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.

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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.

Broken Branch: Excerpts 1

Radina, ean taseagn tha. Tha rada kanta pelasala tea aragos rhu rai.
Follow me, Radina, I will teach you of the stars and the deep fires.
-The Story of Thabad, Radina Cycle

Radina heatel, oakin ja sitala neikal borixo rhu thala, thala rada var tir meak.
Said Radina: “Even if the trees rise up and fight with us, we can do nothing against Tir.”
-The Story of Tir, Radina Cycle

Rai dhei ahala, radina. Rai rada dhaxoa jarv dhara?
Ahala is yours, Radina. What will you do with it?
-The Story of the Throne, Radina Cycle

Kula heatel, dhahin dhara?
Radina heatel, dhara dhin vukn tea dhara whal.

Kula asked, “What is this?”
Radina answered, “This is treachery and this is utter defeat.”
-The Story of the Throne, Radina Cycle

Bin tára uzináh agomálun, mítlo sih tor tára isúah tes vin col.
If I go home nothing awaits me but the endless empty water.
-Lament of Ceredem

Lih atlésala miték tes darí haiz vidél tára sarantsó, parén darí akatlálun dínah tára nehír.
These circles are excellent things and I hope they learn much, but I fear they may become ends unto themselves.
-Saying attributed to Atlan

Bin turín ríenda agomál ivúku, kus lih jozinótl! Parén vatlánotl tes wi verín turínun jútlunotl.
If evil enfolds your home, then go away at once! But take care that you do not wander into greater evil.
-Attributed to Ceredem

Ri sáda bocénda ohazó? Tári sa bocénda sarác hazó?
What is this battle you have won? What battle can possibly be won?
-From the Teachings of Master Hana the Inquisitor

Tári rovíl jowí parátl itéto sa kalá?
What right have we not to forgive one another?
-Often attributed to Atlan, but more likely due to Itlav and recorded by his follower Eso

Broken Branch: Chapter 9

I did not expect a warm welcome in Tortarven, and I was not given one. I was turned away at the gates of the palace, where I was told that Sarwe would allow me back into the city, but not into the palace to see him. So I stayed with Jazun’s cousin Ravati and his wife instead and listened to them plot. Ravati had been surprised when he first saw me, but I could see the thoughts foaming up in his mind. He told us that Sarwe had imprisoned Jazun’s parents for their obstinance in the tax dispute, that Sarwe was in the grip of despair over my loss and the failure of the auguries, that Sarwe lashed out in anger at anyone who dared to question him.

It was then that Dheukal came to me. I had been speaking with Jazun about Thereus, telling him how I had seen Thereus several times since I left Rhos. Although I know I he didn’t mean it, Jazun’s words stung like nettles. “But he has sent no messages.”

“He is alive,” I said. “I know he is.”

“You are quite correct,” said Dheukal from the open door behind us. He had to remind me that we had met on the ship to Rhos before I remembered him, yet he seemed entirely different, sharp-eyed and clear-tongued now where he had been dull and wandering before. “I am a friend of Thereus, but he needs your help.”

“Where is he?” I asked. “Why hasn’t he come for me?”

“He has been held in prison for these past months, and only recently has he been allowed to leave.” Dheukal was wearing an eye-shaped amulet around his neck, I remember. I have since made inquiries into the symbol: it is associated with the Melai Ratula, a school of philosophy outwardly dedicated to clear thinking and the exercise of the mind, but which was rumored to have a more esoteric purpose. All accounts say that it died out decades ago. “But he will not be able to come to you for some time. He has a task to accomplish for which he needs something that you possess. A golden cloak which protects and shields. It was first made long ago to defend against a council of magicians who held the islands in their grip, and with the passing of millennia it will come back to its old purpose again.”

“How do you know all this?” I asked, taking a step away from him. “And why should I believe that Thereus sent you?”

“Thereus did not send me. I act of my own accord.” Then he took the eye amulet from around his neck and held it out to me. “Take a hold of this.”

Something flashed across my vision when I did and for an instant I saw Thereus lying in a bed, his face pale as he tossed and turned. “Is he ill?” I asked in distress as the image vanished.

“Yes, but he is in no danger from it. Far greater threats lie ahead of him than a passing miasma. You no longer need the golden cloak for yourself; your battle is over. His has not yet begun.”

I shut my eyes to stop their tears. “And he will return when it is over?”

“Who can say with certainty what the future will bring us? Even the seers spoke vaguely.”

“We can say, we who watch the stars.”

“I am a man of the seas, not of the sky. All I can tell you is that a hundred waves threaten to drown us all unless Thereus can be protected by the golden cloak.”

“Why him? He is courageous and honest, but surely someone else could be found better suited?”

“Why Thereus? Why me? Why you? The chosen oar does not question the rower.”

“How can you be sure who is chosen?”

Dheukal looked at me then, mocking me with feigned amazement. “You ask this? You who set out for Meloros because you saw it written in the stars and so doing set Thereus on his path?”

“Yes, I ask this. What do you mean when you say Thereus is chosen? You say yourself you are not a watcher of the stars.”

“The green emerald that you have seen around his neck is the sign. It had been in that hill since one of his ancestors died there fighting the Lords of the Night. He has claimed it again and will fulfill the destiny of his family, the heirs of mist-shrouded Saina.”

“I think you are mad,” I said, and didn’t bother to hide my tears any more, “but I know you are a friend of Thereus. I will give you the cloak and hasten Thereus’s return, or so I hope. Send him my love.”

Dheukal bowed low. “Thank you, my lady,” he said. When he had gone with the cloak, I fell into my chair and rested my head on my arms. Jazun put his hand on my shoulder as if to comfort me, but I was not in a mood to be comforted.

Some days later Jazun asked me if I would try to go to the palace again, to plead with Sarwe on his parents’ behalf. I went, and again I was turned away. So instead I went to Ravati. Now, Ravati has since become one of the chief figures in these Heaven-cursed wars, but when I met him he played for smaller stakes, hoping to extract whatever concessions he could out of Sarwe. It was he who had sent Jazun to kidnap me, but now he had other plans for me.

And, alas, I was too easily persuaded. Ravati spoke of Ler the bard, whose song had wrought so great a change in King Movan. He spoke of Sarwe’s past and present injustices, and I agreed to write satires to spread among the people of Gineadh.

Jazun learned of what I was doing when he found Ravati advising me as I wrote. “What poetry has so pleased my unpoetic cousin?” he wondered, leaning over my shoulder. “Hello, Branwei. Writing about the king, I see. What is Ravati getting you into?”

“I do this of my own accord,” I said. “Sarwe has gone too far.”

“So you have passed from the song of Heaven to this? Are you sure you are doing the right thing?”

“It is not your decision to make, Jazun,” said Ravati.

“How terrible it would be for your plans, I imagine, if she changed her mind.”

“Your parents’ freedom may depend on this.”

“Enough,” I said, irritated by their argument. “Jazun, I see no other course for me to take. But Ravati, it is not your decision either. I am glad to hear Jazun’s concerns.”

Jazun cleared his throat and said, “It is just that it does not feel right. I have a plan of my own, or rather I am devising one, to plead before the throne if necessary. You need not do this. You will cut yourself off forever from Sarwe.”

“So be it. It is no matter to me.” What a terrible lie I was committing. “I am no longer Sarwe’s daughter.” I couldn’t explain to him how Sarwe had betrayed and murdered my parents. I couldn’t explain to him how these dual images of Sarwe, the betrayer and the father, were tearing me in two, and at the time I couldn’t explain to myself how this fracture was pulling my actions. I apologize for this self-indulgence, which may seem to have nothing to do with Thereus, but so many have asked me over the years about what I did or failed to do, and this is the best answer I can make. Thereus would appear to me one more time, as you will see.

Jazun whirled on Ravati. “What game are you playing? You’re using her in some scheme, aren’t you?”

“I wish I could, but she is too strong-willed to be used. I told you that before, and it will take a great deal to change my mind.”

Jazun stared hard at Ravati. “I can never be sure when you are lying. But let’s assume that you want Branwei to write satires on the king. Then what? Sarwe’s heart will be wounded? He will repent of his tyranny? Just who do you want to read these satires?”

“You are moderately clever, neither foolish nor wise. Which means you are a nuisance. Let me put it in these words, and then I will say no more to you, my cousin. The time for small stakes has passed. Now we must gamble everything we have.” His sharp eyes met mine, and he shepherded Jazun out the door, leaving me alone to work.

I fear the place has come for me to explain my actions, and how it was that I failed the test that was set before me. Thereus would have done better. Thereus had been a young man, and foolish in the way that so many young men are: eager to prove himself, eager to impress me, eager to quarrel. But I do not think he would ever betray someone who trusted in him. This is how I know that it was really him who appeared to me, to keep his promise.

Thereus would certainly never have betrayed his father, no matter how much he rankled under him and disagreed with him. But I, wretched bard, blind diviner, wrote satires against my father, and not even of my own will, but at the bidding of a schemer and a plotter. What was I thinking? I was thinking that I could make Sarwe release Jazun’s parents. I was thinking that I could make Sarwe repent of his injustices as I understood them. I was thinking that I could avenge the death of my parents. I was thinking that I could make Sarwe take me back.

And he did in the end, or so I thought. An invitation came for me to attend the First Branch feast in the palace, and I accepted. I remember that the wind was howling as if to tear down the cliffs when Jazun confronted me. “I have no idea what could be going through your mind,” he said. “Except perhaps a longing for martyrdom. The satirist Branwei finally provokes the tyrant to the point that he imprisons her.”

I wasn’t sure how to explain myself, so I could only say, “I will do as you had wished, and plead for your parents. He will not dare to lay hands on a bard.”

~

The long dining hall was familiar to me, and although I was stepping into the enemy’s lair I knew at the same time that I was coming home. I was seated between two minor nobles, Lord Dhalis and Lady Paseari, and I half-listened to their tedious conversations as I waited for the king. I do not know what has become of those two in the past years.

At last the king, Sarwe, my father, arrived, and my heart skipped a beat. He took his place at the head of the table and raised his hands to Heaven. “Winter has seized the Islands,” he said in Old Esu. Familiar words that nevertheless meant something more to me as he said them. “The sun abandons us to the darkness at the heart of the sea. But this is according to the order of Heaven and by the order of Heaven the light will return to us and the green things of the Islands will flourish once more. Let us praise the order of Heaven.” He lowered his hands back to the table and sat, beginning the feast.

There was savory lamb and mushrooms; fish and kelp; iced fruit and spiced tea. I remember the meal very well, though ate sparingly out of my worry. There was an unfamiliar taste to the tea, bitter but not unpleasant.

“So why were you banished?” Paseari asked me. “Rumor says it was for indiscretions with a kitchen boy.”

“Rumor is ridiculous,” I told her.

“And when you return you stir up dissension against Sarwe with your satires. Very curious,” said Dhalis.

I found no easy answer to this, especially as my head was beginning to ache. Paseari said something trivial, and Dhalis began talking to whoever was on the other side of him, but I was finding it difficult to concentrate on either.

“They say the diviners are all worried dreadfully about some sort of disaster,” said Paseari. “Maybe the stars will fall down upon us and the waters will drown us.” Her words were curiously loud.

The rest of the feast passed in a gray haze for Branwei. I was aware of pain throughout my body and unable to focus on what I had come there for. My memory is hazy, but I do recall stumbling out from the palace, trembling.

The next thing I remember is wrapping my arms around myself because of the cold air and stone beneath me. The only light was dim, from a flickering lamp held out by a man with a mask over his face. “Matsen,” I said.

“Branwei,” he replied, his voice almost a whisper.

“I should have expected Sarwe would betray me.”

“Our king is many things, but he is not as wicked as that. I am the one you should be blaming. I am the one who does what Sarwe cannot. He does not know the tenth of what I do to keep him on his throne.”

“Are you going to kill me?”

“I might. Either way you will never see the sky again. You should not have made yourself into a tool for rebels. Were you that angry at your exile?”

“I would avenge my parents,” I said. The mask of blazing eyes and grimacing mouth seemed to be regarding me closely. “Sarwe turned them to their enemies when he had promised to protect them.”

“I am the one who does what Sarwe cannot,” Matsen repeated.

“How could you?”

“I am damned, and I would heap further damnation upon myself. I will commit sin after sin to keep the land from tearing itself apart.”

“Heaven protect me.” It was if I had been plunged into deep black water without hope of air.

“Heaven did not protect the first woman to stand in my way, and it will not protect you either. With every breath I take I defy Heaven, I defy conscience, and I defy love. All these things I threw away to take my first steps down this road, and I did so rightly. A girl, a pretty girl who kept ducks, wept and clung to my feet. I turned away from her and never looked back. Do you think I will look back from your death?”

It was at that very moment that Thereus faced the Lords of the Night in Nemhir. I wish I could explain the bond of magic that connected us, but it remains a mystery to me. Dheukal knew, I think, but he told very little of what he knew. All I know is that a bright light blinded me and I stood in a tall room, shivering as the cold became far more intense. Before me were eleven cloaked figures seated around a round wooden table at the middle of which was a pool of pale blue water. Their skeletal hands lifted towards me and grabbed at me, and it felt as if they were pulling my very soul apart as emerald flashes covered my vision.

“I faced the High Circle and I will stand against you!” I whispered. From elsewhere, filling me, came the peace of Heaven and a love that centered me and strengthened me. Most of all, hope flowed into me to battle despair. The hands reaching for me slipped away as the cloaked figures wailed loudly, and then I left Thereus behind, and I was in the depths of Tortarven again.

“Branwei! Are you there?” The voice was familiar, and I called out to it.

Matsen jumped back and I heard the sound of a sword being unsheathed. The lamp fell to the ground amid a clatter of footsteps.

“Stand aside by the order of the king!” said the familiar voice.

“The king has no power over me. Turn back!” replied Matsen. Metal clanged on metal once, then came a duller tearing sound and a loud anguished scream. There was silence for a moment. I found the lamp and lifted it to see my cousin Anadiu kneeling by Matsen’s side, holding the mask in his hands.

“I wish I had not killed him,” Anadiu said.

“You had no choice,” I told him. I approached Matsen and held the lamp over his face, which apart from its pallid color was unremarkable, like the face of any other man.

“I always thought he would be deformed hideously,” said Anadiu. “I wonder why he wore it. It is heavy.”

“How did you find me?” I asked.

“Sarwe sent me to look for you in the dungeons. He told me to tell you he was sorry, and then he repeated several times ‘I have lost her.’” Anadiu was shifting from foot to foot. “He told me to take you out of the palace.”

“I understand.”

“He is releasing from his cells all of the prisoners he has taken recently, too. Perhaps there was an augury.”

“Perhaps.”

And so I reach the end of my story, for I have no wish to go on to the death of Sarwe and the coronation of Anadiu, to the strife that followed upon the death of Glvath. That would all be years away, in any case. I have only one last thing to recount.

I was walking alone along the side of the cliff outside the city. The air was cold and crisp; the sea lapped at the rocks below. I felt as if I had awakened from a nightmare. I stopped for a moment to look out at the sea, and when I did I was aware that someone was standing at my side.

“I failed,” I told Thereus. “I allowed myself to succumb to the storm of my passions, and I’m afraid I’ve contributed to the evils of our age.”

“You defeated the High Circle,” he replied as if to comfort me.

“Why can’t you come back to me? I loved you, Thereus.”

“And I loved you.” He put his hand on my shoulder. I had thought of a hundred things to say to him when we were reunited, but could find none of them in my mouth then. “Go in peace, Branwei. You’ve done what Heaven asked you and what Krasoa prophesied of you. Lesser deeds await you now.”

“But what about you?” I pleaded. “What can I do now?”

“I go to walk with Heaven. Branwei, beloved, you should do the same.”

He was gone after that, and I was left to walk alone. It would be pleasant to say that ahead of me I saw Jazun in the distance, but I did not.

There is nothing I can add to the legend of Thereus, the great hero of Nemhir, whose name means pearl and who was a precious pearl indeed. My account has wandered and spent far too much time on my own deeds, though I can say honestly that the best of them I would not have done were it not for Thereus. I only hope I have added something to the story of Thereus, the man I loved.

Branwei Lisarwe

The seventh day of Vrvoal, in the year 8584

Broken Branch: Chapter 8

“The king will see you,” I was told, and went in. Glvath reclined in his throne, the entertainers dismissed.

I started to speak, but before I could say much, my vision seemed to clear. As Glvath leaned forward to listen, I saw a dark shape looming behind him, something like a tall spider enfolding him in hairy legs.

Glvath gave me a senile chuckle. “Go on,” he said. The phantom shifted and I saw once more my vision from the Black Hill, and saw the kings and lords of Lhaursi being played like tasoth pieces. I saw Glvath’s hollow laughter as the reflection of an interior that was also hollow and filled with strings and wires all leading back to the dark shape.

“I have resolved to leave Sertarven,” I said.

“An unfortunate decision.” His hands writhed against one another. “Are you sure?”

“I have a desire to see more of Deavid than just this city.”

“Indeed? You will see the fresh green hills and the majesty of the Dhavon river? Perhaps you will wander up and down the coasts too before realizing at last that your soul is ours.” He started to cackle, and when he dismissed me with a wave of his hand, I rushed from the room to find Jazun.

“You were right. I will run with you,” I said to him. “I have spent far too long in the great palaces of Lhaursi. And perhaps on the way I will explain something of a vision I saw, and of where my path takes me.”

We would be going to the east, to the estate of Lord Sapra Harte. “I fell in with him and his compatriots while I was visiting kinsmen on the coasts,” Jazun told me. “They sent me with a complaint against Glvath’s manner of ruling. But you will see.” We had one companion, Jazun’s guard, who had the brown face-paint of a swordsman trained in Karei. You will recognize his name when I give it to you: Gidun.

As we set out on the road to the coast, Branwei I found myself reminded of my departure from Rhos with Thereus and Vin. But that had been a journey dictated by the stars, while this was of my own choice. “I will be free,” I said out loud.

It took several days to reach Harte, which was a coastal estate centered on a small decaying fortress. Lord Sapra himself lived in a simple house not far from where the river met the sea. I had visited a northern lord’s estates once or twice with King Sarwe, and so I was surprised now that Sapra did not live in more palatial surroundings.

“It is because of Glvath,” explained Jazun. “He taxes the lords heavily, until there is barely any distinction between them and the farmers. Naturally, I see no problem with that by itself, but it also means that the lords are powerless to do anything while Glvath lets the land and sea fall into neglect.”

A short man almost as pale as a deerblood appeared in the entrance to the house, and on his finger I saw a ring. “Welcome back, Jazun, Gidun,” he said, then executed a nervous bow. “Welcome to Harte, my lady. I am Lord Sapra.”

“Good evening, my lord. I am Branwei.”

“Then welcome, Branwei.”

Several other nobles were staying with Sapra, I learned, all of them part of the alliance that had sent Jazun to Sertarven and all of them waiting to hear the response. A cook prepared a savory dish of fish and kelp over which Jazun was to speak, and, after meeting a good number of the lords and their attendants, I found a place to sit and consider. I doubted I was capable of judging the rightness of their claims and their demands, but if they were opposed to Glvath, then I was with them. I was absolutely sure of that, at least. Glvath and the High Circle needed to be stopped by whatever means necessary, even rebellion.

Soon Jazun rose to address the meeting. “I have done what was asked of me. I have presented your case to Glvath, and Glvath has mocked me in return. He said that he takes no account of your words. He said that he is king, and will do as he pleases.”

There was murmuring among the guests. A noblewoman said to me, “Glvath must be insane!”

“He is,” I replied quietly.

“Thank you, Jazun,” said Sapra, taking Jazun’s place. “We now face a quandary, and I would like to ask that these doors be shut to those who are strangers here, lest they become more entangled in our affairs than they already are.”

I left, of course, and met Jazun just outside the meeting room. “So now my duty is done,” he said. “Do you think those magicians will be pursuing us now that we’ve left Sertarven?”

“I don’t know, but I’m afraid they might.”

“I was hoping to return to my cousins on the coast, but the last thing I want is to bring them any trouble. Branwei, tell me, where can we go?”

“I don’t know,” I said again. “But it might be for the best if you leave me. The High Circle wants me, not you.”

“I will never leave you,” he said, taking my hands and giving me a look I recognized immediately.

“There is a man I love and intend to marry,” I told him. “He’s in Thalata now, but soon he’ll be coming to Lhaursi for me.”

Jazun dropped my hands and nodded. “I understand. But nevertheless, I can’t abandon you to those magicians. I’ve spoken to Gidun and he agrees. I don’t know what we can possibly do against them, but we have to do something.”

“Send Gidun back to Sertarven,” I said slowly, thinking it through as I spoke. “Tell him to find Alri and Baurin. They were working on a translation of a certain song that may help.”

So Gidun went to Sertarven while Jazun and I went south into the sheepfolds to wait. I sang songs there to pass the time, but the only one I remember is the Death of Radina, which I believe is about Thereus.

Piebald Tanli came down from the mountains, burning with envy against his brother.

He wore a rumpled hat and soggy boots and his face was lined with dirt.

To all the villages of Radina’s enemies he went,

And stirred them up against the beautiful one, the brave warrior, the wise sage.

Lalo of the sea, Miso of the sky, Taro of the deep fires assembled with their armies.

They marched to Ahala and encircled it,

And Tanli called for Radina to come out.

“Do not go, beautiful one,” said Ele. “Do not go to your death,”

But Radina rose from her bed.

“Do not go, brave warrior,” said Kula. “We will fight for you, and men of all islands will fight for you.”

But Radina armed for deeds of battle.

“Do not go, wise sage,” said Thabad. “All our visions warn against it,”

But Radina cried out for the aid of the earth and the stones.

He went from Ahala, and his army followed him.

With his sword he took many lives, made distant women weep,

With his spear he took many lives, made distant woman weep.

First he met Lalo and asked him this question:

“What lies at the bottom of the waters?”

Lalo replied, “The placid mud.”

Said Radina, “The mud is mine,”

And slew Lalo lord of the sea.

Then he met Miso and asked him this question:

“Where do the birds nest that fly above?”

Miso replied, “In the trees and the crags.”

Said Radina, “The crags are mine,”

And slew Miso lord of the sky.

Then he met Taro and asked him this question.

“Where is the eldest heat held prisoner?”

Taro replied, “Far beneath the rocks.”

Said Radina, “The rocks are mine,”

And slew Taro lord of the deep fires.

Last he met Tanli and asked him no question.

For the one had no advantage over the other.

They fought four weeks until Tanli at last cried out.

“Sea, drown this man who killed your lord.”

“Sky, strike this man who killed your lord.”

“Fires, burn this man who killed your lord.”

And a great wave rose,

And death rained down,

And fire burst forth.

And Radina fell.

Yet the stones and the rocks rose to crush Tanli

And he was swallowed by the earth.

For killing his brother, son of the mountains.

Ele wailed and wept for Radina,

She lay herself down by his body

And before she died spoke this:

“Farewell, beloved, farewell, pearl of my eye.”

“Farewell, beautiful one, brave warrior, wise sage.”

“Strongest and finest and craftiest of all men.”

“When did Radina live, if he is not just a fable?” Jazun asked me.

“I do not know, save that it was ages ago, long before the Millennial Deluge, even before the rule of the Magistrates.”

“I always admired how he went to his doom despite all the warnings he was given. Bold and defiant, it is the perfection of heroism.”

“It is tragic.”

“What better sort of hero is there? To fight when defeat is certain is braver than to fight with the possibility of victory.”

“But foolish. It is sometimes better to assure victory by doing something besides fighting,” I said, and I still think so.

“Is it? Would we remember Radina if he had made peace with Tanli? I am sure you can think of countless minor figures who chose some small success over valor and are now forgotten by all but historians.”

“Who can measure success, especially over the centuries? If Radina’s kingdom had remained, things could perhaps be better now. But what matters is what he was able to accomplish for his people then, not what we think of him today.”

“It would be better to expand your centuries to millennia. Does anything that Radina did truly matter, except his memory? Nations come and go, floods wash over the islands, all is lost but legend. His honor still stands.”

“But that too will be forgotten. We do not know who led our people to these islands from the land of the rising sun. We do not know who fashioned the Bell in the Humbaha mountains, or why they did it.”

“Yours is a sad philosophy,” said Jazun. “Then you think that nothing lasts?”

I could not answer him, then or now.

After a couple days Gidun returned with Alri and Baurin, both of them carrying several cylinders for scrolls. Gidun had told them a little of the threat we faced, but now I explained the matter in full to them. “I want to know how to recite the song of Ceredem in all its fullness before the High Circle comes for me,” I said. “I will use it against the Circle.”

“They have magic,” Jazun said. “They will wring your neck like a duck’s.”

“I have to try, or night will swallow Lhaursi as it has Nemhir.”

Alri embraced me. “I don’t know how you can be so brave,” she said in my ear, “but Baurin and I will go with you. Maybe we can be brave too.”

Baurin cleared his throat and said, “In any case, it would be fascinating to hear the song performed by a true bard for the first time in centuries.”

It didn’t take long for me to learn how to pronounce the esoteric symbols in theory, but it was several days before Alri and Baurin approved of my pronunciation. When the final strange, yet melodious word emerged from my mouth, Alri smiled and nodded. “That is as close as we can make out, although we obviously cannot know for certain. It sounds much different with the music.”

“Thank you, both of you. This system of letters is remarkably versatile.”

“Thank the scholars of Raghjan who began it long ago,” said Baurin. “It is unfortunate that so much of their writing on the Latiorn languages has been lost, but that is another issue altogether.”

It was a dreary day, which seemed to be continually on the verge of a fierce rain but lacked the energy. The stars had not been visible for weeks now, so even if I had my instruments I would not have been able to find security in what they foretold. I had nothing to trust in but my own abilities, insignificant as they were before the magic of the Circle.

“We will see this task accomplished,” Jazun told me. “I swear it.”

“Thank you,” I said. “But that may be a harder thing to ensure than you think.”

“I am a serpent rider, Branwei. I do not fear to swear impossible things, let alone things such as this. The song of Heaven will fight for Heaven against these magicians. We do not need to be drowned by fear.”

“May Heaven grant it.”

When the High Circle finally came to me, they took the form of ravens that circled above our heads and called out to me in voices that almost sounded like human speech. They led us to the place they had chosen to destroy us (or to bring me into their number), the hill that is now called Gidun’s. Then they stood around the hill, wrapped in their cloaks, with tusks and fur protruding from their hoods.

The clawed hands of one rose and tossed back its hood, showing Tharo’s face. “This is the end, Branwei. This island has been given over to us. Its rivers and its winds, its valleys and its hills are ours.”

“You can do nothing to harm me.” I lifted my lyre and began to play.

Tharo spread one hand wide, and there was a black opening into the hill now, a thin patch of shadow. “Look,” he whispered, and the opening grew. “We cannot harm you, but we can seal you away beneath the earth. Look!” The opening was right in front of me now.

I sang the music of Ceredem, the song of Heaven, but my voice trembled as I sang. The blackness grew to envelop all of my vision save a ring around the edges. Hopeless, helpless, I strove against her fate even as the blackness swallowed everything.

There was nothing but music and my own voice, but then I knew that I was not alone.

Hundreds with brilliant features sang among sparkling lights, their melodies and harmonies interweaving with my own. Time no longer passed, yet the music marked beats as it went on. I cannot put into words what I saw and knew then.

I became aware of grasping claws behind the blackness, but they could neither hurt me nor touch the song. They folded themselves up behind the wall of dark, for nothing was without the song.

The cold air and rolling hills formed again as I fell back into myself, and when I could see again, I saw no sign of the High Circle. The others were staring at me in wonder, but I have never been able to get a straight answer out of Jazun or any of them as to what they saw. Strangely, perhaps, it was the unlearned Gidun who best understood what had happened. “You sang about Heaven, my lady. They tried to seal you away, but they only sealed Heaven away from themselves. Now they’re under the earth, and I hope they stay there for a thousand years.”

So do I. Gidun is still there, guarding the hill with his chosen companions. May Heaven preserve them and their task! As for me, I returned to Tortarven, which was and always would be my true home.

Broken Branch: Chapter 7

I was filled with the hope that I might see Thereus again, so spent most of my time in my room with Ler’s song. Of course, I never had been gregarious by nature. But one evening as I was returning from dinner, I encountered someone I recognized right away, for how could I forget the man who had tried to abduct me? I must have shrunk back, since he immediately raised his hands and said, “Don’t worry. I’m not here to hurt you. I never was.”

“I’m not worth anything to you now, anyway,” I told him. “King Sarwe has banished me.”

“Yes. We heard about that. You have my sympathy.” He really did seem sympathetic as I looked at him. Jazun wants me to add that I found him handsome, which is true enough, but I am writing about Thereus, not Jazun. Certainly I wasn’t tempted to betray Thereus in any way!

“Who are you?” I asked.

He shrugged in obvious discomfort. “My name’s Jazun, and I’ve been banished too. My companions said it would be wise for me to leave Tortarven for a while, but I think they want to punish me for my failure.” He sighed before adding “Heaven laughs at chance meetings. I hope we won’t be enemies? I assure you, I didn’t mean you any harm. I did what I did out of desperation for our cause.”

“And what cause is that? You’re a kelp farmer, aren’t you?”

“Yes. But I don’t mean to intrude. I’m sure you don’t want to see me right now.” He hurried past me.

I had sent Thereus a letter telling him what had happened and that he should meet me in Sertarven, and that night I spoke to him quietly, telling him my dreams for the future. We would marry, ignoring our families, and we would find a place for ourselves in King Glvath’s court. I found some comfort in imagining him lying next to me in bed as I talked, but the next morning when I awoke it was raining and I was alone.

I made some effort to play Ceredem’s song, humming the words that I could not read, but the melodies of lyre and voice were different enough that I soon gave up the effort and went up to watch the banks of the Dhavon river go past in the fog. Despite my happy fantasies of the previous evening, I was aware that I knew little about the court of Sertarven, and would need to be on my guard against whatever intrigues I discovered there.

“A bit wet, isn’t it?” Jazun asked from behind me.

“I don’t mind,” I replied.

“Then neither do I. I am a dragon-rider, after all.”

“Really? Is it as dangerous as I have heard?”

“Oh, sometimes. You have probably heard exaggerations. The weather in Lhaursi is certainly milder than elsewhere. But I can remember times when all around the boat was storm and rain and it seemed as if the gray waters were right before me.”

“You sound as if you seek them out.”

“You’ve never thrown yourself into danger for its own sake? Then perhaps you cannot understand, although I will do my best to explain it.” Here Jazun asks me to omit what he calls his foolish babbling. He tells me instead to put this: “I thought it was like entering into the light of Heaven, where you are pierced and burned yet seek it nonetheless. I was something of a fool.”

“So that is why you do not want dragon-riding taxed,” I said when I understood. “It is sacred to you. It is your life.”

“Yes. We cannot be idle while the king takes his greedy portion of what is so valuable to us and so meaningless to him. I, ah, do not mean to offend you.”

“I no longer regard Gineadh as my home. There is no offense.”

King Rigen, who had founded Sertarven, had built at its center the Tower of Stars to rival the high tower of Tortarven. It is said to be the highest thing made by man in the islands, and as we drew near to Sertarven and I gazed at the tower, I could well believe it. It had long been a dream of mine to observe the stars from its summit, and though other dreams came first in my thoughts, I didn’t forget this one.

I went to the palace immediately, despite the evil omen of the raven cawing over my head. “I am Branwei,” I told the guards at the main entrance. “A bard formerly of Sarwe’s household. I would like to offer my services to King Glvath.” He would recognize my name, of course, but neither the guards nor the seneschal they brought out to see me knew who I was.

The seneschal brought me to the throne room of Glvath himself. When I first saw him I was struck by his scraggly beard and wrinkled face, which made him resemble a hirsute Eapora more than he did Sarwe. He sat with hunched back on his throne and when he saw me, he smiled.

“Ah, Branwei Lisarwe, I know who you are. Why did your guardian send you?”

“I have been disowned and banished.”

Glvath laughed silently, rocking back and forth. “For what terrible crime?”

“I am betrothed to a man of whom he did not approve.”

“Welcome then to Sertarven, Branwei fatherless. Let me hear some of your music.”

There was something strange about Sertarven that I didn’t notice at first, but looking back now it is obvious. It weighed on my thoughts, so that all the titles that came immediately to mind were ones I was ashamed to even think. Glvath watched me, with a small grin as if he understood the darkness around my mind. Then, at last, I remembered a suitable song: “Radina and the Breath of Miso.”

I’m sure my readers know this song. It has become very popular among some of the rebels of Deavid, who have associated it with their cause, but of course no one had even dreamed of that yet. I provide a synopsis here nonetheless.

Men claiming to be princes of the south came to the hero Radina’s court and swore fealty to him. At the time Radina was at war with a king of the east (in none of the Radina lays is the geography precise), and the princes offered their aid. Even though the advice they gave proved injurious, he continued to trust them, ignoring the warnings of his wife, his chief sage Thabad, and his champion. He fell more and more under the princes’ domination, becoming weak-willed and of doubtful sanity.

In desperation Thabad went to a “place of visions” and saw a vividly described sequence of picturesque scenes, from which he concluded that the princes were actually clouds sent to delude Radina. He returned to the court with this knowledge and offered Radina a cup of tea. When Radina reached for it, he dashed it in his face.

“This is the gift of the princes of the south,” Thabad said. “They deceive you and leave you worse than you began.”

Radina stared in anger “like a mountain” and the princes urged him to cut off Thabad’s head. But he looked from Thabad to the princes and remembered himself. Then he rose from his throne and spoke powerful words that dissolved the princes into the air.

Glvath waved his hand. “That is enough. Beautifully done, Branwei. You will be shown to a suitable room. You may do what you wish, but you must come when summoned. Heaven go with you.”

I soon learned that Glvath considered himself a cultured ruler like so many of his forefathers and maintained a loose circle of intellectuals around himself. Most were types she was familiar with, but two scholars caught her attention. They were brother and sister, and both were students of ancient languages. Glvath often had them recite unearthly-sounding phrases, but he clearly preferred to listen to, and watch, the sister, Alri.

Remembering the strange symbols on Ceredem’s scroll, I approached Alri and Baurin to see if they would be able to help. They studied the scroll in obvious fascination until finally Baurin asked, “What do these remind you of, Alri?”

“The esoteric Raghjan symbols,” she replied. “These could be a variant.”

I asked what these were, of course, and Alri explained. “Not long after the letters of our alphabet were devised, new letters were invented for the purpose of writing down the speech of the Latiorn, but in addition there were a number of symbols based on possible sounds which no language was known to have.”

“So it is possible to pronounce this?”

“Can we look over the scroll for a few days in order to make sure of all the letters?” Baurin asked.

I agreed, and then a messenger came to tell me that Glvath wanted me to perform, so I went to my rooms to find my lyre and present myself before the throne. I was surprised to find Jazun there, concluding a conversation with Glvath. “What reply should I bring?” he asked.

Glvath covered a smile with one hand. “Tell your lords that I am king. What have they to demand of me, and what have I to give them? Your words are vapor and dust. Branwei, sing something for us. Sing about the Fool and the Lady.”

Jazun stared when he heard this and saw me with my lyre, and he continued to stare as he retreated to stand against a wall. The Fool and the Lady is the story of a man who resolved to court a noblewoman, and did so feverishly. But he was witless despite his pomposity and the noblewoman came up with more and more ways to embarrass him, none of which seemed to abash him at all, as he always presented himself in the best light he could.

Jazun hardly seemed to notice the obvious rebuff. (He says he noticed it but didn’t care.) When the song was over he began to approach Branwei but Glvath gestured at him. “Go back to your lords, boy.” After hesitating briefly, he bowed and went out.

Once Glvath had dismissed me I went to inquire after Jazun. I was directed to a small room in the depths of the palace which was bare apart from a chair, a bed, and a simple basin. The ceiling was of brick speckled with irregular white dots. Jazun was sitting in the chair, but he rose and bowed when he saw me. “Behold the luxury Glvath has given me,” he said. “I suspect this room used to be a dungeon. Kings probably used to hang prisoners from those hooks over there.” He nodded towards four black figures projecting from the walls. Their shape reminded me of something, though I couldn’t recall what it was at first.

“Things don’t seem to be going well for you,” I said. “What are you doing here in Sertarven?”

“Oh, well, I spent some time with the coastal lords and they asked me to come here and present their grievances to the king. You saw what success I had.”

I nodded, but the four figures still bothered me. I exchanged some further words with Jazun and was about to leave when the answer came to me.

“This was no dungeon,” I said, turning back to him. “It was a map.”

“I don’t understand.”

“These things are not hooks, they are markers. You can see that they represent the four virtues. The one with two hands held out is temperance, the one with the braided hair and beard is hope, the one with the book is wisdom, and the one with the sword is strength.”

“Ah yes. Perfectly obvious. I should have seen right away.”

I paid him no mind. “King Virecac was in constant fear that someone would steal even the smallest part of his possessions. He buried much of it deep in Sertarven, guarded by puzzles and traps.”

“Ha! So once a place for wealth, but now for guests of dishonor.”

“Do you see the pattern on the ceiling? I suspect it to be a star map.” And I jumped up on the chair to get a better look.

It was disappointingly simple once I figured out the secret. The dots on the ceiling were in fact stars, and each of the four figures corresponded to a point on the horizon that could be connected to a point on the dome of the sky. The only thing I found that could possibly hint at the location of the treasure for which this room was a key was a little vertical mark beneath each of the four figures. It was the Tower of Stars, of course, but at the time I was baffled.

I made some efforts during this time to track down Keridwei, with little success. But one day Glvath announced that we would hear stories told by Keridwei Mithabax, Glory of Deavid. My hopes were soon cast down when Keridwei turned out to be a shabbily dressed woman in her middle years who croaked out excerpts from chronicles of Lhaursi’s rulers, to the sniggering and outright laughter of Glvath’s court. When her recital had finally dragged to an end, Keridwei turned to go, and I followed.

“My name is Branwei Lisarwe,” I told her as she walked along mumbling to herself. “Eambrin told me to ask you about the troubles.”

“What’s that?” Keridwei asked, halting and looking back. “Branwei? Yes, yes, I know you! My deepest sympathies for the loss of your husband. It was a brave deed, going up to Nemhir.” She patted my arm.

“My husband?” I asked. At the time I didn’t know Thereus’s fate, but I thought of him nonetheless.

“Prince Walhu, the boldest prince there ever has been. But even he could not stand against the dread Council that rules over that place.”

“Do you know anything about the troubles? With the seaborn?”

“Ah, yes. People fleeing Sotlaci, coming here. Yes. What do we make of all these strangers? King Pridan didn’t know, until he went hunting griffins and got himself all torn up. Wanivar healed him, yes, and she was from Sotlaci with her little boy Meselen. That was how it began, with love, and the birth of the little child Ler. Love to hate, and one brother against another, one line against another.” She groaned. “Always hatred, always.”

“But those years have passed. I ask about what happened twenty years ago.”

“Twenty years, ah, love to hate, love to hate. Handsome lord with a ring in his ear, beautiful peasant looking after her ducks. His family hated her, for she, ah, she was not seaborn. Lord and his wife ask the king for sanctuary, ask the just and merciful king, them and their lovely little babe. Sarwe grants it; Sarwe betrays them! Turns them over to die! Oh, poor little babe.”

“Sarwe. I won’t believe it.” And yet I did, against my own wishes. Eambrin trusted Keridwei, and I trusted Eambrin. At that moment a coldness seized on my heart, and I began to hate Sarwe. Heaven forgive me.

“He rejects all who seek mercy from him,” Keridwei whispered. “I saw it.” Then she hunched over and would say nothing more.

The messenger I sent to Rhos returned within the week, and I learned that Thereus was missing, and had been since the Feast of the Four. Worry bordering on despair seized me and I paced my room helplessly, wondering where he was and why under Heaven he did not come for me. I attempted to sooth myself with music but found little solace even in the song of Ceredem.

I sang a song of love then. Remembering Keridwei’s words I sang of King Pridan and Queen Wanivar, and when I was done, with stinging eyes I set aside my lyre and hid myself among my scrolls.

The next time Glvath summoned me, late one evening, I sang a portion of my own translation and adaptation of Odhureus’s Eight Seas, finally completed, and I was anxious about how it would be received. (It was very poor and I have since destroyed it.) But to my disappointment, few seemed to be paying close attention. Conversations went on as they had, and Glvath gestured for me to step aside so an old man could recite the prophecies of Sanum.

As I made way for the old man, I caught a glance of a familiar face in the audience, and hurried from the throne room but hearing him follow me, I turned to see Tharo, the hood of his cloak drawn up. “Why do you run, Branwei?” he asked.

“You dare to attack me outside the king’s own hall?”

“The king’s hall? Look again. Few come down to this place,” said Tharo. Then my vision changed, and around me were not the rich tapestries she had seen just a few seconds ago, but cold stone walls. “Are you content, chanting your poems into the air while that lecherous dog watches you and fancies himself a wise and learned king for eying your bosom?”

“You are impudent.”

“I am trying to help you, Branwei. There is a way for you to be free of these kings and their lonely cobwebby halls.”

“How? Give up my soul?”

“You have no soul anymore!” Tharo spread his arms. “You have already given it up and it belongs to the towers of Lhaursi. Don’t you see that you have bound yourself first to Sarwe and his illusions and then to Glvath with his? You sit in these palaces seeing nothing of what is outside, hiding yourself from it while pretending to absorb knowledge. We visit all the islands in all the centuries, seeing shepherd and merchant as well as priest and king. Come with us and see.”

“You think then that I trust you.”

“Is there anyone you trust? You trust Thereus, but where is he now? Perhaps he is in trouble, so that he cannot come to you. Perhaps he needs your help.”

“You will have to try better then that.”

“How quickly you reply. You don’t really love him, do you? Not deep down. You were taken with a handsome young man who saved you from assassins and spirits and with whom you shared an adventure, but love? No, not the distant Branwei, always on her guard. You are one of us, and you always have been.”

There was more truth to this then I could admit to myself at the time. But Thereus appeared to me. I must remind myself of that. I denied it, and Tharo laughed.

“What do you know of fate, young one? Many strands of personality have passed before my eyes and I have watched their inevitable course. And I foresee that you will live forever as one of us.”

In response I lifted her lyre and began to play the music of Ceredem as best I could. Tharo flinched, but did not waver. I still wonder about that music. Was the song’s power that it carried echoes of another world which the Circle could not stand, clinging to this life as they did? Or did it encompass the richness of the earth, which would destroy them as if they were merely faint shadows and echoes of reality? I suspect it is the former, for reasons that will become clear.

“You see, we learn and become stronger. You have no weapon that you can use against us for long. No one does. Our victory is fated.” I found myself unable to move as Tharo took a step towards me. “Your soul is not yours, and it falls towards us like rain to the thirsty land.” His hands gripped my arms.

“No!” I shouted.

I heard a familiar voice say my name, and surprised anger flash across Tharo’s face. Free, I stumbled away from Tharo, who seemed to draw deep into his cloak as Jazun came between us. There was a sound like a dog’s mournful howl and Jazun fell backwards into me. I was gripped by a pain worse than any I had hitherto felt, but somehow, maybe by the grace of Heaven, I was not overcome by it. Seizing Jazun’s hand, I ran.

I had no idea where we were in Glvath’s palace, but only wanted to get away from Tharo. Apart from Jazun, there seemed to be no one else in these halls, making me wonder if Tharo had cast some spell over the entire palace. Our path was taking us steadily upward until I realized that we were in the Tower of Stars, and that there would be no escape.

We came out onto the roof and panic seized me, made twice as strong by the view of Sertarven far below us. The edge of the tower was ringed by a stone wall to keep anyone from falling, yet it was easy to imagine Tharo throwing me over. Jazun gripped my hand more tightly and pointed up at the sky, where the stars were beginning to appear. “Do you see anything to help us?” he asked desperately.

What could I say to that? Of course there was nothing to help us in the stars; that has never been the purpose of astrology. Yet he believed that I could do something, and so I was loath to disappoint him.

In my free hand I still held my lyre, and letting go of Jazun I began to play. It was the song of Ceredem, of course, for I had no other choice. I looked up to the part of the sky that was associated with my birth and I silently pleaded to Heaven for help.

Then I remembered the treasure room, and I knew what the marks under the four figures had been. Recalling where the figures had stood, I went to each of the corresponding points on the stone wall and found that the stones there responded to my touch by shifting back into the wall, revealing a hook in the gap. When I twisted all the hooks the appropriate fraction (I do not recall the details of the combination, nor do they much matter) a fifth stone shifted, revealing a cloth that glinted with a golden sheen.

Then Tharo ascended the stairs onto the roof of the tower. “It has been a winding chase on which you led us, Branwei, simply full of twists and setbacks,” he said, throwing back his hood. “But we have you at last. I apologize for the delay. There was some discussion as to what your fate should be after you made it clear that you would not be joining us. But argument is over and the High Circle is now set on one course. You have seen our power and our wisdom, and that vision will take you far away on the gray waters.” Jazun, it seemed, was beneath his notice.

Hardly aware of what I was doing, I threw myself towards the fifth stone and wrapped the golden cloth around my neck. Tharo saw, and the clawed hand he had stretched out fell to his side. He snarled at me, but backed slowly away. Then Jazun attacked him, and Tharo was taken off-guard enough that he fell back over the edge of the wall.

By the time I reached the wall, there was no sign of him, except perhaps the crow flying off into the distance. A pale Jazun told me that he had seen Tharo carried on the air with his cloak spread like wings, and asked me who he was. “What he is might be a better question.” So I told Jazun everything, and when I was done he said to me in a shaken voice, “We need to run.”

And now I will write about the second time Thereus appeared to me.

“The High Circle are servants of the Lords of Night,” he told me, “and the Lords of Night make all their servants like themselves. Branwei, what do you see in Sertarven?”

“The whims of a single man dominating everything around him, even the thoughts of the people. There isn’t a man or woman here who doesn’t have their eyes open to the failings of their neighbor, to elevate themselves by pushing the other down, and everyone is terrified that they will be the one thrust down. Lords are here who care nothing for the needs of their people, only that the king gives them some small favor. And every word spoken must be one Glvath has approved.”

“They’re making Sertarven into a little Nemhir,” he said. I could not read his eyes; he seemed older somehow than when we had parted in Rhos. “The song to fight.”

“I have Ceredem’s fabric,” I replied. “I can defend myself from their magic now.”

Now it was pity I saw in his eyes, I was sure of it. “Their magic is strong, and there are few things that can hold it back forever.” For a moment his face was different, marred by cuts and burns, and my heart was pierced. Then he was himself again. He put a hand on my shoulder, and this time I could actually feel its pressure and warmth before he vanished.