The clergyman went very still before he began to describe what he remembered of the day Novice Wyte died.
The winter had brought an unending night to the town. The bells had just rung, marking the start of morning. But it was dark and most of the residents were not outside.
The town’s gates were not open when the sound of running water blew in from the north. The bored guards did not notice the black puddles that began to form outside the town. Nor did they see what slipped underneath the heavy wooden doors they were supposed to watch. The first one or two disappeared into the black murk without even a squeak. The third man, at the very least, felt the damp cold closing in around him and started to scream.
Father Lorrence shivered as he described the sound of wailing that followed, echoing throughout the town. “That morning, anyone outside did not survive that first wave of invasion. Novice Wyte was lost alongside almost a hundred other souls.”
Edmund swallowed as he visualized the attack. He, too, had seen the strange slick monsters pour over the estate walls. But unlike their neighboring townspeople, the residents of the estate had willingly prepared for what was to come. However, their success was due to their access to inhuman gifts of magic to turn the shadow monsters back. “We had sent word of the Unthings–“
“–None would listen.” The friar shook his head. “Stories have little currency these days. Particularly those from strangers from another village. Thank goodness we had Harry. He was running around telling people that these monsters were weak against light and water. Several with some sense did listen. But many did not. If it weren’t for the others who appeared, we might have perished.”
“If it weren’t for who?”
“The King’s Guard is what they called themselves. They controlled a kind of fire that could chase off the shadows. And as our Mayor died, they now govern the town as well.”
The young man straightened up in his seat, suddenly wary. There had been no king in this region dating back to the time the first settlers arrived on the eastern shores of the Northernlands. He did not know what or who this guard was.
“It’s an odd situation,” the friar mumbled. “I cannot help but be grateful for what they have done to stabilize the town. But they have also scared the townsfolk witless with stories of other monsters lurking in the woods. No one dares leave. They all cling to these guards even though they’re strangers.”
Edmund made no attempt to hide his concern. “You don’t know them?”
“No,” the friar scratched his chin absently. “I have never seen such gifts either. Some called it sorcery which the church would frown upon. But I cannot tell for myself if that is true.”
Edmund had more than a suspicion as to what the nature of these gifts might be. “This is not some trivial development. You should make sure to speak to Mrs. Winchester and the guildmaster.” Silently, he vowed to also speak to Elanore and the Lady Selva.
“Ah yes,” the old man responded weakly, clearly exhausted. “But I cannot imagine what they could do. This isn’t something your townsfolk have a right to interfere with. “
He was correct, of course. In most circumstances the towns maintained their independence. They did not meddle with one another’s affairs.
The young man’s expression soured at the passive response on part of the clergyman.
The friar leaned over to pat Edmund’s hand. “You shouldn’t trouble yourself over this. You have other issues to think about. Your young lady seems determined to be married before spring arrives.”
Edmund rubbed his chin, avoiding the religious man’s bemused expression. He looked into the crackling hearth of the fireplace, his expression growing defensive. “There is no danger of us having children out of wedlock.”
The cleric blinked, perhaps startled by the response. “Dear boy, please do not think I meant to imply that might be so. But I was wondering why this is the first thing she tells me. That and you wish it so.”
His reasons for wanting to marry Elanore were simple — he had protected and loved her his entire life. Taking her as his wife was a natural progression in their journey together. But for her, the coming of magic into her life had created a place for him — a place that he had to fill, according to the lions. She loved him too but he did not know exactly how. He could not explain this to the clergyman, fearing the man might misunderstand. Instead, he chose a pragmatic reason that might placate the friar. “It’s the only way I would allow her to come with me when I leave.”
This statement confused the man. “Do you mean to move south to her family?”
The youth blinked. “No, “I mean to go north to seek out answers. Aside from what you have told me about my parents, there is something else I wish to understand. The lady you met on the road also has claimed that I am her kin from the same village.”
The friar’s forehead wrinkled as he considered that idea. He tapped his fingers together while he thought out aloud. “It is true that she has the look of those villagers. There were several small settlements, however, up that way. I believe they were related to one another, but I did not visit all of them.” He glanced Edmund’s way and saw the determined set of the young man’s mouth. “There’s more to it than that, isn’t there?”
Edmund squared his shoulders. He felt wrong casting doubt upon the man’s words. However, the friar himself was old, potentially unreliable. “Is it possible that you were mistaken when you found me? Infants often look alike. I have seen that myself.”
“Oh Edmund!” The question both startled and worried the man. “What did this woman say to you believe that possible?” He leaned forward in his chair. “Listen. You were not a newborn when I first saw you. I know you well enough to say that the child I saw in their hands was you. I cannot prove that either way. All I can do is to tell you where I found you.” Father Lorrence sat back in his chair. “Bring the girl with you and a map. We shall talk of that village and your ceremony together.”
* * *
Edmund left Father Lorrence to rest, choosing not to press the matter of the man’s story about his parentage any further. He wandered to the dining hall and lingered while talking to his guild’s bookmaster. Once the matter of the map copies was resolved, he continued his rest there, trusting if he waited long enough, Elanore would appear.
He did not have to wait long. At the very moment he thought he’d like to see her — she was standing in the entryway.
Her face was still fresh and pink from the cold outside. To his amusement, she moved immediately to study the food that was being served. He loved how she walked happily back and forth a few times, looking carefully at her options. Perhaps she noticed the vegetables on the table — the ones that were most certainly out of season.
But when she came his way, her expression of delight appeared to waver.
His heart flipped over at her apparent anxiety. “I have talked to the friar,” he offered as she stopped before him. “Don’t worry, everything is fine.”
“Oh.” She still looked troubled as he placed his fingers on her elbow, guiding her to a table. She placed her plate and sat on the wooden bench. “I am sorry I was late. I was talking to the Count.”
Edmund sat next to her. He twisted slightly to speak to her but saw the spoon frozen in her hand. He smiled as he realized she was trying to be polite. “It’s alright. I’m not about to rush off anywhere. Go ahead and eat first. I’ll wait.”
She gave him a relieved look and then turned her attention to her food.
Gradually whatever nervousness ailed her disappeared as she began to sample each new thing on her plate. Her expressions repeatedly changed quickly between pleasure and confusion as she set out to finish the plate’s contents.
Edmund watched her fondly, even when she waved a spoonful of orange hash in front of him and forgot their earlier topic of conversation. In between each bite, she rhapsodized over some minutiae, finally ending with a set of observations. “Some of these things are from Lady Selva’s secret garden. I have never seen some of these vegetables before. Are they native to these parts? This one tastes particularly good. Did you try it?”
The young hunter’s face spoke clearly of his disinterest in sampling the spoonful of mystery vegetable. He answered her questions in order. “No and no. I did not.”
She stopped chewing her food to stare at him. “Why not?”
Lightly, he teased her. “Ladies first, as I like to say.”
“That’s not very gentleman-like,” she said after she placed the utensil in her own mouth. “You’re just afraid of new things. But it means more for me,” she added cheerfully.
Convinced that her mood was normal enough to converse of more serious things, Edmund interrupted her chewing. “What did the count have to say to you?”
He found it curious that she did not immediately answer, focusing on pushing the food around her plate before speaking. When she did, she seemed rather muted. “He said there was no way the message I wanted to send would make it to my parents. The road that I came through to get to this region is closed. The bridges are shut down. And that means they cannot give their blessing.”
“Elanore,” he covered her hand with his, drawing her full attention to him. “It doesn’t matter.” These rules his parents had handed to them were obstacles that did not need to exist. They were remnants of an old way of thinking that seemed almost irrelevant now. “Everything is no longer the way it used to be. Crossroads is also down and out. Many are dead due to the Unthings.”
He told her of what the friar had said. Without warning, her eyes began to water–full of tears of sympathy for the people who had perished. Edmund’s fingers reached out to catch those tears before they fell from her face.
Her shoulders slumped slightly. “How is it right for us to talk about marrying and leaving this place? Are we being selfish making plans like these?”
Without thinking, he responded. “Is it selfish to want to leave where we do not belong? Is it wrong to love when things are bleak?”
Her eyes widened, surprised to hear those words from his mouth. “Edmund!”
“Soon I’ll have maps ready for planning for a journey. I have been thinking we need to speak to Selva and make concrete plans. “
The young woman put down her spoon as she studied her future husband to be. “She’ll be in her sewing room at this time of day. I’ll take you to her, if you insist.”