Paths of the Shadow

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Duel with the Shadow

On the morning Thadorn was to meet his opponent, it seemed that the Shadow had grown even darker.

“The sun shines dimly,” observed Akira. “It is as if night is still upon us.”

“Those are only clouds,” said the reasonable Nicholas.

“Where is your armor, Thadorn?” asked Akira. “Shouldn’t you be ready by now?”

“I am ready.”

“Are you?” Akira’s eyebrows rose incredulously. “Where is your breastplate? Your gorget, your gauntlets, your greaves?”

“I cannot abide bulky armor. It will be more hindrance than help.”

“You need to wear a hauberk, at the very least.”

“I do not. A helm and shield will suffice.”

“How a fool such as this one could be made a Commander, I fail to comprehend,” muttered Akira. “Well, go on then, and may your sword and shield and helm and the Great Spirit protect you.”

“What about you?” Thadorn turned to them. “Are you ready?”

“Yes,” said Nicholas.

“For all the damn good it will do us,” Akira added skeptically.

Thadorn began pacing back and forth anxiously, looking towards the treetops of Everdark Forest.

“They are late,” he remarked. “One hour after dawn, we said. Now two hours at least have gone by.”

“They might have overslept,” said Akira. “Are you that impatient to die?”

“The Shadow has lingered long enough, do you not think so?” Thadorn demanded of him. “I want to end this, and I want to do it now.”

“Now, Thadorn,” Akira raised a finger. “Be careful. It you get yourself killed, the king will be so furious he might just try a bit of sorcery himself and bring you back from the dead to lock you in a dungeon.”

“I wonder why Vyolen is not here,” Nicholas said in a low voice, looking around him. “He said he would come.”

“What does it matter?” snapped Akira. “That old warlock is not really one of our men.”

“But he did say he would be here,” insisted Nicholas. Then the three of them were silent, and their heads turned back to Everdark Forest at once.

“I think they are coming,” Thadorn said quietly.

People were moving among the trees. Voices could be heard, murmuring, muttering, arguing. Many voices. Presumably, that was a good thing. It is better that none of them remain hidden, Thadorn said the evening before, even if it means rivers of blood will run before the day has ended.

Then they came out. Only three people did, to be exact; the rest remained hiding among the trees, ominous sentinels in the dark, their faces covered by the hoods of their cloaks. A cold wind stirred the heavy clouds in the sky, and a few drops of frozen rain dropped upon the ground. The clouds threatened more, but Thadorn no longer heeded threats.

Three people were standing in front of him. One of them he knew, he realized with surprise; it was the odd goatherd he had seen numerous times in the vicinity of Rhasket-Tharsanae. Yet he could not even tell how he recognized him, for the man’s face was highly altered; there was power in it, and pride as well, but paradoxally it did not make Thadorn fear him. On the contrary.

The other was a mighty-looking, tall, broad shouldered man with his face hidden by the visor of his helm.

The third was Jadine.

He did his best not to look at her. She needn’t have come, a thought flashed through his mind. He knew they had to meet again sometime, yes, but he could not know it would be so soon. Did she come to watch me kill, or to see how I die?

Instead he looked at the man whose face he knew. “I see you received my summons,” he told him.

“We received your offer,” the former goatherd corrected him. “And, having taken due consideration, decided to accept it.”

Thadorn kept any muscle in his face from stirring, to avoid letting this man know that he derived satisfaction from his words. “Have you chosen your champion, then?” he asked.

“Yes,” said his opponent. “Have you chosen yours?”

“I shall be the one who stands for King Alvadon and United Tilir,” Thadorn said. “Who will stand against me? You? Or him?” he looked at the silent warrior whose face was covered.

But then she stepped forward, and her voice rose horribly clear. “I will,” said Jadine.

Something within him was falling, falling, falling into a black bottomless chasm, but his voice was quite calm. “That is impossible,” he said.

“Is it?” Jadine raised her eyebrows. “We can choose anyone as champion, you said. Doesn’t the message say so, Lafgar?” she turned to the man who spoke earlier.

“It does indeed,” confirmed Lafgar, pulling Thadorn’s letter out of the folds of his cloak. “We debated this, and although we had our doubts, ultimately we chose Jadine.”

“Choose again,” Thadorn said abruptly, not looking directly at any of them. “I cannot kill a woman.”

She laughed derisively, in that manner which made him hate her so. “Fear not, Thadorn. I doubt you will be able to kill this particular woman. You are welcome to try, though.”

He looked at her then. She was standing in front of him, her cloak open slightly to reveal nothing but plain everyday clothes. Despite the cold, her arms were bare, and she didn’t seem to feel the chill. Her hands were empty, all the jewels he had once given her gone.

“You are mocking me,” he declared.

“Do you go back on your offer of single combat?” she challenged him.

“What do you propose to defend yourself with?” he hurled at her.

A corner of her mouth curled. “Who said it is me who will need defense?”

“I refuse,” his voice was firm. “Anyone but you.” You are the mother of my children. I loved you once, and found brief happiness in the illusion that you loved me.

As if responding to his thoughts, she said, “I am not Jadine of the Tionae now, nor Jadine of the Kotsar. I am nothing and no one but a servant who walks the Paths of the Shadow. And it will be me you face today, Thadorn, or no one at all.”

Then she turned to her two companions. “Go,” she told them.

“I thought the matter was not settled,” said Lafgar.

“It is. Now go.”

His enemies stepped back, as did his allies, and then only the two of them were left, Jadine and he, prowling in circles around each other, backs tense, movements cautious. Her eyes were deep pools with barbed steel at their bottom, and Thadorn was afraid not of her power, and not that he might have to kill her, but precisely because all of a sudden, a desire to strike her, kill her, rip her apart filled every muscle and vein of his body. Yes, he wanted to kill his wife, the mother of his children, and his fingers were sweaty as they gripped the sword hilt.

“Thadorn, you fool,” she sneered, “do you really think you can beat me with that?”

The steel glowed white-hot, and his immediate urge was to drop it, to let go, but he made himself close his fingers around the hilt. He felt his skin blistering and gritted his teeth, but did not let go, and in a moment, it passed – the steel cooled, and so did his fingers. They burned no longer.

They were looking at each other.

“That was but a sample of what awaits you,” said Jadine. “You can still go back, Thadorn, and stop interfering with our work. Go back, and by the time you get home, the entire land of Tilir shall be renewed. Go back, and you give yourself the chance to participate in great beginnings. Go back now – ” was it just his imagination, or did her voice become ever so slightly softer for a fraction of a moment? – “and all may yet come right.”

He did not speak. His answer was etched in his face.

“Very well,” she said silkily. “I see it will take more than this to convince you, Thadorn.”

She raised her arms, and something appeared out of thin air... a shadow, thick as dense smoke, dark as night, and within seconds it assumed the shape of a man – a man who resembled the silent giant who accompanied Jadine. The shadow-man raised his shadow-sword, and when Thadorn charged at him, there was no sound of steel on steel, but his blade stopped at mid-air, unable to cut through the smoke-black sword. Another blow of his was parred by the mighty smoke shield, and then his dark opponent moved forward, as if to strike, and Thadorn threw back his head and laughed derisively, as she taught him.

“I am a man, and a warrior of Tilir!” he shouted. “I do not fear shadows!”

And the shadow-man vanished in a puff of smoke, and he and Jadine continued to prowl, he with his sword, she with her white arms exposed and bare and vulnerable-looking. She seemed slightly paler now, and there was a glow in her cheeks, and her eyes gleamed in a way that plainly told him she is as determined to kill him as he is to kill her.

Back at the camp, Nicholas tugged at Akira’s sleeve.

“Come,” he said quietly, “we won’t do him any good by looking at him.”

“I cannot help but look,” snapped Akira.

“But there is something else we must do,” Nicholas insisted, “or have you forgotten?”

Reluctantly, the Kotsar man turned and went with him aside, to a place where several of the soldiers were standing in a circle. Some faces looked blank, others solemn, others disbelieving... but then there was the sound of hurried steps, and all heads turned in one direction. A short, portly man was advancing towards them, panting, as fast as his legs could carry him.

“Vyolen!” exclaimed Nicholas. “We thought you would be late.”

“And he bloody well almost were,” muttered Akira mostly to himself. “What good it will do I cannot tell,” he went on, “I thought it would be combat, it might get our Commander good and dead, but at least fighting is something we can all understand, but this, this, I can hear nothing and it’s driving me mad, and who will tell me for whose death I should wish, for that of my Commander, or my kinswoman’s?”

“Let us not waste any more time,” said Vyolen, offering each of his hands to Akira and Nicholas. Within moments, the circle was locked, and Nicholas felt a strange tingling in his fingertips.

“Great Spirit,” Vyolen began solemnly.

“Great Spirit,” they all repeated in unison.

“I do know I might not live past this day,” we went on.

“... past this day,” they echoed.

“I give up my dreams of the future. I give up my hopes. I give up ever seeing my loved ones and my home land again. I offer it all to you, to do with as you will, for the sake of You and all that You have set as good and right in this world.”

“Ours lives are yours,” they chanted, and no one knew whence came the sound of low, rhythmic drums.

“Help Thadorn, our Commander, in his battle against the Shadow.”

“We are prepared to lay down our lives for him,” the voices spoke as one, and because of that, it was impossible to detect whether any of them hesitated.

And then, as Nicholas knew it would, came his turn.

“I shall be the first to offer my life’s blood for Thadorn,” he said loudly and clearly. “May the blow that strikes him, strike me instead, giving his life back to him. May this chance be what keeps the Shadow at bay.”

Not letting go of the fingers of his companions, the sorcerer Vyolen lifted his arms up, and so did they all. It was an illusion, of course, but it seemed to Nicholas that the circle was spinning, that blurry images were rushing past him.

“It is done,” declared Vyolen.

“It is done,” they all echoed.

“Done, and done, and done,” he repeated, “and may it seem fair in the eyes of the Great Spirit.”

Thadorn and Jadine continued to prowl around each other, looking as though each of them would like nothing better than to get away from the other, and yet it was as though they were pulled together by some invisible but overpowering magnet. Thadorn’s sword was poised in his hand, and he looked ready to strike, but in reality he was never more confused in his life. Kill her, a powerful voice told him. Kill her and be done with it. Another voice, no less powerful, told him just as insistently, drop your sword and let her kill you. Let her kill you, and your suffering will be over, and you shall pass on to the Lands of Dawn. Perhaps when the crows are done picking at your carcass and grass grows through your bones you will finally know peace.

Perhaps that is what he would have done indeed, if he had nobody to think of but himself. But there were his people, his soldiers, his duty, his children and his home and his king, the vows he took. He could not allow himself to give up –

He stopped, for Jadine’s face was suddenly terrible to behold. All at once it became the way it was when he caught a glimpse of it while she was laboring to bring their children forth into this world – strained and pained and anguished and ecstatic all at once. She threw back her head and screamed.

A giant black serpent slithered upon the ground, and it was only possible to know it was made of smoke and darkness because it left no shadow. Deadly, unstoppable, it moved towards Thadorn, and although the Tionae leader hacked and slashed at it, it was in vain. Steel passed uselessly through smoke, and the serpent continued on its deadly way, unhindered and undamaged.

It stopped right before Thadorn and coiled and drew itself up, swaying, and Thadorn found himself looking into the foul spirit’s eyes. Blacker than black they were, empty as only a true nothingness can be, a nothingness that doesn’t exist in either of the words... and all of a sudden he realized that it’s into this black nothingness he is going to fall, and that there will be no way back.

Before he could do something, the snake bared its black fangs and, lightning-fast, struck them through wool and leather right into Thadorn’s heart... and Thadorn screamed, or at least he tried to, but his voice had drowned in the infinite blackness, and he was falling, falling, falling into the cold black world from which there could be no return.

When he woke, he knew that he was dead, and for a moment he felt nothing but gladness that it was over, that he need not do or think or feel anything, or be responsible for anyone. It was done, he had lost, and all was fading, and even the guilt felt vague... until the pain in his chest began its merciless work of bringing him back to his senses.

He placed a hand above his heart. The area next to it hurt as if someone forcefully struck it with a shard of ice, sharp and deadly as steel. Yet his heart was unmistakably beating, and the consciousness of that forced him to open his eyes, then prop himself up on his elbow, then slowly, clumsily get up on his feet.

The snake was gone, and the day, while still cloudy, was brightening, and Thadorn knew – irrevocably, without doubt – that someone had just died for him.

Jadine was lying face-down a few steps away from him, immobile, frozen, her arms sprawled in a gesture of death, her fiery red hair spread upon the ground like a blanket of bright fall leaves. Thadorn was mute, he was numb, he was done for, and yet he was alive, and all he wanted to be was dead, dead, dead.

He began walking, and each step took him more effort than the entire march south.

He stood above her, not daring to bend and touch her, not daring to confirm what he already knew.

And then Jadine inhaled, shuddered and moaned. Slowly, very slowly she turned herself around and was looking at him steadily, emptily, with those terrible eyes of hers, hateful and hard in the pale, waxen, powerless face that looked like a candle which had gone out.

“You did... you did something,” she coughed. “You are not... not as ignorant as I thought you were.”

“I thought you were dead,” he said.

“I am.” While he spoke quietly, her voice was barely more than a whisper. “Do you not see? I am dead, Thadorn. Now I want to be gone. You will help me, won’t you? Do it. Do it now.”

He knew what she meant, and he knew what had to be done, and he raised his sword again. The sun shone through the splitting clouds and glinted upon the blade that shook in his hand.

“Do it,” Jadine hissed at him, looking up, broken but still defiant. ”Do it, damn you.”

Thadorn lowered the sword and looked west. The horizon was clearing, the blackness fading. Gradually, it was true, but the deepest black had shifted to grey fog, and it was visibly dispersing.

“You will go,” he told her abruptly, before he could give himself time to regret his words. Some will curse me for a fool, aye, and some will whisper behind my back and accuse me of treason, but I will not soil my hands with blood that need not be spilt. “You will go back to your – your ilk, and you will disappear. All of you. No man, woman or child in the land of Tilir shall see you ever again.”

She looked at him as though she could not make sense of what he was saying. The disbelief and contempt etched upon her face made Thadorn’s rage boil again, and he forcefully took her by the elbow and pulled her up, knowing that he hurt her, and being glad of it.

He knew he would never touch her again.

“Did you not hear me?” he said. “Go, before I change my mind and kill you.”

“You would not dare,” Jadine snarled at him, prying her elbow out of his grip. “You are not man enough to kill your enemies.”

“Is that so?” he laughed hollowly. “You had better not try me. Next time I see you, I will kill you, and those who came with you today, and those in whom I sense so much as a whiff of your Shadow. So go, and disappear as though you have never walked upon this earth.”

Her eyes lit up with a mixture of defeat and malice. “You will never see me again, Thadorn,” she promised. “Neither you nor any who live in Tilir today, man or woman, maiden or crone or suckling babe. I do swear this – I, Jadine, who was once of the Kotsar, but now am of no clan. I belong to no one, and am no one and nothing. The Shadow is fading, and I with it.”

And with these words, she turned her back on him fearlessly and began walking away, away, away, until she stood on the brink of Everdark Forest. Then, quite suddenly, she turned around and looked at him one last time. That look lasted no longer than a second, but it made Thadorn wish he had killed her after all.

And when she looked away and faded among the trees and was finally gone forever, Thadorn dropped upon his knees, and let his brow touch the cold hard ground, and stayed like that for a long time, because he knew he was alone, truly and completely alone, and he knew that the Shadow which lifted from the west had settled in his soul instead.

Then he walked – no, staggered back. He was dragging his feet, as if he had half-forgotten what it is to walk. The Shadow was overpowering him, clouding his vision, standing across his path, and although the camp was only a short distance away, it might have taken him weeks to reach – and then, as if through a fog, he saw people rushing in his direction, calling his name. Someone took his right arm, another took the left, and so Thadorn walked on and on, until a soft voice gently urged him to sit and he found himself in his own tent, and a cup of wine was pressed into his hand, and he must have taken a sip because he felt the liquid go down his throat, but no taste – it seemed he had forgotten how to taste, too.

“Thadorn?” the gentle, cautious voice didn’t fit the blurry vision of Akira Kotsar’s face before his eyes, but then the sorcerer Vyolen stepped from behind Akira’s back, and Thadorn blinked several times, which seemed to help his eyes return into focus. “How are you feeling?”

“I... I am well,” he said numbly. My wife, she was my wife. I could have killed her. I should have killed her. Or perhaps I should have taken both her hands in mine and begged her to stay. “What happened? I did not understand – ”

“You did well, son,” said Vyolen, his voice full of satisfaction. “And you,” he added, looking a little to the side, and only then did Thadorn notice Nicholas, who was sitting a little apart from the others. He looked pale, and his cup of wine was shaking slightly in his fingers. He put it down.

“I do not understand,” said Thadorn. “What happened? I didn’t do anything, and all of a sudden – ”

“Did you kill her?” Akira demanded, speaking across him.

“The spell was complicated,” Vyolen went on serenely, ignoring the interrumption. “To put it in a few words, we asked the Great Spirit’s favor on your behalf, and one of us agreed to tie his life to yours, so that he would die in your stead if it came to that.”

Thadorn stared at him in horror, a terrible and unspoken question on his tongue.

“You never told me – ”

“Have no fear. It is Nicholas here,” said the sorcerer, gesturing towards the man-from-the-world-beyond, “and as you can see, he isn’t dead.”

“There was a moment when I felt I was dying, though,” mumbled Nicholas. “I almost... almost returned to my own world.”

“And if you had returned, you would have been dead,” Vyolen explained matter-of-factly. “For a short while, you hovered between the gates, between this world and the world you came from... and this suspended state was what left both you and Thadorn alive, for the Shadow cannot cross borders between worlds.”

All of it was so complicated that it made Thadorn’s head ache. He attempted to take another sip of wine, but it nauseated him. He turned towards Nicholas. “Thank you,” he said. Nicholas waved his hand vaguely in acknowledgment.

“Did you kill her?” Akira asked again. Thadorn looked at him, trying to figure out which answer he wants to hear.

“The Servants of the Shadow will never trouble us again,” he said. “They have left Tilir.”

Akira stared at him with incredulous indigation. “Do you mean to say you let her go?”

“Were you so very anxious to see her dead?” Thadorn asked drily.

Akira shook his head as if he couldn’t believe Thadorn’s stupidity. “She will be back,” he declared, “they all will. And you will be the one to answer for that.”

“Let it be so, then,” said Thadorn, who was feeling too exhausted to be truly angry, yet a tiny prickle of annoyance against Akira was beginning to bubble up again.

“I do not think they will be back,” said Vyolen peacefully. “Not in this generation, at least, and perhaps not in the next one either. Do you not see, Akira? The Shadow is gone, the horizon clear once more. You did it all just right,” he told Thadorn kindly, and horribly, absurdly, Thadorn felt he could hardly breathe. With difficulty, he drew short, ragged breaths, and wished for nothing more than to be left alone.

Akira decided to swallow his objections and was now talking about going home, about stopping at South Watch on the way, about sending an urgent message to the capital, to let the Council know about the end of their campaign... but Thadorn did not listen. He could not, not at the moment. Vyolen looked at him understandingly but did not say a thing, and for that he was grateful. He was even more grateful when the three other men walked out of his tent, leaving him alone once more.

He lay down upon his sleeping furs. Exhausted as he was, sleep would not come. Not long ago, Jadine sat there and talked to him, and there was still hope. Now he had done what he was meant to do, and he felt spent, wasted, dry and barren like the desert lands they marched through. And soon they would all leave, but he cannot do that. I might sit on my horse and ride to the capital and bow before the king and make my report and hear words of praise, but a part of me will always stay here, in this tent in the dreary wilderness, next to the Shadow.

But then he thought of his children. Quick, clever Kor with his antics, beautiful Datrine who could sing so well, and Tari, who cried when he left, and refused to take her pudgy little arms off his neck until the very last moment. Soon, I will see them again, he told himself. I will have my children, the Sea Guard, the clan leadership. I will have a decent life, a quiet life, a life in which nothing will ever happen again.

He didn’t really believe that, but he still had to say it, to think it, to convince himself that all would be well very soon. He had to, because he had to sleep, had to make sleep come to him. He tried to picture his children’s faces in his mind, and saw them with surprising clarity... but he found that he could not look at Datrine, because it was too painful, and Kor’s red hair was just like hers. That left only Tari, and on the border between waking and dreaming, he looked into her eyes and reached out to her. Out of a hazy cloud her soft little hand reached back and grabbed his callused fingers, and Thadorn slept.

Through the haze of slumber, he dimly heard two voices talking just outside the tent.

“What would have happened if he had killed Jadine?” Nicholas asked quietly.

“My dear man,” Vyolen said in his mild and pleasant manner, “no one can ever know what might have been.”

“But what do you think..?”

“I am hard pressed to tell. Jadine’s death might have changed nothing... or everything. I believe I can say with fair certainty, however, that it is better for Thadorn not to have killed her.”

“I hate to say it,” Nicholas began cautiously, “but Akira is right. They might be back.”

“They might, but I do not believe they will. Not for a long time.”

“What do you mean by a long time?”

“Enough for all who live in Tilir today to pass away from old age, even a suckling babe who now rests in his mother’s arms.”

There was a moment’s silence.

“So is that it, then? Is my purpose here done? Can I go home now?”

Another silence.

“It does not work this way, precisely,” said Vyolen.

Nicholas’s voice sounded mutinous when he spoke next. “How does it work, then?”

“You need to wait for the gates to open. It will happen, I sense it, I know it, but I don’t know exactly when.”

“In a long time?” Nicholas asked ironically.

“That,” said Vyolen, “is something only you can define for yourself.”

“Please do not speak in riddles. After all that happened, I still know little and less about how I came here, and why, and when I will be able to leave.”

“If I speak in riddles, my dear Nicholas, it is because all of this is a riddle for me just as much as it is for you.”

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