The hand he held aloft trembled — whether out of emotion or weakness, it was hard to say.
However, the sight of an angry Edmund was not something any of those present were used to seeing. His guildmates gaped at him as if he had gone mad. The young woman, however, put down her leaflet of papers and slowly stood.
Gerald was not willing to be directed by someone more than a decade younger than he. A fleeting look of displeasure passed over his face before he turned his head back to Thomas and continued his lessons.
However the young woman drifted cautiously towards Edmund.
Perspiration had begun to slip down Edmund’s face, pooling at the collar of his shirt. He did not put his hand down.
He began to pale while shaking.
Elanore caught him before he slouched forward. Her startled cry caused the other men to stop their discussion and come to his aid.
Edmund kept his gaze fixed upon the patient while they helped seat him in a sturdier chair placed against the wall. “He’s in pain,” the blonde youth spoke through clenched teeth. “And the noise is offensive to him.”
How he knew this the other guildsmen did not understand. But Elanore shivered with concern for both Edmund and the halfling under their care. She hurried to the table where she had set up a few bottles.
Once she found the bottle she wanted, she took care to put a few drops of its contents on a metal plate the held shredded meat. It was this altered food she brought to Gerald and Thomas. “I think it’s time for a sedative. Would you give this to the bird?”
Feeding a half-conscious creature was not an easy feat, but the guild men complied. It was not pleasant force-feeding a helpless owl. However, once the food had been consumed the bird fell into a deeper sleep.
Throughout the caretakers’ latest task, Edmund remained slumped in the chair. He leaned forward, his elbows on his thighs as he held his head in his hands.
With the bird resting more easily, Elanore was free to seek out Edmund. She hovered near him, her hands coming to find every free bit of skin she could test for its temperature.
After a few moments of her prodding, he raised his head. Whatever physical condition had ailed him seemed to have passed. “I’m sorry,” he said abruptly in low tones. He glanced up in order to include the others in his apology. “What I said was poorly stated.”
Only Elanore seemed quick to forgive. The others nodded, accepting the excuse but said nothing further.
Losing one’s composure was not an unforgivable offence within the guild. But acting illogically was not something tolerated for long. Edmund knew this and was miserable with frustration at his own lapse in behavior and thought.
In the awkward silence that followed, only Elanore paid him any attention. Had she been left alone with him, she might have been free to speak. She understood the great pressure Edmund put upon himself and might have offered him comfort. But being constrained by their environment, she simply chose to stand by and rub his shoulder as he brooded on the chair.
Gerald eventually did stand. As he moved to the door, he paused in front of Edmund. “It’s time to break for some air. Bring some matches. I need a smoke.”
Edmund cast a sidelong glance at Elanore who had gently withdrawn from him. The concern in her eyes had not faded. However, she patted his shoulder.“We’ll be fine, Edmund. It is alright to take a break.”
Edmund carefully tested his legs, slowly following his former guildmate out the door.
The outside air was welcoming. It was cool and light compared to the heavy atmosphere inside the small room used to tend to the halfling.
The older man leaned against the wooden structure while Edmund rested upon a makeshift bench. Gerald methodically packed his pipe before signaling to Edmund for a lit match.
He would go on to light his pipe several times, proving himself a finicky smoker.
Its contents gave off a hint of a grassy, earthy smell — one that reminded them both of warmer summer days.
Gerald took a few puffs and then sighed.“I heard from your father that you’re all staying here. He said this was your request.”
This was phrased in a way that suggested that Gerald did not understand.
Edmund glanced towards the other buildings where his family temporarily resided. “The Countess is my distant kin. She has no other family and so with her condition, it seemed for the best that I stay here and assist her until she delivers.”
Gerald took another puff of his pipe. “So that’s the reason. You know it surprised several of us when the Guildmaster said you’d be leaving the guild. Thought your bride-to-be put you up to it. Story is that her family is none too keen on us.”
“She has never said a word about the guild,” Edmund mildly corrected the other man. It was true that Elanore was part of the reason he was no longer in the guild — but he was not free to reveal the entire truth. “In spite of what you may have heard — she and the guildmaster have no issues. But I am grateful just the same for his generosity in allowing me to take leave.”
Gerald watched the smoke from his pipe drift up towards the roof. “I suppose with a woman like that — even one as adventurous as she is, you know you can’t just go off and do whatever you want.” The man pointed the stem of his pipe in the direction of the others inside. “She’s the kind likely to follow.”
Edmund exhaled sharply, acknowledging that to be so. “You are right.”
“Wilhelm must have seen that,” Gerald chuckled. “The way she fusses over you is something to envy, Edmund. She’s a good kid. That said,” he abruptly shifted the topic. “You don’t do very much good when you create a situation like earlier and shout at us. It made all of us jump.” He peered intently at Edmund. “What was that about? You becoming some kind of bird whisperer?”
The young man had known Gerald wanted something when he called him out here. He was not the kind to simply leave others alone. Unlike the other guild men,Gerald was proactive. But he was not uncomfortable about superstitions and rumors of magic like them.
Edmund still chose mundane explanations for his own actions. “I have been watching that creature for hours. I started to see the pattern of its breaths and the subtle movements it made while it was trying to find a comfortable place.”
The man tapped the stem of his pipe against his teeth. “That may be true, but I do that as well. I would not have known it needed more medicine. You knew something I didn’t see.”
The younger man fiddled with his gloves. He felt a strong urge to tell the man the truth — more than he knew was wise. He knew that magic was changing all of them — some more than others. But stating that this was magic itself sounded like an excuse or ravings of a mad man. Edmund proceeded carefully. “It is true. I have become a lot more sensitive to things. This place seems to play tricks–”
“I wouldn’t be so quick to write it off as a trick of this place,” Gerald interjected. “If you have that insight — it could be valuable if you can tame it and manage it. It’s not just you — the other young ones have been jumpy since the eclipse came and left. Wilhelm doesn’t like it. He’s convinced that this place has become too strange for us, too different. It’s been making us think we should try some space from here.”
Edmund dug the tip of his boot into the ground, understanding what the elder guild man was telling him. “It may not be my business anymore what you decide.”
“You’re still in good standing, so it is. And there are a few things you should know. A few people are in no shape to leave. There’s Pip — who is completely unsuitable for anything right now. And then we have Gregory. We won’t have a livable place for him for a while thanks to the cretins who messed with our compound. And then there’s the matter of Wilhelm himself.”
Edmund knew that Wilhelm’s wife was due very soon. She was old — almost beyond the point of safe childbearing. “He should leave her here where the others can attend her. I know the guild compound is going to take a lot of time to fix.”
The man chuckled. “Wilhelm is pig-headed and probably won’t ask for help. Guild business is guild business. But I trust that the townspeople will say something.”
“And you haven’t?”
Gerald shrugged. “We all have said something. Wilhelm won’t be able to be the leader he usually is if he fears something happening while out doing guild business. Unless there is nothing really to fear.” He turned a look towards Edmund, watching him closely. “I don’t suppose you have any news from your strange friends about other things in the woods?”
Edmund knew there had to be more to what Gerald revealed. There was no reason to let him know some of the inner workings of current guild discussions. Whatever his suspicions, however, Edmund chose to be honest in his answers. “They are protective by nature. They will always advocate an arrangement that keeps most of us inside these estate walls.” He knew this was not their fault. It was simply instinct. “But in terms of animals or creatures, they have not mentioned specific things outside close to here. When they have something to share, they are clear. They have made no mention of Unthings or giant serpents. Their warnings have, at least to me, remained fairly generic as of late.”
Gerald dragged on his pipe again. “It is too bad, though, that they cannot explain what happened to those townspeople. Those townspeople weren’t just lambs waiting to be sacrificed. They were not bad fighters if their gold was at risk. “
Edmund stiffened.“You’re going to go look for them.”
“Likely,” Gerald seemed to grin. “The truth is, everyone is angry over what they think is happening. You don’t just stand by and let neighbors be killed. Those kinds of murderers– whether human or not — are the kinds of killers worth hunting. Whether they be human, or halfling, or something else — you know hunters want to pursue. But it might bring trouble back here. Wilhelm likely wants us to avoid that.”
Edmund shoved his hands into his coat pocket. “You could look together.”
Gerald shook his head. “This Count has a lot to protect. Wilhelm isn’t going to endanger this place for something we do. You know how we like to work too. We have our own of doing things. But if you think of anything or learn something you think can help us, I hope you’ll tell us.”
Edmund glanced sidelong at Gerald. This man’s boldness was one reason he had become part of Wilhelm’s trusted inner circle. What Wilhelm would not or could not do in his position or due to his temperament, Gerald was willing to pick up in his stead. “I will do what I can.”
“I knew you would,” Gerald nodded, pleased. “And if your instincts do tell you something, I don’t mind hearing it even if you can’t say it diplomatically or say it clearly.”
Edmund echoed the man’s wry smile. “You know — I’m sorry for that outburst.”
“Yep,” Gerald chuckled. “Your hang-dog expression told me that. But someone has to keep up appearances in front of the young ones and uphold order.”
As if on cue, Elanore peeked out from the door next to them. She shyly interrupted them. “It is time for some food.Would you want to go first, Gerald?”
Gerald emptied out the contents of his pipe and then yawned. “Nope.Take Edmund away and feed him before he annoys me some more.”
This was not unkindly said but Elanore took the guild man at face value. She sounded apologetic as she pulled her cloak from the peg and threw it over her shoulders. “I’ll be back with him in an hour. Thomas knows where to find me if needed.”
The elder man waved them away, hurrying them along before he slipped back inside the temporary infirmary.
Elanore tugged Edmund along, quickly hurrying to the mess hall. They took a bit of cheese and bread but skipped other items that could not be easily carried. Elanore had expressed a desire to stop in to see her grandmother and told Edmund he would rest better in her quarters.
They climbed several sets of stairs — only to find Mrs. Winchester absent.
“Oh,” Elanore blurted out in embarrassment at her lapse in memory. “They’re probably in the sitting room in the next building.”
Edmund volunteered to follow her there but Elanore made him sit. He reluctantly took the one soft chair in the room that was usually reserved for her grandmother.
“Just eat and rest, Edmund,” she whirled about and handed him the food she had collected. “If they did not ask for us, we should stay out of it.”
She paced while she watched him eat. When he finished, she drew a stool close to him, so far forward that their knees touched. She fixed her eyes upon him, intent on observing him. “If you did not just make it up these stairs I would lock you in here and make you rest. You saw or heard something from our patient, didn’t you? Was it a vision?”
He tried not to laugh at her attempts to scold him. She had tried to scare him but managed only to be sweet. “No, not like that.”
He understood why Elanore was looking at him intensely. They had often talked about Selva’s unusual gifts and whether they were inherited. She watched him as if she suspected he was turning into a male version of that woman with all her powers.
Edmund sighed, hating to disappoint her. “I simply had a very strong intuition as to its feelings. It’s not like that happens often,” he added.
She reached out for his knee, placing her fingers upon it. She hesitated. “But you were more than guessing. You were correct — he was clearly unwell. Are you sure you did not see anything? I want to know if you think even the smallest thing is changing or you feel unwell. You are not in pain, are you?”
He shook his head. “No.”
“Not even your arm?”
She sounded so hopeful to him. Edmund humored her, flexing his right hand and arm and proving that the blow the Count had delivered did not bother him anymore. That phantom sensation of pain or energy moving throughout his arm had not returned since the passing of the eclipse. “I haven’t felt anything lately,” he said honestly. Not even the sword or the guardian on the bridge caused even the slightest glimmer of sensation..
Her other hand went to his other knee. She leaned forward, again peering at him closely. “But what about the door?”
He might have laughed if he weren’t so tired. Elanore, too, must have heard about his strange interaction with the hazelwood door. “You know a lot of us play with it now. Some of the children talk about the lions that appear whenever they talk to it.”
“Edmund,” she did not sound as unconcerned as he. “You know, that door does not respond to everyone the same way. And it is not something to make light of. Edmund — this place accommodates others but in your case, I think it is adjusting to you. Does it not burden you?”
He saw her concern was genuine and borne out of love for him. She was convinced of this change — and he realized she could be right. Edmund took a deep breath. “At times I feel like I am looking out at the world with different eyes,” he admitted. “Things come into focus differently and sometimes without warning. I don’t mind things like the door — as long as I don’t think too much about the meaning of such interactions. Even the lions don’t bother me — for it’s easy to ignore why they should listen to me. Everything so far seems innocent until you consider everything all together.”
He reached over and covered her hands. “I find that owl disturbing. I have studied that owl all morning and come to understand how different it is from the ones Selva carries. There’s something off about him at times — and sometimes that thing sets me on edge as I observe him. Is it because he is a halfling? Or is it magic? I do not know.”
“When I touched him, I did not know what to think.” Elanore said slowly. “Like he felt unnaturally flat.”
Edmund leaned his head back, resting it on the soft back of the chair. “When animals feel unsafe, they sort of preserve themselves by trying to minimize their presence.He can’t be happy about being here. He has no idea what or who we are. He should distrust us, maybe even dislike or fear us.”
When he looked back at Elanore, her brow was furrowed. “Do you think he really believes we are trying to harm him? We have done all that we can to help him. Maybe he overheard someone talking about how Count Wolfram may force him to change. Or maybe he’s heard what we’ve been saying about him.”
Edmund grimaced. If that were the case, then he, too, had probably said too much in front of that creature.