Paths of the Shadow

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The Meaning of Duty

Like Thadorn, the sea was frowning. Or so at least it seemed to him. The sky was overcast and grey, the heavy clouds pregnant with rain. But the air was quiet, almost eerily so, and the deck shifted only slightly beneath his feet as he stood talking to Rogell.

"You needn't have come so early," he told his friend. "Your shift does not begin until at least an hour later. I could stand until then."

"I know you would want to see the children before they are sent to bed," said Rogell.

"They are fine with Lya, are they not? Unless," added Thadorn, his brow knotted by sudden concern, "unless you believe it is too much of a trouble for her to continue looking after them."

"No trouble at all," Rogell placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder. "You know how she dotes on your children. Besides, Jo is lonely. We have asked the Great Spirit to grant us the boon of another child, but in the meantime... Jorrel found a brother in Korian, and he is very taken with your little Datrine. It is for the good of everyone."

"Look," Thadorn said suddenly, looking towards the shore. "A boat has just set out, and it seems it is heading here. Who could that be?"

"No idea," shrugged Rogell, squinting. "I don't know that man," he declared when the boat came closer, "but he has an official look."

So it was. The man was but a messenger whose task was to deliver a letter personally into Thadorn Tionae's hands. The letter was a tightly furled scroll sealed by the royal stamp in golden wax.

"Go on, open it," urged Rogell eagerly, and Thadorn obliged his friend's curiosity. He broke the wax seal, scanned the contents of the letter, and his frown deepened.

"What is the matter?" asked Rogell. "What is it about?"

Thadorn was shaking his head, still immersed in the letter, which was rather brief. "It is a summons," he said. "I am to arrive at court, escorting the visitor from The-World-Beyond."

"Nicholas?" said Rogell. "Well, I figured it is only a matter of time until he is summoned. Visitors from Beyond have always held a special interest for anybody with an ounce of imagination, and King Alvadon is a well-read man."

"Yes," said Thadorn impatiently, "but why me?"

"You are the leader of the Tionae now," said Rogell. "His Grace must know that he can have no truer servant in Rhasket, and loyalty would be of great value in these troubled times."

"That must be it," said Thadorn, feeling slightly reassured. "That is what is written here exactly... the leader of the Tionae... I am not even sure His Grace knows it is me. He might not have heard of my father's passing. For a moment I..." he rolled up the scroll again, "I thought it might be because of Jadine."

"She does not have that degree of importance," Rogell assured him promptly, "I am certain the king did not have her in mind."

"All the same..." said Thadorn heavily. "All the same, I do not see how I can go."

"I do not see how you can refuse."

There was good reason in that. "But my duties?"

"Your supreme duty is the king's command, is it not?" Rogell said reasonably. "Rest assured, I will stand in your stead until you return."

"I do not doubt it, my friend, but it might take time. And then there are the children..."

"You can safely entrust them to Lya," Rogell dismissed this little difficulty as something of no importance.

"Again, I do not doubt it," sighed Thadorn, "but how can I burden you and your wife so? Lately, Lya has been more than a mother to these children... she is their friend, their companion, their guardian, whenever I am on duty. They have no one else. Their aunt is an excellent woman, but she is far away, my parents are gone into the Land of Dawn, their remaining grandmother is not particularly tender-hearted, and thinks more of her pride than the welfare of her kin... within the clan, I have no one closer than you and Lya, and I..."

"Lya loves them. You know that well. She has a motherly heart."

Thadorn frowned. "She does, without a doubt, however..."

"And I am not blind," added Rogell, looking distinctly uncomfortable. "I know it was... it was you she wanted in the beginning. Lya. We never spoke of it, but..."

Thadorn looked up in alarm. "I never – "

"You never did anything to encourage her attachment," Rogell went on, nodding wisely. "I understand that. Nor will I ever resent you provoking the love that was so well deserved. But I know Lya will always care for you... with sisterly affection, as is due to my brother. Because you are my brother, Thadorn, just as much and perhaps even more so than if we had been borne into this world by the same mother. You know there is nothing I would not do for you, and I know that, if need arose, I could always count on you to take care of Lya, and to bring up Jorrel as if he were your own son. Isn't that so?"

"Certainly, but – "

"Well, that's settled, then," Rogell clasped his shoulder. "You go; you go in peace, knowing all will be taken care of while you are gone, and that you will have nothing to worry about. May the Great Spirit speed you on your way, so that you can be back soon."

Rogell's words were reassuring, but they wouldn't make it any easier to break to the children that soon, he would be gone, and – Thadorn could not deceive himself, and he knew he would be unable to deceive them – the Spirit only knows how long.

"Another thing," Thadorn remembered, "with the addition of Kor, Datrine and Tari, your house will be too cramped for comfort. I think you would do better to move into mine while I am gone."

"It will be done," Rogell readily consented. "I am sure Lya won't mind in the slightest."

"Good," nodded Thadorn, "now all is left is to tell the children."

"And Nicholas," Rogell put in, "you are forgetting Nicholas."

True, for a moment Thadorn had almost forgotten him, this man because of whom he received these summons in the first place. "Just so," he nodded, "but you can tell him. He is a friend of yours, is he not?"

Rogell nodded. "He is not a man of easy charm, but there is something honest about him... and he is lonely. Not only here, but in his world as well. This was enough to make Lya grow fond of him. You know how she is; she will feel sorry for, and take interest in almost anyone. She is more anxious about this man than he is for himself, and to tell you the truth I cannot see the reason. There is nothing particularly special about him, as far as I can see. I believe the king will be disappointed when this visitor from The-World-Beyond comes before him..."

"Be that as it may," said Thadorn, "my duty is to bring him safely to court."

"You need not go alone, though," said Rogell. "Take men with you."

Thadorn shook his head. "A large party will only hinder our progress. I want to go there and come back in as short a time as I can manage."

"A couple more men will not hinder you," Rogell said reasonably, "not more than Nicholas himself will, anyway. The man thinks he is a fair rider because he chanced to be on horseback once or twice in his life, but I have seen him in the saddle and I can tell you, you cannot hope for much speed. So take more men with you. There are many who will seize their chance to appear at court, and it will promise you safer conduct, and make your party look more dignified besides."

"And whom do you think I should take?" asked Thadorn.

"Take Kohir. He is your good-brother, and son of the Kotsar leader."

"He went off towards South Watch last week, or have you forgotten? The Malvians are growing restless, and so did Kohir in the past years. He got tired of living in his father's shadow, and I cannot blame him for that."

"Take Nog, then. He is a compliant lad, and it will mollify your good-parents, who put a very unfair share of blame upon you. And then there is Akira Kotsar – "

Thadorn wrinkled his face in distaste. "If there was one thing this order of going to court made me look forward to, it's getting away from the Kotsar – and here you would have me take half of them with me..."

"I do not like Akira Kotsar any more than you do. He is arrogant, impertinent and hard-hearted, but he is a good sword, trustworthy, and I know he is at leisure. With him you will have nothing to fear on the road, and anyway, he will probably prefer your good-brother's company. The Kotsar, they like to stick together, you know."

"Well, then, suppose it's settled and – "

"Not yet," Rogell stopped him. "There is someone else you had better take with you. The learned man Geynir."

"The learned man Geynir?" Thadorn repeated, staring at his friend incredulously. "With some luck, I will reach Aldon-Sur before next year."

"You would be surprised. He is tougher than he looks, and he can give wise counsel. He also knew a man from The-World-Beyond once before. I think having him with you will be beneficial; a soft saddle, a gentle-tempered horse, and there is no reason why he would hinder you very much."

Thadorn sighed and rubbed his brow as of extreme weariness.

"Is anything the matter?" Rogell asked with concern.

"Nothing," said Thadorn. He smiled a crooked smile. "I mean to say, nothing but that my wife left me, and though she is probably still alive somewhere, I am for all intents and purposes a widower with three children, only one of whom is blessedly too young to understand at least to some extent all that is passing. But I will be fine," he clasped Rogell's hand and avoided looking into his eyes, unwilling to bear pity. "I am thankful for your counsel... and for your friendship, my brother."

... Korian was a child – a fine, quick and clever child, but a boy like all boys nevertheless. Datrine, though... often she would run around and jump and caper like a kid goat, but sometimes she would curl up with her hands around her knees, and her emerald green eyes were big and solemn, and Thadorn would look at her and be lost in those eyes, and in his fancy he saw his daughter growing, growing, becoming a woman of terrible beauty and a proud, savage heart... and then he would shake his head, warding off the illusion. No. No. She is only like Jadine in looks. I will raise her well, I will never allow her to become so – so selfish and foolhardy and...

"Are you going away for a long time?" inquired his daughter. Her voice was clear and well-defined, with none of the mispronunciations three-year-olds were so notorious for.

When he heard his little sister speak, Korian dropped whatever toy he was holding and stared up at his father too, with eyes wide and beseeching. Only little Tari was oblivious to the importance of the occasion. She gurgled happily as she took her finger out of her mouth and tried to climb up her father's breeches. Thadorn reached down and pulled the baby into his lap.

"Couldn't we come with you?" Korian said wistfully.

Thadorn shook his head. "I'm afraid not," he said curtly. "I would much rather stay home, too, if it weren't the king himself summoning me."

"I want to go and see the king," pouted Datrine. "The queen, too. I'm old enough."

"It is not a question of being old enough, little one," sighed Thadorn, smoothing out her fiery red hair. "It is a question of being called. The king called me. It is my duty to go. One day you will understand what duty means."

"I know what it means," Korian said brightly, "it's when you're never home."

Thadorn looked at his son intently and felt his throat constrict. I was not made for this. These children need a mother. A mother's heart. But I must do my best, I must be everything to them now.

"Your uncle Rogell and his family will live here while I am gone," he said, "I expect you to behave yourself and obey your aunt Lya in everything."

Korian looked dejected but resigned when he was put to bed that evening, yet little Datrine slipped out of her bed and came into her father's room, stepping silently. Thadorn, who had just given up trying to comb the tangles out of his hair, looked at her in surprise.

"What are you doing out of bed at this hour, child?" he asked.

His daughter edged towards him, looking half furtive, half determined. She sat by his feet, hugged his knees, looked into his eyes.

"Father," she said, "are you going to look for Mother again?"

Thadorn ground his teeth. He tried to smile at the little girl, yet the smile came out strained, as he knew well. He decided to speak the truth, though. Nothing but the truth.

"Not unless I have no choice," he said.

Next day, just as dawn highlighted the horizon in a pale shade of pink, the five unlikely companions set out.

Thadorn was riding at the head of the company, grim and stern, looking ahead. His younger good-brother, Nog, rode a little behind him, and next to him was his kinsman, Akira Kotsar, dark-haired and dark-eyed and lean as a spear. The dark coloring was rather unusual for a Kotsar; Akira was fond of boasting that all his ancestors for ten generations past were from the same clan, but that was rather hard to verify, and besides, blood played queer tricks sometimes. However, even though his hair was raven black instead of gold or red or ginger, Akira was doubtless a Kotsar through and through, and if one looked carefully, in the fine features of his face a resemblance to Rohir and his sons could be seen.

The learned man Geynir, old and venerable, rode behind those two; his queer saddle looked like a pile of cushions with covers of soft leather, but there was no doubt he felt comfortable in it. He leaned back leisurely and engaged himself in a friendly conversation with Nicholas, the man from the Other world, urging him to keep his horse at a good pace and not fall back. The horse did not prove to be very cooperative; it sensed an unskilled hand and willfully battled down the strange man's clumsy attempts to make speed. Thadorn's jaw was clenched tight; this man from the-world-beyond was proving to be a lousy rider, and doubtless their time on the road would be needlessly lengthened, which was something he was striving to avoid.

He truly wished they would not end up spending more time on the road than they had to. Not only because of the royal summons; the journey did not please him one bit. Most of his companions he did not like, and none of them he trusted. The man he truly needed by his side was Rogell, his friend and brother, a man of loyal heart and sound counsel... but of course he could not be spared. Rogell had to remain behind, to hold the Sea Guard, just as his wife now held the hearth of Thadorn's home, or what remained of it... she did it willingly, with kindness and compassion, yet Rogell never, not once, displayed a bit of jealousy. Neither should he, Thadorn told himself firmly. What might have been will never be. Rogell was ever wiser than me. He chose the better woman, the better destiny... or perhaps it chose him.

Intent on making the most of the morning, Thadorn pressed forward without stopping to eat. They broke their fast in the saddle, with flat bread and hard sausages and dry figs, and each of the men took a few swigs from his own hip flask. Thadorn's flask contained herb tea, brewed by Lya the night before, a strong, invigorating draught of peppermint and sage and rosemary, but he could bet that Akira's flask held something else, judging from how his eyes began to sparkle and how he relaxed in the saddle after taking a few hearty swigs. Nog, too, became merrier after a drink, talking and japing. Geynir smiled indulgently at the folly of youth, while Nicholas maintained a surly silence that perhaps suited Thadorn best. He wanted no friendship, no laughter, no wine – just to do this duty, and to be told what his next step will be.

Close to midday, however, he had to concede that a break is needed. The old man Geynir mildly suggested that if they keep going at such a rate, they will soon ride past the inn in which they are to spend this night, while there is no chance of getting to the next inn on the road before nightfall – so unless they wanted to sleep in the open field... Akira and Nog firmly declared they are not at all fond of this idea, although Thadorn did suspect they said so on behalf of the old man rather than on their own.

Be that as it may, they dismounted and led their horses to a small grove of trees just off the road, where they unsaddled their mounts and let them browse while they leaned against the trunks of trees and consumed a simple meal of cold chicken, hard-boiled eggs, dried apples and pickled olives. Nog declared there must be fish in the nearby stream, but none of them thought to bring a fishing rode, and Thadorn made a surly face and said they need not waste their time looking for food when they have enough to keep them going until they reach Aldon-Sur.

After a few more swigs from his hip flask Akira grew even more self-satisfied than usual, and obviously presumed that everyone else had a burning interest in his affairs.

"I do hope this business can be concluded successfully and rapidly," he said, "for I am going to be married, you know."

No one forced you to partake in this business, Thadorn thought privately, but his good sense judged against provoking a fight with one of his roadside companions, especially a prickly Kotsar, so he said instead, "I did not know we should speak of your marriage already. I was not aware that your cousin Jada seemed so very well-disposed towards the idea."

Akira waved a negligent hand. "Girls of that age," he said, "can rarely make up their mind about anything. But we are well-suited, no doubt about that. We are both of the Kotsar, after all," he added meaningfully, took another sip from his flask, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Thadorn ground his teeth in a taciturn silence.

Kotsar with Kotsar, he thought bitterly, and doubtless he wishes to provoke me. His good-brother seemed uncomfortable, and slightly apprehensive, as if he feared Thadorn might swallow this bait, but he was not so stupid. Above all he felt sorry for the girl Jada. He knew her parents were trying to settle this match in Ned's absence; had he been present, their plans would be blown to smithereens.

"Did you notice how lonely the road is?" asked Nog, speaking suddenly with a hushed voice. "We saw almost no travelers, and those we did meet seemed too intent on their business to stop for more than two words."

"I see no reason why we should exchange words with strangers," Thadorn said brusquely.

"The lad is right," Geynir said mildly. "The Middle Road had always been merry, even in my day. Something has changed recently, as though people are expecting something ominous."

And I wonder what that could be. "It is naught to us," said Thadorn, "I was called to escort this man, Nicholas Swift, to His Grace." The strange man Nicholas acknowledged the mention of his name with a noncommittal grunt. "You were kind enough to accompany me on the road. I take interest in nothing else unless I am told to."

Yet this was a falsehood, he realized later that day, when they already settled into their rooms at the inn and he stood before the washing-basin, preparing to wash the travel dust off his face before going down to supper. The pain within him remained, persistent and gnawing and black as the Dark Lands punished souls are said to depart to. She killed me, he thought bitterly as he abandoned the attempt to run a brush through his thick shaggy hair. I might walk and talk and think and plan and make decisions, I might have a clan to lead, children to raise, a city to guard, but I am empty of that which had filled me so briefly. I would have been better off if I had never known it.

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