Grandmother Winchester slept the long deep sleep of a person at peace. She did not wake until nightfall, when she woke to the smell of spice and apples baking in the oven. Quietly, she crept down the small set of stairs and towards the kitchen in the back of her home.
She paused for a moment in the doorway, reveling in the sight of her granddaughter tending the hearth. Elanore had exchanged her heavy woolen dress for a light frock that she had likely uncovered amongst her mother’s old things. As the soft glow of the fire illuminated her granddaughter’s brow, the dancing light cast an illusion. Adele Winchester saw her daughter Evelyn standing there, young and happy, tending that same fire. In this vision, Mr. Winchester was there behind her, seated at the table and drinking his tea.
But as the girl stood up and stepped away from the fire, the memory dissipated. Her husband was gone, as was Evelyn. Adele looked down at her hands, freckled and rough. She was now an old, grey figured bowed by the weight of time, with only a young sprite in the kitchen, turning her normally tidy space into a disaster.
“Elanore,” the lady made a displeased face as she looked at the mess of broken meats sitting neglected on the counter behind the girl. “Are you making dessert before dinner?”
“Why, of course,” Elanore’s eyes were alight with merriment as she turned to embrace her grandmother. “These apples can not last forever, and I’m determined to find a quick way to help you regain the weight you’ve lost. What better way to conquer your illness through a full sized apple pie?”
Her grandmother sniffed. “The Southlands have corrupted you. A pie is such a decadent way to use the apples your mother sent. And preparing your last course before your first!”
The sprite did not care much for being scolded. She laughed instead, and took her grandmother’s hands in her own. Adele’s weathered hands held Elanore’s in her own, savoring the warmth and strength they offered.
Elanore led her to a comfortable chair near the hearth. “It may look like a mess, but I promise you, that all will be done as it ought to be.” Elanore turned quick, bright eyes upon the chaos of the kitchen, not seeing the mess, but only the potential of the ingredients she had lain about in various places. With a cheerful optimism reminiscent of Elanore’s grandfather, the girl continued. “Please forgive such extravagance. With the delay in arriving here, I’m afraid a pie was the best way to use them. And come spring, though, we’ll be able to find more fruit.”
Her grandmother stared out the small window in the kitchen. “It will be quite a while before it becomes spring here, Elanore. In the meantime, the winters here are harsh and fresh fruit from the south will be hard to come by, particularly the longer the coach remains out of commission. The deliveries have been less frequent this past year with so many families turning southward and the demand for goods dropping here. And now with the snow falling so often, it’s delaying things even more–“
The small lift of Elanore’s chin told the lady that she hadn’t even considered all of this before she had started baking. Mrs. Winchester sighed. Scolding Elanore for something she didn’t know was pointless. She would have to make sure, however, that both she and Edmund addressed this lack of knowledge about the northerner’s way of life much more thoroughly.
“I’m sorry,” Elanore wiped her hands on her apron and knelt before her grandmother. “I didn’t think about how these might have been shared. All I’ve been thinking about is how to take care of you once we heard Miss Offet had left her position and was no longer staying with you. During the long journey here, it was all I could do but think about baking for you, for it’s the one thing I can do without making a laughingstock of myself.” Elanore looked ruefully at the rest of dinner she was preparing. The girl, as energetic as she was, lacked the skill of her mother when it came to cooking. “But I’ll improve quickly if I keep practicing and once the rest of the boxes arrive, we’ll have more to distribute—“
“Darling,” Mrs. Winchester took Elanore’s face in her hands. She could tell that Elanore’s thoughts were running away already. “Miss Offet may have left. But you and your parents should not worry so much. There have been many good people in this town who have helped me when it was needed. Edmund and his family have been angels, as has the innkeeper. Do not worry about learning what you’re not inclined to do.”
Elanore nodded. “Still, I will try to think more about your position, grandmother.”
“It’s not for myself that I’m worried,” the old woman let Elanore go back to her work and gently began to rock her chair. “It’s the families that are newer to this place, that don’t know its peculiarities. They find the winters tough, and this one is already worse than anything I’ve known. And the king and his magistrates have taken no notice of these towns—“
The young woman tilted her head at the mention of that neglectful king. “Back home, we do not expect to be noticed. We send our fruits and seeds every year on his ships, tithing every year like a good little provincial domain and we enjoy being ignored –”
“The hunters here are like the people in the South. They do not care for a king or for any governance,” the Mayor folded her hands in her lap. “But the other families here crave some sense of stability and some connection to the East. They value offices and traditions, even ones that are largely symbolic.”
Elanore tilted her head like a curious bird. “Mother said, though, that grandfather only managed to make the Mayorship work because he was liked. This land was never really the King’s.”
Mrs. Winchester rubbed her eyes, acknowledging one of the points of tension over the entirety of her residence here. “That is true as well.”
For a few minutes, Elanore worked quietly on assembling the ingredients for a stew. She was deep in thought, perhaps weighing out whether to say what was on her mind or not. As she put the boiler on the stove, Elanore took a deep breath. “What if there is no new Mayor appointed?”
The question startled the elderly woman. Mrs. Winchester had not even considered that possibility previously. All those letters and requests to the liaison in Capestown… what if they had been ignored? Or what if they had been given over to some career official who tossed them into the sea?!
But it was a valid question, one that likely Elanore and her parents had discussed quite a bit already. “I can’t abandon them right now. The families, that is. Your grandfather stayed for them, you know. He died here for them too,” she again looked out the window. Somewhere beyond their immediate yard, he was buried.
“Grandmother,” Elanore had finished her preparations and washed her hands. She came over and drew up a stool next to her grandmother’s chair. “How many families are here now?”
The Mayor rocked her chair slowly in place, thinking carefully. “Three families with young children left before the first heavy snowfall. We have a few dozen families here, with older children. But the rest of the village consists of the Guild folks – the Hunters, of course – and a few of the tradesmen who have stationed here.”
Elanore paused. “So you still have a blacksmith and a few merchants. The teacher is now gone.”
“Our Miss Offet has left for Capestown and the nearest doctor is making his living down in Crossroads. Between the innkeeper and I – we’ve offered to board anyone who could fill those positions. We regularly post messages at the other towns. But the attractions are too few and the wages very small. At least our cleric is here, although his services are so poorly attended. He has done what he can to help by teaching the children their letters and such.”
“The cleric is a good man,” Elanore smiled. “How is his health?”
“He is managing,” her grandmother nodded. “Although he is getting old in years and should have left us long ago for warmer climates. But he’s stubborn like your grandfather—“
They both smiled at that moment.
Elanore pressed forward. “And the aristocratic families that had taken up residence here during the summer—“
Her grandmother shook her head. “I barely can keep track of them unless they decide to reside near town or obtain the services of the Hunter’s Guild. I do not know when they plan to return. With the changes your mother wrote about, I think they would be better served staying much closer to the larger cities.”
“Then, why is the Count still here?” Elanore pondered aloud. “Clearly he is of considerable rank and material wealth—“
“Oh?” Mrs. Winchester smiled lightly, wondering at her granddaughter’s particular interest in the man. “He’s quite mysterious,” she spoke, watching her granddaughter’s expressions carefully. “Grandpa never interacted much with this current Count. The family was always coming and going, he said. A bit strange, too.”
Elanore brought her little stool closer to her grandmother’s chair. “How so?”
“Hmm,” her grandmother looked up at the ceiling, hiding her amusement at Elanore’s obvious interest. “There used to be quite a clan of them as one of your Count’s probable ancestors had numerous children. But very little of them have been seen in recent years. Occasionally the family does appear in the area, but they do not bother with our town much. As for your Count—“
“My count,” Elanore started.
“Yes, ‘your count’ since you are the reason he finally has shown himself to this town’s mayor,” her grandmother waved her finger at her. “I’ve never met him until today. Nor did your grandfather. We’ve only see one or two of his staff about town, and in summers past, some of the people who used to manage his properties.”
“That is consistent with what his butler said,” Elanore thought aloud. “He was surprisingly bold today if one is to take his butler at face value.”
“A bit out of character?” Mrs. Winchester affected complete seriousness as she delivered her next thought aloud. “That might not be a bad thing, darling. You are probably the first pretty girl he’s seen in a long time.”
As expected from such teasing, Elanore reddened slightly. “Grandmother, I hardly think he would take notice of a simple wandering healer of no material wealth or bloodline. There are certain things that even a Southerner knows should not be entertained.”
When Elanore finished speaking, both ladies realized she had said too much. Elanore turned her head away, embarrassed to have argued with her grandmother over such gossip. After a moment, she resumed speaking. “Grandmother, I do not have interest in such romantic notions. I am here because Mother commissioned me with several tasks that I intend to see through.”
Mrs. Winchester noted with some surprise the sudden firmness in Elanore’s voice.
“What does Evelyn wish for you to do, Elanore?” Mrs. Winchester leaned back in her chair, her attention fixed sharply on her granddaughter.