The story so far:
Hilleena’s Uncle Savric opened the door before they reached it and the two young people stumbled through.
They were not expected.
Annora’s absence was felt instantly.
Suddenly, Hilleena’s quiet Aunt Felice was pulling her from Alden’s arms and dragging her towards the back room, murmuring about warming her up.
The boy and the older man were staring at each other, wordlessly.
Just before her aunt pulled her into the bedroom, Hilleena glanced back at Alden. Their eyes locked. “Stay.” she whispered and he nodded.
Moments later a commotion brought Hilleena running from the bedroom in only a shift. She was warm now and her hair, rubbed dry by her aunt, fell in frizzy ringlets around her shoulders. Her uncle was pressing Alden to the wall, his arm against the young man’s throat. Alden did not struggle.
Hilleena threw herself onto her uncle’s back, her hands trying to pry his arm away from Alden, but she was not strong enough to separate them. “Please, Uncle, please, let him go!”
Savric’s eyes were enraged as they bored into Alden’s. “He says he pushed you into the river!”
“I did, Hilly! I did!” Alden’s words were strained as his throat was being squeezed. His eyes were downcast and his arms hung limply. He did not even try to defend himself. “Let him choke the life out of me. I deserve worse.”
Aunt Felice, ever the calming influence, spoke softly. “Young lady, you will catch your death. You’re not even decent.” Quickly she wrapped a large blanket around Hilleena’s body and pulled her into a chair away from the unpleasant scene of violence. Then she walked up to the men and placed her fingers gently against her husband’s neck. She spoke into his ear, “It’s our Alden, husband. You’re hurting him.” Her other hand came up pulling Savric’s face toward hers. “Savvy, stop.” she whispered, her forehead against his.
The big man melted like butter on a hot pan. His arms fell away from Alden and went around his wife.
Alden stumbled away, gasping for air.
For a moment, they all stood staring at each other until Felice insisted they all sit down around the fire and talk this out.
Alden spoke first. His head was in his hands. The shame he felt was palpable, it hung like a fog in the room. “For what I did I can only beg forgiveness. Forgiveness I can never deserve.” His face crumpled in pain and suddenly he was across the room, kneeling at Hilleena’s feet. “Please, Hilly. I’m so sorry. I can’t believe I raised a hand to you, I’ll never make up for that for the rest of my days...”
Savric was furious still. He pulled away from his wife. “He hit you! Why, I’ll...”
“No!” Hilleena shouted “Don’t be ridiculous! Both of you!” Her uncle stopped in his tracks. “You know Alden wouldn’t even strike a dog, please! He pushed me is all. “She looked down at Alden, speaking into his face. “It’s not the same.” But he wasn’t listening.
Alden was mumbling now, his feelings spilling out in a downpour. “I swear, Hilleena, I never wanted to hurt you. I’m so sorry, the thought of what I did..” She interrupted him, her finger coming up and blocking his lips.
“Now, you listen to me, Alden Von Hartley! It was nothing. You hear? And you saved my life. I surely would have drowned in those skirts.” She tilted his face up to look at her. “I was practically trying to strangle you. I can’t believe how I attacked you, how I shook you.” Her breath caught as she bent over him. “ ‘Twas like a moment of pure madness. I just lost my faculties. I was so scared, so beyond angry and I took it out on you.” She took his face in her hands. “I’m sorry too. So, so sorry..”
For a long moment they were all quiet, the room filled with a deep silence as sadness and shame hung between them all. Then, suddenly, Hilleena was crying, sobbing uncontrollably. She fell to the floor, to her knees, facing Alden. “Those...things...I said..” she choked “I...I...I...didn’t mean them, Alden.” Her weeping had everyone stunned, frozen. “Those horrid....awful ...words,” Hilleena whimpered. “That wasn’t me...Alden it wasn’t me. You know I trust you....I know you would tell your father nothing, Alden. I have no doubts in you, none! I just...just lost my mind...Oh, Alden, please, please say you can forgive me.” Suddenly she was in his arms. They rocked back and forth. She cried and he stroked her hair whispering, “I love you, I love you, Hilly.” until she finally calmed down and her breathing became normal again.
Felice went to find dry clothes for the boy while Alden settled an exhausted Hilleena into her chair again. Shamefaced, Savric approached the boy. “Alden, I know exactly what she means about losing one’s mind. “ his words were soft, his eyes downcast. “I can’t believe those were my hands hurting you like that.” Savric reached out and put his hand, gently, on the lad’s hair. “You know that we love you as a son, always have. I would hate to think that one moment’s mistake could ever make you doubt that. Please forgive me, my boy.”
Aunt Felice’s voice floated in from the bedroom, “Even those who love us make mistakes.” Alden knew only too well how true that was.
The young man stood up from where he had been helping Hilleena and looked into the older man’s eyes. The man who had taught him to hunt and ride a horse. The man who had stroked his forehead when he was sick as a child and held his hand to cross the square inside the walls of the manor. The true father, who had forgiven him, wholeheartedly for every mistake he had ever made. “I forgive you, Uncle.” Alden stepped forward and hugged the older man, whom he loved more than any of his blood relations. “I know all about ‘one moment’s mistake’. I hope you know, I would never hurt your family. Please forgive me, Savric.”
“ ’Tis your family too, has been for years. This one terrible day can not change that, nothing can.” He pulled back and held the boy at arms length, his hands on Alden’s shoulders, his eyes looking into the younger man’s face. “You are forgiven, completely.” Keeping one arm around the boy, he led him back to a seat by the fire.
Felice returned, pulled off Alden’s tunic and put a dry one on him. Then she wrapped him in a toasty blanket and kissed him on the cheek like she used to when he was a little child and she was just his nursemaid up at the manor. He smiled at her.
“Now, daughter? Son?” Uncle Savric said, looking back and forth at Alden and his niece affectionately. “Where is our other child? Where is Annora?”
The boy and girl looked at each other, sadly, and the terror returned, seizing their hearts once more, but no frenzy followed. No anger, no whirl of panic. Just loss, terrible dread. They knew not what to do. How could they save Annora? How could they save themselves?