Chapter Five: The Shadow
About two hours after sunset, Kendan knocked on Adesina’s door and informed her it was time to leave. He was also wearing simple traveling clothes, similar to the ones that had been given to her. Adesina thought it strange to see him out of his Shar robes, but decided that it suited him. The black robes made Kendan seem intimidating and unapproachable, whereas the dark green and brown of his travel clothing gave him a more relaxed and friendly look.
She did her best to keep her voice casual. “You are coming with me, then?”
Kendan smiled. “Of course. Do you think to find the High City by yourself?”
Adesina lowered her eyes self-consciously. “No, Shar Kendan.”
Together they gathered her bags and took them down through the maze of underground corridors to a large room that appeared to serve as a stable. There were two brown horses standing in the main area, saddled and waiting for them, and a couple of smaller pack horses. Kendan’s bags were already strapped to the saddle of one of the riding horses.
They secured Adesina’s bags to the other riding horse and then mounted. Kendan led the way through a series of tunnels that angled downward and eventually led to an opening in the cliff face on the coast about a league southwest of the fortress.
Two guards stood just inside the entrance of the cave that led to the tunnel, ensuring that no unauthorized persons entered in this hidden way. They acknowledged Kendan with a nod as he and Adesina rode past, but said nothing.
The travelers rode out onto the rocky beach and were met by the brisk ocean breeze, which tossed Adesina’s lustrous hair and momentarily caught her breath. She found the scent invigorating and impulsive, and it brought a brief smile to her lips.
From there they turned northeast and followed the coast for another three leagues before the cliffs ended and they proceeded inland.
Adesina looked at the grasslands before them in awe. She had never seen so much open space before. The night sky was clear with a bright moon to illuminate the path.
Hours later, Kendan stopped and set up a makeshift camp. Adesina started to dismount, but stopped suddenly when she saw the figure of an enormous cat appear twenty feet away. It was about four feet tall, with smooth black fur and large golden eyes that shone with remarkable intelligence. The same eyes that Adesina had seen in the forest during her final test the previous year.
Adesina spoke in a strained voice. “Shar Kendan?”
Kendan smiled up at her. “We are no longer in the fortress, Adesina, you do not need to call me ‘Shar.’ I am no longer your teacher. We are equals, at last.”
She was a bit flustered by his last statement, but chose to disregard it for the moment. She pointed to the beast that watched them with a detached sort of curiosity.
Kendan looked where she pointed and frowned in confusion. “What is it?”
“Do you not see that animal?”
The cat sat down and cocked its head to one side. Adesina lowered her hand and spoke in a subdued voice. “The large cat...”
Kendan was starting to look worried. “Adesina, there is nothing there.”
“But...” she trailed off, perplexed.
Adesina was certain that she was not seeing things, but she was afraid to bring it up again.
Kendan was already regarding her dubiously. “Perhaps you are overly tired,” he suggested. “I am sure you will feel better in the morning.”
She didn’t say anything as she dismounted, but averted her eyes and set to work. The camp was set up, and Adesina immediately unrolled her bedding and draped it over her. As she pushed all disturbing thoughts of large cats and Kendan’s unusual behavior from her head, she thought she could hear the distant sound of music. A low, rich string of notes unlike anything she had ever heard. She listened until the sound drifted away on the light breeze, and felt herself drifting away with it.
The travelers were up again at dawn, eating cold rations as they packed their things and mounted their horses. Much to Adesina’s silent dismay, the large cat was laying where it had been the previous night. As they prepared to leave, it got to its feet, ready to follow but keeping a safe distance. Adesina said nothing, but kept a close eye on it.
They kept a steady pace throughout the day, heading northwest. The cat kept with them easily, sometimes walking right beside Adesina and sometimes as far as twenty feet away. It paid no attention to the two travelers, almost as if it couldn’t see them.
Kendan rode so close to Adesina that their knees were often almost touching. He chatted amiably over a variety of subjects. She mostly listened, confused at the sudden change in her former Shar and distracted by the large animal on her other side.
“My parents died when I was young,” Kendan said, “so I was a Shar Child as well.”
He didn’t seem to notice her lack of attention. “It is difficult growing up in such an environment. The expectations are high.”
She nodded, knowing exactly what he meant.
His expression became wry. “I promised myself that if I ever became a Shar, I would never treat my Shi the same way I was treated as a student.”
Adesina’s brow furrowed. “Do you?”
“Do I what?” he asked.
“Do you treat your students the same way as your former Shar?”
Kendan’s voice was tinged with regret. “Yes, I do. I find myself doing many of the things that I swore I never would.”
Adesina stared at him, bemused. “Why? Why not stop, if you dislike it so much?”
He rearranged his horse’s reins, not looking her in the eye. “The world changes one’s perspective. After a few years as a Shimat warrior, I realized why things are done the way they are at the fortress, and have accepted that they are for the best.” He gave a short, humorless laugh. “I suppose what I mean to say is that I am sorry for the way I have been treating you this last year. I hope someday you will understand why I did it.”
Adesina turned his words over in her mind, thinking about what he had said. She wasn’t entirely sure if she understood, and that bothered her. It was clear that he assumed she knew what he was talking about, but she had never felt what he described. Although she didn’t always like the way she was treated, she had never questioned the reasoning behind it. Her assumption had always been that there was a greater purpose that she could not yet comprehend. It had never occurred to her that things should be done differently.
She considered all of these things silently, not listening when Kendan began to speak again. He wandered from one subject to another: life as a Shimat, before becoming a Shar; personal triumphs; his expectations of the future; the jealousies of his peers. Few responses were required of Adesina, leaving her the opportunity to examine her thoughts and feelings.
When they stopped to camp that night, so did the enormous cat. It watched them from a distance, as before, and Adesina fell asleep to the strangely soothing music.
At the end of their second full day of travel, Adesina asked Kendan again. “Are you certain nothing is following us?”
A cloud of concern covered his expression, and Adesina didn’t wait to hear the answer she knew would come. She quickly walked away from the small camp, feeling vexed and confused. Looking at the far-reaching horizon, she folded her arms and took a deep breath.
The large cat came up and sat down beside her. “He cannot see me.”
For several moments Adesina could not believe that that deep, rich voice came out of the animal next to her. She stared at it in shock, at a complete loss for what to say.
The cat turned his golden eyes up to study Adesina’s face, his lips moving carefully to form his words. “Nor am I an animal. I am a member of the Rashad.”
Adesina struggled to find her voice. “What are the Rashad? Why can he not see you?”
“The Rashad are simply another race of people. Not so different from yourself, other than the fact that I am not human, of course. As for why he cannot see me, it is because I choose for it to be so.”
Adesina frowned, her well-trained calm slowly returning. As this happened, a realization came over her. The Rashad had been speaking to her in the language of the Shimat.
There was a common tongue spoken by all people, and various dialects of the common tongue found in regions throughout the north and south. There were only a handful of cultures that had a language completely unique from the common tongue, and the Shimat were one of these cultures. It was a language that only other Shimat knew. In fact, it was a crime against the entire order to teach the language of the Shimat to an outsider.
“How do you know that language?” Adesina demanded, switching to the common tongue.
The Rashad cocked his head slightly and studied her thoughtfully. “Does it matter?”
Adesina’s eyes narrowed. “I would not have asked if it were unimportant.”
He considered his words for a moment before answering. “I speak the language of every being. I merely vocalize what you are accustomed to hearing.”
Adesina was about to question him further but changed her mind. There were more important issues at hand. “What do you want?”
The Rashad had a hint of a smile about his eyes. “I lack nothing.”
“That is not what I meant,” said Adesina in a slightly frustrated tone.
“It was a poorly worded question.”
Adesina felt a flash of anger at this criticism, but pushed it down. Her curiosity had precedence over her wounded pride. “Why are you following us?”
“The Dreams brought me to you, Ma’eve.”
Adesina furrowed her brow in confusion. “What?”
This time a real smile appeared on the Rashad’s face. “Now is not the time for such a tale. Now you must return to your camp and sleep.”
Adesina wasn’t willing to give up so easily. “Will you at least tell me your name? My name is-”
“Ma’eve,” he interrupted. “Yes, I know.”
She shook her head slowly. “Perhaps you have me confused with someone else. My name is Adesina.”
The Rashad looked at her with his soul-searching eyes. “Perhaps that is the name given to you, but it is not your own.” He got to his feet and started to walk away. “My name is Ravi. Now go to sleep. We shall talk again tomorrow.”
Adesina slowly walked back to the camp, deep in thought. Kendan was waiting for her with a bowl of hot stew. “Are you all right?”
She nodded, her expression carefully neutral. “I am fine. The shadows have been playing tricks on my eyes.”
He still cast suspicious looks in her direction, but she ignored him as she ate her meal. She quickly went to bed, once again lulled by the mysterious music, which she now recognized as Ravi’s voice.
During the next day of travel, Kendan chattered on as usual, but Adesina wasn’t listening. Instead, her attention was on what Ravi had to say.
“As I told you last night, I was sent here by the Dreams. Dreams are a form of divine guidance given to those with destinies to fulfill.”
“Visions?” Adesina asked quietly.
“Yes. And, as I said before, you are the only one who can see or hear me.”
She frowned. “Then how do I know you are not simply a figment of my imagination?”
Kendan paused mid-sentence. “Did you say something?”
Adesina shook her head and turned back to Ravi, who was giving her an arch look. “You do not know,” he replied. “Perhaps I am.”
Ravi said nothing for the rest of the day, nor for the next several days. He calmly walked along beside Adesina and did not react when she asked Kendan about the Rashad.
“The Rashad?” Kendan asked in a startled voice. He had been talking about something else, and was bemused by her sudden interruption.
A few thoughtful moments passed as he searched his memory. “No, I have never heard of them. Why do you ask?”
Adesina shook her head in a distracted manner. “It is just something I heard in passing. I was trying to remember its significance.”
He nodded slowly. “Am I to take that as a hint to stop talking about myself?”
She looked up in surprise. “What?”
There was a rueful smile playing at the corner of his lips. “Clearly, you are not listening.”
A faint blush colored her cheeks. “No, you can keep talking. I just...”
“No, you are right,” he insisted. “We should be talking more about you.”
Adesina was mortified. The last thing in the world she wanted was to be talking about was herself.
Kendan fixed his dark eyes on her. “Tell me about yourself.”
She turned her own gaze to her hands, which were twisting the reins tightly. “Please, Shar Kendan, go on with what you were saying.”
He quirked an eyebrow. “I have asked you to simply call me Kendan, Adesina. I am no longer your Shar.”
After a few moments of determined silence, he asked, “Do you dislike talking about your childhood?”
She gave a halfhearted shrug. “There is not much to tell. Especially to a fellow Shar Child.”
He inclined his head. “We both may have been raised in the fortress, but your childhood was quite different from mine. I was in the nursery until I turned five, then I did my years of service before beginning my training. You, on the other hand...”
Adesina’s jaw set bitterly. “Yes. I was special.”
“You say that as if it were a bad thing.”
She gave a short laugh. “It is a bad thing. In an environment where the competition is fierce to begin with, one student with an unfair advantage turns everyone else against her.”
His eyes were pools of sympathy. “It is only their ignorance that leads them to feel that way.”
Adesina frowned. “Their ignorance?”
She could see that Kendan was doing some quick thinking before he answered. “Well, they could never understand the sacrifices you have made to get to where you are today. The majority of them would not have been able to make it, even if they had been given the chance.”
There was admiration in his voice that made Adesina look away self-consciously. As she did so, her eyes turned to a strangely forbidding forest they were passing. Ravi’s midnight form could barely been seen against the deep shadows of the woods behind him, even in the broad daylight.
“Ma’eve,” the Rashad called softly, “there is something in this forest for you.”
Adesina slowed her horse to a halt. Kendan did the same, looking at her with a puzzled expression. “What is it?”
An unexpected wave of apprehension washed over Adesina, but Ravi’s eyes were strong and reassuring. She addressed her former Shar, “What is in that forest?”
Kendan furrowed his brow. “I do not know. It is generally avoided. People who enter that forest do not come out the same.”
Normally such tales would not bother Adesina, but there was something about this forest that filled her with dread. It was not merely the unnatural darkness, but there was a deathlike hush that filled her with fear. Even the surrounding area was affected by the presence of this forest.
It took a strong force of will to keep the tone of her voice offhanded and her facial expression mild. “Would it be faster to go through it?”
“Yes,” Kendan answered slowly, “but from what I have heard of this forest it is hardly worth the few days saved.”
Adesina gave him the challenging stare that he had so often fixed on her. “Surely you are not frightened, Kendan.”
Kendan’s expression hardened and he turned his horse to ride into the forest. With a slight smile on her face from this small victory and her chest constricting at the fear of what lay ahead, Adesina followed.