Broken Branch: Chapter 9

We were, I think, all eager to enter the forest and find out what was within, despite the warnings we had received. Thereus was the first, followed by Mother and me, then Father to guard our backs. (Guard from what, it was hard to say, but I am glad I was not in the rear of our group, listening to the faint noises from all around us.) We were all watching for some way in which the forest might fight against us as Zosai had foretold, and it was no doubt our imaginations that fooled us at first. I envisioned roots lifting from the dirt to trip us, or branches wrapping around our necks, so it was quite some time before I realized that I had no idea where we were in relation to the rest of the valley.

I mentioned this to Father, assuming that he had been paying better attention, but he nodded in agreement. “I actually think the path is changing ahead of us. But Thereus knows where he is going, I have no doubt.”

Watching more closely now as we walked, I saw how the lines of the trunks visible in the distance did not always match those that we saw as we drew nearer. While I could not see the position of the sun clearly, and Thereus kept his compass close before his own eyes, it seemed to me that our course was not a straight one, but wove back and forth.

Then, at last, we emerged from the thick forest into a clearing. In the center of this clearing was a single tree, not at all like the others. It had a thick trunk and branches that went out straight, but were devoid of leaves. There was an arched entrance carved into the trunk, leading into a shadowy enclosed space. When Thereus saw it he stopped dead where he was, and he stood for a long time, the rest of us too surprised to say anything. Then at last he spoke, “fresh water from the hard rock.” “This is familiar to me,” he said. “It is all my worst fears.” You who have read Karidha’s account will understand what he meant.

He refused to let us follow him when he entered the tree for the first time, but after a moment he called out to us. We made our way under the arch and into a room that was lit by a single lamp, a cage imprisoning a blue flame. There were mats of some fibrous material covering the floor, where in the center a boy sat, wrapped around in deerskin, holding a ball in his hands. He seemed to be about ten years old, though his face was peculiar. He did not look up at us when we entered.

Mother attempted to greet and cajole him, but he refused to acknowledge any of us. He stared at the ball, spun it on his finger, bounced it on the ground. I was able to discern some of the colorful patterns on the ball, which resembled the outlines on a map.

Finally Thereus knelt and touched the boy’s hand. The flame in the cage flickered as he did, and the boy cried out with an unintelligible sound. Thereus pulled back, his lips moving and his eyes blinking rapidly. “I see,” he said when he had recovered. Faintly he smiled. “It is an unhappy story, isn’t it?” He saw our bewildered looks and added, “I am sorry. I will explain, as best I can. It may be difficult, as after a fashion this boy is me.

“The Crafters of Nemhir were not the first Lords of Night and I doubt they will be the last. A long time ago strangers came to this island to make a domain for themselves and their magic. They created this forest and stirred up the ghosts of the dead to keep away intruders. Winter fell over Avazin, and summer fought against it. In my time I was the sacrifice, offered up to the Lords of Night to destroy them and their magic. In this boy’s time, he was the sacrifice. Something went wrong; I was only the sacrifice, not a magician myself, and so I cannot say exactly what. Perhaps the boy was unwilling to die, and who can blame him? The magicians are gone now, as is their winter, but their forest remains, and so does the boy, trapped just as he was then.”

Thereus held out his hand and the boy gave him the ball. He showed it to us, his thumb tracing the coastlines of the map. “This is Avazin, don’t you think? And these marks near our towns, well.”

“He will deliver us from flies and foes?” I asked. “How?”

“This island is broken, and he is the break. But the time has come for both of us to depart and leave you in peace.”

“You sound so sure of yourself,” Mother said.

“There was a man who went on a long journey on business away from his home and family. At long last, after many years of wearisome travel, he turned back to return home, and as he drew closer and closer to his destination, he found that he remembered his wife’s face more and more clearly. Thus with me and Heaven and Heaven’s ways.” More than ever Thereus seemed immaterial now; I almost thought I could see the boy through his legs.

“And what about the Moon’s Death?” asked Father.

“Poor child,” said Thereus, looking down at the boy. “For so long this was an island of the dead that death is in his mind. But he will find peace with Heaven.”

I have no intention of giving Thereus’s final words to us in full. “Words only for those who hear them.” But I will give his final words to all Avazin.

“In old Nemhir I affirmed in the face of the Lords of Night that the world existed. Now I must affirm that Heaven exists. Do not forget that.” He lifted the boy in his arms and carried him outside. And as the three of us remaining watched, Thereus vanished among the trees.

We waited there for a day or so, and then we began our journey back. The path through the forest was straighter now, and the dead of the valley were quiet in their graves. Baurin met us outside his hill and spoke with us one final time. “There is a change,” he told us. “But I will leave you to judge it for yourselves.”

If you who read this decide to investigate the valley and the forest for yourself, you will find that the spirit has left both of them, and they are no different from any other valley and forest in this island. If you return to town again, you will find that the spirit has left it, and we who followed the archons and prophets from east to west are now ordinary men and women. Or so it seems to me. I, Luma Vara, daughter of Alad and Riane, friend of Thereus, write this in the thirtieth year since we came to Avazin.