A Thing Forgotten: A Darkness Filled with Light

Part One

1. The Hunting Trip

Amanda had never been in a forest like this. King’s Wood was darker than the woods at home, which were mostly natural, though they had been domesticated, and were only a couple hundred years old. They were tended by foresters, who kept them healthy, carefully harvesting the trees that were less fit. And then there were the woodlots, of course. And the parks.

King’s Wood was wild, and strange, and a little bit scary. The trees were more widely spaced, and much bigger, and some of them were very, very much older. There were runts, and leaners, and others that were crooked, or forked, or broken off near the top, and there was standing deadwood. There was more undergrowth, though most of it was rather sparse — lower-story trees only fifteen or twenty feet tall, bushes, hanging vines, tough plants sometimes waist high. Little of it obscured her view, which was a couple hundred yards in all directions. 

There were animals in King’s Wood, and some of them were dangerous.

She realized, with a tiny twinge that caught the back of her neck, that she couldn’t see her father. She had been so taken up with the forest that she had lost track of him. The last time she had seen him hadn’t been that long ago, two minutes maybe … or twenty…. She looked around, saw no sign of him, heard nothing at all. But then, you weren’t supposed to hear a hunter in the forest. She whistled in that special way that wouldn’t frighten any deer. *Where are you?* 

Her father whistled back, *I’m here.* 

She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He was where he should be, off to her left, but rather farther away than she liked. But that was okay. He hadn’t left her by accident. This was a part of her experience.

Everything was okay. She was fine. She knew where her father was. If she saw a deer, she wouldn’t shoot it if it were anywhere in his direction. And he wouldn’t shoot in her direction either. The safest place for a deer was between her and her father.

Her father hunted here often, which was why they had come. For the deer. They had seen none so far. When she did see one, she would shoot it with her bow, with the special arrow her father had given her. 

Serious hunters used rifles, but bow-hunting was a long-standing Valentine tradition. Amanda’s brother Charles had gone out on his first hunt three years ago, when he had come of age, and he had gone several times since, each time bringing back a deer for a trophy, for leather, and for plenty of meat. They didn’t need the meat, but it was a welcome change from what they regularly had. They would invite people over for a celebratory party the day after they brought it back. They would eat a lot of it then, and give the rest to anyone who wanted to take some home. The head, of course, they would mount and put up with the others — the older trophies were in an upper room, out of the way — but they would find uses for the rest of the animal too. They didn’t let any of it go to waste.

Amanda had turned fifteen two days ago. She had come of age, when she could legally leave home if she wanted to, and take care of herself, and be fully responsible for herself, wherever she chose to live. She wasn’t going to do that for a while yet, and there was no rush. 

Coming of age was celebrated differently in every family. In her family, it was the time for this first hunt, as it had been for generations. She knew what it meant to her father, and how disappointed he would have been be if she hadn’t come with him. 

She had dreaded this trip since the day when Charles had come back from his first hunt, with his deer, and she realized, for the first time really, that she would be expected to kill one too, when her time came. She didn’t want to kill a deer. She didn’t want to kill anything. She ate all kinds of meat, and liked it, but she didn’t have to kill it herself. That was different.

But she wouldn’t let her father down. If she saw a deer, she would shoot it. She had been practicing archery since she was seven, like all her family, and was better now than Charles ever would be. Or maybe even than David, though he was still only twelve. Better than her mother, who went with her father two or three times a year, not for the hunt, but to keep him company, to share something that was very important to him. She had brought back deer of her own several times.

She took a deep breath and went back to the hunt, moving slowly, and carefully, and as quietly as she could. She would get better at this with practice. Not that she would ever hunt again, but she might go out with her father again, just like her mother did. All hunts with her father were special, but this one particularly so. He didn’t get many opportunities to take time off from his duties, but her coming of age meant a lot to him. She would have him all to herself, for a few days at least, and that was as important to her as it was to him. 

He was an exceptional father. He hadn’t let her mother have the greater part of her upbringing, but had shared it almost equally with her, which was more than most fathers did. He had done the same with Charles and with David. He was like that.

Her first hunt. Her last hunt. She had the arrow, with one black feather, which her father had given her for the occasion. It was nocked to her bow, which had been made to be drawn left handed. She was right handed but her right eye was weak. Her draw was as strong as Charles’s, though he was big like her father. She was good with a bow. As long as she was only shooting at targets.

She whistled again, just to let hm know where she was. He responded, he was keeping abreast of her and out of sight. He wanted her to be the first to see a deer. It would be safe to shoot in any direction as long as it was ahead of her or around to her right. Her father would pass up any opportunities of his own unless it got late, and then he would whistle to her first. Amanda was supposed to make the first kill. Her father knew how she felt about killing, but he was proud of her for coming out on this hunt with him, just this one time. No matter how she felt about it, she was not going to let him down.

They had not talked about hunting on the train to Jefferson yesterday, six hours from Sunnybridge, or on the half hour bus ride from Jefferson to Kingswood, which had no rail service, and was right on the edge of King’s Wood. They had rented horses and ridden about two hours more into the forest, where they had made camp. They talked about other things, about Charles passing over his father’s title so he could go off to university. About her younger brother David really wanting to be Baronet in his turn, which meant that Amanda didn’t have to face that responsibility. About her finishing school soon, then what she might study in college, rather than university. And about her work in his stable, how much she was learning for someone as young as she, and how her father might set her up with a stable of her own, after college some day, when she had more experience. Her own stable, that was what she wanted.

She caught the subtle scent of deer scat among the other smells of the forest. She always liked woodland smells, and this place was richer than at home. She knew it was deer because it was similar to the way a horse drop smelled. If she could smell it, then the animal had to have come very near this way, and not very long ago. She paused, took a deep breath, steadied her mind, and went on, being extra careful, and extra alert for any movement at all ahead of her. 

A pair of huge trees caught her attention, about twenty paces off and a little to the right of the way she was going. They were so close together that she couldn’t help but wonder how they had grown up that way, without one dominating the other into a spindly weakling. She looked up into their branches. They didn’t interfere with each other, even high overhead. She didn’t have to be trained to know that they shouldn’t be able to grow that way.

She was supposed to be hunting a deer. She couldn’t see it yet, though she knew it was still ahead of her, knew it in the same way that she knew where a horse was when it had gotten out of its pasture. It was that close, though invisible, and she knew how to get to where it was. 

But there was something about that pair of trees. Maybe they just seemed to be that close together. She could take a moment to find out what kind of illusion that was. She could get back to the hunt easily enough.

It wasn’t an illusion. Each tree, nearly six feet in diameter, was so close to the other that they might have been twinned from the same root stock. Except that they were different species.

She wanted to see what they looked like from the other side, so she started to go around them, but she saw, after only a few steps, that there was, in fact, a space between them, which proved, as she went farther, to be much wider than she had thought it should be. A chill ran down her back, and along her shins, and then another chill, when she saw that the space between the trees was wide enough so that she could easily go through it to the other side. There was no reason why she should do this. There was a deer out there waiting for her to kill it. And the gap between the trees was just wrong. But she could go through …

… into a rocky glade, of which there had been no hint before. It was just there, all of a sudden, as if it always had been. The skin on the back of her neck and across her shoulders felt oddly tight, not a chill, but something different, and distinctly uncomfortable. The glade was some fifty or sixty yards across, surrounded by more huge trees which let in enough light so that waist-high weedy grasses could grow. 

The sound of something hard scraping against stone made her turn. A man-like monster, almost obscured by another nearby tree, was clawing at stone doors set into a stone wall built out from a rock face. The monster, naked but for a dark loin cloth, was not at all human, though it was built sort of like a man. It was lean and muscular, its thick skin was like grayish-brown leather. Its back several long diagonal scars that almost looked ritualistic. 

It finished a downward stroke, which barely left any marks on the stone door, and raised its heavily clawed hands for another … when it stopped, and looked over its shoulder at her. Its face was almost animal. It had fangs in its longish jaws. Its ears, large and slightly pointed, twitched as if trying to hear her better. Its eyes were huge, with nearly pinpoint pupils, which dilated just a little bit when it saw her. It made a hissing sound like a lizard, and pulled its lips back in a grimace that wasn’t a grin, revealing heavy, carnivorous teeth.

She had a mercy pistol in a holster at the small of her back, under her quiver. It was a forty caliber, five shot revolver, but she would have to put down the bow to take it. She drew the arrow a few inches, keeping it pointing at the ground half way between her and the creature.

It opened its mouth and hissed again, much louder this time, and came two steps toward her. It was less than thirty feet away! It raised its outspread arms as if to grab her, threw its head back and howled, and came so quickly that —

She was barely aware of drawing the bow as far as she could and releasing the arrow. It went into the monster’s mouth, through its hard palate, and penetrated its flung-back head. It went silent in mid-howl. It stumbled, its arms jerked across his face, not quite brushing the nock of the arrow. Then it fell straight backward and lay still.

 She should have run away as soon as she saw it. That was what she should have done. She could have run away, she had had the time, just an instant, before it became aware of her. She could have, should have gone back between the trees, and run as fast as she could toward her father. She could have done that. She wanted to run now — 

But she had killed this thing. Maybe. It was not human, she didn’t know what it was, but it was a thinking being. It had been. It was wearing what passed for clothes. 

She took her bow in her left hand so that she could take the mercy pistol from its holster. It was intended to put wounded deer out of their misery, if they hadn’t been killed outright by the arrow. The creature didn’t move, but she went to it with legs that felt stiff and rubbery at the same time. The arrow had penetrated all the way through the back of its head, and was sticking into the ground underneath it. The wound had to have been fatal, but she knew that some game which people thought was dead might not really be so. If you weren’t careful, the animal could suddenly attack with a ferocity beyond its normal strength. 

She held the revolver in front of her, aiming at its near eye, and went nearer until she was close enough to gingerly poke at the creature’s stomach with the tip of her bow, ready to shoot it if it did anything at all. It didn’t do anything at all, it didn’t react at all, it just lay there. She took a deep breath, steadied herself, and poked it again through its loincloth. It didn’t twitch or recoil. It was really dead. Maybe.

She knelt, put down the bow, pressed the revolver against the creature’s temple, and held it there for a moment. The creature didn’t move. It’s smell was not good, like sweat and something musky. She put her other hand on its chest, hard and muscular. It wasn’t breathing. She pressed her fingers against the side of its neck, feeling through the muscles for the pulse of the big artery. There was no pulse. A subtle tremor ran through the creature as its last breath escaped, and a deep, uncomfortable thrill ran through her, up her arm and down through her whole body.

She pulled her hand away and sat back on her heels, trembling just slightly. Well. It hadn’t been quite dead after all. She had almost shot it even as it had died. But it was dead now. Really dead. 

Her throat was tight, and her eyes were hot. She had killed it, and she wasn’t supposed to have done that. But it had threatened her, it had almost attacked her, she had only defended herself. But she had killed a thinking thing. Despite its monstrosity, it was a person. Had been. A person.

She moved her bow out of the way, got to her knees, and pressed the revolver against the thing’s forehead. She reached for the arrow sticking out from between its jaws, hesitated, then took hold of it, and tried to pull it out. Her special arrow. With the black feather. For her first kill. It was supposed to have been a deer. It came out part way and stuck.

She got a better purchase, a better angle, pressed the revolver more firmly against the creature’s forehead, and tried again. The pull made its head move, but the arrow wouldn’t come free, and she felt a kind of low-pitched current, running up her arm and filling her body down to her toes. It was not the same as the first time. She let go of the arrow, stood, stepped back, and put the revolver back in its holster. It took her two tries.

She was trembling now, and her hands were numb almost to her elbows. The glade was silent, except for her breathing. She could smell the creature’s blood. She focused her thoughts, tried not to think that she had done something terrible, and made herself become calm. Then she went to the doors where the creature had been clawing.

It had left score-marks in the stone. No animal she knew had claws as hard as that. There were other marks, not as deep, on the edges of the two doors where they came together. Someone had tried to use a crowbar, or a hammer and chisel, and it hadn’t done them any good. 

There was no latch, but there were black metal handles, one on either side of where a latch should have been. She pulled them. The handles did not move, and the doors did not open. 

Of course not. Else whoever had wanted to get in could have done so easily. She pulled the handles again. The doors didn’t move at all. She stepped back. She should be going now.

Each door had three massive, black metal hinges, made of multiple plates and flat bands and arched frames, that stuck out from the rock and stone into which they were set. They were certainly heavy enough to hold the doors. The middle hinges were larger and more ornate than those above or below, and each had two heavy, rectangular knobs, one above the other, on the wall side of the hinge pin. 

She saw, with an uncomfortable kind of clarity, that the knobs could be pushed away from the edges of the door. The slots through which they must move were hidden by the knobs themselves. The creature hadn’t seen that. Maybe it didn’t know what hinges were. She pushed one. It did not move easily, but it did go away from the door’s edge, less than an inch, before stopping. The slot was still hidden. Nobody else had tried this, not even whoever had used the crowbar and chisel. Maybe they didn’t think that it was possible. She pushed the other knob. Then she pushed the two on the other side. And now, when she took hold of the handles, the doors moved outward a fraction of an inch, then swung inward, and stopped, parallel to the walls of the passage beyond, which was no wider than the doors themselves.

It was dark in there, except for the dim light from the glade behind her. She took a step forward, then another, until she was just past the doors. She could barely see the walls of the passage. She went a little further. It wasn’t as dark as it had seemed at first, and not only because her eyes were adjusting. 

A subtle fear stopped her breath for a moment. This place was unreal, or it felt that way, here on the edge of the unknown. She felt, she could almost feel, that there was death in here.

She went along the passage into the impossibly-less-than-darkness. There were alcoves on either side, at waist level, starting a few paces from the doors. They were wide enough for the simple but elegant coffins which were set in sideways. There were more further in. Then there were some empty alcoves, and then most of them were empty, until she got to the far end. A larger, deeper alcove was in the back wall, almost as wide as the passage, as if for someone of great importance. There was no coffin, but there were two bodies laid out in it.

They were neither mummified nor decayed. They looked as if they had been placed there not that long ago. The one nearest her, his head to her left, was a man, dressed in archaic clothes. A woman was beside him, as if she were being protected by him, her clothes just as out of date. There was no dust on them. Their mouths did not look like they had been stitched together for embalming. There was no sense of death about them, no smell of decay, ancient or recent.

The man’s chest rose almost imperceptibly, and then just as gently fell. The woman beside him was breathing as shallowly as he. How long had they been here? Months? Years? It didn’t matter, they couldn’t possibly have survived for more than a few days.

Their breathing got a little deeper, then a little deeper still. Amanda had the entirely reasonable desire to just turn around and run away. The man opened his eyes when his breathing was almost normal, stared up at the roof of the alcove for a moment, then turned his head away from her to look at the woman beside him. Amanda kept very still, almost not breathing herself. Then the man turned back, and now he looked at her.

“How did you get here?” His voice was weak. She didn’t recognize the dialect. He sat up, his head almost touching the top of the alcove. He turned to the woman beside him, who was waking too, now. She opened her eyes, looked at him, and said, “Why are we awake?”

“I don’t know.” He turned back to Amanda, and swung his legs over the edge of the alcove. “She got in here somehow.”

The woman looked past him at Amanda, then she sat up, and he moved aside so that she could sit beside him. “Who are you?”

“Amanda Valentine. I just — There was some kind of monster outside. It wasn’t human. It attacked me, and I killed it. It had been clawing at the doors. I saw how the hinges worked. You have been here a long time.”

“We have,” the man said, “far too long.”

The woman got down off the alcove, took a moment to steady herself, then went past Amanda toward the bright, open door. Amanda watched her until she was outside, then turned back to the man, and stepped out of his way so that he could get out of the alcove and stand up. 

He was very slender, and taller than her father. She couldn’t see his face clearly in the dimness, but she knew that he was handsome. Or had been. It was hard to tell. There was something subtly bright about him, though it did not illuminate the passage. She backed away. This man, and the woman, too, were Dalra, Fey people, the bright people. She took another step back. “I’m sorry.”

“You have done nothing to apologize for. You have saved us from a living death. It has been — I don’t know how long. Your language is strange. Your clothes are strange.”

The woman came back and stood beside Amanda. She was taller than Amanda — who was almost as tall as her father — but not as tall as the man, and was as slender as he. She said to him, “It was a Troglon. She shot it with an arrow, through the mouth.” She turned to Amanda. “You left your bow out there. Did you touch it?”

“The creature? Yes, to make sure that it was dead, or to put it out of its misery. Was that wrong? I tried to pull the arrow out, my father gave it to me, but I couldn’t. I didn’t want to kill it, but it was attacking me … I’m sorry….

“It’s all right.” She put a gentle hand on Amanda’s shoulder. “The Troglon should not have been here. You did what you had to do. But if you touched it, then some of its life force may have gotten into you.”

“I — when I felt for a pulse, there was none, but there was a thrill, and when I tried to pull the arrow out, something else ran through me.”

“That was it’s life force,” the man said. His voice was stronger now. “It will not hurt you, but you now have something of Troglon in you. There will be other Troglon near by,” he said to the woman. “We should leave here. Things will be very different when we get home.”

Amanda had not met Dalra before, though her father had, as part of his responsibilities. But she knew, with a knowledge that she should not have had, that these were not just members of a Dalra Household, like those who sometimes came to visit her father. She backed off a little more. “There’s something about you,” she said. 

“What do you see?” the man asked.

“You are the Laairds of your Household. I don’t know how I know that. There is a Household near where we live, and sometimes members of the House will come to see my father on business. I’ve never met them, I only came of age two days ago. He’s — he’s out there somewhere, in the forest. We were hunting deer. He must be wondering where I am.”

“We should go,” the woman said, to both the man and Amanda. 

They left the mausoleum. The creature, the Troglon, lay in the tall grass, five or six paces from the doors. There was a pool of dark blood under its head. The smell of it was stronger now, and it was not pleasant.

“Where did you come in?” the man asked. He was far thinner than she had thought, almost emaciated, and very pale. He did not blink in the forest brightness of the outdoors.

“There,” Amanda said, pointing past the Troglon, past the tree beyond it, to the two huge trees grown so closely together. “I don’t know how I did it, but I went between them. And here I am.”

“It’s an Ombe portal,” the woman said. “You would call it a shadowgate. Do you know about Ombe?”

“Not much. I know they serve in Dalra Households. Because they want to.”

“They do. We have, or had, twenty in our Household. They are probably all gone by now.” She looked around at the trees which surrounded the glade, farther away than Amanda had thought they were. “There are other ways in,” she said, “but you would never find them. You came in by the open way. You should go back to your father.”

“Yes, of course, I — ” She stopped and stooped and picked up her bow.

“I’ve never seen one like that,” the man said.

“It comes apart. The limbs separate from the hand-grip.” She unstrung it, showed him how it came apart, then put it back together and restrung it. “I, um, can carry it around in a case without frightening people.”

“Hmmm.”

“We owe you a debt which can never be repaid,” the woman said. “Take this.” She took a golden medallion on a fine golden chain from her neck. The medallion was oval, slightly hollow on both sides, filigreed on both sides, and very bright. “This kept me alive, for however long we were here. This place was supposed to be our tomb, though it is not of our Household. It is because of you that we can go home now. Please take it.” She held it out. “Whatever its value, it is worth far less than our lives. Please.”

Amanda took it. It was heavy, almost as long as her palm was wide, and half that wide the short way. There was something about it. Of course there was, if it had kept the woman alive for who knew how many years.

“Take mine too,” the man said, holding his out to her. “Someone else’s greed for this is what brought us here. That man is, I’m sure, long since dead. Wear them always, even while you sleep. Do not wear them openly, and do not give them away. They may do you some good. It is the least we can do.”

Amanda took the other medallion, looked up at him, then put the chains from which they were hung around her neck, and dropped them inside her shirt. “Thank you.”

“You are more than welcome. You should leave now. Find your father. What you tell him is up to you, but be discreet. There are other ways out, but you should go the way you came in, or you will get lost. Go now, we will find another way.”

The man and woman turned away. They held hands as they walked to the far side of the mausoleum wall, and around behind it somehow. Amanda did not see them leave, but she knew that they were gone.

She looked down at the Troglon, whatever that was. She had her bow, she had her revolver, the only thing was the arrow, which she could not take with her. 

She went to the two trees. They grew so closely together that she could not possibly pass between them. Until she came to a certain place, at a certain angle. From there she saw a narrow way between. It wasn’t at all that narrow when she got closer. She went through it, and then she was back in the forest.

She whistled for her father, *Come here please.* He whistled a reply. She started to go to him, but she stopped and looked back at the trees that were too close together for anyone to pass between. A shadowgate. She backed away, looking carefully at the other trees nearby, and at the ground, and through the forest as far as she could see, so that she would recognize this place again. She went further toward her father a way, then stopped and looked back. She memorized what she saw, then shot an arrow, a regular arrow from her quiver, into the bark of a tree near her. It would not come out easily and, if she came back this way from their camp, she could find it again, and then she could find the shadowgate.

She looked back toward where her father was. She saw him, after only a few minutes, coming through the forest toward her. She called out to him.

“Amanda!” He walked more quickly. “Where have you been?” He started running. “I heard this awful cry, it wasn’t human.” He stopped when he was right in front of her. “I’ve been looking for you, but I couldn’t find you.”

“I’ll show you. It’s back this way.” She led him to the two trees.

“That’s a shadowgate,” he said. “I’ve heard about them, and I saw one once, but I’ve never been through one. You went there?”

“I did. Come with me.”

She went to the space between the trees, went half way through, then turned back to see him hesitating. “It’s a lot wider than it looks when you get to it.” He still hesitated, and she realized that he was afraid. She had never seen him afraid before. “I have to show you what’s on the other side.” She went the rest of the way.

She waited for him until he came between the trees and stopped, surprised by the glade that should not have been there. He looked around at the surrounding trees, then at the rock face, with the stone wall and the open stone doors, and at the body of the Troglon lying in the grass. “That’s your arrow,” he said.

“It was going to attack me.”

He went to get a closer look, and reached down for the arrow, but he didn’t touch it after all. “Your first kill.”

“It was supposed to have been a deer. I wish it had been. I’m sorry, Father, but this wasn’t an animal, it was a person. I can’t kill anything else.”

He looked at her, then put his arms around her and gave her a long hug. “You won’t have to,” he said, still holding her. She held him more tightly, her eyes hot. “This thing is not the deer we wanted,” he went on, “but it counts, perhaps more, as if you had killed a big cat instead.” He let her go. “It’s a Troglon,” he said, “from the Ishrideon Mountains in the western Provinces.”

“There were people in that mausoleum. They were Dalra, and they were still alive. They couldn’t open the doors from inside, and I set them free. I don’t know how long they had been there. They told me about the Troglon, and said there would be others near by. We should get out of here.”

Her father was looking at the open doors. “You have a lot to tell me,” he said as he went into the mausoleum. Amanda went in after him. It was just dark now, with only the forest light behind them, no longer almost lit by the bright people she had found. She showed him where they had been.

“I see,” he said. “They should have died.” He looked around at the other alcoves, at the coffins in some of them. “This is all Dalra construction. Old, very old. Yes, let’s get out of here.”

They left the mausoleum, left the glade, and went rather hurriedly back toward their camp. “I think we should go home,” he said.

~~~~~

Part Two

2. Taleiden House

Amanda distributed a fork-full of clean straw in the fourth left stall in her father’s stable. She had been working here for nearly eight years now, ever since coming of age, learning all the jobs, the management, and the business. Sir Raymond Valentine’s horses were considered the best in County Chassen, among the best in all of Rhotandal Province, and even in the northern part of Kholtray Province. 

She went to the pile of straw and brought in in another fork-full. One of the hands came in and said, “Some of your friends are outside.”

“Thank you” She put the straw where she wanted, then left the stall, stood the fork against it, and went to see who it was. 

There were five of them. Lucinda Carter-Smith and Philip Cheserick had started going together before they went off to attend different colleges, and they had gotten together again afterward, but they were never quite ready for a commitment. Marian Genesee — and Simon Robinson, they were just friends, though Simon might like to be more — was the nearest thing to a best friend Amanda had, they had known each other since childhood, and they had always been closer than just friends. And Edmond Everest who, as nice a guy as he was, liked Amanda rather more than she wanted him to. 

Her friends could ride for free, if they wanted to ride with Amanda. She took them into the stable and chose a horse for herself. Two of the hands helped her friends get their horses ready. Then she rode with them out of the stable-yard and onto East Road. The question now was, where would they go.

The meadows to the east and to the south-east of Sunnybridge Township were very pretty, with the shallow reedy ponds, the gentle rises, the scattered wildflowers of many varieties among the grasses, and the picturesque groves. It was a good place for a slow ride with conversation, or for a walk with friends once you got there, or for a picnic under the trees or on one of the rises.

There were small farmholds to the west and to the south-west of the Township, a good place to meet the people who lived there, for catching up on how their lives were going, and for spending as much time in easy conversation with them, as in riding the shoulders of the farm roads.

And riding through town was fine, if you had someplace to go. Most people rode in town, or walked. Even the wealthier families who had steam cars — Sir Raymond had two, and a truck — only used them when they wanted to go out of town, to more distant farms, or to one of the nearer villages. If they wanted to go farther, they usually took buses or the train.

The horses were feeling restless and energetic. The air was a lot cooler than it had been, good weather for a run, so Simon suggested that they go north for a change, into the pastureland which was wide open. There were no roads, other than the farm road extensions of East and West, on either side of town. There was no scenery, except for the occasional curious cow. But that was what the horses wanted, so that was where they went. 

It was never a race, they stayed more or less together, and they weren’t going anywhere in particular. They usually went no further north than a quarter mile or so from town, but today they went almost to the Township berm, marking the boundary between Township and County. It was grassy, about three feet high and eight feet across, and planted with trees some thirty to forty feet apart. There was a farm road parallel to the berm on the Township side. On the other side, to the west, was wild, natural meadowland — with no cows — and to the east was woodland — with no berm — which went on for two miles or more, to where the berm and its trees took up again.

“I’m surprised to find a forest this close to Sunnybridge,” Lucinda said.

“It’s not really a forest,” Amanda said. “It’s a woodland. Taleiden House is over there somewhere.” 

“Is that right,” Philip said.

“I’ve not been there,” Amanda said, “but my father does business with the House. I don’t usually get this close to their woodland. People don’t just drop in on a Household.”

“I didn’t know about the Household,” Marian said.

They rode eastward, in easy conversation, along the woodland verge. It was dense, yet somehow just a little too neat to be purely natural, and there were some unusual, low-growing plants, which were not at all verge-like. The woodland beyond it was neither wild forest nor domesticated park. It was well cleared of wood-fall, briars, and hanging vines, and though there were some peculiar shrubby things further in, there was none of the rubbishy kind of undergrowth that was common in other places. Some of the trees were different from those which could be found elsewhere in the Township, or in the County for that matter, and it all felt wild, and somehow exotic.

 But that was the way it was with Dalra Households. All Dalra lands were just a bit richer, and just a bit prettier than elsewhere. It set them apart. And farm roads and county berms did not run through them, even along the edge.

They came to where the farm road extension of East Road teed into the county road. They would take it when they went back to the stables. But the woodland went on eastward only another mile and a half, so they decided to go see what the county land was like beyond it. 

They came to a cleared path, after a quarter mile or so, which went eight or ten yards into and through the verge, then curved to the right. It was wide enough for a cart or a buggy, but there was no actual road. Certainly no steam cars ever came this way. Just looking at it made Amanda’s skin tight.

“Where does that go?” Philip asked.

“To Taleiden House,” she said. “My father has been in their entrance hall a few times, on business, but usually they send somebody down to the Manor House, and this has to be how they come to us. See how the path angles back toward the farm road? We’re the closest town to them.”

“The bright people come visit you?” Lucinda asked.

“Not to visit, and not very often, just junior members of the family. Most of the business is done by regular people. I don’t know much about Households, but I know that they have some regular people as staff, and as farm workers. And there are the shadow people.”

“Have you ever seen one?” Simon asked.

“Nobody sees them,” Amanda said, “except the family they work for. And no, I’ve never met the bright people either. They are quite discreet when they come to talk with my father. He says they do travel sometimes, but they’re very private people.”

“Let’s go in a little way,” Philip said. Edmond thought this was a good idea. 

Amanda did not. “The Dalra don’t encourage visitors.”

“I would like to go see,” Lucinda said. 

“We won’t go far,” Philip said to Amanda. “You can wait here.” Then he and the others, although rather hesitantly, rode into the woodland. 

“Stop when you get to the other side,” Amanda called to them. “I mean it. They really don’t like uninvited visitors.”

“How do you know?” Marian called back. 

“I told you, my father does business with them.” 

This wasn’t going to work. Philip would want to go a little further, Lucinda would agree, Edward would see no problem, Simon would be for it, Marian … well, Marian might know better. 

Amanda didn’t want to go after them, into the woodland which was a part of the Dalra estate, but she had to keep her friends from causing trouble. She caught up with them just past the curve. “He’s spoken with them,” she said, rather forcefully. “He always seems relieved when they leave. Or when he comes back from visiting them. And he’s talked about them sometimes, mostly about the business they have with him, but sometimes — ahhh,” more softly, “actually, I have met Dalra.”

This made them stop. “That time you went hunting with your father,” Marian said.

“Yes. I never think about that. Killing that Troglon thing really upset me. The people I rescued were Dalra.”

“You never told us that,” Edmond said.

“No, I didn’t. They were upsetting too, but in a different way. I spoke with them, and … and … well, not here. I’ll tell you about it some other time.”

She had carefully suppressed all memory of the event, even though her bow — fully assembled, but with a loose string — was hanging in her bedroom. It was always there, so she never really saw it most of the time, and she had not taken it down since she had put it up. She used another bow when she practiced her archery, which she did almost every day. 

But the memory came back in a rush. She could almost see it in her mind — the Troglon coming at her that way, her arrow suddenly sticking out of its mouth, they way it looked and smelled as it had lain dead. The images made her twitch. She shut them off.

Her friends, because they were about to encroach on a Dalra estate, had brought back all her feelings about meeting the people she had rescued. She had let them come this far, so she owed them the story, but not right now.

They were aware of her distress, but after just a moment they went on. They talked more quietly, now, as they rode along the path, and slowed as they became aware of just how strange this woodland was. Amanda hoped that they would stop and turn back. But when they came to a curve to the left, they went around it, and kept going until they came to the far side of the woodland, a couple hundred yards farther on. 

There was open meadow ahead, much prettier than out in the county, even south-east of the Township. There were a few gigantic solitary trees here and there. The House itself was half a mile away.

“That’s Taleiden House,” Amanda said.

It was a large timber house, three stories tall, with two-story wings on either side. There was a very green lawn out front, shrubbery around the foundation, and other large trees growing near for shade. 

Everything, except the House itself and its immediate surroundings, seemed so perfectly natural. It couldn’t be tended very intensely without destroying its natural feel. And yet it was somehow idealized, like a painting, and it was somehow alive.

“It’s not real,” Lucinda said.

“It is,” Amanda said, “but I know what you mean. That’s the way Dalra lands are. At least, that’s what my father says.”

“The bright people really aren’t like us,” Simon said, “are they.”

“No, they’re not. They’re human, but they are not like us at all. They’ve been around a lot longer than we have. I don’t know very much about them.”

They rode just a few paces further, looking around and talking quietly. Even the woodlands behind them felt idealized and prettier now.

“I saw a Household once,” Marian said. “It was a long time ago. We had gone to Cameron Woods, to do some shopping, and we rented a car to go look at the countryside. I don’t remember exactly where it was, but there was a hill, with a big house on it, and trees. It was more than a half a mile from the road I guess, farther than this house, and I couldn’t see very much about it, but I remember that we stopped so we could get out and look at it. My mother told us that it was where bright people lived. It felt … not weird, but, I don’t know. That’s all I remember.”

They sat a while longer. Amanda’s friends were fascinated, but now they were frightened too, Marian perhaps a bit more so. And despite what Amanda had told Lucinda, the place felt unreal to her as well, even though everything around her was natural. 

No, it was more than natural, maybe that was it, sur-natural. Super-natural. Everything was just a bit brighter. These were, after all, the bright people. Their living here made it that way. 

The mausoleum had not been as dark as it should have been. She shivered. 

“What is it,” Marian asked her.

“I was just remembering that time I was going to tell you about.”

“When you met the bright people,” Edmond said.

“Yes. But not here. We shouldn’t be here. They know we’re here, and it should be okay if we don’t go any nearer.” She turned her horse and rode back. Her friends had no choice but to follow.

~

The path from the Dalra woodland was very faint, but they were able to follow it to the farm road, and then went on to town. They were all rather subdued, and stopped at the Brightside Pub for lunch and a beer. Everybody ordered, and now they wanted to hear Amanda’s story. 

She told them, as simply as she could, about the hunt, the glade, the Troglon, and the Dalra in the mausoleum. Which was brighter inside than it should have been while the Dalra were there. She got little chills as she talked, and hairs rose up on her arms, and even on her head. Marian touched her once. “You have goosebumps.”

Everybody had something to say about Amanda’s adventure. She responded to them when they spoke to her, but she had very little to add. Seeing Taleiden House had brought it all back, after all these years, when she had so carefully refused to think about it. She had told herself that she was shutting out the memory of killing the Troglon creature, but now she knew that it really was because of the Dalra couple, whoever they had been. Bright people, in a dark mausoleum, trapped for who knew how many years. No, they weren’t like regular people at all.

They finished lunch, rode to the Manor House, and took their horses to the stable. Amanda took care of her own horse, while the stable hands helped her friends with those they had ridden. They talked quietly with each other, but Amanda concentrated on her horse.

They went to the Manor House. Marian would walk home from here, but the others had to take buses or the train, so Mr. Randalman, the butler, went to have a car brought around to drive them to the station. They all went to find Sir Raymond, to thank him for the rides, and to say goodbye to Lady Jessica. Those who were taking the car left when it came.

Marian lingered a little longer. “You’ve hardly said a word since we got back.”

“I’ve been remembering more and more about the hunting trip. I really haven’t been the same since then. You’ve seen a Dalra Household, even if it was from a distance. You know that it’s different. My father has spoken to Dalra, here and in their House. I spoke to them just that one time, in the mausoleum, and I knew that they weren’t junior members of the Household. They were the Householders themselves, the Laairds. And….” She thought about the medallions she was wearing.

“Did you get the feeling,” Marian asked, “that that place, Taleiden House, was somehow alive? I mean, of itself?”

“I did. It is. My father says that a Household and the people within it are all alive together. When a Dalra family dies out, or if they abandon their house for another, the house itself fails, and decays, and the lands around it revert to nature. Taleiden House is definitely alive.”

 ~

David was home on his long break from college. Amanda, at dinner that night, told him and her parents about seeing Taleiden House. 

“Maybe you shouldn’t have gone there,” David said, with just a touch of concealed admiration in his voice. Her parents, rather more concerned, said nothing.

“It wasn’t my idea. I kept everybody from going too far, just a few yards past the woodland. I don’t think they’ll try to go back. Marian won’t, she’s seen a Household before. But it brought back memories of my hunting trip.”

“Those people you met,” David said. He had had his own first hunt five years ago, had brought back a four-point buck, and had gone hunting with his father several times since.

“I used to think, that what disturbed me so much was the Troglon thing I killed. It wasn’t human, but it was a real person after all. And touching it did something to me.” She glanced at her father. She had told him, but they hadn’t talked about it much. “But I guess it was the bright people themselves that really bothered me. I could feel them without touching them. Have you felt that,” she asked her father, “about Dalra who’ve come here?”

“I have. And when I visit them there. All Fey have an aura, something that radiates from them in a way we don’t understand. We don’t have auras, no regular person does. Except — except you do, a little bit, sort of. From the Troglon. From Dalra. I hardly ever notice it, but you’re thinking about them now.”

She sat silent for a moment, then she said, “All right. Father, we need to talk. After dinner.”

Conversation was about other things for the rest of the meal. 

Amanda and her father went to his library. He poured himself a small whiskey and offered her something. She asked for black port. He had some veined cheese in a cooler, and cut her a bit of that too. 

They got themselves comfortable, then she took her medallions from inside her shirt, took the chains from her neck, and said, “These are what kept those people alive. I think they are what is giving me the Dalra aura that you feel. The people didn’t touch me, they didn’t put any of their life force into me, but these medallions kept them alive in there, and I can tell they have power.” She handed them to her father.

He took them, and she knew that he felt something in them. He compared them, they were both the same. He put one down on the side table so that he could look more closely at the other. “Dalra,” he said, as if non sequitur, “enrich their land. We regular people learned the hard way, a long time ago, to leave them alone. The land around Taleiden House looks rich, it is rich, but if we were to drive the family away — and it’s easy to do that — the land would go back to its natural state, just ordinary land, maybe not even as good as the rest of the County.” He looked up at Amanda. “They are an ancient people, far older than we are. They have, or had, a technology so far beyond our comprehension, that it might as well be magic. I guess they don’t have much of it left any more, but I don’t really know anything about it. There are a few books in the library, written by regular people like you and me, but they don’t tell you much. The writers never actually spent any time with Dalra, never visited their Houses.” 

He held up the medallion. “This is of Dalra manufacture. I have seen their jewelry, so I can tell that much, but it is different. It is very old. It looks like gold, it’s as heavy as gold, but it’s so hard that you can’t scratch it. They used to make some of their jewelry with just a bit of synchrone, less than one percent. It makes the gold brighter, and much harder, and increases its value ten-fold. Twenty-fold. Something engraved like this, not cast, maybe fifty-fold. As old as it is, who knows how much it might be worth. If you could find a buyer. 

“And you’re right, it does have power, and I don’t know what it is.” He handed the medallions back to her. “You are right to wear them all the time. Even in bed? Even in the bath? Because there’s more to them than just jewelry. I don’t understand it, but they are why you have a hint of Dalra aura.”

She looked at the medallions, as she had so many times before, saw how one side was a bit more concave than the other, then put the chains around her neck, and put the medallions back inside her shirt.

“Taleiden House felt alive,” she said. “Marian felt it too. It is alive, isn’t it. You told me about that. But the mausoleum wasn’t like that.”

“The mausoleum was just a building. Only the Household itself shares its life with its family. Maybe the outbuildings too, maybe not. Dalra can build a house that is just a house, but it takes something special to make it a Household. That’s all I know. And you could feel it, from the edge of the woodland.”

“I could. I think you’re right. These medallions,” she touched them lightly through her shirt, “have made me sensitive somehow. What are they, Daddy?” She never called him “Daddy” any more.

 “I don’t know. But you probably shouldn’t show them to anybody. I know about them, and your mother does, but Charles and David don’t. It wouldn’t hurt them to know, but nobody else should ever know about them. One of them, if sold, could pay for four years at the best university in the country. And that alone would be enough to tempt someone, so you don’t want word about them to get out, even by accident.”

“You frighten me, Daddy.”

“It is frightening, Baby. Just keep them to yourself. And if you can, put all those memories back where they came from.”

~~~~~

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