Paths of the Shadow

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Reeking Fish

The road south and west, and south and west and south and west was beginning to tire him. And this inn, in one of the lake villages just before South Watch, was cramped and lopsided and drafty, the beds were full of fleas, and as for the food... there was lake fish, obviously, and bread and milk and cheese that smelled like fish, and chunks of some unrecognizable meat that he didn't dare to taste. It was charred almost black, dripping brown juice, and it smelled... yes, like fish. The only thing that didn't reek of fish here, it seemed, was the ale. It smelled like piss.

Still, Kohir Kotsar didn't dare to complain. He knew this inn would be his last respite on the way. Upon the morrow, he would turn straight west – giving South Watch a wide berth, naturally, since he could not allow himself to be glimpsed by any of their outriders – and ride through the arid autumn of the south, all wind and only a few specks of rain, ride south and west again... west and west and west, to the Emerald Mountains, where he hoped to meet his sister.

Here, in this dunghill of a village, was his last chance to send a message to his family, but he did not bother. By now, he knew, his disappearance has been discovered, and he could just imagine his father, Rohir, putting on the face of proper concern. My son must have suffered a misfortune, he almost heard the calm, well-bred voice. I will pay handsomely for any knowledge of him, and am willing to ransom him if need be. But in truth, there were seldom any secrets among the Kotsar. They all must know, or at least suspect, that he had gone to find Jadine.

They had given her up as a lost cause, he mused bitterly. Not because she betrayed a sworn alliance, but because she had chosen a side that cannot win. Sorcery used to be powerful once, when the essence of the Great Spirit was not yet so scattered. Now... now it is an impressive play for those with a delusion of grandeur. A few bangs, a few sparks, some vague predictions... he could comprehend Jadine's fascination, but for the life of him, he did not understand how his clever, calculating sister could get involved in something so shifty.

His mother and father blamed it all on Thadorn Tionae. He did not keep her in check, they told each other. He took so little interest in her he hardly noticed what is happening under his nose, Hinassi would add with pursed lips. But Kohir, in all fairness, believed they weren't doing justice to the poor wretch. Of course, the steady, hard-working, predictable, reliable, boring Thadorn was no fit match for his sister, who was destined for greater things. Jadine was never supposed to settle down in the town where she was born, marry a man she had known since childhood, and be content with bearing a brood of children. She was meant to go far away and high up; she was meant to shine. This much Kohir understood about his sister.

Despite the Union and the marriages that now happened freely among all clans, a Kotsar would still always be better off with another Kotsar, and they had a cousin, a rich merchant who could take Jadine across the sea and show her foreign lands, Adrinor and Selfinor and Letaria, take her as far as the Eagle Islands... and one day he would bring her home in a shower of gold and trumpets of glory. Jadine could have had anyone she wanted; she only had to choose right. Even that queer type, Dankar Gindur with all the ill-spirited rumors surrounding him, could be tamed by Jadine, rather than being given poor Kelena for his prey.

Instead, Jadine had married among the Tionae, whelped three children, and left without so much as a goodbye.

Something hit his nostrils. Cheap perfumed oil. Roses and lavender, of the sickeningly sweet type peddlers manage to sell in villages too tiny to have seasonal fairs. And fish.

It was the innkeep's daughter. She stood over him, untying the strings of her filthy apron. The common room was almost empty, and embers glowed red in the sooty grate.

"You finished, pretty boy?" she asked, turning her head aside to spit out a piece of green bark on which she liked to chew to freshen her breath.

Kohir gave her a crooked smile. "Boy?" he repeated. The innkeep's daughter was probably younger than he was. But it was true she looked matronly, with her big breasts and wide hips and thick arms. She had a broad freckled face and a mop of hair like tangled straw and, he heard people say, a bastard son about five years old, planted in her belly by a rascal who promised to marry her and never showed his ugly face in the village again.

"You're a boy till you've proven you are a man," she said playfully, twirling a strand of greasy hair around a thick callused finger. Kohir got up from his seat, lithe, fair-haired, graceful, too amused to feel contempt. He pushed his plate toward her. Most of his supper was still there, congealing in a pool of grease. I don't need to prove anything to creatures like you, he wanted to say, but he remained silent, and when she collected the dishes to carry them off to the scullery, he followed her wordlessly and grabbed her around the waist as she was bent over the sink. When she squealed, he clasped a hand over her mouth. His other hand was having its way under her stained roughspun skirt.

It was half dark, and her filthy hair, her chewed nails, her thick neck didn't matter anymore. The cheap perfume was drowned in the smell of sweat, and there were her breasts, buttocks, tighs, and what's between them.

When he was done, he laced himself up, calm and pale as she was flushed and breathless, and gave her another crooked smile.

"If that is the proof you meant," he said, "I first gave it many years ago." And a lovely girl she was, too; soon after that she was sent off and made to marry a very rich man who was old enough to be her grandfather, but a respectable silence on certain matters was kept at all times. The Kotsar were always loyal to those of their own blood.

His little escapade with the innkeep's daughter left Kohir feeling slightly repulsed, but more importantly, he was healthily tired, and this served him well when it came to falling asleep in his flea-ridden bed. In the morning, as he pulled on his clothes and splashed cold water on his face from a grimy washing basin, he resolved to be gone as soon as possible for his long and lonely ride west. He ignored the grumpy looks and pursed lips of the innkeep, who shuffled grudgingly towards him and asked him how he wished to break his fast. "Bread, two hard boiled eggs, and a couple of sausages," Kohir told him. "Be quick about it, I'm in a hurry." And don't look so resentful, you old fool. If my seed quickens in your daughter's womb, you are likely to have a handsomer grandson than the poxy little brat she brought you last time.

An unscrupulously washed plate was slammed down in front of him and the innkeep shuffled off without saying a word. Perhaps the bad-tempered old bastard expected to be asked for his daughter's hand, mused Kohir with dry irony as he speared a sausage on the blade of his knife and took a bite. I could stay here, let my sword go to rust, become a fisherman, and father a brood of freckled straw-haired boys. I'm sure my father would love that. His father and half the female population of Rhasket had been pressuring him to marry for years now, and he had entertained the notion himself, but somehow had never gotten around to it. He did not like to think that it was because of his first woman, because he was not fond of waxing sentimental, but he did suffer cruelly as a boy when she was sent away. And all these years later, I have not found her equal, although perhaps I did not truly bother to look. He heard she was widowed, though; perhaps, a sudden thought struck him, he could go and see her... he had always known where to find her, after all. But almost immediately he shook his head, annoyed with himself for entertaining such thoughts when he ought to be focused on reaching his sister.

He did not quite know what he would do once he found himself face to face with Jadine, he confessed to himself once he was in the saddle again. She was not the type to allow someone to drag her by the hair back home, or he might as well have joined Thadorn's armed forces which, as he heard, would soon follow his steps west. Neither did Jadine like to be chided. But perhaps he could convince her to leave it all and just slip quickly and quietly away. I could help her disappear beyond the sea, he told himself, and when time is right she can return and play the innocent as she knows so well, and convince everyone she never had anything to do with the Shadowbinders. Yes, Kohir resolved, that is what he is going to do. His father had become too lax, and his mother too vain and proud to move a finger, but he is Jadine's elder brother, and he will not fail her.

Two days after he left the village he dubbed Reeking Fish, he found shelter for the night in a solitary farm nestled on the curve of a little rocky hill surrounded by beehives. It might seem surprising that someone decided to keep bees in an area so apparently barren, but Kohir knew that in the short southern spring flowers burst into bloom in a riot of color, and presumably this was enough for the beehives to survive and even provide their owners with some honey. The honey sure was fine; dark and fragrant, it was served with chunks of black bread fresh out of the oven, and he licked his fingers and gladly paid the farm owner a silver coin, and did not even mind being sent to the barn to sleep. He made himself a cozy bed in the hay and sighed with contentment, because it was soft and warm and nothing in his surroundings stank. There wasn't anything in the way of entertainment, though; the farm was run by a rough-looking old man of few words, his pudgy middle-aged wife, and their three sons, a young man about his age and twin boys who looked to be around sixteen.

When he woke everyone was working at the meager fields, and he did not bother looking for them to take his leave. He left another coin on the rough wooden table, sadled his horse himself, and was off before anyone was any the wiser.

The narrow road had turned into a narrower path, and the path finally disappeared and he was out in the open when he saw the hooded rider.

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