Chapter 25: The Ending of the Burrow
And the river continued on, and it bore the raft, and it bore Brandyé, who had returned to it in the night, through the West of Consolation. It wound through forest and plain, and passed several villages on its course out of the land. The waters remained slow and still for much of the time, and many days passed on Brandyé’s final journey.
At times, the raft would drift near the banks, and Brandyé looked upon the shore with longing. Sometimes it passed low mud beaches, and there were many creatures that dwelt in the bogs and watched him as he passed. Other times he passed through endless woodland, where the trees’ roots descended into the very water and drank thirstily, and grew tall indeed. Here, the sounds of the forest creatures reached his ears, and the calls of the birds sounded sad.
All the while, the sky remained grey, and it seemed that it grew ever darker as he moved further from Daevàr’s Hut and the northern fields he knew so well. He could not yet see what lay beyond the borders of Consolation, for the river meandered much, and his view was often hidden by trees and hills, but he feared it might become black entirely before he passed much farther.
Whenever Brandyé came near to the water’s edge, he would make to move to the raft’s edge, to paddle it further into the land, and was recalled to the bonds that kept him fast to the short mast at his back. Here he had been tied now for many days, and his legs had swiftly failed him, and he had sunk to his knees, his arms tight behind him all the while. He grew weak, and his hunger was matched only by his thirst. Was this the fate the Lord Garâth had intended for him, then? To starve to death before ever entering the Perneck, and the unknown that lay beyond?
He knew not the answer to these thoughts, but he was certain that should he not escape from his bonds, if only to drink from the river, he would soon have too little strength left in him to live. His pain and weakness from the tortures of the Fortunaé were with him still, and he began to feel death might come upon him yet.
As thoughts of death entered into his head, he recalled the words of the figures before the bridge, the words he could not hear, could not accept. The woman in white – she had called herself Illuèn, and he understood that word to mean light. He felt, though, that there was a deeper meaning behind it, and in his ears it contained traces of purity, and of goodness.
And the woman in black – she had called herself Namirèn. She had called herself this, he recalled, each of the three times he had met her. Namirèn – Death. And he was frightened, and relieved by this, for death, it seemed, had a face. And a name – Shaera.
He could not trust the reality of these visions, for despite the insistence of his memory, he could in no way explain these undesirable journeys to distant lands. He knew not how he came to be there, nor how he returned. He turned his thoughts to magic, and this frightened him all the more, for his grandfather had spoken only ill of such things.
But it comforted him to know that in death, he might yet find peace. If the Namirèn had indeed taken Reuel from him, perhaps there might be hope of seeing him, speaking with him, once again. Perhaps even with Sonora.
But such hopes were, ultimately, beyond him, and he began to find comfort only in the knowledge that his suffering would not long last.
On the third day of his exile, the gentle drift of his raft brought him through the village of Littlehen, some twenty miles downstream of Daevàr’s Hut. It was midday when he approached, and it was not long before he had drawn the attention of most of the village folk, who soon crowded at the edge of the river to look upon him. Littlehen was too far from Daevàr’s Hut to have learned of the events there, and they were much astonished for they had never in their recollection seen such a thing.
Some of the folk called to him out of curiosity, and asked for his name, but Brandyé had neither the strength nor the will to respond. He would not meet their gaze, and looked rather upon his feet, and wished his passage through the village would be swift.
It was not to be, however, for at the village’s center was a low bridge, like many waterside villages of the land, and as Brandyé approached it he became aware that the mast to which he was bound would likely not pass beneath the bridge. He drew upon it, and became fearful as he saw ever clearer the low height of the bridge.
And indeed, as the river unrelentingly bore him upon it, the mast caught on its stone, and with a shudder the vessel came to a halt, and the water suddenly rushed upon him, and the bottom of his raft began to fill swiftly. The rear of the craft sunk into the water, as the river tried to force the mast under the bridge, and it fell backward, and threatened to overturn entirely.
In the end, it did not; the river had the strength to drag the raft under the bridge, but in doing so forced the craft so far beneath the water that Brandyé was drowned in the cold, and could not breath. For many endless moments he felt the currents sweep around him, forcing his breath from his body, and it felt that he must verily explode when suddenly the light of the world returned, and he felt air upon his face once more.
He had passed beneath the bridge, but his boat was now flooded and floated very much beneath the surface, and many of the provisions the Lord Garâth had provided were now floating downstream and away from him.
He realized also that he was not moving further, and saw with amazement that his raft was being held fast by several long boating hooks, held fast by and equal number of men at the shore. They heaved mightily and dragged him slowly toward them, and he was brought to a halt before them, the bow of his raft lodged in the mud. Still gasping for air and uncertain what these men wanted, he spoke not a word, even as one of them mounted into the boat with him.
“That were quite the trip yeh just took there,” the man said, and he knelt beside Brandyé as the waters finally began to run from the boat. “What happened to yeh? D’yeh take a fancy to a lass yeh oughtn’t’ve?” He laughed, and the men on the shore laughed with him.
Brandyé merely shook his head, and did not reply. The man grunted, and began to look Brandyé over. He grasped his head, and though he was not gentle, Brandyé knew he was looking upon the wound on his head, and the many scars upon his arms. “Yeh’ve taken quite the bruisin’, ain’t yeh?” he muttered, and turned to Brandyé’s bonds. “Who tied yeh up, lad?”
But Brandyé would still not reply, and the man seemed to become put out by his silence. “What’s a matter?” he grunted. “Not thankful for those who’d save yeh from drownin’?” Brandyé still kept his tongue, and the man became irate. “Yeh’re bein’ downright rude, now,” he said. “I’d answer, if I were yeh!”
“Perhaps he’s mute,” a fellow called from the bank, and the man turned back to Brandyé.
“Is that right?” he asked. “Yeh mute?” Brandyé only looked upon him, but he seemed to take that as acceptance, and said, “Fine – I’ll not ask yeh to speak. But it wouldn’ hurt yeh to smile, yeh know.”
“Let him be,” the man on the bank called to him. “He’s just been through hell. The least we can do is cut him loose.” He produced a hunting knife, and tossed it to the man in the boat. For a moment, Brandyé feared the blade might fall upon him directly, but the man beside him caught it deftly, and turned to Brandyé once more.
“I’ll get yeh loose,” he said, “and then perhaps you’ll come with us and explain your business. By word or by writin’, if yeh know how.” And he bent to Brandyé’s bonds; but in doing so, as he began to cut the cords, he moved against his chest and Brandyé’s shirt, torn already, pulled to the side, and the burn, the scar, the mark of the outcast and the sign of Darkness, was revealed. At its sight, the man ceased, the cord half-cut, and stepped back. “Look at that,” he said.
“I’ve seen that mark afore,” said one of the older men from the shore. “It’s given to those what’re outcast from the Hut!”
There was a murmur among the men, and the one in the boat with Brandyé spoke, “Is this true?”
And finally, Brandyé broke his silence, and said, “It is. I have been sent from Daevàr’s Hut, and sent from these lands.”
“So yeh can speak,” the man spoke. “What were your crime?”
“I killed,” Brandyé replied.
The man’s eyes widened briefly, and leaving Brandyé still bound, he retreated to the shore. The men gathered together, and spoke in a hush, so that Brandyé could not hear their words. He could imagine what they spoke of, however, and resigned himself to yet further abuse and pain.
After many minutes, the men seemed to arrive at some form of accordance, and the man who had stepped on the raft earlier returned to Brandyé, and his knife was yet held out. He looked down upon Brandyé, and his eyes were now dangerous.
“It is true, that you have killed?” he asked.
Brandyé nodded, once.
“And was it by intent, or by accident?” he continued.
And here, Brandyé faltered, for he knew not what to answer. He had never, in any thought, wished harm upon Sonora, and had in a thousand imaginations refused to take the shot that had killed her. Yet to kill had been his intent that day, and he felt a terrible lie in denying this. Finally, he summoned his courage to bear what fate might be brought upon him, and spoke: “It was by intent.”
The man nodded. “Then you are evil,” he said, “and we see it was just for the Fortunaé to banish you.” He knelt beside Brandyé in the shallow water that still pooled at the bottom of the raft. “Understand,” he said calmly, “we do not agree with the Fortunaé or their ways. We have seen too many suffer at their hands. But if what you tell us is true, then this once we must be one with them. It shows courage that you admit to your wrongdoing, and perhaps you are not entirely evil, thought it may seem it. And we would not become murderers for the sake of a murderer.”
He stood again, and stepped once more from the raft. “You will be sent on your journey once more,” he called to him, “and may you not stop until you meet your fate. We do not wish you harm, but nor will we wish you well.”
He then bent to the raft, and so did the others, and with a great heave they pushed him from the bank, and he slowly drifted once more into the river’s current. Soon the village of Littlehen was behind him, as were its folk, and his hopes of food were behind him also.
He did not condemn the villagers in his mind, for they had acted as they felt they must. Indeed, had he been in their place, he would likely have done the same, for who would wish to release a killer among their folk? Nonetheless, his sadness and despair was reaffirmed, to know that not a man in Consolation remained that cared for him, or wished ever to see him again. With these thoughts he passed far from the village, and the country began once more to pass him slowly by.
It grew darker, and night came, and it was under the moonless, clouded skies that he passed the second village, Waterstone Green, so named for a great boulder that stood high from the Tuiraeth in the center of the village. The village itself was rather poor, having little livestock or harvest, and all was silent as he passed it by. He know only of its passing by the few torches that burned dim outside of the only tavern, and a single, drunken call, demanding that his wife let him in.
He passed on, and when morning dawned, the village was lost to sight. Here, the land began slowly to change, and the river widened, and grew shallow. The fields and hills around him grew lower, and soon the grass had given way to marshland, and he found himself drifting ever so slowly through a swamp, the river hardly distinguishable from the bogs surrounding it.
Here were many insects, and gnats flew around him incessantly, and his arms and chest grew spotted with their many bites. They avoided the area surrounding his brand, however, and preferred to attack him under his chin and behind the ears. It was a new, unbearable torture, for his hands remained bound to the mast, and he could not scratch or swat the flies away. He could but shake his head, brushing his hair against his shoulders, but they were undeterred, and continued to feed from him.
As evening came on, the clouds thickened, and he began to feel the first drops of a new rain. He was yet in the bog, but as the rain began to fall, the insects finally left him, and he felt some small relief as the water fell over him, soothing the itch and sting. It was yet cold, though, and before long he was shivering, and wished for a blanket, or a cloak. Such things that the Fortunaé had provided for him had long washed away when he had struck the bridge at Littlehen, and he was bitter and unsurprised to see that, of the few things that had remained, his crossbow was one. The weapon would not part with him, it seemed; nor could it help him.
That night was black indeed, for there were no stars, and no village lights in the bogs. He could see not even the bottom of his raft, and in the dreadful dark he could not rest. Unseen terrors preyed on his thoughts, and he recalled the deep shadows in the deep, and wondered if they might take the occasion to devour him, now the waters were shallow and the current slow.
Indeed, several times he was certain he felt something push against his boat, and though he told himself it was certainly but a rock, there was not the sound of scraping stone, but a softer, duller thud, the sound of flesh. Occasionally, he heard a sound – a bubble, a splash, louder than the soft rain that fell all around – and his heart beat faster with each one.
Yet the night passed, and yet another dawn came, and he saw he was slowly leaving the marshes, and the river was beginning to renew its pace.
Not long after the sun had risen (or would have risen, were it visible behind the clouds), he began to sense a turbulence in the waters, and before long, he saw the current was flowing faster along the South bank than the North. Ahead, he spied several small islands, and suddenly the river was double its width, and he saw that its flow had been joined by a second, large river, from the North, and he knew it was the Burrow, grown wide from the young country stream he had known it as in Burrowdown. A great disturbance of the waters swirled where the two great flows met, and gradually he felt the raft drawn into these currents, and the boat soon began to sway, and to shake.
And it was here, finally, that Brandyé truly understood what it meant to leave Consolation. Here was the ending of the Burrow, and it was the ending of everything he had known, in all his life unto that moment. The Burrow had ever been, in all his childhood, and remained unchanged through the years that passed into shadow, unperturbed by the death and the fear and the wolves, and it was only now that he realized he had founded some small hope that the river was a sign that the good of the world might remain.
Yet here it was ended, swallowed by the great flow of the Fortunaé, a river that bore a name of the ancient world, and in his heart he knew its name had been corrupted. As refuse tossed carelessly over the bridge, he had been washed out of the land of his birth, and as he was engulfed by the flow of darkness, so he saw all of his land would be engulfed by the darkness of the ancient world, and that the fierundé would roam ever freer across Consolation, even to the fall of the lording families. And he, like the waters of his home, was now borne onwards into the maw of the ancient world, into the throat of darkness.
The joining of the two rivers passed soon behind him, and the river swiftly grew deep and rapid once more, and there was a cold breeze against his cheek as he drifted ever eastward. As the day wore on, the land became harsher, and the grass and fields gave way to bitter heather and moor, and stone showed itself across the land like bone through poor skin.
And now, ahead, he began to see the shadows of rising mountains, and they were of a look unlike any he had seen. Where the Tresté mountains to the North of Burrowdown rose high and graceful, always faint with haze and cloaked in forests, these peaks were of bare rock, tall and sharp, and intimidating. These were the Perneck, then.
By that evening – the fifth of his exile – he was weak indeed, and it was only a worrying sight that brought his head from his chest to peer around in the gloom. The Tuiraeth, having been joined by yet a further stream from the South, was now quite broad, and here, at the very edges of Consolation, was built by its edge one last village. Yet though it was not a small town, Brandyé was unsettled as he neared it to hear no sound of conversation, nor smell cooking, nor see light and fire. Cold, empty stone houses stood facing the waters, and not a one bore a torch, or shone a light. He knew not the name of this village, though it was old, by the look of its stone; he wondered how long it had stood abandoned, or if it were abandoned at all.
The raft did not pass close to the shore here, and so he was afforded little insight, but the breeze grew high, and in the silence the water and the wind were loud, and he felt almost as though the voices of the vanished were upon his ears. They spoke to him of darkness, of fear and of death, and he heard in them the fevered and imagined cries of all the folk of Consolation.
It was as he was born away from this dead village, though, that the last true sight of dread met his eyes. Shadows were grown long by this time of the evening, and the shore was fading from his sight in the dark, when he perceived movement among the rocks that now grew high on either side of him. He was at first uncertain of his own eyes, for the movement stopped, he felt, when he tried to look upon it directly. Yet, as he returned his gaze to the raft and the darkening water, he saw unmistakably many shapes, quiet and stealthy, and they were following him.
And then, just as the light threatened to fail him entirely, he knew these creatures, for suddenly from the dark shone many pairs of blood-red eyes, and they were all laid upon him. Rank upon rank of fierundé were stood upon the banks of the Tuiraeth, all staring at him with their dark eyes of fire, and they did not move, they did not howl, but merely watched as he passed them. He stared at them in turn, and he recalled how, when he had seen that first fierund so long ago in the snows of Burrowdown, that it had seemed to know him, to know his thoughts, and now, even as this vision passed through his mind, each and every one of the fierundé raised its head and stood to its full height, and it seemed suddenly that they verily spoke to him, and he heard these words: “Fare ill, Brandyé, Dui-Erâth, and be gone from our lands. Do not venture to return; though death may spare you, we will not.”
And as one, the turned their maws to the sky and let loose a cry that shook the cliffs, and the rains poured down once more, and their eyes vanished, and darkness took the world, and Brandyé saw no more. That night, he passed into the Perneck.
It was raining still when Brandyé awoke late on the sixth morning, and the land around him was changed. The river was now narrow, and deep, and swift, and it was passing now through a deep canyon, dominating walls of black wet rock towering above the rushing surface, and the raft was carried along its surface like a toy, thrown and thrust this way and that. Brandyé found that, in his weakened state, he was in fact aided by the cords that bound him still to the broken mast, for he would surely have been flung from the boat and drowned in the night. Now in his waking moments, he saw that he should not long survive the Perneck, if the river so continued its course; sharp rocks stood high from the riverside, and though the current had so far swirled him away from these, he felt certain the raft would not survive a collision.
For some hours he passed along the Tuiraeth so, and while the river did not slacken its pace, to his fortune nor did its ferocity rise. Several times he drew near the high rock walls, but the river pulled him away again before he could be dashed against them. Water once more began to fill the boat, and felt certain his destruction was very near.
Toward the afternoon, the rain began to relent, but no long after the river’s pace did quicken, and he began to hear, echoing from ahead, a great roar of rapids. The great river was descending, it seemed, over the many sharp rocks of the Perneck, and he was to be carried to the bottom with them.
And it was in this moment, as he verily resigned himself to death, that he recalled Elỳn’s words – the words of one who stood by Death itself: “It is not what you have done he was glad of, but what you will become. You will live, and you will be strong. We will meet again.”
We will meet again, she had said, and quite suddenly he knew that this would be true, that he must make it true, and that he would not allow the gorges of the Perneck to claim his life. With what little strength remained to him, he began to pull at his bonds, suddenly desperate to break them. The knots that the guards had tied him with were strong, and would not loosen, but the rope was weakened at a point from where the man of Littlehen had began to cut it. He recalled, from his youth, how he and Elven had once made a rope smoke by drawing it rapidly over a branch, and began now to chafe the rope that bound him against the mast, leaning forward and laying his whole weight upon the rope’s one weak point.
Ahead, the rapids drew ever nearer, and the air filled with the mist of crashing water, and the boat began to tremble mightily in the current. He saw the great stones that lay ahead, saw the water tumbling over them, and fought at his bonds all the harder, and as the raft passed over the first fall, the rope broke, and he grasped the raft’s edge with all his strength.
Around him the water frothed, and the raft was soon brought hard against the hard stone, and the foundation of the craft began to crack, so that there was as much water in the boat as out of it, and it began verily to sink. Knowing not what else to do, Brandyé grasped his bow, and as the raft was brought crashing toward another rock, he thrust the bow against it and shoved, and the raft was pushed away, and did not break upon it.
So it was he passed through the heaving rapids, allowing the river to bear him where it willed, and keeping his craft from breaking by the very end of his strength, and he he grew faint, and as his vision faded and his throat choked with water, he forced breath into his lungs only by the determination that he would see Elỳn again, and would ask of her the purpose of his torture.
And as his strength gave entirely, and he could no longer lift his body, he heard over the pounding rapids a roar yet greater than ever, and he could not look up in spite of the fear that grasped him, and would not look upon the great cataract that opened before him, the final edge over which the Tuiraeth plummeted, and merely lay in the bottom of the raft, and waited. He felt the waters grow briefly calm as he entered into a wide pond, and he drifted, and he felt the water tug at him, and his pace redoubled, and he felt himself borne ever swifter away, and he let his eyes close as the roar grew ever more deafening, and he grasped his bow tight, and would not look as he felt the water, and the very earth fall from beneath him, and he let his mind run free as he fell with them.
But it was not the end, for as Shaera of the Namirèn had spoken, he was not death; as Elỳn of the Illuèn had spoken, he would live, and be strong.
Brandyé passed over the falls of the Perneck, and his raft was shattered, and he was drowned in the deep and churning waters beneath, and the river spat him out again, and by some small providence he floated on, supported by the broken mast that had bound him, unmoving, in his journey of exile.
And, as all rivers do, the Tuiraeth wound on, and came upon the sea, where even it ended, and Brandyé was here cast ashore, and for many hours slept as one dead upon the sand. When his mind returned to him he was ill, and could not stand, and night passed, and only in the morning did he find finally the will to look upon his surroundings.
So alone, had he never been. There was sand under him, and it was of a dull grey, and stretched on North and South as far as his aching eyes could perceive. The Tuiraeth ran on beside him, wide and shallow, now, cutting the beach in two, and pouring itself endlessly into the sea.
And the sea…he knew little of such things, and his only encounter had been when he had been called away from his home, unbidden, to the dead and empty city of the ancients, where he had stood and looked upon the edge of the world. Unlike that sea, this one did not end – it passed out of sight to the West as far as he could see – but it was ailing, and wrong. Despite the wind, there were few crests upon its surface, and its color – its color was black, as black as the stone of the Perneck, and he was fearful of it, for no water should be such a color, he knew.
After many moments, he looked behind him, where the great cliffs of the Perneck rose to an unimaginable height, and as he wondered that he had not been destroyed as he had passed over them. Other than the broken mast, he saw no other sign of the craft that had borne him.
There were no people with him; no animals, no sound, no scent, bar the sickening odor of the sea. The sand bore no marks of foot or claw or hoof, and he saw with dismay that there was equally no sign of vegetation, for he could see only the dark cliffs, the grey sand and the black ocean.
And so he sat, by the waters of the Tuiraeth and the dead and black sea, and considered his fate. He had been spared the destruction of the cliffs, yet he would die soon if he could not find food. He could remain by the Tuiraeth, for at least here was fresh water (he would not consider drinking of the foul sea), but on water alone he could not survive. Bitterly, he saw that his bow had yet not deserted him, and he took it from the sand. It could provide him some food, he knew, if only he could find it; and though the world around him appeared verily dead, he held yet some hope that he might find some life.
He stood, and knew his weakness, but brought himself to the edge of the Tuiraeth and drank his fill. Even here, the water tasted bitter, as though it were poisoned by the black sea, but he drank nonetheless, and he did not die, though his illness did not abate.
He wondered if, perhaps, he had in fact died, and it occurred to him that, whether he had or not, his old life was gone nonetheless. This was a rebirth, and in this he saw also a small hope: the first, tiny hope that there might be, for him, a chance of redemption. Here, he was unknown; here, he could not be judged.
He stood from the river, and held the crossbow over his shoulder. He would bear the weapon for his safety, and his sustenance; never again would it be used to kill men. Never again would Darkness have power over him.
And so it was with a lighter heart that Brandyé Dui-Erâth began to walk, away from the river and away from all he knew. And so it was that, unknown to him, Darkness followed behind, and laughed.