A faint pink line of dawn could just be seen on the horizon when the serving woman opened the shutters and went to stock the fire. His breakfast was left right there next to him, on a little lacquered tray next to a small copper washing basin and a soft clean towel. After washing his face and hands, he ate two boiled eggs and a small loaf of morning bread fresh from the ovens, with soft yellow butter. There was also a small silver pot of herb tea, scalding hot, and he burned his tongue in his haste to make ready for going downstairs, where the others, he was certain, waited for him already.
He was not wrong. There his companions were, bleary-eyed after a night of much merriment and little sleep – the fearsome Thadorn Tionae, stingy with his words, and the handsome lad Nog, and Akira, who alone did not look unrefreshed... and young Torwen, who seemed more impatient than anybody else to get away, although he did not say a single word as he stood by the door, tapping his hand against the polished wood.
"Well," said Thadorn, looking over the company, "everyone ready? Everyone had breakfast?"
"If you call this breakfast," scoffed Akira. "After such a short night, I woke hungry as a wolf and hoped for a dish of fried eggs with onions and peppers, and perhaps a few slices of cold meat, but..."
"Well, then," Thadorn ignored him, "we might as well head out. Dankar is still sleeping, and so is the learned man Geynir – there was no reason for them to get up so early on our account."
But just as they were heading for the door, a figure appeared at the top of the stairs. It was the lady Kelena, pale and drawn, in a simple dress of dark wool, her golden hair pulled back beneath a cover of the same material. She desceneded so lightly she might have flown or swam rather than stepped, and stood before the men, vulnerable in her ethereal beauty.
"There was no need for you to be up at this hour, Kelena," said the embarrassed Nog as she kissed him on the cheek.
"I could not sleep," she responded, and Nicholas could not help but notice that her eyes, unwilling and unbidden, wandered in Torwen's direction once or twice. "I thought I might as well go down and see you off before I have a pot of morning tea."
She proceeded towards Thadorn and kissed him on the cheek as well. "Farewell, my good-brother," she told him, "I will pray to see you again soon, safe and whole." Jadine's name did not pass her lips, for which Thadorn must have been grateful. Then she spoke her polite goodbyes to Nicholas and her kinsman Akira. To Torwen Mattar she merely nodded, while he made a curt bow. Then she turned her back on them and went back upstairs, willowy and graceful in her simple garb.
"Well," Thadorn said again, "we had better be off."
They were joined by a few more men as they left the Upper Esplanade just when the sky was lightening. They were soldiers spared for Thadorn's cause by His Grace, well-trained but yet unseasoned by battle. They kept a little apart from the original companions, and did not exchange more than a few words with them as they began their journey along the empty open road.
There was something refreshing in the clear air, the chirping of birds, the stillness of the morning... but once again, Akira Kotsar displayed his annoying tendency of bringing everyone around him into his affairs.
"I believe I will marry my cousin Jada before we go west," he said. "She is a pretty thing, and what good are lengthy betrothals for anyone? There will be time to hold a wedding before we march, isn't that so, Thadorn?"
The Tionae leader shot him a disgusted look. "To say your vows and rush off, maybe," he grunted. "But there is no need to be so excessively dutiful, Akira. I believe you may be spared from going west."
Akira pretended not to notice the sting in these words. "That is generous of you, Thadorn," he said. "But I believe I am capable of holding up all my duties... to my betrothed and my country."
Thadorn scowled but said nothing.
When they stopped for their midday meal, Nicholas saw the young Torwen take a letter out of the folds of his cloak. He only stole a brief look at it, then glanced around, thought better of it and hid the letter again. Pretending he noticed nothing, Nicholas offered the lieutenant a chunk of bread and a piece of hard cheese.
"Thank you," said Torwen with a wan smile, taking the bread and cheese but seeming uncertain as to what to do with them.
"Not feeling hungry?" Nicholas permitted himself the expression of slight surprise. "It has been a while since breakfast."
"No, I... thank you," Torwen repeated again, and took a bite of the cheese. He continued to chew in moody silence, and Nicholas continued to steal glances at the young man, thinking of him and his forbidden love with sympathy. If I dared, I would have warned him, but he would probably spurn my advice. Even so, he realized his thoughts are becoming more and more involved with this land, the people around him, the mission ahead of them.
He looked at Thadorn, the leader of the Tionae, with his long silences and unfathomable expression upon a grave face, and was struck by a realization that this formidable man is younger than him.
"Will we reach the inn on time?" called out the cocky Akira. "I don't fancy sleeping in the open field, Thadorn. I have a feeling we might get frost tonight."
"We'll sleep in the open many a night when we head west," said Thadorn, "and it will be far colder than it is now. Another reason why you had better stay behind in Rhasket, where you can sleep in a soft featherbed."
"With my pretty little wife, aye," laughed Akira. "But a man who wishes to serve the realm is unafraid of necessary difficulties, my Commander. I will not object to sleeping under the open sky when there is no other option. Now, though, when there's a good inn with soft beds and hot food ahead of us, it would seem a terrible waste."
Thadorn said nothing, but Nicholas was almost certain he could hear him grind his teeth. One of the soldiers who came with them from Aldon-Sur began packing their things, and a few other men took his cue. Before long, they moved on.
At the hour when the walls of Rhasket-Tharsanae loomed ahead of them, Nicholas found himself riding side by side with the Tionae leader. This was not something that happened often; Thadorn was a man who liked his solitude.
"It will be good to come back," Nicholas ventured, "if only for a little while."
The look Thadorn gave him was so odd he wished he had not spoken. Then he sighed.
"This is my home," he finally said, "the home I thought never to leave. I could have spent my whole life looking at the rolling waves, at that familiar coastline, and I would never have gotten bored. But now..." he trailed off, shaking his head. "My children, it will be sweet to see them. And Rogell – we have always been together before this mess, and then I have been pulled away, and now I am come to tell him I will burden him further by placing the entire responsibility of the Sea Guard upon his shoulders. He will be understanding, I know, but I wish I could – " he trailed off abruptly. "Well, there is no use talking of it," he said in a brisk voice. "I do not even know why I bother telling you this. Perhaps because you know Rogell, if only a little. You must know what kind of a man he is."
"A good man," Nicholas ventured cautiously. His somber companion nodded and spurred his horse onward, desiring to regain his solitude for a little while longer.
It was strange, but after his spell at Aldon-Sur, the return to Rhasket felt a little like a homecoming to Nicholas. When they rode up to Thadorn's house, and he saw Rogell on the front steps, his arm draped around Lya's shoulders, and the children running and jumping about in the garden, his heart gave a momentary leap as though this was his own family he was returning to. The sensation was short-lived, though, and when they approached and dismounted, it was with a pang of jealousy that he watched how Thadorn's children bounded towards him in the ecstasy of reunion. Little Tari clung to his legs while the great bear of a man lifted up Korian in one arm, Datrine in the other. After kissing his two eldest, he put them down on the ground and scooped up Tari, his littlest daughter, and buried his face in her soft hair. Finally, the last of all, Jorrel came forward as well, to have his hair ruffled and to be tossed in the air, as an equal to those he considered his brother and sisters.
Rogell stood there, fingers tucked into his leather belt, smiling. Lya watched with a tender, almost vulnerable expression, smoothing her apron unnecessarily.
"I trust all is well?" Thadorn finally asked them. Meanwhile Korian, agile as a monkey, climbed up his father's back and straddled his mighty shoulders.
"Of course all is well," Lya assured him, lightly touching Datrine's red hair. "The children have been good as gold, everything in the house is ready for your return, and my only concern is that my own garden might be a little overgrown by now," she said with a faintly apologetic smile.
"I am sorry I had to ask you – " Thadorn began, looking shamefaced, but she silenced him.
"Another word and I will be wroth with you. And you, Nicholas," Lya was now looking at him, "have you found any answers?"
He shook his head. "So far, only more questions," he said.
"Well, I am sure you have much to tell, but it can all wait until we have supper," said Lya. "Come. There is roast duck with crunchy green beans."
"Makes me glad I don't have to go on duty until later," Rogell put in, and they all went inside.
"When do you have to go?" asked Thadorn as they all sat down to the table, the children squirming happily in their seats, delighted to be allowed to stay up and eat with the adults.
"In an hour and a half or so," said Rogell.
"I will go with you, then."
"There is no need to," Rogell told him. "You are just come. You need your rest."
"I need to see the shores of home," insisted Thadorn, "the cliffs, the pines, the boats on the water. And we can talk."
"Very well, then," said Rogell, exchanging a look of understanding with his friend.
"How is Kelena?" asked Lya, who was ladling thick onion-and-fish soup into everyone's bowls. Nicholas did not have to be asked twice to pick up his spoon. He had missed Lya's cooking. "And little Emm? I do wish I could see him again, he is a lovely boy."
"Kelena and Emmet are both in good health," Thadorn said, and by the evasiveness of his reply Nicholas guessed that he, too, might hold a suspicion or two regarding his good-sister.
"How are things here?" asked Thadorn as the roast duck was being served. "Have there been any tidings from the west? From Fort Sand?"
"Now that you ask," said Rogell, laying his carving knife aside, "there has been something – someone – an odd man," he concluded almost apologetically.
"An odd man?" repeated Thadorn.
"It was strange business, but I am sure it meant nothing," Lya hastened to add, laying a steaming slice of roast duck and a heap of green beans on his plate.
"Tell me what happened," said Thadorn, ignoring the food.
"Well," said Rogell, "it happened not long after you have gone to Aldon-Sur. A man came one day through the city gates. He was gaunt and thin, dressed in filthy rags, his hair loose and tangled about his sallow face, his bare feet bloody and blistered. No one knew his name, or where he came from, and it seemed he was beyond telling this. He kept repeating just one thing. The Shadow, he was saying. The Shadow is going to wrap itself around the borders of Tilir and never lift again. Never again. Then he collapsed right at the plaza, and when people rushed to aid him, to pull him up to his feet and pour water down his throat, all he could do was repeat those two words, never again. He kept on repeating them... until he died."
"What did he die of?" asked Thadorn, frowning.
"Exhaustion, said the healer who tended to him in his last moments. He had run a long way, without shoes, without proper clothing, without food or water. His skin was all shriveled up like a prune, but those were not the wrinkles of old age. And his hair was part white and brittle, in patches, as if it lost color and vigor all at once."
"I do not like this," declared Thadorn, "not one bit."
"Your food is getting cold," Lya said plaintively, pushing his plate towards him. Thadorn ignored it once again, even though the aroma of the roast duck was tantalizing.
"Neither did I," nodded Rogell. "But then, what could be done?"
"What was done with the body?"
"We burned it, just in case he was carrying disease, although to me he did not look sick. Just... tired and frightened beyond belief. Death must have come as a relief to him, poor wretch."
"Death will come as a relief to many, before all is said and done," Thadorn said bluntly. "Did you search the body before burning it? Did he carry a letter, a message, a seal, a piece of jewelry, anything that could give a clue as to who he was, or where he came from?"
"He had nothing upon him but that roughspun shift, and I looked it over. It had no hidden pockets sewn onto it, and it was crudely made, old and stinky. The sort of garb that might be appointed to a... prisoner," Rogell finished uncertainly.
"You think that is who he was? A prisoner? But whose? He spoke of the Shadow... he must have come from the west," Thadorn rubbed his temples, trying to concentrate despite the raucous noise the children have been making for the past few minutes. Lya took the cue and began guiding the young ones towards the stairs. "Come along now, Jo, Kor, Datrine. It is past time you were all in bed," she picked up little Tari and carried her upstairs, and the men were left alone at the table with the greasy remains of the duck and a mound of beans in their congealed sauce.
"He was obviously frightened. Of what? He came all this way trying to give a warning. Against what? Did anyone wonder?"
"To be sure," said Rogell, "but we could do little more than wonder. Some of the Kotsar declared Rohir must be told, but he took one look at the body, wrinkled his nose and said he cannot be bothered, old and tired man as he is," Rogell smiled sarcastically. "You know your good-father. He is fond of complaining, but like as not he will outlive us all. Your good-brother Kohir was more impressed. He had gone pale as death, but said nothing. Shortly after that, he went south."
"Kohir went south?" repeated Thadorn. "What for?"
"You know there is always need of people to guard the southern border against the savages, as the Malvians won't pull their weight in this. So Kohir went. He has been planning this for some time, I gathered. I figure he had grown a little bored hanging around his father's halls. He is five-and-twenty, after all, and restless to prove himself."
"That is so," conceded Thadorn, brooding. He speared a piece of duck with his dagger, brought it to his mouth, and chewed absent-mindedly. Then he tasted some of the beans, after which he resolutely pushed his plate aside.
"It is all no good," he said resolutely, getting up. "I cannot eat, I cannot rest. I keep on thinking that – that His Grace the king is wise. Prodigiously so, way beyond his years."
"What do you mean?" Rogell sounded confused as he got up as well. Nicholas, who was ignored by them both throughout this exchange, did not wonder to see the two friends begin to walk towards the door side by side, without sparing him as much as a look. He saw Thadorn put an arm around Rogell's shoulders.
"Walk with me," the Tionae leader said, "and I will tell you all."