Chapter Twenty-six: Darkness
E’nes, who was on guard duty, was instantly at her side with his hand on her arm. “Adesina? Are you all right?”
She managed a nod as she sat up. She hurriedly wiped away any trace of her sorrow, but found that it was soon replaced with more tears. The strengthened emotions of her Dreams had carried over into the waking part of her life, and she found she could not control them. Tears streamed freely from her eyes and, try as she might, she could not stop them.
He put his arms around her, saying nothing but letting her know that she was not alone. Once again, Adesina’s instinct was to pull away from his touch, but she fought the reaction and wept into his shoulder.
For the first time since she was five years old, she allowed herself to be something other than a warrior and was grateful to be held and comforted. The night was silent, and for a few precious minutes, it seemed like they were alone.
“My entire life has been a lie,” Adesina whispered to her brother. She pushed away to look him in the eye. “I have done terrible things, E’nes.”
He brushed her hair from her face. “Father will understand why you did what you did, Adesina. No one blames you for being manipulated.”
She shook her head stubbornly. “I am not just talking about the things that I did as a Shimat. I mean the things that I did as part of my training—things that I chose to do to further my standing in the order.”
When E’nes didn’t say anything, she continued. “Did you know I committed my first murder when I was fourteen years old?”
The expression of stunned disbelief on her brother’s face urged her to go on. “At the time I thought it was an execution, but-”
“It does not matter, Adesina,” he interrupted. “None of that matters now.”
New tears began to fall. “How can it not matter?”
He gently wiped them away. “Because you cannot change it. What matters now is how you choose to move forward.”
She found his words comforting, but was having a hard time believing them. It felt impossible to be free of her past. How could she move forward when she was so weighed down by a lifetime of misguided choices?
She was still pondering this the next morning when L’iam came to speak to her, carrying a canvas sack.
Adesina was sitting away from the group, wanting to be alone. He knelt before her, looking into her eyes with unnerving clarity.
“I am returning your weapons to you.”
The young woman studied him warily. “Why would you do that?”
His expression was grim. “We will soon be entering part of a forest that is favored by thieves and other miscreants. It will be best if we are all armed.”
She took the canvas bag slowly, as if not sure whether or not to believe him. “Why would you choose to travel through such a dangerous place?”
L’iam gave her a half smile. “To avoid notice and to save time. A day and a half through this forest saves us several days of going around. As long as we keep our more distinct features hidden, we blend in rather well. No one will take note of us.”
Keeping to this statement, they were all provided with long, hooded cloaks the following day. E’nes showed Adesina how to keep her hood pulled down while retaining the ability to keep a watchful eye.
The forest was resting up against a sharp range of impenetrable mountains. Passing through the woods took them around to the back side of the mountains. At first Adesina wasn’t sure if she would be able to tell when they had entered the section of forest that was apparently fraught with danger, but the change was noticeable.
The first thing that caught her attention was that this part of the forest was old. Strangely, much older than the surrounding forests, and also older than any she had ever seen in the southern lands. It had the slight smell of decay mingled with the other scents of a woodland. Adesina could also see why it would be a place favored by criminals. There was almost no light and there was an abundance of hiding places.
They rode at a measured pace, trying not to appear too hurried. Their hoods were always pulled down around their faces, even when they stopped for the night.
Adesina, impatient to be both of assistance and to be alone, volunteered to gather the firewood. She was quite a distance away from the camp when she heard the stealthy approach of several unseen figures.
Setting her jaw in aggravation, she put down the armful of wood she had collected and checked to make sure her hood was in place. When this was done, she glanced at her surroundings.
Ten silhouettes appeared in the gloom, encircling her. The one standing closest to her spoke first. “Hello, girlie. Strayed too far from your friends, have you?”
“What do you want?” she asked in a cold voice.
The man chuckled roughly. “Well, you see, we normally do not bother other travelers in this lonely place we call home, but since you so willingly wandered into our camp, we thought you might give us a bit of friendly conversation.”
Adesina had never before been threatened by anyone other than her peers. She felt an odd sort of an angry thrill shoot down her spine and her limbs became alive with adrenaline.
“If you do not walk away right now, none of you will ever walk again,” she said in a tightly controlled voice.
There was a round of guffaws as the men began tightening the circle around her. The spokesman of the group gave her a leering grin. “Now, is that any way to talk to a stranger? You should learn to be more welcoming.”
Something awakened deep inside of Adesina, transforming the despondency that she had been feeling the past several days into pure rage. That anger took focus on the faceless forms in front of her, as if they had been the ones who had betrayed her. Her hands moved to the clasp of the cloak, removing it and tossing it to the side. Then she reached back and drew her Blood Sword.
The stances of the figures became wary when they saw how she easily handled her blade. It was clear they had not anticipated her militant reaction. She hadn’t cowered or begged for mercy, which is what they were accustomed to seeing.
In spite of their sudden apprehension, it was too late for them to back down.
Two men moved to grab her from behind, but she pivoted and brought them down with two fluid strokes of her sword. The fury she felt swelled in satisfaction at the wet glint of blood on her sword and the bodies crumpled at her feet. She had overpowered them with ease, and the feeling was gratifying.
There were cries of dismay from the rest of the group and the speaker pushed up his sleeves angrily. “Right, then.”
They all attacked at once.
Adesina moved like quicksilver, using the chaos to her advantage, and three more fell before they knew what was happening. She evaded every blow, flicking her sword expertly. One man fell to his knees, clutching his neck. Another keeled over from a stomach wound. One by one they fell until only the speaker was left.
Adesina had kept him for last. She brought him to his knees, pressing her blade against his neck hard enough to draw blood.
“Please,” he begged, “Please spare me!”
Something forced its way to the front of the young woman’s mind.
It was as if the eyes of her mother were on her, filled with sorrow and disappointment. She looked at the carnage around her and the pleasure she had felt from the wrathful violence now made her feel sick.
The soft crackle of undergrowth brought her head around and she saw that E’nes, L’iam and Sa’jan were standing fifty feet away, staring at her in shock.
Adesina desperately wished she could hide the gruesome scene from their sight.
She lowered her sword and allowed the man before her to scramble away. Even after the noise of his escape faded into the distance, the L’avan stood still.
Adesina ventured one glance to her companions, but she couldn’t stand how they were looking at her. She could see that she was a monster in their eyes.
Her mind was numb and she couldn’t think straight. Moving mechanically, Adesina cleaned her sword of the blood and gore, and replaced it in the sheath on her back. Then she pulled out several small squares of white cloth from a pouch on her belt and went from body to body, staining each with the blood of the fallen.
She picked up her cloak and the firewood she had gathered, walked back to the camp and deposited the wood beside the fire. She took the squares of cloth and placed them on the burning logs, wafting the smoke onto her face.
A mocking voice in her mind laughed as she went through the motions of the ritual she had been taught. Yes, it seemed to say, honor the dead, you creature of the Shimat. She felt a deep sense of despair, knowing that she would always be what they had made of her.
Her eyes stung, but she knew it wasn’t from the ritual.
She wrapped herself in her cloak and moved away from the group. Adesina wanted desperately to be alone, and yet she wished someone would come and sit with her.
From the dark she studied the L’avan. Those who had witnessed her encounter with the thieves preoccupied themselves with some task or another, avoiding looking in her direction. L’iam was speaking to Sa’jan in a low voice on the outskirts of the camp opposite of her. The remaining L’avan could sense that something was wrong, but said nothing. They tried to go about their duties as if everything was the same as before.
K’eb walked over to offer Adesina some food, but she shook her head before he got close enough to speak. After that, everyone left her alone.
Ravi had gone off on his own not long after the camp had been set up, and reappeared about an hour after the incident. Adesina assumed he had been hunting.
He spoke to E’nes for a few minutes before coming to lay beside her. He did not say anything, but leaned his head against her leg and began to hum. Adesina placed a trembling hand on his back, fighting a torrent of overwhelming emotions.
Long after everyone—save the night guard—had gone to bed, she sat beside the tree, staring into the darkness both around her and inside of her.
She had wanted to believe that she was still a good person, in spite of the fact that she had been used by the Shimat order. She had wanted to believe that she was not lost, even though her training had been so deeply instilled.
Tonight she had discovered what kind of a person she was in truth.
Adesina was ill with self-loathing. She had always looked at herself as a warrior and had taken pride in defending her homeland, but now she saw that she was a weapon. Nothing but a tool ruled by a lifetime of conditioning.
When she looked at the sleeping forms of the L’avan she felt the contrast keenly. These were all honorable men—men who valued integrity and had individual worth. The Shimat valued ruthlessness, artifice, and only saw an individual for the skills he or she brought to the whole.
Adesina didn’t know where she fit in. She was too much an instrument of the Shimat to belong to the L’avan, but she knew deep down that she could never return to the Shimat and serve their corrupt purposes.
She got to her feet silently. Ravi raised his head, but did not stop her as she walked away. Adesina didn’t know where she was going. She only knew that she couldn’t travel with people so radically different from herself. Her lack of self-control had endangered the entire group and had destroyed their attempts at traveling in secrecy. More than that, though, she felt her presence was a taint on the company.
The young Shimat hadn’t walked far when she spotted L’iam through the trees. She paused, debating how to best get around him, but he had already seen her.
“I thought you would try to leave.”
She straightened stiffly. “Am I wrong in doing so?”
His expression was serious as he studied her. “Yes.”
Adesina was incredulous. “You cannot possibly believe that. You saw what happened out there. Ri’sel was right, the Shimat are a plague…and I am one of them.”
L’iam sighed and moved to sit in a small patch of moonlight. He beckoned for Adesina to join him, which she did reluctantly.
“Do you know what makes the Shimat such a deadly force in this world?”
She had her own opinion on the matter, but she didn’t know what L’iam thought. The young woman shrugged her shoulders, indicating her willingness to hear what he had to say.
“They are highly trained children who do not know how they are being manipulated. By the time they see the order for what it truly is, they no longer care. They are without conscience and without opposing forces to keep them in check.”
“The L’avan oppose us,” she said softly.
L’iam shook his head sadly. “We are too few to pose a serious threat to the Shimat. However, that is not the material point.”
Her eyes were glued to the ground in front of her. “What, then?”
“The Shimat are what they are because they choose to be. Yes, they are fed many lies, but even when they are given the truth, they choose to remain the same.” He reached out and lifted her chin to look her squarely in the eyes. “You have been given the truth, Adesina. You can choose to be like them, or you can choose to be something else.”
She was embarrassed to find her eyes swimming with angry tears. “It is too late. I have become the monster they wanted me to be.”
His voice was firm. “That is not true, Adesina.”
“It is,” she insisted. “I murdered those thieves and I enjoyed it.”
“Do you still enjoy it?” he asked quietly.
“No,” Adesina said miserably. “I feel sick just thinking about it.”
L’iam leaned forward. “That is why you are not like the Shimat. That remorse is what sets you apart from them. It is never too late to change, Adesina. You still have the power to be who you want to be.”
The night was still around them as they each turned to their own thoughts. Adesina couldn’t force the memory of the evening from her mind.
“Those men…” she whispered.
L’iam nodded in understanding. “We have all done things of which we are ashamed, but the beauty of this life is that we are given the chance to make up for our mistakes—if we choose to do so.”
Although Adesina couldn’t see it at the time, deep in her soul a spark of hope began to burn.
L’iam watched Adesina walk back to the camp. As soon as she was out of sight, he got to his feet and wandered through the trees. He found a strange comfort in walking through a forest at night.
He felt sorry for this confused and angry girl who had been thrown into their path. She tried so hard to be an adult, but she was still a child in many ways.
He remembered being her age and feeling the same way, asking the same questions: who was he? Was he nothing more than the years of training and expectation? He also remembered feeling trapped in a role in life that he did not choose.
Luckily, he’d had his family and close friends to help him through that challenging time of life—something that Adesina didn’t really have. E’nes was doing his best to develop a relationship with his sister, but he often felt discouraged on that point.
Yes, L’iam felt very sorry for her.
More than that, he was pained when he thought about what was coming. Perhaps it would have been kinder to let Adesina part ways with the L’avan. He briefly wondered if she would have returned to the Shimat or gone off on her own.
L’iam shook away such fruitless lines of thought and brought his mind back to the present. His men were relying on him to lead them home, and they were not safe yet. He could not afford to be distracted by his pity of the Shimat girl.
Still, the days ahead were bound to be dark and there was no escaping them now.