Broken Branch: Chapter 1

When that boy was going around the islands talking to Luxan and Branwei and Vin, and everyone who had known Thereus, I was in Thathtar’s tower. I could have told the boy a thing or two about what Thereus did in Nemhir, but instead he had to do the best he could with the stories of that old fool Deukal and those liars who were governors then and are still governors now.

Am I too harsh? Perhaps I am. The darkness has passed from Nemhir, its lords are overthrown, and fools and liars have their uses. Now that I have the means, I am able to write and tell the islands about what I saw of Thereus. Those of you who were born in the southern islands, outside the dominion of the Lords of Night, may find these things hard to believe, but they are all true!

I am, of course, a woman of Nemhir. I lived in the town called Thejur, which is a name that means nothing. I’ve been told that names in the other islands frequently have meanings, whether obvious or hidden, but it was the doctrine of the Lords of Night that nothing was to have meaning, so that we could see the meaninglessness of the Mhir. My name, Karidha, has no meaning, and for many years I was nothing more than a fragment of the Mhir.

In Thejur I was a teacher, but only a junior teacher, so only a fraction of the secrets were entrusted to me. I told the children of the town about their duties and the kindness of the Lords of Night, but it was my overseer Garing who brought them before the blue fire to show them glimpses of what was beyond. My southern readers may wonder about the differences between the Mhir and Heaven; let them consult the books of philosophy that have been written about the matter, as I am not interested.

I can tell you only that when I was a child myself and was first brought to the shrine and the false tree and the thing seated in its chair, I was afraid. I knew that the same thing was in the blue fire that was also in the piti that we ate and the thur that gave us light. It was all around us, my teacher told me. It was our mother that had given us the Lords of Night to rule over us. And yet even then I dreamed about the sun, though I had no name for it. Its light was visible sometimes through gaps in the upper part of the town, where I would sit and wonder about the world beyond Thejur. All I knew was that the Lords of Night lived there in that strange intense light, and I imagined them to be enshrouded by it as we mortals were in clothing.

Other than my dreams I was perfectly obedient to the Lords of Night and to our governor Jevar. I was never taken to penance or put in the hands of the Healers. Yet, as you will see, when the test came I would rebel completely and utterly. I anticipate what some of my readers will say about the reason I rebelled, especially as I had not yet been assigned any husbands, but nothing could be further from the truth. I simply saw nothing I could rebel against until Thereus came. Everything was given to me in exchange for my obedience and for the simple tasks I performed.

Then the stranger appeared above Thejur, where the guards found him and brought him down into the town. Usually we would be informed when visitors from another town came to us, but there had been no word from anywhere about this stranger. Most disturbingly of all, he didn’t seem to speak a word of language. (He spoke Esu, of course, but what did we know about languages other than our own? We didn’t know such a thing was even possible.)

The Healers wanted to examine him, naturally. They performed a few of their weaker viewings, but he was protected by some force stronger than they. I don’t know whether they would have succeeded if they had been given the opportunity to use more intrusive methods, but Thejur was reluctant to turn the stranger over to them, in case they damaged him and thereby displeased the Lords of Night. Instead he summoned me and told me that I would be responsible for teaching the stranger to speak using proper words.

The stranger’s name was Thereus, we established that much at the beginning. He was eager to learn, and I was eager to teach him enough that he could tell me clearly where he was from and what he was doing in Thejur. It was a strange thing, teaching a language when I was only aware of one language and therefore wondered if Thereus was an idiot or a child in the body of a man. But he was neither, and very soon we were able to hold conversations, even if they were simple ones at first.

“What is tokimhir?” he asked me on one occasion. I believe that Jevar had used the word when he took him before the blue fire. [Tokimhir is the Nemhir word for the unique blue fire used by the Lords of Night.]

“It is the path to the Mhir,” I instructed him. “Seeing it, we see more of the Mhir.”

“And what is the Mhir?”

I wondered how I was supposed to explain the Mhir to a man who knew so few words and was apparently so ignorant of the world. I did my best, telling him how the Mhir lay behind everything and also was everything, but I doubt Thereus understood me very well. “The Mhir burns in our bodies,” I added. “The blue fire burns as well. A very long time ago there were towns that left us and fell into darkness. It was a bad time. But the blue fire consumed their trees and they died.” It was prudent, I thought, to warn him not to take the blue fire too lightly.

Another time he asked me who governed Nemhir. “The Crafters,” I said, “the Lords of Night.”

“Where are they?”

“The town of Buxan, in the Mharid forest. But tell me something about yourself, Thereus. Where are you from?”

“Athoros,” he said, though the name was meaningless to me.

“I don’t know that place. What is it like?”

“It is a beautiful place,” and he went on to describe it, but fell into Esu as he did. Catching himself, he did his best to explain in words I understood. “It is in the middle of land like this,” he said, gesturing with his hand.

“Hills?”

“In the middle of hills, near the great water. All over is like piti leaves, and the light above is bright.”

I tried to picture this in my mind but wasn’t sure what he meant. Instead I asked, “Why did you come to Thejur?”

“I can’t say it. I don’t know. Shortly I leave Thejur, go to a second place.”

“You left your comrades?”

“I don’t know your word ‘left.’”

“To leave someone is to go from them so they are alone.”

“Alone?”

“One, no second.”

“I finish, I go to them.”

This saddened me, but at first I didn’t know why. I smiled at him and said, “So you will leave us.”

“This is not my home.”

That night, as I lay in my alcove in the dormitory, I realized why I had been sad. When I tried to imagine Thereus’s Athoros, the memory that came into my mind was that of crouching near the upper walls of Thejur, tilting my face to catch the light that came from above. It came to me at once, in an instant of enlightenment like the moments the Tall Ones always talked about in which one world would be replaced by another in the blink of an eye. I, who had always obeyed the Lords of Night and their laws, wanted more than anything else to go outside.

At once I turned over on my side and tried to forget what I had been thinking, afraid that the Healers would catch onto it somehow. But it was impossible. I saw myself in Athoros, though I fear my imagination was very different from the real place! Then when I slept, I dreamed that the Healers had come for me and taken me to their houses, where my head was set among the roots of a gnarled tree and pain burst through my skull.

In old Nemhir we did not measure time the same way as the other islands. Indeed, we did not really measure time at all. The Mhir encompassed all things, so one day was much the same as the next. The sun and the moon, of course, were unknown to us. So I am not sure exactly how long it was before Jevar summoned me to his house, where he offered me a tray of simple sliced piti (he was a powerful man) and I took none of them (I was only an assistant teacher).

“The Healers have been asking about Thereus without cease,” he said, taking a seat and looking up at me sternly. “Have you made progress?”

“I have taught him a little, and we have spoken.”

He stared at me until sweat ran down my face and arms. “Well. We will see in time if you’ve been contaminated.” Was Thereus like a rotten piti plant, spreading its contagion to its neighbors? I felt an itchy sensation on my wrists suddenly, though I knew it was my mind Jevar was talking about. “Tell me what you know about Thereus and his task here.”

“He says he’s from a place called Athoros, but I don’t know why he came here to us. He talks about other things when I ask him.”

“Then the Healers may be necessary. If you want to make one final effort you may. It would be a pity to risk breaking him while he still may be of use. Remember, once the Healers have dealt with Thereus, you are to report to them yourself.”

“I understand,” I said.

“Word has come from the Lords of Night. If we cannot learn any more about Thereus, through you or through the Healers, then he is to be cured of his delusions.”

I have no wish to explain curing in detail. It is what was done to the worst criminals and lunatics, and it changed them into a different person altogether, one who was more obedient but also lacked any connection to the rest of us. Since there are no more of these cured around, it is hard for me to be any more specific. We met one in Xamhor, later in my story, so maybe I can be clearer then.

When Jevar dismissed me I went to find Thereus immediately. He had been assigned to tend to the piti plants in a row on a level whose numbers I don’t recall. As much as I wanted to take him away from his work and speak to him privately, there was no excuse for deviating from the routines the governor and his advisers had established. Thereus would work there until the bell rang, and then he would be allowed some measure of freedom until the bell rang again. He, arbitrarily, did not share in the privileges I had been granted as long as I worked to teach him.

I knew this, so I only stood at his side and asked him as his hands worked to prune and water the plants, “You didn’t come here to hurt us, did you?”

“No!” he said, and stepped away from the plants until I gestured for him to return to work. “I came here to help you.”

“Help us with the piti?” I asked. Though he was facing the plants, I could see him frown. But he said nothing.

It is impossible for me to remember exactly when I made the decision to leave. Was it later, before evening? Was it at that exact moment? Was it when Jevar warned me about the Healers and Thereus’s curing? Or was it even before that? Whenever it was, I resolved all my doubts and went to find Thereus after the bell had rung.

It may be difficult for you to understand if you are not from Nemhir. You may think that this was sudden on my part, that it was insane to throw away everything in an instant. But in old Nemhir, we were taught to be insane. Everything was part of the Mhir, even our whims. To be sure, no society could survive where everyone was a Crafter or even a Tall One, but in the lesser matters we were encouraged not to let our dull wills blunt the edge of our spirits, shards of the Mhir.

This was not a lesser matter, I admit, and yet I didn’t allow even the slightest trimming of prudence or caution into my plans. I found Thereus resting in one of the alcoves overlooking the well in the center of town, the well in whose broad depths every level of Thejur was visible. He must have thought I was there to teach him again, but I said quickly to him, “They do not understand. They have not talked with you. You are not wrong in the head. I know you are not.”

“Then I must go,” he said after a moment. There was no one close enough to hear us. Most of the workers chose this time to sit before the blue fire, and now I understand why. Nothing else was given to us in Nemhir to love. We did our work and said the proper words to our superiors. We had no special attachment to our parents or siblings or half-siblings, and even the marital bond was weak and could be broken at any time. The Lords of Night had made us a weak and shattered people, the better to rule over us. (From things Thereus said in the last days, the Lords of Night may have had other, mystical, purposes, but I am not inclined to agree.)

“I can show you a way out,” I said. “But I will come with you.”

“If you want. But will they chase us?”

“No one goes up there in the wilderness. No one.”

“Except us. Is there,” and he hesitated, searching for the right word. “Is it bad to be up there?”

“I do not know. But it is bad to be down here.”

Neither of us had any possessions besides our clothes and our bodies, except for a blanket Thereus had and which he gave to me to wrap around myself, telling me that it was deathly cold above. Thereus still wore a large green stone and a strange metal device on cords around his neck, which no one had taken from him because no one saw any reason to. If the Lords of Night had known the virtue of the green stone, no doubt they would have given orders for it to be taken from him immediately. But even they did not know everything that happened in their realm. It was this stone that had allowed Thereus to pass the wards of the gate without alarm when he entered, and it was this stone that protected us when we left.

The gates of Thejur and of all the towns of Nemhir were not guarded by fallible men, but by statues of the Lords of Night seated in their thrones and holding rods symbolizing their power. No one could enter or leave without a token of permission, but it seemed that Thereus’s green stone, wherever in his past life he had gotten it, served as such a token.

We passed by the images of the Lords of Night without incident and came to the doors, which were simple and undecorated. Thereus opened the doors and we ascended a spiral staircase into a little room where an empty cage hung from the ceiling. He opened a door at the other end of this room and we stepped out.

Broken Branch: Introduction

There are many accounts of the life of Thereus Vineapora, some of them truer than others. The best are Garweal’s The Downfall of the Crafters and my father’s The Last Deluge, but “all texts have a lacuna,” and even the most diligent student of Garweal and my father will be deficient in his understanding of what Thereus did in old ice-covered Nemhir and in our new home of Avazin. To amend this fault, I have collected some additional accounts of Thereus from those who knew him best.

Karidha’s tale has circulated for some centuries: there are those who doubt its authenticity, but I am persuaded that it is what it claims to be. Thereus made no comment on it during his sojourn here, but scattered remarks he made agree with Karidha’s account. I have translated it into Esu with the help of my mother, who was born in Nemhir. The other accounts here my father or I obtained ourselves.

I doubt there is much need for an introduction to Thereus’s life. Many of us knew the man face to face, and all of us know his legend. But the man was close-mouthed in his later years and the legend has grown in the centuries, “a giant from a shadow.” So I present these accounts in the hope that they will go some way towards clarifying who this man was who did so much for the islands in the east, our home of old.

Update

I’m coming to regard Broken Branch in its current form as a failure.  It was meant to be in part a reworking and improvement of earlier stories (incorporating segments of Midnight Torches and The Last Deluge), but in writing it I’ve succumbed to laziness, doing little more than recasting the third person narrative in first person, with an occasional added comment.  Better, I think, to leave those earlier stories as they are, despite their flaws, and concentrate on something new.

Broken Branch will start again in the near future, telling a new story about Thereus, though I may take the opportunity to cast the ending of Midnight Torches in a new light.  I’m also continuing work on All the World Afire, a much longer story which won’t be ready for some time yet.

Broken Branch: Chapter 10

This is my confession. It is not my confession to the priests; they have forfeited that right by their venality and treason, with some few exceptions. It is not my confession to the king or his judges; I have already received a pardon, unworthy though I be. It is not my confession to Heaven; I make that daily and privately. What is this confession, then? It is a confession to the world.

My sins began in the great library of Rhos, a moment I would remember at times with thankfulness, regret, or a third feeling altogether. I was studying a scroll when Helore approached me and asked if I knew where Hoada’s map of the region of Thangar was. She was tall and stern-faced, but even at the start I was drawn to her.

As it happened, Hoada’s map was at my elbow, and I offered her a chair so she could study it alongside me. If you have not seen it, it is large enough for four people to examine it at a time, and is filled with detailed sketches and comments. I was particularly interested in what Hoada had reconstructed about Mealeaki’s invasion that blighted the land, but found myself glancing at Helore almost as much as the map.

I introduced myself, giving my name but nothing else: any fool could tell from my robes and shaved head what my occupation was.

“I am Helore,” she replied. “a scholar in the service of the king.”

I wondered, naturally, if King Hearaklakain was interested in reclaiming Thangar, but supposed that the priesthood would learn of it soon if he was. Although there is no real connection between Heaven and magic, many people seem to assume that all things unseen are similar.

“What brings you to study Thangar?” she asked me.

“I am interested in magic, I suppose, particularly that which arises from one man,” I told her. “Before Mealeaki there was no such power in the Islands, and after his defeat it was lost. Where did it come from? That was many centuries after the age of magic had ended. The Lords of the Night and their attempt to conquer Nemhir interests me too, but there is little information on that. Forgive me if I ramble.”

“No, these are things I have always been fascinated by as well.”

“And yet, despite their magic, both failed.”

Helore smiled at last and made a final note in her book. “A priest with such interests is one I would like to speak more with.” She, at least, did not identify the invisible with Heaven. “There are few enough who care to discuss such things with me. Perhaps I will arrange to come back here soon.”

That evening I returned to my home in the priests’ section of the hill of Rhos. I had then an enviable collection of books and scrolls, some my own, some copies I had made, and some I had purchased or inherited from my parents, scholars both. Looking upon that evening I found myself strangely unsatisfied, though I wasn’t able yet to put a name to my dissatisfaction.

The next day I walked to the Thiapol with my friend Plago, talking about the mundane affairs of the priesthood. He congratulated me, having heard rumors that I was to be elevated to the rank of Elder Priest soon. I rebuked him lightly for his proselytism on behalf of the Tikivs (and let this be my readers’ first warning of my hypocrisy).

“I teach with the approval of Arkein,” Plago told me. “You’ve heard of him: the High Priest. As I’ve told you before, Heaven and the Tikivala are perfectly compatible.”

“Worship of the Tikivala was dead long before even the time of Romureh. What hope do we have of resurrecting it properly? But never mind. We have debated this before and arrived at no conclusion.”

We seated ourselves near the top of the arena to hear the bard performing in honor of the fifty-third anniversary of Hearaklakain’s coronation. Hearaklakain had ruled for a long time, but it was surely the blessing of Heaven. He was loved by most in Thalata, except perhaps the nobility, whom he frustrated constantly. Their power waned to its lowest ebb since their establishment.

“I’m surprised you haven’t joined Krasoa’s party,” Plago said.

“My mind is not yet that settled,” I replied. “There is much I would consider yet before making a final decision. Krasoa claims strange things sometimes. He says the Tikivs were a fraud concocted by Romureh, but I have found references to the Tikívi in older texts.”

“He is a seer,” Plago said solemnly.

“And he takes that as license to argue with Arkein at every turn. But perhaps he is right. Perhaps Arkein is right. I do not know.” Too many things were unsettled in my mind at that time, but I was sure, at least, that I wanted to see Helore again.

It was that desire that brought me to the library again and again the next few days, though I pretended to myself that I wanted to clear up a question I had about Sotlaci verbs, then that I was interested in the development of the liturgy. My self-deceit was rewarded at last, and in the course of our renewed conversation I asked Helore what it was like to be in the direct service of the king.

“Not the direct service,” she answered. “But I know that he is a great man who has done innumerable things for the good of the Islands.”

“All the Islands? Not just Thalata?”

She smiled. It was a very attractive smile that I would like to describe, but I dare not let myself remember those days with any pleasure. “What is done in one place affects another. Hearaklakain has accomplished more than most know.”

Often in these conversations she would mention something I had never heard of: a golden cloak that had protected Sotlaci in the Millennial Deluge, a woman who had convinced Mealeaki to give up his pursuit of power, a small group of isolationist rebels over a thousand years ago in Nemhir. I asked her where she read this and she dodged the question each time. Despite my gnawing curiosity I enjoyed our conversations and was regretful when we parted.

I imagined foolish things sometimes but said nothing foolish. I learned that Helore’s parents were small merchants in Rhos, and that she had a brother who was also a scholar, and I told her that I was the only child of deceased parents. “You must feel alone, at times,” she said. “I do not know if I could manage without my family.”

“It is not so bad. I have many companions among the priests, and, of course, my books are companions in a way,” I would reply.

It was not difficult for me to draw the obvious conclusion. A scholar patronized by the king, knowing things I didn’t but refusing to give details. I finally asked her if she belonged to the Brotherhood of Theala.

“Yes, I am,” Helore answered, with a touch of pride in her voice. “I know some priests accuse us of vile things. I hope you are not one of them.”

“I have no opinion on the Brotherhood.”

“To be silent is to be wise, Xratoa said. Theala wrote a rebuttal of that, which I believe went to ten thousand words.” She laughed, a delightful sound. I still hear it in my ears at times. “It is true that need not believe in Heaven, but some of us do. What is important is that we believe in the five elements and all the ways they mingle.”

“Yet you will not allow priests as Brothers,” I said.

She looked at me; I could not read her eyes. “Not all of us would have it be so.” She gathered her book and writing kit and stood to go. “Not all of us.”

The Brotherhood of Theala was a secret society, but everyone knew that it existed, that King Hearaklakain favored the Brotherhood and gave them rooms in the Halls of Akain, and most regarded it as a strange eccentricity. I hadn’t given much thought to it before. But now I thought of Helore when I thought of the Brotherhood, and both were often in my mind. There were of course no copies of Theala’s Essays on Nature in the library of Rhos, but I found one or two works on the Brotherhood. Both were written by priests and were not favorable towards the society.

When, hungry for knowledge, I mentioned this to Helore, she brought me a book, the Essays on Nature themselves. Foolishly I asked if this were allowed, and her eyes laughed at me. “I decide for myself what is allowed,” she said. “It would be a pity for you not to learn what Theala wrote.”

The essays are disconnected, covering topics from the shapes of the planets to the color of hair. The common theme is Number and Element. In its abstractness it reminded me of some writings by priests from Karei which I had been shown once. I was captivated.

“You seem distracted lately,” Plago said to me one day. “Did some woman catch your heart in a net?”

“I hope so,” I told him. But it was more than Helore’s beauty that had captured me, it was Theala’s essays and the things hinted at in those pages. They are lost now, and I have written more of them in another place. He and his teachings have been unfairly maligned for many years, though they are not entirely innocent. A certain atheism lingered around its teaching and practices, to the extent that priests could not join the Brotherhood, yet even so, while assisting with the sacrifices my mind was not on Heaven but on Helore and the Essays.

A hook had been planted in me with regard to the Brotherhood, and I added more impossible dreams to those I had already built for myself. “I would give anything to gain more knowledge,” I confessed to Helore one day, about a week after the Feast of the Four. A confession not of contrition, but of unrighteous desire.

“Would you give up being a priest?” she asked me, and I said I would not. “We are alike then. There are things we will not surrender. Perhaps soon a crisis will come and force us to choose what is in fact most important.”

“And what is it that you won’t give up?”

“The Brotherhood itself. Tell me, do you play tasoth?”

“Sometimes. I prefer to study the symbolic meanings of the game.”

“Oh? And what would those be?”

I began explaining how each piece represented a different stage in the soul’s ascent to Heaven, but she hid her face and laughed. “I thought symbolism was important to the Brotherhood,” I said, offended.

“It is a different thing. Observe,” she said, opening her writing kit and dipping pen in ink. “There are six rows and twelve spaces in each, making seventy-two total spaces. The factors of seventy-two are thrice two and twice three, the sum of which makes twelve, the perfect number.”

“I see. What is the point of it?”

“Numbers are all. Haven’t you read those essays yet?” Obviously I had, and her words gnawed at me.

“And what of the soul and its concerns?” I asked bitterly.

“When one is in accordance with the order of nature, all else follows.”

“What is this order of nature?” This, at least, had not been in the essays.

“You don’t expect me to tell you the secrets of the Brotherhood, do you?”

“But you do expect me to learn them, by being initiated. Don’t you?”

“Do you wish to enter the Brotherhood?”

“Yes, if it were possible.”

“Priests cannot normally be initiated, but I have asked Paida, our leader, for an exception to be made. He agreed to consider it if you come to be interviewed tomorrow evening. Meet me outside the Halls of Akain.”

We are fools, all of us; we walk blind in the storm and then, when we open our eyes, we choose to step off a cliff. The wind drove me to my death and I was not unwilling to go.

She was there waiting for me, wrapped in a cloak against the autumn wind, and led me into the hall and to a door which she unlocked. Paida was waiting for me in the room beyond. He was a stocky man with a withered leg; from what I understand, the weakness of his body had led him to the exercise of his mind. Certainly he was one of the most learned men in the islands at the time.

“Priest Luxan,” he said. “You have been given a great honor. Welcome to the home of the Brotherhood. I am Paida, and I understand from Helore that you would study and seek with us.”

“I would,” I said, and I tried to hide my excitement and nervousness. I dreaded the idea that I might not be accepted, that they might judge me unworthy.

“I understand as well that your reputation is for your learning rather than your piety, not that I cast aspersions on the latter.”

“My father was a priest; he and my mother were scholars in a way. I admired them both greatly when they were alive and I try to emulate them to the best of my ability.”

“Tell me if you know, if you are wise. What are the three forms of government in the islands?”

“First rule by a single king, as in Lhaursi and Karei, second rule by a king and a council, as in Thalata, and third the manner of government of the primitive tribes of the Latiorn.”

“What are the three scholarly tongues?”

“The High Speech of vanished Raghjan, the language of lost Sotlaci, and Old Esu.”

“What is seven times nine?”

“Thrice thrice seven is thrice twenty-one, which is sixty-three.”

The questions went on, questions of history, philosophy, and arithmetic, until Paida was satisfied at last. “Knowledgeable you are indeed, Luxan. You may go now, and await my answer.”

I thanked Paida and left. I was relieved to be done at last and desperate to know if I was to be found acceptable. At that time I cared more about what Paida and the Brotherhood thought of me than any priest or even, I am sad to say, Heaven.

On my way to the Thiapol the next morning, I was met by Krasoa. I did not know him well, for I admit I distrusted him and his visions. He claimed to have insight from Heaven, but what he wrote was always confused and impossible to interpret or judge.

“Luxan,” Krasoa said to me. “I noticed that you have become withdrawn lately, spending a great deal of time in the library. You are attending to your proper duties at the sacrifices?” I told him I was. “Good. I suspect you will go far in the priesthood of Thalata if you are not led astray. This is not foresight, of course. It is just my intuition.”

“Thank you, Elder Priest.”

“Be wary, Luxan. Do not seek after the moon when you can train your eyes to gaze on the sun.”

I did not know what that meant, though I think I do now. “I will try to fulfill my duty to Heaven and to Thalata.”

“Heaven’s blessing upon you, then.”

When my duties for the day of fetching water, reciting prayers, and speaking to supplicants were done, it was late afternoon, and I descended the hill towards the greater city. In the shadow of the library I saw Helore, who stepped forward and wrapped her arms around me when she saw me. I could not tell before she spoke if she meant to congratulate or console me.

“Paida refused you, Luxan. He is wrong, horribly wrong. But you cannot be a Brother.”

This is what I thought at that moment. I felt something murky wrap around my heart and I held Helore tightly to me. Her eyes were dark and sad and angry, and fixed on my own. The thought went through my mind, for just a moment, that the Brotherhood would regret their mistake, and it left in me a terrible wrath that mingled with fierce desire until I could no longer tell one from the other.

And so I committed two sins that evening. I committed fornication with Helore (uncleanness of this type was not uncommon among the priests of Rhos, to our shame), and I allowed myself to be rotted by anger until I was ready to fall. And in my fall I would destroy not only myself but many others.

Broken Branch: Excerpts 1

Radina, ean taseagn tha. Tha rada kanta pelasala tea aragos rhu rai.
Follow me, Radina, I will teach you of the stars and the deep fires.
-The Story of Thabad, Radina Cycle

Radina heatel, oakin ja sitala neikal borixo rhu thala, thala rada var tir meak.
Said Radina: “Even if the trees rise up and fight with us, we can do nothing against Tir.”
-The Story of Tir, Radina Cycle

Rai dhei ahala, radina. Rai rada dhaxoa jarv dhara?
Ahala is yours, Radina. What will you do with it?
-The Story of the Throne, Radina Cycle

Kula heatel, dhahin dhara?
Radina heatel, dhara dhin vukn tea dhara whal.

Kula asked, “What is this?”
Radina answered, “This is treachery and this is utter defeat.”
-The Story of the Throne, Radina Cycle

Bin tára uzináh agomálun, mítlo sih tor tára isúah tes vin col.
If I go home nothing awaits me but the endless empty water.
-Lament of Ceredem

Lih atlésala miték tes darí haiz vidél tára sarantsó, parén darí akatlálun dínah tára nehír.
These circles are excellent things and I hope they learn much, but I fear they may become ends unto themselves.
-Saying attributed to Atlan

Bin turín ríenda agomál ivúku, kus lih jozinótl! Parén vatlánotl tes wi verín turínun jútlunotl.
If evil enfolds your home, then go away at once! But take care that you do not wander into greater evil.
-Attributed to Ceredem

Ri sáda bocénda ohazó? Tári sa bocénda sarác hazó?
What is this battle you have won? What battle can possibly be won?
-From the Teachings of Master Hana the Inquisitor

Tári rovíl jowí parátl itéto sa kalá?
What right have we not to forgive one another?
-Often attributed to Atlan, but more likely due to Itlav and recorded by his follower Eso

Broken Branch: Chapter 9

I did not expect a warm welcome in Tortarven, and I was not given one. I was turned away at the gates of the palace, where I was told that Sarwe would allow me back into the city, but not into the palace to see him. So I stayed with Jazun’s cousin Ravati and his wife instead and listened to them plot. Ravati had been surprised when he first saw me, but I could see the thoughts foaming up in his mind. He told us that Sarwe had imprisoned Jazun’s parents for their obstinance in the tax dispute, that Sarwe was in the grip of despair over my loss and the failure of the auguries, that Sarwe lashed out in anger at anyone who dared to question him.

It was then that Dheukal came to me. I had been speaking with Jazun about Thereus, telling him how I had seen Thereus several times since I left Rhos. Although I know I he didn’t mean it, Jazun’s words stung like nettles. “But he has sent no messages.”

“He is alive,” I said. “I know he is.”

“You are quite correct,” said Dheukal from the open door behind us. He had to remind me that we had met on the ship to Rhos before I remembered him, yet he seemed entirely different, sharp-eyed and clear-tongued now where he had been dull and wandering before. “I am a friend of Thereus, but he needs your help.”

“Where is he?” I asked. “Why hasn’t he come for me?”

“He has been held in prison for these past months, and only recently has he been allowed to leave.” Dheukal was wearing an eye-shaped amulet around his neck, I remember. I have since made inquiries into the symbol: it is associated with the Melai Ratula, a school of philosophy outwardly dedicated to clear thinking and the exercise of the mind, but which was rumored to have a more esoteric purpose. All accounts say that it died out decades ago. “But he will not be able to come to you for some time. He has a task to accomplish for which he needs something that you possess. A golden cloak which protects and shields. It was first made long ago to defend against a council of magicians who held the islands in their grip, and with the passing of millennia it will come back to its old purpose again.”

“How do you know all this?” I asked, taking a step away from him. “And why should I believe that Thereus sent you?”

“Thereus did not send me. I act of my own accord.” Then he took the eye amulet from around his neck and held it out to me. “Take a hold of this.”

Something flashed across my vision when I did and for an instant I saw Thereus lying in a bed, his face pale as he tossed and turned. “Is he ill?” I asked in distress as the image vanished.

“Yes, but he is in no danger from it. Far greater threats lie ahead of him than a passing miasma. You no longer need the golden cloak for yourself; your battle is over. His has not yet begun.”

I shut my eyes to stop their tears. “And he will return when it is over?”

“Who can say with certainty what the future will bring us? Even the seers spoke vaguely.”

“We can say, we who watch the stars.”

“I am a man of the seas, not of the sky. All I can tell you is that a hundred waves threaten to drown us all unless Thereus can be protected by the golden cloak.”

“Why him? He is courageous and honest, but surely someone else could be found better suited?”

“Why Thereus? Why me? Why you? The chosen oar does not question the rower.”

“How can you be sure who is chosen?”

Dheukal looked at me then, mocking me with feigned amazement. “You ask this? You who set out for Meloros because you saw it written in the stars and so doing set Thereus on his path?”

“Yes, I ask this. What do you mean when you say Thereus is chosen? You say yourself you are not a watcher of the stars.”

“The green emerald that you have seen around his neck is the sign. It had been in that hill since one of his ancestors died there fighting the Lords of the Night. He has claimed it again and will fulfill the destiny of his family, the heirs of mist-shrouded Saina.”

“I think you are mad,” I said, and didn’t bother to hide my tears any more, “but I know you are a friend of Thereus. I will give you the cloak and hasten Thereus’s return, or so I hope. Send him my love.”

Dheukal bowed low. “Thank you, my lady,” he said. When he had gone with the cloak, I fell into my chair and rested my head on my arms. Jazun put his hand on my shoulder as if to comfort me, but I was not in a mood to be comforted.

Some days later Jazun asked me if I would try to go to the palace again, to plead with Sarwe on his parents’ behalf. I went, and again I was turned away. So instead I went to Ravati. Now, Ravati has since become one of the chief figures in these Heaven-cursed wars, but when I met him he played for smaller stakes, hoping to extract whatever concessions he could out of Sarwe. It was he who had sent Jazun to kidnap me, but now he had other plans for me.

And, alas, I was too easily persuaded. Ravati spoke of Ler the bard, whose song had wrought so great a change in King Movan. He spoke of Sarwe’s past and present injustices, and I agreed to write satires to spread among the people of Gineadh.

Jazun learned of what I was doing when he found Ravati advising me as I wrote. “What poetry has so pleased my unpoetic cousin?” he wondered, leaning over my shoulder. “Hello, Branwei. Writing about the king, I see. What is Ravati getting you into?”

“I do this of my own accord,” I said. “Sarwe has gone too far.”

“So you have passed from the song of Heaven to this? Are you sure you are doing the right thing?”

“It is not your decision to make, Jazun,” said Ravati.

“How terrible it would be for your plans, I imagine, if she changed her mind.”

“Your parents’ freedom may depend on this.”

“Enough,” I said, irritated by their argument. “Jazun, I see no other course for me to take. But Ravati, it is not your decision either. I am glad to hear Jazun’s concerns.”

Jazun cleared his throat and said, “It is just that it does not feel right. I have a plan of my own, or rather I am devising one, to plead before the throne if necessary. You need not do this. You will cut yourself off forever from Sarwe.”

“So be it. It is no matter to me.” What a terrible lie I was committing. “I am no longer Sarwe’s daughter.” I couldn’t explain to him how Sarwe had betrayed and murdered my parents. I couldn’t explain to him how these dual images of Sarwe, the betrayer and the father, were tearing me in two, and at the time I couldn’t explain to myself how this fracture was pulling my actions. I apologize for this self-indulgence, which may seem to have nothing to do with Thereus, but so many have asked me over the years about what I did or failed to do, and this is the best answer I can make. Thereus would appear to me one more time, as you will see.

Jazun whirled on Ravati. “What game are you playing? You’re using her in some scheme, aren’t you?”

“I wish I could, but she is too strong-willed to be used. I told you that before, and it will take a great deal to change my mind.”

Jazun stared hard at Ravati. “I can never be sure when you are lying. But let’s assume that you want Branwei to write satires on the king. Then what? Sarwe’s heart will be wounded? He will repent of his tyranny? Just who do you want to read these satires?”

“You are moderately clever, neither foolish nor wise. Which means you are a nuisance. Let me put it in these words, and then I will say no more to you, my cousin. The time for small stakes has passed. Now we must gamble everything we have.” His sharp eyes met mine, and he shepherded Jazun out the door, leaving me alone to work.

I fear the place has come for me to explain my actions, and how it was that I failed the test that was set before me. Thereus would have done better. Thereus had been a young man, and foolish in the way that so many young men are: eager to prove himself, eager to impress me, eager to quarrel. But I do not think he would ever betray someone who trusted in him. This is how I know that it was really him who appeared to me, to keep his promise.

Thereus would certainly never have betrayed his father, no matter how much he rankled under him and disagreed with him. But I, wretched bard, blind diviner, wrote satires against my father, and not even of my own will, but at the bidding of a schemer and a plotter. What was I thinking? I was thinking that I could make Sarwe release Jazun’s parents. I was thinking that I could make Sarwe repent of his injustices as I understood them. I was thinking that I could avenge the death of my parents. I was thinking that I could make Sarwe take me back.

And he did in the end, or so I thought. An invitation came for me to attend the First Branch feast in the palace, and I accepted. I remember that the wind was howling as if to tear down the cliffs when Jazun confronted me. “I have no idea what could be going through your mind,” he said. “Except perhaps a longing for martyrdom. The satirist Branwei finally provokes the tyrant to the point that he imprisons her.”

I wasn’t sure how to explain myself, so I could only say, “I will do as you had wished, and plead for your parents. He will not dare to lay hands on a bard.”

~

The long dining hall was familiar to me, and although I was stepping into the enemy’s lair I knew at the same time that I was coming home. I was seated between two minor nobles, Lord Dhalis and Lady Paseari, and I half-listened to their tedious conversations as I waited for the king. I do not know what has become of those two in the past years.

At last the king, Sarwe, my father, arrived, and my heart skipped a beat. He took his place at the head of the table and raised his hands to Heaven. “Winter has seized the Islands,” he said in Old Esu. Familiar words that nevertheless meant something more to me as he said them. “The sun abandons us to the darkness at the heart of the sea. But this is according to the order of Heaven and by the order of Heaven the light will return to us and the green things of the Islands will flourish once more. Let us praise the order of Heaven.” He lowered his hands back to the table and sat, beginning the feast.

There was savory lamb and mushrooms; fish and kelp; iced fruit and spiced tea. I remember the meal very well, though ate sparingly out of my worry. There was an unfamiliar taste to the tea, bitter but not unpleasant.

“So why were you banished?” Paseari asked me. “Rumor says it was for indiscretions with a kitchen boy.”

“Rumor is ridiculous,” I told her.

“And when you return you stir up dissension against Sarwe with your satires. Very curious,” said Dhalis.

I found no easy answer to this, especially as my head was beginning to ache. Paseari said something trivial, and Dhalis began talking to whoever was on the other side of him, but I was finding it difficult to concentrate on either.

“They say the diviners are all worried dreadfully about some sort of disaster,” said Paseari. “Maybe the stars will fall down upon us and the waters will drown us.” Her words were curiously loud.

The rest of the feast passed in a gray haze for Branwei. I was aware of pain throughout my body and unable to focus on what I had come there for. My memory is hazy, but I do recall stumbling out from the palace, trembling.

The next thing I remember is wrapping my arms around myself because of the cold air and stone beneath me. The only light was dim, from a flickering lamp held out by a man with a mask over his face. “Matsen,” I said.

“Branwei,” he replied, his voice almost a whisper.

“I should have expected Sarwe would betray me.”

“Our king is many things, but he is not as wicked as that. I am the one you should be blaming. I am the one who does what Sarwe cannot. He does not know the tenth of what I do to keep him on his throne.”

“Are you going to kill me?”

“I might. Either way you will never see the sky again. You should not have made yourself into a tool for rebels. Were you that angry at your exile?”

“I would avenge my parents,” I said. The mask of blazing eyes and grimacing mouth seemed to be regarding me closely. “Sarwe turned them to their enemies when he had promised to protect them.”

“I am the one who does what Sarwe cannot,” Matsen repeated.

“How could you?”

“I am damned, and I would heap further damnation upon myself. I will commit sin after sin to keep the land from tearing itself apart.”

“Heaven protect me.” It was if I had been plunged into deep black water without hope of air.

“Heaven did not protect the first woman to stand in my way, and it will not protect you either. With every breath I take I defy Heaven, I defy conscience, and I defy love. All these things I threw away to take my first steps down this road, and I did so rightly. A girl, a pretty girl who kept ducks, wept and clung to my feet. I turned away from her and never looked back. Do you think I will look back from your death?”

It was at that very moment that Thereus faced the Lords of the Night in Nemhir. I wish I could explain the bond of magic that connected us, but it remains a mystery to me. Dheukal knew, I think, but he told very little of what he knew. All I know is that a bright light blinded me and I stood in a tall room, shivering as the cold became far more intense. Before me were eleven cloaked figures seated around a round wooden table at the middle of which was a pool of pale blue water. Their skeletal hands lifted towards me and grabbed at me, and it felt as if they were pulling my very soul apart as emerald flashes covered my vision.

“I faced the High Circle and I will stand against you!” I whispered. From elsewhere, filling me, came the peace of Heaven and a love that centered me and strengthened me. Most of all, hope flowed into me to battle despair. The hands reaching for me slipped away as the cloaked figures wailed loudly, and then I left Thereus behind, and I was in the depths of Tortarven again.

“Branwei! Are you there?” The voice was familiar, and I called out to it.

Matsen jumped back and I heard the sound of a sword being unsheathed. The lamp fell to the ground amid a clatter of footsteps.

“Stand aside by the order of the king!” said the familiar voice.

“The king has no power over me. Turn back!” replied Matsen. Metal clanged on metal once, then came a duller tearing sound and a loud anguished scream. There was silence for a moment. I found the lamp and lifted it to see my cousin Anadiu kneeling by Matsen’s side, holding the mask in his hands.

“I wish I had not killed him,” Anadiu said.

“You had no choice,” I told him. I approached Matsen and held the lamp over his face, which apart from its pallid color was unremarkable, like the face of any other man.

“I always thought he would be deformed hideously,” said Anadiu. “I wonder why he wore it. It is heavy.”

“How did you find me?” I asked.

“Sarwe sent me to look for you in the dungeons. He told me to tell you he was sorry, and then he repeated several times ‘I have lost her.’” Anadiu was shifting from foot to foot. “He told me to take you out of the palace.”

“I understand.”

“He is releasing from his cells all of the prisoners he has taken recently, too. Perhaps there was an augury.”

“Perhaps.”

And so I reach the end of my story, for I have no wish to go on to the death of Sarwe and the coronation of Anadiu, to the strife that followed upon the death of Glvath. That would all be years away, in any case. I have only one last thing to recount.

I was walking alone along the side of the cliff outside the city. The air was cold and crisp; the sea lapped at the rocks below. I felt as if I had awakened from a nightmare. I stopped for a moment to look out at the sea, and when I did I was aware that someone was standing at my side.

“I failed,” I told Thereus. “I allowed myself to succumb to the storm of my passions, and I’m afraid I’ve contributed to the evils of our age.”

“You defeated the High Circle,” he replied as if to comfort me.

“Why can’t you come back to me? I loved you, Thereus.”

“And I loved you.” He put his hand on my shoulder. I had thought of a hundred things to say to him when we were reunited, but could find none of them in my mouth then. “Go in peace, Branwei. You’ve done what Heaven asked you and what Krasoa prophesied of you. Lesser deeds await you now.”

“But what about you?” I pleaded. “What can I do now?”

“I go to walk with Heaven. Branwei, beloved, you should do the same.”

He was gone after that, and I was left to walk alone. It would be pleasant to say that ahead of me I saw Jazun in the distance, but I did not.

There is nothing I can add to the legend of Thereus, the great hero of Nemhir, whose name means pearl and who was a precious pearl indeed. My account has wandered and spent far too much time on my own deeds, though I can say honestly that the best of them I would not have done were it not for Thereus. I only hope I have added something to the story of Thereus, the man I loved.

Branwei Lisarwe

The seventh day of Vrvoal, in the year 8584

Broken Branch: Chapter 8

“The king will see you,” I was told, and went in. Glvath reclined in his throne, the entertainers dismissed.

I started to speak, but before I could say much, my vision seemed to clear. As Glvath leaned forward to listen, I saw a dark shape looming behind him, something like a tall spider enfolding him in hairy legs.

Glvath gave me a senile chuckle. “Go on,” he said. The phantom shifted and I saw once more my vision from the Black Hill, and saw the kings and lords of Lhaursi being played like tasoth pieces. I saw Glvath’s hollow laughter as the reflection of an interior that was also hollow and filled with strings and wires all leading back to the dark shape.

“I have resolved to leave Sertarven,” I said.

“An unfortunate decision.” His hands writhed against one another. “Are you sure?”

“I have a desire to see more of Deavid than just this city.”

“Indeed? You will see the fresh green hills and the majesty of the Dhavon river? Perhaps you will wander up and down the coasts too before realizing at last that your soul is ours.” He started to cackle, and when he dismissed me with a wave of his hand, I rushed from the room to find Jazun.

“You were right. I will run with you,” I said to him. “I have spent far too long in the great palaces of Lhaursi. And perhaps on the way I will explain something of a vision I saw, and of where my path takes me.”

We would be going to the east, to the estate of Lord Sapra Harte. “I fell in with him and his compatriots while I was visiting kinsmen on the coasts,” Jazun told me. “They sent me with a complaint against Glvath’s manner of ruling. But you will see.” We had one companion, Jazun’s guard, who had the brown face-paint of a swordsman trained in Karei. You will recognize his name when I give it to you: Gidun.

As we set out on the road to the coast, Branwei I found myself reminded of my departure from Rhos with Thereus and Vin. But that had been a journey dictated by the stars, while this was of my own choice. “I will be free,” I said out loud.

It took several days to reach Harte, which was a coastal estate centered on a small decaying fortress. Lord Sapra himself lived in a simple house not far from where the river met the sea. I had visited a northern lord’s estates once or twice with King Sarwe, and so I was surprised now that Sapra did not live in more palatial surroundings.

“It is because of Glvath,” explained Jazun. “He taxes the lords heavily, until there is barely any distinction between them and the farmers. Naturally, I see no problem with that by itself, but it also means that the lords are powerless to do anything while Glvath lets the land and sea fall into neglect.”

A short man almost as pale as a deerblood appeared in the entrance to the house, and on his finger I saw a ring. “Welcome back, Jazun, Gidun,” he said, then executed a nervous bow. “Welcome to Harte, my lady. I am Lord Sapra.”

“Good evening, my lord. I am Branwei.”

“Then welcome, Branwei.”

Several other nobles were staying with Sapra, I learned, all of them part of the alliance that had sent Jazun to Sertarven and all of them waiting to hear the response. A cook prepared a savory dish of fish and kelp over which Jazun was to speak, and, after meeting a good number of the lords and their attendants, I found a place to sit and consider. I doubted I was capable of judging the rightness of their claims and their demands, but if they were opposed to Glvath, then I was with them. I was absolutely sure of that, at least. Glvath and the High Circle needed to be stopped by whatever means necessary, even rebellion.

Soon Jazun rose to address the meeting. “I have done what was asked of me. I have presented your case to Glvath, and Glvath has mocked me in return. He said that he takes no account of your words. He said that he is king, and will do as he pleases.”

There was murmuring among the guests. A noblewoman said to me, “Glvath must be insane!”

“He is,” I replied quietly.

“Thank you, Jazun,” said Sapra, taking Jazun’s place. “We now face a quandary, and I would like to ask that these doors be shut to those who are strangers here, lest they become more entangled in our affairs than they already are.”

I left, of course, and met Jazun just outside the meeting room. “So now my duty is done,” he said. “Do you think those magicians will be pursuing us now that we’ve left Sertarven?”

“I don’t know, but I’m afraid they might.”

“I was hoping to return to my cousins on the coast, but the last thing I want is to bring them any trouble. Branwei, tell me, where can we go?”

“I don’t know,” I said again. “But it might be for the best if you leave me. The High Circle wants me, not you.”

“I will never leave you,” he said, taking my hands and giving me a look I recognized immediately.

“There is a man I love and intend to marry,” I told him. “He’s in Thalata now, but soon he’ll be coming to Lhaursi for me.”

Jazun dropped my hands and nodded. “I understand. But nevertheless, I can’t abandon you to those magicians. I’ve spoken to Gidun and he agrees. I don’t know what we can possibly do against them, but we have to do something.”

“Send Gidun back to Sertarven,” I said slowly, thinking it through as I spoke. “Tell him to find Alri and Baurin. They were working on a translation of a certain song that may help.”

So Gidun went to Sertarven while Jazun and I went south into the sheepfolds to wait. I sang songs there to pass the time, but the only one I remember is the Death of Radina, which I believe is about Thereus.

Piebald Tanli came down from the mountains, burning with envy against his brother.

He wore a rumpled hat and soggy boots and his face was lined with dirt.

To all the villages of Radina’s enemies he went,

And stirred them up against the beautiful one, the brave warrior, the wise sage.

Lalo of the sea, Miso of the sky, Taro of the deep fires assembled with their armies.

They marched to Ahala and encircled it,

And Tanli called for Radina to come out.

“Do not go, beautiful one,” said Ele. “Do not go to your death,”

But Radina rose from her bed.

“Do not go, brave warrior,” said Kula. “We will fight for you, and men of all islands will fight for you.”

But Radina armed for deeds of battle.

“Do not go, wise sage,” said Thabad. “All our visions warn against it,”

But Radina cried out for the aid of the earth and the stones.

He went from Ahala, and his army followed him.

With his sword he took many lives, made distant women weep,

With his spear he took many lives, made distant woman weep.

First he met Lalo and asked him this question:

“What lies at the bottom of the waters?”

Lalo replied, “The placid mud.”

Said Radina, “The mud is mine,”

And slew Lalo lord of the sea.

Then he met Miso and asked him this question:

“Where do the birds nest that fly above?”

Miso replied, “In the trees and the crags.”

Said Radina, “The crags are mine,”

And slew Miso lord of the sky.

Then he met Taro and asked him this question.

“Where is the eldest heat held prisoner?”

Taro replied, “Far beneath the rocks.”

Said Radina, “The rocks are mine,”

And slew Taro lord of the deep fires.

Last he met Tanli and asked him no question.

For the one had no advantage over the other.

They fought four weeks until Tanli at last cried out.

“Sea, drown this man who killed your lord.”

“Sky, strike this man who killed your lord.”

“Fires, burn this man who killed your lord.”

And a great wave rose,

And death rained down,

And fire burst forth.

And Radina fell.

Yet the stones and the rocks rose to crush Tanli

And he was swallowed by the earth.

For killing his brother, son of the mountains.

Ele wailed and wept for Radina,

She lay herself down by his body

And before she died spoke this:

“Farewell, beloved, farewell, pearl of my eye.”

“Farewell, beautiful one, brave warrior, wise sage.”

“Strongest and finest and craftiest of all men.”

“When did Radina live, if he is not just a fable?” Jazun asked me.

“I do not know, save that it was ages ago, long before the Millennial Deluge, even before the rule of the Magistrates.”

“I always admired how he went to his doom despite all the warnings he was given. Bold and defiant, it is the perfection of heroism.”

“It is tragic.”

“What better sort of hero is there? To fight when defeat is certain is braver than to fight with the possibility of victory.”

“But foolish. It is sometimes better to assure victory by doing something besides fighting,” I said, and I still think so.

“Is it? Would we remember Radina if he had made peace with Tanli? I am sure you can think of countless minor figures who chose some small success over valor and are now forgotten by all but historians.”

“Who can measure success, especially over the centuries? If Radina’s kingdom had remained, things could perhaps be better now. But what matters is what he was able to accomplish for his people then, not what we think of him today.”

“It would be better to expand your centuries to millennia. Does anything that Radina did truly matter, except his memory? Nations come and go, floods wash over the islands, all is lost but legend. His honor still stands.”

“But that too will be forgotten. We do not know who led our people to these islands from the land of the rising sun. We do not know who fashioned the Bell in the Humbaha mountains, or why they did it.”

“Yours is a sad philosophy,” said Jazun. “Then you think that nothing lasts?”

I could not answer him, then or now.

After a couple days Gidun returned with Alri and Baurin, both of them carrying several cylinders for scrolls. Gidun had told them a little of the threat we faced, but now I explained the matter in full to them. “I want to know how to recite the song of Ceredem in all its fullness before the High Circle comes for me,” I said. “I will use it against the Circle.”

“They have magic,” Jazun said. “They will wring your neck like a duck’s.”

“I have to try, or night will swallow Lhaursi as it has Nemhir.”

Alri embraced me. “I don’t know how you can be so brave,” she said in my ear, “but Baurin and I will go with you. Maybe we can be brave too.”

Baurin cleared his throat and said, “In any case, it would be fascinating to hear the song performed by a true bard for the first time in centuries.”

It didn’t take long for me to learn how to pronounce the esoteric symbols in theory, but it was several days before Alri and Baurin approved of my pronunciation. When the final strange, yet melodious word emerged from my mouth, Alri smiled and nodded. “That is as close as we can make out, although we obviously cannot know for certain. It sounds much different with the music.”

“Thank you, both of you. This system of letters is remarkably versatile.”

“Thank the scholars of Raghjan who began it long ago,” said Baurin. “It is unfortunate that so much of their writing on the Latiorn languages has been lost, but that is another issue altogether.”

It was a dreary day, which seemed to be continually on the verge of a fierce rain but lacked the energy. The stars had not been visible for weeks now, so even if I had my instruments I would not have been able to find security in what they foretold. I had nothing to trust in but my own abilities, insignificant as they were before the magic of the Circle.

“We will see this task accomplished,” Jazun told me. “I swear it.”

“Thank you,” I said. “But that may be a harder thing to ensure than you think.”

“I am a serpent rider, Branwei. I do not fear to swear impossible things, let alone things such as this. The song of Heaven will fight for Heaven against these magicians. We do not need to be drowned by fear.”

“May Heaven grant it.”

When the High Circle finally came to me, they took the form of ravens that circled above our heads and called out to me in voices that almost sounded like human speech. They led us to the place they had chosen to destroy us (or to bring me into their number), the hill that is now called Gidun’s. Then they stood around the hill, wrapped in their cloaks, with tusks and fur protruding from their hoods.

The clawed hands of one rose and tossed back its hood, showing Tharo’s face. “This is the end, Branwei. This island has been given over to us. Its rivers and its winds, its valleys and its hills are ours.”

“You can do nothing to harm me.” I lifted my lyre and began to play.

Tharo spread one hand wide, and there was a black opening into the hill now, a thin patch of shadow. “Look,” he whispered, and the opening grew. “We cannot harm you, but we can seal you away beneath the earth. Look!” The opening was right in front of me now.

I sang the music of Ceredem, the song of Heaven, but my voice trembled as I sang. The blackness grew to envelop all of my vision save a ring around the edges. Hopeless, helpless, I strove against her fate even as the blackness swallowed everything.

There was nothing but music and my own voice, but then I knew that I was not alone.

Hundreds with brilliant features sang among sparkling lights, their melodies and harmonies interweaving with my own. Time no longer passed, yet the music marked beats as it went on. I cannot put into words what I saw and knew then.

I became aware of grasping claws behind the blackness, but they could neither hurt me nor touch the song. They folded themselves up behind the wall of dark, for nothing was without the song.

The cold air and rolling hills formed again as I fell back into myself, and when I could see again, I saw no sign of the High Circle. The others were staring at me in wonder, but I have never been able to get a straight answer out of Jazun or any of them as to what they saw. Strangely, perhaps, it was the unlearned Gidun who best understood what had happened. “You sang about Heaven, my lady. They tried to seal you away, but they only sealed Heaven away from themselves. Now they’re under the earth, and I hope they stay there for a thousand years.”

So do I. Gidun is still there, guarding the hill with his chosen companions. May Heaven preserve them and their task! As for me, I returned to Tortarven, which was and always would be my true home.

Broken Branch: Chapter 7

I was filled with the hope that I might see Thereus again, so spent most of my time in my room with Ler’s song. Of course, I never had been gregarious by nature. But one evening as I was returning from dinner, I encountered someone I recognized right away, for how could I forget the man who had tried to abduct me? I must have shrunk back, since he immediately raised his hands and said, “Don’t worry. I’m not here to hurt you. I never was.”

“I’m not worth anything to you now, anyway,” I told him. “King Sarwe has banished me.”

“Yes. We heard about that. You have my sympathy.” He really did seem sympathetic as I looked at him. Jazun wants me to add that I found him handsome, which is true enough, but I am writing about Thereus, not Jazun. Certainly I wasn’t tempted to betray Thereus in any way!

“Who are you?” I asked.

He shrugged in obvious discomfort. “My name’s Jazun, and I’ve been banished too. My companions said it would be wise for me to leave Tortarven for a while, but I think they want to punish me for my failure.” He sighed before adding “Heaven laughs at chance meetings. I hope we won’t be enemies? I assure you, I didn’t mean you any harm. I did what I did out of desperation for our cause.”

“And what cause is that? You’re a kelp farmer, aren’t you?”

“Yes. But I don’t mean to intrude. I’m sure you don’t want to see me right now.” He hurried past me.

I had sent Thereus a letter telling him what had happened and that he should meet me in Sertarven, and that night I spoke to him quietly, telling him my dreams for the future. We would marry, ignoring our families, and we would find a place for ourselves in King Glvath’s court. I found some comfort in imagining him lying next to me in bed as I talked, but the next morning when I awoke it was raining and I was alone.

I made some effort to play Ceredem’s song, humming the words that I could not read, but the melodies of lyre and voice were different enough that I soon gave up the effort and went up to watch the banks of the Dhavon river go past in the fog. Despite my happy fantasies of the previous evening, I was aware that I knew little about the court of Sertarven, and would need to be on my guard against whatever intrigues I discovered there.

“A bit wet, isn’t it?” Jazun asked from behind me.

“I don’t mind,” I replied.

“Then neither do I. I am a dragon-rider, after all.”

“Really? Is it as dangerous as I have heard?”

“Oh, sometimes. You have probably heard exaggerations. The weather in Lhaursi is certainly milder than elsewhere. But I can remember times when all around the boat was storm and rain and it seemed as if the gray waters were right before me.”

“You sound as if you seek them out.”

“You’ve never thrown yourself into danger for its own sake? Then perhaps you cannot understand, although I will do my best to explain it.” Here Jazun asks me to omit what he calls his foolish babbling. He tells me instead to put this: “I thought it was like entering into the light of Heaven, where you are pierced and burned yet seek it nonetheless. I was something of a fool.”

“So that is why you do not want dragon-riding taxed,” I said when I understood. “It is sacred to you. It is your life.”

“Yes. We cannot be idle while the king takes his greedy portion of what is so valuable to us and so meaningless to him. I, ah, do not mean to offend you.”

“I no longer regard Gineadh as my home. There is no offense.”

King Rigen, who had founded Sertarven, had built at its center the Tower of Stars to rival the high tower of Tortarven. It is said to be the highest thing made by man in the islands, and as we drew near to Sertarven and I gazed at the tower, I could well believe it. It had long been a dream of mine to observe the stars from its summit, and though other dreams came first in my thoughts, I didn’t forget this one.

I went to the palace immediately, despite the evil omen of the raven cawing over my head. “I am Branwei,” I told the guards at the main entrance. “A bard formerly of Sarwe’s household. I would like to offer my services to King Glvath.” He would recognize my name, of course, but neither the guards nor the seneschal they brought out to see me knew who I was.

The seneschal brought me to the throne room of Glvath himself. When I first saw him I was struck by his scraggly beard and wrinkled face, which made him resemble a hirsute Eapora more than he did Sarwe. He sat with hunched back on his throne and when he saw me, he smiled.

“Ah, Branwei Lisarwe, I know who you are. Why did your guardian send you?”

“I have been disowned and banished.”

Glvath laughed silently, rocking back and forth. “For what terrible crime?”

“I am betrothed to a man of whom he did not approve.”

“Welcome then to Sertarven, Branwei fatherless. Let me hear some of your music.”

There was something strange about Sertarven that I didn’t notice at first, but looking back now it is obvious. It weighed on my thoughts, so that all the titles that came immediately to mind were ones I was ashamed to even think. Glvath watched me, with a small grin as if he understood the darkness around my mind. Then, at last, I remembered a suitable song: “Radina and the Breath of Miso.”

I’m sure my readers know this song. It has become very popular among some of the rebels of Deavid, who have associated it with their cause, but of course no one had even dreamed of that yet. I provide a synopsis here nonetheless.

Men claiming to be princes of the south came to the hero Radina’s court and swore fealty to him. At the time Radina was at war with a king of the east (in none of the Radina lays is the geography precise), and the princes offered their aid. Even though the advice they gave proved injurious, he continued to trust them, ignoring the warnings of his wife, his chief sage Thabad, and his champion. He fell more and more under the princes’ domination, becoming weak-willed and of doubtful sanity.

In desperation Thabad went to a “place of visions” and saw a vividly described sequence of picturesque scenes, from which he concluded that the princes were actually clouds sent to delude Radina. He returned to the court with this knowledge and offered Radina a cup of tea. When Radina reached for it, he dashed it in his face.

“This is the gift of the princes of the south,” Thabad said. “They deceive you and leave you worse than you began.”

Radina stared in anger “like a mountain” and the princes urged him to cut off Thabad’s head. But he looked from Thabad to the princes and remembered himself. Then he rose from his throne and spoke powerful words that dissolved the princes into the air.

Glvath waved his hand. “That is enough. Beautifully done, Branwei. You will be shown to a suitable room. You may do what you wish, but you must come when summoned. Heaven go with you.”

I soon learned that Glvath considered himself a cultured ruler like so many of his forefathers and maintained a loose circle of intellectuals around himself. Most were types she was familiar with, but two scholars caught her attention. They were brother and sister, and both were students of ancient languages. Glvath often had them recite unearthly-sounding phrases, but he clearly preferred to listen to, and watch, the sister, Alri.

Remembering the strange symbols on Ceredem’s scroll, I approached Alri and Baurin to see if they would be able to help. They studied the scroll in obvious fascination until finally Baurin asked, “What do these remind you of, Alri?”

“The esoteric Raghjan symbols,” she replied. “These could be a variant.”

I asked what these were, of course, and Alri explained. “Not long after the letters of our alphabet were devised, new letters were invented for the purpose of writing down the speech of the Latiorn, but in addition there were a number of symbols based on possible sounds which no language was known to have.”

“So it is possible to pronounce this?”

“Can we look over the scroll for a few days in order to make sure of all the letters?” Baurin asked.

I agreed, and then a messenger came to tell me that Glvath wanted me to perform, so I went to my rooms to find my lyre and present myself before the throne. I was surprised to find Jazun there, concluding a conversation with Glvath. “What reply should I bring?” he asked.

Glvath covered a smile with one hand. “Tell your lords that I am king. What have they to demand of me, and what have I to give them? Your words are vapor and dust. Branwei, sing something for us. Sing about the Fool and the Lady.”

Jazun stared when he heard this and saw me with my lyre, and he continued to stare as he retreated to stand against a wall. The Fool and the Lady is the story of a man who resolved to court a noblewoman, and did so feverishly. But he was witless despite his pomposity and the noblewoman came up with more and more ways to embarrass him, none of which seemed to abash him at all, as he always presented himself in the best light he could.

Jazun hardly seemed to notice the obvious rebuff. (He says he noticed it but didn’t care.) When the song was over he began to approach Branwei but Glvath gestured at him. “Go back to your lords, boy.” After hesitating briefly, he bowed and went out.

Once Glvath had dismissed me I went to inquire after Jazun. I was directed to a small room in the depths of the palace which was bare apart from a chair, a bed, and a simple basin. The ceiling was of brick speckled with irregular white dots. Jazun was sitting in the chair, but he rose and bowed when he saw me. “Behold the luxury Glvath has given me,” he said. “I suspect this room used to be a dungeon. Kings probably used to hang prisoners from those hooks over there.” He nodded towards four black figures projecting from the walls. Their shape reminded me of something, though I couldn’t recall what it was at first.

“Things don’t seem to be going well for you,” I said. “What are you doing here in Sertarven?”

“Oh, well, I spent some time with the coastal lords and they asked me to come here and present their grievances to the king. You saw what success I had.”

I nodded, but the four figures still bothered me. I exchanged some further words with Jazun and was about to leave when the answer came to me.

“This was no dungeon,” I said, turning back to him. “It was a map.”

“I don’t understand.”

“These things are not hooks, they are markers. You can see that they represent the four virtues. The one with two hands held out is temperance, the one with the braided hair and beard is hope, the one with the book is wisdom, and the one with the sword is strength.”

“Ah yes. Perfectly obvious. I should have seen right away.”

I paid him no mind. “King Virecac was in constant fear that someone would steal even the smallest part of his possessions. He buried much of it deep in Sertarven, guarded by puzzles and traps.”

“Ha! So once a place for wealth, but now for guests of dishonor.”

“Do you see the pattern on the ceiling? I suspect it to be a star map.” And I jumped up on the chair to get a better look.

It was disappointingly simple once I figured out the secret. The dots on the ceiling were in fact stars, and each of the four figures corresponded to a point on the horizon that could be connected to a point on the dome of the sky. The only thing I found that could possibly hint at the location of the treasure for which this room was a key was a little vertical mark beneath each of the four figures. It was the Tower of Stars, of course, but at the time I was baffled.

I made some efforts during this time to track down Keridwei, with little success. But one day Glvath announced that we would hear stories told by Keridwei Mithabax, Glory of Deavid. My hopes were soon cast down when Keridwei turned out to be a shabbily dressed woman in her middle years who croaked out excerpts from chronicles of Lhaursi’s rulers, to the sniggering and outright laughter of Glvath’s court. When her recital had finally dragged to an end, Keridwei turned to go, and I followed.

“My name is Branwei Lisarwe,” I told her as she walked along mumbling to herself. “Eambrin told me to ask you about the troubles.”

“What’s that?” Keridwei asked, halting and looking back. “Branwei? Yes, yes, I know you! My deepest sympathies for the loss of your husband. It was a brave deed, going up to Nemhir.” She patted my arm.

“My husband?” I asked. At the time I didn’t know Thereus’s fate, but I thought of him nonetheless.

“Prince Walhu, the boldest prince there ever has been. But even he could not stand against the dread Council that rules over that place.”

“Do you know anything about the troubles? With the seaborn?”

“Ah, yes. People fleeing Sotlaci, coming here. Yes. What do we make of all these strangers? King Pridan didn’t know, until he went hunting griffins and got himself all torn up. Wanivar healed him, yes, and she was from Sotlaci with her little boy Meselen. That was how it began, with love, and the birth of the little child Ler. Love to hate, and one brother against another, one line against another.” She groaned. “Always hatred, always.”

“But those years have passed. I ask about what happened twenty years ago.”

“Twenty years, ah, love to hate, love to hate. Handsome lord with a ring in his ear, beautiful peasant looking after her ducks. His family hated her, for she, ah, she was not seaborn. Lord and his wife ask the king for sanctuary, ask the just and merciful king, them and their lovely little babe. Sarwe grants it; Sarwe betrays them! Turns them over to die! Oh, poor little babe.”

“Sarwe. I won’t believe it.” And yet I did, against my own wishes. Eambrin trusted Keridwei, and I trusted Eambrin. At that moment a coldness seized on my heart, and I began to hate Sarwe. Heaven forgive me.

“He rejects all who seek mercy from him,” Keridwei whispered. “I saw it.” Then she hunched over and would say nothing more.

The messenger I sent to Rhos returned within the week, and I learned that Thereus was missing, and had been since the Feast of the Four. Worry bordering on despair seized me and I paced my room helplessly, wondering where he was and why under Heaven he did not come for me. I attempted to sooth myself with music but found little solace even in the song of Ceredem.

I sang a song of love then. Remembering Keridwei’s words I sang of King Pridan and Queen Wanivar, and when I was done, with stinging eyes I set aside my lyre and hid myself among my scrolls.

The next time Glvath summoned me, late one evening, I sang a portion of my own translation and adaptation of Odhureus’s Eight Seas, finally completed, and I was anxious about how it would be received. (It was very poor and I have since destroyed it.) But to my disappointment, few seemed to be paying close attention. Conversations went on as they had, and Glvath gestured for me to step aside so an old man could recite the prophecies of Sanum.

As I made way for the old man, I caught a glance of a familiar face in the audience, and hurried from the throne room but hearing him follow me, I turned to see Tharo, the hood of his cloak drawn up. “Why do you run, Branwei?” he asked.

“You dare to attack me outside the king’s own hall?”

“The king’s hall? Look again. Few come down to this place,” said Tharo. Then my vision changed, and around me were not the rich tapestries she had seen just a few seconds ago, but cold stone walls. “Are you content, chanting your poems into the air while that lecherous dog watches you and fancies himself a wise and learned king for eying your bosom?”

“You are impudent.”

“I am trying to help you, Branwei. There is a way for you to be free of these kings and their lonely cobwebby halls.”

“How? Give up my soul?”

“You have no soul anymore!” Tharo spread his arms. “You have already given it up and it belongs to the towers of Lhaursi. Don’t you see that you have bound yourself first to Sarwe and his illusions and then to Glvath with his? You sit in these palaces seeing nothing of what is outside, hiding yourself from it while pretending to absorb knowledge. We visit all the islands in all the centuries, seeing shepherd and merchant as well as priest and king. Come with us and see.”

“You think then that I trust you.”

“Is there anyone you trust? You trust Thereus, but where is he now? Perhaps he is in trouble, so that he cannot come to you. Perhaps he needs your help.”

“You will have to try better then that.”

“How quickly you reply. You don’t really love him, do you? Not deep down. You were taken with a handsome young man who saved you from assassins and spirits and with whom you shared an adventure, but love? No, not the distant Branwei, always on her guard. You are one of us, and you always have been.”

There was more truth to this then I could admit to myself at the time. But Thereus appeared to me. I must remind myself of that. I denied it, and Tharo laughed.

“What do you know of fate, young one? Many strands of personality have passed before my eyes and I have watched their inevitable course. And I foresee that you will live forever as one of us.”

In response I lifted her lyre and began to play the music of Ceredem as best I could. Tharo flinched, but did not waver. I still wonder about that music. Was the song’s power that it carried echoes of another world which the Circle could not stand, clinging to this life as they did? Or did it encompass the richness of the earth, which would destroy them as if they were merely faint shadows and echoes of reality? I suspect it is the former, for reasons that will become clear.

“You see, we learn and become stronger. You have no weapon that you can use against us for long. No one does. Our victory is fated.” I found myself unable to move as Tharo took a step towards me. “Your soul is not yours, and it falls towards us like rain to the thirsty land.” His hands gripped my arms.

“No!” I shouted.

I heard a familiar voice say my name, and surprised anger flash across Tharo’s face. Free, I stumbled away from Tharo, who seemed to draw deep into his cloak as Jazun came between us. There was a sound like a dog’s mournful howl and Jazun fell backwards into me. I was gripped by a pain worse than any I had hitherto felt, but somehow, maybe by the grace of Heaven, I was not overcome by it. Seizing Jazun’s hand, I ran.

I had no idea where we were in Glvath’s palace, but only wanted to get away from Tharo. Apart from Jazun, there seemed to be no one else in these halls, making me wonder if Tharo had cast some spell over the entire palace. Our path was taking us steadily upward until I realized that we were in the Tower of Stars, and that there would be no escape.

We came out onto the roof and panic seized me, made twice as strong by the view of Sertarven far below us. The edge of the tower was ringed by a stone wall to keep anyone from falling, yet it was easy to imagine Tharo throwing me over. Jazun gripped my hand more tightly and pointed up at the sky, where the stars were beginning to appear. “Do you see anything to help us?” he asked desperately.

What could I say to that? Of course there was nothing to help us in the stars; that has never been the purpose of astrology. Yet he believed that I could do something, and so I was loath to disappoint him.

In my free hand I still held my lyre, and letting go of Jazun I began to play. It was the song of Ceredem, of course, for I had no other choice. I looked up to the part of the sky that was associated with my birth and I silently pleaded to Heaven for help.

Then I remembered the treasure room, and I knew what the marks under the four figures had been. Recalling where the figures had stood, I went to each of the corresponding points on the stone wall and found that the stones there responded to my touch by shifting back into the wall, revealing a hook in the gap. When I twisted all the hooks the appropriate fraction (I do not recall the details of the combination, nor do they much matter) a fifth stone shifted, revealing a cloth that glinted with a golden sheen.

Then Tharo ascended the stairs onto the roof of the tower. “It has been a winding chase on which you led us, Branwei, simply full of twists and setbacks,” he said, throwing back his hood. “But we have you at last. I apologize for the delay. There was some discussion as to what your fate should be after you made it clear that you would not be joining us. But argument is over and the High Circle is now set on one course. You have seen our power and our wisdom, and that vision will take you far away on the gray waters.” Jazun, it seemed, was beneath his notice.

Hardly aware of what I was doing, I threw myself towards the fifth stone and wrapped the golden cloth around my neck. Tharo saw, and the clawed hand he had stretched out fell to his side. He snarled at me, but backed slowly away. Then Jazun attacked him, and Tharo was taken off-guard enough that he fell back over the edge of the wall.

By the time I reached the wall, there was no sign of him, except perhaps the crow flying off into the distance. A pale Jazun told me that he had seen Tharo carried on the air with his cloak spread like wings, and asked me who he was. “What he is might be a better question.” So I told Jazun everything, and when I was done he said to me in a shaken voice, “We need to run.”

And now I will write about the second time Thereus appeared to me.

“The High Circle are servants of the Lords of Night,” he told me, “and the Lords of Night make all their servants like themselves. Branwei, what do you see in Sertarven?”

“The whims of a single man dominating everything around him, even the thoughts of the people. There isn’t a man or woman here who doesn’t have their eyes open to the failings of their neighbor, to elevate themselves by pushing the other down, and everyone is terrified that they will be the one thrust down. Lords are here who care nothing for the needs of their people, only that the king gives them some small favor. And every word spoken must be one Glvath has approved.”

“They’re making Sertarven into a little Nemhir,” he said. I could not read his eyes; he seemed older somehow than when we had parted in Rhos. “The song to fight.”

“I have Ceredem’s fabric,” I replied. “I can defend myself from their magic now.”

Now it was pity I saw in his eyes, I was sure of it. “Their magic is strong, and there are few things that can hold it back forever.” For a moment his face was different, marred by cuts and burns, and my heart was pierced. Then he was himself again. He put a hand on my shoulder, and this time I could actually feel its pressure and warmth before he vanished.

Broken Branch: Chapter 6

After this I set myself to discover the truth of the High Circle Tharo had spoken of. I would like to write that I was beginning to suspect him, but in fact I was driven by nothing more than curiosity. I found nothing, however, in all the libraries of Tortarven, and so I asked Tharo himself. He told me to wait a few days so he could gather his material, so in the intervening time I continued my search, paying special attention to the accounts of refugees from Sotlaci.

He came to me a week later and said, “I am prepared now. But tell me first, what do you find attractive about the High Circle?”

“What sort of question is that?”

“Nowadays we think of knowledge as something that anyone can find and possess. But Theala knew otherwise. Your King Rigen knew otherwise. There is some wisdom that is invisible to all but those whose mind, whose soul, whose whole being is prepared. What is the High Circle to you?” He closed his eyes and seemed to be listening intently.

I didn’t know; I didn’t even know for sure what Tharo was asking, so I simply said, “An answer.” But my response appeared to satisfy Tharo, whose eyes opened and who broke into a grin. He took me through a series of halls in the back of the library, none of which I had ever seen before, ending in a chamber with a bell-shaped roof. There was a great round table in the center of the room with a pool of water in the center, and around it sat twenty or so hooded men and women.

“You have come at last to the heart of knowledge in the islands. Remember the Brotherhood no more. I have brought you to the High Circle,” Tharo said.

I looked to him in amazement, feeling oddly ill with sweet nostalgia. Deep down this was familiar and beloved, but I could not begin to understand why. I still do not.

“I have not been fully honest with you, Branwei,” said Tharo. “I am one of the Circle. I was in Rhos for reasons of our own and you caught my interest. Rarely, a new person is allowed to enter the Circle, and you have been offered this great gift.”

I was hardly able to believe this. “Rarely, you say? How rarely?”

“I am four hundred and six years old. Even death can be conquered with our knowledge.”

“You have awaited this all your life,” said Vrean, his hood falling back. “Welcome, Branwei.”

“I spoke truly when I said the Brotherhood was only our shadow. All the wisdom of Sotlaci is ours, as is all we have seen in the five centuries since. And more than wisdom, we have the ability to wield the forces that lie behind this reality: what was called solív by the Sotlaci and what we call magic.”

It was too much, too much of a gift to be given suddenly. “I need time to consider this,” I said.

“All of time is ours,” Vrean said. “Consider as long as you want.”

I tried to find that room again, later, but have always been unable. I am now certain it was magic, but at the time I was baffled. That night I lay awake for some time puzzling over what I had seen or heard, and just when I was slipping into sleep, I heard Thereus’s voice in my ear. He said only these words: “They are here,” but I knew instantly what he meant. We had wondered and discussed how the Lords of Night might be influencing the auguries from Nemhir, whether they had magic of that power, but now I knew there were magicians here in Tortarven. I went the next morning to ask Tharo outright about the auguries.

He looked at me, and that was all it took to confirm my suspicions. “Yes,” he said at last, “a few of us influence the auguries. We are wiser, or we consider ourselves so. We only nudge, not control. Sarwe is a wise and good king; we only help him to do what is best.”

“And what of the Lords of the Night?”

“Ah, the Crafters. Let me tell you of the Crafters. Survivors of the old age of magic, they emerged to overthrow the corrupt Council of Nemhir, and succeeded not by military force but by persuasion. They did the same in Sotlaci, until the waters swept over it. Understand, corruption had seized all those idealistic nations that emerged from the fall of the Magistrates. Only the immortals kept their ideals strong and unfailing. We are like them in that way, and in Lhaursi our goals align.”

“I cannot believe you,” I said quietly. “The Lords of the Night have done terrible things.”

“Yes, perhaps it is so. Perhaps all noble ideals decay and rot with time. Perhaps new must drive out old forever, as Benac wrote. We need you and your innocence, Branwei, to remind us of what is eternally right. I believe that you can do this. I believe in you.” He stood and brushed my cheek with his lips, then went out.

Even if I had been tempted to trust him, I remembered the vision I had seen at the Black Hill and its feel of sweetly rotten ambition in Lhaursi, a luscious temptation that concealed a mass of horror. Before, I had seen my battle as being against distant puppet-masters. But now I faced a circle of magic in my very home. It was a battle I had no idea how to fight.

I considered telling my father, but what could Sarwe do? What could anyone do against this power? I despaired, wondering if there was no other way but to join it and strive to combat its excesses from within, but knowing that if I did I would be just like them in the end.

I stood at the center of conflicting waves urging me one way or the other, but suddenly all became still. I saw before me a choice: either to risk being raised to a level where my only peers were my enemies and my feeble conscience would be the only guard against corruption, or go to certain defeat.

And it was defeat I chose. I understand myself better than I did then, but nevertheless I perceived why I had seen the High Circle as an answer, linking the wisdom of Sotlaci with goodness and closeness to Heaven. I looked within myself and saw envy, greed, lust, magnified by my trembling imagination. I would die rather than give myself the opportunity to unleash such things.

It was a couple days before I found Tharo again. “Ah,” he said, “are you prepared to join us?”

“No.” As I spoke Tharo’s face darkened and became almost bestial in its outlines. “I have decided that I cannot aid you or your efforts. I am opposed to your High Circle though it offer me my dreams. I am sorry, Tharo.”

“Sorry? No need for that. You will be ours in the end, whatever you say now. You will be ours.” He smiled, his face returning to a normalcy more unnerving than the transformation. “But time grows short even for the immortals. And my patience grows thin.”

“I would rather die.”

“You say you love death, but I doubt you really mean it. Be still, then. Be dead. And we will come for you.” He brushed my lips with his fingers before walking away.

At once I began searching for a way of defending myself against the High Circle, and I quickly found a Sotlaci scroll with the label A Study of Magic. I reproduce the relevant portions below.

The first form of magic is that obtained by commerce with Heaven or intermediary beings. The school of Zeis teaches that the only influence Heaven has on human affairs is to create the dreams of seers, while the school of Manajh believes that it often intercedes invisibly, yet both agree that such aid cannot be predictably sought out.

I have gathered legends of men who deal with lesser spirits, but all of these can be dismissed, for it does not stand to reason that such intermediate beings should exist. [This was followed by a lengthy philosophical discussion with no concrete information.]

The second form of magic is that practiced by the Latiorn savages, which is often called second sight. This is an openness to the future and to other realms which produces visions but also madness in some cases. The unlearned confuse this with the visions of seers, which is like confusing mud with water. [Next came another section that contained nothing of interest to me.]

Third is the true art of magic, as once reigned across all the Five Islands and is still practiced today, particularly by the family of Saina. This magic is in the crafting of artifacts which are imbued with power, especially power dealing with the mind and soul. In Sotlaci the best known example is the golden flag that stands above the towers of Eltarven and protects the island from all disasters. I have myself seen a jewel that changes color with the mood of the wearer and a dagger that can force one to tell the truth. Yet knowledge of this craft fades year by year and I foresee a time when all that will be left of the art of magic will be a few scattered artifacts.

Here I shall lay out what little I know. [And it was indeed a little, but with many words I didn’t and don’t know, no doubt technical terms whose meaning has been lost.]

I should also mention Grulan Cesa, who according to legend was able to absorb these magical artifacts in some manner and incorporate their power into his own body. He boasted of his immortality until he was defeated and killed by the other magicians of the Islands. But this was a millennium ago, and is perhaps nothing more than fancy. [Here the scroll’s style changed considerably.]

I, Ceredem, wrote these words from a fragment I found in the library of Eltarven. The scribe’s predictions have been fulfilled: magic is largely forgotten. I have only seen one such artifact: the golden fabric, which Romureh removed from its place and I have brought here to Tortarven. It will be placed in my mausoleum. The age of magic is gone forever, for it has brought much evil upon the Islands.

Ceredem’s mausoleum is in Tortarven, and beneath it is a secret place where certain symbolic treasures are kept. I had been there once or twice on days of great importance for the Sotlaci, and now I went there again to see if I could find the golden fabric. There was no sign of it, though there was an empty alcove where it may have once been.

I did find a scroll that interested me. I opened it looking for a hint as to the golden fabric, but found instead the notes and lyrics for a song, both of impossible richness and complexity. The lyrics danced between the Sotlaci language, some form of Esu, and a language, or more than one, that I did not know. I didn’t even recognize many of the letters used. It was titled A Song of Heaven and attributed to Ler Vipridan. Prince Ler, who had been king of the united Lhaursi before his half-brother Meselen had usurped the throne and Ler disappeared into legend.

I was startled when Tharo spoke from behind me. “The absurd compositions of a mad scholar, claiming a heritage to which he had no right and visions for which he had no proof. You are curious about the cloak of protection? It is gone, and has been for centuries. Even we do not know where it has gone.”

“Why have you come here now?”

Tharo did not answer, but instead closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “Ah, I see now. You despise us because you love Sarwe as a father and we manipulate him.”

“I despise you for many reasons, that among them,” I said. Then Tharo was gone, and yet I had no inkling of what was to come. I made a copy of the scroll for me to study, and when I had finished I brought it to Sarwe.

He told me about his own youthful efforts to unravel the mysteries of the scroll, beginning with its author, whom Sarwe believed to be not Prince Ler but instead Ler the Fool, who had lived several centuries later. I have come to the conclusion since that Prince Ler and Ler the Fool were in fact the same person, a belief that gives me hope regarding Thereus.

We were interrupted by Vrean, who entered with a deep bow and drew close enough to me that I began to be quite worried. “I desire to speak with you, my lord,” he told Sarwe.

“Then speak.”

“My lord, we diviners are gravely concerned about your decision to ignore the auguries. With the overcast nights we have been having recently, they are our only way to perceive what will be.”

“I have told you that there may be a hostile influence on the auguries,” Sarwe replied, tapping his fingers on the arms of his throne.

“Yes, my lord, so you have been informed. But did you know that Branwei is secretly betrothed?” I remember how I felt at that moment, as if my heart had stopped in my chest. What Sarwe said next was lost on me, but Vrean replied, “Betrothed to Thereus Vineapora, my lord.”

Sarwe rose to his feet, anger blazing from him like heat from the sun. “You dare suggest that Branwei is a spy? I will tear out your tongue for that. I will do more: I will put out your eyes and cut off your hands and see you starving on the streets!”

Vrean did not flinch. “Forgive me, my lord.”

“Get out!” Vrean bowed his way out and Sarwe lowered himself back into the throne, fixing his glare on me. “Is this true?”

“It is,” I said, unable to meet his eyes, regretting then having ever kept Sarwe from my confidences. I was a fool! I hadn’t even considered how Sarwe might interpret my words. The recent auguries had suggested that Sarwe should reject all of Eapora’s proposals, and I, foolish Branwei, had told him to ignore those auguries.

“And you kept this a secret from me. How much trust should I place then in your words about the auguries? What better way to smooth a wedding than with a trade agreement by the parties’ fathers? How could the Lords of the Night influence the auguries here from so far away? It is not reasonable. I should not have been taken in to begin with.”

“There is a circle of magicians here in Tortarven!” I protested.

He waved his hand. “It will not avail you or Vineapora. You expect me to believe in sorcery? Take your fairy tales to the south, to Deavid! Marry Thereus there if you wish, for I will have no more to do with you. Go, Branwei, for I have spoken and it must be so. Never set foot in Tortarven again.”

“Father!”

“If I was your father, you would not have kept these things secret from me. Go!”

I retreated to my room and wept there for too short a time. Tears, I told myself, were of no use against the High Circle, and neither would they call Thereus back to me. Would he be able to find me after I left Tortarven?

I dried my face and went to see Eapora first of all. I found him pacing in his room, and he immediately demanded, “Well, what is it? Has Sarwe decided to give me an explanation for my sudden dismissal?”

“He has sent me away too,” I said.

Eapora snorted. “Well, at least I am in good company. What did you come here for?”

“I wanted to tell you that I am betrothed to your son Thereus.”

He looked at me for some time without saying anything, and I longed for him to tell me that he was pleased and that we would return to Athoros together where I could marry Thereus. But in the end he only said, “My son can find a more useful wife than you. I am sorry.”

“How dare you?” I said in a whisper.

He sighed. “There was once, a long time ago, a boy who saw how much suffering there was around him from want of money and decided that someday he would be rich enough to help. But with time he learned how easy it is to let things slip out of one’s fingers, and with time he grew tight-fisted and wary. Too wary to give his son a disgraced bard as a bride.”

“I understand,” I said, meaning nothing of the sort.

“Seek a different husband, go and find your own happiness, but just leave me now. I am busy. I am always busy.”

Despondent, I returned to my chambers, which had been mine for so many years but soon would be mine no longer. Anadiu was knocking at my door, and when he saw me he stepped aside. “I wanted to say goodbye,” he said.

“Thank you, Anadiu. Goodbye” I kissed his cheek and he blushed.

“You will be missed greatly,” he said, bowing. “I will try to speak to Sarwe. Heaven bless you.”

It was Eambrin who saw me off at the docks when I left a week later. I had turned around to see the walls and tower of Tortarven, and closed my eyes against threatening tears, when I saw her making her way slowly towards me.

“I am sorry, Branwei,” she said sadly. “Perhaps the king will reconsider in time.”

“Perhaps. But I will not be unhappy in Sertarven; there are libraries and scholars there,” I said, hiding my true thoughts.

“I am proud of you,” Eambrin said, and embraced me. “Heaven’s blessings be upon you.”

“Thank you, Eambrin. And upon you.”

“There is one more thing: when you reach Sertarven, seek a woman named Keridwei Mithabax. She was your nurse when you were an infant. Ask her about the troubles twenty years ago. There is something I think has been kept from you too long, and you should have the right to know it.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Maybe I am wrong, and I will regret it. But seek out Keridwei.”

“All right. Farewell, Eambrin.” When at last I was aboard the ship as it moved away, I stood and watched until the High Tower itself was nothing more than a faint distant line.

It was in my room on the ship that Thereus first appeared to me. It was in the evening, and I had been reading my copy of Ler’s song of Heaven (this, I think, was significant) when I looked up and saw him. At first I thought he was present in the flesh, and jumping to my feet I threw my arms around him, only to find that they passed through the air. He looked at me with a sad smile, much like his old confident smile but with all the joy drained out of it. “I love you,” he told me. “I will always love you. Be careful to keep your feet on the right path.” Then he was gone.

Broken Branch: Chapter 5

I said that this was the last time I saw Thereus in the flesh, but I am persuaded that he visited me again. Foolishness, everyone tells me, but who can tell me where Thereus’s body is? Where is he buried, if they’re so sure? No, Heaven sent him to comfort me and guide me, and I would have done better if I had listened to him.

I thought, as I looked up at the cloudy sky from the deck of the ship, that it was the perfect match for my mood. But I had no reason to believe that Thereus wouldn’t be following me shortly, to join me in Lhaursi where we could be married. He inspired me to boldness, to defy Sarwe even if he was my father and my king.

Tharo happened to be on the same ship as me, and I remember that he joined me in looking back towards Thalata. “So Theala’s dream is ended,” he said.

“Yes,” I replied. What more was there?

“He wrote, ‘I see before me an ocean of knowledge, and all my efforts have only wetted my toes.’ It’s very fortunate he didn’t live to see this day.”

“I think having such a long lifetime would be fortunate enough for anyone,” I said. A poor joke for such a time.

“Perhaps. Or perhaps the tragedy would only be worse because the dream would be longer.” Tharo went to the railing and looked out at the city in silence. “Well,” he said at last. “You do not feel it so much because you were with us for so short a time. And, forgive me, but you were more focused on other things, weren’t you?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you never seemed as much a part of the Brotherhood, one of its limbs, as it were. You are of Lhaursi, of course, not Thalata. Though I have often wondered if there were similar circles of knowledge in other islands.”

“Not in Lhaursi that I know of. Unless the order of diviners and astrologers counts.”

“Well, perhaps not. Anyway, it should be most interesting in Tortarven, and hopefully I will be able to find diversions from what we have just experienced.”

“I am sure you will.” My joke had been poor, but it struck me even then that Tharo seemed more interested in the disaster’s effects on him than on anyone else.

“If you don’t mind me asking, why did you go to Rhos? Was it for the Brotherhood?” aske Tharo.

“No, not at first. I was there because of the stars.”

“Astrology, you mean?”

“From the High Tower of Tortarven I saw a comet that joined my star and the star of the Black Hill in its path, telling me that it was my appointed destiny to travel there.”

“So you went to Meloros?”

“Yes,” I said. “Perhaps I will make it into a song someday, what happened there to me and my companions. But I will not speak of it yet. Not yet.”

When we arrived in Tortarven, I sent Tharo off with Koris, the head diviner, to see the library. Then I went myself to greet my father in his study. He welcomed me warmly and asked me about my letter to him, which apparently he had found difficult to understand. So I told him what I had seen in Meloros, and he stood from his chair and paced away.

“You bring dark news, if you have seen correctly,” Sarwe said. “But tell me, how can they control the auguries? Are their agents among the diviners?”

“You know well that the books of wisdom are open to all, and that interpretations do not change from diviner to diviner. My fear is that they alter the very path a drop of water takes on its way down to the cups.”

“And you know well that should not be possible from Nemhir. Their agents would indeed have to be among us. I shall consider this and decide what is to be done.”

Thus it would be done, as simple as that! I felt a great sense of relief as I looked at the man who was in all senses but one my father. In Thalata there had been chaos and a thousand factions to choose from, but here in Gineadh all was under Sarwe’s hand. He would forestall the Lords of the Night and confound their plots.

My only wish was that Thereus would come soon, and then all was certain to be well. That was what I thought.

It is almost as painful to remember this as it was to remember my time with Thereus. He and I may have been separated in the body, but we had loved one another to the end. Sarwe is another matter. Oh, father, forgive me. I must hurry through this so I can reach my first vision of Thereus.

I told him about the overthrow of the Brotherhood and he was enraged, promising that if he were king of Thalata he would have the perpetrators executed. He told me that he had thrown Eapora in the dungeon for a little while to cure his obstinacy, which amused me and made me wonder what Thereus would think about his father’s captivity. I see the irony now, of course.

After this I went to talk with Vrean, one of the older diviners, and Eambrin, my beloved teacher in the bardic arts. Tharo was there too, enthusiastic about the libraries Koris had shown him.

“Do you know you have the original writings of Ceredem here? Ceredem himself!”

“He came here in the fall of his island,” I explained. “It is not for nothing that Lhaursi is called the second Sotlaci. Our kings are descended from Meselen of Sotlaci, you know, and our seaborn aristocrats all claim Sotlaci ancestry.”

“Yes, of course. But I recall that Sotlaci had five libraries each as great as those today, and all were lost in the flood. It is sobering to think about as I look over your shelves.”

“And few of the scholars of those libraries left in time to escape, and none were allowed to take manuscripts with them.”

“Some did, of course, defying Romureh’s command. I have heard that a couple of those who fled formed a Verín Atlés, a High Circle. A circle of wisdom and learning.”

I admitted my ignorance, looking to Eambrin and Vrean. Eambrin was as puzzled as I, but Vrean understood. He nodded slowly as Tharo spoke.

“It was kept hidden. Much like the Brotherhood, in fact, but far more secretive, and far more knowledgeable. I have heard that their wisdom included the old lore. Magic.”

“It sounds like a legend to me.”

“Perhaps, but the places where I have found references to the High Circle are otherwise reliable. If they do exist, perhaps they would be interested in the remnants here and there of the Brotherhood. A fanciful dream of mine, I suppose. But you must admit that a society that preserves so much that has been lost, and of which the Brotherhood was only a shadow, is an attractive idea.”

It was, and it was tempting to believe it, with the Brotherhood of Theala so recently lost. I admit, too, that Tharo was an appealing proponent, with his utter assurance and smooth words.

A few days later word came from Thalata that Gamnamina had been made king. I didn’t despair, for I had already lost everything. But one of Sarwe’s guests protested loudly when he heard the news, and so I learned that the exile Iksan Radanth was living in Tortarven.

Let me see what else I must say before I can write of how Thereus appeared to me. I attended the great feast of unity, when nobles and representative commoners met to dine in the great hall of Tortarven. Every year this feast was held, and every year I was prouder than I should have been. It had, you see, been my blood parents who had by their love and by their death inspired the great reconciliation of Sotlaci seaborn aristocrats with the native Lhaursi. As a child I had listened to Sarwe’s sad recounting of the tale many times.

My appointed seat was next to Sarwe and his nephew Anadiu, who was then the heir to the throne. Sarwe turned his smile upon me when I arrived. “Ah, here we are,” he said. The wandering star has returned to us, Anadiu.” Anadiu bowed his head but, as was his wont, said nothing. “Now we can truly enjoy the feast.”

But before Sarwe had risen to give his usual speech, a sudden quiet fell over the hall. Matsen had appeared. Matsen has passed by now into a figure of legend, a children’s bogeyman and a specter of the night, but he was flesh and blood, a real and evil man, even if his face was hidden behind his gleaming metal mask, carved to resemble the head of a grotesque monster with wide grinning mouth. No one had ever answered my questions about why he wore it or what he looked like underneath.

Matsen had come to deliver a folded piece of parchment to Sarwe, who took it but rebuked him. “You are frightening my children. If you have delivered your message, be gone?”

“As my king wishes,” said Matsen in his hoarse quiet voice. He did not bow as he left. As much as it pains me to bring Matsen into my story, if I failed to mention him you would not understand half of what I saw.

One more thing. I spoke briefly with High Priest Walhua, who found me wandering along the cliffs on the coast near Tortarven. “A storm is coming,” Walhua said, and I glanced up at the sky before I realized he was speaking in metaphors. “There is some conflict among the farmers over the dragon-riders, especially now that winter approaches.” For my readers beyond Lhaursi, I should mention that dragon-riders are farmers and fishermen who take their boats out during the winter storms.

“Conflict?”

“Some think kelp gathered in the winter months should be left untaxed by the king. They have their arguments, but many others disagree, and some even think dragon-riding should be done away with altogether.”

“Why do you mention this to me?”

“No, I want you to be careful, to keep your eyes open. There may be attempts to take a hostage to gain a better bargaining position, and you would be a fine prize.”

“And whose side are you on, Walhua?”

“On Heaven’s, and yours.”

Walhua was a keen observer of events in Tortarven, and he proved to be right. Some days after this, I was accosted in the palace itself by a strange man, who put a hand over my mouth and a knife to my throat. (Jazun tells me to say that he does not remember the knife, but I say his memory deceives him). “You’re not going to be hurt, I swear by Heaven,” the strange man said. “Just come with me.”

He put a hood over my head to conceal my face, but it couldn’t hide me from Tharo, whose voice I heard next, saying my name.

“I don’t know who you’re talking to,” the strange man said. Then, suddenly, he fell to the ground. Caught off balance, I almost fell too, but kept on my feet and tore the hood off. The first thing I saw was the knife on the floor, and I grabbed it. Tharo was struggling with the strange man, who kicked him away and fled down the hall.

Tharo stood and bowed to me. “Thank you,” I said.

“It was my duty,” he replied. “Rather, it was my pleasure.”