Paths of the Shadow

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Thadorn couldn't remember how long he stood there, dumbstruck, numb. He looked around, seeing Jadine's things, her dresses, her hair combs, her jewelry box. She took nothing with her, it seemed. It could have made him hopeful for her return, but there was a finality about her leave-taking that he could not mistake. Dazed, he made his slow way back downstairs, where he was greeted by Kelena. His good-sister's arms were now empty; presumably, little Tari had fallen asleep.

"Thadorn, what happened?" she asked urgently upon the sight of him. I must look drunk. I sure feel drunk – on sour, strong wine.

"Have you seen Jadine?" he asked in return, struggling with every word.

"Why, yes, she just walked past me, hardly mumbled a word of greeting – I thought she was heading outside for some fresh air, but – what happened?"

"She left," said Thadorn in a low voice, powerlessly dropping his weight on a low carved sitting bench piled high with cushions.

"Left?" Kelena did not seem to comprehend. "What do you mean, left?"

His dark eyes met her innocent blue ones. "I mean she left me," he said quietly but distinctly. "She left our children and our home, our life and our vows, and everything I thought she held dear, to go west and dabble at some obscure sorcery I thought she had long abandoned." Kelena's hand flew to her mouth; she looked horrified, which was to be expected, but he made another observation. "You are not surprised," he noted with a tinge of bitterness.

"I..." Kelena shook her head. "Jadine had always been willful, you knew that, and she was fascinated by some – some – things better left in the dark. But I had hoped this was all left in the past... that she is happy now... the Great Spirit showered so many blessings upon her, and I thought surely..."

"I thought so too," Thadorn said abruptly. "Apparently, we were both wrong."

"But what does she intend to do?"

"Save Tilir," he let out a short little laugh that was worse than a sob. "Or attempt some crackpot spell and get herself killed in the process, more like."

"You must find her and bring her back," Kelena said forcefully, resting one hand on his sleeve. He gave her a long look, then nodded. In his heart he knew it would probably do no good, but even the attempt of doing something senseless appealed more to his practical and active nature than doing nothing at all.

"You must help me," he told Kelena.

"Tell me what to do," she said earnestly.

"People will notice before long that Jadine is gone. They will begin asking questions and I... I could not bear it. You must leave upon the morrow, go back to Aldon-Sur, and take care to be seen by as few people as possible as you ride out of Rhasket. We will say Jadine had gone with you for a visit. It will buy us some time without gossip, at the very least. You will have to take little Tari with you, too," he added after a brief inner struggle. "Under normal circumstances, Jadine would not have gone without her babe."

The look of pity in her eyes made him burn with shame and humiliation. "Oh, Thadorn," she said softly, shaking her head. "Perhaps it isn't necessary to – "

"No, say no more," he entreated her. "I know Tari will be in good hands... and before long, she will return home. I am ashamed to say this, but I will have to ask you to leave very early, before the children are up. You can take Emmet while he is still asleep."

"And what will you tell Korian and Datrine?" asked Kelena.

"The same I will tell everyone else. That their mother had gone to an extended visit with her sister; that she loves them and shall miss them, and promised to bring them many presents upon her return."

A shadow of uncertainty passed upon his good-sister's face. "And if she doesn't return?" Kelena asked tremulously.

"Then it will be a cruel blow for them," Thadorn said darkly. "But... let us not speak of it yet, while there is still hope, however faint."

Kelena pondered the matter a little longer. "May I ask Nog to accompany me?" she asked. "I will feel safer with him along the way."

Kelena's youngest brother was seventeen now, a lad of little training, but strong and skilled with sword and bow. As much as her request made sense, though, he felt he could not allow it.

"Forgive me, but I would rather find someone else to escort you. If Nog goes with you, your family will know everything within an hour of his return, and then all the Kotsar, and after them the other clans... I know it is much to ask, Kelena, but for the sake of the kin's bond between us, and for your sister..."

"I understand," Kelena interrupted him softly. "I wouldn't mind going on my own, Thadorn; I could rent a good solid cart and there are inns along the road... with the children, though... who do you think could escort me?"

"There is a good man," Thadorn said. "You will recall him, I am sure – he spent some time in your home recovering from wounds he received during the Eastern campaign. His name is Torwen Mattar."

As unobservant as personal concern and anxiety have made him, he could not miss the brilliant blush that suffused Kelena's face all of a sudden at the mention of the name. "To be sure," she said, "I remember Torwen, but we saw nothing of him ever since he was recovered and made a lieutenant. I thought he had gone to South Watch."

"He did, but then he returned to Fort Sand. It is usually Rogell's work to go there on Sea Guard business, and it was there that they became friends. I know Torwen is in Rhasket-Tharsanae now, looking for new soldiers to recruit in the city dungeons. It is an important task, but Torwen is a man not insensitive to the plight of others, and he thinks most highly of you and your husband, I know this for a fact. If he can contrive any possibility of conveying you and the children to Aldon-Sur, he will be happy to do that."

"I am sure he will," Kelena acquiesced. He didn't understand why she looked so aflutter, but there was no time to dwell on that. He had to go and speak to Torwen Mattar now, alone and undisturbed.

Torwen proved to be as good and obliging a friend as he was a brave soldier. The lateness of the hour was no trouble at all; and the request, though unexpected, could be easily fulfilled. Nothing could give him more pleasure than safely accompanying Lady Kelena and the children to Aldon-Sur, and all he required of Thadorn was that a message be dispatched to his superiors in Fort Sand, depicting his mission as a special favour asked by the Commander of the Sea Guard. Then surely there could be no objections. It was to be kept a secret? Then he would carry it to his grave, and trust that Thadorn Tionae would never get a man involved in anything dishonorable. He asked no questions, either, although his curiosity was plain to see.

Kelena did her best not to seem too discombobulated, or to steal more glances at Torwen than would be appropriate for a noble lady with a humble escort. Resistance was proving to be difficult, though; his was one of the faces that don't stand out at first, but later draw the eye again and again. And his eyes were true hazel, very bright, pure and clear like a mountain lake in spring, dappled by sunlight.

The last thing she expected was to find herself alone with him, except for a toddler and a babe in arms, on a long road. After that fateful day when the notice of Emmet Nimedor's death reached them, Torwen stayed in the house at the Upper Esplanade for another three weeks, but they had little chance to talk. Once he recovered, he went away carrying a letter of the warmest recommendations from Dankar. He had been promoted, Kelena knew, but she heard nothing of him since. He had grown handsomer, she reflected, but not at all self-assured. And what of me? What have I become? What am I becoming, slowly, day by day, hardly noticing it?

Torwen was ever courteous, helping her mount and dismount, making sure she and the children were comfortable when they stopped at inns, pointing out the beauties of the countryside. He asked few questions, and for that Kelena was grateful; she suspected it would not endure, though, and was proven right.

One time at midday, the weather was so lovely they stepped off the road for a while to sit in the shade of a magnificent oak tree. Road provisions were brought out – bread, cheese, dried apples – and after having a bite to eat, little Emm wandered off to splash in the little stream nearby. It was shallow, but Kelena still kept a careful eye on her son, ready to call him off. Little Tari, lulled to sleep by the swaying motion of the ride, was sprawled on a blanket next to them.

"I don't know your good-brother well," began Torwen, "but I have great respect for him, and I know I owe it to him to make all the way to Aldon-Sur and back without displaying the least bit of curiosity. I am only human, though," he flashed a smile at her. "If there is anything at all you can say to me regarding these... peculiar circumstances, I promise to tell no one."

Kelena looked at him, wondering how much she should say. "You wouldn't ask," she finally said, "if you didn't, at the very least, guess the answer already."

"I am a man of logic, not guesses," said Torwen. "But... you come to stay with your sister, then all of a sudden you have to leave before the break of dawn, only a few days after you arrived. Your sister does not come to bid you farewell, and your brother does not accompany you, although he would be the most natural choice, since he is in town. Thadorn asks me to take you safely to Aldon-Sur, as a personal favor to him, and he seems upset when we say goodbye. And most curiously, you take your little niece with you."

"And what do you make of all this?" inquired Kelena.

"Only this: that something is amiss, and it has to do with your sister."

She sighed. "Jadine left my good-brother and the children," she said. "Thadorn is going to search for her, and in the meantime, he asked me to help him make it seem as though Jadine is going to Aldon-Sur with me. If he finds her and brings her home soon, no lasting damage will be done and no one need know what happened."

"Ah," Torwen looked understanding and commiserating. "I should have guessed. Thadorn did not look like himself when he came to see me... he seemed all wrought with anxiety. I could not have refused him, even though it means I will be flayed alive when I return to Fort Sand," he smiled to make light of the jape, but Kelena's eyes still widened reproachfully.

"You said it would be no trouble for you," she reminded him.

"Nothing I do for you could ever be called trouble," he said, and all of a sudden his smile was gone, and his eyes were anxious and serious when they probed hers, and she felt a hot prickle in her heart that spread instantly to her face and the tips of her fingers. Then her hand was between both of his, and something exploded in the pit of her stomach – thrill, fear, exhilaration. It was not all in vain, it was not. He did not forget me, as I could not forget him. Yet they were close enough to the road to be seen and perhaps recognized, and her sense of propriety made her gently pull her hand away.

"You forget yourself," she said, "I am a woman wed."

Torwen appeared supremely unconcerned. "Of course you are," he nodded, "and your son is proof of that, as the blood of Gindur can be plainly seen in his face. But I know your noble husband never loved you the way he ought."

He sounded so certain, and when Kelena glanced at him nervously, his face was quite calm. "Do I speak too openly, my lady? Forgive me, I did not mean to offend you. But there were certain – certain rumours surrounding your husband, back when we fought in the east. Mostly those were whispers I did not take to heart, as I am not at all fond of gossip, but when I saw your noble husband mourn Commander Nimedor, I knew it was true. One does not grieve this way for a friend, or even a brother. Only for a... lover."

Kelena drew back from him, frightened. "You must never mention it to anyone," she whispered.

"I have never done that, and I never will," Torwen assured her. "Commander Gindur had been good to me, and besides, what goes on in his chambers behind barred doors is none of my concern – or would be none of my concern, if it weren't for you."

Without quite knowing how it happened, Kelena realized they were both on their feet. Torwen's hand reached out to softly cup her cheek, and she did not find the strength to pull back.

"When I first saw you, your eyes were sad," he said quietly. "Now they light up at times... but only when you look at your son. You deserve better. You deserve a man to love you with the passion of his heart, not merely to do his duty by you."

His face was so close to hers she could count the freckles on the bridge of his nose. She was falling, falling, falling – and she would have fallen gladly, if suddenly she had not recalled that she has let little Emmet out of her sight for the past couple of minutes. She looked about her with a jolt of fear, but the little boy was happily occupied floating dry leaves down the stream's current. Tari stirred on her blanket and murmured in her sleep, and Kelena knelt by the babe and laid a tender hand on her.

She looked at Torwen, desperate to lay her heart bare, to be vulnerable and young, to be cherished and protected, desperate to convey by a single look all that she could not put in words.

"We must head on if we are to reach the next inn before nightfall," she told him. He nodded. He looked as awkward as she felt as he began to gather their things. Little Emmet came running towards them, barefoot, his arms full of red-and-gold leaves. Kelena chided him for leaving his shoes by the stream, and Torwen, who had taken a fancy to the boy, hoisted him up on his shoulders – and thus they went in pursuit of the shoes.

Torwen did not speak to her again until they reached the inn.

It was to be their last stop on the way; tomorrow, they would reach the capital. I am going back, mused Kelena. Back to my home, back to my life... or perhaps I have never really been away. The thought filled her with a heavy, leaden feeling, and she had hard time falling asleep at night. Restless, she tossed and turned on her goose-feather mattress, unable to find comfort even in the slow steady breathing of the children next to her in the big bed. Eventually she got up, unable to bear it. She threw her thick cloak over her nightdress, took a candle in hand, and silently slipped outside into the corridor.

The door of Torwen's room was right next to hers, and when she knocked he came forward to open it with such promptitude that she suspected he hadn't been able to get any sleep either. His eyes rested on hers, wide and questioning and beseeching, and when she stepped into the room and closed the door behind her and shrugged off her cloak, Kelena was sure she could hear his heart hammering alongside hers. She kissed him, running her fingers through his thick soft hair, inhaling his oddly and pleasantly familiar scent. She buried her face in his chest and allowed his hands to press her closer, ever closer, much too close, until they were both melting into one. A candle was placed on the sideboard and in its flickering light she saw Torwen's smile, sweet and uncertain, and she knew it was mirrored on her own face. She allowed him to carry her into bed and guided his hands under her nightgown, and then slipped it over her head. His mouth tasted her jaw, her neck, the curve of her shoulders; he kissed her fingers one by one and held her small feet in his hands, and rubbed the stubble of his cheek against her smooth calf; and Kelena laughed, gaily, effortlessly, free for the first time in years. In the dark, each of them whispered each other's name.

"My love," said Torwen when they lay entangled in each other's arms, in the middle of the sagging mattress and the rumpled sheets. "My sweet lady, queen of my heart."

His hand touched her cheek with tenderness that made her breath catch in her throat. She kissed him quietly and smiled. I am such a wanton, she chided herself. A selfish, reckless woman, unfit to carry out the obligations that were placed upon me. Yet much as she tried, she could not bring a sense of uneasiness into her heart. Light as a feather, filled with bubbling happiness, it seemed to her she floated above the surface upon which she lay, wrapped in her lover's arms and in the exhilarating feeling of pleasure she had just experienced for the very first time. She was a married woman, a mother, but this was nothing like her awkward encounters with Dankar in their seldom shared bedchamber. Her husband never hurt her, but after they lay together she always felt soiled, despoiled, ill-used. She always felt the need to cover herself and to have a scalding bath. Now she felt comfortable and at ease with the warm caress of air and Torwen's hands upon her bare skin.

They kissed once more, but already the perfection was ebbing away, tainted by anxiety and guilt and the need to plan for that unspeakable enemy, Future.

"For so long I have dreamed of you," Torwen said, "and it was enough to know that you exist, that I can recall you in my memory and think of you, and conjure images of how things could have been. I never dared to presume... but what are we going to do now?"

"Love each other," Kelena said simply, "until the day we die."

"You know what I mean." Yes, she did, but she would rather not think of it now, while the sweet afterglow of their lovemaking still lingered in the air. She wanted to savor every last breath of it. "I will duel your husband," he said decisively.

"You must not," Kelena propped herself up on her elbow and stared into his face in sudden fear. "No, you must not, Torwen. He will kill you."

She did not so much see the frown upon his face as heard it in his voice. "Do you think so little of my skill with a blade?" he asked.

"It is not a question of... you don't know Dankar, not as well as I do. He might lose the duel, but he will never give you your life, or let me have my freedom. If he lives he will poison you, or arrange a lethal incident, or pull strings to get you prosecuted for some made-up fault. And if he dies by your hand, his whole clan will combine their efforts to serve you in the same way. Dankar is prickly about his pride, and he is not a man of honor. He always claimed freedom in his... his personal affairs, but I do not reckon he will allow me the same."

"Then we must leave," he said decisively, seizing her hand. "Go back to Rhasket and take a ship for Adrinor. You will not be expected back in Aldon-Sur for a while yet, it will give us some days of peace. By the time Dankar looks for you, we will be far away, and little Emmet with us."

But Kelena shook her head. "I cannot take Tari back home yet," she said. "I made a promise to Thadorn. And I cannot leave Tilir while my sister's whereabouts are unknown. We will have to wait," she said pleadingly, cupping his cheek. "For a while, at least."

"I do not like it," he caught her fingers. "To have you go back to that home – to that man."

"I like it very little myself," said Kelena. "But Dankar and I don't really live as a husband and wife, you know that. He hasn't asked to share my bed ever since I was with child, and that was almost three years ago."

"And what if he decides now is the time to make another child?"

Kelena shuddered. "He wouldn't. He won't. We had an agreement... I give him an heir, and he asks nothing more of me but the appearances we have been keeping. Nothing more."

"An agreement," repeated Torwen, "but as you said, he is not a man of honor."

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