Chapter 4: On the Lonely Island
Rumor of Brandyé’s defiance of Abula Kharta, and how Khana had bought him from their lord, spread rapidly, and it was not long before Brandyé was the subject of much gossip and whispering, which was a thing he was only too familiar with. Khana himself fell under the scrutiny of the Cosari, for while the purchase of a servant was entirely legitimate, to rob their lord of the subject of his wrath was seen as terribly unwise, and it was wondered how much wealth Khana had parted with in order to do so.
Neither of the two were much perturbed by this however, for Khana was a commander and captain of no small reputation and thus able to distance himself from the common folk’s tongue-wagging, and Brandyé of course bore it with sadness and resignation that he would likely never be truly accepted anywhere in all of Erâth. Rather, the bond between the two strengthened, though Brandyé remained manifestly his servant, and had many daily chores and orders to be carried out. Even this, however, did not greatly bother him, for he discovered that it gave to him a satisfaction – a sense of purpose, as it were – and he found some small pleasure in doing Khana’s bidding, and doing it well. This was far from his treatment under Abula Kharta, for Khana was always polite and accommodating, if firm at times.
This arrangement lasted for a further year, so that Brandyé had now spent more than three years among the Cosari, and nearly four since he had first found himself on the shores of the Black Sea. This often gave him cause for reflection, for he was yet young, and such a period of time was not insignificant to him. He often wondered what had come to pass in Consolation; whether the Fortunaé had further tightened their grip upon the people, or if – through the Scythe’s Blood or otherwise – their line had been finally deposed, leaving the land free from their oppression. He wondered if, were the Fortunaé indeed overthrown, the darkness and gloom that had settled over his homeland might not have lifted.
Certainly, it had not here in the isles of the Cosari. Day upon day wore on with gray skies and mists and rain, and so natural had this climate become that Brandyé found himself beginning to forget the feel of sun on his skin, or the clearness of a cloudless winter day. Yet it was not only the weather that remained under shadow, for so was the mood of the people. Unease increased among the Cosari, and though there were no further tragic occurrences between they and their slaves, other tragedies continued to manifest themselves. Strange accidents – a mooring rope made fast suddenly found loose, an unexpected rock fall, a gust of wind on an otherwise still day – began to occur, leaving men injured, maimed, and sometimes dead. For perhaps a month there was even a number of young men and women found murdered, their hearts pierced by a dagger and left to die. Though the killings eventually ceased, the culprit was never found; some speculated that he had himself been the victim of an accident of his own. Nonetheless, there was much fear among the folk for a great time afterward, with children prohibited from playing by themselves, and most folk remaining in their homes after nightfall.
Nor were these the only disturbances; the Cosari, long masters of the sea, began to find the sea itself risen against them. There were many voyages, between their islands or to the coast of the Great Land, and where once not a man was lost, entire ships began to vanish in great storms that rose within minutes, and seemed uncannily to center themselves around their ships. There were tales of shadows under the water, of black patches appearing in once clear waters, and even of the sea itself opening wide beneath them and dragging ships whole beneath the waves.
Brandyé discovered that it was such a storm that had brought Khana and his crew to black lands, and to himself. While the Cosari ventured rarely to the West, focusing their raids and cultivations to the East, a monumental storm rose upon them, blowing strong to the East, and tossing their ship from wave to wave as though it were a lone plank of wood, and not a vanguard of the First Fleet. For seven days it drove them relentlessly, and a terror came over the crew as they watched the swells and peaks grow ever darker, until they were verily black to the eye. Three men were lost in these waters, and the men would afterwards swear that the wind-flown screams were more than those of a drowning sailor. In desperation Khana ordered the mainsail to be half-rigged, and though the ship shook its very boards, they were able to bring themselves near to land, where they were cast upon the rocks and abandoned.
As the rumors spread and grew, Éliatí pleaded with her husband not to sail, but Khana risked execution if he failed to bow to his superiors’ orders, and so Brandyé was tasked with reassuring and calming her while he was away. Khana was a master sailor however, and returned each time unharmed, his ship undamaged, and bearing meats and grain and spoils from the Great Land. Brandyé found this aspect of Khana’s nature difficult to reconcile, for he knew well that their goods were not gained by the graciousness of the Green Folk. He had often to remind himself that such were the ways of these people, whether he agreed with them or not, and wondered if Khana killed when he was abroad.
Although Khana was always successful in his outings, it was not so with many others, and soon the Cosari found many of their vessels moored and docked, and their captains unwilling to venture out into the open sea. The people then became poorer, and the lower castes began to hunger. Khana was no longer away for weeks on end, and though Éliatí was content to have her husband home with her, Brandyé saw that the captain himself grew restless, and found him often brooding on the steps, looking out to the darkening horizon.
“Look,” he said. “Black, the sea even here becomes. Sickness upon it comes, and the dantí do not see.” The dantí were the commanders of the fleets themselves, and it was they who had chosen to lessen their raids upon the Great Land.
“At home on the sea you are,” said Brandyé. He was brushing the stone and steps of their home, for a storm had recently passed and left salt and grime coating the walls.
“The dantí should understand,” Khana spoke, and Brandyé saw that it was as much to himself as it was to him. “In ships of their own they once were. Fat and stupid they have become, and ruin to our people it is bringing. Did you know, slaves left to die are, if their masters too little food have?”
Brandyé had in fact heard these rumors, and he felt sick at the thought. So unfair was their treatment, and so little could he do, that he found he slept little, and felt guilt at his every meal. Khana was protected under the rights of the sailing caste and so their daily routine was unchanged, but Brandyé saw the slow suffering as he walked the streets each day.
“Wrong it is,” Brandyé observed. “No way to bring some small relief to the slaves there is?”
But Khana did not reply, and Brandyé thought that it was not the slaves’ plight that worried him. He began to spend his days away, returning only in the evening to dine and sleep, and would depart with the dawn the next day.
And then one day Khana came to Brandyé and asked, “A small voyage, would you like?”
Brandyé was quite surprised by this, and could think only to say, “Why?”
“To go to a certain place, I wish. Near it is, and only a small ship needed is. Here, things of use we may find.”
“Why it is, that with you I should go?” Brandyé asked. “Surely, other seamen there are; better suited they would be.”
“More useful than you think, you may be,” Khana replied. “And others, with me they will not go.”
“Why unwilling they are?”
“Afraid they are,” said Khana, and would not elaborate further. This left Brandyé with no little apprehension, but as a servant he could not refuse Khana’s will, and so it was that in the mists of the following morning they descended to the docks, where Khana led him to a small boat that was on its own, quite separate from the others. It had no deck, and could fit no more than four people at most; there were boards set across the boat to sit upon, and a mast with a single low boom rose from its center.
Khana had brought with him a sack that he would not let Brandyé carry, and bore at his side his sword, which surprised Brandyé for he had not taken it from its stand since the dantí had ordered his ship’s sails be stricken. He stepped into the boat and bid Brandyé untie the mooring lines, and when the vessel floated free in the water, Brandyé also came aboard. Khana handed to him an oar and took one for himself, and within a few minutes the island was lost to mist and they were passing into the rocky straights that surrounded the cove and sheltered the fleet from the swell of storms.
“Here it is, that careful we must be,” Khana said softly. “Quiet today the sea is, but these rocks very sharp are.”
Brandyé made no reply, but continued pulling at his oar, trying not to look too close at the way in which the stone seemed to split the water as it lapped against it, and imagine it splitting the hull of their boat.
“If too close we come, against the rock you push,” Khana told him, and demonstrated with his oar. Brandyé nodded, and rowed with yet further unease and trepidation. It was many minutes before the rocks began to fall away, and soon they were floating in the open sea, where Khana bid him return the oar to the boat. An anxiety of a different nature now came upon Brandyé, for he was now aware that only a thin wooden hull lay between him and a fathomless abyss, whose depths were impenetrable to all sight and hid all manner of terrible creatures, both imagined and real.
But Khana was unperturbed, and set to the task of preparing the boat for full sailing. The mists were by this time beginning to lift, and as Brandyé looked out he could see nothing but open ocean. Brandyé wondered how Khana was to know in which direction to head, but his thoughts were interrupted as Khana thrust at him several cords that were fastened to the boom and mainsail. Brandyé looked at them uncertainly, and Khana said, “To sail, you will learn.”
Brandyé was quite taken aback by this, for he had neither desire nor need to learn such a thing, but Khana was insistent. “Manned by only two this boat can be,” he said, “but if knowledge and wit you have, alone can you sail.” He took the ropes Brandyé held, helping him grasp them. There was thick leather fastened around their ends, and he made Brandyé hold them here. “When fast the wind changes, hard these ropes will pull. If the rope you hold, burned your hands will be.
“When the sail lifted is, the wind it will catch. Run from you it will, like a dog. These ropes your whip and leash are; if these you master, the dog you master.”
And so Khana showed Brandyé how to haul and loose the boom, which would allow the sail to swing out from the mast and meet the wind. If it was let out too far, the boat could capsize; equally, if he released the sail, the boom could swing swiftly across the hull, and would almost certainly cast him into the sea. Brandyé was quite afraid that he would bring them both to their doom, but Khana seemed to have faith in him, and he tasked himself to recall Khana’s every word and act upon them.
For his part, Khana settled himself at the aft of the craft and set his hands upon the rudder, which was for such a boat quite large. A thought occurred to Brandyé, and he asked, “By the sail we will move; by you we will turn. But how, which way to go you know?”
Khana’s reply was short, and not very reassuring. “Cosari I am; I know.”
And so Khana pulled taut the halyard and the sail was raised, and almost immediately Brandyé felt a great heave upon his arms, and he was lifted bodily from the seat and nearly cast into the sea. “Your feet, against the hull brace!” Khana shouted at him, and with all of his strength Brandyé pulled at the sail, and slowly brought the boom back towards them. He leaned hard against its pull until he was nearly lying in the bottom of the boat, and thrust his feet against the hull, boots locked tight under the seat.
The sail’s pull grew ever stronger, and Brandyé’s focus and sight became narrowed until he saw only the sail and mast, and all the world around became dark. “Almost impossible, this is!” he cried.
“So it is!” laughed Khana, and as Brandyé clenched his teeth in fear and effort, Khana cried in joy, and they soon were speeding across the waters, Brandyé giving or taking the ropes as Khana instructed. The sea became crested as the wind grew ever higher, and the boat began to rise and fall with the swell, spray soaking them both and cracking Brandyé’s lips with salt. He grew ever more frightened, thinking that at any moment he would lose control of the mainsail, or that some unimaginable beast would rise from the depths and swallow them both, but Khana only laughed the more. “Doing well you are, for a bahlà!” Brandyé learned later that this word meant baby, though in Khana’s use it meant an inexperienced fool.
The air was soon clear, the mists risen into the clouds, and after perhaps an hour Brandyé began to see new land appearing on the horizon – first a indistinguishable dark line, and then a rising mound, and then an island with great crags and cliffs on all sides. It stood high from the sea, perhaps five miles across, and to Brandyé it was more imposing than any of the sea-rocks the Cosari called home. He wondered what could be here of such importance that Khana would risk a voyage with only a single companion.
As they came ever nearer, Khana had Brandyé gradually tighten the sail so that the winds, which were dying, passed them by. When they were but a few hundred yards from the nearest cliffs Khana released the halyard and the sail dropped, and their forward progress came to a halt. Together they strapped the sail tight to the mast and made fast the boom, and then took the oars and began to pull at the water, bringing them ever closer.
Brandyé could not see any way for them to scale the cliffs, and indeed was quite afraid again for he saw only that they would be dashed upon the rocks if they came too close, and it was only his trust in Khana that prevented him from panicking entirely. Closer they came, and the crash of waves against the stone grew ever louder, and just as Brandyé thought they surely must lose themselves to the cliffs, he saw an opening through which the sea flowed, and it was into this that Khana now steered them.
It was an arch of rock in the sea, and the waves rose and fell under its bridge in no smaller measure than those that crashed against the cliffs themselves, and Brandyé found them heaved so high that the mast verily scraped against the stone. However, Khana urged him to continue rowing, and they were soon through the arch and in a cove that, once they were distanced from the entrance, was very much calm, though it too was surrounded by walls of rock that towered many feet above them.
Khana directed them to the far end of the cove, and as they approached Brandyé saw that there was in fact a small jetty upon the water, set floating upon wooden barrels and fastened to the cliff by ropes that wound into iron loops driven into the living rock. As they came upon it, Khana leapt from the boat onto the dock, and called for Brandyé to throw to him the length of rope that lay coiled in the bow. Brandyé took it and tossed an end to Khana, who tied it fast to a short iron post.
“Come,” he said to Brandyé. “My sack take, and up will we go.”
Brandyé took the sack that Khana had brought with him and stepped from the boat, leaving it moored and swaying in the gentle waves. Khana took it and led him down the pier, and Brandyé thought that he was now going to be asked to climb the cliffs, which was yet another thing he had no experience of.
To his surprise, there were in fact steep and rough steps cut into the rock, and though they featured no railing, they led them safely up the steep walls of the cove, passing sometimes between pillars of rock and sometimes through tunnels. It was a great climb and Brandyé was missing his breath by the time they reached the top and looked upon the island proper.
He had expected the heights to be much like the cliffs in composition, but was taken aback to discover that he was looking upon a landscape of surprising beauty. From them wound the coastal cliffs, jagged and uneven in both directions, but to their very edges grew great fields of tall dry grass that swayed in waves with the wind, which was here higher than below. In the distance the island rise gradually to two opposing peaks, bare rock exposed only towards their heights. Between them and across the hills grew an unending forest, but it was made of trees Brandyé did not recognize; many had tall and slender trunks, branching out into large leaves only near their tops, whilst others grew low and round so that it would take many men to encircle it. There was some undergrowth, but it rose no higher than Brandyé’s knee, and was sparse.
“Tahn-khafawō[Tooth Island] this place is,” Khana told Brandyé. “Twenty-five miles from the Kharta-tikh,” and this gave to Brandyé some idea of the speed at which they had traveled. “Few here come.”
“Why?” asked Brandyé.
“Some creatures here there are,” Khana told Brandyé. “Some large are; some small. Most peaceful are, but some that would us eat there are.”
“Then why here are we? What with these animals we will do?”
“Eat,” Khana replied. “A large beast there is; latàhní[Long-tooth] it is called. Dangerous it is, and always hungry, but many meals it would make. Its teeth also a prize are; hard as steel, and from them our best daggers are made.”
This sounded to Brandyé like a beast he would rather have avoided, but Khana seemed intent and so instead he said, “How killed, this beast will be?”
“I my sword have,” Khana said. “And for you, something I also have.” And he then put down and opened the sack, and from it he took several items: a gourd of water, biscuits wrapped in cloth, a small cheese, and a weapon that was only too familiar to Brandyé, and filled him with renewed dread.
“With you this bow was, when found you we did,” Khana said. “Interested, I was. No such weapons we have; greatbows for our raids we have, but large and with poor aim they are. To see this in action, however, I very much wish.” And he held it out to Brandyé, who looked upon it with loathing, dread, and a terrible despair in his heart, for he saw he could not be rid of this reminder of Sonora’s death. With a heavy heart, Brandyé took it, and Khana seemed pleased. “Now, we will hunt.”
They ate the biscuit as they walked, and it was some time before they saw anything larger than squirrels and birds, though they were of an exotic nature and Brandyé was fascinated by them. He wished that they would stop so he could observe them, but Khana pushed on, and they were soon far from the coast, surrounded by many trees. The sounds and smells were unfamiliar to Brandyé, and gave to him a nervousness; he knew not what a latàhní would sound like, and so would not know if one stood verily behind him.
After a time they came to a place where Khana bid them stop. A tree whose trunk grew as wide as the boat they had sailed her in stood before them, and if Brandyé looked up he could not see the gray sky through the foliage. It was dim and gloomy here, and he wondered why Khana had stopped.
“Here, the latàhní are?” he asked.
“Not here,” Khana replied. “Something other. A thing you will like.”
Curiosity overcame his anxiety and he crept forward with Khana around the massive tree. From beneath it issued forth a small stream, and Brandyé marveled that water should be trapped in the soil of an island, even one so large as this. Across the stream was a tangle of roots and branches: the remains of a great tree, long fallen. Beneath this gaped a dark hole, the entrance to a cave that led beneath the earth. “There, a thing you know lives.” Khana said. “A creature you know.”
For many moments Brandyé remained still, for he could not fathom what manner of creature lived here on this island that had once made his acquaintance. “What you mean, I know not,” he said finally.
“The marks on the tree beyond can you see?” Khana indicated a tall, slender tree some yards beyond the cave. Across its lower bark were many dozens of scores and gouges, around some of which the tree had tried to heal. Then he saw that the marks were always five straight cuts beside each other, and he thought of a paw that could make such a mark.
“It…it cannot be. Andèlin?”
Khana smiled a little. “It is. When you by the Lord Kharta were taken, your bear was left. A natural home it needed, and on Galawōmi or at sea it could not remain. Of this place, I knew; to the Black Lands I could not return, and so with him here I came. Sometimes I visit, and either him or his signs see.”
Such a gesture was so beyond Brandyé’s reckoning of Khana that he could not speak. This man who carried a sword and brought battle upon folk who had done no wrong was the same that thought the life of a mere animal was worth the trouble of taking it to a distant island where it could survive.
And then there was a soft growl from behind and Brandyé’s thoughts shattered as his heart leapt at the sight of the dreadful creature that bared its teeth as he turned. It was as large as a pony, long and flat and furred in black, and behind narrow and yellow eyes were ears flat in aggression. These details were as nothing, however, to the fangs that sprouted from its mouth, a full ten inches in length from the snout to their tip, behind which were many shorter and equally sharp teeth. Its jaw opened wide, and Brandyé thought his head might fit comfortably upon its tongue, and that this was precisely what it intended.
Though the dim memory of the fierundé still lurked, this was no twisted wolf, and despite its awful appearance Brandyé could sense it was no creature of Darkness. It was a latàhní, and it gave them no time before it leapt from powerful hind legs and fell upon them both with great curved claws outstretched. Brandyé felt the numb and the pain as his flesh was rent, but the beast had not torn him open, and it fell away from them just as swiftly under a blow from Khana’s blade, wielded now by a free arm.
Breathless, Brandyé could not move, but Khana was on his feet and holding his sword to the creature, whose flank glistened wet from its wound. Again it pounced, and though Khana drove his sword deep, he was swept aside by its weight, and the sword was torn from his hand and remained stuck through the creature’s thigh. It howled and pawed wildly at the terrible sting in its leg, and when its paw was further cut it let loose its fury and turned upon Khana again.
Brandyé had yet not moved, and he saw that Khana was sure to perish when a bulk of brown fur collapsed upon the latàhní, driving it to the ground and drawing from it a howl of surprise and fear. In a show of massive strength, this new creature dug claws into the latàhní’s body and stood on its hind legs, held the squealing animal high and threw it upon the ground. At the appearance of this new attacker the latàhní could no longer smell victory, and it turned and began to flee.
“Now, Brandyé!” cried Khana, and without a thought Brandyé found himself quite suddenly on his knees, and even before his eyes saw it, a quarrel had flown swiftly through the air and buried itself deep in the fleeing beast’s neck. It fell to the forest floor some twenty yards from them. It was not dead, and writhed terribly, and Brandyé saw that his shot had in part deadened its body. Khana, limping on a bruised and swelling leg, made his way swiftly to its side, and with an effort withdrew his sword from between its flailing claws, and in a single stroke felled the creature so that it finally lay dead before them.
And it was only then that Brandyé realized that there was yet a further beast – that which had attacked the latàhní – and looked about him for it. When his eyes fell upon it, however, his eyes widened and he could not believe what he saw, for it was a bear; full-grown and large, but familiar nonetheless. As Khana tended to the fallen latàhní, Brandyé was reunited with Andèlin, and his cuts were forgotten as he threw himself forward to embrace the animal he had last known as a cub.
But Andèlin backed suddenly from him, and though he did not growl, Brandyé saw his ears perk, and his eyes drew narrow. Taken aback, Brandyé halted, and spoke to the bear – in his own language, that he had not uttered for nearly four years. “Andèlin – it is I. Brandyé. Do you not remember me?”
The bear made not a sound, but nor did it move, and so Brandyé – more delicately this time – extended his hand toward the animal with the palm up, so that he might smell him. And after a moment in which both remained motionless, Andèlin brought his nose to Brandyé’s hand, and breathed deep. Brandyé still did not move, and he heard the bear let out a low moan, and he raised his head and finally allowed Brandyé to lay his hand upon his head.
“I am so glad to find you here,” Brandyé said. “I did not know what had become of you, and I was certain you were dead. You are grown so big!” The bear began to pace, and Brandyé spoke as it moved: “You must miss your mother; you are alone here.” He saw that in this regard the bear was much like him. “You should know that your mother is well. I know you saw me strike her, but I’m sure you did not know that she awoke after only a few minutes.”
Andèlin stopped, and turned its great head to look back at Brandyé. He was struck at how the bear seemed to react as though it understood his words; so had it been in the year with Andèl and her cubs. Thinking back further, he realized it had also been so with Elven’s falcon, Sonora. “I am sorry,” he told the bear, and though he held Brandyé’s gaze a moment longer, he then turned and wandered off into the woods, and was soon gone.
Khana had cleaned his sword and come by his side, and he said to Brandyé, “Perhaps in its memory you are not.”
Brandyé shook his head. “No. He knows. To him, responsible I am; by me it is, that from his mother he was taken.”
Khana rested a hand on his shoulder, and said, “Worry not. Safe he is, and content. A threat to him the latàhní are not.”
But Brandyé knew this was not so, and though he knew the events that had taken Andèlin so far from his kin were not of his doing, he could not help but feel pain; he once again felt that were it not for him, another creature of Erâth would not have suffered.
He did not wish to speak of this with Khana, however, and allowed himself to be seated on a large root while Khana parted his shirt and looked upon the gouges from the latàhní’s claws. Some bled still, but though they were deep they were neat, for the beast’s claws were sharp, and so had pierced him without tearing flesh. They had no medicine with them, but Khana knew of a plant that grew on this island that would keep the wounds clean and allow them to heal. “Puhdàla[Bitter-leaf] it is called. Find it I can, but for its preparation, fire and water will I need. Time, this will take, and miss the tide we will.”
Though Brandyé insisted they begin their return now, Khana refused; he said that a wounded sailor is worse than none, and that he would not voyage until the morrow. Instead, he had Brandyé start a fire, and went into the woods in search of the leaves he needed.
It was not long before he returned, and a handful a leaves were held in a piece of cloth. “Rather bad, the leaves sting,” Khana said with a grin. He carried also a length of branch, which had a small hollow where there had once been a sprout. It was old and dry, and Khana cut down its size using a large stone. Brandyé asked why he did not use his sword, and Khana replied that a sword was a weapon and not an axe, and he would not demean it with such use. Soon he had broken away enough wood that it resembled a very crude cup with a long handle, and in this he ground the leaves with the same stone, holding it always with cloth. Brandyé began to grow quite worried about just how much this remedy might hurt, but Khana would not stop, and poured a few drops of water into it from his gourd, reached and held it high over the flames. “It will boil,” Khana told him. “Then ready it will be.”
It was in fact quite some time before Khana was satisfied with the mixture, and it had become quite dark. Brandyé felt fear, but Khana seemed unperturbed, and he wondered why he was not afraid of more latàhní.
“Higher they live,” he said. “Unusual it was, for one so low to come. More we will see not, I think.”
Brandyé was not reassured, but there was little he could do, and so did not argue.
Finally Khana withdrew the wooden cup, which was black and smoking now, and dipped his cloth into it. The cloth came out dripping with what was now a black paste, and when he applied it to Brandyé’s wounds he felt as though the latàhní’s claws were in him once more, and screamed. Khana only laughed and was soon done, though Brandyé was left in agony. “Unpleasant, it is not?” he said.
Into the night they then sat, Khana staring into the fire and Brandyé waiting for the pain to subside. The puhdàla had raised great welts where it had been applied, and so had it inflamed deep in his wounds. Movement brought renewed agony, and so he remained as still as possible. They ate the rest of the biscuit and cheese, for Khana said they could not consume any meat from the dead latàhní. “According to custom it must be prepared,” he said.
As the fire grew low, Brandyé began to doze, when suddenly a great cry in the forest brought him sharply to his senses. Khana was alert, hand upon his sword, searching for sign of approach from the darkness. Brandyé came by him and whispered, “What is it?”
“Another latàhní, I think,” he replied. “Why so far down they are, I do not know. This, I have never seen.”
For many moments they crouched, the light from the embers casting almost no glow into the dark trees, and Brandyé knew that a stealthy animal could easily come upon them long before they would see it. “Your bow take,” Khana told him, and Brandyé drew it across the ground toward himself. He had retrieved the quarrel from the dead latàhní, and it was in the stock, ready to be loosed.
A second cry rose abruptly from the darkness, and it took little sense to know that it was now closer. Brandyé grip grew ever tighter on the crossbow, and he tried desperately to hear any noise, but the latàhní were silent hunters. Fear rose in his throat, and when there was suddenly a great rustle of branches and leaves not thirty yards from them, he gave a small cry himself and began to shake, though oddly his hands remained steady, the crossbow level.
But in the midst of the sudden commotion came a different sound, and it was a great and fierce roar, and the rustling became thrashing, and there now came howls of fright and pain. For many minutes this continued, a battle between beasts entirely invisible to them, and then it finally ceased, a crash of branches and leaves leading away from them, as one final, bestial roar followed the fleeing animal.
Khana remained still, listening for further noises, but there were none, and he turned finally to Brandyé, whose breath was still shallow. He gripped Brandyé by the shoulder, and with a thin smile said, “Tonight, better protection than I thought, we have.” And so Brandyé knew that Khana had recognized the roars as well as he, and finally loosened his grip on his weapon and allowed himself to breathe deep, knowing that Andèlin was silently keeping watch over them.
They turned then back toward the fire, and Khana placed further branches upon it so that it sparked and rose again, and then he said, “Great skill with your weapon you have. When the latàhní you hit – even with a greatbow, so precise any man in Cosari could not be.”
Brandyé had never considered himself as possessing any kind of skill, martial or otherwise, though as he thought back to his learning behind his grandfather’s house, or the sureness of his aim on the back of Isabella at full gallop across fields in flight from the fierundé, he knew it was true. “So I suppose,” he said, “though better my aim could be. Even an animal should not suffer. I did not kill.”
Khana seemed to consider this for a moment, and then said, “A great beast, the latàhní is. Pierce it deep, so small an arrow could not. A longer arrow have you tried?”
“It works not,” Brandyé told him. “Once as a child I tried; the bowstring snapped.”
“What if a larger bow you had?” Khana asked.
“This, I have never considered,” Brandyé said, and it was true; so dismal a thing he saw the crossbow as, that a larger – and thus deadlier – weapon would not have crossed his mind. Yet now, images of just such a thing came into his mind, and he was frightened because they were terribly clear, and he saw many details of the weapon in his mind. He had only once had so vivid an image in his head, and it had been of the Demon Lord’s sword, conceived in play at the words of Reuel’s tales. Yet the marking on that sword had come into a terrible reality as the Mark of the Outcast, the brand which the Fortunaé imposed on all those who were exiled from Consolation. The same brand that to this day marked his own chest.
“Stronger, it would be,” he said to Khana. “Thicker string and a longer lathe it would need. Evil, such an instrument would be. No beasts there are, that so terrible a weapon their death would require.”
Khana gazed upon him for many moments, and Brandyé did not see him for he was lost in his own thoughts, disturbed by the vividness of this sudden image. “Perhaps,” was all he said, and Brandyé did not hear.
It would not be long before Brandyé would come to realize Khana’s interest.