Paths of the Shadow

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Dying and Living

Kelena rose from her seat as she saw the Healer walk towards her. In a gesture of nervousness, her fingers twined together. The look upon the old man's face did not bid well.

"Lady Kelena," he inclined his head. "I fear that what I say will not bring you comfort."

"What is it?" she asked. "I had thought the wound – "

"Oh, the injury itself does not pose a serious threat to a strong and vigorous man such as your noble husband," the healer said. "But this infection... although the treatment was speedy and proper, the wound still festered, and in a way that makes me suspect the offending weapon was poisoned."

"Poisoned?" Kelena's voice faltered. "Can you tell which poison?"

He shook his head. "Alas, no. I did all I can, tried all the antidotes in my possession, as well as any combination of them... yet the infection seems to be spreading, slowly but imminently. If it was a limb affected in such a manner, I would suggest amputation, but the way things are... all we can do is wait and see. Oh, and pray, of course. The Great Spirit can do wonders, even when the arts of healing fail."

Kelena nodded, feeling a chill of fear. "You are saying that – "

"That you must be prepared for any outcome," the venerable old man said gravely. "Any outcome," he repeated, briefly touching her hand in a gesture of polite sympathy. He was about to take his leave and go when he abruptly stopped in his heels. "I thought the following might be of interest to you. The city guards caught a man who might have been one of your husband's attackers... but before he could be questioned, he swallowed something he pulled out of an inner pocket of his robes, and a few minutes later his eyes rolled in their sockets and spit frothed in his mouth, and he dropped dead."

Kelena flinched with horror. "He poisoned – "

"Himself, yes. It was without a doubt a very strong substance he used, and one can only wonder what secrets he concealed if he disposed of himself in such a fashion, so as not to risk the smallest chance of revealing them. The body was searched, and I strongly hoped for a clue that would help me in finding a cure for your noble husband, but alas, there was nothing – or at least, nothing that would pose any interest to us."

Kelena nodded again, distraught. "Thank you," she said, "when shall you return?"

"In the evening. Although, of course, by all means send for me earlier if there is any unexpected change in the condition of your husband."

And with these words, he bowed and was gone, and Kelena was left alone. She lowered her face into her hands and sat like this for a long time. She thought of Torwen, of the last time they were alone together, the last time they had lain in each other's arms, and how their passion was tainted with the grief of saying goodbye. I cannot go on like this any more, Kelena, he said to her. Regardless of how I feel about Dankar, he puts his trust in me. He thinks his honor is safe because he assigned me to follow you. Lying goes against my nature, and against yours. This cannot continue. We must reach a decision.

Now all might be decided for them, Kelena thought to herself, half crying. If Dankar dies, she will be free. Free to go wherever she wishes, do whatever she wills, love whomever her heart desires. She will be able to marry Torwen, and raise little Emm together with him, and bear him more children, and have the sweet and simple life she had always yearned for. A life with no secrets, no intrigue, no betrayal. There was now just one barrier between her and that life – the man writhing in feverish agony on the bed in the room upstairs.

But when she came up, he was asleep; his complexion was so pale and grey, his face so still, that for a moment her heart skipped a beat. Uncertain, almost ready to flee, she approached his sickbed. "Dan?" she said quietly.

His eyes slowly opened, and the ghost of a smile appeared on his lips. "Still here," he croaked. "Did the old bugger say how long it might be before this hell is over?"

"Before – " she was confused.

"Do not pretend," he whispered, "I am dying, Kelena."

"No," she shook her head. "You are strong, and you have been given every remedy. And besides, do you recall what the healer said last time? Every day you hold on improves your chances, and you have lasted this long – "

"This long," he repeated, "but not much longer."

He extended a thin hand; it was as though all flesh had melted off his bones. Kelena gingerly took the skeletal fingers.

"Forgive me," he said, "for all that had been."

"Save your strength," she told him, "this is not the moment..."

"On the contrary," he coughed, "this is just the right moment. Before I go, I need to know that you had forgiven me."

Two tears rolled down her cheeks as she replied in a choked up voice, "I forgive you."

He nodded and closed his eyes, and for a moment she thought he would go back to sleep, but then he spoke again. "Be happy," he told her, "and raise little Emmet well. And if you would," he paused, "if you would, seek kindness in your heart when you speak to him about his father."

For two days and two nights, Dankar hovered between life and death. The healer came and went, his face grim, his lips pursed. Sometimes he was accompanied by younger assistants; smells of smoke and sulphur, herbs and blood rose from the sickroom, smells that Kelena could not bear, and so she stayed away, mostly in the company of little Emmet to keep her from gnawing her nails in anxiety. But when she entered the room two days later, Dankar was still there – pale, wan, worn, exhausted, stick thin, hardly able to raise his head from the pillow, with deep purple shadows circling his eyes, yet doubtlessly out of danger.

The healer gave her a modest smile of satisfaction as he washed his hands in the basin.

"It is very early to speak of this yet, to be sure," he said, "but I believe we can expect a full recovery in time. Your excellent constitution is to be thanked, o noble Gindur."

"And your healing arts," Dankar spoke from his pillow. "You will be well rewarded, Master."

"We do not seek reward," said the old man. "Those who can heal, must heal. That is what is right in the eyes of the Great Spirit."

"Of course it is. Yet no one shall ever say Dankar Gindur is not generous. I never forget those who did right by me... nor those who crossed paths with me. Those who attacked me that night shall rue the moment they dared to raise steel against me, I swear it."

"One of them is already dead," said the healer. "But you, of course, are clever enough to know that the two men who attacked you were not the source of the trouble."

"I imagine the entire Council knows that by now," said Dankar. The healer nodded.

"Security had never been so tight. No one passes through the city gates without an identity verification, not even a peasant come to sell his turnips at the market."

"What of the harbor?" Dankar asked sharply. "Is the entrance closed to boats as well?"

"The harbor?" the old man blinked rather stupidly. "No, I believe – "

"To be sure. Well, of course His Grace cannot think of everything, burdened as he is by troubles... and his Council is full of lackwits."

The man looked scandalized. "This is not for me to judge," he said cautiously, tying the string of his bag of remedies. "I shall, however, advise you to put such matters out of your mind for the time being. You need your rest, my lord, and proper attendance and care, if you are to gain your strength and recuperate."

"Not to worry," Dankar gave a smile – rather weak, but still mischievous. "My fair wife will see to my every need."

The healer took his leave. Kelena meant to walk out of the room as well, but her husband's voice stopped her. "Wait," he said. She turned.

"Is there anything you want?" she asked. "You must eat. I know you don't have much of an appetite, but perhaps some broth? It would do you good."

"Yes, perhaps it will," agreed Dankar. "And... if you would, bring Emm to me before he is sent to bed. I wish to see him."

Kelena nodded. "He will be glad of that. The poor boy has been confused. He did not understand why nobody lets him in." Once again, her hand was already on the door handle when his voice called her name.

"Kelena," he said. She spun around.

"Is there anything else I can do for you?"

He hesitated. "Is that disappointment I see upon your face?"

For a moment, she didn't understand; then, she flushed instantly, as if she had been slapped. "You haven't changed," she breathed out.

"No. Why should I? I am still the same two-faced, black-hearted villain you had the misfortune to wed. And you were so very near to being rid of me."

"You know I would not want that," she whispered, shaking her head. "Not that way."

"Of course not. You would much rather have poisoned me yourself."

She could have stomped her foot in anger, or slapped him, but she made herself stand very still, and drew herself to her full height. "You are unfair."

But then the flair of unexpected strength had left him, and his eyes closed, revealing two dark sunken sockets in his waxy face. "I know I am. I have always been," he said quietly.

"And yet I said I had forgiven you. Do you remember?"

"I do. You had forgiven a man who was about to die. Can you forgive a man who will live, though? That is the question."

But Kelena was not there to give an answer. She had already walked out.

She was going to go and fetch little Emm, but there was a commotion downstairs that suggested visitors... and sure enough, when she entered the hallway, she saw Rani Kotsar, splendidly dressed in red velvet and cloth-of-gold, and bedecked in gold and rubies. When Rani kissed her on the cheek, Kelena felt the scent of orange flowers.

"No, no, I shall not linger long," her guest replied to the offer of refreshment. "I came only to inquire about Dankar... I understand, of course, that he is not yet well enough to see anyone, but I heard he was recovering, and I thought I might drop by and congratulate you." It seemed to Kelena there was hidden knowledge in Rani's eyes which she did not like one bit, but of course, she dared not offer anything but the most gracious response.

"Dankar will be very pleased by your attention, I know it," she said. "If you honor us with a visit again in a couple of days, he might be able to receive you."

"I will come," promised Rani. "And..." she halted for a moment. "While I am here, may I ask if you heard anything about your brother?"

Kelena gave her an anxious look. "Until we know otherwise, we must assume Kohir is still on his way to South Watch. The road is long. He could have been delayed."

"Yes," said Rani, "but by what? Or by whom? Don't you believe it is about time to make inquiries?"

"That is for my father to decide," said Kelena, casting her eyes down.

"I know Rohir. He will not bestir himself, unless he believes the precious honor of his clan is in jeopardy," Rani said bitterly. "Sorry for being so blunt, Kelena, but I might just take this matter into my own hands."

Kelena met her eyes again, looking fearful. "Rani, it would hardly be proper – "

Rani laughed curtly. "Proper!" she exclaimed. "What do I care about proper now? I allowed the elders of our clan to separate me from him, I consented to marry a man who could have been my grandfather, I lived here all these years and allowed dust to accumulate over what was left of my heart, and now you say I am not even entitled to know whether Kohir is alive or dead?"

Kelena caught hold of a cold, smoothly polished marble column, to gain some support. "Of course he is alive," she said in a low voice, blinking away unbidden tears. Rani paused, probably sensing that she has gone too far.

"Of course he is," she agreed, and kissed Kelena on the cheek again. "Forgive me, Kelena. I forgot myself."

And in a swish of many-layered silken underskirts she was gone, leaving behind nothing but the smell of orange trees in bloom.

For a while Kelena sat in her quarters, brooding over the brief visit. At least Rani is brave, she said to herself, whatever else may be said of her. Kelena had been a child when Rani was sent away and given in marriage to an old and failing man, and back then she did not quite understand the hushed whispers, the accusing glances... or her brother's anguish. Now, however, she felt angry on Rani's behalf as well as on her own. How many lives were ruined, how many loves trampled for the sake of pride and ambition of the Kotsar?

After Emmet was in bed, she thought it would be appropriate to check on Dankar once more, but she hovered in front of the door, her fingers upon the handle, unable to make herself come in. His words rang in her ears once more. You had forgiven a man who was about to die. Can you forgive a man who will live?

Can she?

Dankar was regaining his strength rapidly. Although he was yet in no condition to travel through the city and attend military councils himself, a couple of days after Rani's visit Kelena went out with Emmet to visit her uncle Derrien, having ensured all her husband's needs are attended to, and when she returned and went upstairs she heard voices from behind the door of the chamber. They were male voices, and one of them she was surprised to recognize as belonging to her own cousin, Uncle Derrien's son, Beryen Mokkar.

"Let us just go through this one more time," spoke another, skeptical-sounding voice which she did not recognize. "What is it exactly that these Shadowbinders are threatening to do?"

"The Shadowbinders don't threaten," Kelena heard Dankar's voice. "Had there been demands, declarations, fist-brandishing, I do not believe the Council ought to have had reason for much concern. But no; they act silently, secretly, and no matter how much we tried, we could only obtain scraps of information regarding what they might be up to. Why don't you fill the noble Adrik in, cousin? You speak so eloquently."

"Well," Beryen cleared his throat. "The Shadowbinders are supposed to be trying to revive the black art of sorcery called Paths of the Shadow – and in the course of doing so, they mean to cast a spell which would enclose the borders of Tilir in darkness, leaving us virtually isolated from the rest of the world."

"A spell?" The man called Adrik gave an incredulous dry laugh. "Councils gather for endless sessions, His Grace sends an army to the blackness of the Emerald Mountains, and the noble Dankar here narrowly escapes murder – all because someone somewhere is supposed to try some crackpot spell?"

"Sorcery is not all of it, perhaps not even the most important part," Beryen said reasonably. "They are a congregation of people with clearly rebellious intentions. No matter what exactly it is that they are trying to do, someone must stop them. At once."

"My good-brother Thadorn is moving forward to do so as we speak," Dankar said. "He will stop the Shadowbinders."

"Or perish in the attempt," Beryen put in.

"Better him than other men, of higher value," Adrik said indifferently, almost lazily, and Kelena felt a stab of anger at the tone of his voice. "If he succeeds, all will be well; if he fails, his efforts will pave the road for someone of higher rank. I daresay His Grace was wise enough to see that when he gave this mission to a loyal but unremarkable man such as Thadorn Tionae."

Beryen murmured something incoherent, whereas Dankar said, "we had better continue another day. Forgive me, my lords, but I feel that what little strength I have gained is exhausted for now. Pray give my excuses at court."

"None shall be required, cousin," Beryen said, and there was the unmistakable shuffling of men about to leave. Kelena hastily fled to the chamber across the corridor and listened to the receding steps of two pairs of feet.

When she did enter her husband's room, she was taken aback by his words of welcome.

"How long have you been listening at the door?" he asked, with the ghost of a smile playing upon his lips. Her blush was answer enough for him; he waved a languid, dismissive hand. "No need to look so embarrassed. I know everything that goes on in this house, and I would not have spoken freely if there was anything I didn't want you to hear."

"Who is Adrik?" asked Kelena.

"A scion of a noble clan who pretends to be more important than he really is," said Dankar dispassionately.

"He had no right to speak this way of Thadorn," Kelena said hotly. "My good-brother is worth a dozen of such like him."

"Do not expect your views to be shared by anyone from court," said Dankar. "Thadorn is a man of simple words and loyal deeds. In Aldon-Sur, this doesn't count nearly as much as finesse, intrigue, the ability to get close to the right people at the right moment, and noble ancestors."

"And do you think this way too?"

Again, an almost imperceptible smile touched Dankar's lips. "I am not known for saying what I truly think," he pointed out.

"And the spell?" Kelena blurted out. "Do you believe it's true? Do you believe they are capable of – of – of performing some sorcery which will affect us all, or..." she trailed off.

"There is no need to be so anxious, now," Dankar said, reclining upon his pillows. "There is always a chance that the Shadowbinders are deluding themselves with ambitions of power which has passed away from this world, or else, throwing dust in the eyes of those who believe too easily. They are gaining strength and numbers, from what we know, but all should still turn out well... provided that Thadorns finds them soon."

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