Paths of the Shadow

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The Empty Boat

“It is time,” said Rogell, and Thadorn nodded. Together, they easily carried the coffin at the beginning of the procession. Almost the entire clan of Tionae followed in their wake. Many of them held a grudge for Jadine, but there were none who failed to pay their respects to Thadorn. Only the very old and very young and those who looked after them remained behind, such as Lya and the children.

The coffin was almost empty, but not quite. There was no body to bury, of course, so instead they placed inside it some of the things Jadine was fond of: several of her dresses, flowers from her garden, some scrolls and books written in the ancient language Thadorn did not know and did not wish to decipher. There were some of her own writings, too, and although he knew they might help him understand, he no longer wanted to. He didn’t want to reconcile himself to what she did, or to search for motives, reasons, justifications. Right now, he simply wanted her gone.

They walked past places where Jadine had walked, past places that she loved. Here I used to wander, dreaming of her. Here we were joined as man and wife, for now and all time.

And wherever they went, people joined the silent wake. Some of them from the Kamtesir, less of the Kotsar, for it were known that Rohir and Hinassi still, despite everything, unspokenly cherish the hope that their daughter lives.

They went out of the town gates and slowly but steadily made their progress toward the sea. The day was almost windless, the waves all but gone, but it did not signify much. The current is always there. It will carry her away, forever. He needed to believe it would be forever. He needed to believe there would be no more pain.

Gently, as if not to disturb something that had fallen asleep, Thadorn and Rogell lowered the coffin into the small fragile boat, which was tethered like a wild deer prone to run away.

The two friends exchanged glances, and Rogell nodded encouragingly. Thadorn lifted his head up high, looking first at the assembled silent crowd, then at the calm grey sea. He feared his voice would fail him, but when he spoke, the words sounded clear and strong.

“Jadine, daughter of the Kotsar,” he said, “once upon a time, our souls were joined together, to be done apart by nothing but death. I did not know how short a time we would have, nor how bitter the parting would be, but despite everything that had happened, you lived and died as my wife, and as such you will leave for the Lands of Dawn.”

There was a brief, low murmur that died almost instantly when Thadorn spoke again.

“No one knows for sure where your body is, but it matters little, for what is a body other than an empty shell, once the soul has left it? Your soul departs today, from the place that was your home... from the place you should never have left.”

He bent and untied the rope that held the boat in place. He hoped no one would notice that his hands were shaking.

“You leave now,” he said, gazing in the direction of the boat that was being swept away by the current. “I release you, and set your soul free, and hope that the Eternal Dawn wraps you in peace you never had in the lands of mortal men.”

Then he turned around and faced all those who were looking at him, some sympathetically, some mutinously. He expected someone to say something, to comfort or challenge him, but no one did. Several men of his clan approached him and shook his hand in awkward silence, but only a few managed to squeeze out a word or two. It appeared that no one knew what ought to be said.

He began to walk along the beach, his head bowed, no longer looking at the boat that was gliding further and further away. Some minutes had passed before he realized he was not alone. He turned around. Rogell was following him, albeit from a respectful distance. He stood and waited, and let his friend come to him.

“It is over now,” he said, as much to himself as to Rogell. Rogell nodded. Thadorn feared questions. Do you truly believe she is dead? He might ask. Or do you only wish it to be so, to be certain that you will never see her again, that your fragile peace will not be disturbed?

I do not care, Thadorn might have answered. I do not care whether her body is broken and rotting somewhere, or whether she is still alive in some distant place across the borders of Tilir. For me, she died today, and I never wish to know anything that says otherwise.

But Rogell asked something different. “Did you forgive her?”

Now it was Thadorn’s turn to look mutinous. “What do you think?”

“I think you did not. I also think you should. Not for her sake, but for your own, and for that of your children. She is dead, Thadorn, I feel it in my bones – but she will never be truly gone unless you let her go.”

Thadorn weighed this for a moment and nodded. “You are right,” he told his friend. He was silent for another second and said, “I never want her name to be spoken in my presence again.”

“Very well,” said Rogell, and put a hand on his shoulder. Together, they continued walking. They now talked of other matters – their families, Sea Guard duties, Rogell and Lya’s departure, which was due to take place in a couple of days. Thadorn spoke, he asked questions and gave answers, offered advice and made promises, but only a part of him was there.

The other part was at sea, drifting towards the Lands of Dawn – or the Lands of Shadow – together with Jadine.

And all too soon, a ship was bobbing upon the waves, impatient to be gone from the harbor of Rhasket-Tharsanae. The usual commotion was taking place: parcels and chests raised on board, tearful goodbyes exchanged, orders shouted. But the sights and sounds of it all were almost lost on Thadorn. He saw nothing but the people he came to see off into the unknown.

Rogell was trying hard to conceal his excitement as they shook hands; he clearly couldn’t wait to be on his way, and Thadorn fought hard to bring down a tide of bitterness that threatened to sweep over him. He is perfectly within his right, he said to himself reasonably. Our lives began together and had gone on together for a good long time, but no one ever promised it would always be so. He couldn’t be selfish and petty. Rogell did not deserve this.

“Look after Lya and Jo,” he told his cousin, “and whatever happens, no matter how long you are gone, remember that you are loved and awaited here, Rogell.”

They embraced. Next to her husband’s excitement, Lya’s face was obviously careworn. She was holding Jorrel’s hand, but absent-mindedly, as if she had almost forgotten what they all were doing there. She looked at Thadorn with a mixture of understanding, anxious concern and... what else was it? He wouldn’t dare to guess even if he could, but this last warm pressure of her hand was insistent like never before.

“Take care of the children,” was all she told him, quietly, and Thadorn nodded.

And then they were climbing up on the deck and he remained below, and the sails were filled with wind, and they were waving to him and he was waving back, until their figures were swallowed in the distance, until the ship itself became nothing but a small black spot on the horizon, and the black spot was gone, lost in the blue of the sea and sky.

His cousin – no, his brother, the man he trusted more than anyone else in the world, his friend and companion, the one who knew him perhaps better than he knew himself, the one who shared every step of his life – was gone, and an ominous, inexplicable but unceasing voice kept telling Thadorn that he would never see Rogell again.

He remained alone.

Then he shook his head and looked around him. No, he was not alone. Here were his children, and they needed him – now more than ever, because they had no one else left.

At his feet, Datrine was sitting with her face in her hands, sobbing her heart out. Until the very last, she kept hoping that a miracle would happen and Lya and Jorrel, at least, would stay. Thadorn had to confess that deep in his heart, he had hoped as well. The children need Lya, he thought. They need a mother. But he knew, of course, that it was not to be. Lya would follow her husband wherever he went, even if she herself never wished to stir from her home. Her loyalty and devotion were precisely what made them all need her so much.

But now all his children had was him – and as inadequate as he felt, he would have to step up and make the best he could of what they had.

Slowly, carefully, he approached Datrine and placed a hand on her shoulder.

“They will be back,” he said quietly. “A few months, a year maybe, and you will be playing with Jorrel again, and Lya will be making us fig jam.”

Datrine lifted her tear-glazed face up from her hands and gave him a long, calculating stare that was anything but childlike. “You are lying,” she hurled at him.

Then, as if afraid of her father’s reaction, she scrambled up on her feet, turned her back on him, and began marching in the direction of the town. Thadorn picked Tari up and held her in one arm, and offered his other hand to Korian - and together they went after Datrine, whose head was held stubbornly high in the air, as if she was ashamed of her weakness and her tears.

Everything was in meticulous order in their home, and the last meal Lya had prepared for them was set on the table. As they sat down to their supper, Thadorn spent a few minutes with his head bowed, as if waiting for someone. Then he berated himself, shook his head almost imperceptibly, and began to eat. In the past months he ate almost mechanically, allowing himself to pass meal times in broody silence, but now this was no longer possible, as Korian and Datrine kept bickering, and Tari knocked down the milk jug and began to bawl.

Clumsily, with unskilled hands, Thadorn stripped Tari’s drenched frock and carried her up the stairs. For the first time, he supervised the children’s baths and put them to bed. Tari, exhausted, fell asleep almost at once, and Datrine turned her face to the wall and pretended to be sleeping; Thadorn thought it best not to bother her. Korian, however, kept holding on to his father’s hand. His lids were heavy, but he pried them open by sheer force of will and stared into his father’s eyes.

“What time is it?” he asked in a whisper.

“It is late,” Thadorn told him. “You are tired. Go to sleep, son.”

Korian looked away for a moment, then back at him. “Will you be here tomorrow when we get up?” he asked anxiously, and Thadorn felt something inside him tighten.

“Yes,” he promised, stroking the boy’s hair. “I will be here tomorrow. I will be here for as long as I live.”

Soon after that, the sleepy breathing of the three children filled the room, and Thadorn tiptoed out.

For a long time he sat at the verandah, which was weakly illuminated by the light of a single oil lamp.

His grief was natural, he realized, but to hold on to it would be selfish. He could not evict the pain, but he would have to shut it in a dark corner of his mind, to force his thoughts away from his losses. He was a man, a father, a soldier, a clan leader. He had duties which could not be compromised, and he would fulfill them.

Now, and tomorrow, and until his last day.

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