Broken Branch: Chapter 7

Thereus showed no hesitation or reluctance as he led us out from town. He was by far the most energetic of us all, and sang some old song of his youth that I have been unable to identify. We passed through the sheepfolds and into the higher hills where hermits and outlaws went, leaving humanity for their two opposed reasons. I asked Thereus if Baurin had gone here like the other hermits, and he answered, “Not quite. You’ll see what I mean.”

We shared our evening meal with one of the hermits, an old man who did not recognize Thereus at first. Once he realized who Thereus was, he raised his hands to Heaven and blessed him, but added after his blessing, “You have walked a long time in the twilight, but the sun rises.” All the hermits of the hills said enigmatic things like that, but Thereus seemed to grasp something of his meaning, and bowed.

I had never slept out in the country before, and so I found little rest that night, though I would grow accustomed to it before long. Happily the weather was good, neither wet nor cold. We continued on our path, which led to a particularly tall hill shaped like a leaf or a sheep’s ear. Now the path became more difficult and our pauses correspondingly more frequent, but before the sun passed its height Thereus brought us to a fold in the earth about two-thirds of the way up the hill. Then he called out, “Where are the griffins, that walked once on the land?”

After a minute or so a response came from within the cave. “They have gone away, all of them, to the gray waters. They chase horses and watch the phoenix and are seen no more by man.” Then Baurin emerged, walking slowly from his concealment. (Let the more impertinent of my readers understand that he no longer lives there and there is no point in pestering him. “A plague, a blight, a pestilence of visitors.”)

Baurin seemed to be a young man, not much older than me, but he carried himself as if he were older and his bones were weak. There was something about his face that struck me as odd, but which I was unable to narrow down. Thinking back now, I find myself unable to remember his face clearly. I can only guess that his secret had had its effects on his appearance. He did not greet us or smile, but looked us over once and grimaced. “What are you doing here?” he asked us.

“The king is dead,” said Thereus.

“Zosai? I am sorry. He was one of the better ones. But what does he have to do with me?”

“Before he passed into the gray waters, he had a vision.”

“Oh, Heaven!” Baurin turned on his heel and went back into the cave, calling out behind him, “I don’t want anything to do with your visions. Heaven sent you. It has forgotten me and left me behind.”

“Heaven forgets no one. Aren’t you at least curious to hear the words of the vision?”

“No!” And after a moment, “All right, yes! But who are your companions?”

“Alad Vara, his wife Riane, and their daughter Luma.”

“The king’s nephew, is it?” Baurin asked as he emerged again, peering at my father. “I am sorry again for your loss. But by now he would have been a very old man, and ready for the gray waters. It is the way of all things under Heaven, though there are sad exceptions.” He looked at Thereus and said, “Then there are those whom Heaven has taken aside for a time. But I want to hear what Zosai said.”

When I had recited the words of the vision, Baurin stood staring up at the sky for a minute, then invited us into his home. The tunnel in the side of the hill twisted once before opening into a round chamber lit by patches of thur on the ceiling. The walls were lined from top to bottom with books, and it was all I could do not to pick one up and start reading.

Seeing my interest, Baurin smiled for the first time. “I saved what I could of my old library, but I’m afraid most of it is back in the east. But it doesn’t matter. Not only does my memory grows better and better with the passing years, but so much of the writing in these books seems useless now.” His smile disappeared and he said, “I’ve considered the vision and I think I can tell you where you need to go. If, that is, you want to obey it. The choice is before you.”

“It’s hard to make a choice when we understand so little, isn’t it?” asked Alad.

“Every day of your life you make choices despite understanding little or nothing of their full meaning. This isn’t any different.”

“You’re not coming with us, I take it?” Thereus asked.

“You know me better than that. My wandering days are long behind me. I am content to sit here like a stump waiting for spring. I will expect you to return and tell me what befell you.

“On the other side of this range of hills is a low valley shrouded by trees of a kind that are strange to me. I have visited that valley many times to try and learn its secrets, but each time I have returned defeated. It was a place of burial once, or maybe a battlefield, and many bones are hidden under the ground. It is not the bones that are dangerous, but the spirits of those who once wore them. By some magic they linger in that place and drain the life from whoever enters that valley. It is a deadly place, and if you go there you must die.”

If you are confused at one or two points when I write, let me briefly explain that I have no wish to betray the secrets Baurin confided to us. They are his to tell if he chooses, and I doubt he ever will, so I am afraid you will have to continue in your confusion. “What is this world but a storm of ignorance? Let not the man who sees a long way pride himself on his eyes simply because the clouds have cleared.”

“That does not sound encouraging,” said Mother. “I don’t think Heaven would lead us to our deaths.”

“Why not?” asked Baurin. “Countless men and women have gone to die because they believed Heaven was guiding them.”

“I was one of them,” said Thereus. “Heaven delivered me through extraordinary means, but at the time I knew not what was to come.” [Forgive me if I slip into occasional archaisms. I do not recall the exact words Thereus and Baurin used, but I do recall that they both drifted into archaic language the more they spoke with one another.]

“In any event, I spoke too strongly. Death may not be inevitable, if there is one among you who has the wit to avoid it.”

“You think it a question of wit, then?”

“It is by my wits alone that I stand here before you today.”

“I doubt that very much, as you know. But you and I will not finish our argument today. Once we have passed through the valley and died or lived, as the case may be, where do we find the forest that fights against us?”

“On the western edge of the valley is a forest, though I confess I understand not why it was said to fight against you. I found nothing peculiar about the forest when I entered, saving this one thing. You remember those petty magicians who tried to rule Lhaurzi in its last days?”

“I could hardly forget them.”

“You recall they were taught their magic by the Lords of Night, so I have some familiarity with the feel of that cold power. And I felt it in that forest.”

“You don’t think there were magicians among us, do you?” Alad asked.

“Or perhaps they preceded us to this island, servants of the Lords of Night sent to corrupt this new home. I can tell you this much: I doubt that the Moon’s Death is a natural thing like the blight that infects kelp. Something in Avazin is not our friend, and I am afraid that if you follow Zosai’s vision, you will learn that for yourself.”

I was aware now that my parents were giving me looks of concern, and I understood perfectly well what they were thinking. They would want to send me back, away from the danger of wicked magicians. Thereus was my only hope. He had been a little younger than I when he went alone to face the Lords of Night, but he had suffered and nearly died. Or so I thought, yet unexpectedly it was Mother who asked me, “Do you want to go back to town, Luma? This journey is not what we expected it to be.”

“And the prophecy seems to be made clear,” said Father.

“No,” I said, putting into my words as much determination as I could muster. “We’ve learned something, but how is the forest to fight against us? Who is the child of aged parents, and what is his toy? As for the danger, I knew there would be danger when we set out, and so far we don’t even know whether or not this talk of evil magicians is anything more than jumping at shadows.”

“She is right, of course,” said Thereus. “I ask none of you to come any further on this road with me, but if you so wish I will not stop you.”

“Why would we turn back now?” Mother asked.

Thereus nodded and said, “I’m glad. I am fortunate to have such friends accompany me on my last journey. Thank you, Baurin, for your advice.”

“Stay the night here and leave in the morning. You will not want to risk being in the valley once dark has fallen. I do not have guests often, but I do have rooms where you can sleep.”

The rest of the day we spent in conversation, but I must draw a curtain over what exactly was said. Baurin’s past is for him alone to share. I can say this much: he and Thereus are alike in a way, and yet that makes the difference between them more apparent. Baurin withdrew from the world completely, to watch and observe without interfering. His long life had given him a perspective from which our brief paths seemed insignificant. Yet Thereus, who had stood above even Baurin, in the courts of Heaven themselves, had taken a wife, and taught disciples like Father, and had proclaimed the message that brought us here.

Thereus gave no credit to himself for this difference, but I can only regard this is a manifestation of his humility. He always tried to act as Heaven called him, no matter what the cost to himself. From Garweal’s account we understand how he wrestled with his fear and his doubt, but now near the end of his life he was calm and sure of what he was doing.

Baurin showed us to the nooks of his cave that he called guest rooms, and yet despite the austerity of our lodgings, I slept well. Perhaps something of Baurin’s magic had passed into this home of his. I have returned to his home since, after his departure, and it is not the same anymore.

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