The Ways of Men
When Rogell returned that day, it was in the company of a man Nicholas had never seen before. The little hair that remained on his head was white, and his spotted scalp shone through it. He was small and frail-looking and wizened, yet his eyes were bright and clear as those of a young man, and there was no hesitancy of old age in his movements. He was wearing a long purple robe with white sleeves, held at the waist with a white-and-silver sash, and unabashedly stared at Nicholas with an expression of liveliest interest.
"Curious," he muttered to himself, "very curious."
Nicholas didn't think much of being ogled that way, yet his reserved nature permitted him to do nothing but purse his lips.
"Nicholas, my friend," said Rogell, after sending the children off to Lya's arms, supper, bath and bed, "I am very much pleased and honored to introduce the learned man Geynir, of our clan, who by strange coincidence arrived from the capital a mere few days after your arrival and..."
"... and only just learned of it, else I would have been here sooner," said Geynir with a polite smile. "You cannot know, of course, how I have longed to meet someone from your world again."
This last word caught Nicholas's attention. "Again?" he repeated. "Do you mean to say you met someone from my world once before?"
"Oh yes," said the old man decisively. He was urged by Rogell to take the most comfortable cushioned seat, but waved it away and preferred to sit cross-legged on the newly woven mat of fragrant grass. Lya came in, carrying a finely carved wooden tray with hard-boiled eggs sprinkled with salt, flat bread, pickled beets and a clay jug of hot apple cider. She did not stay, but excused herself by some pretext of being busy with the children. In private, Nicholas rather thought she was feeling uncomfortable with how much she told him that afternoon. She had been extraordinarily silent ever since he proclaimed her rose petal jam excellent.
Rogell poured the cider; Lya brewed it herself, and it was good and strong. Geynir took a sip and praised it. Meanwhile, Nicholas waited impatiently for him to go on.
"Yes," he finally repeated, "I once met a man from your world. Many years ago it was, when I was a lad about half your age, with not even dreams of learning... truth be told, I didn't even bother to learn my letters properly. I ever was a man of modest nature, and even as a boy I didn't dream of glory. The obscurity of my fate did not bother me, and I enjoyed life day by day, helping my father plough his fields, riding my horse, splashing in the waves when the weather was fine, dreaming of the maid who would one day become my wife... and yet, for reasons that remain unknown to me, the Great Spirit chose me to be the one to meet the visitor from The-World-Beyond, a man named Marcel Dubois."
"That is a French name," said Nicholas with the slight disapproval of anything French which was a national trait.
"Fr... yes, France was the name of his land. Now, that was a horrible summer. The gates above were shut against the rain that was meant to bless our crops, and the sky was a pale burnt blue. My father, here up north, lost half his crop, and the farmers of the south lost almost all. Even the mighty Middle River shrank within its banks to a slow muddy strip of brown water. By mid-summer, it was clear we are lost... and it was then that Marcel appeared on our cracked, parched earth."
"That was the year of the Great Drought, wasn't it?" Rogell put in.
"Your father taught you well, lad. Yes, it was that year. We had many adventures, but I doubt they would be interesting to anyone but me. The important thing is, it turned out Marcel had a talent for finding water. He went south and directed the farmers there to dig new wells, for the old ones have all dried out... and lo and behold, clear pure water gushed out of the dried land, and the south was saved – a harvest was reaped before the autumn chills, and people who were preparing to abandon their farms and villages stayed. Had it not been for Marcel's wells, the south might have been abandoned altogether, and then an invasion of savages from across the Dust River would have been only a matter of time. He was proclaimed a hero and was offered to stay in Tilir, in a beautiful fertile valley the king himself had granted him, with a household and servants... and yet the man longed for his home."
"Did he ever go home?" asked Nicholas, somewhat anxiously.
"He did," nodded the learned man Geynir. "Part of me hoped that he would stay, because I had grown to love and admire this industrious energetic man, and look up to him as if to the elder brother I never had – in a family of five children, I was the only son – but I knew his place was not with us. And so, when the Stormglass gates were finally opened to let him go back, I watched him go with great sadness, but great joy too. Marcel went home, and I don't know what became of him, but I hope he lived a long and happy life."
"It is comforting to hear this," said Nicholas. "How long did it take until he was able to go back?"
"Several months," said the old man. "But here is what I mean: there was obviously a reason for him finding himself here. Like in your case, it was completely unexpected. He was helping his brother guard his flock of sheep; one of the ewes squeezed into a cave, and when Marcel tried to squeeze in after her, he found himself here."
"So," said Nicholas, "do you mean to say you think there is a reason for me being here, too?"
"I am certain of it," replied the old man confidently. "It might not be clear now, or ever, for the Great Spirit has a thousand thousands eyes and sees what we never will, but nothing happens without a purpose, certainly not an event as rare and special as the work of Stormstone."
"Let us suppose it may be so," said Nicholas, who was still not entirely convinced, and sipped his apple cider. The old man did the same, then set his cup aside with a sigh.
"These are dark times too," he said. "You do know of the warlocks gathering in the Emerald Mountains?"
"Do you believe in that, Learned Geynir?" interjected Rogell. "In the past centuries, it became commonly acknowledged that the Essence of the Spirit was spread so thinly that warlocks have ceased to exist."
"Perhaps, rather, that was what people wished to think," said Geynir. "Myself among them. It was thanks to Marcel that I began to find pleasure and purpose in learning, and when I perused old scrolls and books and learned about the warlocks, it was with relief that I thought of them being gone. People have always been wary of powers they could not properly understand, and the warlocks were said to possess many of them... not all were equally gifted, of course. There were some who could do a little Spirit magic, predict the weather and make a storm pass by, but there were also those who could plunge their hand into a vat full of boiling water, and make it freeze instantly; there were men who could stop another man's heart by sheer force of will, without even moving their lips – and many miles away, their enemy would drop upon the floor, seemingly unscathed but obviously dead. Those who are gathering now, though... I cannot answer for them, but I have an ominous feeling about it. The Shadowbinders, they call themselves."
"What does it mean?" asked Rogell.
"It means they want to draw the borders of the Shadow all around Tilir, shutting it completely and irrevocably from the rest of the world. They want Malvia and all our adjacent lands to be destroyed and sink into the sea, in a rush of black smoke and salty water, never to appear again."
"But that is impossible," protested Rogell.
"Is it?" Geynir raised his eyebrows very slightly. "Very well. In that case, all we have to do is sit back and wait, and then very soon we will find out what is possible and what is not."
...Dankar sat on his wife's bed, waiting.
A train of conflicting emotions crowded in his chest: vague suspicion, faint guilt, unexpected tremor. Most importantly, he cared much more than he wished to, and this made him feel vulnerable. She was not where she said she would be, and she should be back at any moment now. I needn't ask her questions. One look upon her face will suffice to know.
The door creaked, and his heart beat in anticipation as her little light steps sounded across the room. He didn't announce his presence by word or movement, and so it was only when Kelena closed the door behind her that she noticed him.
She sprung back, unable to conceal her surprise and displeasure – nor the warm glow that still lingered upon her cheeks and on her lips, the slight disarray of her hair under the elaborate closely woven hair net, the warmth that radiated from her fair young body.
Dankar smiled in grim satisfaction, and saw how she drew herself up, straight and taut as an arrow. She was prepared for whatever was to come, and this pleased him.
"My lady," he said with a courteous bow, taking one step towards her. He knew the only reason she did not retreat was because the door was behind her. "You have had a pleasant walk, I trust?"
"A – a walk?" she repeated uncertainly. "I thought I told you – "
"That you were going to call upon your uncle, yes. You should have chosen a more likely sounding lie." The last word had the crack of a whip to it. "But you passed through the Upper Esplanade without stopping, and when you thought yourself to be well out of sight, you threw on a simple cloak of roughspun brown wool, one that concealed your face and figure well... and no one would have thought a lady of such loveliness hides beneath it."
"Did you follow me?" she asked with mingled anger and fear.
"Would you blame me for it?" he replied with raised eyebrows. "This is not the first strange disappearance of yours that I have witnessed lately. Yes, I did follow you long enough to see you descend into the lower streets and mix with the commoners. Then I doubled back, for I would have been too conspicuous."
"I could tell you – "
"Where you went? There is no need of it," he said quite calmly. He approached her and brought his face close to her hair. He closed his eyes and inhaled the earthy scent that drafted up in fragrant waves from her body. Of youth and love she smelled, of sin and secret and defiance. He opened his eyes and lifted her chin with his finger, forcing her to look into his eyes. He knew it was only by force of will that she did not recoil.
"Who is the man?" he asked mildly.
"The man?" she repeated, playing for time, feigning innocence she no longer had, penetrating his whole being with that offending scent that awoke lust in him, lust that was as foreign as her body had been the night he planted their son inside of her.
"Or is it a woman?" he asked mockingly. "I wouldn't put anything past anyone, and yet I have a hard time believing it of you... no matter. You won't tell me, but I will find out, and when I do, the bastard will be heartily sorry he had ever been born."
She ducked aside in one smooth, supple movement, walked over to the window and stood there, chest heaving. Dankar turned around to face her, but made no move to approach her again.
"I did no wrong," she said, her beautiful clear blue eyes sparkling with rare fury. "Or at least, nothing more wrong than what you have been doing openly since the day of our marriage," she added with a bitter twist of her lips.
Only now did Dankar feel a true surge of anger, yet not a muscle moved in his face, and he knew he appeared as calm as a still mountain lake, the lake in the hidden valley which he and Tryg had made their secret refuge one magical summer. He tried to bring Tryg's face before his mind's eye again, but could not. The beloved features kept shifting, as if seen through a shimmering veil of water, and he gave up.
"Openly?" he said quietly. "No," he said. "I have observed caution. I have kept propriety. And so will you," he finished with abrupt savagery, crossed the chamber in one graceful leap, and took his wife forcefully by the shoulders, digging his nails into the fine fabric of her gown. "I will not let you shame me."
Kelena stood before him unflinching, beautiful, glistening, fertile, like a fresh flower after an invigorating spring rain. She said nothing.
"You will not get out of the house again without my leave, nor send any messages that have not met my approval. You will receive no one when I am not present. Is that understood?"
"Yes," she said defiantly. "Anything else, my noble husband?"
"Do not attempt to bribe any of the servants into cheating me. It would be futile. I have always been generous with you, but you will never be able to offer them as much as I can."
She hesitated and then, in a gesture of appeal, placed a soft hand upon his arm as he let go of her shoulders.
"You offered me my freedom once," she whispered. "Do you remember?"
"Yes," he said. "And you refused. Do you remember?" he challenged her. "For duty, for shame, for the babe that had begun to grow in your womb... it matters not. The decision was made, the path chosen. We have a son now. I may not be the most affectionate father, but I care about little Emm. Whatever I do, I do with his best interests at heart, and I will not permit his mother to commit acts that might make him cringe with shame when he is old enough to understand."
"And what about his father?" Kelena blurted out, and he could tell she instantly regretted her words.
"You might not know that," he said in an icy voice, "nor perhaps believe me, but since Emmet's death there has been no... I have done nothing that could compromise either of us. I expect you to do the same. I am not being unreasonable, am I?"
"Oh, surely not," said Kelena, and her tone was the closest to sarcasm he had ever heard from her. "That is entirely reasonable, especially since I am going to be locked up inside the house."
"Don't..." he balled his right hand into a fist, and his black-stoned ring shone upon it ominously. "Do not twist my words," he said. "I make no excessive demands. You are my wife, and... and you have been a good wife." He finished abruptly.
"To be sure," Kelena nodded understandingly. "A good little wife. Obedient and convenient."
It stung all the more because it was the truth; that was the reason he married her – he wanted a good little wife. She did all that was expected of her, but now...
"Do you remember the night we made our son?" he asked.
She flinched. "I did my best to forget," she confessed.
"So did I," he said savagely, and stepped towards her once more. "You know it was all only for obtaining an heir, but I... I found pleasure in it." He met her eyes, and when he saw revulsion in them, his anger flared up. "Do not look at me as if I said something twisted. Yes, I found pleasure in bed with my wife. It is not so very perverted."
She raised her eyebrows, and there was only a faint hint of tremor in her voice as she replied, "you never tried to repeat the experiment after Emm was born, though."
"No," he said, struggling for words, "no, but this can be changed." She paled and looked greensick, but this only made the odious mixture of anger and lust burn stronger in his chest. "Lately, I have often wondered what would have happened if... if some girl had made a man out of me as it usually happens. Boys are... impressionable. I loved Tryg and wanted to adopt his views on everything, in everything, and still think he was one of the noblest men to have ever walked upon this land. But I am a man myself now. I could come to your bed tonight," he said, and he realized that if he had said, I could kill you she wouldn't have seemed more terrified. "We could try and make a brother or a sister for Emmet, it would be good for him. And we could see if there is any... any pleasure to be found between the sheets."
She only stared at him blankly. He knew she would have slapped him if she dared, but of course she did not.
"Do you truly believe," she finally said in an incredulous voice, "that it would be possible, after all that had been?"
"To share a bed?" he replied promptly. "Certainly. We can do it tonight, and every night if I wish. I am your husband."
"In name only," she retorted. "You can have my freedom, you can have my body, but you can never have my soul."
Her eyes glistened with furious tears. He sneered.
"No," he said, "that belongs to this mysterious lover of yours, does it not? But your soul will not follow his into the Land of Shadows, where he will soon be sent by my hand."
He had crossed some invisible line, for Kelena was quivering with rage as she began to undress. She took off her cloak and her hair net, her gloves and her gown, her stockings and her underclothes, until she stood before him beautiful and golden and naked, her mouth drawn in a thin line, gooseprickles all over her skin.
"What are you doing?" he asked too late, confused.
"You mean to claim your rights, do you not?" she asked sharply. "I would rather get it over with quickly."
He reached out to touch her golden hair, but withdrew his hand quickly, as if he could not bear the caress of the silken tresses.
"Not like this," he shook his head. "I will make you want me, just as I have grown to want you. I swear it."
He turned on his heel and walked out of the room, and as he was closing the door behind him, he might have heard her whispering never.
Alone, in his room, he reflected. Locking up his wife will not do, he decided. It would only embitter her and make rumors circulate all through the Upper Esplanade. No, he decided, what he needs is someone to keep an eye on her, at least for a while. Someone loyal, but not someone who would be so obviously his creature that she would suspect. But who? Thought knotted his brow. Any of the servants is out of the question, for obvious reasons, and he had no friend he could confide in. And then a brilliant idea hit him – of course! Torwen Mattar is in town, he heard, and he would be the perfect choice; a good and honest man, one who owes him a debt of career advancement, but not anyone so utterly dependent on him as to raise Kelena's suspicions. He knew where to find the lad and, because with him action was never far from thought, called for his horse to be saddled at once.
Torwen Mattar had taken modest rooms in a respectable but unpretentious quarter of the city, and the arrival of Dankar on his splendid horse, naturally, caused a sensation. Fishmongers and washerwomen stared after him and whispered behind their hands, and little children in patched clothes stood watching him with their mouths open. Dankar drew a handful of coins from the pouch on his belt and scattered them on the cobblestones, to distract them while he rode on.
Finally he reached his destination and dismounted. He handed the reins of the horse to a servant he took with him, and knocked on the door which might once have been blue, but was now covered with only shreds of peeling grayish paint.
Torwen's eyes peered at him in astonishment.
"Commander," he said uncertainly, "I am most – "
"Yes, yes, I know," said Dankar, waving the courtesies away with an impatient gesture of his hand. "But my presence here is conspicuous, and if I remain standing on your doorstep, it will be even more so. May I come in?"
"But of course," said Torwen, stepping aside. Dankar walked in after him and barred the door. The place, he noticed, was shabbily furnished but spotlessly clean. "May I offer you refreshment, Commander? There isn't much, to be sure, but I have freshly baked bread and new cheese."
"Thank you. I am not hungry. I would rather get straight to the matter." Did he imagine this, or did the young man seem to waver?
"I am most honored and delighted by this unexpected visit," said Torwen, "and yet, may I ask to what do I owe –
"I will make this clear in a minute. It is a singular stroke of luck, I must say, that made me learn you are in town. I was not aware that you left Fort Sand."
"Only for a while," Torwen said. "I will have to return soon," he added, somewhat reluctantly.
"But while you are here," said Dankar, "can I count on your assistance in a delicate matter?"
"My... assistance?" Torwen looked wary. "To be sure, Commander. Whatever you require."
Dankar favored him with a satisfied smile. "Listen, then," he said.