Chapter 16: A True Kingdom
For eleven days they kept their course, and Elỳn led them onward and north. Always in the distance were the whisperings of fierundé: a howl in the dark of night, or the rustling of a tree in the valley on a windless day. Yet for all that time they did not approach within sight, and with Elỳn’s restless vigil through the night, Brandyé began to find, for a few hours at least, a fitful sleep.
As the days drew on, the mountains became gradually less tall, and the climate became warmer, though not so much that they slept without cover. The forests in the misted valleys below also gradually changed, pines and needles growing sparse in favor of new spring foliage, though the leaves were of a dark and muted green – almost unhealthy, Brandyé thought. They would descend into these trees every few days or so to gather food and water, and each time Brandyé felt a great relief when they reascended to the scree slopes above. It was more than just a fear of fierundé, he thought; there was a darkness in the forest that felt oppressive, and brought back to him memories of his imprisonment in Abula Kharta’s dungeons, or even those of the Fortunaé.
However, even the wilderness of the Trestaé mountains could not last forever, and it was on the twelfth day of their northward trek that they came upon a small stone hut, apparently abandoned for many ages and rotting both inside and out. They had once more ventured into the woods beneath the mountains (no more than tall hills now), and were making their way along a narrow stream when they discovered it. Elỳn and Brandyé had in fact missed it entirely, and it was only Elven, bringing up the rear of their party, who called out.
“There’s something here!”
Both Elỳn and Brandyé turned, Brandyé tensing reflexively at the thought that Elven had spotted some new danger, but momentarily he recognized the excitement in Elven’s voice, and made his way back down the stream toward his friend.
“What is it?”
“A home!” said Elven. “Or at least, what was one once.”
“We are still far south,” said Elỳn, catching up to them, “but it may have been an inhabitant of Erârün.”
“What is Erârün?” Elven asked.
Brandyé opened his mouth to reply, but Elỳn said before him, “It is were we are going. A great kingdom of men.”
“It doesn’t look as though anyone has lived here for years,” Elven said. “I’d like to see inside.”
Despite himself, Brandyé felt a rousing curiosity in him also. It had been weeks since they had last spoken to anyone but each other, and an age longer since he had seen a true construction of men, and not the eerie dwellings of the Illuèn or the mad burrows of Ermèn. He began to unshoulder his pack, but Elỳn placed a hand on his arm. “This is an ill place, Brandyé. I sense Death has been here.”
“I no longer fear Death,” Brandyé said. “If they have been here, they are long since gone, I’m sure.”
Elỳn held his arm for a moment longer, and then released him. “It is late, and it will be dark soon. Don’t delay.” And with that, she turned from him, and sat upon a broken log.
Brandyé had no intention of delaying; though he wished very much to see inside this dwelling, he could not deny the gentle weight of dread in the back of his mind. Elỳn’s words were not frivolous, he thought.
Following Elven, he pushed through the thick undergrowth until he arrived at the building’s edge. There had once been a door, but there were now but bare iron hinges and an opening in the wall. There were no windows to speak of, and the space inside was dark and impenetrable. Standing side by side, they both hesitated a moment, and the thought came to Brandyé’s mind that such a politeness as allowing another to enter a building first was folly, so far from civilization. After a moment, he took a deep breath and stepped inside.
As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he came to see that the building was but a single room, festering and overgrown with moss and weeds. A tree seemed to have grown out of the floor near the rear of the room, and there was a deep hole in the dirt floor in a corner that he was certain housed vermin of some kind. The smell of must rose strong in his nostrils.
“What do you think this place was?” Elven whispered.
Brandyé shook his head. Looking further, he began to see the ancient signs of inhabitation: a table without a chair, the rotting wooden frame of a bed, a hearth, set in the rear wall of the hut. Vines and creepers covered all.
Brandyé stepped further into the hut, and moved to what appeared to have once been a desk, or set of drawers. Wondering what might be in them, he grasped the knob of one and pulled. With only a slight force, the knob came off in his hand, and a thrill of fright went through him at the sound. He dropped the broken knob and turned, half-expecting the ancient owner of this hut to be standing behind him, disapproving.
Elven looked at him from the table. “There’s still a plate out,” he said. “And it seems once there was a candle. I wonder what happened here.”
The sight of such rot and desolation brought sudden memories back of his grandfather’s home atop the hill in Burrowdown. That place might soon look like this, he thought, with no more fires to warm it or hands to tend it. He began to wonder what would cause a place to become abandoned, and there was only one conclusion he could come to.
“Whoever once lived here, lives no longer,” he said. He looked out through the door, to the forest beyond. “It was something in the woods.”
“You’re frightening me,” said Elven.
“This is a frightening place. I told Elỳn I don’t fear Death, and it’s true; but there are things here that are worse.” He shook his head. “I’ve felt it ever more since we’ve been traveling. There are fierundé, yes…but there is an ill shadow here, something that gives them strength.”
“We should leave.”
Brandyé nodded. “There is nothing here. Yet…it’s a sign we’re nearing the end of the forest.” And this thought brought with it another thrill, for he now began to remember the tales of his grandfather, and how he had lived in these lands north of the Trestaé mountains for so many years. What if they were to come across the very village his grandfather had once lived in? Would the ghosts of the dead still haunt it?
Still shivering, he stepped back out of the hut to find that it had started raining. Elỳn was still waiting, her hood up, and said nothing as he took up his pack once more. It was some time before she spoke, and only then to say, “The rain is darkening the sky; we should find shelter.”
“We could have stayed in that hut,” Elven said.
Elỳn stopped, and turned to face him, a look of such utmost severity on her face that Brandyé was taken aback. “I would not stay in that place, for any reason,” she said.
Later that night, as they huddled wet under their canvas, fireless and cold, Brandyé asked her about it. “You felt it, I know,” she said. “The death that lies there…it is not a good one. It was of Darkness.”
The rain ceased the following morning, and that afternoon the trees began to grow further apart, and the undergrowth became lower, and soon they had stepped out into a high plain of tall grass, dotted with copses and winding gently downward into a low valley. At the sight of the open (though gray) skies and land, Brandyé breathed deeply, and felt a great weight lift from him – the Darkness of the Trestaé was behind them.
They rested for a while here at the edge of the dark forest, and as they ate and drank, Brandyé became curious about this new countryside. “Have you been here before?” he asked of Elỳn.
She nodded. “I have, though it has been many ages since, and I do not recall much of it.”
“Is this now Erârün?” Elven asked.
“Yes – to an extent. Their southern borders are loose and not guarded, and few would ever venture as far as we are now. The Trestaé are avoided generally.”
“As in Consolation,” remarked Brandyé. “I am glad to be rid of their influence.”
“Do not expect Darkness to have left us yet,” she cautioned him. “Their influence extends now far beyond those places in the world that they were once confined to.”
“Why is that?” Elven asked. “I remember Athalya’s tales of rising Darkness, but why is it happening? Why now?”
“We are their alter,” she said simply, “and we are leaving this world. What better time could there be?”
“And let me ask you,” he continued, “what are we meant to do? We’ve been traveling north for weeks now – all to gain some strange city? What will we do when we arrive there?”
Elỳn seemed to take a deep breath for a moment before speaking. “I will attempt to seek an audience with the king. We fear his rule may be failing, and he must remember that the Illuèn will stand by men for as long as they might.”
“And what about us?”
“That, I cannot say. Your path is no more known to me than the fate of Erâth.”
“Then why have we come with you?” Elven cried out.
Brandyé put a hand on his friend’s arm. “Remember, it is she who has come with us. We were leaving the Illuèn regardless; I was leaving.”
Elven shook his arm free. “Then why do we keep following her? How do we know we’re meant to go to this city?”
“I don’t,” Brandyé admitted. “Though…I am curious to see the seat of a true kingdom.”
Elven grumbled then, but said nothing more. After a moment, Elỳn spoke again. “We should keep moving; I would find shelter before nightfall if we can – the open plain can be dangerous.”
As it happened, Elỳn’s prophecy of danger went unfulfilled, and they passed the night undisturbed under the branches of a large elm, and woke to find the clouds higher than they had been in a month. Elven spotted several hares in the fields, but Elỳn stayed his bow with the words, “Let them live – I feel we will be among other folk before long, and you can certainly sate your hunger for flesh there.” Brandyé had to admit to himself that, despite his own reservations about killing even for sustenance, he had begun to grow weary of Elỳn’s meatless diet and desired nothing more than crisp, tender bacon or even a steaming cut of fish.
Her words were filled with promise, and appeared to be borne out later that day when, descending from a low hill, they happened upon a dirt path that stretched out endlessly to both east and west. It was the first sign of human life they had seen since the abandoned hut, and was far more inviting. For a brief moment they debated over which direction to take, but Elỳn pointed out that they had come from the southeast, and so traveling west seemed more likely to carry them to their destination.
However, though they now had a road to follow and proceeded at an increased pace, they encountered nothing else, no other soul, for all that day and into the night. They slept that night just out of view of the road and made no fire, for Elỳn pointed out that while to meet someone by day was more than welcome, passersby during the night might not be quite as savory. It was warm enough that Brandyé did not miss the heat, and he had grown used to nights with only the dim glow from Elỳn’s skin. Nonetheless, he was relieved come the morning, for he had slept poorly; he found his breast filling with anxiousness at the thought of meeting people once again after so long. He began to worry that they might not welcome them with peace, or might even attempt to enslave them as had the Cosari. They were in a better position than he had been when he encountered the Cosari, of course – both armed and with an Illuèn guide – but what if they encountered not a person, or a village, but a battalion of soldiers? After all, they were entering the country that had once mustered the army that had vanquished the Duithèn once before. He began to realize he knew precious little about the kingdom he was now walking through.
Brandyé and Elven’s reuniting with men did not come that day either, however, although they did come across things that did nothing to set Brandyé’s mind at ease. Around noontime on the second day since finding the road, they saw in the distance the low shape of a home by the side of the road. The sight of it set Brandyé’s stomach twisting, and his nervousness grew even as they approached the dwelling. No smoke issued from its chimney, but nor was this a dilapidated hut in the middle of a forest. As they drew abreast of it, he saw there was even a garden set between the house and the road, though it appeared not to have been tended to in some time.
For some time the three stood, staring at the dwelling without speaking. It seemed utterly deserted, yet perhaps its inhabitants were merely enjoying an afternoon nap? It was Elỳn who finally broke the silence, calling out a greeting to the dead home. Her words echoed and died, and there was still no sign of life.
“Perhaps they are out for the day?” Elven suggested tentatively.
“Perhaps,” said Elỳn, and Brandyé was certain she shared his own thoughts on the matter. “We should knock.”
Neither Elven nor Brandyé moved at this suggestion, and so with a sigh Elỳn strode forward and rapped soundly on the home’s door. Like her greeting, the sound died without response, and after a moment she tested the handle.
“It is locked,” she said. And then: “We should move on. It is not for us to trespass in someone’s home, whether they be there or not.”
And so they did, Brandyé hardly paying attention to the road or the steps he was taking, lost in the thought that the people who lived there had met the worst of fates. So distracted was he that he did not notice when they crossed a stream by means of a stone bridge, and nearly ran into Elven from behind when he was brought up short by a sign by the side of the road.
Verüith Hamlà, it read.
“The Green Hills,” Elỳn translated for them. “It is a village ahead, I think.”
And true enough, within moments they began to see many stone buildings ahead, lining the road and disappearing into the distance. Brandyé could see further signs hanging from some of these, indicating shops and other market houses, but it quickly became apparent that something was amiss. There were no folk in the road, no smoke, no animals, no sound of any kind. The village appeared as dead as the home they had passed, and the abandoned hut in the woods before that.
Brandyé’s unease grew, and was now bordering on fear itself. What cause could there be for an entire village to be abandoned and dead? Again, he dreaded the worst. As they proceeded, empty windows stared out at them, and though he tried to see inside he could not, for the buildings were dark to a one.
Elỳn pointed out the sign above a particular building, and it was a moment before Brandyé realized that he could read it. William Rathaï, Baker, it read. Among the fear and distress he felt a surge of relief – the folk here spoke his own language, and he would not be at a loss to understand them, as he had been so often in his life.
“There may be bread for us, if this village has been recently deserted,” Elỳn said.
The thought of baked bread, so long missed, was enticing, and so Brandyé moved forward and pushed upon the door. To his surprise it opened effortlessly, allowing a little daylight into a room that was otherwise entirely dark. The windows, though there were two, were thick with dust and flour and let in no light.
It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dim light, and when they did, he took in his surroundings with distaste. If this was a baker’s shop, it was by far the dirtiest he had ever seen. Dust covered everything, from the floor to the tables to the stone hearth, cold and dark. “I don’t think anyone has been here for some time,” he said in a low voice.
Elỳn entered the bake shop with him, followed by Elven. For a moment the three stood in silence, until Elven said, “Look – there are still loaves here!”
Brandyé looked where his friend was indicating and indeed, there were three or four small loaves piled at the end of one of the counters. He moved to pick one up, and it was then that he knew the truth – this place had been deserted for many years. The loaf was heavy and hard as stone, and made a hollow knocking sound when he tapped it against the counter. He shook his head. “We can’t eat this. No one has eaten this baker’s bread in years.”
He reached to put the petrified loaf back, and only then did his eyes perceive in the gloom the proof of his worst fears, and his blood ran cold. There, through a doorway and laid in a corner, was a corpse.
It was little more than a skeleton in rags, yet the skin had been preserved in the dry dust, and so it was Brandyé could see that there was a gaping hole in the body’s throat, as though some terrible creature had mauled him and left him to die. This was William Rathaï, undoubtedly.
For an age he remained frozen, until Elỳn approached him. “What is it, Brandyé?”
Forcing words past the lump in his throat he whispered, “In the corner, there – I know why everything we’ve found has been abandoned.”
Elỳn looked where he had indicated, then sighed and closed her eyes. “It is as I feared. The fierundé have been here. This village was not abandoned – it was slaughtered.”
Suddenly Brandyé’s fear was replaced with a great sadness, and in his mind’s eye he saw the violence of poor William’s demise, and wondered if the man had had any family, and if they had met a similar fate. “My grandfather wrote of his life in these lands,” he said softly. “The village where he lived suffered a similar fate at the claws of the fierundé. For all I know, this is that village.”
Elỳn rested a hand on his shoulder. “Come. There is nothing more for us here. We must move on.”
“Move on to what?” Elven cried out. “Everything here is dead! What if this entire kingdom, this Erârün, has suffered the same fate?”
But Elỳn shook her head. “Erârün is a strong kingdom; they will not have succumbed so easily. If we keep moving, we will find people. This is an old town, far to the south on the edges of the Trestaé; as the fierundé expanded their influence, there were the first to fall. They would have been unprepared, and undefended.”
And so they left, though not without a farewell to William Rathaï that nearly brought Brandyé to tears. It was unfair, he thought, that so many should have died for Darkness. He found himself thinking of Schaera, and wondered how her people could have allowed such a thing to happen.
Then, in the midst of these thoughts, he heard a sound that caused him to look up swiftly, for it was a sound of life. Ahead of them, not too far, was a horse, solitary and still on the road. It was a mare, he saw, and beautiful – flanks of pure white, and a golden mane that hung low past her shoulders. She whinnied again, and Brandyé recalled Isabella, and wondered if somehow she had survived the constable’s spear and the Trestaé mountains to meet them once more. But as he looked closer he saw that she bore no scar, and was in fact much larger than Isabella had ever been.
For an age he stood, staring, until suddenly in the distance came another sound – a sound far more sinister. The chilling howl of the fierundé rose over the rooftops of the village behind them, and at the disturbance the horse reared high on her hind legs, let out a great cry, and bolted down the road. As they stood there she soon disappeared to the distance, and with her flight the skies seemed to darken and evening came on all at once.
“Wait!” Brandyé called after her, but it was too late, and she was gone. There had been a brief, glorious moment of hope at the sight of the living creature, like a ray of sunshine – the thought that this dead village and its lands were not entirely deserted – but now the sky closed in, and with another great howl in the distance, he felt the influence of Darkness return.
“Come!” Elỳn shouted. “We must leave this place – it is no longer safe!”
“I don’t understand,” said Elven as they began to pace along the road once more. “They’ve left us alone for so long – why are they approaching now?”
“The fierundé own this village now,” Elỳn said. “Night is coming, and they will not suffer us. Even my presence will not keep them away here.”
“We have nowhere to go,” said Elven. “Where can we be safe through the night?”
But Elỳn had no answer, and as they marched on and darkness fell, Brandyé began slowly to feel the pull of the fierundé on his heart. He felt a warmth at his breast, and knew it was his scar. Fierundé were approaching, he knew, and there would be no escape.
As they went on, nearly at a run now, he noticed that despite the widening countryside, there was still the odd building here or there – farms, homesteads and barns that formed the outlying village. All were dark and deserted, and there was now no sound in the air bar their own breath. In the weakening light Brandyé kept an eye on the surrounding fields and trees, dreading the glowing red eyes that would signal their doom.
Before long it was nearly full dark, and suddenly Elỳn called them to a halt by the side of a decrepit farmhouse. “We can go no further,” she whispered in a pant. “They will be upon us at any moment.”
Brandyé nodded, also out of breath. “I feel it.”
“We must hide!” said Elven desperately. “I’m sure this family will not mind us surviving the night in their home.” He indicated the stone building beside them.
Elỳn nodded agreement. “We can only hope their front door is not locked.”
“I hope—” Brandyé began, but could not finish for at that moment a great howl ripped the air, so close that he felt certain the beast must be only feet behind them.
“Run!” cried Elỳn, and they did, bolting from the path to the doorway that was no more than a black shadow in the gloom. Brandyé arrived first, and fumbling blindly in the dark he found the handle and turned it. To his indescribable relief it gave willingly, and the door fell open and allowed them entrance. Elven piled in after him, and Elỳn not a moment later. Swiftly she turned and slammed the door shut, and Brandyé could have sworn he heard a terrible and furious snarl from behind the wood as she bolted and latched it against the terror without.
Then it was deathly still, and Brandyé could not see a thing bar the ever-so-faint glow of Elỳn. For an age he waited, listening to his companions’ breath and waiting for the clawing and scratching that would tell him the fierundé were at the door, but it did not come. Finally, Elven drew a deep breath and said in a whisper, “Do you think we dare risk a fire? I’d be grateful for warmth and light.”
Brandyé spoke not a word, for he was secretly dreading the sight of what lay about them. He would rather spend the night in shadow and ignorance, than see the ruins of a family that had once been happy, and prosperous. But beside him Elỳn stirred, and he heard her say, “They have not tried to gain entrance so far, and they know we are here; I think there is little to lose. Elven – take my hand, and I will lead you to the hearth.”
They soon discovered that there was a fortuitous pile of wood beside the hearth, and before long they had a small blaze roaring. At the light and smoke the howls from outside began again and Brandyé shuddered, but in all the time they spent there they never approached further.
Now that there was a dim light, Brandyé took a moment to look around. The place was not so awful as he had expected, he found: the room they were in was a parlor of sorts, and apart from the coating of dust on everything it appeared merely as though the home’s inhabitants were missing. The floor and walls were stone, the ceiling beams of wood, and there was comfortable furniture strewn about – well-stuffed chairs, a long table covered in rough cloth, a sideboard loaded with plates and cups, and even a spinning wheel in one corner, though it looked if anything even more disused than everything else.
There was no food to be found, and Brandyé wondered if perhaps the family that had once dwelt here had taken it with them – had in fact escaped the destruction of the village behind them. Then again, he thought, it was just as possible that they had eaten it all and then, surrounded by fierundé and unable to flee, starved to death in their beds. This was a thought he could not face, and forbade Elven to explore the rest of the house when he showed such an interest.
So it was they passed the night in the dust and gloom of a stranger’s home, ate what little food that had with them, and waited out the fierundé, hoping they would have retreated come the morning light. Brandyé did not sleep well that night, and nor did Elven – he could hear his friend tossing and turning on the hard cold floor before the fire, which Elỳn dutifully kept stoked through the long, lonely hours.
And come the morning the dreadful sound of the fierundé had indeed abated, and when the cold gray light of dawn began to filter through the dirty panes, Brandyé crept to peer out and saw nothing but desolate countryside.
“Why would they go?” Elven asked.
“They are wary of the light,” Elỳn said, “for they are creatures of Darkness.”
“One approached me in full sunlight in Consolation,” Brandyé pointed out.
“It was drawn to you,” Elỳn explained. “I believe it was the first time a creature of Darkness had laid eyes on you. These beasts will not be so forthright. If we keep to daylight hours, we should be safe.”
“Does that mean we’re stuck here?” asked Elven. “We can leave now in daylight, yes – but what if we don’t find shelter before nightfall?”
“We can’t stay here,” Brandyé insisted. “We’ll be trapped forever, at the mercy of the fierundé.”
Elỳn nodded. “I agree – we cannot stay here. If my memory of this region of Erârün is still sound, there is another village west and north of here – Hansel’s Foil – not more than a day’s walk. And the road will speed our journey.”
But Elven eyed here warily. “And what if your memory is false? Together, with help from your folk, we only just were able to slay one of those creatures. We’d not last five minutes against a whole host of them!”
“I would trust her,” Brandyé said. “She hasn’t led us astray so far.”
“You would trust her,” Elven grumbled, but then said no more.
They set out not long after, taking care to douse the fire so that the old home would not burn down. Their pace was swift, and Brandyé more than once felt a pain in his side that he had to force himself to ignore. Elven also seemed frequently short of breath, but Elỳn, for her part, seemed unaffected by their brisk strides; taller and leaner, her steps took her further and with less effort. They paused only once at midday when they crossed a small brook, and Brandyé took the chance to look back at where they had come from.
“There are no woods here,” he pointed out. “You’d think you could see the fierundé if they were close.”
“And you would feel them if they were close,” Elỳn pointed out. “Do you?”
Brandyé shook his head. He had not felt the telltale burning in his chest since before dawn, and he forced himself to believe that it meant they were, for the moment, safe.
“There are also no villages,” Elven said – with a touch of bitterness, Brandyé thought.
“She said it could be nightfall before we arrive,” Brandyé protested.
“We’ll be dead by nightfall.”
Elỳn held up a hand before the argument could progress. “I said I believed there was a village – nothing more. We may arrive to find another dead town; we may find nothing at all.”
“You don’t fill me with confidence,” Elven growled.
“Confidence must be found within,” she replied enigmatically, and Brandyé found himself thinking her statement over as they continued on. The road was indeed a welcome change of pace, and he found that without needing to constantly watch for vines branches and rocks, he could allow his mind better to wander.
Confidence must be found within. It was the sort of maddeningly wise thing his grandfather might have said, or perhaps Ermèn. What confidence did he have? Now that he came to think about it, he was uncertain. He had confidence in Elỳn, he believed – confidence that she would not lead them astray. But what if she were not with them? They were approaching a time when there was every chance they might part, for when Elỳn reached Vira Waiter – assuming they reached the supposed great city at all – she would meet with the king, and he would be left to…
To what, exactly? He was still uncertain where his path lay, and realized that he had been using Elỳn as a reason to avoid contemplating his direction. Sooner or later, he would be on his own, and he would need to decide for himself what to do.
As he walked on, lost in these thoughts, he was hardly aware of the darkening of the sky, the closing in of the clouds, or the drops of rain that began to patter the earth around them. It was not until the road became slippery and muddy underfoot that he took heed, and only then when he missed his footing and nearly fell on his face.
“Are you all right?” Elven asked, helping him up.
“Yes. I was just thinking…” he trailed off.
Elven looked at him expectantly, but he said no more. For a moment, he thought he had felt a twinge of pain in his chest, but it was gone now. The feeling it left within him, however, did not fade, and rather grew over the course of the next hour or so, until finally in his dread he felt compelled to talk to Elỳn.
“I think the rain is hastening them,” he said as he drew abreast of her.
“It is dark,” she acknowledged.
“How much further do you think we have to go?”
For a moment she said nothing, and he looked up into her hooded countenance. There was an unusual severity there, and he began to realize that even she was uncertain. They might be five minutes from salvation, or another day’s march – and in either case, the fierundé were closing in upon them.
Brandyé allowed himself to fall behind Elỳn again, and for a while walked alongside Elven in silence. Soon the sound of rain was joined by the distant rolling of thunder, and when the lightening came he could not help but notice Elven flinch. He thought back to the last thunderstorm they had been under, and hoped no lightening would strike near them this time.
Then there came a moment where Elỳn stopped short, and as Elven and Brandyé joined her, she pointed ahead of them.
“The road leads into a forest here,” she said. “It will be drier there, but darker also.”
“How far in do you think it goes?” Brandyé asked.
Elỳn sighed. “To the best of my memory, the village I am seeking is on the other side of the trees. It is perhaps a twenty minute walk through…or an hour around.”
Elven looked up at the clouded evening sky. “We don’t have an hour,” he said. “It will be full dark in half that.”
“I’m worried,” Brandyé said. “The fierundé could already be in those woods waiting for us.”
“We’re doomed either way,” Elven said.
But Brandyé shook his head. “No – we haven’t come this far only to be defeated on the doorstep of safety. Elỳn, I don’t feel the fierundé here – not yet. You say it’s twenty minutes through the woods – can we run?”
She nodded. “I have the strength, though I worry I may outpace you.”
“I wouldn’t worry – it would be better for you to go on without us than for us all to succumb.” Elven seemed unhappy at this statement, but Brandyé ignored him. “We have our weapons – let’s try for the town.”
And so they set forth at a redoubled pace, Elven with his bow and an Illuèn arrow in hand and Brandyé with Fahnat-om drawn. At a near run they plunged into the woods, and almost immediately they were lost to light. Focusing intently on Elỳn’s white cloak ahead of him, Brandyé fought to keep both his breath and his footing, as the path wound through the trees, often crossed with roots and fallen branches. The rain was indeed lessened beneath the leaves, but its deadened sound was replaced with the whisper of dangerous creatures, and Brandyé knew the fierundé were close.
And then, as they ran on, he began to see eyes in the darkness, glimmers of light that gave away the crows that were landing all around them. Brandyé remembered the birds that had surrounded he and Elven in the Trestaé the night the fierundé had come upon them – the night Elỳn had rescued them – and he forced his legs to run ever harder, hope draining from his chest all the while. The crows called out, and Brandyé was certain they were signaling their location to the fierundé.
Sure enough, moments later came the dreadful howls, closer now than ever. Brandyé took a scarce moment to look over his shoulder, and behind Elven he saw many pairs of red, glowing eyes. “Faster!” he panted, knowing that if they did not reach the end of this forest soon – if they did not find the village at its other end – they were doomed.
“I can’t keep going,” he heard Elven gasp, and a new fear crept into Brandyé’s throat: the fear that he might survive while his friend fell to the beasts.
“You must!” he insisted, but it felt futile. Already the pain in his side was growing, Elỳn was far ahead, and the fierundé were closing in. He knew the beast wolves were not running themselves – he had seen them outpace a galloping horse – and could only hope that their laziness might buy them the time they needed to escape. The fierundé undoubtedly believed their prey to be theirs already.
And then, ahead, Brandyé saw the first glimpse of salvation – the ending of the trees. “Faster!” he cried. “We’re almost there!”
But almost as he said the words he heard a great snarl, and from the left came a flash of fangs that missed his face by mere inches. The fierundé had moved ahead and encircled them – looking forward, he saw no sign of Elỳn, but rather the shadows of more fierundé blocking the final dismal light of the evening sky.
He came to a halt, Elven beside him. Fahnat-om at the ready, he braced himself for a rapid death, and around them the fierundé drew near until they were mere feet away. “Get back!” he screamed, but the wolves seemed unperturbed, and snarled all the more.
And then there was a sudden flash, blinding in the gloom, and a new sound escaped the throats of the fierundé – one of fear. Blinking away the glow, Brandyé saw a fierund before him pawing pathetically at its own throat, a glowing arrow protruding from it. Beside him, Elven held his bow in astonishment. “The Illuèn arrow…” he muttered.
Brandyé had no time to pay him heed. “Now!” he shouted, and burst forward through the ranks of cowering fierundé, faster than he had ever run in his life, Elven at his heels. Suddenly he saw Elỳn before them once more, and he could swear that he had never seen her face glow more brightly than at that moment. “They’re right behind us!” he screamed.
Elỳn said not a word, but merely urged them forward as they reached her, and glanced only once back at the forest and the regrouping fierundé before following after them. Leaving the forest behind, Brandyé saw they were once more in open plains, and to his despair, he saw that there was no sound, no lights, no sign of human habitation – the village Elỳn had spoken of, Hansel’s Foil, was nowhere to be seen.