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.

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