Paths of the Shadow

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Nicholas was pacing back and forth as if he could not bear to stop, until he felt a hand on his shoulder. He spun around. Andrew, his best man, was grinning.

“Relax,” he said, “there is time yet.”

He eyed Nicholas critically from head to foot, and with a concentrated frown reached out to correct the position of the boutonniere. Nicholas slapped his hand away, and Andrew abandoned his attempt.

“I’ll wager she won’t be here for at least thirty minutes longer,” Andrew went on. “The guests are just now beginning to arrive. Why don’t we sit down and relax?”

But Nicholas could not sit down and relax, no more than he could stand, sit, eat or sleep in the past fortnight. He was in such a state of emotional upheaval as makes one forget the mundane needs of of sleep and food.

Still, Andrew dragged him off to the bouffet, where he poured a tall glass of lemonade for each of them. Almost mechanically, Nicholas took a sip. The ice cubes clinked together in his glass. He wiped the sweat off his forehead with a snow-white handkerchief.

“Do you see how good it is that you two listened to me and decided to go for a garden wedding?” asked Andrew, determined to be complimented on his endeavours regarding the wedding plans. “It’s the hottest summer I can remember, but it’s going to be a little cooler here, outside the city.”

“Yes,” Nicholas replied absent-mindedly.

“You sound as if it doesn’t even matter,” Andrew remarked, offended. “If it were up to you, your guests could cook in their suits.”

Nicholas’s eyes finally focused on Andrew’s face, and a faint smile played on his lips. “But it doesn’t matter, Andy,” he said. “Not compared to - to - ”

He stopped. He could not define in words the enormity of what was happening to him today, but Andrew understood and clapped him on the back.

“That is how I want to see you,” he assured Nicholas, “silly with love. But you are still going to have the classiest wedding in town, I’ve made sure of that... wait, does it only seem to me, or are we called?”

Before he was done talking, Nicholas had already abandoned his half-empty glass of lemonade and nearly ran forward. The priest was motioning for them to take their places at the front of the aisle.

He was a small, elderly man with horn-rimmed glasses he now pushed up the bridge of his nose. Through the thick lenses, he eyed Nicholas benignly.

“I thought that, as we still have a few minutes before the bride is due to arrive, we might go through the steps of the ceremony one more time - ”

But there was no more time, for Catherine just appeared, leaning on her father’s arm.

Nicholas couldn’t take his eyes off her as she walked towards him, but he did not really see her; rather, he saw everything around her illuminated by her light, changed, softened - himself most of all. He thought he had nothing to look forward to, and now he had been given the greatest gift he could imagine. He thought he would never see her again, and now he was about to marry her. He thought his life was nearing its obscure end, but now he realized it was just beginning.

She stopped and stood in front of him, smiling radiantly. He attempted to return her smile, but it appeared he had forgotten how to control the muscles of his face; he had forgotten how to breathe. Too good, he thought almost incoherently. This is too good, all of it. She cannot want to marry me.

And yet the priest was calling for Andrew to prepare the rings, and the two narrow golden hoops, identical but for their size, loomed in Nicholas’s vicinity; and Cathy’s smiling eyes suddenly filled with tears of joy as she reached out for his hand. Steadying himself, he pressed her fingers and finally managed to take in the sight of her face, aglow with emotion.

The dress she was wearing was very elegant, and a lot of thought, time and effort had been put into choosing the fabric, the design, the lace, the pearls, the gloves and the veil, but Nicholas did not see all that. For him, the dress, the decorations, the sumptuous flower arrangements - all of it meant little, it served but as a shimmering white background to this greatest moment of his life, and almost unconsciously he had given his reply while being asked whether he takes this woman to be his wife, in sickness and in health, in wealth and in poverty... his eyes asked her, “Do you?” and hers in eloquent silence replied, “I do” - and they exchanged rings, and people all around them were clapping and cheering and rushing to congratulate them, and it was done.

Slightly dazed with his happiness, Nicholas did not quite know whether his young wife was leaning on his arm, or he on hers, but one thing was certain - today was more wondrously magical than anything he had experienced in his journey through the worlds.

...No one quite knows the origin of the clans that have come to form the kingdom of Tilir. Some say they have migrated from the southern part of Ilsiola, the continent to which Tilir belongs; many of the Tilirian scholars reject this version vehemently, as it equals the clans of Tilir with the wild tribes surrounding its borders. Some say that the Spirit himself gathered the people of Tilir in His mighty hand and placed them upon the land He chose to bless; this version of the events has some fervent believers, and some who reject is as lacking many explanatory parts. Still others, more reasonable, say that the Tilirians have come from Syvidia many thousands years ago, and seek proof in similarities of language and habit. One thing is certain, though: there are no traces of a culture older than that of the Tilirians upon their land. Like a virgin bride it was awaiting them, its mountains and forests and rivers and shores untouched. And like a bride, it rejoiced upon the arrival of its groom; unlike the nomad tribes, that did little but trample the land with the hooves of their horses, the Tilirians began to cultivate it, and the land repaid in bountiful fields, orchards bursting with fruit, vines heavy with grapes.

At first the Tilirians were no more than a host of assorted tribes, similar of language, culture and custom, but strangers to one another all the same. Slowly, the tribes grew from fiercely guarding the independence of each, to discovering the benefits of trade and travel, and even intermarriage, although that was frowned upon. Once in a while, a few tribes would unite under one powerful ruler, and several of them have even called themselves kings. But it was not until King Alvadon the First that the true revolution of a Union had taken place. He was a man to unite all the clans of Tilir, great and small, hunter and farmer, friend and foe - into one land, one people, one kingdom. Others have attempted it before him, but he succeeded in such a manner that the Union remained standing even in his death. And thus, a new line of kings was born, and continued in an unbroken male line through the centuries.

And now a new scion of this line was born.

“Who is the father of this child?” asked the Man of Spirit solemnly, and all around him, thousands upon thousands of people listened, holding their breath, craning their necks to get a glimpse of the small bundle of swaddling blankets that was resting in its mother’s arms.

“This is the son of King Alvadon, Ninth of his name,” rang the kingly voice, “rightful king of Tilir, Protector of the land, Shield of the realm, chosen by the Great Spirit to guide and rule the kingdom until his last day.”

“Who is the mother of this child?” a new question sounded, sterner still.

“It is the noble and lovely queen Maviel, princess of far away Adrinor, who came to Tilir to give her hand to King Alvadon in love and faithfulness. She was the one to bear forward this life, this gift from the Spirit, a child who will one day rule over all of Tilir.”

“What shall be his name?” a third question was asked.

“He shall be called Alvadon, Tenth of his name,” was the answer. “King of Tilir, Defender of the realm, Guardian of its people, chosen by the Great Spirit and anointed by men of faith.”

“And so it shall be,” proclaimed the Man of Spirit, raising his hands high. The wide white sleeves of his robe fluttered in the light breeze, and the rays of the sun shone off the metal disks sewn upon it - bronze and copper and silver and gold; yellow gold and red and white. “May the Great Spirit look kindly down upon this child, and bless him, and give him the strength and wisdom and kindness a king needs. And may we now all kneel in prayer, so that it may be thus.”

There was a rustle of fabric as many people went down to their knees.

“All hail Alvadon, Prince of Tilir!”

“Alvadon, Prince of Tilir,” echoed countless voices, and the young king exchanged a glance with his queen and smiled.

... The tale of King Alvadon and Queen Maviel could have seemed happy had it ended here, but it does not. Sadly, both of them died young, much younger than the circumstances of their age and health could have indicated. But their trueborn son and heir, King Alvadon the Tenth, lived to accomplish great deeds, which had later been recorded in the scrolls for the posterity to remember always, until the Coming of the Messenger and the Final Dawn and beyond it.

Dankar Gindur, too, grew in the spirit of bravery and greatness of heart, and he and his son Emmet lived a life of adventures too numerous to count.

Nicholas and Catherine were happy in one another and raised a fine family together. To an outsider, it might have seemed that they have simply an ordinary, respectable life, but Nicholas had learned that his own world, too, has much of the extraordinary to offer. He also knew that, although fate seldom grants more than one opportunity to travel between the worlds, Tilir is not quite done with him yet - and he was right, for great deeds awaited his son Septimus as well, and other descendants of the Swifts deep in the vast sea of the future.

And for the sake of those who would sail this vast foggy sea, Nicholas often hoped that Tilir would remain what it was for him - a land of beauty and splendor, mystery and valor, bravery and secret knowledge, from now and until the end of days, until the world as we know it comes to its faraway but inevitable conclusion.

A/N: If you are reading this, thank you for sticking with “Paths of the Shadow” until the end!

Are you wondering what became of Nicholas and Catherine? What happened to Thadorn’s children when they grew up? Are you up for another excursion into the land of Tilir? If so, take a peek at Warriors of the Realm, the second part of the Quest of the Messenger trilogy. Both books are also available on Amazon Kindle.

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