Broken Branch: Chapter 4

It was a long journey, or so it seemed to me, but I didn’t feel the cold as much as I had before. I hesitate to describe it and run the risk of misrepresenting it with false words, or any words maybe. But it seemed almost as if the strange man carrying Thereus had brought with him a space inside of which time didn’t pass in the same way as it did outside. Maybe one of the southern poets could put it better, but we had no poetry in Nemhir and so I must struggle with prose.

In the end the man carried Thereus to a hut with a red lamp identical to the hut that had stood above Thejur. In fact, I thought at first that we had simply come back to the place where we had started, and my weariness overpowered me at last, compounded by despair. I fell into the snow and for a while I was aware only of stinging cold water pooling under my cheek before I passed into dreams.

I do not recall what my dreams contained, though I have a vague notion that they involved the great tree from which Thereus had fallen. The next thing I remember is being awoken by the familiar sound of the town bell, as if the past days had been nothing more than a dream. But the weariness in all my limbs told me that my journey had been a real one.

The room I was in was clearly one of the Healers’ chambers, large enough to hold only my bed, a basin of water and thur, and the wooden panel on which I was supposed to meditate so that the unity of the Mhir might mend me. Out of habit I studied its lines for a short while, luxuriating in the warmth of the room, then as I remembered more clearly what had happened to Thereus, I sat up from the bed and went to the door.

On the other side was a hall which, if this town was laid out like Thejur, would take me to the central well. I hesitated, aware suddenly that my clothes were stained with water and sweat and that my appearance in general must have been deficient. But I knew that there was no time to wash. If Thereus was also in the hands of the Healers, he was in danger of having his mind altered along with his body, especially if the governor of this town had received orders from above.

I abandoned etiquette (and the etiquette of Nemhir is a far stronger thing than that of the southern islands) to try each of the doors in the hall looking for Thereus. Most of the rooms were empty, though I did embarrass myself by surprising an unclothed man in one of them. My search came to an end when a man called to me in a stern voice, “You there! Come with me!” He wore the blue tunic that only the governors are allowed to wear, and so I followed him out of the Healers’ chambers to the well, and up to his house in the highest part of the town.

This town was indeed remarkably like Thejur in every way; it was only the people that were different. It was an incredible shock to me, greater than the shock of emerging onto the surface. I had lived all my previous life surrounded by the same people, and even though many of them were strangers to me, none of them were totally unexpected. But seeing the familiar streets filled with unfamiliar faces gave me the sensation of having stepped into a dream, and at first I nearly fell, I was so disoriented.

“I am Phomar,” the governor told me as we stepped over the threshold into his house. “I govern Xamhor.”

“I am Karidha, a teacher in Thejur.” Some of my readers might wonder why I was so quick to give my name and home, but to lie or dissemble before a governor means painful punishment at best, curing at worst. Truth was habit, one of the few virtues that the law of Nemhir taught. But even in this there was less virtue than might be expected, for everyone taken before the governor was eager to betray a friend or a lover in order to win his favor.

And yet I found myself unwilling to betray Thereus. For one thing, he was so strange, so far outside my typical world, that he simply didn’t fall in the category of things I could confess to the governor. For another, I had been changed by my brief journey outside. The towns seemed smaller than they had before, Phomar less imposing than I remembered Jevar to be, though both were governors.

“I have many questions for you,” he told me, taking a seat and looking up at me. “You and your companion were found asleep near the entrance. You are not of Xamhor, but there has been no word from the Lords of Night concerning you. Why did you leave Thejur? Why did you come to Xamhor?”

“Is my companion all right? He was injured recently.”

Phomar’s stern look was finally altered into one of surprise. “I am asking the questions, not you. Do you have need of the Healers?”

“No,” I said, lowering my head, remembering my obligations. “I left Thejur because I wanted to see the world above us. We came to Xamhor because we were guided here after my companion was hurt. I do not know the identity of the one who guided us.”

“And why did your companion leave Thejur? Where did he come from? I doubt he is one of us. That jewel he wears is interesting, and he speaks our language poorly.” This was my first hint that the governors knew more about the southern islands than I had previously believed. I wonder about Jevar and what he knew about Thereus that he kept concealed from me. I wish I had had an opportunity to speak with Jevar again before his death.

“I know little about him. He could answer those questions better than I can.”

“But you were willing to go with him into the wilderness above. That, too, is interesting. I wonder if I shouldn’t have the Healers take another look at you, a deeper look. What secrets will they find?”

“I am hiding nothing,” I said as calmly as I could under Phomar’s threat. I was, in fact, terrified of everything that he could do to me, and I couldn’t help but look away as he stared at me.

I was relieved when he only sighed and said, “There are deeds that can be forgiven under the right circumstances. You may have it in you to become a Tall One. Does that please you?”

There were few things that would please me less, but I didn’t tell him that, of course. I thought then and think now that he was completely wrong, that he mistook the freedom Thereus had shown me for the insanity of the Tall Ones. Instead I bowed and asked him about Thereus.

“He will not answer me until I have shown him that you are unhurt,” said Phomar with another sigh. “I told him about the Healers, but he said some strange things in reply. He is not like the others, but he will meet their fate in the end, I have no doubt.”

He said these last words almost to himself, so I didn’t think it prudent to ask about them, even though I didn’t understand at the time what they meant. Phomar signaled for me to follow him back down to the Healers’ chambers, where he opened one of the doors at the far end of the hall. Thereus was lying on his bed, his eyes shut but his arms stretched out above him.

“You see? She is here and healthy,” said Phomar. Thereus opened his eyes and smiled when he saw me. Naturally, I smiled back.

Thereus sat up, though his leg obviously pained him. I noticed that the branch he had been using as a staff was sitting against a wall, and wondered that it had not been destroyed or put somewhere else. “Good. I answer your questions now,” he told Phomar.

“You see? Karidha is unharmed and we have repaired your side and your leg. We are a kind people in Nemhir and we treat our guests well. I told you already that I am named Phomar. What is your name? Have you traveled a long way to visit us?”

I wondered if Thereus would be able to detect the menace in Phomar’s friendly words, given how foreign he was. But his response was guarded. “I am named Thereus.”

“And where are you from? Not Nemhir, that much is obvious. No, you are from one of the southern islands, aren’t you? Who sent you and why?”

“An old man sent me. Other words, havoatir sent me, Why I am here? I think you know already.”

Phomar glanced aside at me before saying, “Have you told Karidha yet?”

“Why will I tell her? She is one of you.”

“Very cold, Thereus. Very unfriendly. You may leave us, Karidha. You were a teacher in your town? Go and observe the lessons, and maybe they will remind you of your duty. Then you can decide whether the spirit of a Tall One is within you.”

I left them and did as Phomar had told me. The schoolrooms were in corresponding locations in Thejur and Xamhor, so I had no difficulty finding them. A young man with a cheerful, open expression was addressing a group of ten or so children, and as I listened I learned that he was teaching them about the blessings the Lords of Night gave us. It was the same list that I had memorized and then taught in my turn when I was in Thejur, so the words should have been familiar to me, but it was if I was hearing them for the first time.

“The Lords of Night gave us the thur to fill our eyes and the piti to fill our stomachs,” he said. This was and is true. Let the one who would too casually dismiss the cunning Crafters remember that they gave us something of value, at least, just as the Magistrates before them did. But do not count me among those who look back to the time of their rule and regret their passing. I was there.

But I digress. It is growing late as I write, yet I must finish this section before I sleep. The teacher continued with his lesson. “The Lords of Night gave us protection from the void above us. There is no life there, but the Lords of Night made these towns for us to nurture us.” But I knew now that there was life outside the towns. I was willing to grant it a half-measure of truth, since I didn’t know at the time that the Lords of Night themselves had ruined the surface of Nemhir.

“The Lords of Night showed us the Mhir without which we are not.” This only served to remind me that I had not meditated on the blue fire for many days, and that I found myself oddly reluctant to do so. I was worried, maybe, that it would drive the memories of my time with Thereus out of my mind.

“The Lords of Night gave us their laws and taught us the truth of the laws. The laws are without strength if we do not fear them, obey them, and make our neighbor afraid to break them. We are all the eyes and cudgels of the law.” We were all afraid of our neighbor in old Nemhir, and as our revenge for feeling afraid, we made our neighbors afraid of us. There are fools in the new Nemhir who say that we need the order of the Lords of Night again, mistaking terror for order.

“The Lords of Night gave us the governors to look after us and make us prosper. The Lords of Night gave us the yellow chair, so that we may receive justice.” The governors were the enforcers of the terror! Who looked upon the yellow chair with satisfaction? We looked at it and saw the symbol of the power that could take any of us away at the slightest accusation.

“The Lords of Night gave us the Tall Ones to remind us of the freedom that the Lords of Night give us.” Looking back over what I have written, I see I haven’t yet described the Tall Ones in detail. I will have opportunity to do so shortly, but for now let me say that the freedom they had was the freedom to brutalize and terrify.

“The Lords of Night gave us the Healers to cure us of every ailment in mind and body.” We have no more Healers, so many die of injuries that once they could have survived. But neither is anyone altered beyond recognition when their mind is judged unsuitable for service.

“The Lords of Night gave us the law of the nighttime, so that we may raise up noble children to serve us.” We had no choice, as we do now, in whom to marry, our spouses could bed others without reproach, and we could be torn from their side without warning. Thereus had explained something of the southern customs in this matter, and I had been astonished to hear it. If I had ever been in love with him, it was at that moment, as I imagined myself as a southern wife by his side. Foolishness, nonsense, foolishness, nonsense. On to other things.

“The Lords of Night gave us a peaceful death, so that when we grow old and weary of this world, we may pass into fuller union with the Mhir, like a drop into a channel of water.” A kind way of putting it, and no doubt many did go willingly, but not all. The decision belonged to the governor in the end. I had seen an old woman dragged to the passing rooms (that is what we called them), protesting at the top of her voice that she had tasks to do still, that she was not done. Again and again she repeated herself until the doors of the passing room were shut behind her. I still remember the calm faces of the attendants as they emerged from the passing room. She, of course, never emerged again.

“The Lords of Night gave us freedom.” This, of course, was an outright lie. This was the sentence that the children were made to repeat or be punished in one of the first of the many humiliations we were made to suffer until we accepted them gladly. I saw now what I could not see before, how the Lords of Night broke our nature to make us something else, as surely as they had made the piti and the thur. I saw in Thereus something different. Though I didn’t understand it completely at the time, I believe I do now. We are all of us empty in some way, but during the time I knew him, Thereus was being filled by Heaven.

As the children were saying the sentence over and over in their high innocent voices, their teacher approached me and asked me what I was doing there. We had few courtesies in old Nemhir. Why bother, when we had work to do and no particular reason to be friendly?

I considered my reply with care. If I told him the governor had asked me to observe, the teacher would naturally take me for a spy, which could lead to difficulties. On the other hand, revealing anything more seemed foolhardy, and if I were believed to be a spy, I would at least be treated well. So I told him “Governor Phomar wanted me to attend one of the lessons.”

The teacher’s face went stiff and pale. “I understand. Please take a seat, and tell me if there is anything you need.”

The children couldn’t help but notice how the teacher treated me, and so I gained respect in their eyes while he lost it. If my own memories of childhood are accurate, they would gladly have turned him in for some minor infraction and enjoyed spinning the plate around on him. A teacher’s authority was a precarious thing, and easily lost. But I had no other choice, and besides, there was an excellent chance he had abused his authority in a hundred ways. So the Lords of Night made beasts out of all of us.

The remainder of the day’s lesson was on more practical matters: how to care for the piti and the thur, how to prepare piti, how to weave clothing. It reminded me of my own time as a teacher, but distantly, as if I was looking across from the other side of the well. I realized then that I was no longer of Nemhir. I was from somewhere else: not quite Nemhir but definitely not the southern islands. Some scribbler or other has written of Thereus as the Messenger from Heaven, and as silly as that is, it captured something of how I felt about him and how he had changed me.

When the lessons were done, I left quickly, not wanting to get involved any more than I already had with the intrigues of the town. I was already sick of it all, and to my disquiet I was beginning to wonder if this was how the Tall Ones thought. Maybe I had discovered the reason they treated everyone with scorn and cared nothing for their tasks and the governor’s authority. Maybe Phomar was right, and I was becoming one of their number.

But I thought of Thereus, and I went to see him. Although Phomar had left him alone, we still spoke in quiet tones, fearful of anyone who might overhear. I asked him what Phomar had said to him, and he replied, “He gave me a long talk about the Mhir, but I still don’t know what it is. He asked me things about my home, but I didn’t want to say much. He said that I was not the first to come from the south and to want to talk to the Lords of Night. He said the others went to Buxan and did not return. I might have heard wrong what he said, but he said they died or became Lords of Night themselves.”

“I’ve never heard such a thing,” I said. “But the governors know many things that we don’t.”

“He didn’t say to me not to go. He said if I want to see the Lords of Night, he will not stop me. I don’t trust him, but I will go if I trust him or not.”

“I understand. It is your task.”

“Yes. Now you are here, and you can stay? No?”

“No,” I told him. “I don’t like this place and I don’t want to become a Tall One. I’ll go with you when you leave.”

“I am going to die, or worse.”

“Then someone will need to remember what you did and how you died.” I was perfectly truthful when I said this. I was ready to see death and to die myself, even though in the end I lived. Thereus sighed and looked across at the broken branch. It was obvious what he was thinking, so I told him, “I’ll be in just as much danger if I stay here. I am a stranger, therefore feared, and even if Phomar is friendly to me, he wants to make me into something I would rather die than become.”

I don’t know how much he understood, but he gestured for the branch and I handed it to him so he could stand, leaning on his staff and rubbing his leg. “Yes. You can come with me.”

“You’re not worried I might be a spy for the Lords of Night?” Then I had to explain what the word meant. (This was the result of Thereus’s ignorance of the language, not his ignorance of the concept. The people of the southern islands were innocent, but not that innocent.)

“If you are, there isn’t anything I can do. This is their island. Their power is great.” Then with a sigh he sat back down on his bed. “I cannot leave before my leg is better. Can you wait a day or two?”

Phomar returned to visit Thereus one last time that day. He told me I could sleep in the chamber where I had awoken, at least until I came to a decision. Of course I had come to my decision, and it was one I would never tell him.

The next morning it occurred to me that I had neglected to warn Thereus about the suspicions the people of Xamhor were sure to have: that we were spies from Phomar or worse. But when I knocked on the door to his chamber, it was Phomar’s voice that answered, telling me to come in.

Phomar had set on the floor a metal cage that contained within it a wooden framework, the top of which was alight with blue fire. I gave it only a momentary glance, not wanting to fall into meditation. But it seemed that Thereus had: he was sitting on his bed with his elbows on his legs, staring at the fire. He acknowledged me with a brief nod.

“What is this? What are you doing?” I asked.

“That’s obvious, isn’t it?” said Phomar. “Thereus wanted to meditate on the Mhir, and I brought a window to him.”

I looked to Thereus in bafflement, and without moving his eyes from the flame he said to me, “It won’t be fair if I judge Nemhir and not see all of it.” He touched his chest. “I know this. I see better now.”

“What do you see?” Phomar asked softly.

Thereus was obviously struggling to find the right words. “I see the one that is behind; is that the word I want? Behind the all things. I see that what I see is not what I see, not in truth.”

I was confused, but Phomar apparently understood what Thereus was saying, and he nodded. “That’s right. Good.”

“I hear things too. I hear voices saying to look at them.”

“And?”

Thereus smiled from one side of his mouth. “I hear them say, ‘We guide the one that is behind into the many that are ahead. Look at us and we will guide you.’”

“What do you say, Thereus?”

“I don’t trust the voices. That is what I say to them and to you. Too, I say that I am not the one. I am from it; is that the word I want? But I am not it, and I want them to guide me to it, not away from it.”

Still I was confused, though I remembered his words then and long afterward. They seemed to irritate Phomar, though, and he straightened suddenly, lifting the cage from the chain in his hand. “Well then,” he said. “You are still not feeling all right, are you? I will return, as will the Mhir, in time.”

When Phomar had gone, Thereus looked at me and chuckled. His laugh was a strange one, not in the least like the laughter of Nemhir, which was typically fearful, mocking, or both. Thereus seemed simply amused, like a child who had found a thing to use as a toy and had not yet had it taken away by its elders. “I’ve seen the Mhir. Now I’m able to.”

“Able to what?”

“Sorry. I forget the word.”

A couple days later Thereus was feeling well enough to accompany me to the morning meal in the canteen before the ringing of the first bell. The others eating there gave us a wide berth, as rumor had spread quickly concerning us, it seemed. It was known that we were from outside and that we were close to the governor, neither of which facts would attract many friends for us. I saw a child point at Thereus’s unbound hair and beard and stare until his mother pulled him away, whispering harshly to him.

The only person who dared approach us was, naturally a Tall One. My stomach clenched when I first saw him across the room, the silver threads in his robes marking him beyond doubt. He was staring straight at Thereus, and the expression on his face changing into something like a smile, he approached us. As he did, another of his kind emerged from a door behind him. This second Tall One was holding a knife in his hand and toying with its blade.

“You will come with us,” the first Tall One said in the slow measured voice that so many of his kind used to intimidate.

“Who are you?” Thereus asked. I stood still, too nervous to move or speak.

“We are tall.”

“I don’t understand. But Phomar said,” Thereus began before he was cut off.

“Phomar is nothing. We are the Tall Ones.” I had not explained the Tall Ones to Thereus, afraid that to talk of them too openly was to draw their attention, but I had warned him to stay away from them if he could. He looked to me now for answers, but I was able to give him none, to my shame.

“I cannot go with you,” he said, crossing his arms. Folly, I thought it.

“We will force you to go,” the nearer of the Tall Ones said, breaking into what was undoubtedly a grin. “We are tall, you understand? There is nothing we will not do.” The Tall One with the knife stepped forward, and I saw its blade was stained with blood already. Had they killed someone this early in the morning?

My southern readers will, I hope, begin to comprehend just what the Tall Ones meant to us in Nemhir. Not only did we have to worry about the spite of our neighbors, but the Tall Ones were always stalking the town, and you never could tell when they were hungry for blood. It was no crime for a Tall One to kill a citizen, but something near to blasphemy against the Lords of Night for a citizen to kill a Tall One.

Phomar appeared from the doorway behind the Tall Ones, looking pale. Thereus called to him for answers, but Phomar only said, “They have come from the east on their way to Buxan. I cannot help you.”

“Where will you bring me?” Thereus asked them. “To Buxan?”

They laughed as one. “No!” the nearer said, pantomiming drawing a blade across his throat.

“I said, I will not go with you.”

“We are tall!” the nearer screamed, and struck Thereus in the face, knocking him to the ground. Blood stained his lips, but he continued to stare up at the Tall Ones. It was, I think, the bravest thing I had ever seen, braver even than his later confrontation in Buxan. I knew the Tall Ones and feared them because of what I had seen with my own eyes, so for Thereus to defy them was brave even if foolish beyond belief.

The Tall One stepped forward and planted his foot on Thereus’s chest and then, to my further astonishment, he turned around and walked away, his companion following him without a word. Phomar seemed just as relieved as I, and he helped Thereus stand up. “That was a marvel, Thereus, a marvel.”

Thereus touched his lip and grimaced. “I think it is time that I leave.”

“If you wish. And you, Karidha? What do you say?”

“I’m going with Thereus.”

“I was the one who said you might be a Tall One. It would be unwise of me to stand in your way now. I can only offer you this word. May your encounter in Buxan end happily for Nemhir.”

Thereus said something in his own language, then added, “I hope it will.”

“Before you go, would you like to look upon the Mhir again?”

“No,” said Thereus with a thin smile. “I have seen it and I understand it. I am able to go to Buxan today.”

“And you are sure? You have spoken with the Healers? I doubt that you’re fully healed yet.”

“Today,” said Thereus again. “I thank you for all the help you gave me.”

“Perhaps you will not thank me when you meet the Lords of Night face to face. But it was my duty. I wish you well, for you too are of the Mhir, unseeing though you may be.”

Thereus said something in Esu, which unfortunately I cannot remember well enough to translate, though I suspect it was a blessing from Heaven. Then he added a farewell in our tongue.

“May we meet again.”

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