Old Friends: a Tale of the Holtlands
The cave, which formed the entrance to the abandoned mine, was a dark cleft in the rock face, as if a giant had smote a gash through the side of the mountain. Nothing would induce the horses to go any nearer. They couldn’t have taken them in there anyway. But the reaction told Tyria all she needed to know. Dancer’s instincts were good and Tyria trusted the horse. There could be no doubt now. Too many pieces slotted right into place. Tyria drew her sword and lifted it as if in salute. Closing her eyes, she whispered a prayer to Al-V’Annin the Bright, Warrior god and Avenger of the Lost. He remained the one god in whom she felt able to place her trust and here, now, she needed his protection. The metal pressed cold and hard against her palm. It sucked away every last weakness from her. Her foster sister, had once declared that the sword was Tyria’s true love, her one and only bedfellow. Sometimes that thought was a comfort but there were also times when Tyria prayed for it not to be true.
Tyria opened her eyes, blinking in the bright sunlight. Contemplating the shadows beyond the cave mouth, she had expected the world to have turned as dark, and yet, perversely, the sun was radiant as any other summer’s day. She caught a glimpse of Reese staring at her. Well, let him wonder. The myths that had developed around her exploits sickened her, especially knowing the truth. But it could be, and had been, of use. It shielded her.
With the sword held out before her, Tyria stepped into the shadows.
The dark deepened more quickly than she had anticipated, as if someone or something deliberately snuffed out the light.
“If you reach into the pack,” she started to tell Reese, “you’ll find a-”
He murmured a few words, his voice running tremulously across her senses, magic charging every word. Light blossomed in his palm, a ball of brightness with no visible source. Except for Reese, of course.
“That’s useful,” she said, dryly.
A smile quirked the corners of his mouth. “I’m glad you think so. My studies haven’t been in vain then.”
A memory stabbed at her. The day he left—when she saw him kiss Elysse goodbye and knew she had never stood a chance—when he had said goodbye she told him that he was a fool, that he would learn nothing of worth in Valarium…
“I’m sorry, Reese.” The words slipped out by themselves, and the ease of it shocked her. Who knew apologies were so simple? An uncomfortable silence hung in the air and she knew she had to fill it, before other words found their way out as well, words she could not say. Words that could never be allowed to escape. “I thought students of the Collegium were forbidden to use their magic except in the direst necessity.”
He blinked in the light, studying her. Did he know? Could he have guessed now? She felt heat rise in her face.
“You think this isn’t the direst necessity?” he asked.
His sense of humour. She had forgotten how cutting he could be. It snagged her own sense of the ridiculous, and with her nerves jangling from the combination of her emotions and the mounting sense of danger ahead, Tyria found a grin spreading over her face.
“You’re still twisted, Reese.”
“Yet, I’m not the one laughing,” he replied, his face unchanged. “Tyria…” His voice softened, and she noticed the strain in the tones, on his face, illuminated by the flickering light so that every line stood out stark and undeniable. “Tyria, is it even possible she is still alive?”
“It’s always possible,” she lied, hoping he would not catch the stricken flash she was sure must have entered her eyes. Her mood sobered again. Light from his globe danced on the uneven walls, threw up shadows in the distance. “Stay behind me. I need to be able to see ahead.”
Where the mines ended and the natural tunnels began, they found the paintings, primitive daubs on the wall, figures dancing, hunting, killing… But the figures were too sinewy to be human, the dancing frenzied in honour of a formless shadow, and those dying, the victims, too human by far. With the pictures mainly executed in blood, there could be little doubt now about the exact ritual the Fell carried out here. Though the details might remain vague, the final result was clear.
The mines had led them down, far away from sun and moon, into clammy, cramped tunnels which echoed every sound and amplified each breath. Reese walked close to her, his globe throwing light and her shadow before them.
Finally they came to a place where the tunnel opened into a cavern. A pool extended before them, only broken in the centre by a rocky outcrop. The ceiling was a high dome overhead, covered in carvings, figures which clung to the rock, the same colour, the same strata and texture, but each one perfectly and individually crafted.
At the far side of the pool, Tyria could just pick out a crack in the rock. She caught her bearing, oriented herself by thinking back over their winding path.
“That’s the spring,” she said.
“But we’re deep underground.”
“We climbed before we came inside. This is an ill place, Reese.” There were watchers among the carved stones. Tyria felt their unholy eyes upon her, stroking her skin. A prayer to Al-V’Annin died on her lips, smothered by the present evil. Reese knelt on the edge of the lake and stirred the water with his elegant fingers. Ripples spread out, flowing across the black expanse.
“This is how they poisoned the trees and were able to get out. But they must have worked on this for years.”
“Centuries more like,” she replied. “That’s how they work. I wonder who first built the mine, who disturbed them…”
“Why did no one say anything? Did the Fell silence them? This place is wrong. It just feels wrong.”
“Yes,” she replied, and pointed to the water. The ripples had reversed direction and were heading back towards him.
Reese scrambled back as the water lapped towards his feet, higher than before, hungry.
“Perhaps… perhaps we should…”
Leave? Tyria’s mind finished for him. But that was unfair. He didn’t say it. Anyway, there would be no leaving, not yet. She jerked her chin upwards and he followed her gaze.
Above them, the shadows thrown up from the ball of light were moving, crawling over each other. The ceiling thronged with life. Entangled limbs detached, unfolded and the faces they had taken for statues turned ravenous eyes upon them.
“Reese, see the island in the pool?” It wasn’t far, just a lump of rock protruding from the water. On it—something she had at first taken for a part of it—lay a crumpled heap. When he turned back to the lake, standing now, Tyria could pick out the white of a woman’s slender arm, and the cream leather of her tunic beneath the travelling cloak.
“Elysse,” he breathed. The word glowed with love and fear.
“Don’t think about what you’re doing. The water is not deep. Go and get her.” She didn’t dare to tell him that it wasn’t water, not now. When the Fell swarmed, everything turned to blood around them, the blood they fed their master. It wasn’t just an expression, some poet’s way of explaining the death they wrought. She had seen it in the North. It was blood, doomed blood.
Does he realise? she wondered. He has had enough education to come across this nugget of information. And if he does know, will he do it? I guess this is where we see how strong love really is.
She would have done it for him without pause. She knew in her heart that nothing would have kept her from him. The Fell were all around them and without cold steel, they would both be lost. She could not go. But Reese hesitated, just for a moment.
The thought both stunned and appalled her.
“Reese,” Tyria said, turning to look at him, “if you really love her…”
Reese plunged in to the lake. It rose to his chest at once, but as he moved out, the depth remained constant.
“Damn it, Tyria,” he said. “This isn’t water.”
The first Fell almost slammed into her from behind as she turned to answer.
© R. F. Long, 2009
Old Friends will continue, all next week, right up to Christmas Eve, so come back to find out what happens next.