Chapter 13: A Message from Elven
By the following Spring, nearly two dozen folk from Burrowdown had learned of the Scythe’s Blood. The great mark Sonora had left upon the Burrow bridge had had the effect they wished; for some weeks, all thought of wolves and darkness was drowned in talk of the mark, and its creators. The origin of the mark was yet a mystery to the villagers, and despite Brandyé’s own reputation, not once did suspicion seem to settle upon him. This was possibly because Brandyé had sought to present as well-behaved a person as he possibly could, whenever he found himself among the people of the village.
This was deliberate, in part, so as to remove himself as far as possible from all thought of violence or fear; it was important that no one come to associate him with the markings, which were themselves associated with the nighttime slaughters that continued unabated. Yet to Brandyé, there was another reason for causing as little disruption to the village as he could: he wanted to be liked. Odd as it was, now that there was a group of people who would actually speak openly with him – even if it was only in the secret dark of Farmer Tar’s barn – he felt as though a hole in his heart, one that had been nearly sealed since he had been very young, was suddenly torn open again. For so long had he taught himself to be alone, and now that he was not, he sought company from every direction.
He could not, of course, overturn the prejudices of a lifetime that had grown in the village’s mind, but he found that if he could refrain from causing any disturbance in public, people would, if not talk to him, at least talk before him, and not seek to bring their dialogue out of his earshot. He thus allowed himself to feel included in their concerns even if he were not.
His efforts to become less noticed, as it were, were not without difficulties. As he grew older, so too did the boys of the village that had once tormented him, and while they had grown greatly in stature, their intellect had not grown in proportion. While they seemed content to leave him be, other than a jeer and shout now and then, when it came to the week’s end and they found Brandyé in his customary corner of the Burrow Wayde, their amusement in goading him returned. If Brandyé had had cause to fear these boys in his youth, so was this now doubled: twice in height and in might they were now, and fueled by an evening’s drink, a hefty punch, thrown in jest, turned easily into a savage blow.
Several times, Brandyé rose to their taunts, and thus fell to their blows. He no longer wept, but on returning late to his grandfather’s house with a cracked lip or bruised cheek, he felt once more like a small child, and his ears burned with shame. Though he now spoke seldom, this state of affairs did not pass Reuel by, and the third time Brandyé returned home thus, he spoke to him of it.
“It has been some years since you have come home beaten,” Reuel said to Brandyé as he sat himself by the fire. Rust covered his chin, and he peered at his grandfather through one eye, his fingers touching the other, now swollen and shut. “Yet this is the third time in two months I have seen you thus. Come – speak to me.”
At first, Brandyé wanted to say to his grandfather that it was nothing. For a brief moment, he sought wildly for an answer that would stay Reuel’s words, from omission to outright falsehood. But Reuel was not fooled, and Brandyé resolved to speak the truth, come what may. “I have been fighting, grandfather.”
“I am old, but I am not a fool,” Reuel said. “I can see you have been fighting. It is when you drink at the Burrow Wayde, of course. Is it your drink, or theirs, which causes the brawl?”
“It is not mine,” Brandyé said with force, and he heard the falseness in his own words. He did not start the fight, certainly, but nor did he stop it.
“It is like when you were young,” said Reuel, and there was amusement in his voice. “‘They started it, grandfather,’ you used to say. Tell me – what used I to say to you of that excuse?”
“This is different–” Brandyé started.
“It is not,” interrupted Reuel. “A fight is a fight, be it between two boys, two men, or two kingdoms. A man cannot fight against himself.”
“I have been fighting against myself for all my life,” retorted Brandyé. “Always I have hated myself for who I am. I have hated myself for where I come from, and I have hated myself for not belonging. More than anything, I have hated myself for hating others. I have struggled to know what to do, and never has a choice felt right!” Brandyé was astonished to hear himself speak these words; he had not known such discontent dwelt in his heart until this very moment.
Reuel, however, did not falter. “You struggle to make decisions, son; that is not the same thing. You are also diverting this conversation.” He smiled.
Brandyé glowered, for as usual, his grandfather was right. “What am I to do, then?” he spat. “They approach me; they taunt me; they would hit me whether I rise or not.”
“Why do you believe they approach you?”
“They do not like me,” Brandyé said.
“Much as you did not like hearing my words a moment ago,” Reuel replied. “They angered you.”
“I do not follow you, grandfather,” Brandyé said. His frustration began to abate, and he was now confused. “What has that to do with the men at the Burrow Wayde?”
“You allowed your anger to distract you from the true problem at hand,” Reuel said. “As do the men at the inn, to distract them from theirs.”
“So you claim they merely seek distraction?” Brandy asked. He felt doubtful about this.
“Most certainly,” said Reuel. He quite suddenly leaned towards Brandyé, and spoke low and forceful. “If you do not want to be their distraction, you must cause their distraction!”
Brandyé felt suddenly quite exposed; was it possible his grandfather knew of his secret involvement with the Scythe’s Blood, and his desire to cause as little distraction in the village as possible? He spoke carefully: “I do not wish to cause distraction or disturbance, grandfather. I wish only to listen.”
Reuel held his eye for a moment, and then said, “You are causing disturbance nonetheless. Think! How could I have survived for so many years in Burrowdown without learning to distract folk?”
The realization dawned on Brandyé. “Your tales,” he said. “They would beat you, and so you told them tales!”
“So I did, son,” Reuel sighed.
“But I have no tales to tell,” Brandyé contended. “All the stories I know are yours, and they have heard them all before. They will not suffer me as an impostor.”
“I am quite certain you have tales to tell,” Reuel said quietly. Once more, he caught Brandyé’s eye, and he looked swiftly away.
“I have no tales I wish to share,” he muttered.
“You will learn that to tell a tale, you must share a piece of yourself, even with those who would not respect it. There is no safety in stories, for every story, even the most fantastic, bears the truth of the teller. You will be exposed; but you will be safe.”
“I don’t know if I can do that, grandfather,” Brandyé said. “I can tell only of my own experiences, and I would not have those known to these brutes.”
“Those things will come to be known sooner or later,” Reuel replied. “Better told by your tongue than another’s.” He leaned back now, and breathed a great sigh. “Still…if you insist on keeping your secrecy, you will need to be inventive. Think of something new, and bold, and terrifying. Think of something that may not even exist!”
“Such as what, grandfather?”
Reuel grinned. “Tell them of witches,” he said.
And so Brandyé did. In the end, it would perhaps have been better had he not, but he was not to know the outcome then, or he might have changed his approach.
At first, several weeks passed, and the young men of the Burrow Wayde seemed content to leave Brandyé be; he was able to slip into his customary corner of the inn, mug of ale in hand, and cast his eye around at the men and women, and lend his ear to the many conversations at hand. In principal, he found it difficult to follow any one argument to its conclusion, such was the noise and chaos of the place. Rather, he found great interest in watching one person carefully for a few moments – just long enough to capture a few of their words – and then bring his attention upon another, and do the same. In this way, he was able to take in many small pieces of information that he might otherwise have missed. He learned of many small things, such as newborn children and the state of harvest, but more importantly in isolating words from their root, he discovered he was able to sense the humor of the village that week.
Sometimes things were well; he heard speak of sun and flower, birth, life and fair maidens, and there was much laughter and goading. Sometimes things were sad, as when Karl Paethar fell from the roof of a barn and broke his neck, and left his wife to care for their three children. More often, however, the villagers’ temper was of a more subdued nature, as the largely grey world passed on around them, and the gloom that pervaded would not lift.
One evening, Brandyé felt a greater anxiety than usual among the patrons of the Burrow Wayde. Farmer Reuss had discovered earlier that week every single one of his goats killed in their paddock, throats open and drained in the manner that had become known as the wolf’s grin. The voices of the inn were quiet that night, and few conversations rose above a murmur. Brandyé found he could hear little in the subdued air, but Reuss himself, along with his son and two hands that lived with him, was sitting close to him, and he found he could discern their words with less difficulty.
Farmer Reuss was sitting facing Brandyé, his head between his hands, and for the most part did not speak. The two hands made encouraging remarks to him, but seemed unconvinced of their own words. Reuss had been as diligent as any other farmer in the land inasmuch as the protection of his flock, but like every other, it had been of little help.
His son sat quiet, a brood on his brow. His name was Ben, and he was one of the boys who had found great pleasure in offending Brandyé as a youth. Eventually, Brandyé saw him speak a word to his father, who replied, loud and bitter, “I don’ want to hear about blasted wolves! Wolves don’ leave their meat to rot, I’ve told you before now! Whatever it is, it ain’t natural, and that scares me, it does.”
Ben scowled once more at the reproach, and as he turned his head, his eye caught Brandyé and recognized him. “Perhaps it were him,” he growled. “That boy’s always been no good; I’d wager if we’d beaten him proper when he were little, our goats’d be jus’ fine now, father.”
The three other men at the table turned to look at Brandyé, and he felt the first twist of nervousness, and resolved that he would not fight this time. “You,” called out Reuss. “You’re the crazy man’s lad, ain’t you?”
Uncertain how to reply, Brandyé spoke, “Reuel is my father, if that is your meaning.”
Reuss grunted, and spoke, “What d’you know about these killin’s? I never see you ’round in the morn’, nor in the evenin’, exceptin’ on these end o’ week days. How do we know you ain’t out at night, cuttin’ throats?”
“Probably makin’ those horrible marks, too,” said one of the hands. “Filthy business it is, scarin’ folk with that sign.”
Ben’s eyes widened, and Brandyé saw a glint of delight in them. Certainly, Ben would like to see this escalate to blows – four men against one, and an entire inn at their call. “I’ll wager it is!” he cried. “He’s just the kind that’d do such mischief – always been wrong. D’you know they say he frightened folk just by bein’ born?”
His father grunted, and cuffed him hard above the ear; Ben retreated, clutching his smarting head. “’Course I know that, you fool – I told you of it!” He turned back to Brandyé and spat, “What of it, boy? What’ve you been doin’ at night? You know, I heard old Carle say he saw you lurkin’ in the dark a couple o’ weeks ago; he wasn’t certain, o’ course, bein’ dark and him old, but I reckon he might o’ been right.”
These few remarks disturbed Brandyé greatly, for without wit, they were dangerously close to truth. Brandyé had passed by Carle’s glassery one night when the moon was high, and though of course no beast fell by his hand, that same hand was responsible for many of the markings around the village. It was then that he recalled his grandfather’s word. With effort, he summoned a slight smile to his lips, and spoke: “Perhaps it was a witch.” Nervous still, his voice tremored, and was too loud, and the whole of the inn hushed swiftly at this word.
“That is a fell word,” Farmer Gaël called from across the room, and an uneasy murmur of agreement followed it. “It don’ bring good things.”
“Good things do not slaughter your beasts,” Brandyé replied. The whole of the inn had its eyes upon him now, and his courage grew, and so he began to speak to them of the terrible folk he and Reuel had dreamed up not so long ago.
“Farmer Reuss himself has only now just commented on the unnaturalness of these dreadful killings,” he said. “Wolves are beasts also – you know this. Beasts do not kill for pleasure.” Once more, the memory of the Fierund rose unbidden, but he did not speak of it, despite the hairs the thought raised upon his arms.
“If not a beast, then what?” another voice called. “Not a man, surely; last week beasts was found dead in one night, in paddocks with fourteen miles between ’em. At a trot you couldn’ make that distance.”
“Not a man,” Brandyé agreed, and he leaned forward, to better speak to the crowd, whose attention he now had. “There were once long ago those who walked the land here and there, and were not bound by the laws of Erâth. If they wished to be at a place a hundred leagues distant, so they would be. If they wished a tree to grow twisted, so it would grow. If they wished a beast dead – so it would be.”
“There’s no such thing as witches,” Ben seethed. He was anxious to see harm done upon Brandyé still, and was becoming enraged that Brandyé was succeeding in turning the fault from himself. “No more than there are ghosts.”
“Many things that are not seen yet exist,” Brandyé said. They could not know the truth of his words, and he saw red eyes pass before his. “Consider the evidence: animals slaughtered in a way not natural for any beast. Killings that take place too distant from each other to be borne out by one person. And, most telling – what man would wish such a terrible fate upon his own kin?”
There was much noise at this, and folk glanced about them, as though to reassure themselves that their very neighbors were not suddenly stained of sheep’s blood. “Do you know what purpose the witches of old gave unto themselves?” he asked, and not one voice now spoke back. “The word is of a language of old,” he said. “Hethàré, they were also known as, or sorcerers. It means ‘to wake the dead’.” He paused for a moment, and allowed this to penetrate those whose minds were dulled with drink. “There was a rule of these people: to give life, life must be taken.”
To Brandyé’s knowledge, there was absolutely no truth in what he was speaking; such details had been discussed between himself and Reuel, whose mind seemed extraordinarily capable of drawing ideas from the very air itself. Yet he could see the awe in the eyes of those in the Burrow Wayde, and knew the truth of his grandfather’s other words: a tale of horror was indeed a great distraction.
Yet even as these thoughts entered his mind, something then occurred that he did not intend. Quite suddenly, the inn erupted into a great babble of voices, and he found himself outside the folk, as they turned from him and began to argue loudly among themselves.
“They’re bringin’ life back to themselves!” one person cried.
“Each creature dead is a witch alive!” another spoke.
“They want us dead too, no doubt!”
“Their mark is the scythe! The sign – it shows they will bring death to us all!”
And as swiftly as that, the subject, invented at his hands, was now out of them, and he could not now take it back. As he continued to listen to the rising fear and talk of witches, and now of demons and darkness also, he grew fearful himself, for he knew now that should any of the Scythe’s Blood be discovered, they would be denounced as a witch. Given the mood now that had swept the Burrow Wayde, he had little doubt of that fate that would then greet them.
Amidst the noise, he left his mug unfinished, and made his way discreetly to the door and out into the night. He had not been prepared for the tale to sweep the villagers with such fear; in a moment, he had provided for them an answer and a blame. Witches had killed their beasts. Witches had left the marks. Witches had brought the grey skies and darkness upon them. Witches were bringing the downfall of their lands.
This was not what he had intended at all, and he was greatly perturbed. He would need to address this with those of the Scythe’s Blood as swiftly as he could, lest they find themselves at the hands of the villagers in the dead of night. If they could bring a halt to their activities, if they could pass a pretense of returning to their daily life, they might be able to avoid suspicion. But many of the Scythe’s Blood had not been at the Burrow Wayde that evening, and might be venturing to Farmer Tar’s barn that very night. What if they should be discovered?
He made his way swiftly up the hill and towards his home. He wished also to discuss the matter with Reuel; what had gone wrong? He felt certain that, had Reuel been there, he would not have allowed such wild extrapolation. In his mind, he saw his grandfather, and he was in the Burrow Wayde, and was regaling the folk with another tale of demons and monsters. Why were they not so disturbed by these terrible creatures? It had been a different time, then, certainly – the skies had yet to turn dark, and wolves a thing to be laughed at. Yet there was something else within his tale, also, he felt; a thing that had gripped their mind with fear.
As Reuel’s house drew near, he paused, and looked down at the village. There was much commotion now outside the Burrow Wayde, and even from such a distance he could hear their voices, loud and angry. A crowd gathered outside the doors to the inn, and they did not disperse; a council, it seemed, was being held in the night and beneath the flames of torches.
A twist in his gut urged him on. A definition was being made here; vague shapes in the darkness that he could not see were gathering, and he felt this was not in Burrowdown alone. As he reached the door to their home, he paused once more, and was torn. He felt quite suddenly a child again, that he had done a thing he had now the power to undo. He wished achingly to seek Reuel’s counsel, to put his faith in his grandfather and guardian, and know that he could make things right. Yet he knew also that this was but fancy; in his heart, he now recognized Reuel for a man, and not more. Also, he was fearful to speak to him of the Scythe’s Blood, and his secretive actions. He knew not what his grandfather would think, and though he knew he was too old for punishment, he yet dared not risk his grandfather’s disapproval. Quite suddenly in his mind, he began to question the purpose of the Scythe’s Blood; in the eyes of their land, they were criminals – were their deeds as just as Aiden claimed?
He would tell Reuel of the turn of events regarding the witches, he resolved. What he might say of the Scythe’s Blood would come later. With a breath, he pushed upon the door, and entered the house.
All was still, and the light was dim. Moving to the parlor, he saw the fire burning low, and before it sat Reuel, still and silent. His breast moved gently beneath a blanket, and Brandyé saw he was asleep. He would not disturb him with his news now, he thought, and turned to climb the stairs to his own room.
As he rose to the landing, a chill swept past him, and a single candle at the top of the stairs fluttered. The door to the mysterious room was yet closed and locked, but the door to his own lay open. Within was darkness, and from the darkness came a second breath of cold. The window had been left open, it seemed. Unnerving, this was, as he had not done so himself.
With some trepidation, he crept quietly through the door and entered his own room. All was still and dark, and only the curtain by the window, which stood wide, moved in the breeze. His room was not large, and though dark, he saw nothing within to cause alarm – yet his heart beat loud in his chest.
As he approached the window, intending to shut it, there came quite suddenly a loud cry, and a great creature passed through the window and came down upon his head. He was cast onto his bed, and beat at the creature even as its claw tore into his cheek. Grasping it firmly, he wrenched it from his face and flung it away.
There was another cry from the beast, and quite suddenly Brandyé was struck with recognition. He looked at his hand, and saw it grasped a feather, soft and dark. Unaware of the blood on his face, he stared now into the corner of the room, where the creature now skulked. No more than a shadow, he could not discern it until a flash of bright green eyes caught his attention, and he knew what the creature was.
Dashing from the room, he grasped the candle from the landing and returned, bearing its light. As he approached the creature, the candle dimly lit its features, and he suddenly felt great guilt, for the beast he had thrown aside was Sonora. She was glaring at him indignantly, and he saw that she was not hurt, and spoke to her.
“I am deeply sorry,” he said. Her frown appeared to deepen, and he had no doubt she knew his words. “You startled me – you should not fly at people’s heads in their own homes, and in the dark at that! Look – you have done me more harm than I have.” He touched his cheek, and held out the bloodied finger for her to inspect. She glanced at it, and then gave a soft cry.
As the shock of her appearance subsided, Brandyé gave thought to her presence. Again, he spoke to the falcon: “What brings you here? It is many leagues from Daevàr’s Hut – you must be greatly tired!”
Again, Sonora cawed, and hopped forward towards him. In the candlelight, Brandyé noticed the note tied fast to her leg. “For me?” he asked her. She cawed an affirmation, and setting the candle aside, he reached down and freed her of the message. Relieved, she flapped her wings, and rose herself onto his bed, where she began to preen. Excited, Brandyé unwrapped the note, and began to read:
I write to you in great urgency, and have bid Sonora to bear you this note with all swiftness. Events have passed here in Daevàr’s Hut that have brought a great change to the town, and I fear we will all be in great danger before long. Aiden and the others have begun to speak of taking actions against the Fortunaé swiftly, and I believe the deeds they plot are of violence.
I would have you by my side, if it is within possibility; I cannot speak of what deeds may come to pass over the following weeks, but I know we will have need of every mind and body loyal to the Scythe’s Blood. You are the only person I know whom I can entrust my fears to, and your counsel is precious to me; I believe whole-heartedly that you alone would prevent me from following a course I should not take.
If you can come, return note of this with Sonora, for she will carry it swifter than a horse. I understand if you feel your duty lies elsewhere, but I beg you to consider the good of all the lands of Consolation. We – I – have need of you.
Veritably your friend,
Brandyé turned from the note, and looked to Sonora. Finished, she had settled herself on his bed, and looked most comfortable. He would bring her food, he thought. And whether she would depart in the morning with a note, or with nothing – of that, he could not say.