Circle of Flame
It was mid-morning, and Kelena was sitting at her sunny writing-table, poring over a letter. She was just about to pull paper, ink and quill towards her to begin drafting a response when her husband came in. He was fully within his rights, of course, but she still wished he would have knocked, as was his custom.
"It is a fine morning," he said by way of greeting, polite as ever.
"It is," Kelena nodded. And waited, for it seemed there was something else he wanted to say.
"How are you planning to spend the day?" Dankar inquired. This was an unusual question, but she tried not to show her surprise as she replied.
"The carpet in the downstairs sitting-room looks a little worn and faded," she said. "I thought I would go to the Weavers' Way today, to look at carpets and perhaps some woven mats as well."
"You do that," nodded her husband. "Choose whatever colors and patterns you like, I trust your taste without reservation. And make sure you order the very best."
Kelena always did. Money was of no consideration, and she was given free rein in setting up the house just as she liked. Here she was a natural; she had good taste which appealed to almost any visitor, and the house of Gindur hosted many splendid suppers for distinguished guests who came with a rustle of silk or a whisper of velvet. She tried to find some solace in that, in being a noble lady and having more money than she could ever spend, yet neither her elevated position nor the envy she inspired were enough to change the fact that she was miserable. And alone, so alone.
"A letter from Rhasket?" asked Dankar, nodding towards the broken wax seal depicting the stag of Tionae.
"From Thadorn," she replied. "He writes that Jadine had been safely delivered of a strong, healthy daughter, with red hair like that of Korian. They named the girl Datrine."
"A fine name," Dankar nodded ponderously, and it seemed to Kelena a cloud flitted over his face. "Well, you had better write back and send our congratulations to your sister and good-brother before you head out."
"I will," said Kelena, "it will not take long."
Her letter of response was indeed short, but during the day, as she looked at intricately woven grass mats and touched luxurious soft carpets, her thoughts went back to Rhasket, to her sister's family. During her brief visit home, she was enchanted with the red-haired babe Jadine placed in her arms. Now she thought she might as well contrive an opportunity to visit her sister once more, in honor of the birth of her new niece.
This, more than anything, made her burn with jealousy. Jadine had never cared much for children, yet she now had two, born only a year apart. Whereas she would have given anything for a child of her own, to fill her heart with love and her life with meaning, and yet her hands were empty. But of course, one doesn't beget children by sleeping in separate bedrooms, she told herself, blushing.
Two years after her marriage, she remained a maid, although she and Dankar did all it took to maintain a façade of a respectful and affectionate relationship. The arrangement seemed to suit him, and she didn't dare to break through her cage. Going to her sister once was as much as she could do. Anything more was beyond her courage.
To her surprise, come evenfall supper for two persons was brought upstairs to her rooms and served on a small folding table, covered with a silk tablecloth. Dankar came upstairs soon after, wearing his pleasant and dangerous smile.
"I thought we might eat here tonight," he told her, as she looked at him, wary as a wild deer. "We have no guests, and the big dining room downstairs is too grand for just the two of us."
To this, Kelena had no word of objection. The house of Gindur was indeed grand and luxurious and well set-up, yet it was sparsely populated. Their servants were few, efficient and quiet and quick, and often it seemed to Kelena she is alone in that great big almost-empty house. Yet there was a taste of suspicion in her mouth, so strong it drove away the taste of roast quail and fine red wine.
When they were done with the honey-glazed chestnuts, Dankar sat for a long time in front of the fire, hands around his knees.
"Come, sit by me," he said to her, like on their wedding night. Kelena approached warily and took a place by his side.
"Your sister," he said after a long silence, "has been married for about as long as you and I, yet she has two children, while we have none."
It was strange how this resonated with her earlier thoughts. "That is unsurprising, given the nature of our... arrangement," she said without a shadow of a smile.
"Yes," he nodded, "yet our arrangement is not written in stone. It can be changed."
Kelena looked up at him, and met a steady dark stare.
"People are beginning to indulge awkward thoughts," he went on, "and before long, they will ask awkward questions. We both know the only way to thwart this. We must beget a son. This way, our union will be beyond suspicion. And of course, you will have someone to love, and I will have someone to inherit my wealth."
He sounded perfectly reasonable, yet Kelena could not shrug off a sense of betrayal and humiliation. She said nothing, just looked at him.
"You married me thinking you will have to share my bed every night," he told her when it became clear she had no reply for him. "It will not be so terrible to share it just once."
"It might not take just one time, my noble husband," she told him with sudden boldness. "Some women conceive only after months, even years of trying."
"Well, then, we had better get started," he gave her a thin-lipped smile, got up, and held out his hand to her.
... Yet when he closed the door of the bedchamber behind them and leaned against it, Kelena saw that his usual swagger was gone, and in his eyes she noticed uncertainty that would have induced pity, if only she had any to spare for him.
"You have never done this before, have you?" she asked. She thought she might have insulted him, not that she would have minded too much, but his face betrayed no hint of hearing her.
"Get undressed and in the bed," he said. She obeyed without a word, but her fear was gone as she watched him fumble with his clothing. She had never seen him undressed before, yet he was just as she imagined, of a lean and graceful build, supple and smooth-skinned. When he slipped under the blankets next to her and blew out the candles, the darkness was complete. He put a tentative arm around her waist, and she smelled cinnamon and other, more exotic spices.
His breathing came out in tense, heavy puffs as he awkwardly explored her body, and this was so uncharacteristic of him that Kelena could have smiled, only then he finally found what he was seeking and she felt a sharp pain between her thighs. She let out a gasp and he said a word she could not quite make out, and then he became silent.
It was all over very quickly. It did not hurt more than it had to, and Dankar's hands had a certain deft gentleness to them once he got comfortable with the situation, yet as she lay in the darkness by his side Kelena knew that she could never have loved this man - this handsome, rich, nobly bred man - even if their marriage had not started in such an unfortunate way.
Just before dawn, when grey light filtered into the room through the curtains, Kelena woke and found him staring at her. It unnerved her. In the dark she could not find her nightgown, and now she clutched the blanket to her chest, hiding her nakedness. But Dankar sat on the bed cross-legged and nude, and did not look in the least uncomfortable in her presence. As always, there was something indecent about him. He reached for a silken bed robe and handed it to her.
"I never thought I should be any woman's first man," he said ponderously. Kelena said nothing, just looked at him with big blue eyes, hoping to convey as much contempt as she could muster.
"I don't recall I ever told you about my first man," he went on. She did not move a muscle in her face, attempting to conceal the morbid interest that suddenly sprang up on her. "It was Trygmun, my cousin and clansman. He was eighteen and I was twelve, but we were closer than brothers that summer. He taught me to ride and hawk and joust, better than any teachers I had before, and we would disappear for days on end into the forests and mountains, hunting, bathing in streams, laying down upon their grassy banks and staring into the sky. Like a forest god Trygmun was, so beautiful no maid, wife or widow could pass him without turning her head to look at him once more... yet he was too proud to notice any of them, I thought.
One morning, we rode far into the country and took our midday meal in a sheltered grove, then crossed swords - just for play, of course. Tryg could have flattened me in half a minute, but he laughed at my clumsy efforts and let me get quite close to him before he parried my attack with a lazy flick of his blade and sent me tumbling down into the grass. Then he lifted me up and said he would have something of me, for his victory. I told him warily he could have whatever it was in my power to give - and it wasn't much compared to what he had, for he was a man grown, and rich, and I was a boy who only had his allowance to spare - but he laughed easily, and said it was not gold or jewels that he wanted, only a boon that would make us closer still. We stayed in that grove all day, and he taught me about love."
"Love!" Kelena did not mean to speak, yet the word broke scornfully from her lips. "Do you really think - "
"I was only a boy," Dankar went on solemnly. "There were many things I did not understand, and many things that perhaps could have been different if it weren't for that glorious sunny day - but yes, I did love Tryg, and he loved me. That one summer was all we had," he went on after a moment of silence. "Later he led an attack against a Totoki tribe that dared to threaten one of our clan's holdfasts. He could have allowed other men, more seasoned and less valuable, to take this job - but he was brave and gallant. And so he died."
Kelena watched her husband, genuinely mourning a man that made a boy whore out of him, and tried to prevent pity from stealing into her gentle heart.
"Emmet reminds me of Trygmun sometimes," Dankar said. "Not in looks, for Tryg was dark like me, but in nature. I can only pray it does not lead to his ruin."
I can only pray this leads to the ruin of you both, you twisted bastards, Kelena thought savagely. The place between her thighs did not hurt now, exactly, but still throbbed faintly whenever she moved.
"I want to go home," she said abruptly.
"Home?" Dankar raised an eyebrow. "To Rhasket, you mean?"
"Yes." I want to go home, to the place where once I was happy, to the place where I could still have been happy, if you hadn't snatched me away from it forever. "I want to visit my parents, my brothers and sister. I want to see Jadine's new babe."
"If the Great Spirit blesses us," said Dankar, "you will soon have a babe growing inside you as well."
Dankar was compliant enough to allow her to make all the arrangements for her departure soon after that night, though. To Kelena's great relief, her noble husband would be remaining behind. There was some uprising of wild tribes in the east, and although Dankar was never more than a tourney fighter, somehow he managed to contrive for himself a reputation of a brilliant strategist. His counsel was sought at court, and there was even talk of him leading part of the troops dispatched to stem the bleeding border.
"It is only talk, though," he assured her, although she did not voice the least objection. "I was not made to command troops. His Grace has wisdom enough to see that."
In the meantime, Dankar visited her bedchamber several times more - to make sure the efforts had not been in vain, as he said. There was only a certain time, a few days each month when the Great Spirit saw fit to place a child in a woman's womb, but the exact time - the time of the Full Moon, it was delicately called - was shrouded in mystery, and like most women, Kelena could only make vague guesses as to hers. When they parted, she did not know whether she was pregnant or not. She did not know what to wish, either.
It was a relief to be free of burdensome obligations, to be on the road, heading for home with no concern in the world, at least for a short while - although Kelena knew very well that the men escorting her were all Dankar's, meant to serve as his eyes and ears around her. Meant to make sure I shall ever be bound to his will, she reflected bitterly. The place between her legs ached again, courtesy of her husband's last visit. Kelena rather suspected there was something more than cunning design in his embraces in the last two times, but this did not make her any more kindly disposed towards Dankar. If anything, it made her shudder.
In the house of her parents, everything was as usual. Her father was dignified and a little aloof, as ever; her mother immersed in ambition, thinking how to show their family and all the Kotsar to the best advantage during their next visit to the capital. Her brother Kohir distinguished himself in his service in the City Watch, while young Nog did all that was in his power to emulate his elder brother. Seeing them all was a joy to Kelena, yet most of all she longed to meet the children - her little nephew and niece.
Thadorn met her with brotherly cordiality. He was not aware of the particulars of her last visit, but some vague rumours must have reached him, because there was special care in the way he inquired after her well-being. Kelena was struck anew by the open bravery and unrefined handsomeness of his face. Here is a good man, she mused, a good and honest man. Little Korian, now just beginning to toddle, tailed his father whenever he could, and Thadorn obliged the boy by letting him ride upon his shoulders, touch the scabbard of his sword, and examine his shiny gold-and-blue badge of the Sea Guard.
Her sister was still weak from the birthing bed, yet seemed frazzled and restless at the same time. There were dark circles under her eyes, and when little Datrine squalled in her crib, Jadine let out an exasperated sigh as she picked up the infant and started to unlace the front of her dress.
"Can't you stay quiet for an hour or so, just for a change?" she told the girl irritably, yet the babe continued to cry until a milk-heavy breast was offered and her little mouth had found a nipple. "Oh, I do love them," Jadine said, noticing Kelena's reproachful look, "and I am grateful to have two healthy ones, especially after Taria Kamtesir had a stillborn last month. But I just wish... I wish I could be free, for just a little bit, just a little while. Not so long ago, it seemed to me as though I can do anything - well, almost anything. And now, I'm no more than a milk cow."
"They will grow," Kelena said reasonably, "sooner than you think." Tenderly, she smoothed a strand of fine red hair on her niece's head. She was a beautiful little thing.
"What about Dankar?" Jadine asked. "Was he reluctant to let you go?"
"He was as generous as can be," Kelena said cautiously.
"Oh, that I know. The gifts he sends us are magnificent, and Kor's toys are so expensive I have half a mind to hide them till he is old enough to stop trying to break whatever he sets his eyes upon. But what if he goes east? Will you stay here?"
"For a while, perhaps," Kelena said, "yet this is only talk. For now."
"For now," repeated Jadine. "Sending men to fight the savages is no good - not like this, at least. As long as the king and his council are unprepared to acknowledge that our real enemies are all around us, fighting the tribes is like trying to put out the mere fringes of a flame, without touching its heart. We can demonstrate our power, which is good... but we must also show we won't hesitate to use it."
"I don't know," Kelena shook her head. "I don't want war." That was all she could be certain of. Matters of diplomacy and politics, of strategy and battle were not beyond her comprehension, yet she could not relate to them. She was a gentle-hearted girl made to live and love, to laugh and give comfort, to extend her arms to those near her, to be a good wife... and mother. A mother, yes. If the Great Spirit blesses me with a child, it will all be worth it - the secrets, the lies, the humiliation. As she looked at little Datrine, Kelena's heart was overpowered with such deep longing she knew she would invite Dankar into her bed herself, time and time again, whatever it took to carry that blessed weight of life in her body and in her arms.
Thadorn most hospitably pressed her to stay with them at least during part of the time allotted to her visit, and Kelena did not hesitate to accept the invitation. She rather thought her mother saw it as an affront - even though she was sensible enough to keep silent on that account, it was common knowledge she never grew fond of the Tionae - but she was past caring. She indulged herself in a few quiet days during which she humored her nephew, held her niece, and sat in peace with her hands folded over her belly, wondering whether new life has started there.
Then there was the day when she heard a knock on the door in the middle of the night. It was not a very loud knock, and Kelena could not say why it startled her so, but she sat bolt upright on her bed, heart hammering. She knew it was not her good-brother returning from night duty - he was supposed to be back already, and besides, he would have knocked. She heard the sounds of steps downstairs, and the sleepy voice of a newly hired servant murmuring some words she could not quite make out. Then another voice sounded, polite but unembarrassed at the lateness of the hour.
"May I see the lady Kelena?"
To spare the serving girl some awkwardness, Kelena dressed as quickly as possible and wrapped a scarf over her head - for in honor of the ancient custom, she covered her head as befits a respectable married woman of Tilir - and started descending down the stairs.
She did not know the man who waited for her. He was young and had the look of a soldier. His face was broad, with a smattering of freckles, and a mop of thick chestnut curls sat untidily on top of his head.
"You were asking to see me," said Kelena. He looked a little taken aback, she was not sure why - perhaps he expected Dankar Gindur's wife to look different, grander, more impressive? She didn't know. "Who are you?"
"I - " he shook his head, as if shaking off unwanted thoughts. "My name is Torwen Mattar, but it is of no consequence. I came here bearing a message for you, my lady. The eastern campaign is to be more extensive than was thought at first, and men are summoned from all over Tilir, your noble husband among them. I am going to serve under his command."
"You come from Fort Sand?" asked Kelena. He nodded. He was not a handsome man in the usual sense of the word, but there was something vigorous and decisive about his air that was appealing.
"A hundred men ride with me. The recruiting is to be kept secret for now, as much as possible, but I was told to see you if I could, when I pass through Rhasket and gather more recruits. Your husband might not be able to see you or write to you for a while, as I'm sure you understand. Do you have anything to say to him, or pass to him, through me? I could wait while you write a letter, if it is a short one."
"I thank you, but no," said Kelena, "there will be no need of that. Tell him... tell my noble husband I received the message. That should suffice."
Torwen nodded briskly, although a question flitted for a moment in his eyes. They were the color of hazel, and very clear. Suddenly self-conscious, Kelena forced a heavy lock of golden hair back under her head-scarf.
The young soldier made her a curt bow and bade farewell.
Sleep was gone, and back upstairs, Kelena was left alone with the night's stillness and her thoughts. The campaign had turned serious, then, and Dankar is going east. He might be gone for a long time... and although she refused to indulge the thought, it came back, unbidden. He might never return at all. Kelena was unsure how she felt about it. She never wished her husband any harm; she never wished anyone any harm. Dankar doesn't mean to do me harm either, she thought. He simply uses me without the least consideration of what it does to me.
Suddenly, solitude became unbearable, and with a jolt of pleasure she heard footsteps in the small sitting room on the upper floor. It was a snug and cozy room, and Jadine liked to use it instead of the small cavernous library. Judging from the lightness of the footsteps, it was Jadine there, alone. Perhaps she had woken when Thadorn returned from duty, or perhaps she is pacing back and forth, rocking a babe to sleep, Kelena thought. Suddenly, although the barrier that was always present between her and Jadine did not melt away, Kelena felt she would like to share with her sister what she just found out. Stepping softly and quietly, she made her way to the small sitting room. It did not occur to her to knock. She just pulled the handle, and the door opened soundlessly.
The first impression upon her was that of a dancing, purple glow. In the next instant Kelena realized the glow radiated off a circle of purple flame that burned on the floor and cast shadows upon the walls and ceiling. A very precise, very beautiful circle it was, and it burned evenly, without expanding, even though the floor was covered with woven straw mats. In the middle of the circle stood Jadine, her hair redder, her eyes greener than Kelena had ever seen, her hands stretched to the sides like the wings of a bird about to take flight. But the moment Jadine noticed she is not alone, her hands dropped and the circle of flame disappeared. Kelena dropped her gaze to the floor, disbelieving - yet there was no trace of soot or ash, not a single glowing ember. The circle was just gone, and if it weren't for the furious expression on Jadine's face, Kelena could have thought that it was all merely a fancy of her imagination.
"That," she struggled for words, "that was - "
"None of your business," snapped Jadine with her usual courtesy. "What in the name of the Spirit are you doing here at this hour, anyway?"
"Didn't you hear someone knocking on the door?"
"No," Jadine said curtly. "I was... occupied. But who could have come at this hour?"
"It was a message for me. The Eastern campaign is now open in earnest, and Dankar is going there in the position of a Commander."
"So," an expression of odd, grim satisfaction appeared on Jadine's face, "the fools are choosing their Commanders according to status, not capability. I did not expect anything different. But be thankful, Kelena. This might be just what you need to have your freedom back... then you can come back home, marry Akira Kotsar, and settle down in Rhasket for the rest of your life. That is what would make you happy, isn't it?"
"I am not sure marrying Akira Kotsar would make anyone happy," Kelena replied coolly, "but that is beside the point. Jadine, what have you been doing here?"
Jadine's face darkened. "Nothing that ought to concern you," she shot back.
"What about Thadorn?" said Kelena. "Ought this to concern him, or not? Or perhaps I will allow him to decide for himself, after I tell him?"
"You would not," Jadine said with exaggerated confidence. "And even if you did, he wouldn't believe you."
"Oh yes he would," Kelena said knowingly. "So perhaps you just cut it short and tell me what you have been up to."
Jadine folded her arms upon her chest. "You and Kohir are a pair of nosy busybodies," she declared. Kelena remained silent, waiting.
"All right," snapped Jadine. "I have been practicing."
"Things I have learned. Gifts I have been given. Spells I have composed. Nothing very significant... for the time being, at least. I will appreciate it if you don't mention this to Thadorn - not that it matters very much, really, but he does have a superstitious fear of anything that does not pertain to the mundane."
Kelena bit her lip. For a long time, she suspected Jadine was... but no, surely, it was nothing serious, it could not be... "What do you want with all that?" she asked, gesturing with her hand towards the place where the circle of flame had been.
"Perhaps nothing," Jadine replied with a shrug, "perhaps everything. One never knows, before the dice is tossed and the game begins in earnest - and that it will happen very soon, I have no doubt of."
"You think the campaign in the east will be so dangerous?" Kelena asked tremulously.
"I think it will amount to nothing. The wild tribes of the east are nothing, compared to our well-armed and orderly troops. As soon as they see the first glint of sun on fine Tilirian steel, they will melt back into the sand. But then they will appear again someplace else. And again. It will be like battling against shadows - and only shadows can fight shadows. That much is obvious."
Kelena's eyes widened almost imperceptibly as a sudden understanding dawned upon her.
"You have not been learning Paths of the Shadow, have you?" she asked her sister uncertainly. "It has been forbidden for many centuries now, even for Learned Men, and the knowledge died with the last warlocks."
"If the knowledge died, surely you needn't be concerned that I might have learned it," Jadine countered with a sly smile. "After all, dead men cannot talk... or so common wisdom says."
"I..." Kelena shook her head. "I only want what is best for everyone, Jadine, you know it, and if you are doing something Thadorn wouldn't approve of, wouldn't it be better - "
Suddenly, Jadine had her upper arm in a very firm grip. Her sister's savage and beautiful face was very close to her own, and it seemed to Kelena that the purple flames were still dancing, dancing, dancing in Jadine's eyes.
"If you want what is best for everyone," Jadine said in a low voice, "you will forget what you saw here tonight. You saw nothing. Nothing. Do I make myself clear?"