Had it been anyone else promising knowledge and gifts, Edmund might have turned away in suspicion and marched straight home. However, there was too much history between them — too many kindnesses paid to him in the past to not give the cleric the audience he desired. Unlike most of the town residents who were so willing to shade rumor as truth and recite silly gossip as news, the friar was a person of deep integrity. If the man had something to say his words would be both true and important.
As such, the friar’s declaration had stirred up both excitement and anxiety in the youth. Edmund did not speak as he followed the elderly man back to the town hall that served as the temporary residence to all wandering clergy. He barely heard the snow making sharp noises under his moving feet or the horse grumbling with hunger behind him. His movements were automatic as he tethered his horse to a post and shook the snow off his shoes before wandering inside.
The fair young man was in agony as he sat on a wooden bench and waited for the friar to resume their conversation. “Father.” Edmund’s patience failed him as he observed his elder compulsively opening and closing the stove door. “Your novice will be returning soon.”
“Yes, yes.” Lorrence gave the contents of the stove one last hard poke before shutting the stove’s metal door and taking his seat on the stool across from Edmund. With one last look around, he started speaking again. “Do you remember how you came to be here in Winchester?”
The question, as pedestrian as it was, struck Edmund speechless. His silver eyes dropped to his hands as he tried to collect his thoughts — something of a habit he had retained from childhood. “As hard as I’ve tried, I do not recall much. When I think back, I can smell the woods. I can see small things like a toy or glimpses of faces I loved.” He had only rare fragments of memories, enough to tell him that there had been a life before he had arrived here but not much else. “But I don’t recall much of the journey here except waking up one day in a noisy house with many children staring at me from the foot of the bed.”
The friar nodded. “Your first day in the Ormond home.”
He had been barely two or so when he arrived in their household, according to Mrs. Ormond. His older brothers often toyed with him after he arrived, teasing him about his sometimes strange mannerisms and talents. They joked to him that he had been plucked off a tree, found under a rock, or found amongst a pack of wolves alongside other colorful nonsense. They had not meant to hurt him nor did they know they had done so; he only cried when he was alone. “My brothers filled my head with odd ideas about where I came from, ridiculous things actually.”
The friar observed the sharp tone of that last statement. The elderly man had wondered why there was such distance between Edmund and the older Ormond siblings. He had assumed it had something to do with being the one left to fend for his parents while the rest of them ran off to pursue their fortunes. It had not occurred to him that Edmund may have been unhappy long before that. “What I told them was that you were from Capestown and were abandoned at a parish. If they did not reveal that to you, perhaps their stories were meant to be kind in a backhanded way.”
Edmund inhaled, creating a painful shuddering sound of distress as he realized what his brothers were trying to hide from him. “I was thrown away?”
“No,” the man interjected suddenly. “I should have told you sooner.” Father Lorrence twisted his hands in his lap. “I had not realized what you were dealing with. How you saw things as impossible for you.”
The pressure of these past few weeks had revealed the cracks underneath Edmund’s normally placid exterior. He was startled to find that the hunter was plagued by insecurities about his own identity and origins, doubts that made the young man unable to risk or gamble against the status quo. The friar pounded his fist on his lap, frustrated that he had failed to see this before. “Never again should you doubt yourself. Your parents cherished and loved you. They did not give you up.”
For a minute, Edmund did not make a sound. His shoulders trembled under the weight of emotions. They collapsed as he put his head in his hands and exhaled, a wordless admission of the pain he had felt all this time, all these years.
He stared at the tips of his boots, blinking back the water from his eyes. He searched himself, wondering if should be angry at the clergyman for not having straightened this out sooner, but he found only relief. He looked up to thank the clergyman, but the smile on his face faded as he saw the troubled face of the cleric.
The man rubbed his eyes and looked away. “You ought to know all of it now. Your birth mother and father lived up in a small settlement a day’s walk south of the Silver Lake. I had discovered this place on my way up to deliver a message to the large town forming on the lake — back before the rumors of dragons and wolves caused the area north of here to empty. There were several good folk in this settlement blessed with children. Your parents were kind enough to take me in when I first passed through there. So when I returned south, I thought to return the kindness by bringing them tea I had obtained from my brethren.”
The friar paused. “Their entire settlement was filled with young people like them, a tall and fair lot to be sure. They were different from the others I had seen in these parts. It was their eyes that marked them as different — eyes that reflected the many moods of the sky that they lived under. As you’ve grown up, I see you’ve become just like your parents and the rest of them.”
Self-consciously Edmund ran his fingers through his blonde hair and drew another shaky breath. He did not know if this information comforted him or caused greater pain. “What caused their deaths?”
The friar stared at the grated door on the stove, watching the flames as he continued his narration. “It was late in the day when I got closer to the settlement. I saw the rising smoke in the distance and thought nothing of it at first. It was a time when seasons were changing and it was common to burn leaves or twigs to clear the brush. But–” the man’s eyes hardened. “I came over the hill and smelled death. The settlement was nothing but a skeleton – a shell of its former self. I didn’t stop to think about why it was that way. I simply looked for survivors.” The friar paused to wipe away the sudden sheen of perspiration that had formed on his face with a modest piece of cotton cloth. He set his jaw and continued. “Your mother was pinned down by falling debris in your home. She probably died from her injuries and the smoke.”
The cleric shook his head. “His body wasn’t far away. He bore some wounds, but I couldn’t tell how and where they came from. He could have died from the smoke or something else. I didn’t pay enough attention, as I heard you crying then and discovered you in a trough, hidden away. I tended you clumsily I fear, for you kept crying while I searched for other survivors. But all I ended up doing was to administer last rites. No one had been left alive. And as night fell, I moved away from there to camp elsewhere. The scene was too horrifying to linger at and the smoke was too much for you.”
The man shivered, in spite of the warm heat that the stove generated. Edmund remained silent, so the man continued uninterrupted. “I should have not quit the scene so easily, without more than a few prayers for the dead. But by the next day while I considered turning back, my friend — the one I mentioned to you that runs the business in Crossroads — well he found us on the road. He was in a panic. There had been stories floating south of multiple attacks on settlements by wild beasts gone mad. And he knew I was out there somewhere, useless without a weapon. He insisted on leaving us in a shelter with one of his servants while he and his troupe went north to investigate what I had told him.”
Father Lorrence paused here, frowning. “When he returned, he told me not to speak of anything to the church or anyone else. He had gone up to the village to see for himself what might have happened. There were no bodies to be found and many, many tracks. ”
“What kind of tracks?” Edmund prompted.
“I don’t think he said. He said it was a mess. But what made him rather agitated was the apparent removal of not only the bodies but of every distinct personal item. ‘Picked clean’ was how he described it. As for the bit about dragons, well he didn’t believe it.”
“You do not either,” the young man realized.
“At the time, I really had no idea what happened. But over the years I’ve come to realize that my friend’s intuitions are rarely incorrect. Still, I was not exactly willing to lie there for another month or two. Harry and I argued a lot over this, so Mr. Winchester was brought out to see me and to give his input. He sided with Harry in thinking there was some kind of blood feud or sinister scheme at work.”
The friar did not notice Edmund’s sudden start at the mention of the former mayor. As he ploughed forward, he failed to notice the young man had narrowed his eyes. “Between them, they decided to find a way to keep an eye on you while I retreated south. I could not take you to the monastery, after all. It would not have been a fit place for you. But they didn’t exactly want it to be known where you came from, so the three of us concocted a story. And we brought you to the Ormonds.”
Father Lorrence paused to wipe his brow again.
Edmund stared. For almost two decades, the two men he had admired most had withheld this information from him. “Who else knew the truth? Did Mrs. Winchester know where I came from?”
The friar looked at Edmund whose face had paled with anger. “Mr. Winchester was particular that she should not know anything. She was not one for secrets.”
“I’m glad to know that,” the hunter said coldly. He could not stand the idea that all these years she also might have collaborated to keep information from him.
The friar bowed his head. “You have every right to be disappointed in all of us. I should have said something sooner. When people began to talk of your impending marriage, I saw that we were long past that point where you should have been told something. Before that — Mr. Winchester wanted to be the one to tell you. I wasn’t involved with your life enough to know how you might respond. He was worried you might run up north as soon as you were told the truth and get yourself killed. ”
Edmund closed his eyes and tried to think rationally instead of responding emotionally to that last statement. He knew Mr. Winchester had cared deeply for him. Over the years, the man had done everything he could to teach him how to hunt, shoot, and otherwise be self-sufficient. He understood now that the older man was doing much more than providing for his future. He was equipping him to protect himself against something or someone. “I wish he had been the one to tell me,” Edmund responded finally. “I wouldn’t have run off. But he’s right in that I would want to seek out answers.”
The friar nodded and then placed something on the space next to where Edmund sat. “This might help you. I was waiting for him to tell you before I gave it to you. It was sewn into your clothing. An odd little thing that I believe your father kept as a good luck charm.”
This ‘charm’ was a strange metal object wrought of gold and some other material. Edmund picked up the meshlike form, careful to avoid piercing himself with the sharp prongs interspersed throughout the structure. As he turned it about in the palm of his hand, he felt an unexplainable sense of loss and emptiness. He wanted to ask more about it but the steps outside the hall creaked, signaling the return of Novice Wyte. The friar spoke hurriedly as he looked anxiously at the door. “I’ve kept it hidden all these years. I’d put that away for now. ”
Edmund complied and stood. “I should leave.”
The friar rambled on. “I’m sorry to leave you with more questions than answers. I hope you will understand and forgive me in time.”
But the young man could not look the cleric in the eye and offer the words of absolution that the friar wanted. Nor could he bring himself to embrace him – he was still far too angry for that. Instead, he shook the man’s hand once before he hurried out the door.
* * *
His journey home was a blur of snow.
Edmund was mentally and emotionally numb. Whatever feelings of sadness or betrayal he might have felt earlier had dissolved into a realization that he was more alone than he had thought.
After securing and feeding his horse, Edmund found his way inside his home. He announced his return as he hung his cold and soggy outer clothing on a wooden peg in the kitchen.
“Edmund!” His mother called out from one of the other rooms.
At the sound of her happy voice, he felt a pang of guilt. How could he, after all they had done for him, forget he still had his foster parents?
He paused and turned to look at his mother, standing there in the doorway with her hands on her hips. “You look ghastly!” She came over to him and fussed over his shirt for a moment. He looked down at the top of her greying head and realized how old she had become. His heart clenched for a moment in panic as he contemplated what life might be like without her. “We have a guest, too!”
He followed her back to the parlor, wondering if this was yet another random merchant hoping to set up an account with his parents. But as he approached the front parlor, he heard his father laughing and chatting – something he rarely did, leaving business-related pleasantries to Mrs. Ormond.
His mother hovered near him, dusting at some imaginary lint on his sleeve as he opened the door. Immediately he spotted his father in his favorite chair, smiling queerly as he indulged in a plate of pale, sugary candies.
“This is our new boarder,” his mother pushed him forward gently as both Mr. Ormond and the guest rose from their seats.
There was a rustle of fine silks as the boarder stepped forward to take his hand. A pair of hazel eyes pierced straight through him as a familiar woman gave him a small, knowing smile. “Hello again, Edmund.”
Outside, the falling snow changed to ice.