Excerpt Monday: Old Friends, part one

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Old Friends: a Tale of the Holtlands by R. F. LongOld Friends: a Tale of the Holtlands

Part One

Invitations weren’t part of a warrior’s day to day experience. Tyria knew two things: people who wanted to see or spend time with her always had an ulterior motive; people in need of help just came straight out and asked.

Reese’s note was curt, almost rude. As her oldest friend, there should have been some sort of greeting at least. It had been four years and she hadn’t even had word he was home. He asked to see her, but didn’t say why. It had to be bad.

The manor house nestled in the green heart of the valley. It was good land, Tyria knew that, fertile and cared for, respected. The little town had not yet grown beyond management, but the forest had lost the shadows of the wild. It could be hunted and would provide ample foraging. All in all, the manor would be a good place for a young couple to settle down, to raise a family. Reese was just the man to manage a place like this. It would have taken a million changes in Tyria’s life to make her the woman Reese needed at his side.

So why had he sent for her?

As she rode up the well tended road, the gatekeepers called out her name and the gates ground open. Reese’s servants lined the courtyard, but they didn’t cheer her arrival as they would in other times. They looked terrified. As she studied their faces, her puzzlement turned to a dull dread. Foreboding twisted at her stomach.

Two coats of arms hung above the heavy oak door. Reese’s family symbol, the silverbark tree on green had served as the crest of the Valdens for seven hundred years. The other was newly painted. It was a salmon, leaping, against a background of stars on navy blue. The crest of House Ardent. Elysse’s crest.

As she dismounted and handed Dancer’s reigns to a groom, Tyria forced herself to quell the disappointment she felt sure would show on her face. Reese and Elysse’s betrothal happened years ago, before he went away to study. She had been certain that time, and bitter experience, would have changed the two of them as much as it had changed her. The repainting of the second crest meant an impending marriage. Nothing had changed at all. She ground down the stab of pain deep inside and tried to smile. All she did was bare her teeth.

The faces of Reese’s household didn’t auger well for a wedding. Grim and strained they welcomed her, with a desperate hope buried in their looks and words. Something had gone terribly wrong here. Wrong beyond enduring.

Reese paced his hall, back and forth in front of the cold fireplace. His golden curls hung lank and his face seemed a hollow mask beneath a day or so of beard growth. Tyria couldn’t remember a time he looked so unkempt. Tarnished, the young lord looked to her, like an unused bit of silver.

Reese finally noticed Tyria and swept her into an embrace. That sense of something bright and wonderful within him flooded over her, something that only waited to be unlocked. She’d always known it was there, and nothing had changed. His magic was a potent as ever, and it still had not been fully tapped.

The relief lasted just a moment. Then his grief reasserted itself, drawing back over him like a tattered canopy, and muting the light within. His grip around her tightened and he buried his face in her hair.

“What has happened?” she asked, holding him against her, awkward now the moment had gone on too long, and yet unwilling to release him for fear it might never happen again.

“It’s Elysse. She’s been taken.”

Tyria drew back and he released her. She studied his face before she asked her question.

“Hostage?”

“Worse than that. By the Fell.”

He lurched away from her, out of reach and started pacing again, hands clenched to fists at his side, as if only by moving, by action could he keep from breaking down.

“When I came back for my father’s funeral, I arranged that Elysse should come here, so the wedding preparations could begin. We were so happy, Tyria. It was to be no more than a couple of months.” He hung his head, turned and headed back the other way. “There was a land dispute over by Collingford and I went to mediate. It only took a day but when I came back, she was gone. Some of the gold miners from the mountain had come down with tales of a Fell attack on their village.”

“And Elysse went to investigate in your place.” Tyria sighed. Of course she did – dear, brave, and impossibly idealistic Elysse. She would see it as her duty to protect them, as Reese’s wife to be. “Where’s your brother?”

“Layden went to Great Holt three weeks ago. Most of the men were with me. There was no one to go with Elysse. But she went anyway.”

Elysse would not have stood a chance had the shadow creatures singled her out. And as Reese’s bride to be, they would single her out, entice her to them, just to get at the Valdens. Forcing the miners to bring her the story to begin with would have been easy for them. They had ways of forcing a saint to crawl into sin.

“There was no sign of her, nor the miners, nothing… Even the forest has changed up there. It’s filled with shadows and disease. When I heard you had passed through Crosstown I sent out riders at once.”

His footsteps silenced. Reese had fallen still, looking up at the portrait of his father over the fireplace.

“He would be… so disappointed, so angry, but he would know what to do. He loved this place. I never understood why until I was far from it.”

Tyria closed her eyes to block out the sight of his grief, but that couldn’t help with his voice. Reese had changed, beyond the worry and the fear of the last few days of endless searching. As a youth he had been tall and gangly, but he had grown into his frame. His pain cast him into sharp relief as she watched, sharpened her feelings to a knife point. Combined with the need to console him, it was almost too much. It took her a moment before she could look at him again, approaching him silently, hoping to reach out and offer some comfort.

The hand she would have laid on his shoulder hung cold and stubborn by her side. She had not been made for comfort.

His eyes, like his father’s eyes, were hazel, all the greens and browns of nature combined. Legend had it that the Valden blood was holy blood, the blood of the Goddess of Nature, though Tyria remembered the less than holy exploits that she and Elysse had goaded Reese into as children. Divine ancestry didn’t seem too likely.

“I didn’t hear of your father’s death until long after the funeral, Reese. I’m sorry I didn’t come to see you then.” Reese just nodded without listening, staring at the portrait as if it would provide a solution. Left in silence, Tyria’s memory stirred up all sorts of images she could not articulate.

She recalled Lord Valden’s way with growing things, the way he could brighten a flower with just a touch, and the way his farmers brought him the first fruits of each harvest to bless the next. Reese’s interest in all this was a passing thing. He listened dutifully, but without Tyria’s fascination, to his father’s tales of the Silverbarks, the guardian trees that kept this valley safe, a gift of magic from ancient times, and of the Valdens’ duty to the land. Reese had longed for a wider world and so his father sent him away to study with the Masters of the Collegium, and develop his innate magical abilities. She had wept at his departing. So had Elysse. As his betrothed, Elysse had been the one with the right, so Tyria had wept alone, hiding from the world that would see her, and know how she felt.

The silence dragged on. She had to find something to say, something to break it, so she said the only thing she could think of.

“I’ll help,” she told him. Even though she knew that the Fell would have, in all likelihood, killed Elysse already, Tyria couldn’t stop the words from slipping out. She needed to see the hope restored to his eyes. And she felt a traitor for putting it there.

“I knew you would. You have never let me down.” He embraced her and she closed her eyes to drink in that sensation. The warmth of his body wrapped around her, stirring her chilled heart again. She had longed to feel him this close for five years. For much longer than that, if the truth be told.

“Do you know which way she went?”

“I have a map of the area. I tried to follow her trail. But it just ends. There’s no indication beyond the foot of the mountain.”

“None that you can see.” It was a statement rather than a boast and Reese would know that as well as she did. Skills were skills and he needed her help now. There was no need to be overly humble about them with him.

“Tyria, do you really think you can find her?”

“We’ll do it as we always have, Reese. One step at a time. First show me where your people last saw her.”

That hope bloomed again, bright, rejuvenating. The boy she remembered came back to the worn out man’s face and her traitor heart quickened. At the same time her stomach opened to a yawning pit beneath it.

© R. F. Long, 2009

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Old Friends will continue, all this and next week, right up to Christmas Eve, so come back to find out what happens next.

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Comments

Excerpt Monday: Old Friends, part one — 9 Comments

  1. Awesome opening! I can’t wait to read the rest. Tyria sounds like my kind of heroine — strong, independant, resourceful, but with a definite soft spot.

  2. Pingback: Angeleque Ford » Excerpt Monday – Sweet Sin