“At last I find you, you old sinner!” said
he; “I have been looking for you a long time.” And he made up his
mind that the wolf had swallowed the grandmother whole, and
that she might yet be saved. So he did not fire, but took a pair of
shears and began to slit up the wolfs body.
For several days, the snow fell upon the town of Winchester. As the white dust settled to the earth, nature redrew her veil across the stage of the northern lands. Whatever secrets the woods of the Northlands possessed, whatever remnants there had been of the Unthings’ activities, these were wiped away white and clean under several feet of fresh snow. And yet, for the small handful who had glimpsed something that they should have not, they would not be able to forget what they had seen.
Elanore, now safely ensconced in her grandmother’s house, had completed her duty as her mother’s messenger to her grandmother. The blizzard should have afforded her a few days of rest and leisure by the warmth of the fireplace. And yet, she paced the front parlor, turning over her mother’s charm in her hands, grieving over what her grandmother had told her about the guildmaster. She passed an uneasy time, her mind unsettled as she struggled with her first encounter with the adult world and its half-truths.
Over the years, she had built up a story in her mind about what must have happened long ago. The tales from the book her mother had read to her as a child had shaped a view of the world in which she believed its conflicts were always clearly defined as the clash of values between the good and the wicked. As any child was ought to do, she had designated her mother as good and the man who had chased her away from Winchester, evil. The narrative that she had formed for herself was idyllic and romantic, one in which her father must have discovered and rescued her mother from a terrible past.
But the tale she had believed in was wrong. Her mother and the guildmaster had once been schoolmates, and then as they grew older, became friends. Later, as happened often to two young people thrown often together, they fell into an odd courtship that the townspeople tacitly condoned.
They were engaged once, her grandmother had admitted. And then, for reasons that even her grandmother did not know, Evelyn broke off the engagement and left Winchester. And with that admission, Elanore’s carefully constructed view of her own parents’ love fell apart. It was marred by the realization that there had been someone else for her mother before her father.
For the first time in her young life, she found her beliefs forcefully and painfully readjusted. It would be a little while longer before Elanore fully understood the circumstances that led to the dissolution of the engagement between her mother and the guildmaster; it would be even longer yet before she understood how that event was tied to the Wolframs.
But in this moment, Elanore was a young lady who was limited in her power and her ability to shape the flow of events in her world. There was nothing she could do about the blizzard outside or the past events that had caused her family to live apart. She could only pace the floor of her grandmother’s home, waiting for Edmund to arrive. More than ever, she felt a desire to see him — the calm voice of reason, the boy who did not allow himself to be governed by emotions. She anxiously wished to ask him about the guildmaster — the hunter her mother had apparently once loved.
But even after the snow stopped, there was no sign or further news of Edmund. So when the sun reappeared, she left her grandmother in her neighbor’s care and flew out the door towards town.
Many eyes watched from the inside of the houses along the road. They watched the blur of scarlet and heard the sound of the creature’s soft footfalls. Memories stirred within the older ones – of a time Winchester thrived as an outpost to a wild frontier, a place of hope and mystery.
Elanore ran to clear her mind. She ran past the inn and pub, ran straight where others might have turned. As such, she plowed through a gathering of birds perched by the frozen fountain. A cloud of blackbirds rushed up to the sky, fleeing the red creature. And as they began to circle the town, Elanore looked up for a moment, reminded that she was not so powerless after all.
Her eyes were brighter as she continued along and slipped down the snowy path to the Ormond home. As she rapped on the back door, there was a shuffling of steps from the other side of the door. A door was pulled open and from inside, a small frail man peered at her.
“Why, if that isn’t Elanore,” the man smiled. “It’s been so long. Come in.”
“I hope I’m not disturbing you, Mr. Ormond.” Elanore dusted the snow off her boots and then carefully stepped over the familiar threshold. As the door was closed behind her, she looked around the familiar kitchen, looking to see what might have changed. She had spent many a summer afternoon or morning running about after Edmund in this very home. To her relief, it was the same as it always was.
“No, no. Not at all.” The man insisted on taking her cloak and placing it on a wooden peg near the door. “Mrs. Ormond and I have been wanting to see you, Elanore. It’s often lonely here without all the other children and we enjoy your visits.”
Elanore’s face dimpled with pleasure. She was surprisingly fond of the eccentric little tradesman. “Before I forget, Mr. Ormond,” she quickly began to unload the basket. “Grandmother and I wanted you to have these for your tea. She said you rather like these cheese biscuits—”
“Huzzah!” The older man’s eyes twinkled. “I do, very much. Adele and you are so kind to think of me. There is such little variety of food to eat these days with all this snow.”
There was something a bit mournful about that last observation. Elanore’s expression softened and she reached out to fondly pat the old man’s hand. “Mother promised to send crates of goods once the weather turns. She has promised to send you and Mrs. Ormond candy.”
“Ah, bless her!” The man looked cheerful again. “Truly, Evelyn is so kind to remember my sweet tooth. But look at me, monopolizing you! Edmund’s in his room. I’ll set myself here for a time, so go on ahead!”
Elanore flashed a smile before turning quickly down the small hallway that led to the living quarters. As she turned around the corner of that hall, she blithely stepped through the door to Edmund’s room. Upon doing so, she gave a startled jump as she realized she had caught Edmund in the midst of dressing. Immediately she stepped back out, pulling the door shut. Through it, she began to profusely apologize.
Mrs. Ormond chastised the young lady from the other side of the door for not looking before she entered. But the door opened shortly thereafter and Edmund stood there, his nightshirt now neatly fastened and a robe draped over his broad shoulders. “Nothing new to see here.”
“Absolutely nothing,” Elanore responded as coolly as she could, unaware that her face was still pink with embarrassment. She could not quite meet his eyes as she retorted with her best insult. “You’re still a skinny brat, Edmund.”
He reached over and tousled her hair affectionately. Elanore cast a sidelong glance at him. She could not fail to notice his tired grin and the bluish circles under his eyes.
Mrs. Ormond pulled Edmund back and forced him to sit on the bed. “Elanore, do keep an eye on my son for a moment.”
The girl nodded and stepped aside to let the woman pass.
“She’s going to use you to force me to eat something terrible.” Edmund rubbed his unshaved face with his left hand.
Elanore noted his gloomy expression. “You haven’t been eating, have you?” She put her basket down on the side table and then sat down on a chair near the bed.
“No,” he grimaced. “This is the first morning I’ve actually been able to get out of bed. Eating has been a low priority, I’m afraid. As was bathing,” he added, with a slightly mischievous look.
“Oh!” Elanore shot him an annoyed look. “Your father told me to run ahead to your room. I had no idea I was interrupting anything! If you must, go ahead and finish your shaving so I don’t have to listen to you scratching at your face.”
“You’ll have to listen to it, I’m afraid. I am not very capable of shaving with this other hand bothering me.”
With that last statement, Elanore was beside him in a flash, drawing his hands in her own. As she began to run her fingers over his hand and his arm, he sighed. “I was going to ask you to take a look. But you seem to already doing that,” he gently teased.
“What did you expect?” Elanore scolded him. So many times he had tended to her scraped knees and elbows as a child. It was only right that she as his friend and as a healer that she returned the favor. As he gave her another patient smile, she wished then she hadn’t been so prickly in her manner. “Tell me how it feels, Edmund.” She turned her attention to inspecting his hands, pressing and prodding them in certain areas and studying for any reaction from him.
“Every so often, the right one starts to feel like there’s ice shooting down the muscles.”
“There’s no break in the skin,” Elanore puzzled aloud. “No sign of puncture either.” She removed the robe that covered his shirt to access different parts of his arm from the wrist to the shoulder. She was puzzled to find that no matter where she investigated, he did not respond very much. “Could you have pulled a muscle?”
“No—” he paused. “But perhaps you might want to look at my back.”
Elanore immediately was on alert. “Why?”
He hesitated slightly before admitting, “I had a bit of a scuffle.”
Elanore’s fingers flew to the laces on his nightshirt. She had pushed aside the collar and found herself staring at a mess of bruises on Edmund’s back. “Was this done by another hunter?”
At this, he turned on the bed to face her. “You shouldn’t give them so little credit, Elanore. It does you no good to seem so openly against them.” He looked away. “It was your friend, the Count.”
“Edmund!” Elanore reached out to turn his face back towards her.
“It happened a few days ago, the day you arrived. I had wandered on to his property, it turns out, and he wasn’t pleased. I suppose he thought I was poaching on his lands.”
“Then you fought.” She felt a twinge of uneasiness pass through her.
“He was almost crazed with fury.” A crease developed on Edmund’s forehead as he sorted through his own thoughts on the matter. “He wasn’t wholly there when he first attacked me with his walking stick. He did not even seem to notice that I fought him with a sword. That was the first cue that something wasn’t right–”
Elanore colored, angry at this behavior towards her friend. “Even if you were trespassing, his response is incomprehensible—”
To her surprise, Edmund shook his head. “Elanore, it may sound as equally mad, but my instincts tell me something else about him. He knows something we don’t, something that has put him on edge, afraid.”
As Edmund related the conversation that occurred, Elanore’s fingers began to pick at the embroidery on the quilted coverlet on the bed. Edmund had the gift that hunters had, of reading creatures and understanding them. She allowed the possibility that his instincts also extended to people. She weighed out the warning that the Count had given her regarding the shadow creatures. Could he have been more afraid of them than she had realized?
Even as Edmund’s narration finished, her thoughts remained far away on the Count and the shadow creatures. She failed to notice Edmund studying her in the ensuing silence. When he placed his hand over hers and halted her unintended destruction of the quilt, she quizzically looked up into his grey eyes.
“Stop that,” he chided her gently before he pulled her towards him.