As the evening descended upon Winchester, the snow began to fall in earnest. No longer able to wait for Edmund, Elanore and her grandmother dined in their kitchen, using the time to talk of family and their latest little adventures.
When they finished, Elanore cleaned the kitchen, saying nothing of Edmund’s lack of showing to her grandmother. But she kept food warming in the oven, betraying her wishes to see him to her grandmother.
After they withdrew to the drawing room, they sat companionably working on their mending and knitting. Elanore diligently worked on fashioning an arm for a sweater intended for her one of her younger siblings. She did not catch her grandmother studying her.
Elanore was the oldest Winchester grandchild by many years. And with so many little ones underfoot in her home, she was unused to attention. She was also often misunderstood. Her mother, Evelyn Redley, had recently written to Mrs. Winchester of Elanore’s increasing aloofness.
Her grandmother, however, had seen Elanore was simply distracted. The young lady sat near her grandmother, perched on her seat as if she was ready to fly away.
Elanore rose from her chair, floating over to the window in the front parlor to look at the road.
Mrs. Winchester called after her. “Come back. It’s drafty by the windows.”
Her granddaughter had not noticed the cold. “Edmund isn’t the sort not to show– you don’t think he ran into any trouble, do you? With what the Count said today—”
Mrs. Winchester gave her a stern look. “He’s old enough to take care of himself and has others to concern himself with. Show some patience.”
“Yes, grandmother.” Elanore dutifully returned to her seat and then contritely picked up her knitting. Her actions had betrayed her feelings. It was obvious that she had been looking forward to seeing Edmund.
Anxious to distract her, Adele Winchester plunged into somewhat uncharted territory. “What do the red-hooded ones speak of these days?”
Elanore dropped her needles. “What do you mean, grandmother?”
“Surely you have heard things along your travels here? You are not just a healer but a wanderer, Elanore. As such, you know even far more than your mother can, while she holes herself up tending your brothers and sisters.”
“Oh.” Elanore put her knitting aside.”I had meant to wait for Edmund to tell you this. I was hoping to talk to the both of you.”
“Do go ahead, Elanore,” Mrs. Winchester put down what she had in her hands. “There is always time to tell Edmund later.”
“Alright,” Elanore was not entirely pleased by the idea but knew her grandmother had the right of it. As Elanore turned her thoughts to more serious things, the mood in the room grew heavier and the girlish demeanor slipped away. The little bird became a hawk. The young woman’s voice darkened. “The King of the East has been sending his agents through the Southlands. The villages nearby our home uncovered one posing as an entertainer. She was discovered through her letters but only after she had slipped away.”
“That is odd,” Mrs. Winchester shook her head. “Why disguise herself? There are visitors from the East from time to time—”
“That I don’t know,” Elanore thought aloud. “Unless there was something particular she was after, something that would be easier to do based on her specific job.”
“Was she after information?”
“Perhaps,” Elanore nodded. “These are rumors, after all. And she was particularly interested in those with relationships to the west. She was looking for something else as well, but we don’t know what. Before she could be caught, she slipped away on a ship east.”
“It is more than odd,” Mrs. Winchester narrowed her eyes. “What else, Elanore?”
“There are rumors on the seas of the pirates going further north or south – they seem anxious to avoid the King’s brand new navy.”
“The pirates have been on the seas far too long to be scared of the navy,” Mrs. Winchester said wryly. The pirates had mastered gunpowder and ocean warfare long before the current king was in power.
Elanore frowned. Her grandmother hailed from the coast and was often correct about sea matters. “Even so, why would the King build a navy now of all times?”
“Such an action makes sense if his object is the land to the West.” Her grandmother leaned back in her chair and stared at the ceiling. “Although, that is foolishness if that is the case. This King—have you heard much of him?”
“No.” Elanore shook her head. “It puzzles father, though. If all we are is a stopping point or a trading point to the west, there’s nothing much to be uncovered in the Southlands. Our resources are known to not differ from the eastern domains, so why bother with us?
“It’s actually not much of a destination for bored nobility,” her grandmother chuckled. “Although, this place is not much of one either.”
“I beg to differ,” the girl’s voice took on a slightly dreamy tone as she thought aloud. “There are so many extraordinary stories from this place. Rumors of strange creatures and peoples. Surely some of the men who have come to join the hunters heard of them as well. Fables and legends, queens and kings, and elves—”
“I see where your parents’ thoughts are going.” Mrs. Winchester turned a troubled gaze back to her hands. “We’re a new land for a bored King to explore and to plunder. So this delay in sending a new Mayor may be in order for him to send someone who does his bidding, whatever that may be”
Elanore nodded. “Someone not like grandfather.”
Mrs. Winchester clasped her hands together. “Likely not. It is a different king and a different era. And this delay might be intentional rather than due to neglect.”
“Grandmother,” Elanore implored. “We must begin considering that this area, for whatever reasons, is very important.”
“As to not at all? But what proof do we have, Elanore?” Mrs. Winchester shook her head. “We should not concern others with such rumors and ideas.”
“Grandmother—” Elanore would have continued to plead with her grandmother but was interrupted by the sound of knocking echoing down the hallway from the front door.
“Hold these thoughts,” Mrs. Winchester raised her hand. “Perhaps it’s Edmund—”
The young lady jumped to her feet. She disappeared through the hallway, her thoughts clearly centered on the late-hour visitor at the door. With a light heart, she ran towards the front door, picking up a lantern along the way to open the door. As she unlatched it and drew it open, she was all smiles and anticipation.
She visibly started when she did not see a tall, handsome youth but a burly mid-aged man standing on their step.
He coughed apologetically in the darkness. “Good evening, miss. I’m the Guildmaster.”
Elanore felt a twinge of surprise, but she was well mannered enough to respond politely. “Good evening, sir.” She held up her light and curtsied.
“You must be Miss Elanore,” he began to say as he automatically removed his hat. As the light illuminated her features, he fell silent.
Elanore wasn’t altogether sure what to do with the man her grandmother despised and who was now standing awkwardly on their stone steps. But she felt the cold and opened the door further. “The snow is troubling you, I’m certain. Please come in. Do you bring news of Edmund?”
“Ah, no.” He recovered his wits, quickly placing his hat back upon his head and staying in his spot on the step. “I must hurry home as my wife is waiting. I wanted to let you know that Edmund is feeling under the weather. He is resting and won’t be here this evening.”
“Oh!” Elanore’s face reflected profound disappointment at the news. But she quickly remembered her manners. “Thank you, Guildmaster, for the message. I do appreciate the trouble you took to bring it.”
Her earnest response was rewarded with a hint of a smile to his face. As the sound of her grandmother’s steps floated down the hallway, the smile disappeared, replaced by a much sterner and cooler expression. “Good evening, miss,” he muttered before hunching his shoulders and then disappearing down the path, cutting a lonely figure against the white backdrop of snow.
As she firmly shut the door, Elanore mulled over her first encounter with the man who was the bane of the Winchester family’s existence.
From the kitchen, her grandmother called to her. “Was that Edmund?”
“No, grandmother,” Elanore uprooted herself from her spot and discovered her grandmother in the kitchen, starting to take food out from the oven. “You may put that back. Edmund won’t be coming.”
“Who was that at the door then?”
“You will think it most peculiar,” Elanore leaned back against the wall in the kitchen. “But it was the guildmaster.”
“The guildmaster?!” Mrs. Winchester’s expression sharpened. “Are you alright?”
“Yes, grandmother,” Elanore frowned.
The food was quickly set aside, and the older woman came over to inspect her granddaughter’s face more closely. “That look on your face says you are not. Come, child, what is on your mind?”
Elanore smoothed the front of her skirt several times, thinking through something. When she spoke, her eyes looked straight through her grandmother. “He seemed completely unlike how you and mother had described him. Physically he is as mother mentioned — but his demeanor was different. He was somewhat abrupt but a bit shy, I believe.”
Mrs. Winchester looked at her granddaughter thoughtfully. Again, Elanore proved different in how she perceived people and situations. “Darling,” she walked over slowly and took Elanore’s hand in her own. “I suppose your mother has not told you what happened all these years ago. She’s never told you, I suppose, why the guildmaster hates us, has she?”
“Grandmother?—” Elanore felt troubled.
“Hush, Elanore.” The woman pointed at the stool. “Sit and listen to our tale of foolishness.”