Broken Branch: Chapter 8

The next morning we left him and continued west through the hilly country until a valley stretched before us, its fringe marked by a row of tall trees whose branches hung down around them until they draped the ground with long green leaves. We halted here, and I at least was recalling Baurin’s word of warning. Thereus crouched to the ground, feeling the trunks of the trees, then said, “These are not like the trees of Nemhir. But if you listen, I think you’ll be able to hear the dead souls.”

I tried to listen, but I heard only the waves within my ears. Yet my imagination put before my mind, “in front of the eyes and ears that are within”, images of ghosts moving among the low-hanging branches. My idea of a ghost was, I confess, something like a faintly translucent walking corpse with wide eyes. And I did in fact see a ghost for a moment, though when I looked again I realized it was only Thereus. For that moment he had seemed to be only partly in the living world under the sun.

“What are they saying?” Father asked.

Thereus smiled sadly. “I cannot understand most of it: it is in a language that has been lost to us with its speakers. But there are fragments that make it across the gap to my mind. They have been here in this valley a long time. They call it the Valley of Forgetfulness, because they remember little of their former lives. And yet they mourn something like a shadow that fell over the valley at some time in the past. That is all I can tell.”

“And do you think they will hurt us as Baurin said?”

“That I cannot say, but Baurin’s words can be trusted. We must take care when we go forward.”

I noticed that my father was wearing on his face the expression he always had when he was about to do something foolish. [Bold and decisive, not foolish. -Alad] Thereus was just starting to slip between two of the trees when Father stepped in front of him and strode several paces into the valley. Mother cried out, I remember, and I was too stunned to do or say anything. But Thereus ran forward and seized him to drag him back.

“What under Heaven are you doing?” he asked.

Father only stared up at the sky for several minutes, then he shook himself as if wakening from sleep. “I thought I’d see whether anything would happen right away. And if something did happen, better to me than to you.”

“Nonsense,” said Thereus sharply. “You still have your family and your duties, while I am perfectly ready to go on to the gray waters. And anyway, I may be protected in a way that you are not.”

“Would you say I am a brave man?”

“The bravest I’ve known,” said Mother at the same time that Thereus said, “I certainly would.”

“The few seconds I was in that valley were the most terrifying I have ever experienced. It is hard for me to remember anything specific that caused my terror. I heard voices, but I don’t know what they said. I saw shadows, but I don’t know how they moved. All I know is that if I had stayed within the edge of the valley, I would have lost my mind.”

“Then what are we going to do?” I asked.

“The old Lytiorn crafted swords that could slay ghosts as easily as living men,” said Father, “but the last of them was broken back in the old islands.”

“We have no need of swords,” said Thereus. “Mortal men may be able to call up ghosts, but Heaven can dismiss them in a gust of wind.”

Father laughed, but there was an edge to it. “I suppose so. Shall we pray, then?”

“Please do; that will help. But I have something less direct in mind.” He turned back to face towards the valley and away from us. “As the years pass by I remember my time in the courts of Heaven more and more clearly. Perhaps I am drawing closer to them again, especially since Niviem passed into the gray waters without me. I remember the beauty that was all around us and the songs of Heaven that we sang. But I remember, above all else, a single point of light that was so much more beautiful and so much more glorious that everything else seemed to only be a shadow by comparison. And I saw that light.” He trailed off, and when he continued it was in a more somber tone of voice.

“I must pass away if I want to see that light in its purity again. I must die if I am to pass through this valley to find whatever it is we want.”

“What exactly are you proposing to do?” asked Mother.

“Nothing to imperil my soul, I promise. On the contrary.” Then Thereus smiled at us and went down between the trees. His step faltered once, but when he straightened again a light seemed to shine through him, and my earlier impression of him as a ghost returned. “Follow me!” he said. Mother and I looked at one another, hesitant to enter the valley, but Father took a deep breath and went after Thereus.

“It’s all right,” he said to us after he had gone a few steps. “But I think we should keep close to Thereus.”

When I passed under the hanging branches, like walking through a curtain of leaves, I cringed, “nerves like a drawn bow,” fearing whatever power had stricken my father. But I felt nothing, except perhaps an ache in the back of my head. Thereus was now before my eyes as a shining light leading us through a gray mist. If there were shapes, I did not see them, and if there were voices, I did not hear them. We walked for some time, Mother’s arm over my shoulder, until we came to the edge of the forest. The trees here were of the same kind as those that bordered the valley, but taller.

Again Thereus knelt to feel their trunks. “Now these remind me of the forests of old Nemhir,” he said. I saw him tremble for just a moment, then he asked, “Are you all well? I’m glad, then, for these final graces Heaven is giving me.”

“We are close to the end of our journey, I think,” I said.

“Yes, I think so too. But we should wait until morning if we want to enter this forest. It is already late.” Only then did I notice the sun was setting behind the valley rim.

The thought of malevolent ghosts around us kept us all awake for a long time. We occupied and distracted ourselves with talk of various things, and in the course of our conversation I happened to make the remark (I do not remember what prompted me) that Thereus was a good man. Thereus laughed and shook his head.

“I am not a good man, no.” When all three of us protested at this, he replied, “None of you have been inside my thoughts as I have. You judge by the little you see of my actions, or what is worse, what you would want my actions to be. It wouldn’t be proper for me to give you a full confession, but I’m certain you will remember my mistakes during both of my missions in the islands. For half of my years under the sun I pursued my own sense of self-importance and made myself great. The other half I spent in hiding from my true responsibilities. When my wife passed into the gray waters, I turned away from the people that needed me the most. I might as well have died myself, but happily Heaven graced me with this last opportunity to do what’s right.” He looked at each of us in turn, then sighed and said, “You will not believe me when I talk about my vanity or my anger, but you don’t have to. Just believe me when I tell you that it is only by the grace of Heaven that you think me to be a good man. That is
all.”

After a long silence he added, almost to himself, “It is hard for a man to be good when he is surrounded by flatterers.” Then he seemed to be asleep.

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