The next (last?) story in my Evolution Series of historical romances set in Charlemagne’s Empire will be released soon. Since I have a regular feature on my blog sharing first meetings, I decided to share this meeting from Little Witch: Historical Romance Novella, between the hero, Nox, and heroine, Salena.
As Salena rounded a bend in a road that was little more than two rutted tracks worn by the rare cart, a patch of blue color on the hillside startled her enough to make her halt. Though the sun shone brilliant with the promise of spring, winter’s muted colors still dressed the land, making that flash of azure even more shocking. She thought for a moment it might be a kingfisher, except this blue did not wheel away. It roosted on the side of the hill, too large to be a bird, gradually becoming part of a cloak with a man sitting inside it, his curly brown hair hard to discern against the tangle of brush surrounding him.
Salena did not recognize the man. He sat with his back mostly to her, arms braced on bent knees. She did not know him. She should turn away before he noticed her.
He dropped his chin to his forearm. There was something forlorn yet intense about him as he stared forward.
She moved her head to one side and was just able to see the rooftop of a small cottage. Sydney’s old place,
she thought. She squinted at the man’s profile. Despite what Dina claimed, not all of Sydney’s family had died in 837 from the illness supposedly caused by Salena’s tantrum. Nox, the eldest son and Grant’s best friend, had survived, though she had not set eyes on him since. After he had been orphaned, as the little community reeled from the epidemic, he had been taken in by the Lord of Ribeauville, brought into the grand household as a servant, and rarely seen by any of his old neighbors. Even Grant had only crossed paths with him three or four times in eleven years. Just like Grant, he would be a grown man now, though Salena’s last memory of him was as a lanky, cheerful fourteen-year-old.
She stepped forward, still cautious, craning her neck for a view sufficient to confirm her suspicion. He looked so sad and alone on the hillside as he pondered the house where he had probably been born, now long occupied by a man named Burke and his family.
The snort of a horse made her gasp and jump. The young man’s head swung first to the left, where the horse must be, then to the right where he immediately spotted her, frozen in an awkward stance, one foot behind the other, ready to run, eyes wide and alert, heart pounding against her breastbone.
She was not sure
she knew him.
People around here did not, as a rule, like her very much.
She and the stranger studied one another warily until his face broke into a tentative smile. “Salena?” he asked, as he rolled spryly to his feet.
Her breath hitched. The fact that he recognized and remembered her deserved some contemplation. She watched as he stepped down the hill to the road, brushing bits of crushed dry leaves from his cloak as he walked.
Perhaps he had heard the stories. Perhaps he had spent the last eleven years blaming her for making him an orphan, though he probably wouldn’t be smiling at her if he had.
He strode toward her and touched a large hand to his chest. “I am Nox, Grant’s old friend. You have to be Salena. No one else could have eyes like yours.”
She backed up a step, startled by his words and his aggressive approach. He stopped as he recognized her fear. His grin faded. A flash of hurt feelings chilled his pleasant brown eyes.
“I…I am sorry,” she stuttered. “I was not expecting to meet anyone and, at first, I did not recognize you.” Now that she did
recognize him, she found the familiarity of his face somehow endearing. She finally recalled how to smile. “Hello, Nox. It is very nice to see you again.”
Her belated greeting pleased him. He scanned her from the top of her veiled head to the toes of her old shoes and back up again. “You have grown up.”
“So have you,” she said, glad she had worn the natural wool cloak that Firmina said made her face very pretty. She interpreted that to mean it made her eyes less shocking.
He flushed. “Are you out on an errand or for pleasure?”
“I’m on a walk. Grant has married and sometimes I feel like an extra piece of furniture at home,” she said, realizing too late that she probably sounded like a petulant child. “I like his wife very much,” she rushed on.
“I had not heard,” he said. “That he was married, I mean.”
“Oh.” She wondered if they should have invited Nox to the wedding. His life was so entirely separate from theirs now that the idea had not occurred to any of them, to her knowledge. “His wife is called Firmina. She is the prettiest, smartest girl around.”
He smiled again, and she noticed a dashing cleft in his chin. “Grant would attract the best.”
She smirked at his teasing tone. “He was a trial as an older brother, but has grown into a good man,” she admitted. He asked about her parents and she assured him they were well also. Then they stood there, feet shifting awkwardly. “What brings you to your old home?” she asked, partly to keep the conversation going, and partly to feed her curiosity.
He glanced over his shoulder at the little cottage, apparently empty, its residents probably out working one of the fields of their manse. When he looked back at her, she sensed again a deep sadness in him despite the hint of a smile still intact on his face. “You have caught me stealing a moment away from my duties,” he said briskly. “I am bid by my lord to discover what I can about a property dispute.” He paused. “Why, it involves your father, doesn’t it? Your father and a neighbor named Artemas? Since the plot of ground is so close I thought I would have a look at my old place.” He turned again, unable to stop looking at his childhood home.
She stepped forward to get a better view. A memory teased her then clarified. Grant — just a boy then
— was running down the path to the cottage, looking much as it did today, followed by Nox who was chased by his little brother, Diem. Diem stood a hand shorter but in every other way was an accurate reflection of Nox. Salena had trailed well behind, the smallest, youngest, and worst of all, a girl begging to be included. Nox and Diem’s mother had laughed from the doorway as the boys’ taunting hoots echoed from far away. She had waved at Salena, calling her in to give her a sweet ring of dried apple. “Do not worry,” she had whispered. “One day my boys will be following you
, hoping for a hint of a smile.”
Though normally hardened against people and memories, Salena thought she might burst into tears. She wished she could place the memory in time. All she knew for certain was that it had happened before
. Before neighbors accused her of sickening people with her anger and killing people she had liked.
“I remember them,” she blurted.
He inhaled sharply but she could not stop her words now that the thought was in her head. “Your mother always took pity on me because you boys did not like playing with a girl. I remember Diem used to spit at me to try to make me go away. He could spit farther than you or Grant.” She gave a sad laugh. “He always wanted the two of you to himself. One day when you hid from him he was stuck with me and he taught me to spit. You should have seen his face when I spit all the way from the door to the side of the road.”
Nox’s face was still averted, his eyes trained on the house. “I can picture him.” His voice wavered.
She should not have spoken of his family. “It must be very difficult for you,” she said.
He cleared his throat. “What must be?”
“To, um, to have people to miss for the rest of your life.”
His head pivoted abruptly so he could look at her. For a brief, excruciating moment, all the shields a person carried against others dropped away from him. She saw him as he must have looked on the day his last family member died, leaving him devastated and terrified and alone.
“I am sorry,” she blurted. “I should not speak of those times. My memories must just make it harder.”
He lifted a hand to stop her. “No.” He cleared his throat again. “I liked your story. Diem really taught you to spit?” he asked cautiously.
“He did, though I have not practiced for years, I assure you.”
“It is nice to meet someone who remembers and, maybe, understands.”
END OF EXCERPT
If you are not familiar with the Evolution Series, you can find links to all the books here on my blog page. I’ll be announcing the release of Little Witch
here and on Facebook