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.

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