Paths of the Shadow

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Upon A Stony Shore

When Jadine opened her eyes on their first morning back home, their stay in Aldon-Sur already seemed like a dream. It was as though they had never actually gone, so much everything was the same – everything but the small wooden box of her bride's gifts on her bedside table, much more modest than her sister's had been, and the disturbingly lingering voice of the old man in her head.

She met him in the Halls of Learning; he startled her out of perusing the crumbling pages of an ancient leather-bound volume. "It is so late," he said in a soft voice, "why won't you go home, child?"

He wore a dark hooded cloak, and his face remained in the shadows. She resolved against showing how much it unnerved her. "I am no child," she told him, "but a woman grown, and soon to be wed."

"Then I find it even harder to understand what you are doing here," he said with a smile in his voice.

"These are the Halls of Learning," said Jadine. "I am learning."

"The knowledge you are seeking isn't here," said the stranger. His stooped posture belonged to an old man, yet his voice was clear and young. "I think you understood this already."

Jadine snapped the book shut. "Who are you?" she demanded sharply.

He sighed. "May the Great Spirit have mercy on you and you never know this, child," he said, and turned away. Jadine got up to follow him, to ask questions, to seek answers, but he was gone, quiet as a shadow. Heart thumping, she searched and searched along the rows of old books, but no one was to be found, and when she asked the guards, she was told no one saw a stooped little man in a dark cloak.

It didn't matter, she told herself. No one could hope to unravel all the mysteries of life, she knew that well. And yet... and yet... he was right. The dusty volumes and scrolls in the Halls of Learning were an enormous store of knowledge of land and sea, of birds and animals, of lands far away and the human body... even of Stormstone they told, and of the passage between worlds, and of kings and queens and heroes – yet none of it was what she was seeking. None of it was true magic. She learned far more by herself, using her natural gifts to read what was written in blood and flame, in salty waves and starry skies, in the chants of half-wild people living along the shore, in the tales of her odd friend Lafgar. She had a gift, she knew, a gift that was unrecognized by most of the people surrounding her... except perhaps Thadorn. He understood the Gift – yet he did not love it.

He loves me, though, thought Jadine, and a faint smile touched her lips. He loves me more than anything, as he has for a long time now. And I love him... don't I? Of course she does, she soothed an unexpected prickle of anxiety. For a long while she had been stealing admiring glances at Thadorn, so tall and strong and proud... yet they were like two stars following entirely different paths across the sky. They could hang close together upon the velvety black tapestry, yet they could never meet – or so it seemed. Once the barrier between them was broken, it was laughable to look back at it and think of what petty things might keep two people asunder.

Soon, her clanswomen would enter to spend the morning with her, and starting from this day she would no longer be a Kotsar, but a Tionae. She would move to the house of Andorn and Faelle, that big empty elegant house. She didn't relish the prospect, but neither did she mind very much. At least she made her choice, unlike her sister Kelena. It still appeared singularly cruel to Jadine that her sweet little sister, with her head full of love tales, should be made to marry a man she could never love, despite her soft and yielding heart. At least she would have wealth and power and honor – and Jadine hoped for Kelena's sake she would learn to be content with her lot, because it didn't seem likely to change.

There was a rush of footsteps, and then the door was opened and the Kotsar women came in, carrying sumptuously laden breakfast trays. There was bread hot out of the ovens, large bowls of berries and jugs of thick cream, heels of cheese and crocks of butter and pots of honey, flagons of milk and pots of fragrant herb tea. Jadine sat up on her bed and smiled lazily at them all. She knew a bride of good manners is supposed to have too fluttery a stomach to be able to eat anything on the morning of her wedding day, yet she didn't feel remotely nervous. After washing her hands, she accepted a chunk of cinnamon-scented bread and dripped honey onto it. The crust crunched under her teeth.

"We are going to take you to the bathhouses after we finish breakfast," her little cousin Jada piped in enthusiastically. "Then we're going back up to help you dress."

Jadine was amused. "With your help, I should probably be ready by tomorrow evening," she said, making poor little Jada turn crimson.

"I should hope not," her mother said sternly. "It is ill luck to be late to one's wedding."

Jadine didn't pay her the slightest attention, and serenely poured a cup of milk for herself.

"'Course it's ill luck, the bridegroom might have time to change his mind and run away!" quipped another of her cousins. Everyone laughed – everyone except Kelena, who offered but a shadow of a smile.

It didn't take very long, even though Jadine indulged herself in a long lazy bath. Her dress was lovely but simple, and she didn't really need help getting into it. The lustrous red fall of her hair was kept down, contradicting what the latest fashion dictated, and her bride's jewels weren't very multiple and elaborate like Kelena's had been. Jadine noticed her mother pursing her lips, as though the prevalence of silver over gold was viewed by her as an example of the Tionae's stinginess, and a personal insult to the Kotsar. She didn't care, though. Thadorn might not have been able to give her many jewels, but the ones she did get were beautifully designed and expertly crafted, and she loved each one of them. Her favorite was a pendant of silver and jade that hung about her neck on a finely woven silver chain.

"There is still a little while before we have to go downstairs," said one of her cousins, a perky slim girl named Tyra. "Shall we uphold the tradition and tell some tale of your famous namesakes?"

"I was not aware I had any famous namesakes," Jadine said.

"What of the girl who was the closest companion of Queen Thasiella?" Kelena spoke up for the first time in the course of the morning. "The one who threw herself down trying to prevent the queen from taking her own life?"

"Oh, her," Jadine replied carelessly. "I always thought her a bore."

"She was a true friend," Kelena said solemnly, "true and loyal."

"She is mentioned in that song about Queen Thasiella," said Tyra, "how is it called? Ah, yes, Upon a Stony Shore."

And she sang. She did have a pretty voice.

One night, when waves were rolling in

And moonlight was no more

She wept, the lovely golden queen

Upon a stony shore.

"My love is gone," she cried in pain,

"My husband and my king,

But I shall walk with him again

Upon the fields of spring."

A cup she filled with bitter brew,

"Leave me," she gave command.

But there was one with her who knew,

And dared to thwart her hand.

"My queen, if you would take your life,

Than mine shall go with yours."

And out she took a silv'ry knife,

This maid of no remorse.

"Your love shall wait, a golden crown

Like sunlight on his hair;

In Lands of Everlasting Dawn

He dwells, he goes nowhere.

Your people need you, my fair queen,

'Twon't do to lose you both.

Unbar the doors, let people in,

Tell them they have your oath."

The poisoned cup fell from her hand,

She thought of death no more –

And thus did Thasiella stand

Above a stony shore.

"Inspiring," Jadine said rather dryly, "yet if I remember correctly, the rest of her life did not bring Thasiella any happiness. To strengthen her royal seat, she was made to marry against her heart's wish... and when her new husband realized the child she was carrying was the dead king's, his jealousy flared up and he persecuted the poor prince into his grave."

"These are not tales to speak of upon one's wedding day," her mother said decisively, getting up in a rustle of skirts. "Let us go down. It might be a little early, but I am certain the eager bridegroom is waiting for you already, Jadine."

And so he did. When Jadine went down into the garden where the ceremony was to take place, her eye was caught by Thadorn's figure, broad and tall and powerful, and by his face, shining with the tenderest love, and her heart expanded in her chest until it almost hurt. He took her hand and led her to where her father was waiting. Rogell, her bridegroom's best friend, was there as well, along with Lya of their clan, that pretty little girl. She looked somewhat glum and forlorn that day, quite unlike her usual cheerful self, and Jadine couldn't fail to guess the reason. It was common knowledge around the town that Lya Tionae cherished secret hopes involving the young and handsome captain of the Sea Guard. We cannot all have what we hoped for, though, thought Jadine. He belongs to me now.

"Do you, Thadorn of the Tionae, take this woman, Jadine of the Kotsar, to be your wife, to love and honor, to protect and to cherish, for now and for all time?" Rohir Kotsar asked solemnly. His eyes were detached from his daughter, as though she was someone he hardly knew.

"I take this woman," said Thadorn, loud and clear, yet there was a tremor of emotion in his voice. Jadine didn't wait for her father to turn to her before speaking.

"I, Jadine of the Kotsar, take you, Thadorn Tionae, to be my husband, to love and honor and cherish, for now and all time."

Her father was red-faced with mutiny, her mother looked sour; no doubt they didn't miss her omitting the traditional part of the vow, the one that dealt with obeying her husband. Yet it didn't matter; the deed was done, she and Thadorn were joined for a lifetime, and for once, as she leaned on her new husband's arm, Jadine Kotsar was radiantly smiling in her satisfaction of the simple things in life.

After the feast, she expected him to take her to the house of his parents, yet to her surprise Thadorn turned his horse towards the town gates, and she followed. In a little while she realized they are going towards a summer house, no more than a log hut really, that Thadorn built with his own hands when he was just a lad. It was placed upon a hillside facing the sea, and cool breeze engulfed it even on the hottest summer days. Jadine knew of this secret refuge of his, much as she knew of everything going on at Rhasket-Tharsanae, and envied him slightly for having a place all of his own, as little as it may be. And now he wished to share it with her.

It was a simple but beautiful home, and it was evident efforts were made to make it especially comfortable for this night. A wide mattress stuffed with fragrant grasses rested in the middle of the floor, by the side of the narrow bunk where Thadorn usually slept. The mattress was covered with silken sheets and fluffy blankets, making it a luxurious bed. Oil lamps burned low, casting a warm red glow upon the room, yet Thadorn, shy as a girl, extinguished them, so that they both were left to fumble with their clothing in the dark.

"Do not fear," he whispered in a voice full of tender concern as finally they were together in bed, facing each other. Jadine could just make out the outline of his face in the faint silvery light of the moon and stars that came in through the hut's small windows. "I will be gentle, I promise."

Jadine sighed and pulled him towards her, impatient to feel the heat of his body on hers, to be crushed beneath him. She did not have the heart to tell him she was not a maid. She surrendered her virtue two years past, to a traveling singer who fleetingly charmed her with his blue eyes and sweet voice. Now she would be hard pressed to recall the boy's face. Some knew of this little adventure of hers, though few would dare to speak of it openly... and Thadorn, of course, had no doubt she was as pure as untouched snow. He was probably such, Jadine thought as he kissed her; he was eager, but more shy than skillful. His passion more than made up for his obvious lack of experience, though, and soon she ceased to think of her past adventures, follies born out of boredom. Nothing mattered anymore save her and him, and the soft words whispered in the dark, and the waves crushing against the shore. A new life was beginning, and neither Thadorn with his blissful blind faith, nor Jadine with her vague doubts, could imagine how soon it would come to an end.

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