmund stood at the ready, ignoring the jeering sounds of the birds around him. He rested his aching hand, waiting to see if what he had done had any effect.
For a tense few minutes, Edmund watched as the Count cradled his jaw with his free hand. Around them, the sounds quieted into watchful nothingness. Edmund listened the sound of the man’s ragged breaths as they grew more even. The young man waited, wondering if he had managed to knock any sense into him.
The Count finally spoke. “So you know who I am, do you?”
“Yes, sir,” Edmund answered with an almost absurd level of politeness given the circumstances.
“Good.” Without warning, the Count slipped past Edmund’s undefended side and delivered a well-placed blow to Edmund’s shoulder.
Edmund felt a sudden fire shoot down his arm and he cursed. Ignoring the hot burst of pain, he raised his sword again to defend himself. “What is wrong with you?!”
“Returning the favor,” the man answered crisply as once again, they locked their weapons.
Edmund deflected the next attempt to hit him. He studied Wolfram, saw the look of madness was gone from the Count’s eyes. And bit by bit, the older man’s strength was diminishing. Edmund fought patiently, sparring until his opponent showed a moment of weakness. Quickly, he turned his sword onto the wooden staff and the blade caught, cutting deeply into the wood. With the last of his strength, the young hunter used this moment to fling the staff aside.
The staff clattered onto the ground somewhere. Before the Count could reach into his pocket to retrieve some other weapon, Edmund trained the tip of his sword at his opponent’s neck. “Raise your hands, sir, where I may see them.”
To his relief, the man complied.
With his blade still pointed in the man’s direction, Edmund cautiously moved to the side to retrieve the walking stick. Once he had it in hand, he pointed it back in the direction of the Count. “Enough of this. It has a deep crack in it now. Certainly this will be ruined if you keep this game up.”
In spite of the clear advantage the young hunter had, the Count gave him a withering look, perhaps attempting to continue the fight with words, not weapons. “A trespasser has no right to be impudent in this case. This is not a hunting ground for you and your guild. Your guildmaster agreed to stay away from these parts–”
Edmund wrinkled his brow, confused. The guildmaster had said nothing to this effect to him. “The only thing I’ve come to see is whatever Miss Redley encountered last night. It was not my intent to do anything other than examine her claims about some odd creature that appeared here.”
At the mention of Elanore the Count gave him a long measuring look. “I saw you with another member of your guild. Your leader, I would gather.”
“He came because I mentioned the shadow creatures.” Edmund carefully shifted the sword in his aching hand, watching as the Count lowered his hands. “And he has gone off in the other direction seeking wolves.”
Wolfram gave Edmund a cold look. “What wolves there were are dead. The creature that killed them disappeared into nothingness. So there is no need to have your leader send his men here to investigate these things.”
Edmund relaxed his sword arm slightly but kept a tight grip on it. “Miss Redley’s accounts were a bit confusing—it made little sense.”
“It makes perfect sense,” the Count answered. “But given that information, she should not wander about alone as she did before. Not here, or anywhere in this area. The same goes for all of you and your guild. Not only because it my wish, but because it is utter foolishness to linger where one has been seen.” He pointed at the space under the bridge, “Not unless you wish to be another easy meal for the shadowy Unthings who might hide in dark spaces.”
Edmund wrinkled his brow.
The dark-haired man noticed the look and mistook it for an expression of doubt. Wolfram exhaled in frustration. “What do they teach you in that guild of yours?”
“No one among us has seen shadow creatures. They are only stories to us.” Edmund thought back to the journal he had leafed through earlier in the day. It was as Madden had said. The Wolframs knew far more than the average townspeople about certain mythological or legendary affairs. “The guild does not believe in what they cannot see. We barely can agree on the existence of elves—”
“Foolishness and ignorance,” the Count spat. “Be gone. You unbelievers waste my time and patience—”
Edmund realized it was futile for him to press for more information. With a lopsided grin, he backed away slowly towards his horse. “Leaving, sir.” He cast the staff off to the side before mounting the horse. As he turned the horse to face the Count, he could not help smiling as he murmured, “I’ll give Miss Elanore your regards when I see her later tonight.”
At this parting remark, Count Wolfram scowled.
* * *
Although aching and cold, he could not turn about and go home quite yet. Edmund rode south on the road for a bit, noticing two pairs of horse tracks along the way. He found his leader about a ten minute ride down the road, looking thoughtfully south. As he approached, the man turned his sharp green eyes upon him. “Find anything?”
Edmund should have told him of the encounter he had just had but did not. The young man did not have any reason to trust the Count but he had no reason to believe the nobleman would lie about the implied agreement regarding the guild traveling through his lands. Edmund played his words carefully. “It was hard to find much with the snowdrifts, but there were no signs of wolves bedding down anywhere east. Nor from what I can tell were there tracks from any other animals or creatures.”
“Ah, too bad,” the man answered lightly. “I think I found something in a strange area not too far from here.”
Edmund nodded and fell in behind the man. They rode for a good quarter hour or more before discovering a small glen, strangely cleared of snow. The guildmaster circled the clearing’s edge and pointed at the tracks. “Not a drop of snow on the ground. And then these tracks all over the mud—tracks of wolves.”
Edmund studied the strange phenomena. It looked like that there had been at least five or so wolves that had recently spent the night here. “What do you think caused this to happen?”
A shadow passed over Wilhelm’s face. The younger hunter guessed that his guildmaster wasn’t willing to consider some of the more wild theories that were occurring to Edmund now. “A fluke, I think,” the man said. “Perhaps the wolves have simply been here for a while in the glen and cleared away the snow.”
There was simply no logic to that statement, for the size of the cleared area was not consistent with the nesting habits of a small pack of wolves. But being mindful of the appearance of things, Edmund decided to feign ignorance. “That seems possible, sir.”
A small hint of a smile played out on the guildmaster’s face at his response.
Edmund continued blandly. “We are a few miles from the road. Perhaps they left to track some creature.”
“Likely,” the man answered. “And at least one perished, or maybe all. It seems we won’t get much of an answer this way, though. We should head back, Edmund. You’re starting to look terrible.”
Indeed, Edmund was pale. His hand and arm were still tingling with pain. And he was growing colder. Still he would not ask to be dismissed. “If you’d like me to accompany you further—”
“No need,” the man said magnanimously. “It’s clear you’re not up for the ride. After I escort you home to your mother, I’ll retrieve another guild member. Wouldn’t want you to get ill over a small trip south.”
A good sneeze kept the hunter from saying much further. But Edmund suddenly understood that the guildmaster’s true goal was not the wolves but the tracks back at the road!
Glumly, he followed his guildmaster back out to the road and to the bridge. Lost in his thoughts of frustration, Edmund failed to notice the birds flying overhead, heading north to town.
The hunters passed over the bridge not knowing that underneath it the Count stood in the shadows, watching.