The Long Ride
"Yes," the chief Commander of Fort Sand told him solemnly, "I gladly give permission for Lieutenant Mattar to go with you. He is a loyal and valiant man, and I am certain he will be a valuable companion."
Thadorn inclined his head and made the proper thanks, although he knew that this authorization had little to do with the old Commander's real will. The kingly decree opened many doors for him; Fort Sand was his for the taking, and he could have left it almost deprived of men and supplies, had he decided to do so. Which he did not, of course. It would have been utterly irresponsible.
"You have been very helpful," he told the fort commander, "and I, in turn, commit to look after the soldiers you have entrusted to me, and to take no unneeded risks."
The man nodded solemnly. "For His Grace the king," he made a formal salute.
"For His Grace the king," Thadorn replied gravely.
The man is sly, though, he mused as they rode out of the fort gates. He gave me boys as green as spring grass, and left more seasoned men to himself. Nor can I blame him. Fort Sand is what stands between the Middle Road and the wilderness of the West. In his place I would likely had done the same.
Thadorn had enough experience to realize that fewer, more disciplined men were better than a more numerous company which would always need to be corrected, put in order, and spurred on. He did not have time for that. He needed to get to the Emerald Mountains, and he needed to get there fast. Therefore, he could not be blamed for the slightly irritable tone his voice took as he turned to Nicholas.
"You know," he told the man from the-world-beyond, "it is not too late to turn back."
"Indeed?" Nicholas cocked his head slightly, as if he found this suggestion mildly interesting. "How so?"
"You are not a soldier. You do not really need to go with us. From here, the road is still short and swift enough to Rhasket... you could stay with Rogell and Lya, watch sunsets over the sea and listen to the waves until we return."
"May I remind you," Nicholas told him drily, "that it was your king who expressed his wish for me to go with you."
"Yes," Thadorn said, a little embarrassed, "I never meant to – to contradict the will of His Grace, of course, I just wondered – "
"Whether I will be any use to you. I know. I have wondered the same," Nicholas offered him one of those thin-lipped dry smiles he sometimes had. "But certainly I will be of no use to anyone if I stay beyond the walls of your town, listening to the waves, watching sunsets and sampling Lya's excellent cooking."
"Did anyone mention cooking?" came up the cheerful voice of Akira Kotsar from behind them. "To be sure, this is as good a time as any for lunch. The weather is pleasant enough for this time of year, and see, there's a nice place just at the foot of that hill. We could have a camp fire, cook some sausages and toast a few bits of cheese. Some waybread, figs soaked in wine and – "
Thadorn's mouth tightened. Speaking of men who are of no use. I would have been much better off if this one had agreed to stay behind the walls of Rhasket with the rest of his clan. Very few of the Kotsar had come with him; even his good-brother Nog had stayed behind. As far as he was concerned, it was all to the good; he had a vague notion he would have an easier time dealing with Jadine without half her clan sniggering behind his back. This one, though..."We are not on a pleasure ride, Akira," he said curtly. "We will lunch in the saddle. There is no time to be wasted."
Akira shrugged. "You will gain yourself saddle sores. You are a big man, and aren't used to riding long distances. By evenfall your cheeks will be all chafed and raw."
"That is none of your concern," Thadorn bristled.
"To be sure. Well, then, I will just pull something out of my saddle bag and have a bite or two – if I have your leave, Commander."
"You have my leave to get lost," Thadorn muttered, but Akira had already fallen behind. He shook his head. "Those Kotsar," he said in a low voice. "Why I ever allowed myself to get involved..."
"The Kotsar are the clan of your... your wife, isn't that so?" Nicholas asked uncertainly. Thadorn gave him a sharp look. Only then did he realize that the man was still riding beside him.
"Yes," he said curtly, and spoke no more. Yet the longer he remained silent, the more insistently vivid Jadine's image became in his mind's eye. He saw her red curls, the shapely curve of her shoulder, her mouth... her red, laughing, cruel mouth, her sweet soft mouth that he so loved to kiss. He saw her walking along the beach, a light silken dress flapping about her ankles; he saw her nursing their children as they lay nestled in the crook of her arm; he saw the earnestness of her face at the moment when she took him for a husband. She did not vow to obey me, he reflected, but she did say, for now and all time. Does she remember that? He gritted his teeth. He hated weakness, and he knew he would have chided any of the soldiers under his command for having such thoughts. I must overrule mine, he told himself, but it was no good. The king himself chose me for this mission. I must not be swayed. I must not falter. I must not fail. But he recalled the sweet scent of Jadine's hair, and he wanted to shout at her, to slap her for what she had done to their family, to erase the past and bring her back and live as though nothing ever happened. Impossible. You know it is impossible, you fool.
Akira rode up to him several more times that day, offering self-confident and entirely unwanted advice regarding the route they ought to take, the pace they were making, the best place to set up camp for the night, and so on. Thadorn thought he was rid of the man in the evening, when he was alone in his small tent, hunched over his maps once again – but then a groan nearly escaped his lips when he saw Akira's silhouette in the dimly lit entrance.
"You ought to have supped with us," he said. "Granted, the provisions we were given won't make a feast, but there are a few decent hunters among us, and that cook Kerr really does make a savory stew out of wild game and some roots."
Thadorn shrugged. "I did not have much of a hunger," he said. "I had some salted meat and flatbread, and that was enough for me."
"You won't last long at this rate," Akira warned him. "We still have quite a way to go until we reach the Emerald Mountains. And did you even consider where we are going to look?" Unceremoniously, he bent over Thadorn's map, squinting. "I've never been there, but judging from all the maps I have ever seen, it is a large area. We might go round and round in circles for months and never find them."
"Unless they find us first," Thadorn pointed out.
"I wouldn't take solace in that thought," Akira said grimly, and paused, perusing the map for a while. "Listen, Thadorn," he spoke a little later, with the air of someone who made up his mind to say something uncomfortable. "It is true that I am Jadine's kinsman, but this doesn't mean I don't understand. What she did was... well, I would not tolerate it from my wife, and all I can say to you is, we have our differences, to be sure, but you are a man of worth, and I hope that next time you marry, you might do better."
The temperature inside the tent might have dropped all at once, despite the glowing coals in the brazier, and Akira must have sensed he stepped over some invisible line, because he made an almost imperceptible step back.
"I only meant – " he began apologetically.
Thadorn's face was inscrutable. "What do you mean, next time I marry?"
"I just – " Akira squirmed. "Well, it is only – oh, damn it all," he exploded. "Haven't you ever thought she might be – well – dead?"
The silence was thunderous. "Dead?" repeated Thadorn, and it was as though someone dropped a piece of lead into a deep and still well.
"Or not," Akira hastened to say. "But... think of it this way. She disappeared, and no one ever heard anything of her again, and the roads are perilous."
"If she were dead, I would know," Thadorn said abruptly.
"Indeed? Do you believe her noble companions, if she had any, would send you a letter expressing their condolences?"
Thadorn gave him a look that could have curdled milk. "You should have stayed in Rhasket, Akira," he said. "It is not fit to leave a new bride the way you did."
"Why?" Akira said indifferently. "I took her to wife and claimed her maidenhood, what more could she ask for? She is mine now, and no one can undo it... not even that silly Kamtesir boy."
Thadorn turned away from him. "You had better go to sleep," he said, "we march on before dawn, and before the next day is over we will all wish we had rested more."
But even after Akira had gone, peace was not restored to him. Haven't you ever thought she might be dead? Hasn't he ever? His mouth contorted in a bitter grimace. Many nights he had lain awake, wondering this very same thing. Many nights he fell asleep only to be sucked into a haunting illusion of Jadine's arms around him, her soft breath on his shoulder, her hair brushing against his face... only to wake up alone, cold and empty. Ever since she disappeared there was no shred of evidence that she is alive, but something told him, just as he said to Akira, that if she were dead he would know – although he could not quite explain how.
He will know for sure soon enough, he told himself. Of course, he was on a mission now, and the mission was clear enough: find and stop the Shadowbinders. It had nothing to do with Jadine... but he had a shrewd idea that if she is out there somewhere, it is in the Emerald Mountains that he will find her...
... and perhaps Kohir as well.