Paths of the Shadow

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The Fateful Message

Soon after that scene, Kelena made her excuses as politely as she could: she didn't know how much time she had left in town; she might have to go back to the capital sooner than she expected, to take care of the household during Dankar's absence; she hardly saw anything of her brothers since her arrival, and now that Kohir was planning to go east as well, she wanted to spend time with him before he left.

One afternoon, as she was sitting across her mother and politely sipping mint infusion, she off-handedly asked about the clan of Mattar.

"Mattar?" her mother repeated indifferently. "I think I may have heard the name once or twice. A small clan of no consequence. They might be from Tallbridge Town, or perhaps one of the villages just beyond the Middle River. Why do you ask?"

"Doesn't matter," sighed Kelena.

"You look pale," her mother remarked mercilessly, "and otherwise less well than you were last time I saw you."

This was more than Kelena could bear. "It is probably because I am new with child," she informed her mother icily. For now she was sure of it; her moon blood did not come, her breasts were already beginning to tingle with the anticipation of heaviness, and overall, the most peculiar feeling crept over her body. There could be no mistake. Kelena did not know whether this made her feel relieved or terrified. If she should give birth to a healthy son, she might never need to share a bed with Dankar again. If not, though... no, she would rather not think of it.

Her mother nodded with dry satisfaction. "I thought as much," she remarked. "And about time, too. I was beginning to wonder what might be the matter. The Kotsar women have always been known for their fertility."

Unbidden, Dankar's words sounded in her mind. "People are beginning to think awkward thoughts, and before long, they will ask awkward questions." Well, no one will think anything awkward of me now, she thought with an odd mixture of triumph and bitterness. I will be a wife and a mother, a noble and rich lady, and no one will be able to see through this screen into the depth of my misery.

And it was then that Kelena felt she had really better be on her way. Besides seeing her nephew and niece, being home in Rhasket did not bring her the joy she expected. It was as though no one truly wanted her, no one truly needed her here; and although the same could be said about Aldon-Sur, which held nothing for her but a glamorous life and an empty house, she hoped that at least the sense of awkwardness she felt ever since her encounter with Jadine would dissipate there.

Kohir, who was due to join the Eastern campaign, volunteered to escort her safely all the way back to the capital. Kelena pointed out this would hinder his progress eastward, but he appeared unconcerned about the prospect. She rather suspected this had something to do with the fact that if her brother rode east with full speed, he would have to accompany Rogell Tionae, who was to set forward on the same day. Despite becoming related, and the closeness in age and interests, Kohir never became bosom friends with Thadorn or Rogell.

Kelena welcomed Kohir's company. She still felt at ease with both her brothers, if not with her mother and father – and what's more important, she could still ride, if not for a full day. Soon, her condition would prohibit that.

It was a fine day when she and Kohir set forward. The scent of autumn was already in the crisp clear air, and for an unknown reason Kelena felt her heart lift. Strangely, she felt she is riding into the unknown, and this could only be an improvement... yet there was a nagging worry at the back of her mind, and she spent the morning alternately dwelling on it and trying to put it out of her thoughts, until finally she decided to share it with her brother.

"Kohir," she said, drawing his attention. Her elder brother was all of a warrior now, trained and geared for battle, and she didn't dare to use his childhood name Ko. "How often have you all seen Jadine lately?"

He frowned. "Funny you should ask," he said after a moment of hesitation, "because I felt something about her lately. Something queer. She has grown... evasive. Well, you know how she is, she has never been the affectionate type, right? But lately I got the impression that she deliberately avoids us and everyone she knows. Even Father noticed that. Mother tried to tell him Jadine is busy with the children, but that won't fool me. I ran into her on the beach not long ago, you know. She was walking uphill quickly, and her cheeks were burning, and her eyes sparkled, like she was extremely pleased with something she saw or did. But when she noticed me she backed off, and her face had gone all stony. I would think there was a man involved in all this, if I didn't know Thadorn better. I wonder..." Kohir gave her a sharp look. "Have you noticed anything strange while you were staying with them?"

"Do you remember how she said, when she was little, that she was going to learn magic and become the greatest sorceress that ever was?" asked Kelena. Her brother laughed out loud.

"Yes, I do. And do you remember the frenzy she flew into, when Mother told her the warlocks are dead and gone?"

"She never believed that," Kelena said quietly, "not really."

Kohir looked at her, oddly disconcerted. "You're not trying to tell me she's still meddling about with such nonsense?"

"If it's nonsense, we needn't worry, isn't that so?" countered Kelena, almost echoing Jadine's words.

"That is right," nodded Kohir, but he appeared unconvinced. "It is known some wisps of the Power still remain," he added, "and I know there are some people who can do queer things... but none of it is serious, Kelena. The only things that matter now are swords and alliances and strategy... and the eye of the Great Spirit watching upon us, as people of faith remind us at every opportunity."

They made good speed, traveling as swiftly as possible by day and taking refuge in roadside inns and hospitable households well before dusk set in. The roads were perilous; the eastern border was bleeding, and wild tribes penetrated Tilir from the east as well as from the south, taking the Middle Road as their prey. They didn't have the audacity to attack a well-armed man in broad daylight, but come nightfall they would swoop upon the road like vultures, robbing unfortunate late-night travelers and throwing heavy jagged stones at passing caravans simply out of spite. The atmosphere on the road was tense; whereas before, travelers chance met liked to stop and chat and exchange news, now everyone hurried on without sparing a word, anxious to complete their business and reach a place of refuge before dark. Even hooded cloaks, a customary travel garment, evoked suspicion, and it now became a matter of good manners to throw back the hood of one's cloak upon seeing people approaching. Fear grew in the dark like a poisonous mushroom.

Kelena was relieved when they reached the tall walls and sound gates of Aldon-Sur, flanked by well-armed guards. She had hoped her brother would ride into the city with her and help her dispel the gloom an empty house was apt to inflict, but Kohir bade her farewell at the city gates.

"You will have safe passage from here, I am sure," he said, "but I must ride on east. I am late as it is."

"I know," said Kelena, "and I know it was for my sake." Following a sudden impulse, she stood on tiptoe and kissed his cheek. Last time she kissed her brother, his face was smooth; now she felt the prickling of a young golden beard.

"Write to Mother and Father," Kohir bade her, "and tell them I will send a message as soon as I can. Tell them to keep an eye on Nog, too. They don't want to have him run off on his own, not now when the roads are so perilous."

Fourteen-year-old Nog was tall and strong for his age, and almost a man – almost, but not quite enough to be allowed to join the fighting alongside his elder brother. This led to an angry outburst the night before their departure, and Kelena knew Kohir's warning was not in vain.

It was dark when the palanquin she hired – she was rather tired and sore of riding, and handed the reins of her horse to one of the footmen attending the palanquin – brought her to the gates of the house on Upper Esplanade. To her surprise, all the windows at the lower level were lit, and some of the upstairs windows as well. Someone was home, and it could only be Dankar, since none of the servants would keep so many lights on. But how could it be, when the fighting was still going strong, and she received no notice of his arrival?

This mystery was solved the moment she walked through the door. Her husband himself welcomed her; he wore a traveling cloak that had once been handsome, but now was muddy and tattered. Plainly, he had just arrived. He was exhausted, and his right arm was in a sling, but upon seeing her, his face lit up with an ironic smile.

"Well, isn't this a surprise!" he exclaimed. "I have come home not half an hour ago, and was just about to cast off this filthy cloak and sit down to write to you about my arrival; I did not expect you would come back so early, though. I thought you would stay another fortnight at least. What happened to shorten your visit so? Was it less pleasurable than you imagined?"

It was, but Kelena wasn't going to give him the satisfaction of knowing it. "I enjoyed spending some time with my family," she said, "but my brother Kohir left to join the fighting in the east, and riding with him back to Aldon-Sur gave me the safest escort and the pleasantest company I could wish for." It was then that courtesy required her to ask about his injured arm. "Have you been wounded, my husband?"

"This?" Dankar looked at his bandaged arm, as though he forgot all about it. "This is nothing too grave, my lady. But it very well could have been. A savage axe nearly took the top of my head off, and if it weren't for a boy who pushed me away and rushed forward to spear the bugger on his lance, I wouldn't be standing here now. The brave lad nearly paid the price of his life for saving mine, though. He was grievously wounded, and by the way it looked, had half his blood spilled that day. I took him home with me, to give him better care than he could have had at the garrison, and summoned the best healers to attend him. I figured I owed him that."

"That was very good of you, my noble husband," Kelena said courteously.

"I know how to pay my debts," replied Dankar, "and let no one think of me otherwise. I will do everything for the boy's recovery, and will use my influence to have him promoted to a lieutenant. So," he added briskly, "you will find one of the upstairs guest rooms occupied, but this should be of no inconvenience to you."

"I am sure of it as well."

"Your brother had gone to join the lines, then? I thought he would. I hope for his sake that he comes under Emmet's command. There could be no better place for him."

"Emmet Nimedor is there as well?" asked Kelena.

"If a man of noble birth chances to find himself someplace else these days, he will be dubbed a craven," Dankar said with a hint of irony. "Well, my lady," he went on, "No doubt you want to take a bath and change your clothes before dinner. I am in dire need of the same. I shall meet you downstairs in, say, two hours?"

But after Kelena bathed and dressed, she still had plenty of time left, and for a few moments, she paced up and down the room, taking in the familiar luxurious surroundings. There was no joy for her here, yet there was comfort, and she reclined upon the plump embroidered sitting cushions with pleasure, relishing the warmth of the good fire on an unseasonably chilly evening.

Then she heard a moan across the corridor. It must be the wounded man. She decided to take a look, to offer the healers her help, in case anything is needed to make him more comfortable. She crossed the corridor on tiptoe and opened the door behind which the voices sounded. A middle-aged woman in mouse-grey robes of a healer was wringing out a cloth in a basin of warm water; when she saw Kelena, she made a polite bow.

"Is there anything I can do to help you?" Kelena asked, although the sight of the blood-colored water made her queasy. Then again, much and more made her queasy these days. To her relief, the woman shook her head.

"The Great Spirit brought him out of danger," the healer said in a low voice. "With rest and care, he should be fine. He woke just now, and for the first time, remembered who he was."

Kelena's gaze wandered to the bed. The young man lying upon it under a heap of blankets was pale and drawn and covered in sweat, but she recognized him all the same. It was Torwen Mattar. She approached the sickbed with soft footsteps and knelt by it. When he saw her, a weak smile appeared on his lips.

"Lady Kelena," he said in a barely audible voice, "I hope you will forgive my not being able to rise."

"You need not speak," she replied, lowering her voice as well. "You were very brave," she said. He seemed faintly surprised by that notion.

"Brave?" he croaked. "Not... not brave. Just... could not let that bastard get the Commander. Commander Dankar... your husband... he was good to us. All along. And I knew... I knew he would want to come back home, with you waiting for him. If I were him... I would have wanted that... very much."

Having said that, he looked aside, seemingly embarrassed. Kelena smiled a sad little smile and smoothed the wounded man's bedcovers.

"You just rest," she told him, "rest and grow stronger. I am sure many are waiting for your safe return as well."

"Yes," he said. "My mother and... everyone. Mattar is a small clan. Every man is... important."

He closed his eyes, and seemed to have gone to sleep again. His face was tired now, but peaceful. Kelena rose from her knees with a rustle of skirts, and left the room.

It seemed that Dankar made special efforts to be pleasant that night, and so their solitary dinner passed in a better manner than she could have hoped.

"Will you go back east?" she asked. "When you can use your arm again?"

"The fighting in the east will be done by then," he assured her, "and the wild men will be driven back across the border where they belong. But not..." he searched for words. "We can ward them off, but we cannot defeat them, not without venturing deep into the Eastern Wastes, and no man of a sound mind will do that. So we will throw them off... knowing they will strike again someday, sooner or later."

Fighting a shadow, Jadine's voice sounded in Kelena's head, and a chill crept down her spine. Dankar must have seen her discomfort, so he added, "fear not. They are no threat to us, merely a nuisance." Still she was unconvinced, remembering how many fears accompanied her during the journey down the Middle Road. Then they talked of other things, ordinary things, matters of family and house and servants, and the wounded man upstairs, the one who nearly died saving the life of her child's father.

Still, she found no right opening in the conversation to tell him of the new life growing in her womb. She thought that if Dankar should decide to make his way into her bedchamber again she will tell him there is no need for that anymore, but he never did. He courteously bade her goodnight and went to his own room. Still, he must know, Kelena decided, and resolved to tell him upon the morrow.

Yet when she made her way downstairs to breakfast, she met one or two of the servants, and they hurried past her with a frightened look on their faces. As she hastened onward with a terrible feeling of premonition, she heard horrible sounds. And only when she saw Dankar, she realized that it was him. He was sobbing, on his knees, a letter crushed in his hand. He was alone, for no one dared to come near him, and when he heard her enter he turned to look at her and his eyes, dark and bottomless and full of tears, were terrible to behold.

"A runner just came," he said hoarsely, answering her unspoken question. "There was a letter..." his fingers unclenched, and shreds of cheap thin paper scattered upon the carpet. "It is Emmet," he went on with tremendous effort. "He... he stepped into the Land of Dawn."

Kelena didn't know what to say. As repulsive as the relationship between her husband and Emmet Nimedor had been to her, she realized the value of Emmet as a good man, true and brave. And Dankar's suffering was so palpable that she could not help but feel sorry for him. "How did it happen?" she asked.

"He was captured by the Lyaki," said Dankar, his fingernails digging into the flesh of his palms. "They tortured him, trying to find out the plans of the next attack... and when it became clear to them their efforts are futile, they burned him alive. I don't know if it is true, but it was said he... he did not cry out, not once.""He was captured by the Lyaki," said Dankar, his fingernails digging into the flesh of his palms. "They tortured him, trying to find out the plans of the next attack... and when it became clear to them their efforts are futile, they burned him alive. I don't know if it is true, but it was said he... he did not cry out, not once." A great shuddering gasp escaped his mouth, and he buried his face in his hands.

"I will call for an infusion of calming herbs," Kelena said in a hushed voice. "I will say it is for me."

She was about to ring for a servant, but Dankar caught her wrist. "No," he said. "No... want nothing. Nothing will help. Not now. He was brave, Emm... he had courage, like Tryg... and brave men are always favored by the Great Spirit. I should never have left him," he went on, savagely. "He was taken captive on the same day I went home. I should have stayed by his side."

"You could not have," Kelena said reasonably but gently. "You were wounded."

Her husband looked at her through a haze of pain. "I know what you think of me. I am an abomination, an insult to the essence of the Spirit, and so was Emmet. But I loved him – by all I hold sacred, I loved him."

"As he loved you," said Kelena with a sigh, looking directly into the black eyes she once feared. "I do not think you are an abomination, Dankar. There is simply something about you which is... unusual... out of the ordinary. And the way of the world is such that you need to hide it, or be an outcast. I understand this. But at least within your house, and on an open road, and in your own heart you can be free." She was silent, warding off untimely bitterness. I can never be free, her silence implied. You made sure of that. Dankar was good at reading between the lines, though. He fully understood her meaning, and when he looked at her, for the first time ever Kelena saw a hint of remorse.

"All men deserve to be free," he said. "All women, too. My first wives chose not to accept it, they tried to bend me to their will, to correct my path, but you... you were always good, Kelena. I can find no fault in you. If you wish, I can make you free. I realize the dissolution of this marriage might bring trouble upon you, from the side of your clan and especially your mother, but I can give you enough gold to be respectably settled all your life – as close to or as far from Rhasket as you would wish."

Kelena could not suppress a bitter smile. If only he had made this offer before taking my maidenhood, she mused, everything could have been different. It was too late now, though. Too late for so many things.

But he was brittle, broken, shaking with grief, and an impulse made her reach out for his hand. "Emmet was a man of worth," she said, "a man of valor. Perhaps," she hesitated for a heartbeat, then went on, "perhaps it will give you some comfort to name our son after him."

It took a moment for her words to sink in. He looked at her, his face tear-stricken, his eyes wide with astonishment. "Are... are you..." he struggled for words.

Kelena nodded.

"Are you certain?" he blurted out. "Absolutely certain?"

She nodded again. "Of course," she said, "if it is a girl, we can call her Emma. But I don't mind either way. It is a good name."

Wordlessly, Dankar turned aside and wiped away his tears. Then he took her hand and, for the first time since they were married, brought it to his lips.

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