We climbed down for a long time, long enough that I began imagining visions in the darkness before my eyes. I thought I saw a forest of trees like that above Nemhir, but thicker and denser, with stalactites of ice hanging from the branches. Women were moving among the trees, but then I saw that they were not women, but something else for which I have no words in either of the languages of the islands.
I thought I saw figures kneeling on the ground, entirely covered in snow but with the outlines of their heads and limbs visible. Chains stretched from their ankles to the trunks of the trees. A great span of time seemed to be stretching out beneath my feet somehow, so that it seemed we had always been climbing down and always would be. Thereus and I were the first man and the first woman in the world, and we were also the last.
I write this and I shake my head, it sounds so absurd. But these were the thoughts that visited me as I followed Thereus and his torch down the steps, until we reached the bottom. Carefully he held the torch out to make sure of the ground with its light. The base of the well was covered in a stone pavement that had cracked over time to reveal patches of frozen dirt, and its walls were painted with murals like the one in the room above, though the light of the torch was too dim to make out what they represented.
It was the pillar in the center of the chamber that drew our attention most of all. Resting on the pillar was something like an overgrown piti fruit the size of a man’s head, but cut in half to reveal inside it a multitude of red seeds, embedded in its flesh. I was too afraid to touch it, but Thereus did prod it with his finger. “It feels as hard as rock,” he said.
“But what is it?” I asked him, as if he would know.
“If the people who built this place put it here, it must be a thing of great soaliv.” He circled it a few times, then went to the wall to examine the murals, and I followed him. By moving the torch slowly up and down, he was able to make clear the shape of the man with the green ring around his head. This time the man was holding in his hand something which resembled the fruit on the pillar. Thereus illuminated more of the painting, showing around the man a number of trees whose roots intertwined and mingled under his feet.
The next painting showed the same man, but his hand was empty and the roots crawled up his legs so he seemed to be a part of the trees himself. I remember that I felt ill when I looked at it: there was a sense of boundaries broken that should not be broken.
The third painting in the series had been partially damaged by fissures in the rock, but the visible parts were dominated by red shapes that puzzled me at first. “I think they represent fire,” Thereus said as he examined the painting. He turned his torch on the next painting, the fourth and last. The fissures obscured much of this one also, but it seemed to show a number of concentric circles, pure white in color, with short lines jutting in and out and certain points. I looked to Thereus to explain it to me, but he seemed just as puzzled. “Is this a symbol that means anything to you?” he asked.
“No. I can’t think of anything it looks like.” I wondered briefly if the short lines could be read as letters in the alphabet (the Nemhir alphabet, of course), but after studying it for a while, I wasn’t able to make anything legible out of the lines, and said so. Thereus frowned and returned to the fruit on the pillar, holding the fire of the torch close to it. “There isn’t anything here,” I said. “If we go back up and keep following the river, we should reach a town eventually, and work out from there how to find Buxan.”
“Yes,” Thereus said. “Maybe you’re right. These little ruins, places where soaliv once was, are scattered throughout the islands. I visited one place called Mealoros, where I found this jewel I wear. I saw a dead man there who showed me where to find it.”
“But there are no dead men here.”
“No, or at least none that we can see. There isn’t anything here for us.” He looked around the room a final time, then started for the steps.
As I write this, I can almost see Thereus by my side. I ask him if I am doing a good thing in writing this, if my words will be remembered. I ask him if I am telling the truth. But how does he answer me? That is something I can’t see.
“Wait!” I told him, back then in the pit. He turned to me, and in the cool flickering light of the torch he looked like another man, older and rounder of face. I blinked and looked away to clear my vision, which was suddenly clouded over. All around us were not rock walls, but the trunks of trees, as if we had returned to the surface, though without the snow. I put out my hand and felt the wood against my palm. “Thereus? What is this?”
The words that came to me in reply were not in his voice, but were inside my head as if I myself were thinking them. “This is the forest that I have come to destroy.”
“Who are you?” I asked, thinking that this could not be Thereus. Yet it was and it wasn’t. The word ‘to be’ hides within itself a multitude of meanings. [The Nemhir language does not have a word ‘be’, so the details of Karidha’s argument are somewhat different in the original: she refers to the structure of the sentence rather than the individual word.] I am Karidha. There are others with the same name and they too are Karidha, yet I am not them and they are not me. I am tired, but after I sleep I will not be tired. I am sharp-faced and will always be so.
But I wander from my story. Thereus who was and was not Thereus said to me, “I am the Dhini.” As I thought that strange word, hints of its meaning came to me. I vaguely saw a man hanging in a tree, dressed in black robes with a crown of leaves around his brow. I saw a man and a woman huddled together under a single cloak as something like snow fell around them. But anything more definite evaded my knowledge. “I have been consecrated by my brothers to come here and put an end to the forest.”
“Why the forest?”
“Because it binds the people in its roots and deceives them with its branches. It may have been planted by mortal men in the beginning, but its planters are now one with it and it with them. They were wicked then and are wickeder now.”
I assumed he was talking about the Lords of Night, and I was shocked. Even though they had kept me out of the world above, and I was beginning to understand from my talks with Thereus just how stunted and cruel our life in the towns was compared to his in the southern islands, I still had a deep-rooted (if you will pardon the play on words) reverence for them. “How?” That was the only thing I could think to say. “How can you destroy the entire forest?”
“It was planted with this seed, this ancient magic. But the seed was originally made for the purpose of binding the Dhini. I will be bound to the forest and it to me. Will you help me?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know who you are or what anything you say means. I don’t know! Thereus!”
“I must take up the magic. I must plant the seed within myself. I am the branch that is to be broken. There is no other way. I am the branch that is to be broken. I must plant the seed within myself. I must take up the magic.”
“Thereus?” I said again. He looked up at me and was himself again, young and handsome. When he spoke, it was with words that sounded in my ears.
“Yes? Karidha? What is it? Was I saying something?” He looked confused, and I myself was no less bewildered.
“Someone else was talking through you, or so it seemed. He was talking about power and his duty. He said he was the, the Dhini.”
“Dhini? Where did you learn that word?”
“He told it to me.”
Thereus stepped away from the base of the stairs and returned to the pillar where the seed lay. He stood silently for a moment, then nodded and put out his hand to first touch the seed, then lift it into the air. “It’s lighter than I thought it would be.”
I, cautious and terrified, said to him, “Put it down. Let’s go back to the surface.” But he would not, and so he doomed himself. I asked him not long afterward what he was thinking, and I will put his explanation here where perhaps it belongs.
Thereus had not been fully aware of what he was saying to me, but pieces of it had come to him. His intention to face the Lords of Night was reflected in the desire of the Dhini to wipe out the forest, and his vague plans of what to do next were taken up into the plan of the Dhini, though he saw it only in part. It was apparent to him, at least, that he had to take the seed with him, even if he didn’t perceive all the implications of that.
As soon as he brought the seed close to his body, he felt its relation to the trees of Nemhir and the bondage under which the island lay. I am not sure I completely understand the remarks he made at this point. Part of the legend that has grown up around Thereus is that he was moved by compassion for the suffering people of Nemhir, and I believe this was not at first true: Thereus came to Nemhir because of his concern for his own home, which the Lords of Night threatened. When he was living in Thejur, he was separated from our misery by the difference in language. But it is not impossible that this was the moment he truly understood what it was the Lords of Night had imposed on Nemhir, and his pity moved him to embrace the seed and its sorrow. (This is my fanciful interpretation. Thereus is gone now, so fancies are all we have.)
I saw a light shining from the interior of the seed, growing until I was nearly blinded. Thereus told me he saw no light, but felt instead a heat like a fire burning and consuming him. When it was over, the seed was gone, the torch lay glowing on the ground, and Thereus was on his knees clutching his heart. He took a deep breath, relaxed his hand, and looked up at me. “We’ve wasted enough time down here,” he said. “Let’s go.”
“What happened?” I asked. “Where did it go?”
“I ate it,” he said, his voice quiet, almost distant. “Now your island is a part of me. I bear it on my shoulders and I must take it to be burned with me.”
My readers will understand my alarm. I’d thought Thereus was strange before, of course, but was beginning to accustom myself to his odd ways of thought, so unconstrained by the laws of Thejur. Now he was changing into something else entirely, leaving me feeling bewildered and intensely alone. I almost would have felt more comfortable with one of the Tall Ones, who may have been insane but at least were consistently insane. I gathered up my courage and touched Thereus on the arm. “Thereus?” I asked in a voice that wasn’t quite as bold as I wanted it to be. “Are you feeling well?”
He started when I touched him, then smiled at me. He was obviously trying to reassure me with his expression, and I admit he had some success. “I understand why I came here now. I was a foolish boy looking for an enemy to fight so I could go back to my home and my love in peace. But I am not the first to confront the lords of winter in their cave and I doubt I will be the last. Their soaliv is great, stronger than anything in the islands. There is only one way for me to hope. For all of us to hope. The branch must break.”
I am certain my readers will recall the prophecy of the seer Krasoa, which includes the line “the branch to free its prisoners.” The prisoners are the prisoners of the Lords of Night, and my readers will be saying to themselves that this line obviously refers to Thereus himself, that Thereus is the branch. You see that although nearly everything Thereus said was opaque to me, this one sentence is clear to you who know Krasoa’s prophecy. It would seem, then, that everything Thereus was saying would be clear to someone who knew the proper things, but I am not and will never be such a person.
At the time I found his words disconcerting, and I told him so.
“Disconcerting?” he said, his serene expression breaking into a furrowed stare. “What does that mean?” His confusion reassured me more than anything else that he was the same Thereus as before, no matter what the seed had done to him.
“Where are we going now?” I asked.
“Where you said. We follow the river until we find a town, and then to meet the Lords of Night. But I don’t ask you to be with me in the second part.”
“Where else will I go, if not with you?”
He turned away without saying anything and, picking up the torch, began to climb the stairs. I followed, until we emerged at last out of the tunnel into the cold empty air of the surface. By now the sun had risen to the top of the sky, but its light did little to warm me. In silence Thereus returned to the river, with me tagging along behind him, and we continued northwards.
The trees grew more frequent as we went, until we found ourselves in the midst of a grand forest, where the entire world seemed to be in the shadow of ancient trunks and branches. We found no way stations during our journey through the forest; I suspect there were none. No messengers or Tall Ones ever traveled through this wild land. Perhaps we were the first in centuries to do so.
Unfortunately, the number of the trees grew to such an extent that we found it difficult to make progress. The river grew narrower and its shore became rockier, so that we were forced to do some climbing if we wanted to stay close to the river’s path. But it wasn’t long before this became impossible, and we had to decide whether to try and descend to the river bed again or to venture into the thicker part of the forest.
Thereus sat at the edge of the river and considered its slope, then he said to me, “I don’t think it would be wise to go down there. We should go that way.” He pointed away from the river, into the forest.
“We won’t get lost?” I asked. He didn’t know that word, so I clarified, “not know our way?”
“I hope we won’t. But what else is there to do?”
So we left our clear path for the bewildering maze formed by the trees. I tried at first to keep track of where the river had been, but this soon proved impossible. Thereus said something about the position of the sun, but to me that was as much magic as the seed had been.
Without the way stations and their warming fires, it was dangerous to wait too long in one place. I could feel the cold working its way into my body, lulling me into a state of calm and utmost peace. Thinking back on it now, I am reminded of my contemplation of the Mhir. The two were akin, I suppose, both of them creations of the Lords of Night, who sought to still all motion in the islands and rule over this false silence. Thereus understood it better than I.
We slept in brief shifts, each watching over the other carefully. And yet bit by bit we began to fall under the blanket of the cold, feeling it almost as warmth, even though we knew it would devour us. Finally Thereus shook himself and turned to me. “Enough of this!” he said, and I realized that for some time I had been utterly unaware of where we were walking. We were in something of an open space with a particularly large tree in its center. The river, of course, could have been anywhere.
“We are lost,” I said, and this time he understood.
“We are, but we can have…” He trailed off and went to the large tree. Its lowest branches were close enough that he could pull himself up into them. “It feels alive,” he said, holding himself close to the trunk. “Not alive, maybe, but like fire running through it.”
By this time snow had begun to fall again and was well on its way to filling the air with a swirling whiteness. I was watching Thereus in surprise as he climbed higher up the tree, but in the corner of my vision I saw a dark shape in the middle of that whiteness, about the size and shape of a man wrapped in a cloak. I looked back and forth between the shape and Thereus, debating whether I should call Thereus’s attention to it. He had climbed up further, and as I watched him I finally understood that he was trying to obtain a better view of our surroundings, hoping to find a path for us.
He was moving out along one of the branches when there was a cracking sound that startled me out of my thoughts. The branch broke away from the tree, and with a yell Thereus plummeted to the ground. I hurried to his side.
I am afraid if I write honestly what I felt, my southern readers will condemn me as a monster. My Nemhir readers will understand better. A normal woman would, I think, have been shocked and concerned for Thereus’s well-being. But I was, I confess, a woman of the towns of Nemhir, and I was thinking mainly about what I would do if Thereus were dead. We did not mourn the dead in Thejur. In theory it was because life and death were one in the Mhir, but in fact we were encouraged to take heed of ourselves above all our neighbors and schoolmates and bedmates.
My worries were not significantly eased when I found that Thereus was alive but writhing in pain, clutching at his leg. I was aware that the dark shape was closer now than it had been before, and I urged Thereus to get up, heedless of his suffering.
He managed to stand, using as a staff the thick branch that had broken under him. I helped him to walk away from the tree, in some direction or other. He was muttering under his breath but I don’t recall what he was saying.
After only twenty or so steps, Thereus collapsed again, and I fell on my knees by his side, exhausted, cold, and despairing. I could see the dark shape moving steadily towards us, but I no longer cared. What little hope I had was gone.
The dark shape came close enough that I could tell it was a man, though in the shape of his face and his dark hair he was like no one I had ever seen before. I have never met any of the Latiorn who live in the mountains of the southern islands, but I have heard that they, too, have dark-colored hair, so I am inclined to think that it was one of the Latiorn we met that day, even if I cannot explain how. I am told there are secrets in their deep mountains that no outsider has seen. I am also told that the Latiorn do not see the passing of time in the same way we do.
However he happened to be there, the man approached Thereus and knelt by his side, touching his leg with gloved hands. He looked up at me and said nothing, but only stared for a long while. I found myself unable, or unwilling, to move. Where would I have gone, regardless?
Then he lifted Thereus into his arms, staff and all. He began to walk, and I followed him.