Several years prior to the landing of Nicholas Swift on shores that were unknown to him, a young man stood in the very same place, a place he had known all his life.
He made a striking figure against the pale blue sky, just now lightening in sight of the new day. The unruly brown waves of his hair rippled in the wind behind him. The early morning chill would have made anyone retreat, but he only wrapped his cloak more tightly around him.
He could not quite say what made him get out of his warm bed before the first streak of dawn was seen outside his window. But all of a sudden he was wide awake, and knew there was no point trying to fall asleep again. He got up, full of vigorous energy and anticipation – of what, he could not quite tell if he were asked, or perhaps would not.
Today was to be the day of the annual fair. As in the beginning of each summer, a giant makeshift marketplace would be spread on the shores beside Rhasket-Tharsanae, not far from the place where he was standing now. In the quiet of the early morning, he could hear the salesmen already beginning to work, setting up trestle tables, hauling merchandise, squabbling for the best places. Some of the voices were familiar to him, others bore the accent of other parts of the country. This annual event traditionally made the people of north and south, east and west of Tilir flock to the small port town that was his home.
The voices fell in strange harmony with the stillness of the morning, interspersed by the sound of waves and the trill of birds. Thadorn – for that was the man's name – knew he ought to be heading back home, where he would be expected at breakfast. He was not usually one to wander off without explaining himself. As a rule, in his life every deed and every word had a purpose.
With a last glance towards the sea in which the sunrise was reflected pink and gold, Thadorn started in the direction of the town walls, his home, and the day which felt as though he carried some fateful purpose with it.
He loved this town. It was built in the finest Tilirian tradition, well before King Alvadon the First united the scattered clans of Tilir into a single people. The walls and streets were rounded, and so were most of the houses, at least those belonging to the more respectable town inhabitants. No harsh paints were permitted on the house walls, the doors, the shutters or the signposts; the favored colors were delicate blue and green. The overall effect was of gently rippling waves, and the smell of sea was never far. Salty and invigorating, it penetrated one's lungs in healthy sharpness. Thadorn never tired of breathing it, or of feeling sorry for the people who had to live inland.
Most of the town still slept, but here and there bakeries already began to open their doors, and the enticing smell of fresh bread drifted out onto the street. "Bread and buns," chanted a stout woman with a clear voice, "rolls and cakes, tarts and pies!"
A sudden rumble of his stomach reminded Thadorn that he has been up for a while, but did not break his fast yet. For a moment he was tempted to stop and buy himself a hot pie fresh out of the oven, but then he remembered he took no coin with him, nor anything else for that matter, when he quietly slipped out of the house. He just pulled on his boots and cloak, thinking he is going for a quick stroll. He did not expect to be gone for hours.
Without a thought on the direction in which he was going, his feet carried him in the direction of his family's house, an old, finely built manse that could accommodate many people, but was now home to only three: Andorn, leader of the Tionae, his wife Faelle, and Thadorn, their only son. There was also a maid, a young timid girl who did the washing and cleaning, but she came and went. Faelle took it with as good a grace as she could, even though her frail health would benefit from a live-in servant. She never hinted at it to her husband. The Tionae were an ancient clan, proud and esteemed and excellently connected, but their purses were never heavy.
The walk back home took a longer time than he thought it would. His mother and father were already sitting at the breakfast table when Thadorn walked in. Murmuring an indistinct greeting, he shed his cloak, wet with dew, and proceeded towards his seat.
"Great Spirit, Thadorn," his mother admonished him, "where have you gone to? We didn't know what to think." Faelle was a wispy little woman, yet she could command a stern voice.
"I fancied a walk," said Thadorn, patiently. With his mother, he was ever patient. He knew that, as the Great Spirit did not choose to bless Faelle with more than one child, he was the only outlet to her generous, protective love.
"You could have left a note," she said.
"Leave him be," intervened Andorn, who was as solid as his wife was ethereal. Not too tall and wide, but of a compact muscular build, he was strong and agile, and even though his hair was well-salted pepper, he possessed the lineless face and smooth movements of a much younger man. "Thadorn is three-and-twenty, for a long time now a man grown. He can take perfectly good care of himself, Faelle."
"I never said he cannot," his mother said defensively. "It just seems as though he hadn’t slept at all."
"Of course I have," Thadorn replied in his mildest manner, reaching for the pot of steaming hot porridge. He ladled some into his bowl and poured honey over it. "I just woke early, that's all."
"So have I," said Andorn. "And we had better not dally over this meal too long. If we want to take a stroll around the fair, it is best to do that before noon, when the crowds become insufferable."
"Some say the crowds are what makes the fair so attractive," observed Thadorn, "Everyone is going to be there."
There was no particular reason for his parents to exchange a meaningful glance, but it seemed to Thadorn they did just that. To cover up his embarrassment, he spooned some porridge and blew on it long after it cooled.
What he said was true. Upon going to the fair, you could be certain to see the whole town pouring down towards the sea… and furthermore, the air was more fraternal than at any other time throughout the year, except perhaps the Spring Equinox.
The town of Rhasket-Tharsanae was founded by three ancient seafaring clans: the Tionae, the Kamtesir and the Kotsar. At first each clan kept to itself, seeking only safety in numbers. But naturally, after a while the clans began to mingle, and there was also some intermarriage, although this did not become frequent before the Union. Prior to that, there was also strife, some of it bloody, over the position of highest power along the dwellers of the northern shore. The Kotsar were ever the rivals of the Tionae, while the Kamtesir wisely kept out of the conflict. The Union put an end to this circle of intrigue, struggle and revenge, but one cannot force love between people who have mistrusted and oftentimes feared each other for so long.
A knock sounded on the door. It was too energetic and vigorous to be the maid, a little mousey girl of fourteen. "I'll get it, Father," said Thadorn, and was at the door in three long strides. He opened it, and found himself greeted by a smiling face.
It was Rogell, his cousin and friend. The two young men were of an age, and did everything together, as far back as they could remember. The fraternity of children's play, of swinging from apple trees in the orchard, of sledding in winter and diving into the salty waves of the sea by summer, forged a bond of friendship that only increased as the years went by. Thadorn Tionae now occupied the honorable and responsible post of Commander of the Sea Guard, a fleet of swift boats that patrolled the waters around the harbor of Rhasket. Rogell was an officer under his command, and his right hand. Some evil tongues called Rogell a shadow, a sidekick, but they couldn’t be further from the truth. Rogell was a man of high intelligence, but his nature was milder, softer than that of Thadorn. For the latter, Rogell was the brother he never had, and for Andorn and Faelle, almost like a second son.
"Come in, Rogell, and sit with us," Andorn called. "We're just having breakfast. How does my good-brother fare today? Does he think he might venture out to take a look at the festivities?"
Rogell was the son of Faelle's brother. The fate played a cruel jape on his parents; his father, sadly as frail and wispy as his entire family, married a good-natured, good-looking, stout girl whose ample hips made the promise of a dozen sons. But alas, she died in the very first year of their marriage, giving birth to Rogell – while the man continued to live on and on, with his weak heart and weak limbs and seasonal coughs and sniffles. Fortunately, Rogell took after his mother and, while not as tall and powerful as his cousin Thadorn, grew up to be a strong young man, and handsome besides. He had eyes the color of the sea, and hair like jet, and was quick to smile and laugh and sing. His manner was much livelier than that of Thadorn, and did much to brighten up the latter's rather stern nature.
"My thanks," said Rogell, sitting at the table. He took a slice of bread and let some honey drip on it. "Father sends his greetings, but says he isn't certain yet of whether he will be able to venture out today or not. He spent a rough night, he says. Coughed through half of it. He bid me to go forward and enjoy myself, though."
"I thought you must already be down at the fair," said Faelle, looking fondly at her nephew, who now reached for a succulent early pear and bit into it.
"We arranged to go together," explained Thadorn. "There will be so many people down there that finding each other might be a tough task."
"Too true," his mother nodded. "With all the new arrivals, the town has been buzzing like a beehive this past week. For those of us who don't sleep very soundly, the noise is a source of irritation."
"It will feel empty soon enough," promised Rogell. "After today, the visitors will be gone… and some of the residents as well," he added, with a quick sly glance in the direction of his friend.
"What do you mean?" Andorn sounded curious.
"Rohir Kotsar is taking his family to Aldon-Sur, to participate in the festivities in honor of the royal wedding," explained Rogell. "My father mentioned it to me just this morning."
Thadorn looked none too pleased. He didn't say a word, but brooded over his clay cup of herb tea, which was getting steadily cooler. No one, however, seemed to notice his darkened expression.
"Have they been invited to the king's wedding, then?" Faelle asked incredulously. "Why, it doesn't seem possible, when we ourselves – "
"I don't think so," Rogell shook his head, and Faelle visibly relaxed. To have the Kotsar leader invited to the royal wedding when she and her husband got no invitation would have been a hard blow to her pride. "But the king's bride is arriving soon, you know, and it will be a splendid sight, and there will be a great tourney and festivities all over the capital. Those who wish to show themselves in Aldon-Sur will have no better chance."
"That is just so," nodded Faelle, "there is no limit to the vanity of the Kotsar."
She seemed ready to go forward in this venue, but Andorn chilled her with a look. "What does it have to do with vanity?" he asked reasonably. "I daresay young Kohir will want to enter the lists, and I have no doubt of him doing well. Of course, you two could easily outdo him," he looked plaintively at Thadorn and Rogell, "if you decided to go."
Rogell looked tempted by the notion, but Thadorn knitted his brows together and said, "I don't think it will be possible. We can hardly be spared from the Sea Guard."
His mother's relief was visible, but he was too busy spearing a slice of goat cheese on his fork to notice. "I know I can always count on your good sense, my son," she said. "Especially now, with the roads so perilous, going on such a journey would be unwise. As a matter of fact, in the place of Rohir Kotsar, I would not dare take the children with me. Kohir and Jadine are all grown up now, to be sure, but Kelena is scarcely sixteen, and Nog just turned twelve. It would be both safer and more profitable for them to stay behind with their mother."
"Hinassi Kotsar wouldn't miss such a trip for the world," said Andorn, "but what dangers are you talking of, wife? It's high summer, and the road is full of travelers. People from all over the west and east will come to Aldon-Sur for the tourney."
"But my dear, with the south all in uproar again – "
"The riots in the south, I am sorry to say, have become a matter of course," Andorn said patiently. "It should not have an effect on the road between here and the capital, though."
"Oh, well," sighed Faelle, "what does it signify? If at least some of the Kotsar are going, and my boys are staying, I am content."
Rogell swallowed the last of his bread and honey, licked his fingers, swigged down his herb infusion, and cheerfully got up from the table. "Aunt, Uncle, we had better get going," he urged them. "The fair has already begun, I can hear it by the noise."
"You go forward, boys," Andorn urged them. "Faelle and I will never keep up with you." He, of course, could easily stride along his son and nephew, but with his wife leaning on his arm, his walk was bound to be slow. Thadorn and Rogell weren't difficult to persuade. They walked out into the brilliance of the morning, their light cloaks thrown open to the warm wafts of summer air.
Thadorn couldn't help but notice that his friend put an unusual effort into his appearance that morning. "Is that a new tunic?" he asked with a knowing look.
"Not quite," replied Rogell off-handedly, but Thadorn wasn't fooled. Sparing his friend's feelings, he suppressed a smirk.
The annual fair was a jolly event, as always. Tables, stands, tents and pavilions were erected underneath a bright blue sky, streaked with light feathery clouds. Countless merchants were calling and haggling, singing praise to their bounty and inventing bawdy mocking tunes about their rivals. Pyramids of fruit and colorful bolts of silk, fine leather sandals and cages upon cages of live fowl, dangerously glittering steel of knives, swords and armor, rows of sweets and barrels of beer and wine, fresh pastries and newly-caught fish, necklaces made of shell and coral, copper jugs and intricately woven baskets and mats – anything one wanted to buy at today's market, it was there for the taking – for those who had the coin.
Later on, there would also be games and contests, with handsome prizes for the winners. It was not the king's tourney, to be sure, but it was always fun. Mummers and singers and pipers and fiddlers came as well, to collect the coins of those more generous, and a jumble of tunes rose into the air from several corners, mingling with many excited voices.
Thadorn and Rogell were milling around, enjoying the sight of unfamiliar faces and colorful clothes, not in a particular hurry to do anything. The coolness of the early hours was dispersing rapidly, to be followed by cloying heat, and although the hour was not even close to midmorning yet, a mug of iced beer was beginning to seem very appealing. The friends were just debating which of the beer sellers they should go to, when Thadorn gave his cousin a light nudge in the ribs.
"What?" asked Rogell, looking in the direction Thadorn pointed.
"Look who's here," said Thadorn in a wholly unconvincing tone of surprise. "I had no idea Lya had already returned from the visit to her aunt."
Rogell turned faintly pink and absent-mindedly tugged at the sleeve of his new tunic, while mumbling something about not expecting Lya to be home for at least another week.
"Come on," Thadorn said decidedly, "I know she will be happy to see you." He marched ahead, and Rogell had no choice but to follow.
Lya Tionae was of their clan, therefore a relation of theirs – though in her case the kinship was so distant it could hardly be traced. Perhaps she was the daughter of a third cousin, or a niece by marriage, or something of the sort, but it didn't signify much. What mattered more was that seventeen-year-old Lya was fair of face, with shiny dark hair and big soft brown eyes, with a slim waist and a willowy grace. She was gentle-natured and kind-hearted too, and as a child was much in awe of Thadorn and Rogell, who then seemed all grown-up and terribly strong and wise to her. Much has changed in recent years, and now Rogell, as Thadorn well knew, gazed at Lya with more than abstract wistfulness.
"Good to see you, cousins," she said with a warm smile, looking from Rogell to Thadorn. "Oh, I am glad I was able to get home in time for the fair. The Pearl Islands are dull at this time of year."
Thadorn, who privately thought the Pearl Islands were dull at any time of year, came up with some sort of inconsequential reply, while Rogell shuffled his feet and looked down, seemingly at a loss for words.
"Have you put your names down for the bowmen contest?" asked Lya.
"Rogell has," said Thadorn.
"You should give it a try as well, Lya," said Rogell, finding his voice at last.
"Truly?" she sounded surprised.
"I have seen you shoot. You have a good eye and a steady hand."
"But not the strength to wield a bow like those heavy ones they keep for the competition," said Lya with a wry smile. "I prefer to watch it all from the stands. What about you, Thadorn? Surely you can outshoot them all."
"I have the strength, perhaps, but not the aim," he said. "I know my capabilities, and archer I am not. I will take part in the wrestling match, though."
"Which means that the rest of the participants won't be from around here," Rogell chimed in. "None of the locals would dare to face Thadorn."
"That is true," nodded Lya, looking swiftly and furtively at Thadorn's massive chest and muscular arms. "But the competitions don't begin until noon, do they? We have plenty of time still. Let's have a look around."
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.