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Ch. 7: The return of the Light

It was late afternoon, and I approached the town warily through fields of crops gone to weeds, for I had no way of knowing what had happened in my absence. Indeed, there was an excellent chance that some of the former townsfolk had gone feral from their transformation; even had they merely fled as far and as fast as their new legs would take them, their absence would leave room for other, more natural predators to enter town. My first sign of this possibility was the commons where the farmers grazed their sheep. Although most of the flock was grazing contentedly, looking none the worse for wear, the clean-picked bones of one ewe lay forlornly at the end of the pasture; from the splintered bones, it seemed a wolf had claimed it, though it led me to wonder what had prevented the wolf from returning to such rich pickings.

Cattle were roaming among the crops along with the pigs. I wasn't a farmer, so I had no idea what would have happened to cows left unmilked, but having seen them lining up impatiently at the barn every day, I had to assume they'd been awfully uncomfortable until their bodies figured things out. From a distance, some appeared to have lost their udders, and perhaps that was a sensible adaptation to life in Shadow. The pigs, as always, seemed placid and unperturbed, though even from a distance, something seemed subtly wrong with their shape. Possibly they had enough of a mind that Shadow had begun to work on them, unlike the sheep. There was no sign of any horses.

I saw many old animal tracks, none seeming recent, and that suggested I had little to worry about from predators. Nonetheless, I drew my sword and slowed my pace, wary lest I encounter anything with a taste for softer flesh. Indeed, as I entered town there was an eerie silence, for the streets were empty and there was little sound but the whisper of the wind between the houses, and a far-off door banging against its frame, nor was there any light save that of the waning sun. There was no warmth of hearth fires shining from half-shuttered windows, and not so much as the ghost of smoke from those fires. What there was, once I came to the Temple, was death.

In all, there were perhaps two dozen corpses, their bones long since picked clean by scavengers, and I had to grit my teeth to fight back memories. By concentrating on the bones, I could take my mind away from those memories. Here, for instance, the bones were pristine, not a one of them cracked for the marrow; there, the bones just a bit further down the street had been gnawed slightly, likely by rats; there, the bones were wide-flung, one of them crushed but not eaten, as if a horse or cow, wandering heedless through the town, had stepped on the skeleton and gotten a hoof stuck in its rib cage. I sheathed my sword again, relieved, for whatever had scavenged the bodies, it was evident that no large predator had entered town during the villagers’ absence.

Focusing on the task at hand, I set about gathering up those bodies and wrapping them in blankets I took from abandoned houses. Later, there would be time to bury them, but for now, all I could do was to put them in the Temple mortuary, where they’d be safe from further violation. After a couple hours, only two skeletons remained, and it was all I could do to force myself to approach them.

Graemor’s body was easiest, for though I'd come to doubt the man at the very end, he'd still been like a second father to me for most of my stay in Haven—that is, for most of my adult life. My real parents were long since vanished, lost somewhere in Shadow years ago when my home had been overrun, and I hadn't mourned them or even thought much of them for years. Graemor had taken their place and, more than anyone, had turned me into the man that I now was. So it was with tenderness in the end that I gathered his bones and laid them gently in the charnel room of the Temple.

Gathering Mareth’s bones almost defeated me. Though Mother had eased the acuteness of my grief, she hadn't eliminated it entirely. The part of it that remained unmanned me, for in the end, I’d not even had the chance to bid my lover farewell. Now I knelt before her bones, eyes closed around my tears, and wept silently until that pain gradually eased. When I’d done, I gathered her bones too and took them to the Temple, laying them gently beside Graemor’s remains. Then I shut the door firmly against the possibility of predators and strode out into the gathering twilight.

Shadow still tugged at me, strongly enough that I knew I'd soon have to rekindle the Light, but there was a memory that still moved in me, as if I’d missed something. It was as I stared out at that place where the child of Shadow had stood at the very end that I understood what was nagging at me. Where I had laid Talmin at his feet, there stood a bush in place of the bones that had marked the resting place of the others. All at once, I recalled what Mohri had told me when we first met, about how one could survive in Shadow unchanged for as long as necessary by submerging one’s consciousness and becoming something else. Something like a plant.

So I crossed slowly towards the bush, watching it closely. It was a kind I'd never seen before, with small yellow flowers that had begun to open as the light faded, shedding a faint, sweet scent that attracted small moths and other winged things. The branches were thick and robust, with small thorns upon them like those of a rose, and the leaves were complex and borne on stalks with multiple leaflets that swayed gracefully in the breeze. I sat beside the bush, and reached out to touch it, eyes closed, trying to sense whether any trace of my oldest friend remained. There was none. After a time, sorrow still heavy on my heart, I rose and returned to the Temple.

In my concentration on the unpleasant task that had occupied me, I'd had no time to think of the Temple itself. Now that I was in the room of the Light, there was naught else to occupy my thoughts, and I could feel the emptiness of the place as I’d felt the emptiness of the bush that had been Talmin. Always before, there had been the Light to welcome me home when I returned from Shadow, and its presence had beckoned to me across the fields until at last I came home and restored myself. Now, beyond the emptiness of a building with no life in it other than mine, there was a deeper void that drew at me as strongly as Shadow.

Shaking off that feeling, I drew my knife and moved to stand with my arm over the shallow depression that had always before held the Light. Mother had used only a single drop of blood and a sewing needle, but surely that was because she was so much more than human. I ran my palm along the edge of my knife before I could reconsider, and even as the pain seared and I drew my hand back instinctively, several drops of blood trickled along the edge of the blade and dropped thickly to the floor.

The blood clotted thickly in the dust that had accumulated, unheeded, over the weeks it must have been since we’d left our town, but even as I watched, it began to glow with a life of its own, smoldering red at first like a coal being blown carefully into life, then turning progressively more golden. That light seemed so small and fragile at first that I moved my wounded hand over it, squeezing it to release more blood, but even before the first drops fell, there was a sudden surge of power in the room, blindingly bright in the darkness that had gathered around me, unnoticed. My hand, caught in that blaze, was itself on fire for a moment, and when I drew it back reflexively, half expecting to be burned, I saw instead the thin line of an old, healed scar. From the Light that now danced before me, reaching to the low stone ceiling, emanated the same warmth I'd felt in the presence of Mother, and all at once, the room was full of the life and safety it had always held for me.

I basked in that warmth and let it soothe the pain that I’d banked within me like a fire.

***

In the morning, the streets of Haven were lit by the warm light of sun and a normal day, for Shadow had been pushed far back already and it had been long since I’d been beyond its influence. I gathered some stale, rock-hard bread and wizened vegetables from Talmin’s kitchen, then sat on the stone steps of the Temple to eat them, savoring the stolid, unchanging stability of the day and knowing that soon I'd have to return to Shadow, for my work here had just begun.

As I ate, I pondered the bush that grew just outside the Temple walls. It was a pleasant enough bush, despite the melancholy memories it awoke, and when I’d done eating, I went to say my farewells before leaving on my errands.

“Farewell, friend. I’ll return to you when I can.” Awkward though it felt to be talking to a plant, I said the words aloud, grateful no one was present to hear me. Then I rubbed a gentle hand along one of the leaves, seeking the familiar, comforting touch of an old friend. As I did, I pricked a finger on one of the thorns.

Frowning, I withdrew my hand from that sting, and sucked on the blood that had welled up from the tiny wound. But as I did, some part of me caught a change in the bush. Where my blood had flowed onto the thorn, a red glow had sprung up, changing slowly to a warm golden hue as the light intensified and spread along all the limbs of the plant. My hand dropped to my side, and I watched in silent awe as the bush began changing, leaves shrinking back into the twigs that bore them and the twigs in their turn shrinking back into branches, until soon only a trunk, two branches, and two large roots remained. Then the light surged, blinding me, and when my vision cleared, Talmin lay on the ground before me, unmoving.

I reached out a cautious hand, touched cool flesh that had not yet warmed under the sun, and felt a slow, steady pulse. Then the priestess gave a slow, shuddering breath, and her eyes opened, blinking in the bright sunlight.

“Am?”

 “Talmin!” And before she could defend herself, I gathered her up in my arms and hugged her tightly to me, overcome by the joy that at least one person important to me remained alive and seemingly well.

After a moment, she pushed me away. “Enough. You still haven’t made an honest women of Mareth, and people will get to talking.” The pain must have been obvious on my face, for her mocking tone immediately changed to concern. “Am, what's wrong?” Then, noticing the empty streets around us, her face clouded over. “Am, why was I lying in the street? And what’s happened to Haven? I have the strangest memories...”

I looked away, the pain awakening once more. When I’d choked it down again, I met her eyes. “Mohri—or whoever he was—extinguished our Light, and Shadow claimed us all.” Talmin shuddered visibly, despite the warmth of the sun, and she abruptly sat down. “Some of us—” I swallowed hard “—some of us didn’t make it.”

“Amodai, I can’t say how sorry I am.” She put a gentle hand on my shoulder, and after a moment, I placed my own hand over it. When I drew it away again, she found herself looking at the blood that stained her hand.

“You’re injured. Let me bind that.”

I laughed, my mood passing again. “No, it’s just a scratch from one of your thorns.”

Thorns?”

“It’s a long story. Let’s get you back on your feet and I’ll tell you about it.” I helped her up, supporting her as long unused muscles failed her, and she leaned heavily on me as we made our way into the Temple.

***

“So in short, you’re telling me you’re some kind of saint.” Talmin sounded almost hurt.

I laughed. “I think I preferred you as a bush; you were less prickly." She swatted playfully at me, and I ducked. "No, I’m not telling you anything of the sort. There was no heroism involved, and no religious purity. You’ve nothing to fear for your job, old friend.”

She smiled at those last words; even when you know something beyond a shadow of a doubt, its sometimes good to hear it stated explicitly. “Fine. So you’re the same old Amodai I know and love, even though you restored the Light, saved me, and now you’re off to rescue the people of the whole city.”

“When you put it that way, maybe you’d better be treating me with a little more respect.” We exchanged comfortable, warm smiles. “But seriously, the job would be much easier if you came with me.”

She shuddered, making no effort to hide it. “Enter Shadow voluntarily? Not on your life. Certainly, not on mine.”

“Tal, the world’s changed for us. We can’t look upon Shadow as an evil to be fought, because it’s not. It’s a part of who we are; Mother convinced me of that. And it diminishes our humanity not in the least to accept that aspect of ourselves. Don’t your blasted scriptures say precisely that?”

“Yes, they do.” She sighed deeply. "Look... I want you to understand something. I no longer believe Shadow is evil, at least not intellectually—but in my heart... you’ve got to understand that I’ve been indoctrinated my whole life to think of Shadow as our enemy. And what happened to Haven makes it even harder to accept any other conclusion. You’ve got to admit, they certainly don’t seem much like our friends.”

“No, I’ll concede the point, but it’s not like we’ve given them much chance to be friendly. Now that Graemor’s gone, perhaps we’ve got that chance.” Talmin opened her mouth as if she were about to say something, then reconsidered.

What? You were going to say something.”

She looked away, not meeting my eyes. “I was just going to say that even if we can become—well, neutral if not actually friends—not everyone is going to be as sanguine as you about becoming part of Shadow. It’s not that there’s anything so much wrong with it, as much as...”

“... the fact that it’s terrifying to lose that much control of yourself. Yeah, it must be embarrassing to have to admit you spent the past several weeks as a bush while everyone else was running wild in the woods.” This time she swatted me hard. I put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed, and she smiled gratefully.

“Yes, that’s certainly part of it. There are some who may never accept that.”

“But you don’t have to accept it.” I saw the question forming in her eyes, and continued. “Look... If it were a case of submerging your identity wholly in Shadow and letting it rule you, none of the Rangers would ever come back. What was done to us is something entirely different—our wills were stripped from us and our identities were wholly swept away.”

“A terrible violation!”

I nodded. “In a sense. But that’s not the way it is for those of us who have learned to be part of Shadow. Yes, there’s a chance to submerge as much of yourself as you wish and become what you change into—but there’s also the chance to submerge only a little of yourself. With some practice, you learn to remain wholly in control of the change... blend the Light in you with the Shadow. I can’t help but feel that each of us was intended to find that balance for ourselves, and that the true violation was having this choice taken from us.”

Talmin shook her head sadly. “That’s easier said than understood... and accepted.”

“You think it’s easier being a bush?”

She laughed. “Almost always, provided you’ve got friends to keep the sheep away.”

“You certainly smelled better as a bush.”

We shared the easy laughter of old friendship, but a part of me worried about Talmin and what she’d said. Finding the townsfolk and returning them to Haven would be a long, tedious job, but helping them to understand that what they’d learned their whole lives was wrong... that was a job for someone with the patience of a priestess, not for me, and it would be a much easier task if that priestess believed what she was teaching.

***

In the weeks that followed, I spent most waking moments searching the woods for the people of Haven, capturing those few I found and bringing them back, willing or otherwise, to Talmin. It was slow, tedious, dangerous work, for many had become wild animals, identities fully submerged by their transformations, and capturing them without harming them exposed me to the risk of serious wounds. Nonetheless, I'd eventually returned enough people to town that the animals were back in their paddocks and out of danger, while the fields were once again growing more crops than weeds.

But it was disheartening work until the day Mohri returned, along with a pack of wolves shepherding a nervous flock of deer, boar, and other small forest animals. I found them waiting for me at the edge of Shadow, and one by one, I escorted them past the wolves and into the Light. As each changed, there were tears of joy at their return or tears of horror at what they remembered and at the loss of loved ones, for there were many missing faces, my Ranger friends not least among them. As the last of the group of returned people crossed the boundary into Light, Mohri and the wolves turned and vanished silently, leaving me no chance to speak to them.

The most difficult task of all was finding the Rangers, for they were subtle and skilled at both woodcraft and manipulating Shadow. Nonetheless, as Mother had promised, their scents were familiar to me, and that made it difficult for them to hide for long. And something in my voice once I’d caught up with them seemed to penetrate the animal mind and wake the human within, though perhaps I fool myself and it was merely that they were always ready to awaken, needing only the sound of a human voice for the trained Ranger to reassert himself.

I said himself advisedly, for of them all, Bethan was the last. It was not so much that she was harder to track; indeed, she made no effort to hide from me. Rather, she ran long and far whenever she sensed I was on her trail, always moving just far enough away; any farther, and I would have to spend a night in Shadow, something I was still unsure I’d survive with my self intact. I couldn't afford that risk with so much work left undone, even with the other Rangers helping me to find and bring back strayed Havenites, I returned each time, empty-handed and with a growing sense of despair. In those times, I found myself seeking the company of friends and the comfort of strong drink.

“Really, being a bush isn’t that bad. Grow yourself enough thorns and even the deer will leave you in peace, not that you’re an attractive meal to begin with.”

Bareni laughed, nearly snorting ale out his nose, then raised his mug to Talmin in salute.

I swallowed half a mug of dark, yeasty brew, and glared at them both over the rim of my mug. “That’s all very well, but it’s getting us no closer to finding her and bringing her home.”

Bareni stopped laughing first, and shook his head. “I think it’s more than obvious she doesn’t want to come home. And weren't you the one telling us it’s a good thing to embrace Shadow and let that part of ourselves live again?”

I began to protest, but he held up a hand to forestall me. “I’m sorry, Am. This has gone past the point of kidding, hasn’t it?” I nodded, not trusting my voice. “So let’s solve your problem, then. Have you ever considered the possibility that it’s you she’s avoiding?”

I sat upright in my chair, no more sober, but at least more alert. “Me? How could that be? We’ve been friends ever since I came to Haven.”

Friends, yes,” he replied, and Talmin’s eyes widened as if she suddenly understood something I hadn't yet seen.

“Yes, friends. And why would she be avoiding a friend?”

Talmin reached across the table and placed a gentle hand on my forearm. I shrugged it off, then let it rest when she tried again. "Are you really that blind, Am? Even a thickwit like you should have figured out she’s always wanted to be more than your friend.”

“And that whole time, you’ve been in love with someone else.” Bareni added, sitting back and watching my reaction.

I got to my feet. “But why didn’t she just tell me?”

The two of them exchanged knowing glances. “Thick as a brick,” Bareni proclaimed fondly. “It’s a wonder he ever makes it safely back from Shadow.”

Talmin interceded, grabbing my sword belt and pulling me back into my chair. “Indelicately put, Ranger boy, but not far from the mark." She sipped her own drink, and mused a moment. "Look, I don't claim to speak for all women everywhere, but I think he’s right. Women don't work that way. We don't appreciate being attacked like a doe by a wolf, but we also don't appreciate complete passivity. A girl likes to be noticed, you know.”

“And what that means,” Bareni mused, “is that she's not exactly going to be eager to come back and watch you and Mareth ignore her. Far easier to simply go with Shadow, and leave you to go your own way, without her.”

“But Mareth—”

“And how’s she supposed to know that?” Talmin said gently.

“Um.”

"Yes, um."

“So if we’re right,” Bareni put in, “then you’ll never catch her. She’ll always stay just out of reach.”

“But what if—?”

“What if I stopped lazing around here drinking warm beer and teasing you, and took up my responsibility as Ranger leader? You’re right. It’s time I brought her in.”

Talmin nodded approval. “Amen to that.”

And so it was that a few days later, Bareni returned to town with a deeply chagrined Bethan in his wake. There were deep scratches on his face, and one arm was bound up in a bloodstained bandage, but he walked proudly, avoiding the curious gazes of onlookers. I was sitting outside the Temple with Talmin, finishing lunch, when they entered Temple yard. When I saw her, I dropped my lunch, knocking a bottle of wine over on Talmin, who leapt to her feet with an exclamation. What she said, I don’t know, for I was already halfway across the yard to greet the last of my friends to return.

“Bethan!”

She shied away from me, but I swept her up in my arms and crushed the wind out of her with a hug. After a moment’s hesitation, she hugged me back, albeit somewhat breathlessly.

“Leave off, you clod. After all the trouble I went to retrieving her, you’re going to crush her now?”

I relaxed my grip a bit and glanced over Bareni’s wounds, concerned. “You’re alright?”

He grinned. “We, um, ran into a hunting cat on our way home, and it took a bit of doing to fight her off.”

Bethan poked me in the ribs. “Didn’t you hear the man?”

I released her. “You’re sure you’re alright? Let’s get Talmin to have a look at those cuts.”

“I think I can probably manage to find my way over there by myself.” With a wink at Bethan, he strode briskly past, no longer trying to hide the smug look on his face.

I turned back to Bethan. “A hunting cat?”

She blushed and looked away, then poked me in the stomach, hard enough to hurt. When she looked up, the fire was back in her eyes. “And just what are you implying, Amodai?”

“That I’m damn glad you fought it off and made it safely back home.”

Her eyes softened a bit, and for the first time she smiled. “Yeah, I’m glad to be home too. I missed you, you big dumb clod.”

I put a companionable arm around her shoulder, having learned something these past few days. “If I’m as dumb as everyone says, how is it I’m the one who brought the Light back to Haven? Tell me that, if you’re so smart.”

“Blind luck?” There was the familiar cheerful mockery in her voice, but she put an arm around my waist and held me as we walked across the yard to rejoin Talmin and Bareni.

***

It was several days later when I returned to Shadow, for there’d been reports of a wolf haunting the edges of the Light, and the farmers were worried about their flocks—and themselves, though they didn’t come right out and say it. Bareni or any other Ranger could have handled the job easily enough, but they sent me because, as Ranali had put it, I was “hanging around Bethan like a bee around honey, and the poor girl needed time to recover from her ordeal”. So I was the one who found the wolf, waiting patiently at the edge of Light as if he’d been expecting me. There was something sufficiently familiar about the wolf that I relaxed instantly, and crossed over to join him in Shadow. He transformed by the time I reached his position, flowing into the familiar shape of Mohri.

“I was wondering when you’d be back.”

“There was much to be done. The children of Shadow have been chastened of late, and we have considerable shame to bear after what happened to Haven... and elsewhere”

“Not so much that you didn’t bring home those of our people who survived. That repays many debts, don’t you think?”

“Some, but not all. I can see myself repaying more debts by teaching those who survived to embrace Shadow the way you once learned to do.”

“It won't be that easy. Even our priestess, who knows better, won't willingly enter Shadow again. It will take a long time to make that change in our people, Mohri, perhaps generations.”

“The children of Shadow are nothing if not patient, and we live longer than you. We can wait.” He smiled shyly. “And what of you?”

“What of me?”

“Amodai, don’t you think it’s time you acknowledged what you’ve known all along?”

“And what would that be, Mohri?”

“That you don’t belong with these children of Light... that you’re of Shadow as much as I am.”

“Perhaps.”

“At the very least, you must learn to live in Shadow without losing yourself. You’re most of the way there already, and it wouldn’t take much to learn the rest of what you need.”

“You mean how to become a bush so I could sleep the night away in peace? No thanks.”

He smiled. “That was a half truth I told you when we first met. It’s certainly one way to do it, but there are better ways.”

“I’d like to learn them. Only now’s a bad time.”

“There’s never a good time. Come now, while I’m feeling generous. Besides, you owe me. It’s my turn to bring you to my people with your arms bound.”

I smiled. “I concede the justice in what you say, but I think I’ll pass on the opportunity. Didn’t we just go through all this fuss to avoid that sort of thing?”

“I suppose we did.”

I thought for a moment. “Actually, I think I have a better notion.”

“I’m all ears.”

“Why not come back to Haven with me... with your arms free this time.”

“And why would I do that?”

“To acknowledge what you’ve known all along.”

“And what, pray tell, would that be?”

“If it’s true that I belong in Shadow, then it’s equally true that you belong in Light.”

“And if I came back with you for a time...?”

“And if?”

His wariness vanished and he pursed his lips. “What kind of message would that send?”

“The right kind, I’m thinking.”

Slowly, grudgingly, he nodded, then acceptance turned into eagerness. “No bonds?”

“No bonds!” I laughed aloud.

“Then you’ve got a deal.”

I put a companionable arm around his shoulder, and together we walked back towards Haven.

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