Paths of the Shadow

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The Contest

And so they walked slowly, Thadorn and Rogell flanking Lya on both sides. At times they stopped to greet someone and exchange a few words, or to watch a juggler, or to listen to a singer improvising a new song about the beach of Rhasket, and toss him a few coppers. They walked through the fabric rows with Lya, then toured along the fruit stands and bought some juicy plums and grapes to refresh themselves. And all the while, from time to time Thadorn's glance wandered astray, above the crowd – for he was exceptionally tall – as if he was looking for something, but didn't want it to be noticed. And every time he didn't find it, the crease between his eyebrows deepened. He didn't notice it was mirrored on Lya's face as well.

Finally, after they went around the place thrice and he was disappointed in his search, he thought he might as well leave Rogell alone with Lya and take a break from the suffocating crowd, which made the heat of the day near unbearable. When he made his excuses, the look on Rogell's face was part excitement, part fear.

"Come back soon, won't you?" his friend called after him. He waved and nodded and walked off, and didn't stop until he reached a small cliff a little way ahead. The merriment of the fair sounded muffled here, and the waves were making a soothing sound as they licked the wet sand. Thadorn stood there for a while, his lungs expanding with fresh salty air, deep in contemplation.

But then, although the soft sand swallowed any footsteps, he felt that he is no longer alone. Something compelled him to turn around, and once he had, he stood rooted to the spot.

A woman stood in front of him, her hair a wave of fire, her eyes the color of the sea on that impossibly vivid border between blue and green on a sunny day. A few summer freckles spattered the delicate skin of her face, enhancing its fine paleness against the colorful silky wisps she was wearing. Her lips, although soft and full and made for kissing, were now pressed together.

"What are you doing here?" she demanded, as if the place belonged to her. Jadine Kotsar always acted as if any place belonged to her. Unknowingly, she chose just the right way to embolden Thadorn, who never acted quite as composed as when he was attacked.

"What am I doing here?" he replied. "Why, the same thing as you, it appears. Taking a break from the noise and mess, and preparing for the midday games. You will enter as well, will you not? Into the shooting competition at least."

"Why do you think I would?" demanded Jadine with narrowed eyes.

"You always do," he said simply, and in the vast stillness around them, his heart began to hammer. Jadine's look betrayed the shadow of surprise.

"I did every year," she said, "but this time I did not enter my name. I did not have time enough to prepare. I was… busy with other things," she concluded with the air of someone who almost said too much. Thadorn nodded.

"You are going to the capital soon, I have heard," he said. He wondered where the sudden ease of his words had come from. He had known Jadine since the day she was born, of course – it could hardly have been otherwise between three ancient clans in so small a town – but this was the first time he had actually talked to her without anyone else present. "You are looking forward to that, I daresay."

"Looking forward," Jadine repeated, "yes, you could say so."

"Aldon-Sur will soon hold many attractions. The arrival of the royal bride, the great tourney… it will be a splendid sight, people say."

"All that is a matter of fascination and awe for my little sister, Kelena," said Jadine with the faintest hint of disdain. "As for me, though… well, those things will be amusing, no doubt. But there are other attractions in the capital as well," she stopped, hesitating, as if wondering how much she should say in his presence. "Aldon-Sur is a place of learning," she said, "it is also the source of Stormstone, the magical substance that can, as the learned ones say, be fashioned into gates between our world and The-World-Beyond. And there is other knowledge too, more secret perhaps… but you do not believe it, I can see that," she snapped suddenly, and was silent. Thadorn sensed she had half a mind to turn around and walk away, and hastened to speak.

"It's not that I don't believe that," he said, "I just feel we have more than enough work to be done in our own world."

"I would have loved to meet someone from The-World-Beyond, though," Jadine said staunchly. "Wouldn't you?"

"I don't know," Thadorn admitted, lowering his voice one notch. "Everyone I love is right here."

There was a tinkle of bells, and Jadine turned her head abruptly. But it was only a flock of goats, hastening ahead of the old goatherd – a grey-haired stooped man who belonged to no clan. No one knew exactly who he was, or why and when he came to Rhasket-Tharsanae. He lived in a small seaside cave just off the beach, and came into town once a week to sell his milk and cheeses.

"See?" said Thadorn, gesturing towards the goatherd, who passed by at some distance from them. "There's a mystery for you, if you like one. Who is this man? Where did he come from? Does he have no family? So long he has been here, since before you or I were born, and yet what do we know of him? Nothing. So why go far in search of the unknown?"

Jadine made a mocking sound. "This man's name is Lafgar, he was born in Opi-Kir and ran away from home because of a strife with his brother. He took nothing with him but a she-goat and a buck, and with diligent care made a herd of them in the course of the years. He loved a woman once, but she went north beyond the sea, so he stays here and looks out, waiting for her to return all this time. Or perhaps he has already forgotten why he is here. The quiet life suits him, and he feels no particular need to see people."

Thadorn gaped at her, open-mouthed. She spoke assuredly, and it didn't sound like she is just making this up. "How..?" he said.

"I followed him once, a few years ago, just out of curiosity. When I peered into his cave he heard me and grabbed his walking stick and I thought he was going to hit me, but when he saw who I was he asked me in and gave me some cheese. I have been visiting him from time to time ever since. I learned more from him than of all these prudish books my father made me read," she added, and again she turned in the direction which the goatherd came from. "And what are you doing here?" she asked sharply.

A slender brown-haired girl of about ten stood sheepishly in front of them, accompanied by a heavily freckled boy with hair the color of rust. The girl looked faintly embarrassed, and the boy shuffled his feet awkwardly. "We're looking for tracks of gulls," she finally supplied, with all the air of innocence.

"Well, off with you then, Jada," Jadine waved her off imperiously. "My cousin," she explained to Thadorn when the girl and her companion got farther away. "And her friend, a boy of the Kamtesir… Ned, I think he is called."

Thadorn looked after the boy and the girl, shielding his eyes from the sun. They stood just at the edge of water, and he could see the tracks of their bare feet in the wet sand. "Those two will end up married, you'll see," Jadine went on. "And none in my clan will be too happy about it. The Kotsar still look down on the Kamtesir, remembering they had to pay tribute to us once, before the Union."

"That is foolish," Thadorn blurted out. "Tilir is now united, and no clan pays tribute to another." He was afraid of insulting her, prickly as she was, but Jadine calmly nodded her assent.

"I agree with you. Those petty squabbles from within are the last thing we need when we are facing so many dangers from without."

"To be sure," said Thadorn, letting down his guard a little. "There's always the southern threat."

"At least you acknowledge the always. The savages are pressing in on us from all borders, and the Malvians – whatever someone else may say – condone this, because it means less trouble for them, and because our defeat is always their triumph. The Malvians themselves may be more civilized than their wild tribes, but it doesn't mean they bear us more love. If a time comes when we are standing at the brink, you may be certain they will give us a shove."

"You have obviously given this a lot of thought," said Thadorn. To his surprise, Jadine's eyes instantly became cold and hard as a frozen shore in the dead of winter.

"You sound surprised," she said, "did you think someone of my age and position spares no thought but to dress, company, and eligible men?"

"No," he hastened to say, "no, I only – " Great Spirit, I feel as though I must defend myself. And yet Jadine remained standing in front of him, feet planted firmly in the ground.

"I am only a woman," she said mockingly, "yet the blood of the Kotsar flows strongly in me. For better or worse, the Kotsar have refrained from taking brides of other clans, and only rarely and reluctantly gave their daughters away to strangers – even if those were just the clans of Rhasket, with whom we share a blood bond anyway. You know that, Thadorn, do you not?"

He did. Although unquestionably loyal to the throne now, the Kotsar withstood the Union for as long as they could – and when it became unwise to do so openly, they went into mute opposition. Even within the last century, there were instances of brother and sister marrying in that clan – a practice that had been declared an abomination by people of faith. Yet he was stricken by something else now, something that send a sudden warm jolt all through his body – the fact that she said his name.

"Anyway," Jadine went on, apparently oblivious to his struggle. "Let us put our unruly neighbors aside for a moment. What do you say about this royal bride, the foreign princess who would be our queen?"

"What do I say?" Never in his life had Thadorn felt so stupid. "I know the princess Maviel of Adrinor is a maid of seventeen, fair of face and gentle of spirit. Or at least this is what I heard people say."

"That is all I heard as well… which means, to put it simply, that we know nothing. But how many realize this is the first time a prince or king of Tilir takes a bride who isn't the daughter of our local nobility?"

"I have heard that when the portrait of the princess Maviel was brought before the king, His Grace instantly fell in love with her image and sent envoys for her hand."

Jadine looked contemptuous. "What can be said of a king that acts upon such a whim?" she threw a question into the air. "Let us rather say that His Grace saw a chance to form a valuable alliance, and seized it… without considering the price, perhaps. There are at least three noble clans who hoped to wed their daughters to the king. Had he chosen either of them, all would be content. But King Alvadon chose a bride from across the sea, and so his local allies see it as a slight."

"There may have been matters of state unknown to the likes of you and me," Thadorn said reasonably.

Jadine shrugged. "Perhaps. I am curious to look upon the face of this Princess Maviel, though. And soon this wish will be granted."

She turned to walk away, but Thadorn called after her.

"And then what?"

She looked across her shoulder at him. "We shall see," she said.

With light, surefooted steps she began to walk back towards the fair, where the games were already assembling. Thadorn stood rooted to the spot for a long time, looking after her. Vaguely, he felt that they had dueled with words, and that Jadine won. And her last phrase nagged at his mind. We shall see. What could she possibly mean?

Only after a minute or two did he recall that he put his name in for the wrestling match, and thus should be heading back as well.

When he arrived, the crowd was already assembled, and Peyr Kamtesir was reading out the names of the contesters in his booming voice. Hastily, Thadorn took off his tunic and went forward to the stand where the wrestlers anointed themselves with the traditional oils. Within minutes his body shone, smooth and powerful, and he felt strength surging into his limbs, such as he had never known before. He clumsily tied his shaggy hair at a knot at the back of his head, then looked for a place to hang up his tunic, but Rogell pushed himself through the crowd and took it from him. Just behind his shoulder, Lya was standing. "Good luck," she said breathlessly, but Thadorn could only manage a vague nod. He was wholly focused on the smooth arena of polished stone, and did not even notice the fiery head that appeared at the back of the stands. He went into a tent where all the contesters were waiting, and sat there, half-dazed, oblivious to the jokes and wagers made all around him. He reacted to nothing until he heard the blow of a horn, followed by his name. "Thadorn, son of Andorn, of the Tionae." Then the name of the man who will oppose him. An unfamiliar name. For all he knew, his opponent could be a mountain of a man, a fearsome mass of muscle and sinew. It made no difference, though; without false modesty, at that moment Thadorn knew he was invincible.

He didn't see his opponent's face, did not hear the crowd cheering, did not feel the bruises that blossomed on his arms, his back, the side of his face. Agile and powerful as a young panther, sleek of body and quick of limb despite his menacing size, Thadorn viewed the man facing him as simply a foreign entity to be overpowered, tossed aside, and forgotten. And so he did, time and time again, until he stood there, all alone, victorious, his chest heaving, and the smug-looking Peyr Kamtesir (who doubtless wagered more than a handful of silvers on his victory) took him by the hand and proclaimed him the wrestling champion of the day. He was given a leather pouch full of coins, but he did not even bother to open it. He thrust it into Rogell's hands as he took his clothing back from his friend and put it on. Rogell weighed the pouch in his hand, a frown of concern upon his face.

"Is anything the matter, Thadorn?" he finally asked, as Thadorn splashed water upon his face from the washing basin that was placed near the oil stands.

"Nothing," Thadorn replied curtly.

"You look dead on your feet," said Lya, whose congratulations froze on your lips. "Were you very badly hurt? That looks nasty," she pointed at a sore red stripe, courtesy of an unevenly clipped fingernail.

"That?" Thadorn looked at the red scratch that ran from his arm to the inside of his elbow. At several places, blood seeped through the broken skin. "This is nothing. No, I… I'm fine. Just tired. I think I will go home and rest."

"You won't stay for the archery competition?" Rogell said in disappointment. "Oh, well. I suppose you are exhausted, and to be sure, I won't pull off as splendid a performance as you."

Thadorn nodded, too tired to speak, raised a hand in farewell and began walking off. Within seconds, Rogell caught up with him and thrust the leather pouch into his hand. "Don't forget your winnings," he said.

"You'll stop by later, and tell me how you've done, won't you?" Thadorn asked, and without waiting for the answer, continued to walk. Rogell glanced after him once or twice, then hurried to fetch his bow and quiver. When he surveyed the crowd, he was disappointed to see Lya wasn't there. She seemed to have gone, too.

At first Thadorn thought to go straight into town again, but on an impulse, decided to pass by the beach once more. And he wasn't very surprised to see Jadine again, this time standing just at the edge of the waves, her intricately woven leather strip sandals held in one hand.

"Well fought," she said when he approached.

He acknowledged her words with a nod. For some reason, this victory did not taste as sweet as he thought it would. "What of the rest of the games? Won't you watch them?"

She hesitated. "Won't you?"

He shook his head. "I'm going home. As far as I remember, we still have a box of ice in the cold storage. I need to apply some to these bruises, or by tomorrow I will become impossible to recognize."

"Oh, no," Jadine said slyly, after a pause, "you can hardly be confused with anyone else, Thadorn Tionae. But you know what? I think I will go and watch the archers after all." And just like that, she leapt lightly on her feet, turned away from him, and made to go.

"Wait," Thadorn surprised himself by calling out. And once more, she was looking at him across her shoulders.

"What?" she asked.

"When are you going to Aldon-Sur?"

"A week from now," Jadine said, and was gone.

That night, Thadorn and his parents ate alone, as they did so often, and supper was a silent affair. Halfway through his chicken leg, Thadorn laid aside his fork and knife and said quietly:

"I think I will go to the king's tourney after all."

His father looked up at him in surprise. "Will you? I thought you decided against that, son."

"I changed my mind. I believe it will be… interesting."

"To be sure. But if you go, you will be absent for weeks. Who will command the Sea Guard while you are gone?"

"Rogell," said Thadorn. "He will manage very well."

"Of that, I have no doubt. But won't Rogell wish to go as well?"

To tell the truth, Thadorn hadn't thought of that. They have always done everything together, he and Rogell, and this tourney promised to be a splendid event. Something told him, however, that Rogell will want to remain close to Lya. "We can't both go," he told his father. "One of us will have to stay here, for the Sea Guard, and Rogell is the only one I would trust to leave in my stead."

"On that I agree with you," said Andorn. "Many good men of the City Watch have begged leave to go to the capital as well. All this will leave Rhasket-Tharsanae rather poorly protected, I fear."

Thadorn gave him a sharp look. "Why? Do we fear an assault?"

"No," his father said mildly, "nothing in particular, at least. But… oh well, I suppose at least half of the men will remain on duty. And there's Fort Sand as well, just a little way to the south. A port must ever be protected. It is too precious to be loosely guarded."

"A few more words like that," said Thadorn, "and you will convince me I must remain, Father."

"Oh, no," Andorn said hastily. "No, this wasn't my intention, not in the least bit. You go, son, and you enjoy yourself, and bring honor and glory to the clan of Tionae."

Pleasure and honor and glory. Those things hold great value in the eyes of young men, yet they didn't come close to Thadorn's true purpose.

After the meal was over, his parents retired early, and Thadorn went into the study – a cozy, carpeted round room, its walls lined by bookshelves filled by row upon row of leather-bound tomes and ancient scrolls. He seated himself in one of the low armchairs by the fire and attempted to amuse himself with a book, but it was no good. Restless, he laid the book away and closed his eyes. Jadine's face appeared vividly before him, her hair a cascade of fiery copper, her eyes at one moment green, at another blue, and ever unpredictable. Today was the first time he ever spoke to her in earnest, and he didn't know whether he should feel more or less hopeful for that conversation. Her words echoed in his head. The Kotsar have refrained from taking brides of other clans, and only rarely and reluctantly gave their daughters away to strangers. Was there a message hidden just for him, and was it meant to discourage him, or the other way around?

The door creaked, and Thadorn turned abruptly, interrupted in his musings. His mother stood in the doorway, wispy and frail in her thick embroidered sleeping robe, her hair falling in one thinning braid across a thin shoulder. She was holding a candle, and a draft of air from the corridor made its light gutter. Without waiting for an invitation, Faelle Tionae entered the room and almost furtively closed the door behind her.

"Mother," Thadorn said, rising. He noticed she looked troubled; she looked troubled all through supper, now that he came to think of it.

"My son, do not go," she said abruptly.

He did not expect this. "I'm sorry?" he asked, confused. "Do you mean – "

"If you love me even the least bit, do not go to Aldon-Sur. Your place is here, and you know that very well."

"I know my duties," said Thadorn. "With proper arrangements, the town can spare me for a couple of weeks, I trust."

"I…" his mother hesitated, considering her words. "Yes, to be sure, but on this occasion I wish you to stay."

"But why?" Thadorn didn't understand. "Why now?"

"Because," Faelle said forcefully, "this girl will be the death of you."

Thadorn gaped at her, open-mouthed, and blushed like a child caught with his fingers in the honey-pot. This was very unlike his mother's usual mild and timid manner.

"I'm afraid I don't understand…" he began, but his mother cut him off.

"Please, Thadorn. It would be useless to deny it. I understand you better than you think… there are some things a mother knows. Some things a mother always knows."

He took a deep breath. "Well, then," he said, "if it is honesty you want, Mother, I see no reason to conceal my intentions from you. Yes, I intend to ask for Jadine's hand."

He saw her mouth constrict itself into a thin, grim line; she looked like a person whose worst suspicions were confirmed.

"I know it is probably useless, but I beg you to reconsider," she said.

The quiet, commanding tone of those words angered Thadorn. Being an only son, he often felt as though he has to walk on eggshells, step around truths, guard his every word. So much was expected of him, so much depended on him. But he was no crown prince, after all. He had the right to a private life.

"There is nothing to consider," he told his mother, "I will follow Jadine to Aldon-Sur, and will try to win her favor at the tourney. If I succeed, I intend to marry her. If I succeed," he repeated, "which is by no means certain."

Faelle placed her candle upon a low table of smooth polished wood. She approached him and laid a gentle hand on his sleeve. "My son," she said softly, "you are a man grown, and there is no denying you are in want of a wife. But Jadine Kotsar is not for you. Look about you, and you'll see that all you need is quite near at hand. Lya would make you a far more suitable bride."

Thadorn shook his head. "Lya belongs to Rogell," he said. "I love her, but we have always been like brother and sister."

His mother sighed. "If you would be blind, so be it. I know that if you asked her to marry you tomorrow, she would accept, and gladly, and would make you a happy man. But I see it is no use. All I'm asking is that you keep your eyes open. There is something queer about that Jadine – and no, I'm not saying this just because she is of the Kotsar," she talked across him as he opened his mouth to protest. "She is not like other young maids. She is…" she struggled for words. "Willful? Rebellious? Self-satisfied? But no, you know all that. There is more. I have heard disturbing things about her. She disappears for days on end, and no one knows where she goes. She speaks languages, and no one knows where she learned them. She can call to animals…"

Thadorn silenced her with a gesture of his hand; a tired gesture it was, yet there was no mistaking its finality. "As to where she disappears," he said, "I believe I can satisfy your curiosity on that account, Mother. She visits that old goatherd you often see outside the city walls. The man's name is Lafgar. She told me so today."

His mother sniffed disapprovingly, wrapped herself more tightly in her robe, and picked up her candle again. "Do not imagine your father will be very pleased to hear this," she warned, turning away. Her soft slippers made no noise against the carpet, and there was only a faint thud when the door closed behind her again, and Thadorn was left alone once more.

The morning after, quite early, he knocked on Rogell's door, and the friends took a long, slow circuit on foot around town. The expression of puzzlement didn't leave Rogell's face, which was a relief to Thadorn. He didn't think he could bear it – not yet, at least – if his cousin would read into his intentions as clearly and easily as his mother had done.

"You look troubled," he was forced to observe.

"No, it's just…" Rogell rubbed his forehead with a knuckle. "I suppose I will be able to stand in your stead while you are gone…" he sounded uncertain, though, and looked at Thadorn questioningly.

"Of course you will," said Thadorn firmly. "I trust you completely. Otherwise, I would never have thought of going."

"Right," Rogell nodded, looking slightly more cheerful. "What will you apply for in the tourney, though? I mean, we have been more on the decks of ships than on horseback, you and I. You won't joust, then, or am I mistaken?"

"No," said Thadorn. "I would only make a fool of myself. I will have to enter the melee."

Rogell shook his head ever so slightly. "You are as good a blade as I have ever known," he said, "but please be careful, Thadorn. I know the edges of tourney swords are blunted, but still, many a man had walked in whole and walked out a cripple. It would not do to get yourself injured – or worse – all for the sake of a game."

Thadorn gave him a sharp look. "I thought you knew me better than that," he said.

"I thought I did, too," nodded Rogell. "I know you as a man whose decisions don't shift easily. A week ago, you said quite firmly that nothing in the world will induce you to go to Aldon-Sur. Now you are all set out and ready to leave. So, as a friend and brother, I am asking you – what has changed?"

Thadorn's look made it quite plain that a stone wall could be questioned with better success.

A few days later, from the deck of one of the patrol ships, Thadorn watched the departure of the Kotsar people in the direction of the capital. Many of Rohir's kin were going with him, so they formed a loud and jolly column of riders. Rohir's wife, Hinassi, was seated on her mare sideways, in a lady's fashion, and so was her daughter Kelena, a maid of sixteen so fair and shy it was hard to believe her Kotsar blood was undiluted. But Jadine was mounted like a man, and rode beside her father and her brother Kohir, gaily shaking her fiery curls and wearing her plain riding clothes as if they were a queen's mantle. Her younger brother, twelve-year-old Nog, did his best to keep up, but it was plain this was the first time for him on a full-sized horse. Little Jada ran after the procession as far as her skinny legs would carry her, vexed beyond words at being left behind. Only when the riders disappeared in a column of dust did she stop, and stood looking after them for a long time, laughing and calling out and crying, and waving to those who could no longer see her. Her friend Ned caught up with her and stood by her side, and later they turned around and made their slow walk back into town.

Thadorn stood motionless, looking after the two children, his hair rippling in the sea wind. Now that the Kotsar were gone, it was time for him to leave – keeping a safe distance behind them, so that they would not meet him on the road to the capital. He did not mean to be seen until he reached Aldon-Sur. He would pack his things tonight, he thought. It should not take very long. He didn't have more than his sword and shield, his plain mail and leather and helm – and all that, as a lonely rider, he would be prudent enough to wear on the road. Other than that, he didn't have much. Nothing to distinguish him, apart from his determination to win.

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