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.

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