Chapter 1: The Black Sea
The mouth of the Tuiraeth was many miles behind, left to empty itself into the ugly and dead sea, and Brandyé Dui-Erâth was alone, and cold. Some way inland from the sea he had found meagre grass, and running water, and here he lived amongst the hard stone and moss. Ever restless, he wandered aimlessly along the coast, not wishing to look upon the dark waters, yet unwilling to lose sight of the coast for fear of becoming lost himself.
How he might become lost he knew not, however, for he knew not where he was. He was far from the Perneck and the last trace of what he had for all his life known as home, and was indeed as exiled as the Fortunaé could have desired. Comfort was nearly forgotten, now but a stray memory of firelight and tea and rich tales. His chin grew thick with bristles, though he knew it only by touch, for there were no mirrors to be found, nor even a pool of calm water.
He had tried to bathe in the rain once, but it had been dreadfully cold and biting to the skin, and left him with a redness that did not fade for a week. He soon learned to avoid the sea, and all that came from it; he would not touch the waters, and though he was surprised to find fish that swam among the waves, the one he managed (with great difficulty) to catch tasted of rot, and made him violently ill.
Instead, he had sought refuge under what little cover there was; here and there, among the foot of the hills and cliffs, were to be found hollows and caves, and these sheltered him from the worst of the elements. Among the weeds near the small streams that filtered down through the rock were bitter grasses that he could nonetheless stomach, and small animals and vermin that he could catch.
The winter he had once spent with his grandfather, isolated from Burrowdown and unwelcome by all the village folk, now proved its worth; whilst he had neither soil nor seed to cultivate a garden, he had collected a good flint as soon as he was able, and kept always a pinch of dry grass beneath his tunic. Thus he could make fire when he wished, and the toads and mice were not half so bad once they were well-roasted.
More rarely there was larger game, and it was then that he was glad to still be in possession of his crossbow. In such deep contempt and bitterness though he still held it, he could not deny its usefulness in bringing down hares and marmots, which provided the best meat he could find. It was the only tool he owned though, and he longed for a knife to skin and butcher his dinner, even if it were the black dagger that in his flight had been lost from his hand, if not from his thoughts.
As it was, he sharpened a flat stone against the rock as best he could, and it served to provide him with food, and also with warmth. His cloak was lost, and his torn tunic and ragged breeches did little to cover him. With each new skin, however, he was able to patch the rents in his clothing, stitched roughly with a tough weed stalk, and he soon found he was wearing more fur than cloth.
He was grateful of such sustenance and cover, for it was often rainy and always cold. Despite what he could catch or graze, he was ever hungry, and grew thin and pale. His wounds and hurts were poorly healed; he limped as he walked, and his left shoulder remained stiff and sore from the constable’s blade that had pierced him there.
More than the cuts and bruises, though, which he did not feel, and more than the desolate and numb landscape that surrounded him, which he scarcely noticed, his thoughts were ever filled by a bleak gray that was deeper even than the clouded skies. During sleepless nights and long, gloom-filled daytime treks, his mind wandered to and fro, both recalling the haunting imagery of the past and envisaging the drear of the future. He dwelt little on Sonora’s death; perhaps guilt and loathing had taken of his heart what they could, or perhaps he feared he could no longer survive if he more than saw her face behind closed eyes in the dark, but he found himself focused more on the visions and impossible journeys to unimaginable lands that Schaera had led him through. Throughout his childhood these had been intangible; though he could not explain how he appeared in such unfamiliar places, they bore so little resemblance to his own world that he ultimately dismissed them as fantasy, places lost from another time.
Yet here lay a sea every part as dark as that over which he had stood when Schaera had revealed herself and her company to him. He desired nothing more than to forget her words, and those of Elỳn, whose prophecy of hope still tore at his heart. Yet faced with the inescapable reality of that black ocean, he began to fear the reality of the other lands that he had seen.
These thoughts occupied him incessantly, for here there was no respite, no distraction from the complete absence of mankind. Outcast and isolated from all those around him for all his life, he had thought he would find comfort in the solitude of these barren lands, but instead he felt more alone than when every child in Daevàr’s Hut called him a demon. On some days, the wind would die low, and if he lay sheltered in a small hollow he knew a silence like none he had ever heard; a deafening, numbing dearth of noise that left his ears aching with the pulse of his own blood.
Yet a part of him remained encouraged that he might not find his death here among the cliffs, having never breathed a word to another soul. He remembered also Reuel’s tales, and the writings that had filled his room. If there were indeed men who lived outside of Consolation, there was some small hope that he might one day encounter them.
It was perhaps this, more than any other thing, that kept Brandyé moving daily ever south. He knew no reason why he should pass in this direction, or why he should have ever left the Tuiraeth’s familiar waters at all; certainly, all of his grandfather’s wisdom held that other folk – if there were any to be found – lay to the North. Yet he felt compelled to travel instead away from his home and from whatever salvation his grandfather’s tales might have promised.
One day, he came across a valley that led inshore, and he saw that as it rose, the rock became dressed in green, and the land looking untainted, he ventured forward and away from the dread sea.
He soon found himself under the cover of tall firs whose needles softened the ground, and his feet ached immediately with relief from the unforgiving stone they had for so long been treading. The cold coast wind failed, and to his astonishment he thought he heard the sound of birds in the distance. The ground rose ever gently, and ahead he saw that the valley’s stream tumbled over an outcrop, and he caught the scent of good moisture and moss and mold, and wondered if he might find mushrooms there in the shadows.
His eyes had become accustomed to the dull brightness of the gray sky, and so it was not until he was quite close that he noticed the buck standing motionless at the foot of the waterfall. It was back in shadows and shrouded in ferns, and it was only the passing glint in its eye that told Brandyé of its presence. Brandyé felt a small thrill at its sight, and even as he marveled that he felt anything at all other than bleak despair, he raised the crossbow from his side and fixed a quarrel to the stock.
He had fashioned the quarrel himself from a short branch he had found on the beach, and though it was crude, it had proven to fly straight, and he sighted it on the buck with sureness. The animal’s gaze fell upon him, and at the bow’s twang leapt high, and just as swiftly fell dead upon the ground.
Brandyé approached the felled beast, and retrieved his quarrel as he knelt beside it. It had pierced the buck’s heart, and he knew it had died painlessly. He rested his hand upon its throat for a few moments, and the fur was warm, though he felt no pulse. Its head lay at an angle, held by its antlers, and he could not look into the black eye. Always when he killed, he remembered learning to hunt, and his vow not to bring death to any beast unless it were for his own survival. Yet this one animal would provide him meat for some days – weeks, if he could find a hollow trunk in which to smoke it – and with its hide he could fashion a veritable cloak, like he had not seen since leaving Consolation.
Satisfied the buck’s life had indeed departed its body, Brandyé released it and laid his rabbit-skin purse upon the ground. It contained what few tools he had gathered or fashioned, and from among these he drew forth his cutting stone. Wide, flat and sharp, it would serve for butchering for meat now, and later for tanning.
As he brought the stone blade to the buck’s throat to let its blood, the tiniest of movements caught his eye from across the waterfall, and he saw there three further deer, a doe and two fawns, and they were looking upon him as he knelt over their kin. Though he expected no response, he broached his throat and spoke to them, low, for he was unused to speaking: “I do not apologize, as it is for my own life that I have taken that of your companion. I would thank you, though, for allowing me this food. One day you will graze upon my own bones.”
To his surprise, the deer started and fled, and he thought perhaps he had spoken louder than he knew when he sensed a further movement almost behind him, and he turned, and knew what had startled the deer.
In his haste to dress the buck, he had failed to see the cave that led under the waterfall, and from it had now emerged a huge beast, on its four legs as high as a man, with four great paws ending in equally great claws. Keen and bright eyes faced forward at him over a muzzle that would have seemed soft if not for the rusted teeth that were now bared at him. With its dark fur and low growl, it reminded Brandyé of nothing so much as what his grandfather had once described as a ‘bear’.
The bear snorted violently, and with a great heave suddenly brought itself upon its rear legs, and towered over Brandyé so that he was cast into its shadow, and Brandyé remained frozen, for he saw for him no escape.
The bear then fell, crashing down upon him, and with a massive swipe of a paw threw Brandyé far across the ground, away from the fallen deer and away from its cave. Brandyé found himself without breath, and the bear let loose a great howl and turned upon him, maw gaping, and Brandyé saw his death and cowered, one hand over his head and one outstretched, as though in futile supplication to the bear not to kill him.
And then quite an astonishing thing happened. At his fear and his gesture the bear ceased in its charge, and approached Brandyé more gently. Still awaiting the bite of its jaws, Brandyé remained motionless, and the bear lowered its muzzle to his outstretched hand and breathed in deep. It gave a low moan, and suddenly backed away a step, and lowered its nose to the very ground, and was as motionless as Brandyé, frozen in a deep bow.
For a moment behind closed eyes, Brandyé saw a dimness, and from the shadows saw the glint of three pairs of eyes, tiny imitations of the great bear’s, and felt a gnawing hunger. And then he opened his eyes and saw the bear laid down before him, and his mind was filled with wonder. For many moments he gazed upon the bear, and for many moments the bear stayed, stirring the pine needles with its breath.
Slowly, knowing not what else to do, Brandyé raised himself from his crouch, ever watching the bear for further signs of aggression. There were none, however; the bear seemed content where it was, and Brandyé, hand always outreached, settled upon his knees. A deep sense then overtook him, and without realization he brought his hand gently down and laid it upon the bear’s snout. A great peace filled his thoughts, and he knew the bear meant him no harm.
“Do you – do you wish to eat?” Brandyé asked of the bear. The words were odd to his ears, as had been those to the deer, but at his voice the bear opened its eyes, its gaze focused upon Brandyé, and heaved itself to its paws. Brandyé fell back, releasing his touch, and the peace fell from him, leaving only an ache, and an odd sadness.
The bear growled – a comfortable, gentle sound – and turned to look back at the deer. Marveling, Brandyé said, “Perhaps we can share its meat. You seem as hungry as I am.”
As a response, the bear turned from him, gripped the deer in its maw, and began dragging it back toward its cave. Tentative, Brandyé made to follow, and the bear did not object, so he passed beneath the waterfall and entered its home.
The cave was oddly warm, and he felt relief from the perpetual cold of the black coast winds. It was not deep, the rearmost wall only just black with shadow. The great bear carried the deer’s body to the center of the cave, and then from the shadows came small shapes, first one, then another, and then another. Brandyé saw they were young cubs, no larger than a dog, and he keenly felt their hunger. He began to realize that this deer meant a prize meal to this small family, and as he thought of his own struggles for nourishment, he felt a deep sympathy for these great creatures, who surely must need far more to eat than he.
The mother bear released the deer and sat upon her haunches, her small cubs circling around her and finally settling by her side in imitation. Brandyé stared into the gloom at this family, and they stared back at him. “You have beautiful children,” he said to the bear; naturally, she did not respond. For a moment Brandyé’s brow furrowed, and a thought occurred to him unbidden. “May I give you a name?” he asked the bear. She did not object, and so he said the word that had come to his mind, though he knew not what it meant nor from whence it came. “Andèl,” he said. “I shall call you Andèl.”
Andèl snorted, though not disapprovingly, and gently pushed the deer’s body toward Brandyé. His lip twitched, though he did not smile. “I see you are not one to waste words. Shall we eat?”
It was strangely fortunate that Brandyé should chance upon this creature’s home and gain her trust, for Winter was soon upon them, and when frost struck the ground and the air grew clear with cold he was glad of the shelter. The deer’s hide had made an excellent coat, and he was quite warm and comfortable as he left light tracks in the frost, searching for that evening’s meal.
Andèl and her cubs turned to sleep, her great body curled around her young ones, and they stirred only every few days, and even then only to drink from the stream. As they passed him they seemed quite fascinated by Brandyé’s fire, and failed to understand why he desired its warmth, nor why he burned his meat upon it.
Here in the woods, beside a peaceful stream and surrounded by green (though a pale one, shadowed ever by the gray sky), he felt for the first time in many months a weight lift from him, and he forgot even of the dread sea that lay not five miles distant. He fell into a comfortable routine, waking with the dawn and sleeping by night, breaking fast with a cold remainder of the previous evening’s supper, hunting in the afternoon, and settling before a fresh fire as dark drew in. There was no shortage of wood, and Andèl seemed not to mind him keeping it dry in her cave.
One day he came across a munadé bush, and was so overjoyed that he immediately set his mind to fashioning a pot. Some ways downstream was a wide patch of red earth, and from this he formed a crude cup, misshapen and ugly; yet it held water, and when he baked in the embers of his fire, it grew quite hard. When the scent of his first cup of tea filled the cave he wept for joy, and as he gently sipped the brew memories of home, of Reuel and tales by the fire drifted across his mind, and he then wept for sadness, and the losses of his young life. Yet the munadé tea ultimately meant comfort and calm, and it became as much a part of his daily life as waking and breathing.
After many months the frost finally lifted, and then the rain came. It felt hardly any warmer, and Brandyé wondered at the seasons of this place; it appeared to shrug the conventions he knew in favor of a cold season, and a slightly colder season. The rags of his tunic had fallen to shreds, and he now was clothed in patchwork hides that kept him quite dry even in a downpour. Nonetheless, the dismal atmosphere of the rain quite lowered his spirits, and he spent much of his day at the entrance to the cave, gazing in the rain and into nothing.
It was now that the true weight of his isolation began to bear down upon him. For some time he had contented himself with speaking and singing to himself (and to Andèl and her cubs), but he now passed the hours in silence, and quite forgot the sound of his own voice. He began to long for the sight and voice of another of his kin, and he knew that soon he must leave this place, if only to prevent his own insanity.
Yet he had come to think of Andèl’s cave as home, and felt quite safe; she and her cubs had awoken from their deep slumber with the rains, and her young grew swiftly. His protection now was not only his bow but sixteen sets of claws also, and this was important to him, for in all his time in the wild he had not forgotten the fierundé. He had seen no trace or sign of their presence, but they were nonetheless a concern at all times, for they were creatures of Darkness.
So it was that, torn between two minds, events came to pass that would decide Brandyé’s fate for him. It was a day when the rain had ceased after a great storm, and the clouds were lifted higher than usual (though did not part; Brandyé had yet to see the sun even once in this land), and he taken the chance to pass further up the valley than he had done before, curious to see where it might lead and what he might find at the head of the stream.
He came to a place where the stream coursed over a short cliff, higher than that under which Andèl had made her home, and he thought that from its height he might have an unobstructed view over the treetops. It was not a difficult climb, though he felt quite exerted by the time he lifted himself over the top, and he took a moment to drink from a waterskin he had made from a badger’s coat.
He was indeed here above the line of trees further down in the valley, though he could see behind him that the hills soon gave into great cliffs, and that he would not find further passage that way. Instead, he sat on a patch of grass and looked out down the valley, and to the West.
From here he could see once more the black expanse of the sea, and he felt an illness return to his breast that he had forgotten since leaving the shore. Its waters were as lightless and bleak as always, and he turned his eyes away, to look over the valley’s trees instead.
It was then that he saw the wisps of smoke rising high beyond the forest, not two miles down the coast. At first he thought perhaps it was lifting fog, but it persisted and did not spread, and he knew it for what it was: proof of fire.
And then his heart leapt verily in his chest, and mad thoughts and hopes of the company of men dashed through his head, and he drew himself up from the ground and nearly threw himself down the cliff. All caution was gone; that the fire might be natural, that the men he imagined might prove hostile to him – these were things that did not occur to him as he raced among the trees and down the valley.
He had gone perhaps half a mile when he was brought to a halt. Quite unexpectedly, a great howl thundered through the trees, deep and angry and hurt. For an age it went on, and Brandyé felt his blood run cold. He had never heard such a sound, yet knew its provenance at once: “Andèl!”
With redoubled pace now he leapt among the trees, and in minutes had arrived at the cave beneath the waterfall. There was here no sign of violence; the cave was empty, but such was not unusual during the day when Andèl and her cubs foraged the woods, and his own things were undisturbed. Yet he knew from Andèl’s terrible cry that there was now something fearful in the woods, and he traded his waterskin for a pouch of quarrels fashioned from wood and bone and horn. This he made fast about his waist, and with crossbow now in hand, he ventured from the cave, cautious now, to search for the bears.
It was some time before he found sign of their passing. He knew they often began by following the stream away from the cave, but he was unaccustomed to tracking, and could not tell where they might have veered from the water’s course. It was by chance alone that, after more than an hour, he came across one of Andèl’s cubs by the waterside, pawing nervously at the wet stones and looking this way and that. He approached him gently, hand out, and the cub – now almost as large as a pony – made a grateful sound and nuzzled his head against Brandyé’s palm. Kneeling, Brandyé held the cub and felt his fear, and knew something had happened to Andèl.
“Come,” he said gently, “I am here, and I will protect you. Lead me to your mother.”
The cub made a doubtful sound, but raised himself to his feet, and set off at a pace through the woods. Walking swiftly, Brandyé followed the young bear, his bow now gripped between white-knuckled hands.
It was not more then ten minutes before Brandyé was led to a scene that rent his heart. In an open space of pine needles lay Andèl, on her side and back to him, and without a thought he let his bow fall to the ground and sped to her side. The earth around her had been greatly disturbed, and many branches hung broken from their trunks or lay splintered on the ground. One small tree had been uprooted entirely, and he saw upon it a great stain of blood. Its color matched that which now reddened the needles beneath Andèl, and he saw that she was wounded.
It was to his relief, though, that she was yet breathing, and he nestled beside her, her head in his hands. “What happened?” he asked her. “What beast could cause you such harm?” He laid his hand upon her bloody coat and gently felt for the wound, for it was difficult to find beneath her fur. He knew he had come across it only when Andèl let out a wrenching cry of pain, and he pulled away his hand.
The wound was deep, he saw, but – for such a large creature – perhaps not fatal. To his astonishment, it was not teeth, or even a claw, that seemed to have struck her; he saw she suffered from a great gash, some two feet across her chest and shoulder, deep and clean and perfectly straight. “This was not made by any animal,” he spoke to himself. “It has all the appearance of a blade wound.”
He cast his gaze around him, seeking something he might use to staunch the bleeding, when he saw that Andèl was accompanied now by only two of her cubs. “Andèl,” he whispered. “Where is your third child?”
Andèl growled pitifully, and he knew that the cub had been taken. Quite suddenly a fierce anger took him that was most unlike him, and he stood, and retrieved his bow. “They will not kill him,” he said to Andèl. “I will return your child to you.”
It was from here far easier to trace the path he wished to follow, for Andèl’s cub appeared to have been dragged across the ground, and the disturbed needles and broken branches told him what he needed to know. As he began down the hill, one of the cubs – the one who had met him by the water – began to follow him, and he stopped and gestured towards his mother. “Stay! Your mother needs you, and I would not have you harmed as well!” The cub stopped, and appeared to frown at him, but Brandyé turned his back to them and set off at a run.
He sped as fast as his feet could carry him, and the broken path led down the valley and towards the dismal beaches. He knew not what evil he was tracking, and wondered if it might gain power in view of that evil ocean. He was encouraged, though, that there was no blood to be seen, and held hope that Andèl’s cub might remain unharmed.
After some time and with breath beginning to fail him, the trees began to thin and he found himself running across the gray pebbles of the beach, and came to a halt. The marks he had been following faltered here, and he set his gaze about him, searching for any sign of his quarry. In the distance to the South, he thought he saw a movement, as of some wounded animal pondering slowly on, lurching violently with every step. The surf was loud, but the wind was in his face and carried to him, faintly, the sounds of whimpering, and with renewed fury he began to sprint desperately across the beach.
As he drew ever closer, he saw that the beast he was pursuing was in fact not a beast at all but two men, dragging the bear cub in a net behind them, and the astonishment of finding other breathing souls in such wilderness was buried under a desire to bring them down. Upwind, they did not hear his approach, and in his rage he forgot his bow entirely and threw himself upon the nearest man, casting him down and driving his face into the stones.
His companion gave a great, startled yell, but Brandyé was then upon him and struck him hard upon the chin, and he sprawled on the ground also. Wordlessly, Brandyé turned his attention to the bear, who was still struggling furiously against the net that had ensnared it. Brandyé drew his stone and began to cut at the ropes, but they were strong, and he could not more than fray them.
Behind him he heard the two men, but they had recovered their wits and grasped his arms before he had chance to confront them again. One of them snarled at him in a language he did not recognize, and when he did not respond the other struck him hard and split his lip. The first repeated himself, and the second man released Brandyé and drew forth a great scimitar, and held its tip to Brandyé’s throat.
And then, before Brandyé could even think that these men might very well kill him, there came a great bellow from behind him, and Andèl fell from her full height upon the two men, her claws digging deep into their flesh. Her wound was yet with her, though, and she fell to her side, and with a flash the man with the scimitar drew his blade across her and drew fresh blood from her cheek.
Andèl turned to face the man with a roar, but Brandyé, who had fallen from the fray, leapt to Andèl’s side. “No!” he cried. “Leave them! They will kill you, Andèl, and all your cubs!”
Andèl ignored him and bellowed once more at the man, who seemed very much terrified in spite of the sword he held. The first man had crawled away, bleeding from Andèl’s claws, and as he held his wounds with one hand he grasped a stone with the other, and flung it at Andèl.
The stone struck her ear and she howled, turn now between her attackers. She made a move back towards the wounded man on the ground, and Brandyé, seeing the man with the sword advance once more on her, did the only thing he could think of. With all his might he hefted a great stone from the beach, and brought it crashing down upon Andèl’s head.
Without a further sound, Andèl collapsed onto the gravel; her cub, who had ceased struggling at her arrival, began to cry out. For a moment all was silent; and then, the wounded man called out angrily, and the other returned his sword to its scabbard and lifted his companion to his feet. He spoke to him roughly in that strange language, and then gestured toward Brandyé. Then, the wounded man drew forth a short dagger, and with a few painful steps put it to Brandyé’s back. He pushed it into his skin, and Brandyé saw that he meant him to move ahead of him.
Then the first man took up the net, and together they resumed their march across the stones, to where Brandyé knew not. As they left, he looked back at Andèl, and felt ill that he might have struck her too hard. Then, just as they rounded a jut of rock, he saw her begin to stir, and was relieved.