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.

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