Shades of Darkness Chapter 1
By Iris Amergin
"I don't like leaving, now of all times..." Lachesis sighed, gently urging her horse forward.
"I don't like it either, but someone's gotta do it," said Sylvia.
Lachesis frowned. She hadn't realized she was speaking out loud. "Sure, someone has to do it. But that doesn't mean I have to like it. The Yied Desert is a nasty place."
Sylvia shrugged. "True. How far are we from Darna?"
"A few days. We're camping out every night; we could stop over in Yied but I'd rather not. That place used to be the center of operations for the Loput Sect. I doubt the people there would be too friendly."
"Fine by me."
They rode on in silence. Lachesis had never really spoken much to Sylvia; she had simply never bothered to acquaint herself with the dancer. She bit her lip, trying to think of some sort of icebreaker.
Sylvia found one for her. "Did you know Cuan and Ethlin well?"
Startled, Lachesis looked at Sylvia. "Well...yes. Why?"
Sylvia sighed, looking down. "I never really got to know them all that well. Now it's too late...they say hindsight's always clearer than lookin' ahead, I guess. I wish I'd known them better."
"You'd have liked them," said Lachesis. "It was hard not to like them. Cuan's always been confident...almost arrogant, but he's so friendly and positive that I never minded it much. I had an easier time talking to him than Sigurd when I first met them."
"How did you meet them, anyway? Because of your brother?"
"Yes. They met at the military academy in Barhara."
Sylvia frowned. "Cuan and your brother weren't from Grandbell, though."
"No. But Barhara does accept foreign students. Only from nations they've got alliances with, of course. That was before Agustria switched sides."
"I see. When did you meet Ethlin?"
"Ethlin..." Lachesis thought for a moment. "That must have been five or six years ago, when she and Cuan got married. Cuan and Sigurd had visited Nodion before, so I knew them already, but the wedding was the first time I left Agustria. That was before my father died, so my brother and I were both able to go."
"How was it?"
"It was wonderful." Lachesis smiled. "They're still a bit more attached to old traditions and formalities in Lenster, but that really added to the effect. I've never seen anything quite like it."
"Is Lenster nice?"
"Yes. The forests aren't as impressive as the ones in Grandbell, but it's still a beautiful area." She glanced at Sylvia. "Where are you from, anyway?"
"All over. I never really stuck long enough in any one place to call it home."
"Isn't that difficult, though? Always being on the move?"
"It was when I was little, but the older I got the more I found myself likin' it. Seein' so much of the world is really an experience." Sylvia laughed. "'Course, if I'd known I'd be seein' so much of it now anyway, maybe I'd have liked to stick in one place for a bit."
"Nobody really plans to get caught up in royal politics and chased halfway across Jugdral, but sometimes it just happens," Lachesis laughed.
"Yeah, it--" Sylvia was cut off as Lynn began crying loudly. "Aw...simmer down, hon," Sylvia said comfortingly. She held Lynn a bit closer and began to coo at her. "You don't wanna cry, right?"
Lachesis sighed as she watched mother and daughter interact. And how is my own child doing? she wondered. Am I such a horrible mother that I leave my son halfway across the continent and don't even think about it that much?
"Lachesis? You okay?"
"Fine," said Lachesis with a cheer she did not feel. "Just thinking, that's all."
"Finn. Delmud. How I feel about leaving my son in another country, how I'm supposed to explain it to Finn, what he'll think of me when I tell him what I've done..."
"He won't think any less of you," said Sylvia. "We're at war. People have to make sacrifices. He'll understand."
"People have to make sacrifices," Lachesis murmured. "But that's always how it is, isn't it? Everyone thinks sure, people have to make sacrifices, but nobody ever really believes that they, personally, will be one of the people making them. I know war is cruel, but I always felt like I was...immune, somehow. And now my brother is dead, my castle in the hands of the enemy, my lover far away in one country and my son in another." She shook her head. "I never imagined this would happen, Sylvia. I don't understand it, so how could I possibly expect him to?"
Sylvia said nothing. Lachesis continued, "Eltoshan used to say that the people who suffer most during war are the civilians. But is that really true? Look at what all of us have lost...Ayra and Lex had to send their children to another country. They may never see them again. Sigurd may never see his son again, and his wife disappeared without a trace--as if being framed for high treason wasn't enough to suffer, and now he's even lost his father and his sister! Cuan and Ethlin died and left their children orphaned. Isn't it enough that we fight and put ourselves on the line? Why do the people close to us have to pay for this war too?" She dropped the reins and covered her face in her hands. "I don't understand!"
An arm crossed her shoulders, and she looked up in surprise. Sylvia had stopped her horse alongside Lachesis and put her arm around her. "I don't understand either, Lachesis," she said softly. "But I don't think we're meant to understand. All we can do is keep goin' and hope for the best."
Lachesis nodded numbly. "I know. But running on faith takes it out of you pretty fast." She shivered as an unwelcome thought crossed her mind. "And what do we do when faith runs out?"
"We don't let it run out to start with, that's what," said Sylvia. "You're stronger than this, Lachesis. Pull it together. I know you can hang in there."
"Right..." She sighed. "Thank you, Sylvia. Sorry to be such a downer."
"It happens. We all have our moments in the darkness. You just have to hold it together and wait for the sun to rise again, eh?"
Lachesis managed a faint smile. "I'm beginning to wish I'd gotten to know you better before this, Sylvia. It shames me to say it, but I'd always written you off as a flirt with more charm than sense. I'm glad to be wrong."
Sylvia laughed. "Make no mistake, when I joined up with you all three years ago, I did have more charm than sense. It's bein' around folks like you that put some ideas into my head about what's really important in life."
"I was still pretty stuck-up, though, and I should apologize."
"Don't worry about it." Sylvia frowned. "How far in the desert are we?"
Lachesis closed her eyes, thinking. "Fury said Cuan and Ethlin were attacked about a day's travel from Phinath. We should be near that area in a few hours." She opened her eyes.
Sylvia shuddered. "I don't even wanna think about what we'll find."
"Neither do I. But Fury didn't stop for a closer look, so we'll have to." Lachesis stared into the horizon. "It won't be pleasant, but we really have no choice."
Sylvia covered her mouth with her hand and stifled a gasp.
Lachesis reacted more calmly, although a voice deep in her mind was screaming bloody murder at the sight before her eyes. Vultures had found the remains of the Lanzenritter, converging on the corpses for a feast. Several of the bodies had already been picked clean; others had so many scavengers grouped around them, she couldn't see how badly they had been eaten. Please don't let them have found Cuan and Ethlin... she thought desparately. Please...
She swallowed and dismounted from her horse. "Sylvia. Get down."
Sylvia whimpered something incomprehensible.
"Sylvia," said Lachesis a bit more sharply. "I know it's not pleasant, but we have to find Cuan and Ethlin. Come on."
Sylvia silently dismounted and followed her, clutching Lynn close to her chest.
Lachesis tried not to look too hard as she picked her way through the corpses.
"What the..." Lachesis frowned. "Those two over there? But there's nothing--" She dashed forward, stopping ten feet away from the last two bodies.
She had guessed correctly; it was indeed Cuan and Ethlin. But while their companions were being picked over by the local wildlife, they remained completely untouched. It appeared that no animals had even noticed the two, save one.
A glossy black crow was perched delicately on Cuan's shoulder. But it did not show any interest in the corpse; rather, it stared straight at Lachesis. She shuddered, feeling a sudden chill run down her spine. It felt as though the crow was piercing her with its eyes--
"Shoo! Go on!" Sylvia ran forward and kicked at the crow. It squalked in surprise and flew away. Sylvia dropped to her knees in front of Cuan and Ethlin and began to wipe at her eyes. "Lachesis..."
Lachesis pushed thoughts of the crow from her mind and knelt beside Sylvia. "It's so strange..." she whispered. "It looks as though nothing has even touched them...Sylvia?"
Sylvia was crying silently.
"Sylvia..." Lachesis put a hand on her shoulder. "It's okay, Sylvia," she said gently, though she felt like crying herself.
"Is it?" asked Sylvia numbly. "Can you honestly say it is?"
And Lachesis couldn't.
The crow, as Lachesis had suspected, was not just any crow. But whatever suspicions she had came nowhere close to penetrating the truth--just as well, for as far as the crow was concerned, it was better if she didn't know.
Cuan had not been the first descendant of the Holy Warriors to fall under Elvidner's sway. He had been the second. The summoning of his shade, unfortunate as it was, would have been unpreventable even if Sigurd or any of his followers had known what was happening. But the first shade Elvidner had summoned could easily had been saved--if Sigurd had only waited a day longer before moving his forces out to deal with the Ogrehill Pirates.
The crow did not hold it against Sigurd. There was certainly no way anyone could have anticipated what would happen. But nor did the crow forget.
It flew for nearly half a day before it caught up to Elvidner. The instructions had been simple: Stay by Cuan's body, and return when someone discovered it.
Elvidner and Sudra were finishing setup for that night's camp. Cuan was already perched on a nearby rock, preening his feathers and looking decidedly uncomfortable with his new form.
The crow landed next to Cuan. You'll get used to it.
Cuan looked up, startled; he had apparently not yet realized that he, like all other shades, was capable of telepathic speech. Used to it? Are you kidding?
Calm down? D'you honestly expect me to calm down when I've been trapped in the very form of the Morrigan herself?
Had the crow still been in his human form, he would have snorted, but that particular mannerism did not adapt itself well to avian form, so he clacked his beak instead. You always confused me with that even when we were alive. I don't know the first thing about the mythology of Lenster, you know.
When we were-- Cuan stopped. Wait a minute...Eltoshan?
Guilty as charged. Eltoshan rustled his wings. You seem surprised.
I've died, turned into a crow, and found out that the same thing happened to one of my two best friends. That sort of thing does tend to surprise people, Cuan said irritably. Have you been with this guy ever since you died?
Pretty much. The day you all left, he got ahold of my corpse, and it all went downhill from there.
Cuan blinked. How can you be so...so casual about it?
Spend over a year like this and the same will happen to you. Eltoshan tilted his head. Being stuck between life and death gives you a whole new perspective on things.
Were you there when he--when he did this to me?
Did he do anything to Ethlin?
Cuan sighed with relief. Good.
Something happened to her, though.
But you said--
Whatever it is, he didn't do it. At least, not intentionally, and I don't think he realized it. But I was there for a while after he left. And the scavengers didn't touch either of you.
So what has that got to do with the price of bread in Barhara? snapped Cuan.
Natural life shies away from anything that's lost its soul, from what I've gathered, Eltoshan explained. Something to do with the unnaturalness of a soulless being, even a dead one. So with you, that makes a lot of sense. But they wouldn't touch her, either.
What happened, then?
I was hoping you would know.
Cuan shook his head. I don't know.
Damn. Something had to have happened. Are you sure?
I'm sure, okay? Cuan said angrily.
Calm down, would you? I just asked a goddamned question--
I don't think I'm going to be calming down any time soon, especially if you don't shut up and let this sink in!
Eltoshan glared at Cuan, but said nothing in response. Cuan glared back and returned to preening his feathers.
Lachesis and Sylvia remained at the battleground for several hours, doing their best to sort out the scattered bodies and give them the semblence of proper last rites. They couldn't bury them--the shifting sands made that impossible to do in such a limited span of time--but they did their best to leave them in a more dignified manner than they had died.
Cuan and Ethlin were the exception. They had been left in each other's arms; Lachesis secretly wondered if they had really died that way or if Trabant had simply been sure to leave them that way out of spite, but she chose not to voice her thoughts to Sylvia, who was having a hard enough time coping as it was.
Sylvia's condition worried Lachesis more than anything else they found; although the dancer had demonstrated a strong will and a positive outlook on the way into the desert, seeing Cuan and Ethlin dead seemed to have reverted her to the naïve girl she had been three years ago when she first met Sigurd. She had been a mess after witnessing her first major battle, as Lachesis recalled, but she had shown much better self control in more recent situations. This seemed to be two steps forward and three back, and that worried Lachesis.
Dusting her hands off, she stepped back and surveyed their work. The Thracians had been moved off to the side, and Lenster's knights grouped together and laid out properly. There was nothing they could do about scavengers, which upset her, but they didn't have time to bury the knights.
She walked up behind Sylvia, who was standing in front of Cuan and Ethlin, and put a hand on her shoulder. "We've done all we can, Sylvia. Let's set up camp."
Sylvia looked at her, aghast. "Here?"
"It's too late for us to move on further." Lachesis shook her head. "We'll back off a bit, of course...this could attract...local wildlife," she said, her voice shaking slightly. "But we can't go much farther, not in this light."
Sylvia shuddered. "I just...I don't know if I can sleep, this close to all of this..."
"With what we've seen today, I don't know if I can sleep at all," Lachesis said grimly. "But there's not a lot we can do about that." She took Sylvia by the arm and drew her away. "Let's set up."
"Lachesis...how do you do it?"
"Do what?" asked Lachesis, letting go of Sylvia and unpacking the tent from her saddlebags.
"Stay so...composed, even with all of this..." Sylvia's voice faltered.
Lachesis shook her head. "I won't lie to you. It takes self control I didn't know I had. But when Eltoshan died..." She sighed. "That was the most horrible thing I ever saw. Sigurd and Cuan didn't want me to see it. They kept telling me not to go in there; they tried to physically restrain me from going through the door...but I had to. How could I not? It was my brother." She stared at the ground. "And then I went in, and I wished I hadn't. But after seeing that...somehow this doesn't compare."
"Because you weren't close to these people?"
"I wouldn't say that...I wasn't exactly close to Cuan, not like my brother was, but seeing him like this is no cakewalk. It's just that..." She stopped, searching for words. "It's just that after you see the most important person in your life..." She shook her head again. "Forget I mentioned that. I don't want to talk about it."
"Right..." Sylvia said quietly, unpacking gear from her own horse.
They set up camp quickly, then stayed up for another three hours talking about a gamut of subjects from important to trivial. They were in unspoken agreement that they would stay up as late as they could, make themselves as tired as possible, and perhaps they would be too tired to dream about what they had seen.
It didn't work.
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