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.