Paths of the Shadow

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When Thadorn’s troops walked through the gates of Rhasket-Tharsanae once more, a large crowd assembled to meet them, and at first, the sight of so many familiar faces welcoming him, shouting out his name as if he were a hero, was overwhelming. He lifted his arm in a salute and tried to keep his shoulders and back straight, to answer the cheers and shouts as was proper, but he just didn’t have it in him. He wanted to go home, and see his children, and rest.

And then he saw them, and knew they saw him. There was his good-sister, Kelena, holding her little boy by the hand - and next to her Rogell and Lya; Lya, like a mother hen, was surrounded by children - her own son, Jorrel, and Korian and Datrine. Tari was in Lya’s arms, squirming around to be able to see the interesting procession better.

Thadorn jumped off his horse and gave the reins over to someone whose face he didn’t quite make out, in such a hurry he was. He began striding towards the people who were now the dearest to him in the whole wide world, and they began moving in his direction him as well, and then his hand was clasped in Rogell’s, and Kelena’s wet cheek was pressed against his, and Tari was handed to him by Lya, who smiled through her tears. Korian and Datrine were clinging to him, jumping up and down, and shouting, “Father! Father!”

He passed Tari back to Lya, mussed Korian’s hair, lifted Datrine up in his arms. The little girl looked solemnly into his face and caressed his cheek, running her fingers along the creases and lines that appeared, it seemed, all of a sudden when he chanced to stare into the looking-glass.

“What about Mother?” she asked unexpectedly. “Did you bring her home this time?”

Thadorn felt as if the day was darkening around him once more, and he put his daughter down upon the ground. “No,” he said.

Datrine chewed on her lip, clearly wondering whether she dare to ask more. “Will she ever be back?” she asked eventually, hopeful and fearful, but Thadorn’s mercy had run out.

“No,” he said, not bothering to soften his voice.

“Now, child,” Lya said sternly to Datrine. “Your father is tired. Let us all go home and have dinner, and then you will leave your father at peace and let him rest. He needs that.”

And so they did. They all went together, and Thadorn was thankful to the people around him for breathing life into his home when he could do that no longer, to the children for playing and laughing and capering around like little monkeys, oblivious to his guilt and grief.

There was thick, hearty fish stew and fresh bread with melting butter on it, and a jug of hot ale and plum cakes, and he ate and drank and talked and answered questions, but when evening came and the sky darkened outside the windows, and Lya ushered the children out of the room, and Rogell went on duty, he felt relieved as well. It was strange; he craved the quiet, but he didn’t wish to be completely alone, either - and when Kelena remained sitting at the empty table across him, her eyes sad and gentle, he realized he didn’t want her to go. Despite all that had happened, and perhaps because of it, she was like a sister to him. He only wished she wouldn’t begin asking him about Jadine, for he did not think he could bear it.

“How do you feel, Thadorn?” she asked him, and he heard the sincere concern in her voice.

“I am well,” he told her. She shook her head in disbelief.

“No, you are not. I can see that.”

“Neither are you,” he said, observing her carefully, suddenly seeing her pallor, the dark shadows under her eyes, the defeated, wounded look. She smiled at him wanly.

“I lost a brother, a sister...” she stopped, as if recalling something, “a hope I cherished,” she concluded. “No, of course I am not well. But I will be. I have my son, who needs me. And your children need you.”

“I know,” Thadorn said gravely. They need me, and all that I cannot give them. Thank the Spirit for Rogell and Lya.

“You will need to go to Aldon-Sur soon.”

“I know that as well,” he paused. The royal message was already waiting for them as they passed through Fort Sand. Great honors awaited them, festivities and ceremonies and congratulations, and although his heart’s dearest wish would have been to remain at home, at peace, he knew he could not refuse. “Will you go with me?” he asked Kelena. She reached out and took his hand in hers and pressed it warmly.

“I was only waiting for your return to make my way back to the capital,” she told him, and for a few moments the two of them sat like this, holding hands, each taking solace in the other’s presence. But Thadorn felt she was expecting something more, she waited for him to speak, to tell of what he wished with all his heart to forget - and although he could have evaded an open question, he could not resist her silent plea.

“Jadine lives,” he told her, “but neither you, nor I, nor anyone will ever see her again.”

Kelena let out a deep, shuddering breath. “You don’t have to speak of it, Thadorn. I know what it must have been like - ”

“I had hoped,” he murmured, his head bowed. “I told myself I did not, I tried to harden my heart, but deep inside I had always hoped.”

“Say no more,” whispered Kelena, holding his hand between both of hers.

But he looked up in sudden resolution. “You are her sister. You have the right to know, and I want you to know.”

They sat at the table for a long time, until the candles burned low and sputtered and went out, and only the soft steady little light of the oil lamp remained. And when Lya came back to announce that all the children fell asleep in a single tired heap and to suggest that Kelena and Emmet had better stay for the night, she saw Thadorn and Kelena crying in each other’s arms, and held her breath and her words. Softly, she closed the door behind her and walked away.

Later that night, after the women have gone to sleep as well, Thadorn and Rogell stepped out of the house and walked down the streets where, despite the lateness of the hour, muffled sounds of celebration could be heard. Now and then a late passerby approached them, smiling broadly, and shook Thadorn’s hand. Thadorn tried to accept this attention in good spirit, but he wished he could have become invisible.

Finally they reached the shore, where the sea stretched out before them, black and glittering, reflecting the bright moon and the thousand stars strewn across the cold, cloudless sky. The waves rushed forward, then receded, rhythmically - a soothing sound that was mournful to Thadorn’s ears that night, reminding him of all that had happened, all he had done, all he had lost. He was thankful for the silent understanding that existed between him and his friend, the knowledge that he would not be tormented with questions he could not face. Rogell did not speak about his march south, nor about Jadine. Instead, he asked:

“Will you return to the Sea Guard now?”

Thadorn thought of that for a moment. “Yes,” he said, “I will have to travel to Aldon-Sur first, as I told you, but as soon as I am back I will resume my duties.”

“Good,” said Rogell. For some reason, he sounded hesitant. “Good,” he repeated, “because I... I will be going on a journey, Thadorn.”

Thadorn looked at his friend and kinsman in surprise. Rogell had never been outside the province. “Where did you plan on going?” he asked.

“I have a distant cousin, not of our clan, who started a trade of spices in Kanterra. He takes his cloves and saffron to Strafked Islands sometimes, and at other times he goes further north, to the Letarian coast and the entire continent of Syvidia. There he loads up good wool and wax, amber and copper, and takes that back to Kanterra. He has written to me several times before, telling me of how good his trade is going, and how glad he would be if I joined him, at least for a while.”

“Oh,” Thadorn did not know what to say. “But only going there and back would take months. Lya is a strong woman, I know, but would she be willing to stay on her own with Jo for so long?”

“No, to be sure,” Rogell said quickly, without hesitating, as if that was something he had thought over a long time ago. “Lya and Jo will come with me. That is already settled. And... it will probably take more than a few months, Thadorn,” he ended cautiously.

Thadorn looked at him, still not understanding. “How long will you be gone, then?” he asked Rogell.

“I do not know,” his friend told him.

Only then did it begin to sink in. “Do you mean to tell me,” Thadorn said, “that you are planning to quit the Sea Guard and leave Tilir for the sake of shuttling spices between Kanterra and Letaria?”

Rogell looked half embarrassed, half defiant, and a little sad. “Look, Thadorn,” he said, “in my vanity I demanded that you give me the command of the Sea Guard - ”

“You were not vain - ”

“I was. I was vain and foolish, and we both know it. I might be named Commander, but the Sea Guard could not truly belong to anyone but you. And... for the first time in my life, I want to try something new. Something I would do on my own,” he added, sounding almost ashamed of himself, but Thadorn clasped his shoulder reassuringly.

“There is nothing wrong with that,” he said. “Nothing wrong,” he repeated. “Only... I do not know what I shall do without you,” he added, feeling lost. Throughout his entire life Rogell had been near, supportive and faithful, and ever since Jadine left he counted on Lya’s help with the children... this is why Rogell wants to leave, he thought. He does not want Lya’s attention to be divided between their family and mine, especially since he knows... but then he stopped himself. He must not think that, nor will he. He made an effort to smile at Rogell.

“You are Commander once again,” Rogell told him, “there could be no other.”

“I wish your good fortune,” Thadorn said, “in whatever ventures you undertake. But... you will remain until I return from the capital, won’t you?”

“Wouldn’t think of leaving before that,” Rogell assured him. “Lya wants to make sure all is well before we take sail, and you know how she dotes on the children... we will go after you are back home and settled, and return when Jorrel is a man, to marry him to Datrine.”

This was meant as a friendly joke, but Thadorn didn’t look amused. “They are only children,” he said. “We cannot plan their lives for them. Look how much damage this custom had already done.”

“Oh, I did not mean to broach the subject of solemn engagement,” Rogell said lightly. “Only Jo adores your little girl, you know. When I finally succeeded in explaining to him that we will be going without Datrine, he cried himself to sleep.”

Thadorn nodded silently. “Take care of Lya and Jo,” he told Rogell after a pause. “And... remember where your home is, Rogell.”

“Should anything go wrong,” Rogell said, “I will send Lya and Jo back, of course. You will look after them, won’t you?”

“You needn’t even ask,” Thadorn said firmly, and they clasped hands briefly before turning back. Thadorn sensed that Rogell is already immersed in thoughts of his journey, and he felt more alone than ever. With Rogell and Lya gone, it will be just me and the children, and may the Great Spirit help me then. But he squared his shoulders and kept on walking. This cannot be any harder than what he had already faced. And he will do what he must, what is right, what is expected of him. As always.

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