Edmund did not have the time to concern himself over the potential machinations of Count Wolfram. The front pack had set a brisk pace for Edmund’s group and the last group to follow. It would seem that Wilhelm did not intend to linger over areas they had already covered the previous day.
The guild men moved swiftly down the Northern Highway towards the town. As they reached its outskirts they began to slow, allowing the newer riders in their parties to look at their surroundings.
The new pace suited the blacksmith just fine. Smith was eager to see how the town had fared through the winter. At times the lions would skirt the space near the man’s horse, intent on keeping the man and his horse from straying too far from the others in their group.
Edmund did not need to ask them to do the same for the other members of their party. He glanced at Pepin riding side by side with Gregory, the bookmaster. Pepin lacked the interest and energy that the blacksmith possessed. He did not seek to give the lions any trouble. In fact, he appeared to be struggling simply to keep calm. His complexion had noticeably worsened once they entered the town. Pepin’s eyes flitted aimlessly, as if he were looking for danger in every bend of the road. Gregory could not do anything except distract the young man with mundane topics such as food and household gossip.
Giles frowned as he rode behind the two. His poor mood was obvious.
Edmund had first presumed the man was still irritated with the Count’s orders that he accompany the guild. Edmund, however, had begun to suspect that Giles was frustrated by something else.
The young hunter experimented a few times with altering the pace at which he directed his horse. He even paused at the side of the road. Even though the middle pack knew they were supposed to keep the front group in sight, Giles always found some reason to linger behind him.
Edmund came to suspect that Giles’ annoyance was directed towards him, not the Count. He could have chosen to ignore the man but instead addressed his shadow directly. Edmund turned his horse around and stared the man in the face. He spoke in such a manner that left no room for argument. “I am going to stop ahead and look at my home. You can either pretend to ride ahead with the others and find some excuse to loop back or just follow me now.”
Edmund abruptly turned his horse down the short driveway to his home, unwilling to waste the few minutes he’d have before the next group of guild men caught up to them. Several lions anticipated his thoughts, surging ahead and circling around the modest one-story building that served as shop and home for the Ormonds. They moved calmly and freely about the small patch of land and peered into the windows of his home.
He knew from their behavior that it was safe enough for him to dismount from his horse. But they reassured him just the same, affirming for him that there was no danger to him here.
Edmund dismounted and moved to the windows. He, too, could not help but look inside before turned his attention back to the shutters that had come loose due to wind or some other winter phenomena.
Giles did not help — but he kept watch, even warning him that the blacksmith and the rest of the troop were circling back to watch him.
Edmund made a noncommittal sound and kept working on the house. Eventually the blacksmith cleared his throat and called out to Edmund. “What are you checking for?”
Edmund ran his fingers over the glass windows and siding of the home. “Just damage. Looting. That sort of thing.”
Smith drew his horse close to where Edmund stood, his more expert eyes assessing the state of the home. “It is a good thing your house has adequate stone walls. It looks like nothing except dust monsters got to your home,” the blacksmith said kindly. “Are you worried about thieves?”
Edmund shook his head. Even if thieves had attempted to pilfer the home they would not have found furniture or luxury goods to sell. His parents had given up on high-level trade long ago. What they had of value prior to winter — foodstuffs and practical supplies — had been bought or taken to the Wolfram estate.
The young man latched the last shutter before he addressed the small crowd. “There’s only our furniture now.” And there was the stained glass in front — still intact, he hoped, under the boards they had nailed over the front door. But he chose not to speak of these things that held sentimental value for his family. He had little time, for the sound of hooves drew closer. Quickly, he changed the subject. “The other party is here. We should go.”
“Well, get a move on then,” Giles said tightly. “They will think we’re stopping because we can’t cut it at this pace.”
Edmund understood, quickly remounting his horse. He intercepted the approaching group before they could overtake them. The last group paused in the road as Edmund directed the lions to resume their brisk trot down the road ahead of them. They let a dozen pass before Edmund and the middle group followed them.
The two groups redoubled their pace, anxious to catch up with the guildmaster. They found him a few minutes later, circling his horse impatiently around the town square.
It took another few minutes for the three groups to reorganize their formations. Many heads craned to look at the pub, now boarded over. But many kept their distance from the rubble of stone in the middle of the town square, still smoking from the previous day’s fires.
Pepin’s horse had inconveniently chosen to stop by the warm stones. Its passenger shivered and pulled his knit hat down over his straw colored hair as he contemplated the mass grave. He looked tormented — both drawn to and repulsed by the impromptu funeral pyre. The lions whispered to Edmund, telling him what they sensed … what likely the youth sensed. He, who had been touched by the Unthings could likely feel their taint upon the broken, leftover stones.
Edmund leaned in to grab the reins of Pepin’s horse and pulled the beast and its rider away towards a safer corner of the square. He saw darkness reflected in the younger man’s eyes — rage, fear, and then emptiness. Edmund wished he had some experience to draw from but had no healing magic or gift with words. Instead he offered Pepin a paper bag full of something resembling cookies. “Eat this. Your color is bad.”
The cookies were equally as bad, but they revived the young man’s spirits. “Water,” Pepin croaked suddenly.
Smith appeared from somewhere behind them, offering the young man something much stronger than that to drink. As Pepin calmed, the blacksmith explained his previous disappearance. He pointed in the direction of a building off the square. “It turns out that my house is also a bit worse for wear on the outside. I fear though that things might be a mess inside. The doors and windows seem intact but I am afraid the inside looks vandalized. Stuff is overturned. Back cellar was rifled through.”
“You didn’t go inside, did you?” Edmund’s eyes opened in alarm.
“No, of course not,” the blacksmith shook his head. “I know it would be foolish after what happened in the pub. I’m not willing to look for mischief. I escaped their fate. But not feeling so lucky to chance it again. This town is best left for the dead.”
His comments could not help draw a wince from the more sensitive men within earshot. The smith could tell he had said something offensive but he continued to speak of delicate matters with little tact. “Look. Let’s just be truthful. I don’t think we can replace what we lost. Most of us won’t want to.”
Smith’s loud booming voice was the sort that carried well in open areas. The guildmaster rode by, glaring at the blacksmith for his lack of manners. Smith finally realized he ought to shut his mouth.
But for every person who took offense at the man’s words, Edmund knew there would be at least one who understood. Smith was a practical man. The guild was fairly resilient. They reveled in their isolation and learned to not depend on others all that much. Most were mobile and hardy. They could easily take the fruits of their labor to other settlements and towns and fetch a decent price for furs and meat. But the blacksmith and his parents needed stability. They needed customers. The presence of and the state of the town was critical to their overall welfare.
Edmund knew the blacksmith’s evaluation would come as a hard blow for the townspeople waiting back at the estate. But even the blacksmith, as prepared as he was for more dismal sights, fell quiet as the troops began to move north past the square.
The state of the homes alongside the road appeared to worsen. It was not simply that they were empty or their painted walls shabby after a hard winter. They looked decayed.
The guild men were tense as they noted the evidence of other damage. Trees were stripped bare of bark in places and debris appeared in plenty alongside the road.
The forest had taken on a sinister pall.
“Hunting is going to be harder this year,” Giles said under his breath. “That damage — it was like that late fall by the other towns. That’s what small animals do when there’s not enough to eat. They eat anything or everything. The larger ones will too.”
The mood of the forest unsettled the guild men. And so the men drew their weapons — even though they had seen nothing from the distance to suggest that their fort might be occupied. There were no smoke trails or any signs of trash or refuse in the surrounding areas — signs that would have hinted that their complex had been usurped by refugees or bandits. In fact, piles of boxes and junk still inconveniently blocked the entry way to the guild.
It was this large pile that several of the more light-footed guild men clambered up in order to look over the wall while the lions circled around restlessly. The lookouts watched for what seemed like half an hour before they sent word back down that it looked safe enough.
The guild quickly cleared enough debris to allow them access to the wall. They pushed aside the temporary cover to their entryway and then released a few of the lions inside their compound.
The lions roamed the complex grounds, intent on making sure that no dark creature — magical or not — loitered in hiding, waiting to make a meal of the humans. Once they appeared satisfied, several trotted back and led the guildmaster and the others inside.
The men spread out to look at every corner and building of the property. Wilhelm moved far more carefully, unwilling to allow the excitement of his guild members to impact the thoroughness of his inspections. Most wanted their freedom from the Wolframs. They were eager, too eager, to not find anything wrong.
Edmund was in the cookhouse when he heard cries of anger from the vicinity of the Great Hall. He followed the crowd that surged in that direction, finding himself picking his way through overturned furniture towards the back of the hall.
“Stolen!” The bookmaster Gregory was gnashing his teeth and waving a fist in the air. “Something has stolen all our books — years of collective knowledge and hard work.”
Surprise and confusion rippled through those in the room. Tools and furniture had been left undisturbed.These items were far more useful and valuable than books.
Edmund stepped around the crowd to look at the shelves, noting that they were not completely empty of books. But obviously whatever Gregory had discovered missing was more important than what had been left behind.
Several men tried to reassure the old man. They had a cart of books they had dragged to the estate at Gregory’s request alongside a collection of maps.
Gregory was not to be placated. “No, we have all the journals and maps we normally use! But the books left to us from the founders are not here. These are things they had acquired on their own journeys here. They were traded at places they had come from.” He moaned at their loss. “It will take so much to replace them!”
Wilhelm and many of the others did not hold these items to be as valuable, but even those who did not care a whit about the guild’s collection of written works looked troubled. Something illogical and peculiar had transpired. There were far too many books to be carried over walls so easily!
The guildmaster stood at the edge of the crowd. His face was stony as he addressed the men in the hall. “I think we have evidence that this place has been compromised. By who or what, we do not know. As such, I think we should do our best to secure what we can of what’s left and leave. We should regroup at the castle and ponder this situation further. Gregory quickly survey what is missing and what has been left.”
The men obediently scattered at the guildmaster’s decision. Gregory sat back down, clearly not himself as he tried to comply with Wilhelm’s orders. He proved himself unable to pick and choose among what was left. Eventually the guild men took everything in hand, choosing to take all remaining books as to avoid the hysterics of a disconsolate old man.
Grimly the guild re-secured their compound, trying to make it as impenetrable of a fort as one could imagine. However, they could not shake the knowledge that this place, like the pub, had been violated by something — something or someone they could not understand.
Only the forest knew who or what had done this — but it said nothing, looming silently above them as they rode back south.