A Fateful Meeting
Thadorn’s mood was blacker than the shadow that hung thick and dark beyond the western border.
“We might as well move on,” Nicholas told him, “there is no point in sitting here and staring into the black, is there, Commander?”
The man was right. There was nothing they could do; anything west of the old road simply went black... not black as night, or even as the bottom of a deep well, but... black as nothing, the true nothingness that could not be penetrated by light or touch. When Thadorn gritted his teeth and stood on the edge of the old road and stretched his hand beyond, into the blackness, he sensed a barrier that did not let his fingers pass through. In a way he felt relief, but also a creeping fear that stemmed from the consciousness of the power they were facing. He ordered a fire to be lit right next to the shadow’s border in the evening, but while the flame leaped and roared and lit everything in a wide semicircle east of it, it seemed to have no effect to the west. It was like a wall - a tall, impenetrable wall of evil black non-substance.
“Do you think there is anything beyond it?” Thadorn wondered aloud. “Or does it just go on infinitely?”
“I couldn’t tell you,” Nicholas said truthfully, “but one thing is certain - this is what those poor refugees were attempting to flee from... until you made them go back.”
“Do you have to repeat that?” snapped Thadorn. “I could not have known. I was doing my duty as a Commander; if I had simply let a Gorgor clan into Tilir, it would have been a direct violation of my purpose.”
“It stopped, though,” intervened Akira, who seemed to be omnipresent around the camp. “It stopped at the border of Tilir, and it does us no harm, as far as I can tell - and moreover, it appears that those wretched wild men knew it would be so.”
“How, though?” demanded Thadorn. “How could they know what was coming, and what it would do, while we had not the least idea?”
“Perhaps you underestimated their knowledge,” suggested Nicholas. “Civilized people have often sinned in this manner towards the so-called primitive tribes.” He stopped in time, realizing that another word might goad Thadorn into one of his fits of anger.
“We need to know what is happening in other places,” said Akira, who alone of the entire company seemed almost unperturbed. That is his Kotsar blood, Nicholas heard someone whisper, they never truly gave up on sorcery, those. “Here this... this shadow, for lack of a better word, crept in from the west. What is going on at the shores, in the east, in the south?”
“We have no way to know that until the runners we dispatched with messages return,” Thadorn said curtly. “And even once they do, it cannot be promised that they will find us, for we won’t stay here waiting for them.”
“Well, in that case, we must go on,” Akira said briskly, “and continue sending scouts forward. Any hint would help us decide what path to take, for soon there will be many.”
“Yes, Akira, thank you,” said Thadorn in a voice that plainly suggested he would be glad to strangle the Kotsar man. Yet Akira did not seem to take the hint.
“You do know what we are looking for, don’t you?” he lowered his voice. “If there was doubt before, it is clearer than ever now. They are practicing sorcery, and quite successfully, it appears, along with your - ”
Nicholas cleared his throat almost imperceptibly, but this faint sound went unheard as Thadorn spoke across Akira.
“Our purpose has not changed since the beginning of the march, as far as I can recall,” he said. “We are looking for a group of conspirers suspected of rebellion... they must be stopped and interrogated, and even more so if they attempt to use Dark forces.”
“Attempt?” Akira gave a hollow laugh, shaking his head. “You do have an admirably steadfast outlook, Thadorn. You don’t believe in magic, and you won’t believe in it even when it’s staring you in the face,” he gestured towards the blackness in the west.
“I might believe,” Thadorn explained grudgingly. “It does not mean, however, that I want anything to do with it.”
Akira shook his head again. “Then you ought to turn around and march home,” he remarked. Having said that, he stalked off, in the direction of a cooking fire where two men were turning a wild rabbit on a spit.
“He does have a point, you know,” Nicholas said, watching Akira’s receding back. “It is always easier to deal with what we can explain logically, but it appears that in this instance, the rules change.”
“The rules disappear,” Thadorn corrected him glumly. “I wish I had listened to Jadine more closely when she attempted to describe the effects of this dark spell to me, but I was too angry and fearful... and too intent on trying to convince her to put it out of her mind. Tell me again, Nicholas. This has happened in your world too, didn’t it? There was a Shadow, but it dispersed, isn’t that so?”
“It was only a myth... or so I believed,” Nicholas said, rather weakly. “I’m afraid I never took it seriously. I thought it was nothing but a tale spread by ignorant people.”
“And you underestimated their knowledge,” interjected Thadorn with an attempt of a smile.
Nicholas did not have time to think of a proper answer; he was interrupted by one of the soldiers who came up to them. He was a young man, scarcely more than a boy, and again he was reminded with a pang of Torwen, and wondered whether this young one would survive to come home and tell the tale.
“Commander,” he said hesitantly, “I am sorry to disturb you, but one of the scouts is back. He is asking for a word with you.”
The man came up to them short of breath, the look upon his face grim and excited at once.
“My Commander,” he panted. “I found them... or, at least, I am fairly certain I did. There is a path I followed which leads to an old castle... it is supposed to lie in ruins, but certain signs make me think it is not so.”
Thadorn nodded. “You will take more men and follow that path.”
But Akira was standing behind his shoulder again, holding a roast haunch of rabbit that was dripping grease. “More men? Why not take all our men, Thadorn? We could make an end to this once and for all.”
But the Commander shook his head in refusal. “No. I will not have bloodshed if it can be avoided. You will send envoys. Ask... ask Jadine to come to the edge of Everdark Forest,” he said, pronouncing the name of his wife with difficulty. “As long as she comes unarmed and does not attempt to thwart us, I give my solemn word that no harm shall come to her at that hour, and that she will be free to go back where she came from... if she so chooses.”
A queer chill passed down Nicholas’s spine as he reflected on Thadorn’s careful choice of words. No harm shall come to her at that hour. He makes no promises for what will happen later, though.
“This is folly, Thadorn,” Akira persisted. “They will be forewarned of our coming.”
“They are forewarned anyway,” Thadorn said with a mixture of irritation and weariness. “And what are you still doing here, Akira? I thought you were going to sup.”
“I am,” said Akira, indicating the haunch of rabbit.
“Better eat sitting down, with a mug of good ale,” Thadorn suggested in a way that all but spelled bugger off.
“We don’t have any good ale,” said Akira, “and even the piss-poor stuff we have been drinking for the past weeks is running low.”
Thadorn was the one to walk away this time, rather abruptly, and Nicholas hesitated before following him, as that seemed a dangerous thing to do at the moment - but still he found himself stalking the Commander, lengthening his strides to match his. Thadorn attempted to ignore him for a couple of minutes before turning his head towards him so quickly his neck cricked.
“What?” he snapped, stopping.
Nicholas stopped as well. “What are you trying to do?” he asked.
Thadorn looked ahead of him again, and it was as if he stared into a distant mist. “Make her come to me,” he said with an imitation of coolness. “It will be a start.”
“And then?” persisted Nicholas.
“If there is still some conscience and goodwill left in her, I will appeal to them. I will try to help her choose the right side.”
“Assuming the right side is yours.”
The look Thadorn gave him could only be described as menacing. “Assuming the right side is ours,” he corrected. “Or do you believe they are justified in practicing Dark sorcery?”
“I judge no one,” Nicholas said cautiously. Thadorn snorted audibly.
“That is a convenient way of saying I don’t give a damn," he said decisively.
Nicholas pondered this for a moment. “It is not...” he struggled with words. “I am seeing things I never thought could exist, and I - but yes, although we didn’t actually witness this Shadow doing anything, it feels... wrong. Very wrong.”
“Can Jadine lift the enchantment on her own?”
“I doubt it. It is unlikely she managed to accomplish something of this magnitude alone.”
“But I am certain there are some men among your troops that will say you ought to make her try.”
Thadorn frowned. “If... if she doesn’t regret,” he spoke slowly, “and if she chooses to go back to her - her comrades, I intend to let her. I am a man true to his word.”
“I know that,” said Nicholas, “and so, no doubt, does she.”
They waited for the return of their envoys for three days and three nights, during which they marched at a slow pace in the direction of Everdark Valley, stopping as many times as it were required in order to tend their wounded properly. The food was sparse and the weather dismal, but they encountered no more misfortunes, and those who were hurt in the skirmish with the Gorgors were recovering.
On the third day, Thadorn looked in the direction of Everdark Forest, and his breath caught in his throat as he saw two of the men he had sent walking out from beneath the trees and towards the light - and striding between them and slightly ahead of them, proud and tall and with her head held high as if she were a queen, was the one to whom his thoughts turned so often, the one whom he loved and hated with such passion. Like a flame in the dark, she drew all eyes to herself - but many of the men, he noticed, stole furtive looks in his direction, as if to see how he will react. Each one of them knew Jadine was his wife.
The distance between them was now only a few strides, which he covered in a matter of seconds. And once again, after so long, he found himself standing before her. He had pictured this moment in his mind so many times, and had many words, careful and clever and bitter, which he planned to say to her - but just like that, as if in a puff of smoke, it all vanished, and he was once more awash in the glow of her beauty, unable to speak. He paused instead, trying to read the expression of her face. He failed, and this frightened him. He allowed her to speak first instead.
“Thadorn,” she said, “you called for me. Here I am.”
Is that all? He wanted to shout at her. Is that all you have to say to the husband you left behind, to the father of the children you abandoned, to the servant of the king you betrayed?
“I knew you would come,” he said solemnly, but her lips curled in a mocking smile that was like a slap to his face.
“You have an admirable sight into the future, then,” she said, “because I did not know I would come, myself. I didn’t know until the very last moment whether this is wise.”
“Yet here you stand,” he persisted, “but where are the rest of the men I sent? I only see two.”
“The rest are in our stronghold,” Jadine told him. “They do not lack for comfort, and will be released soon... as soon as I return.”
Thadorn’s face darkened with anger. “You kept them as hostages,” he said. “There was no need of that.”
Jadine shrugged. “It is always good to have a safeguard,” she said. “Although, of course, I believe I can flatter myself by saying I am more important than them, so you might still capture me... or try to, at any rate,” she finished in a tone that was as lethal as it was quiet.
Thadorn had to resist the powerful urge to shake her by the shoulders. “You ought to know me better than that,” he said. “I said you will be able to return, and so you shall... if you persist in this folly. I hope that you do not, though.”
Jadine looked around her, then back at him. “Is there a place where we can speak privately?”
Thadorn led her to his tent and closed the flap behind them. She looked around with a shrug. “This will have to do,” she said, “although there are still ears all around, of course.”
“I have no secrets to keep from my men.”
“But I might have a thing or two to keep from your men,” she said pointedly, then remained silent for a long moment. Her next phrase startled him, for the smooth calm tone of her voice was lost. Instead, oddly, she sounded hoarse and gentle at once as she asked, “How are the children?”
Thadorn felt something inside him tighten. “Do you truly want to know?” he demanded. Her eyes remained wide-open, questioning. “Datrine still asks about you all the time, and Kor... he doesn’t speak of you any more, but I see how he sometimes stops in the middle of his play and stares wide-eyed into space, then shakes his head. He thinks of you, and he grieves. The only untroubled one is Tari, who no longer has memories of you.”
This last remark of his made her flinch, yet she kept her voice steady. “I expected this. They cannot understand.”
“Neither can I,” he said abruptly, his anger rising and bubbling inside him once more. “Neither can I, Jadine. Why did you leave? What for? What do you intend to do?”
“What must be done,” she said quietly... and, he fancied, a little sadly. “I think you already saw part of it, Thadorn.”
“I saw an evil thing,” he said, “in which I hoped against hope that you took no part.”
“You need not fear the Shadow,” she told him almost gently. “Only fools and children see evil spirits in the dark. Darkness may be a blanket, covering and sheltering one at a time of need.”
“A blanket can be cast aside,” he said. “Is the same true of the Shadow you brought upon the borders of Tilir? Is it, Jadine?”
She said nothing, and her eyes were downcast.
“You don’t even know, do you?” he shot at her. Then he did something he would regret for years to come. The anger, the frustration, the loneliness and hurt pride and shame all came upon him at once, and he was powerless before them. Possessed by a sudden madness, he lunged at her and brutally seized her by the wrists, pulling her closer so that her face was inches from his. “You asked about the children. What about me? What about me, Jadine? Do you not care a whiff about the man who was bound to you by the Spirit and the laws of men?”
She flinched, trying to pull away from him, but he was stronger. “You are hurting me,” she told him through clenched teeth.
“That was my intention,” he growled, twisting a fragile wrist, but suddenly her skin felt red-hot to the touch, and he instantly let go. Jadine went to the opposite side of the tent and stood there facing him, furious, cradling her wrist on which scarlet bruise marks were already blossoming. Even though he let go of her, Thadorn’s fingertips still burned, and when he looked down at them he saw that his skin was red and hot and beginning to blister.
“You have always been a brute,” Jadine said dispassionately, eyeing him with an expression he could only describe as detached fascination. “But even you must see, surely, that I have learned a thing or two.”
Thadorn laughed hollowly, doing his best to ignore the searing pain in his fingers. “Such things indeed,” he nodded. “Tell me, then, Jadine. Was it worth it? Are you happy for having abandoned your family to practice dark magic in a ruined castle? Are you proud?”
“This is neither about my happiness nor my pride,” she replied. “There are a few who have been singled out by the Gift, and I am one of them. But since you ask... yes, I am proud. I am proud of what we have accomplished. Our work is not complete, and yet the western border, at least, is closed to all threats that might have come through it.”
“Yes, such as bands of ragged, underfed men and women on starving horses,” said Thadorn forcefully. “What happened to them, pray tell? What happened to the men and women who are now within the borders of the so-called Shadow?”
For the first time, Jadine looked uneasy. “The Shadow does not reveal its secrets to each and every one,” she said loftily, but Thadorn sensed her uncertainty, and pressed his advantage.
“You do not know, do you? Jadine,” he did not dare to allow his voice to soften, for fear it should break, “I will be the last to deny that Tilir is facing grave dangers... and the people you have associated yourself with are one of them. I beg you, let those who rule resolve what must be resolved. You have other things waiting for you. There are children who need a mother, a home that is empty without a wife... and there is me. I am empty too, Jadine. My heart is empty, and my arms and my bed... you look uncomfortable. Did you doubt it would be so when you went?”
Slowly, she shook her head. “I was never made for this kind of life, Thadorn,” she said. “I tried to tell you this once upon a time, but you wouldn’t listen. Perhaps I should have insisted that you do.”
He took a step towards her. “Do you regret having married me?” he asked. She hesitated.
“If I had to marry someone, I know it couldn’t be anyone but you,” she finally said. “I know it,” she repeated.
“I know it, too,” he echoed. “I am your husband, Jadine, and I am telling you that you will not go back there. I will leave the command to Akira and take you home to Rhasket and smooth things over, and we shall try to forget all that had been.” Another step, and another, and he was quite close to her, and her hands were in his, and this time his touch was gentle, and he felt her fingers run through his hair, over his face. He caught them and kissed them with a delicacy that was meant to make up for his fury of a few minutes before. He pulled her towards him and she leaned into him, kissing him, his face, his lips, his neck, running her hands down his shoulders, across his chest... but not even the ecstasy of holding her in his arms once again, not even the heat of her breath and her kisses and her body pressed close, were enough to drown the words she whispered in his ear.
“I cannot go with you, Thadorn. Not now. There are still things that I must do here... and you will understand in time, I swear it. I must go back.”
Abruptly, he pulled himself away, away from her treacherous touch, and stared at her face as if he saw it for the first time. “You will not. I forbid it.”
“You solemnly swore you would not detain me if I came to parley,” Jadine reminded him.
“So I did, as a Commander. But I am also your husband, and I say that you will not go.”
And again there was this look she gave him, a look that was almost sad, but also defiant. “I never swore I would obey you, Thadorn,” she reminded him while she smoothly rearranged her dress and wrapped her cloak around her. He was numb as he watched her proceed towards the entrance of the tent.
“Jadine,” he called, “wait.”
She turned around.
“You might walk out now,” he said, speaking with difficulty, “but you must be aware that we will meet again - very soon.”
She nodded, resigned. “If it must be so,” she said. Once more, her hand reached for the flap of the tent. Already she set it aside, and a gust of cold air filtered in. Thadorn’s burned hand throbbed.
“Jadine,” he called again, “did you ever love me?”
But she was already outside. It took him a few moments to gather his senses and step out after her, and when he did, she was already getting close to the edge of the forest. He filled his lungs with air. “You will regret this,” he promised her, not sure whether she can still hear him.
She turned her head slowly, almost lazily. “Not as much as you will, Thadorn.”