Broken Branch: Chapter 2

On our way north, Thereus and Vin argued constantly. They argued about Thereus’s perfumed water and about the sword dancers we saw on our way out of Rhos (it was almost Tirsday). They argued about whether or not I could trust the other. They argued about the Latiorn paintings on the rocks halfway between Rhos and Ealisi. “The Latiorn still linger in the mountains in the east of Karei,” Vin said, tracing the colorful lines with his fingers. “Some say these drawings were prophetic.” I do not remember what the painting depicted.

“They seem like they could represent almost anything,” said Thereus. “Any interpretation could be placed on them.”

When we reached Ealisi, some actors were performing a mock-fight that led to another argument. Unfortunately I was the one who instigated it, asking innocently if they were portraying the conquests of Lirsan Kur, who had been born in Ealisi. Vin snorted when he replied. “Hardly something Ealisi should be proud of, in my eyes.”

“Lirsan Kur was a great leader,” Thereus said, waving his stick before him like a sword. “Those other two are probably the sons of Eaku, who ruled Ealisi cruelly until Lirsan returned to his home to free it. A story of heroism fit for Tirsday.”

“And were the Council of Nemhir cruel governors?” Vin asked. He was referring, of course, to the old Council before the Lords of Night infiltrated it. “Yet Lirsan tried to conquer Nemhir and tore it apart in war before he died. He was little better than Mealeaki of Karei. At least we have the decency to regret what our butcher did when he invaded Thalata.”

“Mealeaki killed even the land with his weapons. One of my sisters has been near Thangar, and told me it is shrouded in yellow mist, a barren land where trees are warped and stunted. Mealeaki murdered his prisoners and burnt the towns he conquered, but Lirsan Kur was merciful in victory.”

“Both of you seem strangely vehement over events that happened centuries ago,” I said to interrupt them. “Lirsan Kur and Mealeaki are nothing but ashes now. Is it so important who was a hero and who a villain, if such terms can be applied to a flesh-and-blood man?”

“Strange words for a bard,” Thereus said, and he was right. I had only spoken to try and forestall their argument, and I regretted it. I know now that I was wrong. Thereus was flesh and blood, and yet he was a hero! May no one deny it until the islands sink into the sea!

That evening I told Thereus who I really was and he told me that he loved me. An exchange of confidences, but we didn’t speak of it again until the following evening, when we were the guests of some shepherds watching their flocks. While Vin spoke and sang with them as one shepherd with another, Thereus and I wandered a short distance off.

“I wonder what I am doing here in the north, traveling to a mountain of dark enchantment,” Thereus told me. “I am a merchant’s son, not an adventurer of any sort. Are you sure of what you saw? What I mean to say is, well, are you sure?”

“I am sure, and so is King Sarwe, and so is the head diviner of Tortarven. The stars say I must go to the Black Hill, as surely as three birds flying together means good news will come,” I replied.

“Is that what they mean?”

“Do not worry, Thereus,” I said, sweeping my arm across the sphere of the heavens. “Though auguries can be misinterpreted or tortoise shells misread, the stars are always true. Every person and every place and every situation has its heavenly counterpart. If I had my astrolabe, I could even try to find your own star. Don’t think I have no fear of what lies ahead. I know the stories of ghosts walking the halls of Mealoros, and I know of the Neras that spread fear across Thalata. But we must continue onwards, or face the deerblood’s knife.”

“For six days there has been no sign of that knife. Maybe he wants us to go to the Black Hill and we’re playing into his hands.”

“Whatever he wants, I must go.”

“And I will come with you. Wherever you go.” We kissed then. I cannot forget, even when I try, how it felt with his arms around my shoulders, one hand on my cheek. We knew so little, of the present or the future, and yet we were so absurdly happy.

The next day we came to Tharis, the town at the foot of Mealoros, but as we approached its walls our fears came upon us. The deerblood had caught up to us at last, and a well-aimed and well-thrown dagger pierced Vin’s leg, giving him the limp that he has to this day, I am told. Thereus carried him into Tharis, though I fear it would have been easier the other way around. A guard escorted us to a doctor who took Vin into her care; the deerblood seemed to have vanished again.

Thereus went up to the roof, telling me to stay where I was. He had some idea of searching the streets for the deerblood assassin, I think. He told me later what had happened, how the deerblood leaped down from a higher roof nearby and attacked him. I can imagine that pale face, skin drawn tight against the skull, taunting Thereus. “It happened so fast,” Thereus told me. “Somehow I managed to knock his knife away, then we were struggling on the edge, and he went over.” Embracing me, he told me that we were safe. The deerblood was not killed by the fall, understand, but we trusted, perhaps foolishly, that the city guard would keep him in bondage.

There was a kind of poison on the dagger that had struck Vin, so that he struggled through sickness and delirium for several days until at last Tirsday arrived, and with the sun at the highest point in the sky, Vin emerged from his trial, shouting something about his father. He insisted that we all leave immediately and not wait.

I should describe Mealoros for those who have never been there. The hill is completely surrounded by water and stands within sight of the northern coast of Thalata. It is called the Black Hill because its slopes are of dark stone and no kelp grows around it. What is more, it was once the heart of an ancient Latiorn kingdom, filled with the tunnels where they lived and sang their forgotten songs. The gates have been broken and open for centuries, and written above them in an ancient form of writing are these words:

Len túrint jjáérae jaerv nílaen njō tes táéni neghír njō újim. Enter into this dark realm and do not fear the dead.

The water between coast and hill is shallow enough that one can pass between the two without wetting one’s chin. We entered carrying torches, but when we passed the threshold, the inside of the hill was illuminated by a strange white light. There were paintings on the walls, like those we had seen before but grander and richer. Men and monsters, mountains and oceans, spirals and triangles and curves, interacting and interlocking in a great dance all around. There were hundreds of alcoves set into the walls, and at the far end of the cavern was a throne set on a dais.

Vin began going around the walls searching the alcoves for something, but I approached the throne. You know that the Latiorn have the gift of sight across the islands and the years, across ages of time and tortured seas, and I had heard that this throne granted the same gift to all who sat in it. If the stars had brought me here, I told myself, it was for a reason that I could only perceive by seating myself in that throne, to see all the islands in one gaze.

I saw the priesthood of Thalata rotting and noble set against noble. I saw the tyranny of the king in Karei and secrets buried deep. I saw how in Lhaursi we were being played like tasoth pieces, the auguries manipulated so that both realms, Gineadh and Deavid, followed the paths set for them.

I saw the Lords of Night in their twelve thrones in Nemhir and the people of Nemhir enslaved. They were building an army and ships to carry it. Their agents were spread across the islands to ready them for conquest.

I fell from the throne, terrified and overwhelmed by what I had seen. There was something looming over me, a human form dressed in a silver cloak that glimmered like fish scales. Its features were strangely ambiguous, so that I could not tell whether it was man or woman, but it was the eyes that caught my attention. The eyes were filled with malice, horrible envy and hate that struck me like a blow, and I knew it was a Nera, an undead spirit.

Suddenly Thereus was there, driving his saber into the Nera’s back, but to no effect, not even a tear in its cloak. It turned on him and he screamed, dropping his saber. A thought came into my mind that was not my own: “You will die here and spend eternity trapped between this world and the next!”

It was Vin who came to our rescue, bringing a sword down through the Nera’s body. Flames as dark as night roared up from the crumpled phantom, consuming it in an instant.

“I think that was the ghost of one of the Lords of the Night,” I said, and Luxan has since confirmed my guess. “I have heard of no other spirit that could have such power.”

“Hemeljik has power to defeat even ghosts, banishing them to death,” said Vin.

“The sword of Karei kings, lost since Mealeaki was made captive in Pol Lene. It was kept here, then?”

“I suppose I should tell you everything now,” said Vin, his eyes changed somehow. “I am a direct descendent of Mealeaki, and so heir to the throne of Karei. For centuries, I am told, the rightful kings have been hidden among shepherds in Tarea Tealeanu. The tradition has been passed down through my family that this sword and this ring were brought here, where none would dare to enter, so that none would restore the tainted line. But I will bring the line of Salomoh back to Karei and erase that taint. I will.”

“A difficult task,” I said, remembering what I had seen in the Latiorn throne. “The king who rules now will not be pleased to be supplanted, and his eyes see all and kill in the night. And even the common people hate the name of Mealeaki.”

“I see I am not the only one who found something in the darkness,” said Vin, nodding towards the green jewel Thereus was wearing around his neck.

“It was in an upper room, around the neck of a skeleton. I don’t know what it is,” Thereus said.

I stood up and touched the jewel. When I did, a thrilling sensation ran through me from my finger to my feet. “The Nera is gone for now, but I am not sure if even Hemeljik can cut a spirit’s ties to Meloros forever. We should leave this place soon, if both of you are satisfied with what you have found.”

“Satisfied? No, but I rather doubt anything in here can help me. What about you, Branwei, and what you saw in the stars?”

“I suspect our destinies are set now,” I said. I had seen the islands and the peril they were in, and I imagined myself as the heroine who would use her vision to help deliver them. I’ve mentioned that I was a symbol from my birth, so perhaps that is why I have never been able to see myself as an ordinary woman, but have been cursed with a need to set myself at the head of every conflict I see. One woman, with her visions and songs, against the darkness! I have been cured, thank Heaven, but it was a painful cure.

Vin left us after that to return to Karei, and what he did there is another story, one that is well-known throughout the islands. I am telling the story of Thereus, who was returning to Rhos now, and I returned with him. I was entranced by my vision, to be sure, but more importantly I was entranced by Thereus, and I would go anywhere with him. I sent a message to Sarwe explaining what had happened and what I was doing now, though with certain omissions I thought best.

Before we left Tharis we attended the Tirsday sacrifice, listening to the familiar words of the liturgy, which I doubt I need to translate here.

Havoatir haiz teathala thail. Ean godealthara thala than, ean godealthara Havoatir zalan. Thala mine saral xun Havoatir teasaransoa tha dhala xasi. Thala dealthara la gara zalan teathala volan xun Havoatir. Thala mine saral xun Havoatir teasaransoa tha dhala xasi.

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