The Shadow was no stranger to Rogell Tionae, or so he thought. He had, after all, lived in a shadow his entire life.
Judging from plain fact, it was not meant to be so. He was an only son of a distinguished man, and therefore, while he knew he would never have clan headship, achievements were still expected of him... but he also had a reasonable mind, and he knew he was not carved of the same stone as the leaders which stirred his imagination as a boy. He resigned himself to the fact that he would always be eclipsed by his cousin Thadorn – Thadorn, who probably stood taller than any man in Tilir, Thadorn, who could bend iron with his bare hands, Thadorn, whose few curt words always fell on eager ears, for his voice, while not loud, was powerful and commanding; Thadorn, whose bravery was unmatched and who slipped effortlessly into the shoes of a clan leader after his father's death.
He truly loved Thadorn like a brother, with all his heart, and stifled the feelings of envy and petty jealousy, deeming them unworthy of a man and a warrior. Even Lya - though she was all he wanted, he was resigned to smile and offer his congratulations once Thadorn took her hand in marriage, but it so happened that Thadorn unexpectedly fell for Jadine Kotsar, and Lya... he saw his chance, and was not too proud to seize it, even though he knew the truth of what she felt for his friend – and so, it seemed to him, did everyone else.
But even though Lya was his wife now, jealousy was never far. It preyed upon him, ever lurking in a shadowy corner of his mind, where he had resolutely pushed it. And the malicious whispers about his son actually being a child of Thadorn's loins seemed as evil to him as poison poured into a cup of wine at a summer feast.
Lies, disgusting lies, that is what these whispers are, he told himself firmly. Only the Kotsar are capable of spreading such ridiculous slander. Thadorn should never have connected himself with them. And it doesn't even make any sense. So what if there is resemblance to Thadorn in Jorrel's face? We are all of the same clan, Thadorn, Lya and I. We are related not through one bloodline, but probably a dozen times over. And Jo has my hair, and Lya's, black like raven, like jet, like midnight shadow.
Still, he waited anxiously for the birth of other children, such who would look undisputably like him, and who would quell the ugly rumours once and for all... but years passed, and Jorrel was the only son the Great Spirit chose to grant him – a son he dearly loved... but he was forced to admit that the boy, indeed, looked very much like Thadorn, though within the boundaries of a clan it was nothing extraordinary. Certainly not enough to justify the waggling of evil tongues. Besides, even if Thadorn and I weren't like brothers, he is too honorable to... to... no, I won't think of it. I will not.
After that fickle wife of Thadorn's left him the Spirit knows for what purpose, his friend could only be pitied – he was left as if a widower with three small children. Therefore Lya's anger at Jadine and her concern for the well-being of Thadorn and his children were entirely understandable, and yet sometimes Rogell, to his own shame, found himself resenting Lya's attentions towards his cousin and the poor motherless little ones. Lya became all but a mother to Korian, Datrine and Tari, and sometimes, a twisted shadow gripped his mind and made him think that she is trying to fill the void Jadine left – not only as the children's mother, but also as Thadorn's wife. Just the other day, Lya drew him aside and explained that it would be better if they all continued living in Thadorn's house a while longer. I miss our home too, Rogell, but the children have grown to rely on me, and Thadorn has plenty of room.
And now, when Rogell stood on the shore, listening to the peaceful rumble of waves and to his cousin and leader's words, he finally felt that he had had enough.
"So what is it that you are saying?" he prompted Thadorn to speak.
"His Grace has entrusted me with this mission, which he deems important," his friend said.
"An important mission," repeated Rogell, nodding. "To be sure. I must go with you this time," he went on.
"No," Thadorn said. "I will sorely miss you, but you are needed here, Rogell. Someone must hold the Sea Guard."
"Someone else can hold the Sea Guard."
"For who knows how long? And which man? I am sad to say this, but the Tionae don't have too many prime warriors. There are greybeard, green boys... to be sure, it doesn't have to be a Tionae, although the Sea Guard has traditionally been our responsibility."
"You could offer the task to Akira Kotsar," suggested Rogell half-heartedly. "I am not fond of him, as you very well know, but he seems to be capable."
Thadorn snorted. "If I thought offering him command of the Sea Guard might hold him back, I would have done it. Alas, he is determined to join me, and it is not in my power to reject him. I'm afraid I will have to attend the spectacle of his wedding, too, although I would much rather not... in any case, Rogell, you will have to stay here."
That, too, was familiar to Rogell. It has been this way since they were boys, when they were playing at war, sieges and fortresses, battles of mighty heroes... I will go forward, Rog, and you stay back and hold the fort. Don't let anyone come through the gates, I'm counting on you. But he was a man grown now, and tired of this role that has been foisted on him for so long. He shrugged off the condescending hand Thadorn had placed on his shoulder.
"No," he blurted out.
His cousin and leader looked confused. "I do not understand," he said.
Rogell took a deep breath. "If I am to remain behind," he said, "I wish to remain as the Commander of the Sea Guard. Not second-in-command, not Commander-in-place, but Commander."
"What?" said Thadorn. He was wearing his customary frown now.
"If you need me to command, I want you to yield the command to me, in the face of all the Sea Guard man," said Rogell all in one breath, before his courage could fail him. "I will give it back to you when you return, if that is your wish, but while you are absent, I want my authority to be undisputed."
Thadorn was shaking his head, thoroughly bewildered. "I do not recognize you, Rogell," he finally said. "Since when do you care about titles?"
"Not everyone can care about titles and posts and honors as little as you do, of course," said Rogell with the barest hint of sarcasm, "especially as they all seem to fall into your lap without the least effort."
Finally, the dawn of understanding seemed to creep into Thadorn's mind. "All I do, I do for duty," he said after a moment of contemplation. "Or do you not know I would have traded places with you in an instant, if only I could? To have a life such as yours, peaceful and untroubled, to build a solid home with an excellent wife like..."
"Lya," finished Rogell. "You could have had her. She favored you. Do you think I could ever forget that?"
His voice must have been very bitter, because Thadorn looked up in alarm. "I would never have..." he trailed off. "You loved her for a long time, and I knew that, and to me she was out of bounds, so I never would have thought... and besides, I was foolish enough to..."
For a long and tense moment, both of them were silent. Then Rogell bowed his head.
"Forgive me," he said.
"There is nothing to forgive," Thadorn said firmly. "Gather the men, and I will yield the command of the Sea Guard to you."
"No, no," Rogell hastened to say. "I should never have asked for it, it was pure vanity speaking out of my throat..."
"I will do it," insisted Thadorn. "You deserve it more than any other could, and it is only appropriate. You have held the command for a while now, as well as I did or better. I will not ask for the title back, either. I have quite enough on my plate with clan leadership," he tried to smile, but his smile came out wan. "Surely you know you are the lucky one, Rogell."
Rogell nodded, ashamed of himself, and they grasped hands.
"There is something else you must know," Rogell said when they let go.
"What is it?"
"Your good-brother, Kohir Kotsar. I did not wish to say this in front of Lya, especially since I'm not supposed to know anything, strictly speaking... but Kohir never reached South Watch."
"He didn't?" Thadorn looked troubled.
"His last message was sent from Tallbridge Town, and ever since, his traces vanished. No one knows where he went... although I do have my suspicions."
"You think he went west," said Thadorn. It was not a question. Rogell nodded.
"To look for... for his sister," he said. He did not dare to mention Jadine's name.
"Do you think he is with her?" asked Thadorn.
"It is likely," Rogell said cautiously. "They have always been fond of each other. They might have made common cause."
"Well, if Kohir is with Jadine, I might see him again soon," said Thadorn in a crisp, decisive voice.
"Do you mean to say..."
Thadorn's hand gripped his own again, and this time, his smile was less strained. "Call the men, Rogell," he said. "It is time they met their new Commander."
...Thadorn didn't think he added much merriment among the wedding guests as he stood aside, somber and solemn and silent as he was, his arms crossed upon his chest, his eyebrows locked in a frown. He doubted Akira had any particular desire to see him, either. It is all part of his boastfulness, to have anyone with a hint of prominence in this town attending his wedding. He would have thought of some pretext to excuse himself from being there, but Akira had seen him not two days past, and explicitly and repeatedly pressed him to come. We are going to be brothers in arms, Thadorn, and our clans share some of the same blood. It is only fitting that you should partake in our happiness. Thadorn merely nodded and strained out a few polite words, omitting to mention that as far as he can see, at least one person, and perhaps two, are going to be rendered forever miserable by this wedding.
This conviction only strengthened when he saw the bride come out. Jada Kotsar was a pretty girl, with her thick brown hair and doe's eyes and slim waist, but her face was pale and her lower lip trembled from time to time, and in her wedding finery she looked even younger than she really was. She looks hardly fit to be married – certainly not to this man. This was no business of his, of course. Jada's parents had every right to dispose of her hand as they saw fit, and they chose to give her to Akira and keep her in the clan, rather than have her marry into the Kamtesir, whom they held in contempt. He could not help but pity the sad, trembling girl... although his own grief and burden would not let her linger in his thoughts for long. Still, this tearing apart of a pure and innocent love struck him as nothing short of a sacrilege.
The ceremony was pompously drawn out, and Thadorn shifted his weight from one foot to another several times while memories of his own wedding day flooded him, made bitter by what came later. How beautiful Jadine had been, how radiantly the happiness shone within his soul... and why, oh why, you fool, did you not heed her words of earlier? You are sweet, Thadorn, but I am not made for what you offer me. It will be better for us both. Why hadn't he believed her? He would have been spared much pain... but even now, with his very being filled with sorrow and anger whenever he thought of her, he could not bring himself to say he would rather have never known Jadine.
"I take this woman," proclaimed Akira in a tone of bold confidence.
"I take this man," replied the bride's small voice.
When time came to congratulate the new couple, Thadorn lingered behind until the crowd of well-wishers dispersed, and only then made his way towards them and briefly grasped Akira's fingers.
"I wish you long years of joy," he said stiffly. "Your bride shone with unsurpassed loveliness today," he added with a polite bow in Jada's direction.
"You are kind," said the girl in a strained voice. Truth be told, she looked rather forlorn as she stood there, nervously fingering the heavy pearl-fringed belt that was no doubt one of her bride's gifts. Thadorn nodded once more and made to retreat when Akira's voice caught him unawares.
"It is said that you gave up command of the Sea Guard," he said, and after a brief pause went on, "to your cousin Rogell."
The subtle but unmistakable tone of disdain in Akira's voice made Thadorn feel a prickle of anger. "There is no one more capable than Rogell," he said coldly.
"Why, you are," Akira corrected him. "That is why I was surprised to hear you gave up command."
"One can only do so much," Thadorn said, resentful at having to explain himself. "As of now, Rogell is suited for the task far better than I am." The truth was, he felt a burden roll off his shoulders once he surrendered the command of the Sea Guard. He had his responsibilities as head of clan, and he had to prepare for the march west... and there were the children, who sensed their father would soon be gone again, and consequently clung to him whenever he was home – and he, with his heart full of guilt and sorrow and worry, could hardly refuse him. He drew comfort from them, too – from Korian's antics, Datrine's funny speeches, Tari's plump little arms around his neck. He ached for them. Lya was as good and kind to them as anyone could be, but still she was not their mother, and he... he was failing as a father, or so he felt whenever he saw Rogell's light-spirited play with the boys. Not made for what you offer me, the words rang bitterly in his mind once more.
"When are we going to march?" Akira asked.
"As soon as I assemble the men of Rhasket who will be going with us. I need to peruse lists, make a few calculations, think how many men must be left behind to keep the harbor prudently guarded... but do not trouble yourself with that right now, Akira. This burden is not fit for a man on the day of his wedding."
"I am not a man to forget my duty," Akira boasted, "Even when the fairest of women had just become my wife," he took the hand of his bride, who only smiled nervously. Thadorn seized the moment of silence to hastily take his leave and go, before he is detained by more questions.
Akira's inquiry was, in fact, a perfectly fair one. He needed to hurry, he knew; valuable time was wasted every day he remained at Rhasket, and the tale of the strange man who dropped dead at the plaza disturbed him more than he was willing to let on. They need to march as soon as they can, he made a resolution, and thought with a mixture of gratitude and guilt about Lya's convenient offer to continue living in his house and take care of the children.
When he got home he tended to the sitting-room fire himself, and sat cross-legged on a cushion, gazing moodily into the flames. He hardly noticed when a pot of herb tea, a plate of salty biscuits and a sliced orange appeared by his side.
He stared at the tray, puzzled, then looked up and saw Lya.
"You were very quiet," she told him, "but I still heard your steps."
"Where are the children?" he asked.
"Playing in the back garden," she said. A jumble of gay voices and contagious laughter from that very direction confirmed her words. "I have just been to check on them."
"And Rogell?" he asked, although he could very well predict her answer.
"On duty," said Lya with half a sigh and half a smile. "He is hardly ever home these days."
That much was true. Once he had been appointed Commander of the Sea Guard, Rogell plunged into this commitment with boundless enthusiasm, as if trying to dispel the bitter mutterings of those who claimed he only got the position thanks to being Thadorn's cousin and friend.
"And our visitor from The-World-Beyond?" he inquired. "Where is Nicholas?"
"He went on a stroll to better acquaint himself with the surroundings," she said. "I think you can find him at the beach if you care to look."
"There is no need," Thadorn grunted, taking a sip of tea.
"You look displeased," remarked Lya.
"I have just been to Akira Kotsar's wedding," he explained.
"Oh," a crease appeared between her eyebrows as she, too, lowered herself onto one of the sitting cushions by his side. "Yes. I feel sorry for poor Ned."
"What about the girl?"
"Her." Lya pursed her lips. "Well, mayhaps it is unkind of me to say so, but I think this Jada is a fickle little creature. A girl may be pressured, implored, intimidated even, but no one, truly, can make her marry if she sets her heart and mind and will all against it. Women have more power to choose than they usually let on."
This last remark might have been innocent, but somehow, to Thadorn's ear it didn't sound as such. Like much else, it was connected in his mind with Jadine. Power to choose, he mused. She had it, to be sure. And she chose to leave us. To leave me.
"I will be leaving soon," he said.
"I know," Lya nodded, sounding resigned and a little melancholical. "Rogell told me it would not be long."
"I..." Thadorn took another sip of tea, just so she wouldn't feel she prepared it in vain, and set his cup aside. "I should like to thank you, Lya. You and Rogell both. If it weren't for Rogell, I would have been wrecked with guilt about surrendering the command of the Sea Guard, and you... I don't know what I would have done if you weren't there to look after the children."
"To Jo they are like brother and sisters," said Lya, "which makes me feel as if they were my own. You need not thank me, Thadorn."
"I wish more than to thank you," he said slowly, looking into her eyes. "I... I ask you, Lya, to take care of them, should it so happen that I am going to a place of no return."
Her eyes grew wide with fear, and she shook her head in protest. "No," she said, "you must not speak this way, Thadorn. You will be back, I know you will."
"It is a hope that we share," he told her with a faint smile, "but the fact is, I am going to look for the Shadowbinders, and no one knows what exactly it will entail. I might find myself face to face with... with an enemy I am no match for."
"You are not going alone," Lya said firmly. "You are going to have men with you. The best men."
"Good men," he corrected her. "The very best are staying behind, according to King Alvadon's prudent strategy."
"That is not fair," she said hotly, "it sounds as if you are being sent forward because you are... dispensable."
"I am," he confirmed, and when she opened her mouth to protest, he raised his hand. "Please, Lya, there is no need to be offended on my behalf. His Grace knows I am a loyal man, and no craven. And yet I am not one of the well-known battle commanders he relies upon for matters of his own safety, and for the holding of his borders. He didn't want to send someone very important to this shady campaign, and as far as I understand, he did not wish to utter the word sorcery in front of his Councilors."
"His Grace wouldn't have given you the decree to gather so many men if he did not trust you," Lya said. "I know you are likely going to a dangerous place, but – "
Thadorn heaved a sigh. "If there is danger, it grows graver with every day we linger," he said. "So it appears to me we had better set out as soon as we can."
"You just be careful, Thadorn," Lya told him. "Don't do anything reckless."
"I have no right to. I am responsible for the lives of the men who are going to come with me. As for myself, I only wish to do my..."
"... duty," she completed the phrase, smiling a little sadly. "I know." And it seemed to him her proud back was not as straight as usual as she collected the dishes and swept off towards the kitchen.
He did not hear the front door open because he was immersed so deeply in his brooding. Well, to be truthful, it seemed he did little more than brood lately. He walked away from company, from gatherings around the table, even from his children's laughter, because much as he loved them, he felt awkward around them. He was never a light-hearted man, never easy to laugh and love like Rogell, but now he knew he was becoming sterner, gloomier, more somber by the day. For hours he sat hunched over maps, marking his planned march with the tip of a quill dipped in ink. Sometimes he got up and began to pace the room impatiently, counting days and hours until his departure for Fort Sand, then southwest. At least I will be useful, he told himself. Every minute of the day will be filled with things that require my attendance. It will be better that way. No conscious part of him wished to acknowledge the faint lingering hope of seeing Jadine, making her repent, and bringing her back.
And so, he did not hear the front door open.
He did hear steps that were not Rogell's or Lya's, a knock, and the voice of the man from a world that was, no matter what anyone else said, of little interest to him.
"May I enter?" Nicholas asked.
Thadorn gave a resentful nod, because he could not think of a valid reason to refuse. His curiousity was vaguely stirred, as he knew the foreigner did not come for the pleasure of his company... few men would come to him for the pleasure of his company these days, he had to confess.
Nicholas came in and placed himself awkwardly on the sitting cushions, his long legs making an uncomfortable-looking angle. He looked a little wary, and somewhat troubled.
"Is anything the matter?" asked Thadorn.
The man cleared his throat. "Those you call the Shadowbinders," he began without preamble. "They are supposed to practice some sort of... ah... dark sorcery?"
Thadorn nodded. "Do not come to me for knowledge of them, though," he said. "For I know as little as anyone, and less than many. All I know is that they are somewhere in the west, and that I am bound to find them." And my wife. Yes, my wife. Jadine.
"I must say," Nicholas went on, sounding uncomfortable, "that during all my life I dealt with fact, not myth; with history, not mystery, although now that I look back on it, the two are interlinked so tightly that sometimes there were things I had to ignore, elsewise I would open a Pandora's box of..." he stopped himself. "Well, I will not waste your time. I just thought of something as I was walking, and I thought it would do no harm if I shared it with one of you – you or Rogell – and as Rogell isn't here, I thought you might be at leisure..."
"I am," Thadorn encouraged him, if somewhat drily. "What is it that you thought of?"
"In the world I come from, there is a place called Avignon. It is an old city, and I once traveled there to peruse some ancient scrolls... they spoke of a legend that made no sense to me then, perhaps not now either, but..." he puckered his brow in an effort to recall the exact words. "This was how it was recorded: And the Shadow descended upon the borders of the town, and all beyond them was lost in darkness, in a sea of black mist... and the dark did not lift until the pure voice of consecrated prayer reached the skies...'
Thadorn raised his head and felt a prickle of fear. "The Shadow?" he repeated.
"It is an odd... an odd coincidence, isn't it?" Nicholas said. "It makes absolutely no sense, I know," he hurried to add. "But I thought it is interesting that what supposedly happened in the thirteenth century in Avignon is what your Shadowbinders are allegedly trying to do now."
"Yes," Thadorn said slowly, "it is interesting."