Part Two of Old Friends today. If you missed it, you can read Part One Here
Old Friends: a Tale of the Holtlands
They rode through the forest Tyria remembered as bright and green, filled with birdsong and the rustling of living things. Around the manor, the forest remained the same, but as they climbed into the hills, the birdsong died away, and shadows clung to the edges of her vision. Fewer flowers crowded the edges of the path, and finally they vanished, leaving only briars and weeds.
Reese sagged in the saddle, more affected by the change than she was.
“Are you all right?”
“Yes. But it hurts inside, as if this will never recover. Can’t you feel it? The earth itself is fighting a sickness.”
“What sort of sickness?” She knew, or could guess, but she asked anyway to keep him talking. It always started like this. A poison, a curse, the Fell.
“Like… like something in the blood. They taught me all forms of healing in the Collegium.” He gave a wry grin. “I was good at it too. But this type… The blood fuels the body, drives everything. That’s why it is so important to magic. I can sense blood. Even a little makes my powers surge. But here, it’s as if the blood is rank. It drains me, just as it is draining everything around it.”
“Will you be able to do this, Reese? Truthfully now.” The last thing she needed was a guide too weak or sick to show her the way.
He nodded, drew himself upright and shook off the pain. “I can. I wasn’t expecting it to be this bad. It’s worse than yesterday. I’ll manage.”
“Good.” This talk of blood was never helpful. It reminded her of all the things she had seen. In the northern campaign against the Fair Ones and the Fell, she had seen far too much blood. War did that, of course, but with those adversaries… she shied back from the memories. It was the only way to stay sane.
The hillside soon became a steep, rocky mountainside, littered with unstable boulders and scraggly trees which clung on with determined roots.
“This is as far as the trail went,” Reese said. “After this, there is no sign of her.”
Tyria dismounted, scanned the area with a critical eye. Dozens of hoof and boot prints crossed over here, too many searchers to see the trail. No wonder nothing had been found. Tyria crouched down, stared at the treeline. There was a space where something wasn’t right. She stared harder. The trees there didn’t move at the same time as those beside them, but like an echo their leaves and branches followed a moment behind. Tyria narrowed her eyes. They tried to slide away from the spot, so she had to force herself to focus on it. Definitely a spell of some kind, locking a path off from the rest of the world. She grimaced.
Reese looked past it. His eyes didn’t even pause as they moved past the spell. “Where?”
She pointed. “There, a barring spell. Can’t you see it? You’re the one who’s been studying.”
He stepped towards it, reached out and waved his hand through it, but nothing happened. Reese gave a heavy grunt of annoyance.
“I don’t have your way with locks, Tyria, physical or magical.”
She grinned. It has been her favourite trick as a child, to open a lock no one else could. It was her own brand of magic and small though it was, it had served her well. She stretched out her hand, passing it through the spell and the illusion collapsed.
A path opened up before them, a steep climb, heading up the mountain.
“You didn’t know it was here?” she asked Reese, who used to brag he knew every inch of the valley.
“I remember it. But I thought it was lost to the forest long ago. Paths shift all the time here when they fall out of use. The forest reclaims them.”
They took to their feet and led the horses. Brambles tangled across their path and they had to force their way through a thicket of spiny-leaved bushes. There was little remaining of a path and even that petered out at a spring, where cool water bubbled out of a crack in the base of the cliff, pooling there. Around the edge of the pond were the white ghosts of dead trees, a ring of hollow attendants. Reese frowned and approached the nearest, putting out a tentative hand.
“The Silverbarks,” he said and Tyria saw, with some surprise, that he was shaking. “The sacred, guardian trees. But they’ve been dead for weeks.”
“That bodes ill,” she replied. And yet it all fitted into place. With the guardian trees dead, there would be nothing to stop the Fell. They must have been nesting here for years, just waiting for a chance to come out, gradually poisoning the one thing keeping them in. And once the old magic was gone…
“I know how to restore a living being.” Reese caressed the bark. It flaked away on his palm like chalk cut with glitter. He brushed it off on his tunic. “But my power does not extend to restoring the dead.”
“Pray it never does,” Tyria replied. “That’s black magic indeed. Do you know this place? Did Elysse come here?”
“Of course, though I haven’t heard tell of it in years. It belonged to the Goddess once and the girls would come here to ensure they would find true love. It’s forbidden for men, of course. These places usually are. Apparently the water showed the reflection of their soulmate. It probably just stems from some old fertility rite. I read about similar rituals in the Collegium.” She sensed his mistrust of the place growing, probably why he was talking now. Knowing Reese as she knew him, he could hide little from her. It wasn’t just that he stood in a place where men were excluded. The sight of the dead guardian trees had clearly unsettled him. And Elysse must have come this way, must have stood here and seen this. And what else?
Tyria sighed. Girls were girls all across the Holtlands and beyond. The fact that their parents would arrange marriages – if they were lucky with boys they already knew and liked – didn’t stop them from romanticising the whole thing. She had never had the chance to romance about anything, no more than Reese and Elysse, betrothed at seven years of age. They were lucky with their families. Celtoria’s court where she had grown up was no place for the naïve.
Mistaking her silence for interest, Reese stepped up to her side. “Do you want to look?” He was trying to be kind, she supposed. But she didn’t need to look into the pool to see the man she loved. He stood beside her, so close she could feel his warmth, smell his scent like some exotic balm, sense his proximity through the air between them. Her heart pounded, just below her throat, so painful that she couldn’t draw breath. Words lodged there with it. She couldn’t have hauled them up to her mouth even if they could be formed.
Instead, she made herself laugh and shook her head. “No. Not in the least.”
Reese blushed. “I suppose you’re betrothed by now.”
Hadn’t he heard? She stared at him in surprise. She knew he had been studying, had travelled far away, but still… how could he not know her appalling situation?
“Celtoria is my guardian, Reese, now as in our childhood. With my parents dead… it complicates things. Surely you know that.”
He had the good grace to hang his head. “Elysse mentioned some… some things.”
Tyria seethed. Much as she loved Elysse, the girl had no right to gossip about her. Especially not to Reese! Because Elysse was no fool and so had to know how Tyria had felt for all those years. She had to know.
“I’m a political pawn in a game I do not choose to play. I spend as much of my time on the road as possible.”
His features knotted in puzzlement. “But you’re True Blood, a Scion of Tyr the Mighty.”
“So what? Celtoria is a Scion of Celan and she brought about the unification of the all the Holts. I was the child of her enemies, yet still she raised me alongside her own daughter. Politics holds sway over her world. And mine. Lean Halleb looks the most likely choice for my husband, the loathsome bully.” She sighed, and lifted her face so the sunlight could fall on her, feeling its warmth like a longed-for caress. She wished it could drive away the shadows within her. The air here was sweet and clean, untainted by the crafts and industries of the Holts. But it wouldn’t stay like that for long now the Fell were loose.
Which was more to the point. Why talk of a future life when the present was fraught with danger? Perhaps she would never have to face marriage. With that in mind, she could almost welcome death. Unfortunately, she knew as well as anyone death was not what the Fell had in mind for her.
“Where are the caves?” she asked.
There were always caves, some dark and dank hidey-hole where they nested, a place where the light could not touch them. It was where the Fell held rites to their Dark God, where their captives were taken and where blood flowed. At the heart of such caves was a single room or cavern, a Soul Chamber. Tyria had seen many such places, but the prospect of each new one filled her with ever increasing dread.
Reese checked his map. “There’s an old mine entrance further up. The tunnels run throughout the mountain.”
Of course there was, she thought and her heart sank back down to its new favourite residence in the pit of her stomach, plumeting like a lead weight.
“Lead the way.”
© R. F. Long, 2009
Old Friends will continue, all this and next week, right up to Christmas Eve, so come back to find out what happens next.