Jadine took a sip of wine.
It was too sour and too strong and had a foul odour, but there wasn't a lot of choice. They were fairly well provisioned, but when it came to drink there was either water, yeasty cloudy ale, or this sour wine. She wrinkled her nose and set her cup aside.
She wished she could have set her thoughts aside half as easily.
The truth was, they were in danger. They have tried to maintain secrecy for as long as it was possible, but now they were recognized for what they were: a force that menaced the current equilibrium, a group which was capable of making much needed changes... and of course, trying to bring change would always cause resistance.
And then there was Kohir.
With shaking hands, Jadine pushed herself up from the sitting cushions and paced restlessly from the window to her writing desk and to the door and back again. It was his own fault, she told herself over and over. I warned him. I told him what would happen, and he didn't listen to me.
Her gallant but foolish brother made the unfortunate decision to confront Lafgar, speaking to him as if he were still a goatherd in a smelly cave just off the shore of Rhasket-Tharsanae. He threatened us all. There was no other choice. It had to be so.
Also, though she might not want to admit it even in her thoughts, there was the fact that she couldn't have done much for her brother even if she tried. Had she attempted to side with Kohir, she might just have shared his fate.
Still, there was the grief that tore through her like a cruel knife. She remembered the boy she had played with, the companion of her childhood, the one in whose ear she whispered secrets in the dark, the only one in whom she could confide, because Kelena was too silly and Nog too young. And she thought of her parents. They will grieve, she told herself, if they still remember how.
She could not allow herself to succumb to pain, though, and the only remedy against it was to act. We are ready, she thought. There is nothing more to wait for. Our power should suffice. It is time to make true of our promises and act according to the plan.
Still, some vague doubts remained, and to resolve them she needed Vyolen, and she weren't sure when the man would come. The sorcerer's aid proved to be valuable, but Vyolen was not truly one of them. He had his own dwelling, he came and went as he wished and, it seemed to Jadine, often listened far more than he talked. She learned a lot from him, but she couldn't pretend she understood him.
And there was also Thadorn. Thadorn, whom she hadn't seen for so long. Thadorn, who was now marching towards her at the head of an army loyal to the dwindling but still fearsome power of the throne. Thadorn, who must hate her because she left him. And the children... no, she could not think about the children, nor wonder who is raising them now. Thadorn cannot do it on his own. Who would lend him a helping hand? Her mother? Unlikely; she was too deeply steeped in her bitterness. Kelena was a kind-hearted and motherly type, but she was too far. It must be Lya, she who coveted my husband for so long. This thought disturbed Jadine perhaps more than all the rest. No matter. It will all be over, and I will return, and all will be... no, not as before, it is impossible, but we can be together again. I will hear Korian laugh, I will look into Datrine's eyes which are so like my own, and I will hold Tari, who probably doesn't remember me at all.
She reached for her cup again and drained it quickly, so as not to taste the tart wine. She felt her head swim, which was all to the good. She knew what must be coming, and she knew she cannot face it entirely sober.
Nearly hating herself for it, Jadine slipped out. The others would take it all wrong, I am certain, she thought to herself... and she was loath to admit that her secrecy stemmed partly out of fear. But to succeed, they needed more power, and they needed it soon – and to have it soon, they needed Vyolen.
She didn't saddle a horse. They only had a few, and if one were missed it would be far too conspicuous; going on foot, though, she can always pretend she only went for a short walk. If I return in one piece. Fearsome things lurked in the forest of the Emerald Mountains, and some of them Jadine was not at all in a hurry to meet.
She bent her head under the raised hood of her dark cloak, and fastened her grip on the hilt of a dagger that hung from her belt. That was a present from Lafgar, a finely wrought piece of deadly sharp steel, but she was not certain how much use it would be to her. Against a large beast it would probably be useless, and as for men... she had never killed a man before. Not with a dagger, anyway. But the lithe piece of steel on her belt made her feel more secure nevertheless.
There were powerful barriers guarding Vyolen's humble dwelling, a small sturdy-looking timber house with a steep roof, but they were not meant for her. She simply waved her hand and walked through a shimmering wave of air charged with complex sorcery, and found herself near the little hut. Two stocky mountain goats were grazing on clumps of withered grass next to it. Vyolen often complained of how pesky the animals were, but Jadine knew he appreciated their company. Even an old warlock such as Vyolen could feel lonely at times.
Jadine knocked, and the little man opened almost immediately, as if he were expecting her. As she had predicted, Vyolen did not look remotely surprised.
"Child," he said, and Jadine wrinkled her nose in dismay.
"I wish you would all stop calling me that," she said. "I might have been a child once, but no longer. I am a woman, a mother, and a sorceress."
His expression were inscrutable. "As you say. You will indulge an old man's habit, I hope. I'm thrice your age, and therefore, to me you are a child. Would you care to share the offerings of my humble table?" he gestured towards his rough scrubbed table, where she noticed a basket of berries and a small jug of cream, resting next to an old and heavy book with pages that had begun to crumble. She shook her head.
"I am not hungry," she said.
"Well," said Vyolen, "this is more than what some people can boast of these days."
"Have I interrupted your studies?" asked Jadine, gesturing towards the book.
"Not really. My mind was beginning to get distracted, anyway. But this is a fabulous tome... Ancient Days of Tilir, written by King Alvadon the Third, also named the Scholar. It covers the entire history of Tilir, from the Old Days and up to the Union, initiated by that king's fabled grandsire. Marvelous work, truly. Reading it leaves one deep in thought."
"To be sure," Jadine conceded drily, "but I have always wondered how it could be that King Alvadon the Scholar found time for his literary works when he had a country to rule."
Vyolen spread his hands slightly in a gesture of humility. "It is a great question, indeed. But King Alvadon the Third had good councilors, true friends, and a wise and gentle queen. And those were peaceful times. The Union was finally accepted by all the clans, after some harsh measures taken by King Alvadon the Second, and the wild tribes were not nearly as impertinent as they are these days."
"Yes," said Jadine, "back in those days, the world still had some respect for Tilir."
"Unlike now, you imply."
"I never imply. I say what I think, and I know you understand me perfectly. Alas, no one respects us now; no respect can be gained by weakness. But this is something that may be changed... with your help." He seemed to be listening, and the moment was as good as any, so she plunged on. "I believe the time is ripe. The Circle can be made and the enchantments performed even tonight, if you come and join your strength to ours. It should suffice for what we need to do."
But even before she finished speaking, she saw him shaking his head, and she knew it was no good.
"I have told you before, Jadine," said Vyolen with the kind of mild politeness that hides a will which cannot be bent, "I sympathize with your cause, I applaud your sentiments, I understand your anxiety. But you are trying to do something that cannot be accomplished... nor would I wish to help accomplish it, even if I could."
"It can be done," Jadine said hotly. "It is the only way – "
But again, he was shaking his head. "Tilir could face any external foe," said the warlock, "if only we were united from within, but we are not. Your very own actions prove that."
Jadine approached him and laid a hand on his arm, something she had never done before.
"You must help us," she said in a low voice, "the king has sent an army after us."
"That was to be expected," Vyolen said calmly. Then he asked an unexpected question. "Who leads the troops?"
It was only reluctantly that Jadine met his eyes. "Thadorn Tionae," she said.
"Ah," he gave a little nod, as if something had just been made clear to him. "Your husband. He is very angry with you, I imagine."
"Yes," Jadine said defiantly, "because he doesn't understand – "
"And what if," Vyolen paused, "what if it turns out you don't understand nearly as much as you think, child?"
Jadine paused for a few moments, scrutinizing the man's wise, lined face. Almost ageless he seemed, as if every year that passed only added vigor to his mind. "Is this your final word?" she asked.
He appeared almost sad as he spoke. "We have been through this before, Jadine. The Essence of the Spirit will shine as before, the Messenger will come, and the dominion of Tilir will rise once again... but not now, nor in many years from now. Alas, neither you nor I will live to see that."
Jadine's eyes flashed in hot anger. "You might not live to see that, old man," she hissed spitefully, "but I will. I swear it. I swear it," she repeated once more before she turned her back on the old warlock and walked through the doors of his home, never to return again.
When Jadine came back, brave Garon was eating, but upon seeing her, he hastily pushed his plate aside, slid the visor of his helm over his face, and stood up, which Jadine found difficult to understand. Yes, his face is a grisly sight, but it is one I have seen several times before. Lafgar was in the common room, too; he was pacing back and forth, looking nervous.
"There you are, Jadine," he said to her. "Where have you been?"
For a brief moment, she hesitated. She could not quite explain it, but she would have rather concealed the truth from Lafgar... if she thought it was possible.
"I went to see Vyolen," she told him.
"Vyolen?" he repeated. "What was so urgent? He is supposed to come by in a few hours, just before sunset."
"He will not come," said Jadine, paused, then went on. "He will never come again. He lost faith in our cause. He abandoned us."
Lafgar looked up with the air of someone who received mildly unpleasant news, and raised his eyebrows a little as she stood before him, trembling with anger. Garon uttered not a word, but cracked his knuckles.
"You needn't have gone," Lafgar told her, "but either way, it matters not. Vyolen is an old man, and he is alone. I can deal with him."
"This old man can kill both you and me without breaking a sweat if he puts his mind to it," snapped Jadine. "And besides, dealing with him cannot make him help us."
Lafgar considered this for a moment, then signed resignedly. "You are right, of course. I got carried away for a moment. I thought... but no matter. Let us dismiss any thought of Vyolen, then. He might not be an ally, but either way I doubt he will go against us. We will simply have to do without him."
"How?" demanded Jadine.
"Be patient. If we wait – "
"What for? The longer we wait, the more our power dwindles. I believe we must do just the opposite. We must strike. On both fronts."
Lafgar looked at her, his face full of doubt. "You believe – "
"Yes," Jadine said forcefully. "It is not beyond your power to send a message to all our men at once, is it?"
"No," Lafgar said, faintly displeased by the question. "What I am worried about is the second part of the plan. Frankly, Jadine, even if you and I and all those who are with us now join their powers, I doubt it will be enough to make the spell work."
"Waiting won't improve our chances," she insisted. "There will be risk, of course, but so what? It is better than condemning ourselves to failure by being too insecure to try."
Unexpectedly, Brave Garon spoke. His voice came out harsh, guttural and raspy, almost like steel on stone. At times he was hardly intelligible, due to the deep wound he had once received to his throat and which had almost cost him his life. "I think Jadine is right," he said. "We waited in this cold miserable hole for too long, and for what? We might as well have struck back then. And you overrate Vyolen, Lafgar. Soon, it will be he who rues his breach from us."
Lafgar switched his gaze from Jadine to Garon, looking annoyed and resigned at once. "Very well," he said. "It might be that the two of you are right, that I am too cautious... or it might be the other way around. Either way, once a coin had been flipped, I have no control of the side that comes up. I will send the message."
"Wait," rasped Brave Garon, "I will do it."
"You?" Lafgar sounded slightly incredulous.
"Do you believe me incapable?"
Lafgar crossed his arms and stepped aside. "Suit yourself," he said.
Slowly, without raising the visor of his helm, Garon turned to Jadine and held out an open palm. Jadine reached into a small leather pouch that hung from her belt, took out three shriveled black pods, which she placed in Garon's hand. Garon then walked towards the burning brazier and dropped the three black pods there. The flame instantly changed color, from leaping red and orange and yellow to blue and violet, which filled the surroundings with a cold glow. Even the heat seemed to be sucked out of it, because when Garon lowered his hand and placed it in the fire, he let out no gasp of pain.
Slowly, he raised his hand, cupping it as if to scoop some water, but instead of water there was violet and blue flame in his palm. He whispered and whispered, and the flame changed its color from blue to green, light as grass at first and then dark as wet moss, and in the end, it was the darkest violet, almost pure black, and it spread darkness the way a flame might spread light. Jadine shivered slightly. Then Garon lowered his hand once more, and let the dark flame spill back onto the brazier like water, and the fire leapt red and orange once again.
"It is done," Garon said in his deep harsh voice.
"Done, for better or worse," Lafgar echoed grudgingly, and clapped his hands. "Bring us some mulled wine," he told the serving boy who poked his head in, "and don't forget to put some raisins in it."
When their cups were filled, he raised his. "The Shadow is coming," he said.
"The Shadow is coming," echoed Jadine and Garon. Lafgar and Jadine took a sip of the hot spiced wine, and after a moment of hesitation, Garon took off his helm and drank as well. Jadine tried to avoid looking directly at his face as he did so, although the sight of him provoked queer fascination in her. One of Garon's eyes was missing, and the rest of his face was so badly scarred and mutilated that his own mother might not have recognized him. Not did it seem likely to Jadine that this man ever had a mother; absurd as it is, she could never imagine him in any other way than what he was now – a scarred shell in which silent anger was burning.
She went back to her chambers and nursed another cup of hot wine, trying to calm her thoughts. Lafgar's skepticism was well-justified, she had to admit that... yet what choice did she have? None but to believe that what they were planning would succeed; none but to go forward. Soon, up and down the land Death would strike... an unfortunate sacrifice, but necessary to set the scene for what they were going to do next. All can work out... unless Thadorn reaches them first.
No, she told herself. I do not fear Thadorn. I will not fear a man who worshipped the ground I walk on. She must not underrate the threat he poses, though, and she knew it; Thadorn might be her husband, but when duty clashes with passion, there can be no doubt as to what he will choose. That one will tear his heart out with his bare hands if his king commands it. Jadine did not know whether to admire or to despise him for it.
All she knew was that she missed him. The enveloping power of his arms around her, his deep voice, the smile that would light up his face like sun shining through a break between two clouds. Most of all she wanted to simply go back, rest her head on Thadorn's shoulder and let him take care of the rest. But she could not. Not yet, and perhaps not ever. The thought filled her with anguish, yet there was nothing she could do, nowhere she could go. Nowhere but forward.