Paths of the Shadow

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A Blade In The Dark

Dankar hastened his pace. His steps echoed off the rough cobblestones, and his black cloak twirled behind him in the sudden gusts of cold night air that rushed in through the narrow gaps between the dilapidated houses. This was not an area of the city he frequented, and he did not much like walking here in the middle of the night, on foot, the hood of his cloak drawn over his face as if he were a thief. There was not much choice, though. He could hardly prance through the city on his magnificent horse, his gilded armor reflecting the light of the streetlamps, without having his footsteps traced by anyone who cared to look outside the window. Well, no matter. It shouldn't be long now – soon he will be at the Upper Esplanade again, he will open the door with his own key, and no one need be any the wiser that he –

His path was blocked by a black figure. It stood at the end of the narrow path, solid and unmoving, the hems of its cloak nearly touching the walls of the two adjascent houses.

He whirled around. Another figure, identical to the first one, stood behind him, blocking his way back, and beneath the folds of its dark cloak Dankar saw the unmistakable glint of steel.

He had no choice. In one fluid motion, he bared his own long, flexible sword and drew back the hood of his cloak. Let these bastards look upon my face. Let them see I am not afraid.

"Dankar Gindur?" a voice growled from beneath the hood of the figure in front.

"You know who I am," he snapped, gripping the hilt of his sword tighter. "Now show yourselves, you cowards, before I spill your guts out."

"I wouldn't be so quick," drawled a younger, smoother voice from beneath the other hood. "There are two of us, and we did not come unarmed."

"You did not come," sneered Dankar. "You slithered like snakes."

"We aren't here to banter," rasped the first voice. "Only to ask questions."

"You will get no answers."

"We will see about that," drawled the second voice.

"Who are you?" demanded Dankar.

"It matters not," said the first voice. "Our faces may be many, but we are all one and the same... the true believer, the true servant, the true bearer of the Spirit."

It is as I suspected, thought Dankar. They are much closer than most want to believe. They are right here... but I might not live long enough to tell this to anyone else.

"Where do you come from?" drawled the second voice again.

Dankar let out a mirthless chuckle. "I thought you would be better informed."

"I did not say I do not know."

"Why bother to ask, then?"

"To see whether you know what is good for you."

"Oh, but I do," Dankar assured him, and lunged. Steel pierced flesh, steel clanged on steel, a body slumped against a lopsided wall, and Dankar ran like he had never run in his life, one hand gripping a bloodied sword, another, though he was hardly aware of it, pressing against his ribs, where a stain was spreading, dark and wet and red.

On the doorstep of his own home, he collapsed. He forgot he carried a key. Gathering the last remnants of his strength, he hammered against the door with his fist, as the fingers of his other hand were growing wet and hot and sticky with his own blood.

The door was flung open, and the frightened face of one of the servants loomed above him.

"M-master," the lad stammered, "master, what – "

Dankar tried to say something, but his tongue failed him. His hand gripped that of the boy, smearing his fingers with blood, and then all was black.

Next thing he knew, he was lying in his bed, feeling more weakness than pain. He sensed that the side of his body was tightly bandaged, and a basin full of sickeningly red water with a pile of used cloths still stood on the sideboard. He was both clammy and feverish... and at the same time cold, yes, very cold, despite the crackling fire and the thick blankets that covered him.

Kelena sat on a stool by his bed. She was wearing her nightclothes. He could not read her expression, but she was looking directly at him.

"What happened?" she asked.

"I might as well ask that," he replied evasively, trying to feel his side, which was stiff with bandages.

"Your wound, you mean? You were fortunate... you lost quite a lot of blood, but no long-lasting damage was inflicted."

He was silent. "Who did this?" persisted Kelena.

"Someone who will never lift a sword again," he said.

She frowned. "You never stop bandying words, do you?"

"Why should I?" he gave a weak, one-shouldered shrug. "It is fun."

"It is near dawn," Kelena spoke across him. "Where have you been?"

"Ah," he sighed and looked away in mock shame. "I was afraid of that question. I will confess. One of my old friends held a party – rivers of wine, illusion-inducing herbs, dancers, girls, boys... something for any taste, but nothing suitable for noble gently bred ladies... I hoped, however, that you would leniently overlook my – "

"Dan," she got up, looking down at him, blocking the warmth of the fireplace as she stood with her back to it so that her face was all in the shadow.

"What did you say?" he squinted, trying to make out her expression despite the shifting light and darkness. "Did you just call me Dan?"

She sighed. "Someone had tried to kill you."

He smiled. "Is that regret I hear in your voice?" And what is it you regret, my lovely wife? The attempt to get me out of the way, or the fact that it did not succeed... this time?

"Who did this?" repeated Kelena.

He feigned surprise. "Why, I thought we could be honest with each other now. You sold a fraction of your collection of jewels and sent men to get rid of me so that you can be free, but once you saw me wounded you took pity on me and didn't finish me off."

She sat down again, and the crease between her eyebrows deepened. "This is no time for japing."

"And there you are mistaken, my beauty. There is no time like this for a good jape."

She reached out, quick as a cat, and placed a firm hand over his wound. "I am going to hurt you if you don't speak now," she threatened.

His eyes widened in mock amazement. "You wouldn't," he chided her, but merciless pressure shot a stab of pain through the whole of his side, and he gasped. "Stop it. Touch me all you want, but not there."

"Who?" she did not relent.

He caught her wrist and pulled her closer. "What right do you have to question me?"

"I am your wife. Have you forgotten that?"

"No, but as I recall, you tried to make me forget," he shot back, and let go of her hand. "I was at court tonight," he deflated. "I was summoned to a secret Council session."

"Ah," she nodded, "I thought so. This is not the first time, is it?"

"Only the first time for me to get a blade between my ribs on my way home," he said, "not to mention the first time I meet Shadowbinders in Aldon-Sur."

Kelena's hands flew to her mouth. "Shadowbinders?" she repeated in a hushed voice.

"Or their servants. They cannot all be sorcerers. Some must do the dirty work of sneaking and spying and spreading terror."

She was silent for a moment, looking frightened. "What did they want from you?"

Once more, he shrugged. "To learn about the royal strategy for the Western campaign. To recruit me to their cause. To disembowel me and cook me in a stew pot. I did not linger long enough to find out."

She bit her lip. "They might come after you again. And not just you... there is little Emmet too, and..."

"And you," he said. "I would send the two of you away from Aldon-Sur if I had thought you could be safer elsewhere... but I don't. I think it will be better if you stay here and never leave the house without guard."

She was looking, if anything, even warier now. "There is no need – "

He would have laughed out loud if his side wasn't hurting so much. "Not because I mean to have you followed. No... I know you haven't been seeing your mysterious lover lately. He must have left the city together with your good-brother."

Try as she might to make her face impenetrable, she was unsuccessful. He had never seen fear eatched more clearly upon someone's features. I have hit the mark. The bastard is among the men who had gone with Thadorn.

"Fear not," he said in a tone of ironic reassurance. "Even if I were in a fit state to fight right now, I wouldn't chase the son of a bitch across the country. If he has the sense to never come near the capital again, and if he gives up any hope of seeing you, his worthless hide should be safe."

"You spoke differently before," Kelena said breathlessly. "You promised to make him sorry he had ever been born."

With effort, he propped himself up on his elbow. "You admit he exists, then?" he asked with bitter satisfaction. She flushed crimson, bit her lip, and looked down. Dankar shook his head. "He makes no difference," he told his wife. I'm still going to find the whoreson and give him a taste of what it means to mess with the clan of Gindur, though. "If you promise to put him out of your mind from now onward, I vow to do the same." After I kill him.

Kelena stood up in a movement of cool grace. "Do I have your leave to go, my noble husband?"

"No," he blurted out, "stay."

She looked flustered. "You need your rest."

"So do you. This bed is big enough for three. Come and rest with me."

"I sleep easier when I am next to little Emm," she said icily. "He might have need of me."

"That boy never wakes at night, and the house is full of servants and nurses. Damn it," he exploded, frustrated at his own weakness, which suited him so little. "I am your husband, and I command you to come to bed and lie next to me. There is no need to look so fearful," he tried to flash a smile at her, but pain shot out from his wound once more, and he winced. "I am in no condition to consummate my... spousal rights at the moment."

She obeyed. Stiffly, she sat down on the bed and carefully slipped under the blankets, with her back to him. Weak as Dankar felt, he still had strength enough to shift closer to her and wrap an arm around her waist, placing himself awkwardly on his good side. She did not move, but the stillness of her posture spoke of a grudge that ran deep. And she is right, damn it all. In her place I would hate me. But she is not me. She has a tender heart. I will be able to make her forgive me. I must.

Her hair tickled his nostrils, and he inhaled her scent. The smell of woman, the smell which held an attraction that for so many years was alien to him... Tryg, your disdain was unjustified. There is a reason why the Great Spirit created men and women after all. But then he abruptly cut off this train of thought. He did not much like to think about matters of faith.

"Say it again," he murmured, already sleepy.

"I beg your pardon?" Dawn was starting to creep through the window, but it mattered not. To him, night was just beginning... and this night, and every night that followed, he would spend with this woman in his arms. She might not want me now, but she will.

"My name," he told her, "say it again."

He expected her to turn and look at him in surprise, but she remained facing away from him, her golden hair piled softly against his cheek. "I do not understand."

He closed his eyes, straining under a burden, in pain, in need of rest, afraid to sleep, afraid to dream. "There is no hidden meaning," he said sincerely. "You said my name tonight, remember? I liked that. You said Dan."

"Dan," she repeated, grudgingly perhaps, but he was satisfied. He smiled into his pillow, winced with pain again, and felt it fade away as blissful sleep took over.

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