Broken Branch: Chapter 7

Now the time has come for me to write my own account, which is a reflection of Karidha’s, I think. “Story must reflect story.” I have inserted Zosai’s brief testament as a bridge and as a hint as to how he and Thereus became estranged, even if they never were enemies. This, I am sure, is the account that you will be most eager to read, hoping for me to provide new insight into Thereus’s last days. You will not be disappointed in that, though you may be disappointed for other reasons.

It began with the king’s last dream. It had been clear for some time that he would soon depart for the gray waters, though he lingered longer than anyone had expected. His doctors give the following transcription of the words he spoke on one of his last mornings.

“The child of aged parents sits in the heart of the forest, holding the toy in his hands. He waits for those who come to find him. The flies bite their heads, but if they do not find the child they will perish. Heaven winnows those it has chosen, but the road to salvation is a hard one. The travelers climb the hills to see the fool who stole fire from another world, then descend into the valley where they must die. The forest itself will fight against them until they enter the clearing, but the child will make them well again and deliver them from flies and foes.”

He told them he had described a dream he had been having just before he woke. As for what it meant, he had little more idea than they themselves. A few days later, Zosai II, seer, king of Karei and Avazin, and archon of the children of the sun, died, at the impressive age of eighty-seven. His body was burned on the field of ashes and his grandson Laranzut wore the phoenix crown after him.

Some weeks later, Thereus came to visit my father and mother, which was unusual. After the Moon’s Death took his wife, Thereus had withdrawn to his home, and although he continued to see those who came to him for guidance, he hardly ever left. “Bitter grief weighed him down.” He had attended Zosai’s funeral, but said nothing during it.

Now, however, he spoke to my parents of the old days in the eastern islands which I have never seen. “I returned to the islands in secrecy, hidden from the world,” he said. “I would have been content to live with Niviem in peace forever if your uncle hadn’t called me to my task. And then the islands would have perished. I owed him more than I can say.”

My father mentioned Zosai’s last vision and asked him if he had known about it.

“No. No, I hadn’t,” Thereus said, leaning forward as he did. I remember that his eyes were filled with a new light, and I don’t write this as a tired metaphor, but as a sincere description of how he appeared to me then. It was not uncommon for some of the younger townsmen to call Thereus a dead man who hadn’t yet found his pyre, “worthless scoffers mocking what is too high for them,” but whatever gloom had been upon Thereus was falling away at that moment. “Now that is something interesting. It would be a pity if we left his last mission to us unfulfilled.”

“You think you understand it, then?” my father asked.

“I certainly don’t. At least not in specifics. But tell me what you think it means.”

Father turned his eyes to me. “What do you think, Luma? I’m certain you have your opinion.”

“Well,” I said, “I think it has to describe a journey someone must take to find this child. That is what seems clear to me, though there are certainly pieces of it I could make guesses about. All three of you know the danger of making guesses about prophecy.” I referred of course to the various men who had falsely claimed to be Thereus in the last days of the old islands.

Mother spoke up for the first time. Usually she was more gregarious than this, but I think she felt Father’s loss even more strongly than he did. “Luma has the right idea, doesn’t she?”

“She does,” said Thereus, smiling at me. “And we are perishing from the Moon’s Death. It may be that Zosai is sending me out again to do one last task for the islands.”

“Not your last, surely,” said Father, sounding alarmed. There are varying accounts of Thereus’s birth year, but not counting the centuries he spent in the courts of Heaven, he was far closer to my parents’ ages than to Zosai’s. Yet his seclusion after his wife’s death had not been an encouraging sign. Perhaps we all had an inkling of what was to come.

“One last task for him, I should rather say. Whether it is mine or not, only Heaven knows. And fortunately, I believe I know the fool who stole fire from the heavens. You may have seen him once or twice, but he is not too fond of people, and left town not long after we came to this island. His name is Baurin.”

“How did he steal fire?” asked Mother.

“I won’t betray his confidence by telling you. Maybe if you ever meet him he will choose to inform you himself.”

“You’re planning on going, then?” Father asked.

“I am. What else do I have to do? Indeed, I’ve always thought I should go see the inner lands for myself. The way of the sun does not end here, but continues on into the west.”

“Then I’ll go with you too. It would be a shame if no one wrote about your journey.”

Thereus shook his head, but he was smiling. “I think I have quite enough glory. Too much, rather. But I would be pleased if you accompanied me.” His eyes fell on me and pierced me to my heart, or so it seemed. “And your family?”

“I’ll come along,” said Mother. “It’s been too long since we’ve gone on an expedition, Alad. But Luma will stay here and look after the house.”

“I will not!” I said. “I want to see how the vision is fulfilled with my own eyes!” Here let me explain that since early childhood I had been fascinated with the various seers who had appeared during our history, and pored over their surviving writings: Naimetl, Salomoh, Kirkiv, Sanum, Krasoa, and the all rest, down to Zosai himself. I had made a pasttime of comparing their visions to the canonical interpretations and to the histories, to “sift fact from error.” So it was only natural for me to insist on coming along.

Father and Mother were not enthusiastic about this, but Thereus persuaded them to allow me to come. “I can tell you, though I hope it won’t go to her head, that Luma is the keenest interpreter of prophecy in Avazin today. I think we will find her assistance to be invaluable.”

Despite his warning, I was pleased beyond measure by his praise. I fear I did briefly envision myself leading him and my parents through the wilderness, reading clue after clue from the vision. But this was an absurd enough image that it was gone quickly from my mind.

So it was settled that the four of us would go inwards from the coast, to find the fool who stole fire from the heavens. “And yet more, more than the islands could imagine.”

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Broken Branch: Chapter 6

[I am afraid that poor Uncle comes off as especially pedantic in the following testament, but to do him justice, he wanted to make it as clear as possible what he did and why he did it. And with some success, I think, as neither his reputation nor Thereus’s were tarnished by this incident, not in the long run. “Let the sons of my sons’ sons judge what I have done this day.”]

I set my pen to paper for a specific purpose. Recent events among our people have left many unsure of their future, and that of Avazin as a whole. Some murmur against me and some against Thereus, but everyone is murmuring something. So, encouraged by my nephew, I lay aside my phoenix crown for a short while to write this account, my account, of why I argued with Thereus and what came of our argument in the end.

Let me say first of all that I have given this account to Thereus for his approval. He seemed amused by much of it, I am afraid, but he told me, and allowed me to write, “It is true enough.” And now to explain how it is that a king asks for permission to write.

There are many, I am aware, who say that Thereus and I were at odds even before the first ships came to Avazin. They say this because they can only see the past with the eyes of the present. When we led our people out of the eastern islands, we were united in our purpose. The prophet sent by Heaven, returned after long centuries from the sleep of death, and the king who inherited his throne from countless generations of rulers, going back to a time when men walked with Heaven, perhaps. He had his mission and I had my visions and together we brought the children of the sun from their doomed home into the new land that was promised us.

It was only after that, once we had actually arrived in the promised land, in the new island Heaven had set apart for us, that the troubles began. No one admired Thereus more than I, who had seen him in my dreams before he was revealed to the world. But many understood him better than I, even my own heir Alad, who told me once that there was a light on Thereus that would blind us if he lingered too long. I dismissed this as the hero-worship of youth, but I was not wise to do so.

At first Thereus seemed inclined to retire into private life with his wife Niviem, but this proved impossible. There were too many who came to him for advice and blessings, and he was too kind to abandon them and live in the hills as a kind of hermit. It would be wrong for me not to mention Niviem’s patience and practicality, without which Thereus might have been driven to madness by his own followers.

I will mention here one typical event of the sort that demonstrates Thereus’s wisdom. It was hard for some of us, as eager as we had been at first, to make the adjustment to our new way of life. Many, especially kelp farmers, simply sat down and refused to do anything, to the point where some refused to eat. Matters were not helped by the slowness with which the first new kelp groves grew. We had our sheep, of course, and their were plenty of fish and birds, but kelp shortages have always been seen as a sign of Heaven’s disfavor.

Soldiers became quarrelsome, fearing that more ships might arrive carrying our foes from back home, the king and queen of Radandh or the cult of the Silver Blades, though there was no reason to expect either. The Silver Blades had been defeated and scattered, and the rulers of Radandh had made their choice to stay.

On the occasion in question, a soldier had grown sufficiently irritated with one of the despondent farmers that he struck him and compelled him to carry a burden and help him hunt deer. He refused, however, to give the farmer more than a token portion of the meat, asserting that as the farmer had done nothing of his own accord, he deserved nothing more. Those of you who remember the law courts of Jaladh and the great books of precedent will laugh to observe how far we had fallen from our grandeur back home.

The farmer’s unfortunate wife went to Thereus seeking justice. It was believed among many that I would take the side of the soldiers in any quarrel, which is of course untrue. It was my hand that enforced justice and discipline among the soldiers, even those who had come from old kingdoms other than my own. When I heard Thereus’s decision, I approved it fully. The soldier, however, thought himself treated unfairly and stirred up some of his compatriots to cause trouble.

Thereus came forward himself to speak to the mob, while I was still deliberating. The voyage to the west had stripped me of many of the staffs on which I had been accustomed to lean: both the council of lords and the tribunal were tied to the land, and that land was far across the sea. Many of my old subjects had remained behind and I was given new subjects to replace them. So I hesitated, but Thereus acted at once. With his calm, reasonable words, he dampened the anger of the soldiers and even persuaded many of them that in the future they should have more mercy for those who were overcome by despair: it was good to have them work but not to deny them their reward.

We were, as I have written, in accord at first. There were troublemakers among the people who wanted to make a division between us: those who claimed to be loyal to me and accused Thereus of trying to steal my authority, and those who claimed to be loyal to Thereus and accused me of suppressing the word of Heaven. Thereus and I met frequently to laugh at their absurd arguments.

Despite all their best efforts, it was not these knaves who made the first rift between us. It was, in fact, those nearest to us. Here I must write with caution, not wanting to betray those who deserve it least. I intend to show all I write to my nephew and his wife, to Thereus and his wife, and to all whom I love and fear to betray.

I suspect that none of my readers will be unaware of the curse upon our people, how back in our home our children were few compared to those of the fecund Lytiorn, and how despite all our hopes, our barrenness continued in Avazin. I myself had only one son, and he is dead, though he left behind a grandson to be my heir. My sister, my only sibling, was more fortunate and had two sons. One remained behind in Karei, but Alad and his wife Riane came in the first ship with Thereus.

They longed for children at first, but none came. When the wife of my champion Lanzauk conceived, Alad and Riane celebrated with the rest of us, but even such a virtuous couple as they could not help but envy the parents. There was some difficulty between them, I believe, but they overcame it. They were never in any risk of the sort of true disharmony that was beginning to pose a problem for all of us, when the question of divorce arose.

Strictly speaking divorce was forbidden by the laws of Karei except under certain circumstances: adultery; violence; a union that was invalid due to consanguinity, bigamy, or lack of consent. In practice, it was not uncommon in those last days for a husband to simply abandon his wife or a wife her husband, claiming some absurd minor pretext or other: foul breath or getting up at the wrong time. Indeed, some even took lovers without bothering to get a divorce at all. Thereus and I forbade all these abuses once we came to Avazin, and most of the people were happy to obey. After all, we were those who had chosen to answer Heaven’s call and leave our homes, to make a purer nation in the west.

Yet there were among us men and women who had left their spouses behind in the old islands in order to follow Thereus’s words and my visions. The separation would seem to be a final one, and the ocean between us and our old home as wide as the gray waters of death themselves. Some of these men and women desired to marry again, and argued that our departure from the old islands was equivalent to a death, which gave the surviving spouse freedom to rewed.

I found this argument persuasive in itself, but I pointed out before the Assembly that there were still more of the great ships resting in their cave in the old islands, ready to be used. There was no guarantee that those left behind would not come after us, given time, and so we all agreed that divorce was not to be allowed in this situation. Still, it was a sympathetic situation that gave impetus to the next challenge.

There were at this time certain influential men who had either changed their mind or hidden their opinions earlier, but now came forward and sought to divorce their wives. Their excuse was not a bad one, however, and this was what made the split between Thereus and I. The wives of these men had failed to bear any children, and so the men sought to take other wives in the hope that they could thereby produce heirs for themselves. The men were the chief movers, but there were women too who longed for children and blamed their husbands for their lack.

The way I have described it is essentially that of Thereus, which puts the blame on individual greed and self-conceit. But there were greater concerns as well. Avazin has yet to be fully charted, but we know it to be at least the size of the largest of the old islands, large enough for all of us who had come to the west. Meanwhile the census-takers had returned with unsettling news. Our population increased as slowly as ever, but we were beginning to experience the first signs of the Moon’s Death, so named because of a superstitious belief prevalent at the time that it struck those who wandered out at night under a full moon.

“It may be that the Moon’s Death will outweigh our natural increase, and that we will perish from under Heaven,” they said. “Nothing like this is recorded in the histories of the islands.”

It seemed a simple enough problem to solve. The answer had come before the question. Why not allow divorce in the case of infertility? It would at least increase the chances of conception if each individual was allowed another chance. This was the reasoning that tempted me, and although I certainly did come up with counterarguments, none of them prevailed against the simple fact that our people, my people, faced annihilation. After all Heaven had done through me, through Thereus, and through others to deliver us from the ruin of the old world, it seemed impossible that we would be lost like this, when there was such a simple way to deliver us. No dreams came to guide me, so I trusted in my own wisdom and began to speak to the Assembly concerning the matter.

Thereus was never a member of the Assembly, as you are no doubt aware. For reasons of his own he saw it as unfitting. But word came to him of what I was planning, and he marched to the Assembly chamber to confront me. At the time I was not there, but with my wife discussing a private matter. I heard about Thereus’s speech soon afterwards, though what I heard was distorted by the errors of memory and wishful thinking. Thereus’s own thoughts were more subtle than the distorted version that came to me at first.

I went to see Thereus as soon as I was able. I found him at home, with his wife and the orphan child they had adopted. It would only be the very gravest of matters that would take him away from them, so I knew that whatever he had said to the Assembly was something he meant and something he took very seriously indeed.

Our first conversation went well enough, given our disagreements. I don’t mean to say that our underlying beliefs were different, though his attitudes were often those of a confident prophet while mine, I’m sad to write, were often enough those of the tired ruler of a decadent court. But we differed on the proper application of our beliefs.

I doubt that any of my readers will be unaware of the details of the dispute between Thereus and me, so I will not repeat them here. But there was little room for compromise: either my law prevailed or his did. The compromise that eventually did emerge was in essence an abandonment of law, leaving the judgment of an individual case up to the whim of the Assembly. Neither of us are pleased, which according to certain philosophers means that the compromise was a satisfactory one.

In any case, Thereus and I agreed to a debate before the Assembly, a friendly one of course. It was only in the next few days that I began to realize how dangerous Thereus’s proposals were. He argued not for a continuation of traditional Karei law, but for the imposition of something altogether new: a total rejection of all divorce. This was not the law of ancient Thalata where he had been born, but an innovation based on his own judgment. We all believe that there is a sense in which the light of Heaven shines through him, I hope, but he is not a perfect lens, and at this point it has been many years since his time in the courts of Heaven. The proposals he put forward were, I came to believe, extreme and unsuited for Avazin in its current condition.

There are rumors that our debate degraded into a childish shouting match, but it was the members of the Assembly that shouted, not we. Indeed, we were forced to leave the chamber so we could talk in peace. I suspect some malign force behind the sudden degradation of the Assembly’s decorum, but I haven’t yet been able to find out more. In any case, our private discussion resolved nothing, and we parted after some fairly bitter words. Perhaps they were not bitter in an absolute sense, but between the two of us who had been friends and allies, they seemed so.

It was over the next few days that Thereus began to speak publicly. He called the people to walk in the light of Heaven, to live by the highest standards of purity. He even said that anyone who followed ‘the king’s new law’ had departed from Avazin in spirit and might as well go back to the old islands. There were many who were delighted by his words, but many who were not. It came to the point where I became aware that there were at least three plots to assault or even kill him, and so I took action to protect him.

Some still believe that I arrested Thereus to silence him: let them ask him themselves! I allowed his pamphlets to go out even while he was confined to his house. I did not deprive him of the company of his wife and friends, only provided him with guards to make sure no hired ruffian did him any injury. Let those who compare me to the high priest of Rhos (he who locked Thereus up in the cells beneath his palace) repent of their lies!

The second crisis came when a group of Thereus’s partisans, misunderstanding the situation, attempted to rescue him. I cannot fault their caution: they suspected that I would read any message that they sent to him, or that his reply would be constrained, but it led to tragedy and the shedding of blood. Although Thereus refused to go with them willingly, they took him anyway, carrying him into a stronghold they had made for themselves in the hills overlooking the towns.

Eventually they sent an envoy to me and the Assembly, claiming to speak for Thereus. His demands were unreasonable and certainly had not been conceived by Thereus. I was to abdicate, giving the phoenix crown to my little grandson, for whom Thereus was to serve as regent. All of Thereus’s proposals were to be adopted as law, both those regarding marriage and any he might make in the future. The priesthood was to be abolished entirely.

Fearing that some harm might be done to Thereus by his supposed friends, we delayed, treating the envoy as an honored guest and discussing his proposals as if we were seriously considering them. At the same time, I sent Lanzauk and some others I trusted to scout the hills for the partisans’ stronghold.

There are two contradictory stories that are told about the events that followed. In one, I sent my butchers to slaughter the partisans and force Thereus to submit to me again. In the other, Thereus called down warriors from Heaven who set him free and force me to submit to him. I am not quite so bad, I hope, as I am drawn in the first story, but I fear we all are not holy enough for Heaven to send such warriors to judge our disputes, as in the second.

The truth of the matter is this. Lanzauk was able to elude the partisans and speak to Thereus, offering to help him escape. But Thereus replied, which somewhat shocked Lanzauk, that he was talking with his captors and trying to convince them of their error. I doubt very much that he would have succeeded, but he still disagrees. In any case, Lanzauk was able to convince him to escape, and brought Thereus safely to the soldiers’ camp near the foot of the hills.

I went to meet him there in order to discuss the controversial matters in privacy before his return became widely known, at which point it would become impossible to speak to him without a thousand listening ears surrounding us. Here I am afraid I did act unworthily of the archon, but I saw no other choice. Thereus could not be persuaded by the presence of a whole army of soldiers, but he could be persuaded by my promise to spare the lives of the partisans, to the extent it was within my power.

So we announced to them that Thereus was no longer their prisoner and that they could either surrender to the king’s justice or go into exile, never to return to the towns over which I ruled. To a man they chose the latter course, and disappeared into the hills. Those who doubt me can ask Lanzauk, and those who doubt both of us can ask Thereus. Those who doubt all three of us I cannot help.

The rest I have no need to retell. Our compromise was accepted by the Assembly, and Thereus returned to his wife and home. As for me, I have been given rough and crude tools with which to work, and I must judge how to use them the best I can. The crown is at my elbow; now I must take it up again.

Broken Branch: Chapter 5

Our return to the surface was miserable in a way. I had become accustomed again to the warmth and physical comfort of the town, so to be lifted out again into the cold was a terrible thing. Thereus’s leg obviously pained him still, but he walked on, with the aid of his staff, at a pace that put me to shame.

And yet we were free: free from Fomar’s whims and the Tall Ones’ insanity and the suspicious eyes of everyone around us. It was almost enough to make me forget the cold, or the fact that we were marching towards the Lords of Night themselves, to confront them for reasons I barely understood. I intended, for my own part, to make my complaint against them and accuse them of having built these towns that were our prisons. Then I was ready to die, though a part of me was convinced that with Thereus at my side, I would survive somehow.

As for Thereus, he seemed bowed down by an unseen burden, and although I did ask him about it, he evaded the question.

I see I’ve neglected to explain how we knew our path to Buxan. It was Fomar who provided us with a rough map of the region between Xamhor and Buxan, including rivers and waystations. A remarkable thing to give us, I thought, but he explained that it would be a shame for us to lose our way and die somewhere in the middle of the wilderness. “The Lords of Night are expecting you,” he told us. “I don’t want to disappoint them.” It was still difficult for us to keep our direction, but knowing where the waystations were kept us from wandering too far from the proper path.

Thereus did answer me at length on one occasion, but his words seemed confused and little to the point. “I am afraid. I remember things, little things, from years before I was born. The Latiorn lived here before we lived here, but they lived in little groups and they walked from place to place and grew no piti. When we came to the islands, we grew things like piti and lived in big towns. They saw us growing and spreading across the land, and they must have been afraid too. They were able to do nothing. They had less men and no governors and no soaliv.

“I am afraid that we will be the Latiorn and you will be the people who do soaliv. We can fight and fight and shout and shout and do clever things we want, but we cannot stop you. In the end we will all live in towns under the dirt. We will be you or we will be dead.”

I had nothing to say to this at the time. I have thought about it since then, and although circumstances proved him wrong about Nemhir, I share his worries about what is to come. Perhaps the Lords of Night and the Magistrates before them were only the shadows of something worse that has yet to fall upon the islands. But I have often been called gloomy in these mad days since Nemhir has been set free.

Once or twice when he stumbled, the crystal he wore around his neck stabbed me painfully, and he apologized when I cried out. “But it is a good thing to me. I found it with a dead man, one of my fathers’ fathers, who fought the Lords of Night before. I’ve been told, though I don’t know if I should believe, that it will protect me if they try,” and he waved his hand while he thought of the right word, “try to hurt my head.”

“But your ancestor died?”

“It protects my head, not the rest. I am ready.” So we began to walk again.

We traveled for several days, away from the mountains in the east. Once we had to cross a river, which sent us some distance out of our way to find a place where it was easy to climb down and up the slope. But in the end we saw a thick forest ahead of us, and Thereus pointed to it, leaning heavily on his staff, his arm trembling. “Buxan,” he said. “The Lords of Night. I’m afraid, Karidha. I don’t want to go there, but I will. No other way. I remember little things, many little things. This is not the first time. The seeds always grow again, and I am tired and afraid.”

He stood without moving for a long time, but eventually I said to him, “I am getting cold.”

“The world is getting cold,” he said, and continued on. After a short while he turned back to me and smiled. His beard had grown thicker, but he was once again the handsome young stranger I had met in Thejur, not the cryptic haunted wanderer he had become these past days, since the incident in the cave. “This may be the death of you and of me,” he said, still smiling. “I’m sorry I pulled you with me.”

“You pulled me nowhere.”

“I’m happy to hear that.”

Yet as we approached the forest, Thereus seemed to grow more and more tired, until he had to lean on my arm to walk. I asked him if we should stop and rest, but he refused.

“I am not tired,” he said. “I don’t need sleep. The thing I carry inside myself grows in this place and steals my breath. But I will walk.”

Around the fringes of the forest were evenly spaced huts, similar in shape and size to the way stations. But unlike the way stations, these huts were occupied, so that as we came close to one, its door opened and a man with a short spear in his hand emerged. “Who are you?” he demanded of us. “Why have you come here?”

“I have come to talk with the Lords of Night,” said Thereus.

“Do you not have the blue fire in your town? Do you not have the effigy in the crown of the tree?”

Again Thereus said, “I have come to talk with the Lords of Night.”

The sentry’s suspicious eyes turned to me, and he said, “Explain yourself, since he cannot.”

“We have come to talk with the Lords of Night,” I told him.

He moved his hand to throw his spear into Thereus’s shoulder. Thereus cried out and fell, even as I stood frozen by shock. As the sentry passed me, tramping through the snow, on his way to Thereus, I tried to strike him, but he he knocked me to the ground with a casual twist of his arm. I pulled myself up onto my elbows just in time to see the sentry ripping his spear from Thereus’s flesh, spilling blood onto the white snow.

Although he was obviously in agony, Thereus was able to strike an awkward blow against the sentry with his branch. The sentry cried out and staggered away from Thereus, dropping his spear. “Who are you?” he asked, leaning against his hut and holding his side where the branch had touched him. “Who sent you?”

“I am from the southern islands,” Thereus said, and somehow he rose to his feet, though his shoulder was covered in blood and must have hurt him terribly. “I have come to meet the Lords of Night because of the things they did to my home.”

The sentry gave him a look of pure hatred, as I had seen often enough in Thejur from inferiors forced to give way to their superiors. But he stood aside and said in a strained voice, “Go on then, and I hope the Lords of Night burn you to ashes. Your bedmate will die before you reach Buxan, I can tell you that.”

I helped Thereus walk on, under the shadow of the trees. There were strange noises around us, but we were both too tired and too pained to worry about them. Thereus said things under his breath that I could not hear. “We should stop and see to your shoulder,” I told him in as firm a voice as I could muster.

“No,” he said. “We should put an end to all this. Now.”

At some point it became impossible to ignore the noises that were coming from the darkness behind the trees. I remember them very well, but find it difficult to describe them in words for one and the same reason. They were uncanny, like nothing I had heard before or would ever hear again. Since Nemhir was opened to the other islands, I have encountered dogs, and their cries remind me somewhat of the sounds we heard in the forest around Buxan, but weaker and less piercing. I was frightened, but was too occupied helping Thereus to let it show.

He stumbled and fell, but still refused to rest and insisted that I help him up. “We’re nearly there,” he said, breathing heavily. I knew that the map Fomar had given us marked nothing within this forest, and I wonder how he knew. But he was right.

We came to a clearing that held a single thick tree, the snow hanging on its branches. It was not tall, but there was something about its presence that overshadowed everything around it. Thereus stood still, looking ahead at it, until I thought we would be buried in the snow that was beginning to fall around us. Then he gestured for us to walk on.

But as I drew closer to the tree, I began to feel a burning sensation in my hands and feet that quickly spread through the rest of my body, seizing my chest until I was unable to breathe. I let go of Thereus’s arm and fell backwards, but remained on my feet and was able to back away from the tree until I could breathe again. Thereus stood leaning on his branch, looking at me with an expression that I could not interpret.

“What’s the matter, Karidha?” he asked.

I clenched my fists against my legs to keep from breaking into tears. It seemed immensely unjust that I should come this far and yet be banned from my goal. I have no doubt now that the Lords of Night intended to keep their slaves away from their stronghold, while permitting the boldest and strongest of the southerners to come forward and be tested for their worthiness to join the Crafters’ council, but at the time I couldn’t help but take it as a personal affront, one last cruelty of the Lords of Night. “Go and do what you came here to do. I will wait for you.”

“This is not a place to be alone, I think.”

“It isn’t a place to be in pairs, either. I can’t go any further, Thereus!” I made another effort to walk forward, but the same burning gripped me again.

“But what will you do?”

“I’ll wait for you to come back,” I said, though I think both of us knew what I meant by this. He would not come back, and I would wait until the snow and the cold took me. I know now that my words had a different meaning.

Thereus nodded. “I won’t be long,” he told me, and I wonder if he thought he was telling the truth. He left me, leaning on his branch, making his slow way to the central tree, where he found something like a door and entered, though all this was too far away for me to see the details. And I was left alone.

The sounds grew louder, as if whatever creature made them was drawing closer to me. I turned to look around me in every direction, but I saw nothing except the trees and the snow falling to pile on the ground.

I find it difficult not only to describe but to remember clearly what happened next. It has something of the distant texture of a dream, and for all I know it was a dream. But it seemed to me that the sounds were practically in my ear, so that a blind fear came over me and I ran, ending up back in the shadow of the forest. I realized then that not all the shadows around me were cast by the trees. Some seemed to be moving of their own accord, creeping across the snow towards me. I backed against the trunk of the nearest tree to try and avoid the moving shadows, but they were faster than I and wrapped themselves around my feet. Something seemed to open up behind me, the bark and wood of the tree giving way so that I was enveloped by a cold darkness.

I am not sure what exactly it was that I experienced there on the threshold of Buxan. It was the heart of the magic of the Lords of Night, and as a portion of their magic was within me as their slave, perhaps I experienced a kind of echo from their stronghold, magnified by its nearness. Perhaps it had something to do with the magic Thereus carried within himself as the Dhini. I am frustrated to admit it, but I do not know, and I see no way of learning the truth. The magic of the Lords of Night has passed away from the islands, the last relic of the ancient magicians, of which all that remains are fragments hidden in caves or mountains where no one will ever find them.

I know I was not the only one to see a vision of this sort. That boy’s account of Thereus’s encounter with the Lords of Night agrees with mine to a surprising extent, so whoever he asked must have seen something similar, even if he failed to understand its meaning.

But it seemed to me that I was in a tall round room with narrow windows showing a bleak landscape outside, like the hills of Nemhir but made up of barren rocks without any covering of snow. In the middle of the room was a table with a pool of water in its center. Seated around the table were eleven cloaked figures that I immediately knew to be the Lords of Night. There was a twelfth, empty, seat, and behind it stood Thereus.

“Welcome, Thereus Videalthesus,” one of the Lords of Night said as it drew back its hood. It had a beautiful face and voice, but both were strangely lacking in characterizing features. I was even unable to tell if it was a man or a woman. It wore a crown shaped at the brow in the figure of a creature I could not recognize, but would now call a bird by its feathers, even if it resembled no bird I have seen since.

I am not sure if it was speaking in Esu or the Nemhir language, but I was able to understand both it and Thereus. “That is not my name,” Thereus told it.

“No, you are the son of Eapora, but he was the son of another man, and he of another, until you reach Dealthesus, and he was a hero who wielded great magic. We may even be relatives, you and I. There were two sisters once, heiresses to the magicians of old. One sister chose to pursue her craft in Saina, whence your ancestors come.”

“I have traveled here to ask you, on behalf of all the people of the southern islands, why you stir up disorder and plot our overthrow.”

“As for the second sister, she chose to save the islands and their people from the fate that awaited them. All the islands will someday perish, drowning beneath the waves, as did Sotlaci and the many realms lost in ancient days before it. It is a destiny written upon the foundations of the islands, on the pillars of the sea. For many lifetimes we have considered the matter, and behold, we have used our magic to save Nemhir, interrupting its destiny. We will rescue the others also.”

“By sending your agents to murder and start wars? I don’t care for your methods.”

“For many lifetimes we have considered the matter. Those who fight against us unwittingly fight against themselves and the islands. We do only what we must.”

“I don’t care for your results, either. I’ve seen Nemhir, and it is a terrible place: you’ve made the land cold and barren and you’ve made the people into slaves.”

“Nemhir was only an experiment, our initial foray into preservation. We’ve learned much since then, and we know better what is necessary and what superfluous. You will be able to help us keep what is good in the southern islands. You have that right. Your ancestor Dealthesus overthrew one of us before he perished, and you have come through many dangers to stand before us. Where we have gone wrong, correct us. You will have an eternity to care for the good of the islands. If you wish, you may even have Branwei to keep you company during your first lifetime.”

“You honor Dealthesus with your words, but why was he fighting you?”

“A mistake on our part. We found and were tempted by an old magic that should have been left buried. Dealthesus showed us our error.”

“And how many mistakes have you made while caring for the good of the islands? Have you ever asked anyone what they wanted, besides those few of us who made it here? You claim to preserve the islands, but I think what you mean is to make them your own, to control them so that neither sea nor king nor Heaven can do anything to them outside your will. It isn’t worth an eternity.”

“The empty seat is yours, Thereus, and you will take it one way or another.” One by one they stretched their long elegant hands towards Thereus. “And you will be ours.”

The crystal that Thereus wore around his neck shone with a brilliant emerald light. I could not see clearly what happened after that, but when the light faded, Thereus was standing on the edge of the table, raising the branch up with what seemed to be all his strength. Blood poured from his shoulder and dripped into the water below, where it billowed into clouds.

“You will be ours or you will be nothing. Our fire will consume you.”

Sparks, then blue flames appeared at the end of the Lords of Night’s fingers, then roared forward to envelop Thereus entirely. He fell back into the water, but it did nothing to quench the fire. I cried out and ran towards him, but the room was very far away, at the end of a hallway that stretched on and on.

“No,” Thereus said to me. “This is how it must be.”

“They’re killing you!” I protested.

“I am the Dhini,” he said. “I am the seed from which the forest of night grows. They want to kill me, but they’ll destroy themselves and all their works if they do. I am the price that must be paid to ensnare them. I am not the first, and this is how it must be, but I have made my choice. Karidha, my friend. I will do what I can to protect you, but you must run!”

Then I was aware that I was lying in the snow, nestled between two of the roots that came out at the base of a tree. If I had been asleep or unconscious, I was not tired in the least. Thereus’s last words to me had been driven into my mind like the laws of Thejur, and after looking around to orient myself with respect to the Lords of Night’s clearing, I ran from it. Even as I did I was weeping for Thereus, finding myself stirred by feelings I had never had before, or at least had never allowed myself before.

I heard the change before I felt it, but have no words to describe the sounds I heard. What I felt was an immense heat, as if I had been plunged into the center of a fire. I did not turn back to look, but ran until the heat diminished, by which time I had reached the edge of the forest and collapsed in exhaustion not far from one of the sentries’ huts.

I turned at last and saw what I had been running from. Only the outermost trees still remained of the forest. Beyond them, the forest was gone and with it much of the snow and earth beneath, leaving a broad and shallow valley. I approached the edge and looked down and across, but there was no sign of Thereus or anything or anyone else except raw earth. Somehow I had expected to see him alive and walking towards me. I still expect it, I think.

But I never saw Thereus again.

The sentry we had seen earlier tried to kill me, justly blaming me for what had happened, but his companions stopped him. What good, after all, would it do the Lords of Night now if they killed me? Instead we set out, I, the sentries, and their bedmates, for the nearest town. We found as we traveled that it was getting warmer, warm enough that we were no longer in danger from the cold. But it became difficult to travel due to the melting of the snow. The ground became mud that caught our feet.

And what had become of the towns? The spell of the Lords of Night had been broken, the blue flame had been extinguished, and the people were free, at least in theory. But they were accustomed to their bondage, and most of the governors were unwilling to give up power easily. In the town we first arrived at, we found a situation where a weak governor was having difficulties keeping the town from falling into an orgy of blood and despair at the loss of the Mhir. The sentries pushed the governor aside, killed the Tall One who had been stirring up the people, and set themselves up as a ruling council.

The Nemhir that my readers know began to take shape then. The building of structures above the ground, the meetings between the councils and governors of neighboring towns, the contact with people from the southern islands. I saw it all from Thatar’s tower.

Thatar was one of those sentries with whom I traveled. He reminded me of Thereus in some ways, in his confidence and his physical appearance, but something (I do not know what) was missing. I became his bedmate, with all the privilege attendant on his status. He had a tower built for us on the surface, and though I imagine it was nothing compared to the towers of the southern islands, in those young days it seemed like it reached to Heaven.

I lived there and became nothing. Many of us reacted the same way to the fall of the Lords of Night. The old rules were gone, and what was there to replace them? Thatar’s will was strong, and it became mine. I loved him after a fashion, I advised him on what might be best for the town, and I bore his children. When he died, I came down from the tower, entrusted those of my children who were not yet grown to the care of the council, and began to travel the island, searching for news of Thereus.

All I found were the rumors: rumors that he was dead, that he had been taken up to Heaven, that he would return someday to bring us into a new age. Many false stories circulated concerning who Thereus was and what he had done, so I returned to my home and set myself to writing this account, which at last reaches its end.

A moment ago I seemed to hear a familiar voice in my ear, see a familiar form at my side. He told me that I had done well, that my words would be remembered. I close my book, trusting that he will prove right.

Broken Branch: Chapter 4

It was a long journey, or so it seemed to me, but I didn’t feel the cold as much as I had before. I hesitate to describe it and run the risk of misrepresenting it with false words, or any words maybe. But it seemed almost as if the strange man carrying Thereus had brought with him a space inside of which time didn’t pass in the same way as it did outside. Maybe one of the southern poets could put it better, but we had no poetry in Nemhir and so I must struggle with prose.

In the end the man carried Thereus to a hut with a red lamp identical to the hut that had stood above Thejur. In fact, I thought at first that we had simply come back to the place where we had started, and my weariness overpowered me at last, compounded by despair. I fell into the snow and for a while I was aware only of stinging cold water pooling under my cheek before I passed into dreams.

I do not recall what my dreams contained, though I have a vague notion that they involved the great tree from which Thereus had fallen. The next thing I remember is being awoken by the familiar sound of the town bell, as if the past days had been nothing more than a dream. But the weariness in all my limbs told me that my journey had been a real one.

The room I was in was clearly one of the Healers’ chambers, large enough to hold only my bed, a basin of water and thur, and the wooden panel on which I was supposed to meditate so that the unity of the Mhir might mend me. Out of habit I studied its lines for a short while, luxuriating in the warmth of the room, then as I remembered more clearly what had happened to Thereus, I sat up from the bed and went to the door.

On the other side was a hall which, if this town was laid out like Thejur, would take me to the central well. I hesitated, aware suddenly that my clothes were stained with water and sweat and that my appearance in general must have been deficient. But I knew that there was no time to wash. If Thereus was also in the hands of the Healers, he was in danger of having his mind altered along with his body, especially if the governor of this town had received orders from above.

I abandoned etiquette (and the etiquette of Nemhir is a far stronger thing than that of the southern islands) to try each of the doors in the hall looking for Thereus. Most of the rooms were empty, though I did embarrass myself by surprising an unclothed man in one of them. My search came to an end when a man called to me in a stern voice, “You there! Come with me!” He wore the blue tunic that only the governors are allowed to wear, and so I followed him out of the Healers’ chambers to the well, and up to his house in the highest part of the town.

This town was indeed remarkably like Thejur in every way; it was only the people that were different. It was an incredible shock to me, greater than the shock of emerging onto the surface. I had lived all my previous life surrounded by the same people, and even though many of them were strangers to me, none of them were totally unexpected. But seeing the familiar streets filled with unfamiliar faces gave me the sensation of having stepped into a dream, and at first I nearly fell, I was so disoriented.

“I am Phomar,” the governor told me as we stepped over the threshold into his house. “I govern Xamhor.”

“I am Karidha, a teacher in Thejur.” Some of my readers might wonder why I was so quick to give my name and home, but to lie or dissemble before a governor means painful punishment at best, curing at worst. Truth was habit, one of the few virtues that the law of Nemhir taught. But even in this there was less virtue than might be expected, for everyone taken before the governor was eager to betray a friend or a lover in order to win his favor.

And yet I found myself unwilling to betray Thereus. For one thing, he was so strange, so far outside my typical world, that he simply didn’t fall in the category of things I could confess to the governor. For another, I had been changed by my brief journey outside. The towns seemed smaller than they had before, Phomar less imposing than I remembered Jevar to be, though both were governors.

“I have many questions for you,” he told me, taking a seat and looking up at me. “You and your companion were found asleep near the entrance. You are not of Xamhor, but there has been no word from the Lords of Night concerning you. Why did you leave Thejur? Why did you come to Xamhor?”

“Is my companion all right? He was injured recently.”

Phomar’s stern look was finally altered into one of surprise. “I am asking the questions, not you. Do you have need of the Healers?”

“No,” I said, lowering my head, remembering my obligations. “I left Thejur because I wanted to see the world above us. We came to Xamhor because we were guided here after my companion was hurt. I do not know the identity of the one who guided us.”

“And why did your companion leave Thejur? Where did he come from? I doubt he is one of us. That jewel he wears is interesting, and he speaks our language poorly.” This was my first hint that the governors knew more about the southern islands than I had previously believed. I wonder about Jevar and what he knew about Thereus that he kept concealed from me. I wish I had had an opportunity to speak with Jevar again before his death.

“I know little about him. He could answer those questions better than I can.”

“But you were willing to go with him into the wilderness above. That, too, is interesting. I wonder if I shouldn’t have the Healers take another look at you, a deeper look. What secrets will they find?”

“I am hiding nothing,” I said as calmly as I could under Phomar’s threat. I was, in fact, terrified of everything that he could do to me, and I couldn’t help but look away as he stared at me.

I was relieved when he only sighed and said, “There are deeds that can be forgiven under the right circumstances. You may have it in you to become a Tall One. Does that please you?”

There were few things that would please me less, but I didn’t tell him that, of course. I thought then and think now that he was completely wrong, that he mistook the freedom Thereus had shown me for the insanity of the Tall Ones. Instead I bowed and asked him about Thereus.

“He will not answer me until I have shown him that you are unhurt,” said Phomar with another sigh. “I told him about the Healers, but he said some strange things in reply. He is not like the others, but he will meet their fate in the end, I have no doubt.”

He said these last words almost to himself, so I didn’t think it prudent to ask about them, even though I didn’t understand at the time what they meant. Phomar signaled for me to follow him back down to the Healers’ chambers, where he opened one of the doors at the far end of the hall. Thereus was lying on his bed, his eyes shut but his arms stretched out above him.

“You see? She is here and healthy,” said Phomar. Thereus opened his eyes and smiled when he saw me. Naturally, I smiled back.

Thereus sat up, though his leg obviously pained him. I noticed that the branch he had been using as a staff was sitting against a wall, and wondered that it had not been destroyed or put somewhere else. “Good. I answer your questions now,” he told Phomar.

“You see? Karidha is unharmed and we have repaired your side and your leg. We are a kind people in Nemhir and we treat our guests well. I told you already that I am named Phomar. What is your name? Have you traveled a long way to visit us?”

I wondered if Thereus would be able to detect the menace in Phomar’s friendly words, given how foreign he was. But his response was guarded. “I am named Thereus.”

“And where are you from? Not Nemhir, that much is obvious. No, you are from one of the southern islands, aren’t you? Who sent you and why?”

“An old man sent me. Other words, havoatir sent me, Why I am here? I think you know already.”

Phomar glanced aside at me before saying, “Have you told Karidha yet?”

“Why will I tell her? She is one of you.”

“Very cold, Thereus. Very unfriendly. You may leave us, Karidha. You were a teacher in your town? Go and observe the lessons, and maybe they will remind you of your duty. Then you can decide whether the spirit of a Tall One is within you.”

I left them and did as Phomar had told me. The schoolrooms were in corresponding locations in Thejur and Xamhor, so I had no difficulty finding them. A young man with a cheerful, open expression was addressing a group of ten or so children, and as I listened I learned that he was teaching them about the blessings the Lords of Night gave us. It was the same list that I had memorized and then taught in my turn when I was in Thejur, so the words should have been familiar to me, but it was if I was hearing them for the first time.

“The Lords of Night gave us the thur to fill our eyes and the piti to fill our stomachs,” he said. This was and is true. Let the one who would too casually dismiss the cunning Crafters remember that they gave us something of value, at least, just as the Magistrates before them did. But do not count me among those who look back to the time of their rule and regret their passing. I was there.

But I digress. It is growing late as I write, yet I must finish this section before I sleep. The teacher continued with his lesson. “The Lords of Night gave us protection from the void above us. There is no life there, but the Lords of Night made these towns for us to nurture us.” But I knew now that there was life outside the towns. I was willing to grant it a half-measure of truth, since I didn’t know at the time that the Lords of Night themselves had ruined the surface of Nemhir.

“The Lords of Night showed us the Mhir without which we are not.” This only served to remind me that I had not meditated on the blue fire for many days, and that I found myself oddly reluctant to do so. I was worried, maybe, that it would drive the memories of my time with Thereus out of my mind.

“The Lords of Night gave us their laws and taught us the truth of the laws. The laws are without strength if we do not fear them, obey them, and make our neighbor afraid to break them. We are all the eyes and cudgels of the law.” We were all afraid of our neighbor in old Nemhir, and as our revenge for feeling afraid, we made our neighbors afraid of us. There are fools in the new Nemhir who say that we need the order of the Lords of Night again, mistaking terror for order.

“The Lords of Night gave us the governors to look after us and make us prosper. The Lords of Night gave us the yellow chair, so that we may receive justice.” The governors were the enforcers of the terror! Who looked upon the yellow chair with satisfaction? We looked at it and saw the symbol of the power that could take any of us away at the slightest accusation.

“The Lords of Night gave us the Tall Ones to remind us of the freedom that the Lords of Night give us.” Looking back over what I have written, I see I haven’t yet described the Tall Ones in detail. I will have opportunity to do so shortly, but for now let me say that the freedom they had was the freedom to brutalize and terrify.

“The Lords of Night gave us the Healers to cure us of every ailment in mind and body.” We have no more Healers, so many die of injuries that once they could have survived. But neither is anyone altered beyond recognition when their mind is judged unsuitable for service.

“The Lords of Night gave us the law of the nighttime, so that we may raise up noble children to serve us.” We had no choice, as we do now, in whom to marry, our spouses could bed others without reproach, and we could be torn from their side without warning. Thereus had explained something of the southern customs in this matter, and I had been astonished to hear it. If I had ever been in love with him, it was at that moment, as I imagined myself as a southern wife by his side. Foolishness, nonsense, foolishness, nonsense. On to other things.

“The Lords of Night gave us a peaceful death, so that when we grow old and weary of this world, we may pass into fuller union with the Mhir, like a drop into a channel of water.” A kind way of putting it, and no doubt many did go willingly, but not all. The decision belonged to the governor in the end. I had seen an old woman dragged to the passing rooms (that is what we called them), protesting at the top of her voice that she had tasks to do still, that she was not done. Again and again she repeated herself until the doors of the passing room were shut behind her. I still remember the calm faces of the attendants as they emerged from the passing room. She, of course, never emerged again.

“The Lords of Night gave us freedom.” This, of course, was an outright lie. This was the sentence that the children were made to repeat or be punished in one of the first of the many humiliations we were made to suffer until we accepted them gladly. I saw now what I could not see before, how the Lords of Night broke our nature to make us something else, as surely as they had made the piti and the thur. I saw in Thereus something different. Though I didn’t understand it completely at the time, I believe I do now. We are all of us empty in some way, but during the time I knew him, Thereus was being filled by Heaven.

As the children were saying the sentence over and over in their high innocent voices, their teacher approached me and asked me what I was doing there. We had few courtesies in old Nemhir. Why bother, when we had work to do and no particular reason to be friendly?

I considered my reply with care. If I told him the governor had asked me to observe, the teacher would naturally take me for a spy, which could lead to difficulties. On the other hand, revealing anything more seemed foolhardy, and if I were believed to be a spy, I would at least be treated well. So I told him “Governor Phomar wanted me to attend one of the lessons.”

The teacher’s face went stiff and pale. “I understand. Please take a seat, and tell me if there is anything you need.”

The children couldn’t help but notice how the teacher treated me, and so I gained respect in their eyes while he lost it. If my own memories of childhood are accurate, they would gladly have turned him in for some minor infraction and enjoyed spinning the plate around on him. A teacher’s authority was a precarious thing, and easily lost. But I had no other choice, and besides, there was an excellent chance he had abused his authority in a hundred ways. So the Lords of Night made beasts out of all of us.

The remainder of the day’s lesson was on more practical matters: how to care for the piti and the thur, how to prepare piti, how to weave clothing. It reminded me of my own time as a teacher, but distantly, as if I was looking across from the other side of the well. I realized then that I was no longer of Nemhir. I was from somewhere else: not quite Nemhir but definitely not the southern islands. Some scribbler or other has written of Thereus as the Messenger from Heaven, and as silly as that is, it captured something of how I felt about him and how he had changed me.

When the lessons were done, I left quickly, not wanting to get involved any more than I already had with the intrigues of the town. I was already sick of it all, and to my disquiet I was beginning to wonder if this was how the Tall Ones thought. Maybe I had discovered the reason they treated everyone with scorn and cared nothing for their tasks and the governor’s authority. Maybe Phomar was right, and I was becoming one of their number.

But I thought of Thereus, and I went to see him. Although Phomar had left him alone, we still spoke in quiet tones, fearful of anyone who might overhear. I asked him what Phomar had said to him, and he replied, “He gave me a long talk about the Mhir, but I still don’t know what it is. He asked me things about my home, but I didn’t want to say much. He said that I was not the first to come from the south and to want to talk to the Lords of Night. He said the others went to Buxan and did not return. I might have heard wrong what he said, but he said they died or became Lords of Night themselves.”

“I’ve never heard such a thing,” I said. “But the governors know many things that we don’t.”

“He didn’t say to me not to go. He said if I want to see the Lords of Night, he will not stop me. I don’t trust him, but I will go if I trust him or not.”

“I understand. It is your task.”

“Yes. Now you are here, and you can stay? No?”

“No,” I told him. “I don’t like this place and I don’t want to become a Tall One. I’ll go with you when you leave.”

“I am going to die, or worse.”

“Then someone will need to remember what you did and how you died.” I was perfectly truthful when I said this. I was ready to see death and to die myself, even though in the end I lived. Thereus sighed and looked across at the broken branch. It was obvious what he was thinking, so I told him, “I’ll be in just as much danger if I stay here. I am a stranger, therefore feared, and even if Phomar is friendly to me, he wants to make me into something I would rather die than become.”

I don’t know how much he understood, but he gestured for the branch and I handed it to him so he could stand, leaning on his staff and rubbing his leg. “Yes. You can come with me.”

“You’re not worried I might be a spy for the Lords of Night?” Then I had to explain what the word meant. (This was the result of Thereus’s ignorance of the language, not his ignorance of the concept. The people of the southern islands were innocent, but not that innocent.)

“If you are, there isn’t anything I can do. This is their island. Their power is great.” Then with a sigh he sat back down on his bed. “I cannot leave before my leg is better. Can you wait a day or two?”

Phomar returned to visit Thereus one last time that day. He told me I could sleep in the chamber where I had awoken, at least until I came to a decision. Of course I had come to my decision, and it was one I would never tell him.

The next morning it occurred to me that I had neglected to warn Thereus about the suspicions the people of Xamhor were sure to have: that we were spies from Phomar or worse. But when I knocked on the door to his chamber, it was Phomar’s voice that answered, telling me to come in.

Phomar had set on the floor a metal cage that contained within it a wooden framework, the top of which was alight with blue fire. I gave it only a momentary glance, not wanting to fall into meditation. But it seemed that Thereus had: he was sitting on his bed with his elbows on his legs, staring at the fire. He acknowledged me with a brief nod.

“What is this? What are you doing?” I asked.

“That’s obvious, isn’t it?” said Phomar. “Thereus wanted to meditate on the Mhir, and I brought a window to him.”

I looked to Thereus in bafflement, and without moving his eyes from the flame he said to me, “It won’t be fair if I judge Nemhir and not see all of it.” He touched his chest. “I know this. I see better now.”

“What do you see?” Phomar asked softly.

Thereus was obviously struggling to find the right words. “I see the one that is behind; is that the word I want? Behind the all things. I see that what I see is not what I see, not in truth.”

I was confused, but Phomar apparently understood what Thereus was saying, and he nodded. “That’s right. Good.”

“I hear things too. I hear voices saying to look at them.”

“And?”

Thereus smiled from one side of his mouth. “I hear them say, ‘We guide the one that is behind into the many that are ahead. Look at us and we will guide you.’”

“What do you say, Thereus?”

“I don’t trust the voices. That is what I say to them and to you. Too, I say that I am not the one. I am from it; is that the word I want? But I am not it, and I want them to guide me to it, not away from it.”

Still I was confused, though I remembered his words then and long afterward. They seemed to irritate Phomar, though, and he straightened suddenly, lifting the cage from the chain in his hand. “Well then,” he said. “You are still not feeling all right, are you? I will return, as will the Mhir, in time.”

When Phomar had gone, Thereus looked at me and chuckled. His laugh was a strange one, not in the least like the laughter of Nemhir, which was typically fearful, mocking, or both. Thereus seemed simply amused, like a child who had found a thing to use as a toy and had not yet had it taken away by its elders. “I’ve seen the Mhir. Now I’m able to.”

“Able to what?”

“Sorry. I forget the word.”

A couple days later Thereus was feeling well enough to accompany me to the morning meal in the canteen before the ringing of the first bell. The others eating there gave us a wide berth, as rumor had spread quickly concerning us, it seemed. It was known that we were from outside and that we were close to the governor, neither of which facts would attract many friends for us. I saw a child point at Thereus’s unbound hair and beard and stare until his mother pulled him away, whispering harshly to him.

The only person who dared approach us was, naturally a Tall One. My stomach clenched when I first saw him across the room, the silver threads in his robes marking him beyond doubt. He was staring straight at Thereus, and the expression on his face changing into something like a smile, he approached us. As he did, another of his kind emerged from a door behind him. This second Tall One was holding a knife in his hand and toying with its blade.

“You will come with us,” the first Tall One said in the slow measured voice that so many of his kind used to intimidate.

“Who are you?” Thereus asked. I stood still, too nervous to move or speak.

“We are tall.”

“I don’t understand. But Phomar said,” Thereus began before he was cut off.

“Phomar is nothing. We are the Tall Ones.” I had not explained the Tall Ones to Thereus, afraid that to talk of them too openly was to draw their attention, but I had warned him to stay away from them if he could. He looked to me now for answers, but I was able to give him none, to my shame.

“I cannot go with you,” he said, crossing his arms. Folly, I thought it.

“We will force you to go,” the nearer of the Tall Ones said, breaking into what was undoubtedly a grin. “We are tall, you understand? There is nothing we will not do.” The Tall One with the knife stepped forward, and I saw its blade was stained with blood already. Had they killed someone this early in the morning?

My southern readers will, I hope, begin to comprehend just what the Tall Ones meant to us in Nemhir. Not only did we have to worry about the spite of our neighbors, but the Tall Ones were always stalking the town, and you never could tell when they were hungry for blood. It was no crime for a Tall One to kill a citizen, but something near to blasphemy against the Lords of Night for a citizen to kill a Tall One.

Phomar appeared from the doorway behind the Tall Ones, looking pale. Thereus called to him for answers, but Phomar only said, “They have come from the east on their way to Buxan. I cannot help you.”

“Where will you bring me?” Thereus asked them. “To Buxan?”

They laughed as one. “No!” the nearer said, pantomiming drawing a blade across his throat.

“I said, I will not go with you.”

“We are tall!” the nearer screamed, and struck Thereus in the face, knocking him to the ground. Blood stained his lips, but he continued to stare up at the Tall Ones. It was, I think, the bravest thing I had ever seen, braver even than his later confrontation in Buxan. I knew the Tall Ones and feared them because of what I had seen with my own eyes, so for Thereus to defy them was brave even if foolish beyond belief.

The Tall One stepped forward and planted his foot on Thereus’s chest and then, to my further astonishment, he turned around and walked away, his companion following him without a word. Phomar seemed just as relieved as I, and he helped Thereus stand up. “That was a marvel, Thereus, a marvel.”

Thereus touched his lip and grimaced. “I think it is time that I leave.”

“If you wish. And you, Karidha? What do you say?”

“I’m going with Thereus.”

“I was the one who said you might be a Tall One. It would be unwise of me to stand in your way now. I can only offer you this word. May your encounter in Buxan end happily for Nemhir.”

Thereus said something in his own language, then added, “I hope it will.”

“Before you go, would you like to look upon the Mhir again?”

“No,” said Thereus with a thin smile. “I have seen it and I understand it. I am able to go to Buxan today.”

“And you are sure? You have spoken with the Healers? I doubt that you’re fully healed yet.”

“Today,” said Thereus again. “I thank you for all the help you gave me.”

“Perhaps you will not thank me when you meet the Lords of Night face to face. But it was my duty. I wish you well, for you too are of the Mhir, unseeing though you may be.”

Thereus said something in Esu, which unfortunately I cannot remember well enough to translate, though I suspect it was a blessing from Heaven. Then he added a farewell in our tongue.

“May we meet again.”

Broken Branch: Chapter 3

We climbed down for a long time, long enough that I began imagining visions in the darkness before my eyes. I thought I saw a forest of trees like that above Nemhir, but thicker and denser, with stalactites of ice hanging from the branches. Women were moving among the trees, but then I saw that they were not women, but something else for which I have no words in either of the languages of the islands.

I thought I saw figures kneeling on the ground, entirely covered in snow but with the outlines of their heads and limbs visible. Chains stretched from their ankles to the trunks of the trees. A great span of time seemed to be stretching out beneath my feet somehow, so that it seemed we had always been climbing down and always would be. Thereus and I were the first man and the first woman in the world, and we were also the last.

I write this and I shake my head, it sounds so absurd. But these were the thoughts that visited me as I followed Thereus and his torch down the steps, until we reached the bottom. Carefully he held the torch out to make sure of the ground with its light. The base of the well was covered in a stone pavement that had cracked over time to reveal patches of frozen dirt, and its walls were painted with murals like the one in the room above, though the light of the torch was too dim to make out what they represented.

It was the pillar in the center of the chamber that drew our attention most of all. Resting on the pillar was something like an overgrown piti fruit the size of a man’s head, but cut in half to reveal inside it a multitude of red seeds, embedded in its flesh. I was too afraid to touch it, but Thereus did prod it with his finger. “It feels as hard as rock,” he said.

“But what is it?” I asked him, as if he would know.

“If the people who built this place put it here, it must be a thing of great soaliv.” He circled it a few times, then went to the wall to examine the murals, and I followed him. By moving the torch slowly up and down, he was able to make clear the shape of the man with the green ring around his head. This time the man was holding in his hand something which resembled the fruit on the pillar. Thereus illuminated more of the painting, showing around the man a number of trees whose roots intertwined and mingled under his feet.

The next painting showed the same man, but his hand was empty and the roots crawled up his legs so he seemed to be a part of the trees himself. I remember that I felt ill when I looked at it: there was a sense of boundaries broken that should not be broken.

The third painting in the series had been partially damaged by fissures in the rock, but the visible parts were dominated by red shapes that puzzled me at first. “I think they represent fire,” Thereus said as he examined the painting. He turned his torch on the next painting, the fourth and last. The fissures obscured much of this one also, but it seemed to show a number of concentric circles, pure white in color, with short lines jutting in and out and certain points. I looked to Thereus to explain it to me, but he seemed just as puzzled. “Is this a symbol that means anything to you?” he asked.

“No. I can’t think of anything it looks like.” I wondered briefly if the short lines could be read as letters in the alphabet (the Nemhir alphabet, of course), but after studying it for a while, I wasn’t able to make anything legible out of the lines, and said so. Thereus frowned and returned to the fruit on the pillar, holding the fire of the torch close to it. “There isn’t anything here,” I said. “If we go back up and keep following the river, we should reach a town eventually, and work out from there how to find Buxan.”

“Yes,” Thereus said. “Maybe you’re right. These little ruins, places where soaliv once was, are scattered throughout the islands. I visited one place called Mealoros, where I found this jewel I wear. I saw a dead man there who showed me where to find it.”

“But there are no dead men here.”

“No, or at least none that we can see. There isn’t anything here for us.” He looked around the room a final time, then started for the steps.

As I write this, I can almost see Thereus by my side. I ask him if I am doing a good thing in writing this, if my words will be remembered. I ask him if I am telling the truth. But how does he answer me? That is something I can’t see.

“Wait!” I told him, back then in the pit. He turned to me, and in the cool flickering light of the torch he looked like another man, older and rounder of face. I blinked and looked away to clear my vision, which was suddenly clouded over. All around us were not rock walls, but the trunks of trees, as if we had returned to the surface, though without the snow. I put out my hand and felt the wood against my palm. “Thereus? What is this?”

The words that came to me in reply were not in his voice, but were inside my head as if I myself were thinking them. “This is the forest that I have come to destroy.”

“Who are you?” I asked, thinking that this could not be Thereus. Yet it was and it wasn’t. The word ‘to be’ hides within itself a multitude of meanings. [The Nemhir language does not have a word ‘be’, so the details of Karidha’s argument are somewhat different in the original: she refers to the structure of the sentence rather than the individual word.] I am Karidha. There are others with the same name and they too are Karidha, yet I am not them and they are not me. I am tired, but after I sleep I will not be tired. I am sharp-faced and will always be so.

But I wander from my story. Thereus who was and was not Thereus said to me, “I am the Dhini.” As I thought that strange word, hints of its meaning came to me. I vaguely saw a man hanging in a tree, dressed in black robes with a crown of leaves around his brow. I saw a man and a woman huddled together under a single cloak as something like snow fell around them. But anything more definite evaded my knowledge. “I have been consecrated by my brothers to come here and put an end to the forest.”

“Why the forest?”

“Because it binds the people in its roots and deceives them with its branches. It may have been planted by mortal men in the beginning, but its planters are now one with it and it with them. They were wicked then and are wickeder now.”

I assumed he was talking about the Lords of Night, and I was shocked. Even though they had kept me out of the world above, and I was beginning to understand from my talks with Thereus just how stunted and cruel our life in the towns was compared to his in the southern islands, I still had a deep-rooted (if you will pardon the play on words) reverence for them. “How?” That was the only thing I could think to say. “How can you destroy the entire forest?”

“It was planted with this seed, this ancient magic. But the seed was originally made for the purpose of binding the Dhini. I will be bound to the forest and it to me. Will you help me?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know who you are or what anything you say means. I don’t know! Thereus!”

“I must take up the magic. I must plant the seed within myself. I am the branch that is to be broken. There is no other way. I am the branch that is to be broken. I must plant the seed within myself. I must take up the magic.”

“Thereus?” I said again. He looked up at me and was himself again, young and handsome. When he spoke, it was with words that sounded in my ears.

“Yes? Karidha? What is it? Was I saying something?” He looked confused, and I myself was no less bewildered.

“Someone else was talking through you, or so it seemed. He was talking about power and his duty. He said he was the, the Dhini.”

“Dhini? Where did you learn that word?”

“He told it to me.”

Thereus stepped away from the base of the stairs and returned to the pillar where the seed lay. He stood silently for a moment, then nodded and put out his hand to first touch the seed, then lift it into the air. “It’s lighter than I thought it would be.”

I, cautious and terrified, said to him, “Put it down. Let’s go back to the surface.” But he would not, and so he doomed himself. I asked him not long afterward what he was thinking, and I will put his explanation here where perhaps it belongs.

Thereus had not been fully aware of what he was saying to me, but pieces of it had come to him. His intention to face the Lords of Night was reflected in the desire of the Dhini to wipe out the forest, and his vague plans of what to do next were taken up into the plan of the Dhini, though he saw it only in part. It was apparent to him, at least, that he had to take the seed with him, even if he didn’t perceive all the implications of that.

As soon as he brought the seed close to his body, he felt its relation to the trees of Nemhir and the bondage under which the island lay. I am not sure I completely understand the remarks he made at this point. Part of the legend that has grown up around Thereus is that he was moved by compassion for the suffering people of Nemhir, and I believe this was not at first true: Thereus came to Nemhir because of his concern for his own home, which the Lords of Night threatened. When he was living in Thejur, he was separated from our misery by the difference in language. But it is not impossible that this was the moment he truly understood what it was the Lords of Night had imposed on Nemhir, and his pity moved him to embrace the seed and its sorrow. (This is my fanciful interpretation. Thereus is gone now, so fancies are all we have.)

I saw a light shining from the interior of the seed, growing until I was nearly blinded. Thereus told me he saw no light, but felt instead a heat like a fire burning and consuming him. When it was over, the seed was gone, the torch lay glowing on the ground, and Thereus was on his knees clutching his heart. He took a deep breath, relaxed his hand, and looked up at me. “We’ve wasted enough time down here,” he said. “Let’s go.”

“What happened?” I asked. “Where did it go?”

“I ate it,” he said, his voice quiet, almost distant. “Now your island is a part of me. I bear it on my shoulders and I must take it to be burned with me.”

My readers will understand my alarm. I’d thought Thereus was strange before, of course, but was beginning to accustom myself to his odd ways of thought, so unconstrained by the laws of Thejur. Now he was changing into something else entirely, leaving me feeling bewildered and intensely alone. I almost would have felt more comfortable with one of the Tall Ones, who may have been insane but at least were consistently insane. I gathered up my courage and touched Thereus on the arm. “Thereus?” I asked in a voice that wasn’t quite as bold as I wanted it to be. “Are you feeling well?”

He started when I touched him, then smiled at me. He was obviously trying to reassure me with his expression, and I admit he had some success. “I understand why I came here now. I was a foolish boy looking for an enemy to fight so I could go back to my home and my love in peace. But I am not the first to confront the lords of winter in their cave and I doubt I will be the last. Their soaliv is great, stronger than anything in the islands. There is only one way for me to hope. For all of us to hope. The branch must break.”

I am certain my readers will recall the prophecy of the seer Krasoa, which includes the line “the branch to free its prisoners.” The prisoners are the prisoners of the Lords of Night, and my readers will be saying to themselves that this line obviously refers to Thereus himself, that Thereus is the branch. You see that although nearly everything Thereus said was opaque to me, this one sentence is clear to you who know Krasoa’s prophecy. It would seem, then, that everything Thereus was saying would be clear to someone who knew the proper things, but I am not and will never be such a person.

At the time I found his words disconcerting, and I told him so.

“Disconcerting?” he said, his serene expression breaking into a furrowed stare. “What does that mean?” His confusion reassured me more than anything else that he was the same Thereus as before, no matter what the seed had done to him.

“Where are we going now?” I asked.

“Where you said. We follow the river until we find a town, and then to meet the Lords of Night. But I don’t ask you to be with me in the second part.”

“Where else will I go, if not with you?”

He turned away without saying anything and, picking up the torch, began to climb the stairs. I followed, until we emerged at last out of the tunnel into the cold empty air of the surface. By now the sun had risen to the top of the sky, but its light did little to warm me. In silence Thereus returned to the river, with me tagging along behind him, and we continued northwards.

The trees grew more frequent as we went, until we found ourselves in the midst of a grand forest, where the entire world seemed to be in the shadow of ancient trunks and branches. We found no way stations during our journey through the forest; I suspect there were none. No messengers or Tall Ones ever traveled through this wild land. Perhaps we were the first in centuries to do so.

Unfortunately, the number of the trees grew to such an extent that we found it difficult to make progress. The river grew narrower and its shore became rockier, so that we were forced to do some climbing if we wanted to stay close to the river’s path. But it wasn’t long before this became impossible, and we had to decide whether to try and descend to the river bed again or to venture into the thicker part of the forest.

Thereus sat at the edge of the river and considered its slope, then he said to me, “I don’t think it would be wise to go down there. We should go that way.” He pointed away from the river, into the forest.

“We won’t get lost?” I asked. He didn’t know that word, so I clarified, “not know our way?”

“I hope we won’t. But what else is there to do?”

So we left our clear path for the bewildering maze formed by the trees. I tried at first to keep track of where the river had been, but this soon proved impossible. Thereus said something about the position of the sun, but to me that was as much magic as the seed had been.

Without the way stations and their warming fires, it was dangerous to wait too long in one place. I could feel the cold working its way into my body, lulling me into a state of calm and utmost peace. Thinking back on it now, I am reminded of my contemplation of the Mhir. The two were akin, I suppose, both of them creations of the Lords of Night, who sought to still all motion in the islands and rule over this false silence. Thereus understood it better than I.

We slept in brief shifts, each watching over the other carefully. And yet bit by bit we began to fall under the blanket of the cold, feeling it almost as warmth, even though we knew it would devour us. Finally Thereus shook himself and turned to me. “Enough of this!” he said, and I realized that for some time I had been utterly unaware of where we were walking. We were in something of an open space with a particularly large tree in its center. The river, of course, could have been anywhere.

“We are lost,” I said, and this time he understood.

“We are, but we can have…” He trailed off and went to the large tree. Its lowest branches were close enough that he could pull himself up into them. “It feels alive,” he said, holding himself close to the trunk. “Not alive, maybe, but like fire running through it.”

By this time snow had begun to fall again and was well on its way to filling the air with a swirling whiteness. I was watching Thereus in surprise as he climbed higher up the tree, but in the corner of my vision I saw a dark shape in the middle of that whiteness, about the size and shape of a man wrapped in a cloak. I looked back and forth between the shape and Thereus, debating whether I should call Thereus’s attention to it. He had climbed up further, and as I watched him I finally understood that he was trying to obtain a better view of our surroundings, hoping to find a path for us.

He was moving out along one of the branches when there was a cracking sound that startled me out of my thoughts. The branch broke away from the tree, and with a yell Thereus plummeted to the ground. I hurried to his side.

I am afraid if I write honestly what I felt, my southern readers will condemn me as a monster. My Nemhir readers will understand better. A normal woman would, I think, have been shocked and concerned for Thereus’s well-being. But I was, I confess, a woman of the towns of Nemhir, and I was thinking mainly about what I would do if Thereus were dead. We did not mourn the dead in Thejur. In theory it was because life and death were one in the Mhir, but in fact we were encouraged to take heed of ourselves above all our neighbors and schoolmates and bedmates.

My worries were not significantly eased when I found that Thereus was alive but writhing in pain, clutching at his leg. I was aware that the dark shape was closer now than it had been before, and I urged Thereus to get up, heedless of his suffering.

He managed to stand, using as a staff the thick branch that had broken under him. I helped him to walk away from the tree, in some direction or other. He was muttering under his breath but I don’t recall what he was saying.

After only twenty or so steps, Thereus collapsed again, and I fell on my knees by his side, exhausted, cold, and despairing. I could see the dark shape moving steadily towards us, but I no longer cared. What little hope I had was gone.

The dark shape came close enough that I could tell it was a man, though in the shape of his face and his dark hair he was like no one I had ever seen before. I have never met any of the Latiorn who live in the mountains of the southern islands, but I have heard that they, too, have dark-colored hair, so I am inclined to think that it was one of the Latiorn we met that day, even if I cannot explain how. I am told there are secrets in their deep mountains that no outsider has seen. I am also told that the Latiorn do not see the passing of time in the same way we do.

However he happened to be there, the man approached Thereus and knelt by his side, touching his leg with gloved hands. He looked up at me and said nothing, but only stared for a long while. I found myself unable, or unwilling, to move. Where would I have gone, regardless?

Then he lifted Thereus into his arms, staff and all. He began to walk, and I followed him.

Broken Branch: Chapter 2

It was like a new birth for me. I emerged from the narrow passages of Thejur into another world, so large and empty that it terrified me at first. Where Thejur had been warm, this new world was cold, painfully so, just as Thereus had warned me. Yet here I was free, and my first act, foolish as it may have been, was to spin around until I was dizzy, something I hadn’t done since I was a child. Gathering my senses again, I looked at the world that had been opened up to me.

It was a world of snow under my feet and an empty sky above, both so full of light that I had no idea which was the source and which was the reflection. My eyes stung, and I had to bury them in my hands, but the pain itself was a pleasure. Nowhere in Thejur had light been so abundant. There was one part of the sky that was so bright I couldn’t look at it for more than a few seconds. You southerns will laugh to read this, but I did not even know what the sun was!

I looked back at the entrance to Thejur and was startled by how small it was. The only part of Thejur above ground was a hut the size of a single room, with a red lamp fixed above it. Thereus had shut the door while I was spinning around, and now stood nearby holding the metal device in his hands and staring at it.

“What do we do now?” I asked him. “Where is your home?”

He gestured in one direction and said, “That way, across the water. But I cannot go home yet, before I’ve finished what I have to finish. I don’t know how to say it in your words, but I want to meet the Lords of Night.”

“The Lords of the Night do not meet with us face to face.”

“Whether they do or not, I am going to meet them.”

“Then so am I, to ask them why they keep us cooped up in these towns under the earth, away from the light.” Bold words on my part, and I had no idea of what it really meant to come face to face with the Lords of Night. But Thereus seemed pleased by what I said. He said something in his own Esu language, but I do not remember what it was. “What is that you have in your hands?”

“We call it a tailvara,” he said, showing me the object, which was a round piece of metal containing a bulb of water and a metal thread. We now know these things in Nemhir and call them compasses, but I was baffled by it when I first saw it. “I use it and know where I’m going when there is no sun.”

“It points you to your home?”

“More or less. Come with me.”

In the towns there were vents that allowed snow into specific places where it would melt and go to water the piti and quench our own thirst. It was always warm by the time we drank it, so it was a shock to feel the bitter cold on my tongue and in my throat. I had made sure to bring thick coats to cover us, but even then it was a trial to endure the cold. As for food, I had dried piti and Thereus had dried kelp (which was altogether new to me), so together we were able to make suitable meals for a time.

Every so often we came across way stations, small huts like the one above Thejur which held cages of fire so we could warm ourselves. We slept in these huts, out of the cold. Ah! I will never forget my surprise when night fell, when all the world was plunged into darkness except for those silver lights hanging in the sky. I was convinced that this was the Lords of Night’s punishment for leaving Thejur, until Thereus explained the truth to me.

Here I must address one of the legends that has come to surround Thereus, that he loved a woman of Nemhir. Never did Thereus do or say anything contrary to his attachment to Branwei back in the southern islands. I remember he mentioned her once to me, when I asked him if there was anyone in his home he especially missed.

“The woman I’m going to marry,” he said at once. “Her name is Branwei, and I left her behind to come here.”

“You were pleased when she was given to you? Have neither of you married before?”

He looked at me in surprise. “I don’t understand. What do you mean, ‘given?’ And no, neither of us have married before.” He added that he was only twenty years, but I didn’t understand his measurement of time. If I had, I would have only been more confused. In Nemhir, age matters less than blood and the rulers’ will. Jevar hadn’t seen fit to give me any husbands yet, but there were women my age who had three bedmates.

“Why are you going to marry her?” I asked, trying a different angle.

“I cannot say it in your words. She is good and I miss her.”

“You will be a good husband,” I said. Let my readers interpret that as they will.

We began to see trees as we progressed, real trees growing from the earth, though unlike the trees of the southern islands their branches were bare of leaves. The ground began to slope upwards and downwards; we were drawing nearer to the mountains. We reached a valley with steep sides, too steep to climb down, I thought. Thereus paced back and forth, considering, before saying, “I think there’s a place here where we can reach the bottom.”

I looked at the spot he showed me, where there was a groove in the slope that led down to the bottom of the valley. “No, I don’t think we can make it,” I started to say, but Thereus was already lowering himself down the groove. Suddenly he slipped on the snow and rocks and vanished over the side with a stifled cry. I hurried to the edge to see him lying motionless on the flat bottom of the valley, and for a moment I was terrified that he had killed himself. People did that occasionally in Thejur, going to a high level and letting themselves fall over the railing into the great well at the town’s center. I had seen their bodies broken on the ground, and I was reminded of that as I looked at Thereus now. But then he got up, and I breathed again.

He was saying something heatedly in his own language as he stared at his hands, then threw something on the ground. Looking up at me, he said, “It’s broken.”

“What is?”

“The compass. It’s all broken to little.” (His emotions overcame his grammar). “We’re lost and I don’t know where to go.” He slumped onto his knees, and after a while he asked, “But this is an oako, isn’t it?” He used his own word for ‘river’, of course, since we didn’t have one. “A big channel? If we follow it, will we reach the great water?”

“Is that where you want to go?”

“No,” he said. “But it’s good not to sit here and die.” This is how Thereus accomplished all that he did. He might have gone off in the wrong direction many times in his life, but not once did he sit down to die.

It was futile for me to try and help him up, so instead he helped me down, keeping me from falling the way he had as I carefully lowered myself into the groove. The bottom of the valley was flat and hard, and standing in it I could see why Thereus had described it as a big channel: it stretched forward and backward, remarkably like one of the channels used to water the piti.

“Which way do we go?” I asked.

He looked up at the sky and said something under his breath. “That way,” he said, and to this day I don’t know if he knew which direction it was or if he was only guessing. I have looked at maps since then to try and determine our route. We had probably been going northeast from Thejur to Buxan, the stronghold of the Lords of Night, but when the compass broke we followed the river eastward, passing well to the south of Buxan and entering into the part of the island that was called the Wild.

After traveling on the river for some time, we found a place where it was possible to climb up and out onto the bank again, but with no other guide we continued to follow the river’s course. Things became dreary after that as we settled into a monotonous routine of walking with occasional breaks of warmth and food and sleep. I continued to work with Thereus on his understanding of our language, but other than that we had little to say to one another. I, at least, was fully expecting to perish in this wilderness, happy at least to die under the sun.

The ground became steeper eventually as the river wound its way through a hilly region. I began having strange dreams then, in which I was chased through the snow by an animal with a single red eye. When I mentioned these to Thereus, he told me that he had been having the same dream. “Is it usual in Nemhir to share dreams?” he asked.

“I’ve never heard anything of the kind.” I have since read fictions in which characters shared dreams, but we did not have fiction in Nemhir, or legends of any kind. We didn’t even tell stories about the rise of the Lords of Night: as far as we were concerned, everything had always been the way it was and always would be, in the Mhir.

Then, one night, the animal caught my in my dream, seizing me by the leg with fangs that burned my skin. It dragged me through the snow up the slope until we reached a door in the side of the hill, and with a jerk of its neck it threw me through the door. I fell from light into darkness into light again and heard a voice speaking words I did not understand. There were bands around my waist and throat, tightening until I was afraid I would be choked to death, and I awoke with a start.

Thereus was standing in the entrance of the hut, looking out at the starry night. Ah, I was still amazed by those stars every time the sun vanished. “Did you dream of the place under the hill?” he asked me when he noticed I was up.

“I did. Do you think there is a reason behind it? Are we seeing something through a fold in the Mhir?”

Since he neither knew the word “fold” nor understood much about the Mhir, he didn’t answer my last question. He did point to a hill on our right side and say, “Isn’t that the hill with the door in it?”

I put my head out so I could have a fuller view of the hill. It did look familiar, though I doubted I could distinguish it from most of the mounds of tree-dotted snow that surrounded us. “It might be,” I said.

“Do you think we should go and see?”

I had no idea, and said so. In old Nemhir, we were told what to do and we did it with little need for thought. Even the governors and their advisers had direct contact with the Lords of Night. But what impressed me about Thereus was how he made these decisions despite being all alone. He walked under Heaven, of course, I will not deny it, but Heaven did not command him in these small matters.

“In the morning, when we have light,” he said. So I lay back down again and slept. I didn’t dream again that night, and in fact I had no more dreams until spring came to Nemhir.

When the sun appeared again, we went out from the way station to the hill Thereus had indicated. He seemed to have some idea of where he was going, though most of the details of the dream were already gone from my memory. We were about halfway up the slope when he paused between two flat rocks whose surface stuck out from the snow. We had both been keeping our hands wrapped up inside our sleeves as much as possible, but regardless of the cold he began digging in the ice and snow, revealing within a short time that there was a tunnel underneath one of these rocks. I helped him dig, though it stung my hands, until enough of the tunnel was cleared away that it was possible to crawl through. But it was dark inside, so that neither of us was eager to explore it any further.

Then Thereus put his hands inside the tunnel and clapped softly. Immediately light shone in the tunnel, revealing not a narrow passage but a wide and deep space with walls of stone. I stared at Thereus, convinced for that moment that he wielded power nearly as great as that of the Lords of Night themselves. He must have guessed what I was thinking, since he shook his head and laughed.

“No, it’s the soaliv of the people who built this, long ago,” he said, still smiling. “I’ve seen something similar in another old, ah, town. Light from nothing!” He put his head into the tunnel and added, “There are steps here, or something like them. We are lost, Karidha. We should see where this dream of ours takes us.”

I followed him, squeezing through the entrance and climbing down the steps into the open space. There was no obviously visible source of light, whether from thur or fire. The room was as tall as two levels of a town and stretched out ahead of us to a far wall that seemed to be made up of rough and irregular rock, rather than the smooth-carved stone of the walls on either side. Regularly spaced throughout the room were pillars of stone, each topped by red-painted spheres that reminded me unpleasantly of the red-eyed creature in the dream.

Thereus was already going from pillar to pillar, examining each as if they held some secret. Looking back on it now, I think he was desperate to find some hint of what he should do next, how to proceed on his journey, but at the time I was convinced that he knew exactly what he was doing. I wandered among the pillars with him, finding strange symbols carved near their bases.

I should note for my readers that although I have looked for the entrance to this chamber in recent years, I have not yet been able to find it. I suspect it has been flooded and buried in dirt, but that is all right. It served the purpose for which it was made thousands of years ago.

At the far end of the chamber, embedded in the wall of rough rock, was a portal into a further chamber, as dark as the near chamber had been. Thereus clapped his hands and this chamber, too, was illuminated. It was smaller, and centered on a ring of stones encircling a pit. On the far end of this second chamber was a painted mural, and I found myself drawn to study it. I cannot remember all the details now, but it was bounded on the left side by a cloaked figure holding out a rod that bounded the top of the mural, both painted white. Under the rod was a red tree with six leaves, three on each side. Hanging from the top of the tree was a small man painted with many colors, but the most vivid part of him was the green ring around his head.

“What does this mean?” I asked Thereus.

He shook his head. “I don’t know. But I have seen something like it before.” I am not sure what he meant by that, but he may have been thinking of the Dhini, that odd ritual figure in the southern celebration of spring, whose symbols remain even though whatever story was told about the Dhini has been forgotten. “What do you think about this hole?” He took me to the pit and gestured at its depths.

“It is a hole,” I said. “A pit. What do you think about it?”

“Don’t you see the steps?”

I looked more closely, and thought I could just make out the shape of square blocks descending into it. Thereus tried clapping his hands in the pit, but no light appeared. “You’re not going down there, are you?”

“Why not? Don’t you want to know what’s inside?”

“It’s darker than night, as dark as death,” I said, the words coming from me before I could check them.

“Sit here; I’ll be back,” he said, and went out into the great chamber, leaving me to sit and study the pit and the mural. There was a cold dread over my eyes, which only grew stronger when Thereus returned, holding in his hand a branch whose tip burned with blue fire. “This is strange fire,” he said, holding it up before his face and staring at it. “It shines but does not eat the wood.”

“Is that what fire does in your home?”

He nodded. “I wonder whether it is the fire that is strange or the trees. But I’m happy now for this strange fire.” And holding the branch to light his way, he began climbing down the steps, and I, though I felt my sense of dread increasing, followed him.

Soon the light of the room above faded, and we were left in an endless darkness broken only by the blue fire of Thereus’s torch. At the time he seemed almost like of the Tall Ones in his obsession with seeing what was done there, but my readers will remember that I had never before seen true curiosity. In old Nemhir we were kept fully satisfied in our little towns and there was nothing to lure our minds as this pit now lured Thereus.

I have studied a great deal of history in Thathtar’s tower since the opening of Nemhir, and I believe this ruin we were exploring to be very old, older even than the Magistrates who ruled all the islands once. We found no writing, so it may be as old as the first settlement of our people in the islands. This may explain something of the magic we found in the depths of the ruin.

Broken Branch: Chapter 1

When that boy was going around the islands talking to Luxan and Branwei and Vin, and everyone who had known Thereus, I was in Thathtar’s tower. I could have told the boy a thing or two about what Thereus did in Nemhir, but instead he had to do the best he could with the stories of that old fool Deukal and those liars who were governors then and are still governors now.

Am I too harsh? Perhaps I am. The darkness has passed from Nemhir, its lords are overthrown, and fools and liars have their uses. Now that I have the means, I am able to write and tell the islands about what I saw of Thereus. Those of you who were born in the southern islands, outside the dominion of the Lords of Night, may find these things hard to believe, but they are all true!

I am, of course, a woman of Nemhir. I lived in the town called Thejur, which is a name that means nothing. I’ve been told that names in the other islands frequently have meanings, whether obvious or hidden, but it was the doctrine of the Lords of Night that nothing was to have meaning, so that we could see the meaninglessness of the Mhir. My name, Karidha, has no meaning, and for many years I was nothing more than a fragment of the Mhir.

In Thejur I was a teacher, but only a junior teacher, so only a fraction of the secrets were entrusted to me. I told the children of the town about their duties and the kindness of the Lords of Night, but it was my overseer Garing who brought them before the blue fire to show them glimpses of what was beyond. My southern readers may wonder about the differences between the Mhir and Heaven; let them consult the books of philosophy that have been written about the matter, as I am not interested.

I can tell you only that when I was a child myself and was first brought to the shrine and the false tree and the thing seated in its chair, I was afraid. I knew that the same thing was in the blue fire that was also in the piti that we ate and the thur that gave us light. It was all around us, my teacher told me. It was our mother that had given us the Lords of Night to rule over us. And yet even then I dreamed about the sun, though I had no name for it. Its light was visible sometimes through gaps in the upper part of the town, where I would sit and wonder about the world beyond Thejur. All I knew was that the Lords of Night lived there in that strange intense light, and I imagined them to be enshrouded by it as we mortals were in clothing.

Other than my dreams I was perfectly obedient to the Lords of Night and to our governor Jevar. I was never taken to penance or put in the hands of the Healers. Yet, as you will see, when the test came I would rebel completely and utterly. I anticipate what some of my readers will say about the reason I rebelled, especially as I had not yet been assigned any husbands, but nothing could be further from the truth. I simply saw nothing I could rebel against until Thereus came. Everything was given to me in exchange for my obedience and for the simple tasks I performed.

Then the stranger appeared above Thejur, where the guards found him and brought him down into the town. Usually we would be informed when visitors from another town came to us, but there had been no word from anywhere about this stranger. Most disturbingly of all, he didn’t seem to speak a word of language. (He spoke Esu, of course, but what did we know about languages other than our own? We didn’t know such a thing was even possible.)

The Healers wanted to examine him, naturally. They performed a few of their weaker viewings, but he was protected by some force stronger than they. I don’t know whether they would have succeeded if they had been given the opportunity to use more intrusive methods, but Thejur was reluctant to turn the stranger over to them, in case they damaged him and thereby displeased the Lords of Night. Instead he summoned me and told me that I would be responsible for teaching the stranger to speak using proper words.

The stranger’s name was Thereus, we established that much at the beginning. He was eager to learn, and I was eager to teach him enough that he could tell me clearly where he was from and what he was doing in Thejur. It was a strange thing, teaching a language when I was only aware of one language and therefore wondered if Thereus was an idiot or a child in the body of a man. But he was neither, and very soon we were able to hold conversations, even if they were simple ones at first.

“What is tokimhir?” he asked me on one occasion. I believe that Jevar had used the word when he took him before the blue fire. [Tokimhir is the Nemhir word for the unique blue fire used by the Lords of Night.]

“It is the path to the Mhir,” I instructed him. “Seeing it, we see more of the Mhir.”

“And what is the Mhir?”

I wondered how I was supposed to explain the Mhir to a man who knew so few words and was apparently so ignorant of the world. I did my best, telling him how the Mhir lay behind everything and also was everything, but I doubt Thereus understood me very well. “The Mhir burns in our bodies,” I added. “The blue fire burns as well. A very long time ago there were towns that left us and fell into darkness. It was a bad time. But the blue fire consumed their trees and they died.” It was prudent, I thought, to warn him not to take the blue fire too lightly.

Another time he asked me who governed Nemhir. “The Crafters,” I said, “the Lords of Night.”

“Where are they?”

“The town of Buxan, in the Mharid forest. But tell me something about yourself, Thereus. Where are you from?”

“Athoros,” he said, though the name was meaningless to me.

“I don’t know that place. What is it like?”

“It is a beautiful place,” and he went on to describe it, but fell into Esu as he did. Catching himself, he did his best to explain in words I understood. “It is in the middle of land like this,” he said, gesturing with his hand.

“Hills?”

“In the middle of hills, near the great water. All over is like piti leaves, and the light above is bright.”

I tried to picture this in my mind but wasn’t sure what he meant. Instead I asked, “Why did you come to Thejur?”

“I can’t say it. I don’t know. Shortly I leave Thejur, go to a second place.”

“You left your comrades?”

“I don’t know your word ‘left.’”

“To leave someone is to go from them so they are alone.”

“Alone?”

“One, no second.”

“I finish, I go to them.”

This saddened me, but at first I didn’t know why. I smiled at him and said, “So you will leave us.”

“This is not my home.”

That night, as I lay in my alcove in the dormitory, I realized why I had been sad. When I tried to imagine Thereus’s Athoros, the memory that came into my mind was that of crouching near the upper walls of Thejur, tilting my face to catch the light that came from above. It came to me at once, in an instant of enlightenment like the moments the Tall Ones always talked about in which one world would be replaced by another in the blink of an eye. I, who had always obeyed the Lords of Night and their laws, wanted more than anything else to go outside.

At once I turned over on my side and tried to forget what I had been thinking, afraid that the Healers would catch onto it somehow. But it was impossible. I saw myself in Athoros, though I fear my imagination was very different from the real place! Then when I slept, I dreamed that the Healers had come for me and taken me to their houses, where my head was set among the roots of a gnarled tree and pain burst through my skull.

In old Nemhir we did not measure time the same way as the other islands. Indeed, we did not really measure time at all. The Mhir encompassed all things, so one day was much the same as the next. The sun and the moon, of course, were unknown to us. So I am not sure exactly how long it was before Jevar summoned me to his house, where he offered me a tray of simple sliced piti (he was a powerful man) and I took none of them (I was only an assistant teacher).

“The Healers have been asking about Thereus without cease,” he said, taking a seat and looking up at me sternly. “Have you made progress?”

“I have taught him a little, and we have spoken.”

He stared at me until sweat ran down my face and arms. “Well. We will see in time if you’ve been contaminated.” Was Thereus like a rotten piti plant, spreading its contagion to its neighbors? I felt an itchy sensation on my wrists suddenly, though I knew it was my mind Jevar was talking about. “Tell me what you know about Thereus and his task here.”

“He says he’s from a place called Athoros, but I don’t know why he came here to us. He talks about other things when I ask him.”

“Then the Healers may be necessary. If you want to make one final effort you may. It would be a pity to risk breaking him while he still may be of use. Remember, once the Healers have dealt with Thereus, you are to report to them yourself.”

“I understand,” I said.

“Word has come from the Lords of Night. If we cannot learn any more about Thereus, through you or through the Healers, then he is to be cured of his delusions.”

I have no wish to explain curing in detail. It is what was done to the worst criminals and lunatics, and it changed them into a different person altogether, one who was more obedient but also lacked any connection to the rest of us. Since there are no more of these cured around, it is hard for me to be any more specific. We met one in Xamhor, later in my story, so maybe I can be clearer then.

When Jevar dismissed me I went to find Thereus immediately. He had been assigned to tend to the piti plants in a row on a level whose numbers I don’t recall. As much as I wanted to take him away from his work and speak to him privately, there was no excuse for deviating from the routines the governor and his advisers had established. Thereus would work there until the bell rang, and then he would be allowed some measure of freedom until the bell rang again. He, arbitrarily, did not share in the privileges I had been granted as long as I worked to teach him.

I knew this, so I only stood at his side and asked him as his hands worked to prune and water the plants, “You didn’t come here to hurt us, did you?”

“No!” he said, and stepped away from the plants until I gestured for him to return to work. “I came here to help you.”

“Help us with the piti?” I asked. Though he was facing the plants, I could see him frown. But he said nothing.

It is impossible for me to remember exactly when I made the decision to leave. Was it later, before evening? Was it at that exact moment? Was it when Jevar warned me about the Healers and Thereus’s curing? Or was it even before that? Whenever it was, I resolved all my doubts and went to find Thereus after the bell had rung.

It may be difficult for you to understand if you are not from Nemhir. You may think that this was sudden on my part, that it was insane to throw away everything in an instant. But in old Nemhir, we were taught to be insane. Everything was part of the Mhir, even our whims. To be sure, no society could survive where everyone was a Crafter or even a Tall One, but in the lesser matters we were encouraged not to let our dull wills blunt the edge of our spirits, shards of the Mhir.

This was not a lesser matter, I admit, and yet I didn’t allow even the slightest trimming of prudence or caution into my plans. I found Thereus resting in one of the alcoves overlooking the well in the center of town, the well in whose broad depths every level of Thejur was visible. He must have thought I was there to teach him again, but I said quickly to him, “They do not understand. They have not talked with you. You are not wrong in the head. I know you are not.”

“Then I must go,” he said after a moment. There was no one close enough to hear us. Most of the workers chose this time to sit before the blue fire, and now I understand why. Nothing else was given to us in Nemhir to love. We did our work and said the proper words to our superiors. We had no special attachment to our parents or siblings or half-siblings, and even the marital bond was weak and could be broken at any time. The Lords of Night had made us a weak and shattered people, the better to rule over us. (From things Thereus said in the last days, the Lords of Night may have had other, mystical, purposes, but I am not inclined to agree.)

“I can show you a way out,” I said. “But I will come with you.”

“If you want. But will they chase us?”

“No one goes up there in the wilderness. No one.”

“Except us. Is there,” and he hesitated, searching for the right word. “Is it bad to be up there?”

“I do not know. But it is bad to be down here.”

Neither of us had any possessions besides our clothes and our bodies, except for a blanket Thereus had and which he gave to me to wrap around myself, telling me that it was deathly cold above. Thereus still wore a large green stone and a strange metal device on cords around his neck, which no one had taken from him because no one saw any reason to. If the Lords of Night had known the virtue of the green stone, no doubt they would have given orders for it to be taken from him immediately. But even they did not know everything that happened in their realm. It was this stone that had allowed Thereus to pass the wards of the gate without alarm when he entered, and it was this stone that protected us when we left.

The gates of Thejur and of all the towns of Nemhir were not guarded by fallible men, but by statues of the Lords of Night seated in their thrones and holding rods symbolizing their power. No one could enter or leave without a token of permission, but it seemed that Thereus’s green stone, wherever in his past life he had gotten it, served as such a token.

We passed by the images of the Lords of Night without incident and came to the doors, which were simple and undecorated. Thereus opened the doors and we ascended a spiral staircase into a little room where an empty cage hung from the ceiling. He opened a door at the other end of this room and we stepped out.

Broken Branch: Introduction

There are many accounts of the life of Thereus Vineapora, some of them truer than others. The best are Garweal’s The Downfall of the Crafters and my father’s The Last Deluge, but “all texts have a lacuna,” and even the most diligent student of Garweal and my father will be deficient in his understanding of what Thereus did in old ice-covered Nemhir and in our new home of Avazin. To amend this fault, I have collected some additional accounts of Thereus from those who knew him best.

Karidha’s tale has circulated for some centuries: there are those who doubt its authenticity, but I am persuaded that it is what it claims to be. Thereus made no comment on it during his sojourn here, but scattered remarks he made agree with Karidha’s account. I have translated it into Esu with the help of my mother, who was born in Nemhir. The other accounts here my father or I obtained ourselves.

I doubt there is much need for an introduction to Thereus’s life. Many of us knew the man face to face, and all of us know his legend. But the man was close-mouthed in his later years and the legend has grown in the centuries, “a giant from a shadow.” So I present these accounts in the hope that they will go some way towards clarifying who this man was who did so much for the islands in the east, our home of old.

Update

I’m coming to regard Broken Branch in its current form as a failure.  It was meant to be in part a reworking and improvement of earlier stories (incorporating segments of Midnight Torches and The Last Deluge), but in writing it I’ve succumbed to laziness, doing little more than recasting the third person narrative in first person, with an occasional added comment.  Better, I think, to leave those earlier stories as they are, despite their flaws, and concentrate on something new.

Broken Branch will start again in the near future, telling a new story about Thereus, though I may take the opportunity to cast the ending of Midnight Torches in a new light.  I’m also continuing work on All the World Afire, a much longer story which won’t be ready for some time yet.

Broken Branch: Chapter 10

This is my confession. It is not my confession to the priests; they have forfeited that right by their venality and treason, with some few exceptions. It is not my confession to the king or his judges; I have already received a pardon, unworthy though I be. It is not my confession to Heaven; I make that daily and privately. What is this confession, then? It is a confession to the world.

My sins began in the great library of Rhos, a moment I would remember at times with thankfulness, regret, or a third feeling altogether. I was studying a scroll when Helore approached me and asked if I knew where Hoada’s map of the region of Thangar was. She was tall and stern-faced, but even at the start I was drawn to her.

As it happened, Hoada’s map was at my elbow, and I offered her a chair so she could study it alongside me. If you have not seen it, it is large enough for four people to examine it at a time, and is filled with detailed sketches and comments. I was particularly interested in what Hoada had reconstructed about Mealeaki’s invasion that blighted the land, but found myself glancing at Helore almost as much as the map.

I introduced myself, giving my name but nothing else: any fool could tell from my robes and shaved head what my occupation was.

“I am Helore,” she replied. “a scholar in the service of the king.”

I wondered, naturally, if King Hearaklakain was interested in reclaiming Thangar, but supposed that the priesthood would learn of it soon if he was. Although there is no real connection between Heaven and magic, many people seem to assume that all things unseen are similar.

“What brings you to study Thangar?” she asked me.

“I am interested in magic, I suppose, particularly that which arises from one man,” I told her. “Before Mealeaki there was no such power in the Islands, and after his defeat it was lost. Where did it come from? That was many centuries after the age of magic had ended. The Lords of the Night and their attempt to conquer Nemhir interests me too, but there is little information on that. Forgive me if I ramble.”

“No, these are things I have always been fascinated by as well.”

“And yet, despite their magic, both failed.”

Helore smiled at last and made a final note in her book. “A priest with such interests is one I would like to speak more with.” She, at least, did not identify the invisible with Heaven. “There are few enough who care to discuss such things with me. Perhaps I will arrange to come back here soon.”

That evening I returned to my home in the priests’ section of the hill of Rhos. I had then an enviable collection of books and scrolls, some my own, some copies I had made, and some I had purchased or inherited from my parents, scholars both. Looking upon that evening I found myself strangely unsatisfied, though I wasn’t able yet to put a name to my dissatisfaction.

The next day I walked to the Thiapol with my friend Plago, talking about the mundane affairs of the priesthood. He congratulated me, having heard rumors that I was to be elevated to the rank of Elder Priest soon. I rebuked him lightly for his proselytism on behalf of the Tikivs (and let this be my readers’ first warning of my hypocrisy).

“I teach with the approval of Arkein,” Plago told me. “You’ve heard of him: the High Priest. As I’ve told you before, Heaven and the Tikivala are perfectly compatible.”

“Worship of the Tikivala was dead long before even the time of Romureh. What hope do we have of resurrecting it properly? But never mind. We have debated this before and arrived at no conclusion.”

We seated ourselves near the top of the arena to hear the bard performing in honor of the fifty-third anniversary of Hearaklakain’s coronation. Hearaklakain had ruled for a long time, but it was surely the blessing of Heaven. He was loved by most in Thalata, except perhaps the nobility, whom he frustrated constantly. Their power waned to its lowest ebb since their establishment.

“I’m surprised you haven’t joined Krasoa’s party,” Plago said.

“My mind is not yet that settled,” I replied. “There is much I would consider yet before making a final decision. Krasoa claims strange things sometimes. He says the Tikivs were a fraud concocted by Romureh, but I have found references to the Tikívi in older texts.”

“He is a seer,” Plago said solemnly.

“And he takes that as license to argue with Arkein at every turn. But perhaps he is right. Perhaps Arkein is right. I do not know.” Too many things were unsettled in my mind at that time, but I was sure, at least, that I wanted to see Helore again.

It was that desire that brought me to the library again and again the next few days, though I pretended to myself that I wanted to clear up a question I had about Sotlaci verbs, then that I was interested in the development of the liturgy. My self-deceit was rewarded at last, and in the course of our renewed conversation I asked Helore what it was like to be in the direct service of the king.

“Not the direct service,” she answered. “But I know that he is a great man who has done innumerable things for the good of the Islands.”

“All the Islands? Not just Thalata?”

She smiled. It was a very attractive smile that I would like to describe, but I dare not let myself remember those days with any pleasure. “What is done in one place affects another. Hearaklakain has accomplished more than most know.”

Often in these conversations she would mention something I had never heard of: a golden cloak that had protected Sotlaci in the Millennial Deluge, a woman who had convinced Mealeaki to give up his pursuit of power, a small group of isolationist rebels over a thousand years ago in Nemhir. I asked her where she read this and she dodged the question each time. Despite my gnawing curiosity I enjoyed our conversations and was regretful when we parted.

I imagined foolish things sometimes but said nothing foolish. I learned that Helore’s parents were small merchants in Rhos, and that she had a brother who was also a scholar, and I told her that I was the only child of deceased parents. “You must feel alone, at times,” she said. “I do not know if I could manage without my family.”

“It is not so bad. I have many companions among the priests, and, of course, my books are companions in a way,” I would reply.

It was not difficult for me to draw the obvious conclusion. A scholar patronized by the king, knowing things I didn’t but refusing to give details. I finally asked her if she belonged to the Brotherhood of Theala.

“Yes, I am,” Helore answered, with a touch of pride in her voice. “I know some priests accuse us of vile things. I hope you are not one of them.”

“I have no opinion on the Brotherhood.”

“To be silent is to be wise, Xratoa said. Theala wrote a rebuttal of that, which I believe went to ten thousand words.” She laughed, a delightful sound. I still hear it in my ears at times. “It is true that need not believe in Heaven, but some of us do. What is important is that we believe in the five elements and all the ways they mingle.”

“Yet you will not allow priests as Brothers,” I said.

She looked at me; I could not read her eyes. “Not all of us would have it be so.” She gathered her book and writing kit and stood to go. “Not all of us.”

The Brotherhood of Theala was a secret society, but everyone knew that it existed, that King Hearaklakain favored the Brotherhood and gave them rooms in the Halls of Akain, and most regarded it as a strange eccentricity. I hadn’t given much thought to it before. But now I thought of Helore when I thought of the Brotherhood, and both were often in my mind. There were of course no copies of Theala’s Essays on Nature in the library of Rhos, but I found one or two works on the Brotherhood. Both were written by priests and were not favorable towards the society.

When, hungry for knowledge, I mentioned this to Helore, she brought me a book, the Essays on Nature themselves. Foolishly I asked if this were allowed, and her eyes laughed at me. “I decide for myself what is allowed,” she said. “It would be a pity for you not to learn what Theala wrote.”

The essays are disconnected, covering topics from the shapes of the planets to the color of hair. The common theme is Number and Element. In its abstractness it reminded me of some writings by priests from Karei which I had been shown once. I was captivated.

“You seem distracted lately,” Plago said to me one day. “Did some woman catch your heart in a net?”

“I hope so,” I told him. But it was more than Helore’s beauty that had captured me, it was Theala’s essays and the things hinted at in those pages. They are lost now, and I have written more of them in another place. He and his teachings have been unfairly maligned for many years, though they are not entirely innocent. A certain atheism lingered around its teaching and practices, to the extent that priests could not join the Brotherhood, yet even so, while assisting with the sacrifices my mind was not on Heaven but on Helore and the Essays.

A hook had been planted in me with regard to the Brotherhood, and I added more impossible dreams to those I had already built for myself. “I would give anything to gain more knowledge,” I confessed to Helore one day, about a week after the Feast of the Four. A confession not of contrition, but of unrighteous desire.

“Would you give up being a priest?” she asked me, and I said I would not. “We are alike then. There are things we will not surrender. Perhaps soon a crisis will come and force us to choose what is in fact most important.”

“And what is it that you won’t give up?”

“The Brotherhood itself. Tell me, do you play tasoth?”

“Sometimes. I prefer to study the symbolic meanings of the game.”

“Oh? And what would those be?”

I began explaining how each piece represented a different stage in the soul’s ascent to Heaven, but she hid her face and laughed. “I thought symbolism was important to the Brotherhood,” I said, offended.

“It is a different thing. Observe,” she said, opening her writing kit and dipping pen in ink. “There are six rows and twelve spaces in each, making seventy-two total spaces. The factors of seventy-two are thrice two and twice three, the sum of which makes twelve, the perfect number.”

“I see. What is the point of it?”

“Numbers are all. Haven’t you read those essays yet?” Obviously I had, and her words gnawed at me.

“And what of the soul and its concerns?” I asked bitterly.

“When one is in accordance with the order of nature, all else follows.”

“What is this order of nature?” This, at least, had not been in the essays.

“You don’t expect me to tell you the secrets of the Brotherhood, do you?”

“But you do expect me to learn them, by being initiated. Don’t you?”

“Do you wish to enter the Brotherhood?”

“Yes, if it were possible.”

“Priests cannot normally be initiated, but I have asked Paida, our leader, for an exception to be made. He agreed to consider it if you come to be interviewed tomorrow evening. Meet me outside the Halls of Akain.”

We are fools, all of us; we walk blind in the storm and then, when we open our eyes, we choose to step off a cliff. The wind drove me to my death and I was not unwilling to go.

She was there waiting for me, wrapped in a cloak against the autumn wind, and led me into the hall and to a door which she unlocked. Paida was waiting for me in the room beyond. He was a stocky man with a withered leg; from what I understand, the weakness of his body had led him to the exercise of his mind. Certainly he was one of the most learned men in the islands at the time.

“Priest Luxan,” he said. “You have been given a great honor. Welcome to the home of the Brotherhood. I am Paida, and I understand from Helore that you would study and seek with us.”

“I would,” I said, and I tried to hide my excitement and nervousness. I dreaded the idea that I might not be accepted, that they might judge me unworthy.

“I understand as well that your reputation is for your learning rather than your piety, not that I cast aspersions on the latter.”

“My father was a priest; he and my mother were scholars in a way. I admired them both greatly when they were alive and I try to emulate them to the best of my ability.”

“Tell me if you know, if you are wise. What are the three forms of government in the islands?”

“First rule by a single king, as in Lhaursi and Karei, second rule by a king and a council, as in Thalata, and third the manner of government of the primitive tribes of the Latiorn.”

“What are the three scholarly tongues?”

“The High Speech of vanished Raghjan, the language of lost Sotlaci, and Old Esu.”

“What is seven times nine?”

“Thrice thrice seven is thrice twenty-one, which is sixty-three.”

The questions went on, questions of history, philosophy, and arithmetic, until Paida was satisfied at last. “Knowledgeable you are indeed, Luxan. You may go now, and await my answer.”

I thanked Paida and left. I was relieved to be done at last and desperate to know if I was to be found acceptable. At that time I cared more about what Paida and the Brotherhood thought of me than any priest or even, I am sad to say, Heaven.

On my way to the Thiapol the next morning, I was met by Krasoa. I did not know him well, for I admit I distrusted him and his visions. He claimed to have insight from Heaven, but what he wrote was always confused and impossible to interpret or judge.

“Luxan,” Krasoa said to me. “I noticed that you have become withdrawn lately, spending a great deal of time in the library. You are attending to your proper duties at the sacrifices?” I told him I was. “Good. I suspect you will go far in the priesthood of Thalata if you are not led astray. This is not foresight, of course. It is just my intuition.”

“Thank you, Elder Priest.”

“Be wary, Luxan. Do not seek after the moon when you can train your eyes to gaze on the sun.”

I did not know what that meant, though I think I do now. “I will try to fulfill my duty to Heaven and to Thalata.”

“Heaven’s blessing upon you, then.”

When my duties for the day of fetching water, reciting prayers, and speaking to supplicants were done, it was late afternoon, and I descended the hill towards the greater city. In the shadow of the library I saw Helore, who stepped forward and wrapped her arms around me when she saw me. I could not tell before she spoke if she meant to congratulate or console me.

“Paida refused you, Luxan. He is wrong, horribly wrong. But you cannot be a Brother.”

This is what I thought at that moment. I felt something murky wrap around my heart and I held Helore tightly to me. Her eyes were dark and sad and angry, and fixed on my own. The thought went through my mind, for just a moment, that the Brotherhood would regret their mistake, and it left in me a terrible wrath that mingled with fierce desire until I could no longer tell one from the other.

And so I committed two sins that evening. I committed fornication with Helore (uncleanness of this type was not uncommon among the priests of Rhos, to our shame), and I allowed myself to be rotted by anger until I was ready to fall. And in my fall I would destroy not only myself but many others.