Paths of the Shadow

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No Regrets

Thadorn sat with his head bowed. He wanted to cross his arms and put his head over them, and close his eyes and sleep, but he knew he could not do that. He had to keep going. He had to do this last thing that had to be done.

He lifted his eyes from the letter to Kelena’s face.

“Is it certain that it was her?” he asked.

His good-sister’s eyes filled with tears. “Nothing is certain, Thadorn,” she whispered, placing her hand over his. “I only know what this letter says - that a South Watch patrol witnessed a red-haired woman throwing herself off a cliff.”

“Did Dankar tell you whether they attempted to search for...” he intended to say the body, but couldn’t bring himself to do that.

“Yes, they did,” Kelena said readily, “but they soon gave up. That chasm is inaccessible.”

It is, he thought. The chasm that separated me from her.

“Do you believe it was her?” Kelena asked tremulously, after a moment’s silence.

No, he was about to say. Anyone who says it was Jadine did not know her. Jadine would never have taken her own life. Jadine would never have admitted defeat, not until her last breath. And yet he needed to believe that it was her. He needed to believe that it was finally over.

“Yes,” he said, and Kelena closed her eyes for a moment, opened them again, and nodded gently.

“What will you do now?” she asked him.

“I will bury her,” he told her.

“But,” she said gently, “they didn’t find her - ”

“I know,” he nodded. “It matters not. I can still give her a proper funeral. I will bury my wife, and I will assume again my duties at the Sea Guard, and I will try to be a good father to my children. And if the Spirit is merciful, I will never leave Rhasket-Tharsanae again - for as long as I shall live.”

Wet ribbons shone on Kelena’s cheeks where her tears had rolled down. “If you wish me to delay our journey, say it, and I will tell Dankar to postpone so that we are able to go back with you to Rhasket.”

He shook his head. “There is no need to. Your passage is already booked, and I know you have no great desire to return to Rhasket so soon after... after Kohir,” he finished quietly.

She looked at him with sadness and gratitude, and fresh tears welled up in her eyes. He said no more. In his heart he knew that she had to go, for a long time, perhaps forever, and he could only hope time and distance would heal her. She will be fine, he attempted to tell himself. She will be with her husband and son. And yet he dreaded all the goodbyes. First Kelena, and then Rogell and Lya, and who knows if and when we meet again. In a way he envied them, their ability to get away from the pain, to break off the familiar, to look forward to something new. Yet he also knew himself well enough to realize he could never do that. His roots were too deep and strong, binding him firmly to his land, his home, his clan. He could never leave the places that had brought him so much joy and pain. Like a ghost of his former self, he was forever doomed to wander the spots where he once thought he could be happy.

It was then that Kelena did something unexpected. She dried her eyes and placed a hand on his cheek, and looked at him tenderly.

“Thadorn,” she said, “you must marry again.”

He was taken too much off his guard to feel indignation. “You cannot talk about that right now,” he told her.

“I can,” she said. “It might well be the last time you and I talk like this, in peace, before our ship sails away. And so I am taking my chance to tell you that you must marry, Thadorn. I know you will not be able to think of it soon, and perhaps not for a while, but one day or another you must see that it is best for everyone - you and the children. Promise me that day will come.”

He looked into her eyes and, knowing that he is lying, said “I promise.”

She nodded, satisfied, and her fingers brushed gently against his cheek.

“I must go now,” she told him. “I have to supervise the packing, or it will never be done in time. Would you like to join me? Dankar will be glad to see you, I know.”

“No,” Thadorn attempted to speak as courteously as possible. “I thank you, but there is... something I must do.”

There was one more goodbye to be said.

He walked with Nicholas beyond the city walls, through a shady grove and up a hill where the mysterious Spring of Spring took its source. They walked in silence, shoulder to shoulder, and Thadorn felt not that they are friends, but that they could have been friends in another life. A life in which I wouldn’t send my own wife into exile. A life in which I wouldn’t have to wonder whether she is alive or dead.

“The Learned Men have crafted a sphere of Stormglass for me,” Nicholas told him. “It is fascinating, truly. I am only sorry that once is works, I will be sent home and won’t have further opportunity to explore its properties.”

“You still hope it will work, though, do you not?” Thadorn asked him. The man from the-world-beyond nodded. “I wish I could have gone with you,” Thadorn said abruptly. Nicholas looked at him in surprise.

“You do not strike me as a man who would ever willingly leave his homeland.”

“You are right. But I...” he shook his head. “Sometimes I let my fancy wonder. Not the best of habits, true, but there you go.” He stopped, facing Nicholas, and extended a hand. “You have been a faithful comrade,” he said brusquely. “I thank you for everything.”

They didn’t break the handshake for a long time. “I will never come back to Tilir,” said Nicholas with a tinge of sadness, “no one comes more than once, as far as I know. But my son or grandson might come after me. I do not know whether I will live to see that, but I hope I do. It would be good to hear tidings of you. All of you. And,” he paused for a moment, “when you go back to your home town, thank Rogell and Lya for me. Tell them I did not know the goodbye we said was final, or I would have taken more pains to express my gratitude. You are fortunate to have friends such as them.”

“They are leaving,” said Thadorn, averting his face so that his distress would not be too obvious.

“Not for another world, though, are they?” Nicholas said softly.

“No,” said Thadorn. But it is as if they were. An evil little voice he tried in vain to silence told him that Rogell is leaving to get away from him, to get from underneath his shadow - a shadow the existence of which Thadorn vehemently denied, but which existed nevertheless, whether he liked to admit it or not.

“Look,” said Nicholas, pulling something out of his robes. It was a beautiful hunting knife with silver inlay, its handle made of ebony encrusted with amber and onyx.

“That is a fine knife,” Thadorn said appreciatively.

“One of the gifts of King Alvadon,” explained Nicholas. “Your king has been most generous, but I can hardly imagine I will ever need this. I want you to have it.”

“No,” Thadorn shook his head. “No, one does not just pass a kingly gift on to someone else. Even if you never use it, keep it. For the sake of remembering.”

“I have more keepsakes than I will be able to carry,” Nicholas assured him. “Brooches and rings and scrolls and...” but Thadorn kept on shaking his head, adamant.

“It holds too much value,” he said. “Look at the handle, see how masterly it was carved? And no one makes knives like that anymore. This is from before the Union, I can tell.”

“Well, in that case, I will give you the bow,” relented Nicholas. “I was given a freakishly big blackwood bow, and what shall I ever do with it?”

“I am not a bowman,” protested Thadorn.

“Perhaps not, but your son might be.”

Thadorn was startled at the thought. To tell it true, he still wondered as if in a limbo, at times thinking of nothing but his children, at timse almost forgetting that he had a son and two daughters. But in ten years or so, Korian might just hold a bow and hunt.

“Thank you,” he conceded as graciously as he could.

...When Kelena finally looked back, the land of Tilir was no more than a faint line on the horizon. Through mist and tears, it appeared blurry. She swept the tears away with the back of her hand, but there was no halting the wind, no slowing the ship. They were at sea, the water sparkling blue ahead and behind and on all sides, and the sky blue likewise, dotted here and there with oddly shaped clouds that threw shadows upon the sparkling waves.

“I heard it is beautiful in Sambeara,” Dankar told her, looking at their son. When they first boarded the ship, little Emmet refused to stand on his own unless he was holding his mother’s hand, or his father’s, but now he got used to the swaying of the deck beneath his feet, and was keen to explore the ship, curious and excited at the novelty. “Fish with scales in all the colors of the rainbow jump out of the water there, I was told,” her husband went on, “and hover above the water like butteflies.”

Kelena smiled, weakly but distinctly. “Emmet will like that.”

“So will you, I hope,” Dankar said seriously, studying her face. “But if you are disappointed in our first destination, there are other ports and other ships. We can go wherever you like, you only need to say the words.”

Kelena looked at him and saw the solicitous concern his face lately assumed every time they talked. Feeling a sudden need to reassure him, she reached out and took his hand.

“Thank you,” she said simply.

She was looking at the sea. Its vastness, its infinity comforted her. She did not feel happy or excited, exactly - she couldn’t, not yet, anyway - but something inside her was growing, growing, expanding, insistently telling her that everything would be fine. In the end - though where is the end, I do not know.

It was a relief to leave everything behind. The memories, the concerns of her clan, the intrigues of Aldon-Sur. Her parents didn’t need her, for all their hopes and ambitions were now pinned on Nog. Her remaining brother was a man grown, with a life of his own. The only one on whose behalf she felt anxious was Thadorn, and she kept telling herself he would recover. He will be well, she said to herself. He is a strong man, he is unbroken. She believed it because she wanted to, and because she needed to. She needed peace of mind.

A sudden wave and a tilt of the ship made Emm momentarily lose his balance and fall. He scraped a knee and was now clutching it, bawling at the top of his lungs. They hurried to comfort the child, and when Kelena picked him up in her arms, his touch soothed her just as her presence soothed him.

“Wind is picking up,” Dankar said. “It might become a little stormy soon, I was told. Nothing to fear, but it would be good for the two of you to go down to the cabin and rest a while.”

And as they were descending down the stairs, Kelena blessedly, wondrously realized that she has no regrets.

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