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Shadows and Memories
It was Rebecca that answered his knock. Shadow was surprised to see her up and about in her condition, when she should be in bed resting. He would have to see to it that she had some help for the next few months, which shouldn’t prove too hard. There were always housekeepers and maids for hire in the nearby towns. Of course her condition and recovery time would narrow the search.
“Shade!” She exclaimed in surprise, throwing her arms around him. It was a little awkward, for her belly was slightly swollen.
“It’s good to see you too,” Shadow wheezed. Rebecca squeezed harder and he started to feel his face changing colors.
“Becca... Becca... Can’t... Breathe...”
“What? Of course I can breathe,” She glanced up at him, befuddled. “Oh! You can’t breathe. Sorry.”
Shadow nearly collapsed when her arms fell from him. He gasped for breath and, by some miracle, was able to remain on his own two feet. Rebecca was undeterred however. A torrent of questions poured from her mouth and washed over him like a flood, nearly knocking him off those feet on which he barely stood.
“What are you doing here? How long have you been traveling? How long have you been in town? Why didn’t you visit earlier? How-”
“Becca!” Shadow wilted in the verbal assault. “One at a time please. I’m here to resupply the guard. My troop has been traveling for three days give or take. I’ve been in town for maybe an hour and I got here as soon as I could. Better? Good, now let’s go inside. The sun’s gone down and I don’t want you to catch a chill.”
As if to prove his point, Rebecca shivered. She glared at her older brother. “I hate it when you’re right.”
“That’s a lot of hate,” Shadow replied, a smug smile playing across his lips.
No sooner had they crossed through and closed the door than a young man came down from the upper level of the house.
“Rebecca darling, who was- oh, it’s you,” Lowell’s usually calm demeanor twisted into a scowl. It pushed his wire-rimmed spectacles crookedly upward, making him look more silly then scary. And it made it harder for Shadow to take his brother-in-law seriously. This, of course, only made Lowell want to scowl more. It was a vicious cycle.
“It’s good to see you too, good sir,” Shadow said with a mocking bow.
Lowell’s scowl grew deeper.
“Now, now boys,” Rebecca interrupted. “Settle down and come into the dining room. I’ve finished dinner.”
Shadow was incredulous. “You were cooking? In your condition?” He sent a dirty look at her lout of a husband. He pretended not to notice.
Rebecca Waved of his concern. “The healer said I don’t have to be on bed rest for at least another week. And I refuse to let Lowell cook; he doesn’t know an egg form the chicken that laid it. Unless he’s eating them.” She smiled at her joke.
Shadow watched her skeptically, but followed her into the dining room without further protest. That had settled it. He was going to find her some help whether either of them liked it or not.
The dining table had already been set- for two. Rebecca bustled into the kitchen for more finery, ignoring Shadow’s protests that she not strain herself. She returned with a set of dishes Shadow promptly took from her and set for himself.
The trio ate in silence for a long while before Rebecca noticed something missing.
“Shade,” she said, “where’s Jane? Didn’t you bring her along?”
“Of course,” Shadow replied. “She’d never miss a trip like this, it’s the only time she can get away from the Estate.”
“Then where is she?” Lowell asked, suspicious.
“She’s with a few of my men in town until I can finish business. Then we return to Rotane.”
Rebecca glanced away from her food to her brother. “She’s not going back to the Estate?”
Shadow shook his head decisively, as if he’d prepared for this conversation. “I’ve decide to bring her to live with me at the Academy. I’m tired of having a nanny raise her and having to visit. I should be the one raising her.”
“What about the Estate? All of Joanne’s things?”
“The Nanny has agreed to become the housekeeper. She’ll watch it all while I can’t. And I’ll take Jane back there as often as I can. But our place of residence will be the Academy until she comes of age or I retire.”
“Are you mad?” Lowell asked, nearly shouting.
“Excuse me?” Shadow replied calmly.
“Rotane Military Academy is no place for a child and especially not for a young girl. You of all people should know that, Captain.”
Shadow’s expression darkened dangerously. “Rotane is a place of learning. You of all people should know that, professor. The academy produces the most respectable young men in all the Kingdoms, and I am honored to not only have studied there, but live there now. And so will my daughter.”
“Soldiers are not appropriate company for a girl that age,” Lowell spat. “She must have a proper upbringing, away from violence.”
“I will raise her as I will!” Shadow rose suddenly, knocking over his chair in the process. “And you will neither stop nor deter me.”
Lowell jumped to his feet as well and looked about ready to explode with some angry remark when Rebecca grasped his shoulder and Shadow’s. “Boys!” She shouted her tone fierce and unwavering. “Sit!”
The men reluctantly obeyed.
“Good,” she said, gathering herself. “Now, we are going to finish our meal, peacefully. Then Shade will tell us all about his travels and then I’m sure he has more business to attend to.
“There will be no more arguing, fighting, threatening, insulting, or insinuating. Or you will wish that you had killed each other. Got it?”
She glared at the pair and they shrank away from her gaze, nodding.
Rebecca’s house was on the outskirts of town, leaving Shadow with quite a walk. He left after supper and wasn’t too surprised when Lowell locked the door against him. He wouldn’t be coming back anyway, arrangements had to be made. Supplies had to be ordered soon or his garrison would have a long wait until the merchants could make it through the snow.
Rosewood’s Square was the center of the small town, the heart of the relatively poor farming community. Merchant stalls were erected around the square where farmers and travelers alike could buy and sell wares both necessary and not. Shadow was looking for one in particular, a permanent stall set for year ‘round use. He found it squished between a larger stall that hadn’t been there the year before and a small shrine dedicated to the gods of the harvest.
The elderly shopkeeper watched his approach as he did every year, with very little interest.
“Good to see you again Shade,” He said. “Come to chase away more of my customers?”
Shadow ignored the shopkeep’s greetings, he’d heard it all before.“Skip the pleasantries Grock, I just need to place my order.”
“Of course you do,” Grock spat back. “That’s all you ever need.”
Despite his unpleasantness, Grock was the only merchant Shadow trusted to fill his orders promptly and fully. He was intensely loyal to his regulars, and Rotane Military academy was the most regular of them all. With the money the academy paid him yearly, he could have retired a hundred times over. Why he stayed in business was a mystery to Shadow, but he was glad for it, if Grock retired he’d have to find another supplier.
Shadow passed Grock a worn leather sack containing half his promised payment and a contract that said that he could have the other half of the payment when he delivered the goods. There was other paperwork to be filled out of course, but that could be taken care of later. Shadow had other anointments to keep. While Grock set about counting his coins, Shadow slipped away, silent as his namesake.
He kept to the less used streets, too many people knew him in this town, and not all of them were friendly. He knew these alleys like the back of his hand; he’d explored them all as a child. Never missing a chance to hide and spring out at people, he’d found every nook and cranny that could hide a boy his size. But now he used this gained knowledge to avoid running into the crowds that populated the main roads. He hated crowds. Granted, the crowds here were smaller than in the city and smaller still because it was dark, but there were still people out, and he really hated crowds.
As he went, Lowell’s words came back to the forefront of his thoughts. The lout was partially right of course. Military academies were where boys became men, and had no room for a woman let alone a girl. But, to Shadow, there seemed only to be two choices, bring Jane to the Academy, or leave the Academy. And, having known only the ways of a soldier, the second was too far out of reach. He knew that the best way to protect her would be to bring her into the world he knew, where she could at least learn to protect herself.
But what how could he know he was doing the right thing? Never in his life had he ever felt so torn. He’d always known what needed to be done and how, where, and when it needed to happen. His confidence was how he’d made it as far as he had. Now, that confidence was shattered, and he couldn’t fix it.
Eventually the alleys ended, and his stop came into view, a large redbrick building with a sign above the door declaring it to be “The Blue Brick Tavern.”
Shadow spied a young man standing in lee of the tavern. He was dressed in the black and gold of an elite regiment and had the air of a well trained soldier. He was one of Shadows aides-de-camp, the only one that hadn’t been given leave of duty yet. Not that he didn’t want it, he had just recognized a job that needed to be done.
“Captain,” the young man said with a salute.
Shadow saluted back half-heartedly. “Report Gerard.”
“Bess accepted her responsibility without complaint. Although she did say to tell you that you owe her another one,” Gerard raised an eyebrow to his captain, Shadow pretended not to notice. “There’s been little trouble of late, but a group of ruff-looking foresters went in just over half an hour ago. They’re probably well drunk by now, and I’m sure they won’t like King’s men in their tavern.”
Shadow nodded, his hand closed around the grip of his sword instinctively, but the grasped air. He’d forgotten that he’d left it with his horse in the stables. “Have you seen the rest of the troop?”
Gerard shook his head, “I’ve been here since we arrived and not one of our men has come in or out of that door. That I’ve seen.”
“With me then,” Shadow commanded. Gerard nodded his agreement and fell in step behind his captain as he headed into the Blue Brick.
Through the door, Shadow could hear the loud, rowdy crowd inside. As the door opened the chatter stopped. He and Gerard Stood in the doorway for a few long moments, watching the crowd. The crowd watched them, sizing them up. Finally, Shadow started for the bar, Gerard behind him, stony faced. A large man in the rough garb of a Forester stood from his chair to block their path. Shadow stared at his Adam’s apple for a second before looking up.
The man glared at the pair. “We don’t want you type here,” He said, his breath reeked of alcohol.
“Are you going to evict us?” Shadow asked, he couldn’t keep the contempt from his voice.
There was the sound of a chair scraping and Shadow became aware of another black and gold clad man beside him.
“He can try, sir.” Jonathan made a hand motion and more people rose. All of them wearing the same uniform.
The big Forester was suddenly found himself surrounded by twenty of Shadow’s men scattered throughout the tavern’s main room. He glanced at his drinking mates, who had enough sense to stay seated. He returned to his seat, defeated.
“Gerard, with me. Jonathan, the door. No one leaves,” Shadow glanced around the room, it seemed that his entire regiment had come to the tavern, and Gerard hadn’t seen them. “The rest of you, outside and in formation. I’ll need a word with you before we ride.”
Without waiting to see if his orders were carried out, shadow strode past the bar to a door in the back wall. He flung it open and disappeared inside with Gerard on his heels. The door led to a short hallway with more rooms branching out on either side. Bess’ office was the last door.
Before entering, Shadow glanced at Gerard and pointed at the floor beside the door. Gerard nodded and took up the ‘guard’ position on the spot Shadow pointed to. Shadow knocked.
“Enter,” came the reply.
Bess sat at her desk, holding her head in her hands. There were papers strewn about, an ink well had spilled and created a growing black stain. The drawers of her desk had been pulled out and their contents dumped. A pile of papers in the corner giggled.
“GET HER OUT!!”
The pile jumped and ran out of the room, leaving a trail of papers behind. Shadow nodded his understanding and shut the door, barely escaping a drawer Bess threw at him.
“YOU OWE ME!!”
Shadow smiled and then noticed a trail of papers leading down the hallway and into the main room, he also noted that Gerard had deserted his post. He followed the trail out into the main, where he stopped for a second. The trail continued outside passing where Jonathan should have been, but he saw a few of his other troops along the edges, disobeying his orders. The big forester was right where he was supposed to be, and he was fuming.
As Shadow passed him, the Forester jumped up to block his path again. Without stopping, Shadow stomped on his opponent’s foot, spun around him, and slammed his elbow between the shoulder blades. The big man fell with the loudest crash ever heard. His friends that jumped to his aid found themselves restrained by Shadow’s men. Shadow gave one last contemptuous glance at the bar’s patrons and waved to his troops, who filed out without a sound.
It had gotten considerably darker outside, in the short amount of time Shadow had been inside. Hardly anyone was out at this hour that wasn’t up to no good. But even if they had been awake, they would have been hard pressed to see the Rotane Elite Guard in their formation. Five rows of five men became just a black stain in the darkness, with a two particular black stains standing away from the main group. Shadow looked over his troops, his vision barely affected by the darkness. Beside him was Gerard, holding an eight-year-old girl over his shoulder. He’d left his post when she passed so as to make sure she wasn’t troubled by the Foresters. Jonathan followed when the chase left the tavern and went down the street. For although Gerard was stronger and less affected by the run-away’s squirming, Jonathan was faster. He’d made sure to send men inside to watch for the Captain.
Shadow had considered his explanation, and found their logic to be sound. No reprimands were needed, at least not for the soldiers.
“Let me down!” Gerard’s captive demanded. She kicked violently to dislodge herself but was unsuccessful.
“You can let her down now,” Shadow said to Gerard, to the troops he said, “All of you, to the stables. We ride to camp and then on to The Academy.”
“Sir, yes sir!” was the enthusiastic reply.
“Dismissed,” the little run-away tried to follow Gerard, but wasn’t as sneaky as she thought. “Not you little one,” Shadow grabbed her collar. “You stay with me.”
Jane huffed and struggled against her father’s grip. After a second she realized her energy was spent for naught and gave up. “Fine,” she said and huffed again.
Shadow laughed, she was so much like her mother.
When an army travels, they travel with a sea of tents. Comparatively, Shadow’s men traveled with a puddle. And unlike army commanders, with their large, fancy tents that became the center of the encampment, Shadow preferred to place his tent along the edges of camp, so as to be the first to respond to trouble. The fire was the center of camp, large and hot enough to accommodate the twenty-seven elite warriors and the one little girl.
After the ‘night off’ they had received, most of the men had little use for the fire and it dwindled as more and more left it to find their tent. Eventually, the only one’s awake were the sentinels and the Captain. Even Jane, spent of her usually youthful and boundless stores of energy, dozed against her father’s side.
But Shadow couldn’t sleep. His men would attest to him almost never sleeping on trips like these. He would stay awake all night, through the dying fire and changing guard, staring at the stars. His troops speculated over the reason for his insomnia, even as they placed bets on when he would finally pass out from exhaustion. But no one knew the true reason, and no one wanted to ask.
Only Shadow, staring into the heavens, knew the answer to the unasked question. But he refused to give it out, not even to Rebecca. Instead, he simply remembered.
He remembered a time when he was a younger man, in a glade not dissimilar to the one he sat in now. He remembered a rider, a young woman, a fellow traveler, the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen. She asked to share his fire and he couldn’t respond without a stutter. She laughed and, he realized now, that’s when their fates had been sealed. Nothing but time passed before they were married, and a child born soon after.
But the Gods must have deemed him too fortunate, for they tipped the balance against him. Fever overtook her and he’d been unable to do anything, unable to save her.
The Gods took her away from him.
After years of grief and recovery, he realized that his daughter was starting to become more and more like her mother with every passing day, not just in sight but in act as well. He prayed silently that the Preacher’s were correct and that he would see Joanne again. But for now, in the waning light of the moon he had to stay strong.
He kissed two fingers and lifted them to the stars in salute before carrying Jane off to bed.