Haldir and ValenbyElenia26©
I stood on the deck of the Andromeda, watching as we sailed closer to the graceful elven docks. Even from this range I saw it looked different. There were a lot more humans around than I was used to, for one thing.
I only saw a few elves and I saw the humans had been allowed to make a small merchant settlement, here on the shores. I wondered when that had occurred. But this is what happens when you are gone for over thirty years. Things change.
Thirty-one years ago I had been Sir Valen Riddick, demon-hunter and knight, and at the top of my game and class. Thirty-one years ago I had been only thirty-five, married but two years, half my life still stretching out in front of me.
Thirty-one years ago was also my third trip into Hell.
Erador, my land, was one of the lands with an established portal to Hell, and what was a demon-hunter to do but go where the demons were? Especially since I had, with the help of my friends, pretty much beaten back their incursion onto land.
At first I went just to make sure they were truly beaten back. But as I got more and more embroiled into their plots, I couldn't just stop. It culminated with, on the third trip, me breaking the very Rod of the Undead that belonged to Orcus, Prince of the Undead.
Yes. I don't play small. I knew it was a mistake when I did it. I knew I would pay for it. But what could I do? It was right there in front of me. We had defeated the guards, I had the means to destroy it (a glass sword), and I am and always will be a knight. It was my duty and it spoke to me. It *screamed* to me.
So I brought the sword down on it, shattering both the sword and the rod. I heard Orcus' enraged screams all across the plane of Avernus. We fled.
On the way back, in the temple that led to the Planes of Blood near the Gate Town of Adronach, the great Valen Riddick was overcome and brought down. I was tricked. I was holding the rear, somewhat separated from my companions, who had gone a little ahead. I was fooled into thinking they had captured one of my companions - they imitated our halfling's voice perfectly, and I was led astray. And I was surrounded.
And that was it. All was black in my memories for a very long, long time.
The first thing I remembered was awakening to a strange noise - digging, and what sounded like voices, only in a foreign language. Slowly the noises came closer and the voices resolved into intelligible words.
I awoke in a prison of crystal. When I say prison, I don't mean a cage. I mean I was literally shoved into a wall of crystal. The hole I was in was just big enough for my unconscious body, and crystals scratched and clawed at me on every side.
The woman who looked in on me first was a cleric of the temple of the Dove, and while I am not a follower, I will eternally be grateful to the temple for their servant finding me.
They got me out. She had a group of four others, and they were here in Avernus looking for friends of theirs. I was to find later that they had discovered them, or their remains. At least they had been able to put them to rest. I had no memory and was as weak as a kitten, but their largest fellow, Marcos, carried me out.
I had, as I said, no recollection of who I was, but in the temple, we were attacked, and I begged for a sword. As soon as my hand wrapped around the hilt of one and I looked at the babou, one of the lesser demons, attacked us, I felt in my bones that I was proficient at killing them. I dispatched four without hardly breaking a sweat. As soon as they left and the heat of battle was gone, I collapsed in a heap. But I had at least earned the respect of my new friends.
I also remembered the paths, though I didn't remember how, and with my help, we escaped Avernus. One of their members died before we could fully escape, but they got me out and eventually we came to the surface. One of their number, a knight, gave me a gem with which I was able to equip myself with traveling gear, and I stayed at the temple while I healed.
I found being in Hell had left a myriad of marks on my body. I didn't know if I would ever appear naked before a woman again, the scars were so hideous. I didn't remember the tortures that had caused the scars, though I was sure that the memories would come, and probably be pretty devastating when they did. Front and back, up and down, nearly every inch of me. My face bore them, too, though I was still clearly recognizable, as I discovered when I arrived at the Abby, an old haven of mine, and the Abbot recognized me. He had been but a monk when I last was here, and a junior one at that. But he still recognized Valen Riddick.
It was from him, in his mountaintop retreat, that I finally learned my name, and some of my history. Some of my memories had been coming back already, but I learned from him that the wise voice I heard in my head was my dearest friend's, Haldir Beredrin, an elf who had been traveling with me since I was newly knighted, at eighteen. He also told me of my other friends, Cicero Thistlestop, a halfling, Gregor, my young squire, Yitara, a warrior woman, and Gorris, a GulH'ruk barbarian. I resolved to go looking for them.
And here I was, at the first stage of my journey, arriving at the elves. I was shaken out of my reverie by one of the sailors.
"Messere, we've arrived." I still wasn't introducing myself as Sir Riddick... I hadn't gotten comfortable in my own skin yet, I suppose.
"Thank you." I gathered my measly belongings and dismounted. As soon as my feet touched ground I felt a sense of belonging for the first time since I had returned. I'd been here a thousand times before.
I decided to see what I remembered. I half closed my eyes and let my feet lead me, and they led me unerringly, over the paths, up the hill, right out of the human segregated area. I came soon to a series of gates, something new, with elven guards stationed there. I was surprised that they stopped me as I approached.
In Elvish - it sprang naturally to my mouth - I told them I was here to see Haldir Beredin. They were surprised to hear me speak, and let me pass.
I passed many familiar haunts. Soon I came to the market. I remembered the candy-seller and entered his store. I smiled a little when I recognized the same elf, hardly looking different, selling his wares.
He noticed me, and greeted me by name. Ah, the comforting longevity of the elves - thirty years was nothing to them. Equivalent to perhaps three years in our lives.
I bought the candied flowers I used to love so much, and continued on up the hill, nibbling on them as I went. They were even better than I remembered.
Soon enough I came to a beautiful house, set on the hill - Haldir's. It was surrounded by flowers and beds of roses, and as gorgeous as I remembered. The path to the door was under a bower, and had climbing roses on either side on trellises.
I came up to the latticed door and as I reached out for the little bell hanging on the side a memory came to me, as clear as day, of having to disable the bell because my young squire would ring it incessantly, to the point of annoyance. I lifted the bell to look at the clapper and found that indeed, the clapper was still off. I smiled fondly at the memory. Some things never changed.
I tried the door and found it open as it always was. Stepping inside, the breeze from my entrance made some chimes swing and tinkle, and I knew Haldir would hear it somewhere in the house. I stood in his entryway and waited. Soon enough I heard footsteps, and my old friend turned the corner and came into view.
I hadn't remembered what he looked like, but as soon as I saw him, his face was as familiar to me as my own. For a moment I just stood there, absorbing it, and he did the same. A thousand and one memories came back to me. Haldir and I sitting, talking, a hundred times. His advice, his guidance, his serious demeanor, the respect and love I had for this old, old friend. His marriage - I had been in attendance. Oh my, I remembered her face - she was so beautiful as to make the moon weep out of envy. He'd only been married two months when we went to Hell and I was lost.
Most of all I remembered him at my side, day in and day out, through thick and thin.
The spell broke and I moved forward. "Haldir, old friend."
"Valen. Is it really you?" We embraced and held each other for a long moment. He held me then at arm's length to look at me.
"You've gotten scrawny," he said, with a hint of mild disapproval.
"That's it?" I laughed. "I come back after all these years and that is all you can say to me? Anyway, welcome me in! Where is Danyalathani? Is she out with her friends? I expected her to come to the door. Your bell is still missing its clapper, by the way."
At the mention of Danyalathani his eyes had shadowed. He smiled at the clapper though. "I never did get around to changing it. Come in, I missed you dearly, my friend."
He didn't say anything about his wife, so I didn't mention her again, and followed him in.
"Do you remember where your old room is?"
I thought for a moment. "I think so. My memory is not fully intact. I have much to tell you. But, first let me see if I remember."
"Go on, then. Clean up and refresh yourself. When you are done, come back down and we'll talk. I'll lay out some food for us."
"Of course. It is good to see you, old friend."
"You as well." He glanced at my wardrobe, which I admit, was not exactly of quality. "There are some of your old clothes there, too, if you would like to change."
I found my room, without any problems. Soon enough I had washed and changed into a fine elvish cut shirt, loose and soft, and soft cloth breeches. I grew my hair long these days, so I combed it back and looked at myself in the mirror.
The only good that Hell had done for me was slow my aging. They wanted me to suffer, and suffer for a long time, and me dying of old age didn't do them much good. So I now looked only about six or seven years older than when I had left, and other than the scars, I felt in my thirties, too; physically anyway. Mentally I felt every one of my sixty-six years.
Coming downstairs, I saw that Haldir had already set the table for the both of us with traditional elvish fare, as well as a bottle of fey wine, which I smiled at. I joined him at the table.
"Eat first, my friend, you look like you need it. We'll talk after."
We did so, and then retired to his conservatory. It was comprised of a beautiful garden, with a latticed roof so the birds and animals could come in and out as they wished. Elves always lived with the land.
We took comfortable seats, close to each other, and I turned to him. "Now tell me what sad news you have. You wouldn't respond when I mentioned Danyalathani, and your eyes are sad and you don't stand as straight as you used to."
He nodded, sadly. "You are right and you surmise correctly. I'm afraid I have nothing but sad news, my old friend. My Danyalathani... died five years ago. There was an attack of drow...right in the heart of our city, and she was hit with a poisoned arrow. She did not survive."
I was stunned. Closing my eyes in grief, I sat in silence for a moment, and then, "Oh, Haldir, words are inadequate. I am so, so sorry my friend. It just isn't fair what a short time you had with her." Only twenty-five years out of a life that could span almost a thousand.
What words could I say to comfort him? She had been the love of his life. Much younger than him, she had brought light and laughter into his life. She was the only one who could regularly make him laugh out loud.
He smiled softly at me. "Thank you, my friend. I miss her every day, but she has gone to the Summer Country, and waits for me there. I will see her again."
I got up and took the seat next to him, sitting close, and we sat like that for a moment. I clasped his hand and spoke. "She was very beautiful, Haldir."
"That she was."
"I wish I had had the chance to spend more time with her."
"Ah, that is one of my regrets, Valen. I talked of you often. But come, my friend. The grief is old now."
"Very well, as you wish. And you, Haldir? What have you been doing with yourself then, these last few years?" I knew he didn't want to dwell on her anymore.
He was quiet for a moment. "If I am to be honest, mostly I've been moldering. I haven't done much of anything."
I nodded. "It is easy to do, in this place." I gestured. "So little ever changes."
"Perhaps it is time for a change. But first, tell me, what happened to you? Please don't tell me we left you there when we could have gotten you back? We went back as far as Adronach to look for you."
I shook my head. "No, you could never have recovered me. I was well-hidden. I'd been captured, thankfully in a way, by a rival of Orcus', who didn't want to turn me over to him." It was Orcus who really hated me and would have ensured my death. I didn't know yet if thirty years of torture was recompensed by coming back, but with Orcus I'd never have had a chance to find out.
Bit by bit, I told him the story, or at least the parts of it I remembered. I concluded with, "Unfortunately I don't have many of my memories, and what I have is piecemeal, none of it whole."
He put his hand over mine. "Do you remember Fiona?" He said my wife's name with understandable hesitancy.
I looked down. "I remember... a little. I remember I had a wife. But I don't remember how we met, or our wedding, or her face. What happened to her?"
"She waited for you. A long time, ten years, in fact, before she finally remarried. The man she married is a good man who knows about you. He was friends with her for many years, loving her, without asking anything of her. They have a son now."
I shook my head. "It should hurt... but it's still too distant." I squared my shoulders. "Perhaps when I go to see her."
I looked him straight in the eyes, and was relieved to see that kind face looking at me again. "I feel I must. What if she hears it from someone else? I owe her that much, especially since I waited." I sighed. "I must have broken her heart."
"She loved you very much."
We were silent again, and then I said, "I suppose I came here for strength, before I went to her. I have a feeling I will need it."
"Would you like me to come with you?"
I looked at him in surprise. "I would never ask it of you, Haldir. I wouldn't want to take you away from this beautiful place. But... if I may prevail on our long friendship, I don't think this place is as beautiful to you anymore?" I looked at him questioningly, and he shook his head.
"Then I would love to have your company. It would certainly make me braver."
"What are your plans after that?"
"To see our other friends. Do you know where they are?"
"Well, Cicero has gone home, to the halfling lands. Yitara and Gorris are both dead, I'm sorry to say. Gorris returned home and finally wed, and had two children, and died only a few years ago. Yitara traveled another eight or ten years after going back to Adronach with us, and then died on the field of battle."
"As she would have wanted to."
"You do remember."
"Some. And Gregor?"
"Gregor has become a knight, and one to be proud of. He's of the Order of the Bronze Shield, your own order... but I suppose you haven't heard what happened to them?"
I shook my head in surprise.
"He, and I guess you, are the last two knights. The Order has fallen into disrepair. After you left, about fifteen years later, there was a serious civil war in Westfinch..." he went on to tell me how the Order battled, losing many knights, but securing the future of our kingdom.
"Ah, Haldir, there is so much to grieve for I don't even know where to begin. I've lost my wife, my life, my family, two of my dearest friends, my brotherhood, and my Order. At least I have you, my friend."
I inhaled deeply. "Let me stay for a few days, then if you like, we will go and see Fiona, when I am strong enough. Then Cicero, and then I suppose we'll find Gregor."
"Cicero sometimes knows where he is. I'll write to Cicero and ask him to arrange a meeting."
"Very well. Thank you, my old friend."
We sat and talked until late, in the quiet elvish night, owned only by the birds and the animals. Both of us could sense the deep pain in each other - his in the recent past and mine about to land on me like a hammer - but neither of us spoke of it.
Instead we talked of other things that had transpired. The new human residence that had been allowed to spring up at the docks. The changes I had seen in the cities on the way here. My new hair, and the length of it - he reminded me I used to keep it painfully short. And a million other things that never referred to our hurt.
Indeed, I ended up staying for almost a week with Haldir. I think we both took comfort in each other's presence. I cleaned myself up a bit better. I didn't want to admit it, but I would have been ashamed to see Fiona and her new family in my poor clothes, all I had been able to afford.
Soon enough it became clear that I was delaying, however, and as soon as I realized this, I steeled myself and told Haldir we would leave the very next day. He agreed of course, and we made our preparations.
The journey from the elvish city to Westfinch was swift on an elvish boat and we were there almost too soon for me. We took a room at an inn, and though I tried to write many letters, I decided to just go in the morning and present myself at the gate.
"Do you want me to go with you, Valen?" Haldir asked me.
"Very much. But I'm still going to go alone. I need to do this alone first, even though it's daunting."
"And that, is the old Valen," he said and I smiled in response.
In the morning, I dressed in the best of whatever I had - again being grateful that Haldir had had some of my old clothes - and went to my wife's house. Wife?Ex-wife?
I was, of course, stopped at the gate. Not wanting to enter under false pretenses, I told the guard, "I'm an old, old friend of Fiona's. Does Abraham still work with her? He'll remember me."
" Abraham? He is the butler, sir."
I smiled. "In those days, his father was the butler. Please call him."
"Yes, sir. If you'll just -"
"I'll wait right here, lad. Don't you worry."
Abraham was fetched. In those days he had been a strapping young lad in his twenties, but I still saw that lad somewhere in the fifty plus year old, heavy-set man who came back.
"Who is this..." He caught sight of me and his jaw dropped. "Sir Riddick?"
"Yes, Abraham, it is me. I have come to see your lady."
"But... you've been missing for years!"
"Thirty-one, to be exact."
"Please, come in, my lord."
I shook my head, entering. "Not your lord anymore, Abraham."
He hesitated. Seeing this, I nodded. "Speak freely, Abraham."
"Her ladyship has..."
"Wed again, I know. I am not here to attempt to destroy her happiness, nor ask for anything from her. I promise not to hurt her anymore than my mere appearance will do. But I am back, and if she finds out from anyone else before I tell her, it would hurt her even more."
I put my hand on Abraham's shoulder. "I know you have her best interests at heart, Henry. I assure you, do so I."
He nodded. "I'm glad to hear that, my Lord. Since you say to speak freely, I will. She grieved for you a long time, Sir Riddick, and she still holds you dear to her heart. Lord Gallagher has given her some measure of happiness."
"Then I am glad to hear that."
"But you are right. You must be the one to tell her. Come this way." He took me to the parlor. "Would you like something to drink?"
I shook my head. "I don't think so."
"Very well. I will go and fetch her. If it's all right, I will try to prepare her a little bit for what she is about to see."