Chapter 21: The Pass of Duwoèm
Never had Brandyé seen such a mass of twisted and dark creatures. Men there were, and fierundé, but moving between them, darting here and there, were creatures no higher than a child, and the sight of them chilled Brandyé’s blood. They moved on two feet but could hardly be called men, for their hands ended in great claws, and their eyes were sunken into skulls barely covered by dark skin. Brandyé had no doubt these were the skøltär, and despair took his heart. He stood alone between the fleeing villagers and a true army of Darkness, and he could not hope to survive.
Standing, he turned to face them fully, and as they began to descend the hill he saw several of their number begin to run forward and toward him. Onward they came, and he drew Fahnat-om, determined that he would destroy at least some creature of Darkness before they in turn took him. Bracing himself, he saw that one of the skøltär was only moments from him when suddenly the advancing creatures drew up short, and stopped only paces from him.
Heart pounding, Brandyé could not understand their pause until, ringing clear over the moor land, a great horn answered his question. Risking a glance over his shoulder, to his astonishment there was a wall of riders, each standing tall and proud, and he knew that it was the remaining forces of Erârün, come from Rythe’s Helm to engage the enemy away from the defenseless. How they could be here, though, was beyond his reckoning – their advance riders ought to have still been a day from Rythe’s Helm, and it would have been a further three days before the soldiers of Erârün could have traveled this far.
The horn sounded again, and Brandyé saw at the front of the legion of soldiers was Tharom Hulòn, surrounded now by six other fellow knights, all clad in their black dragonstone armor. They made a most impressive phalanx, and at the second sounding of the horn the soldiers began to advance as one unit, slowly gathering speed and closing the distance between they and Brandyé.
This was clearly a development the army of Darkness in its disarray had not been prepared for, and Brandyé could see the fear on the faces of the men closest to him. Turning swiftly, the creatures that had begun to approach him retreated to the safety of their larger numbers, where they rejoined the ranks and began their equal advance on the army of Erârün. Brandyé stood still, now uncertain what to do – he was still caught, but now in the middle of two forces that were about to engage at speed almost exactly where he stood.
Taking a few steps back, he began to turn toward the soldiers of Erârün, hoping that he might be able to retreat behind the mounted soldiers, but he found that in their speed the first of their number was nearly upon him, spear raised and pointed forward. With a cry of panic Brandyé threw himself to the side, his arm on fire as he landed upon the ground. The soldier plowed on past him, and only moments later Brandyé could hear, above the deafening galloping of hoofs, the first clashes of steel: the battle of the Rein had begun.
Wave upon wave of horses rushed past Brandyé as he lay in the grass, and by some miracle he was not crushed underfoot. When they had passed – some hundred at least, by his estimation – he painfully regained his feet, and looked on upon a scene of desperate horror.
As many as the soldiers of Erârün were, Brandyé could see almost at once that they were hopelessly outnumbered by the forces of Darkness. Riders on horses stood in the midst of a swirling maelstrom of creatures and men, hacking and slashing at will about them in an effort to keep from falling to the ground. Many had already done so, and fought valiantly against their opponents as they rose from the earth. Many did not rise at all, hewn down by the blades and fangs and claws of their enemies.
This, beyond anything, was the true horror of the battle: against the men of Darkness, the soldiers of Erârün fought well – defending themselves with blade and fist, slaying them easily for their lack of armor. Blood ran thick, and the sounds of steel crushing flesh and bone was sickening. But against the creatures, they had no experience: Brandyé watched in terror as fierundé, tall as the soldiers themselves, threw men to the ground in great swipes, their claws tearing through armor like paper. And everywhere darted the skøltär, and Brandyé felt bile rise in his throat when he saw them fall upon the soldiers and tear open their throats with their teeth.
In the middle of it all, still standing tall and proud, were the seven knights of Erârün, their black stone armor glistening with the blood of their enemies. Brandyé saw Tharom cry and lash out again and again, and with each blow, another enemy fell to his sword. Equally keen were his fellows, and before long a circle had widened around them as the enemy came to realize they were a foe of particular reckoning. But they did not rest, and urged their horses back into the fray with fervor. When their horses fell to blades and claws, they pursued the fight without pause, and Brandyé now saw what made these men knights, and not mere soldiers.
But even seven knights of the first order of the dragon were not enough to turn away and entire legion of Darkness, and slowly but surely, the battle advanced upon Brandyé, until there came a point when he could not but join. Only yards away he saw a skøltar tearing at the neck of a fallen soldier, and as he looked closer he saw with a churning stomach that it appeared to be actually drinking the blood that was spilling forth so plentifully. There was no doubt that the poor man was dead, but the sight fueled a sudden rage in Brandyé, and almost without thought he kicked himself forward and raced upon the skøltar, falling on it before it even knew he was there. In a single stroke of Fahnat-om he cleaved the creature’s head from its body, and thick black blood flowed forth and coated the blade.
Shaking with fury and with terror, Brandyé looked around to see that his action had not gone unnoticed; several other skøltär had looked up from the fray to see their fallen kin, and were approaching Brandyé stealthily. With a cry of rage, tears in his eyes, Brandyé ran upon the nearest one, driving Fahnat-om bodily through it before it had a chance even to raise its terrible claws. Swiftly, he let the creature’s body fall and turned to face the others, only to find that they had been supplanted by a fierund, huge and terrible, snarling at him and already set to lunge.
Throwing himself to the ground, Brandyé barely evaded the beast’s claws as it leapt upon him, landing precisely where he had been standing only moments before. Unable even to regain his feet in time, Brandyé did the only thing he could think of: he hurled Fahnat-om at the fierund, disbelieving relief flooding through him as the blade sunk deep under the creature’s eye before falling to the ground. Blinded, the creature flailed wildly, pawing at its wound and writhing on the ground.
Then, even as Brandyé was trying to stand, a black-clad soldier stood over him, and Brandyé saw that it was Tharom. Sword in hand, Tharom approached the fierund and drove his blade clean through its neck, at which the beast dropped still and silent to the earth. Without a word Tharom stooped and retrieved Fahnat-om, and passed it to Brandyé.
Brandyé looked at him without a word, and in that moment saw the despair on Tharom’s face: he knew they were doomed. “We must flee!” Brandyé panted.
But Tharom shook his head. “No! Our duty’s to fight, and fight we will. Abandonment’s treason, soldier!”
But suddenly all Brandyé could think about was Elven, and how he knew he had to see his friend again, that his place was not to die on this battlefield. “Sir – I must go!” he called.
“You will fight!” shouted Tharom, and there was not time for another word for one of the enemy soldiers had flung himself upon Tharom, who deftly threw him to the ground. And then, before Brandyé’s eyes, Tharom ran the now defenseless man through, and the awful sight settled him: he could not kill another man, even a man twisted by Darkness.
As he started to turn from Tharom and his killing, Brandyé heard over the cries of battle a new sound – that of cheering, of triumph and of power. Looking over the heads of his enemies, Brandyé saw bearing down on them a new force of mounted soldiers, this from the north – the patrolmen they had abandoned had come to their aid.
And then Brandyé began to run, sheathing Fahnat-om as he did. He heard Tharom’s cry of rage after him: “I’ll find ye, coward!” He paid him no heed, driven now by desperation to escape the battle, and to find Elven. Ahead was a horse whose rider had abandoned it – by choice or by death, he knew not – and at a run he flung himself on its back and urged it to a gallop. By his ear he heard a whisper, and an arrow plunged into the ground beside him. He did not look back to see its provenance; he had half a mind it was Tharom himself who had loosed it after him.
And so Brandyé left the battle of the Rein, not in victory or in organized retreat but in a dreadful panic, driven by the horror of death and the burning need to save his friend. There was no time for thought, no room to consider the voice in his mind that suggested this was a rash course, that he should pause and consider. Onward he rode, and as he did he felt the Darkness of the battle begin to leave him, and he began to breathe easy again. Only after he had ridden a mile and the sights and sounds of the battle were behind him did he finally stop and dismount from his horse. There, he fell to his knees and vomited, and then wept: wept for death, wept for Darkness, and for his inability to do his duty. Despair took him, and he cried aloud to the dark skies. How was he to defeat Darkness, when they could muster such twisted and hateful creatures? How could he, a single person of no consequence, possibly hope to succeed where the armies of an entire kingdom could not?
Eventually he brought himself to his feet once more, feeling weak and pathetic, and with an effort remounted his horse. He set off once again, southward at a slower pace, for he knew the horse could not sustain a gallop for long. Before long he began to come up behind the convoy of villagers, who had continued on their journey even as the soldiers of Erârün died to defend them. He found he could meet their eyes, and ignored their cries and calls after him, and soon he was past the them and on the south road alone.
He worried that he would meet further soldiers on his ride, ones who had perhaps not been able to leave with the first draft, but in the two days it took him to reach Rythe’s Helm he met no other folk whatsoever. The road was ever long and desolate, and he kept throwing glances behind him to reassure himself that the enemy was not coming upon him. He did not sleep during the night, but paced back and forth in the dark while his horse rested. His thoughts were torn between between the soldiers dying in the fields, the villagers who now ran defenseless, and the fate that awaited Elven, Talya and himself. He did not know if Sonora had passed his message on to his friends, although he had never known her fail to deliver a message in her life. Had they received it, would they have fled already? Perhaps he would arrive in Rythe’s Helm only to find they had long since abandoned the place, leaving only a battalion of soldiers to arrest him for desertion.
As he rode, the clouds above him began to grow ever darker, and he could not help but take this as a sickening omen that the battle to the north had gone ill. Despite the hundred soldiers from the south, and the fifty or so patrolmen from the north, they had nonetheless been vastly outnumbered by the forces of Darkness, and as well-trained as their soldiers were, the creatures of Darkness fought with a rage and fury that was terrifying and overwhelming. Soon it began to rain, and so it was that Brandyé arrived, drenched and cold, to find Rythe’s Helm deserted.
At first he thought perhaps the townsfolk were simple indoors because of the weather, but he soon began to realize that there were no lights in the windows, no smoke from the chimneys, and no sounds through closed doors and curtained windows. Panic beginning to rise once more within him, he dismounted from his horse and began walking from door to door, pounding and crying out: “Is anyone here? Please – answer me!”
But no answer was forthcoming, and Brandyé could feel himself beginning to succumb to fear. There was no sign of the enemy, no sign of violence, but nor was there any sign that a single person lived here still. Becoming desperate, he ran to the inn where he had stayed with Elven and Talya while she was yet recovering. When he arrived he bid his horse stay, and pushed upon the door. To his surprise, it opened easily, and he stepped inside, and out of the rain.
Inside, everything was still and silent. The patter of rain outside and his own breathing were the only sounds, and the place was cold. Tables lay out bare and empty, chairs arranged around them as though waiting to be filled. In thoughts, he saw the ghosts of soldiers and townsfolk sitting in those same chairs, laughing, drinking and talking, and a chill passed through him. What had happened here?
He stepped further into the inn, and went up the stairs to the bedrooms where he and Elven had slept. Again here all was empty and quiet; some beds were neatly made, while others appeared to have been only just recently vacated. Not a one was occupied. He entered the room he, Elven and several others had shared, hoping for some clue, some idea of what had happened, but he could find nothing but dust and pillow feathers. Only the window, open and letting in the rain, struck him as odd. He moved to close it, and it was only then that with a soft cry and a flutter of feathers Sonora dropped through the window into the room, a note tied to her leg.
“Sonora!” Brandyé said softly. The bird returned his greeting with a caw, and hopped forward toward him. He knelt down, and untied the note bound to her. Unfolding it, he was at first confused – it was the same note he had sent to Elven, still stained with his own blood. Yet he had not tied it to Sonora, and so he flipped it over to find, in Elven’s neat and small handwriting, a further message:
I can only hope this note finds you well. You cannot imagine my fear when I received your message, for I know well what ink you used to write it. My heart tells me you are still alive, though where and how I do not know.
I would have you know that I did not act idly on your warning; the moment Sonora landed by my side, I alerted the knights here in Rythe’s Helm to your warning. As the word of a soldier of Erârün, they took your message to heart and acted swiftly. The knights marshaled every soldier they could muster, and rode out to your aid this very morning.
At the same time, Yslvan Lorié, the commanding knight here in Rythe’s Helm, ordered the evacuation of the town. There is an ancient fortress in the mountains three days east of here, built into caves and hidden from view. There is no road there, but it is under the Pass of Duwoèm. If you face due east from this town, it is after the third peak to the left of Fiertan, the tallest peak straight before you.
Talya and I have left with the townsfolk, but I have bid Sonora stay for some days in the chance that you might arrive. If you are able to, we will see you there.
I wish you all the luck I have, and I am certain we will meet soon.
Ever your friend,
For many moments Brandyé considered the note, at a loss for what to do. He had hoped to find Elven still here, though what he would have done next he was unsure. He did not think he could remain in the kingdom of Erârün, however – Tharom knew him now as a deserter, and in his understanding the punishment for such treason was severe. If Tharom survived the battle, Brandyé would become hunted throughout Erârün.
This left him with a choice, but even then he was fearful and uncertain. He could travel south and to the west, and try his luck in the kingdom of Kiriün, who might even welcome him as an exile from Erârün, for whom he understood they held little love. But in the back of his mind, the burning of Darkness was overwhelming, and threatening. Everywhere he had gone, he had brought Darkness with him: to Consolation, to the Cosari, and now even to the great kingdoms of men. What right did he have to bring Darkness upon yet another unsuspecting population?
And so the only option left to him was to continue his flight to the north, past Erârün and Kiriün and into the unknown mountains of the Reinkrag. This was a wild and dangerous plan, for there was little known about what dwelt in those lands, and the further north he progressed, the further into territories of Darkness he was likely to become. He realized this was a danger he feared beyond all else, beyond even death: that were he to venture into the realms of Darkness, he might find strength there. He recalled his fevered dreams and visions during his enslavement to Abula Kharta, and how the burning of his scar became a source of power, how it gave to him the strength to slay all that opposed him: including his own friends.
And so this presented to him a final dilemma: what was he to do about Elven? He desperately wished to see his friend again, but he feared that if he did, Elven would insist on going with him. If he was indeed going to travel into the unknown lands of the north, he knew he must do it alone; he would not put any other person in such danger. Elven would probably insist on bringing Talya, and that was yet another life Brandyé could not bear to have on his hands.
He resolved finally that he would write a note back to Elven, warning him of his intentions; whether Elven would try and seek him out he could not say, but he would not – despite the pain in his heart the thought caused – seek to find Elven again, and would pass by the fortress without stopping.
He took the paper, and after much seeking for a pen he wrote over his own dried blood:
I would have you know I am well, and I am gladdened to know you are also. I hope that you and Talya will be safe with the folk of Rythe’s Helm, and I must return your wish of luck, for I will not see you in person.
Please understand, I do this out of love for you, and the desire for your safety: I am to pass into the north, and I will do so alone. I have brought too much Death and Darkness upon too many folk, and if I remain in Erârün I will be hunted as a traitor.
Please take care of Talya, and I will continue to hope that one day, if this Darkness should pass, we can be together again.
Tears were in his eyes by the time he had finished the note, and he spoke softly to Sonora as he tied it to her leg. “I will likely not see you again either. You are a wonderful bird, but you are getting old. I wish you all the best in your age.” He stroked her head for a moment, and Sonora closed her green eyes in relaxation. Then he released her, and said, “Take this note to Elven, and make him understand – do not seek me out!”
With a flutter Sonora rose from the floor, and after pausing briefly on the windowsill, she set out at speed, and within moment was lost to sight. For a while after, Brandyé sat on the end of the bed in the room and considered what he was to do next. Most of the food would have been taken by the villagers, he expected, but he might find some remnants of bread or dried meats to carry him into the hills. He would need shelter, too, if possible – and water containers.
One thing he would not need, he decided, was his armor, and so he stripped himself of it there in the bedroom, letting the metal lie where it fell. He then set about finding what provisions he could, and wrapping them all tight in several blankets. Finally he found an old cloak in a trunk in the innkeeper’s closet, and with the hood up to repel what rain it could, he mounted his horse once more, his crossbow and Fahnat-om at his side and his pack well fastened to the horse.
Elven had not been wrong in his letter: there was no visible road to the Pass of Duwoèm, bar the wheel ruts left by the villagers’ passing carts. The land was thus treacherous, and in the rain swiftly turned to bogs in many places. Brandyé’s progression was slow, and by the time full dark had come he had traveled less than five miles. He was then forced to stop, for to continue in the dark would certainly mean his horse falling into a hole, and he would not have the beast’s leg broken.
So began the first of three miserable, lonely and dark nights on the road to the mountain pass, during which time the rain refused to relent and he developed a dreadful cold, and was shivering and coughing all the time. The year was turning and the air was cold, and there was no shelter to be found on the wide open plains that lay before and rose up to the mountains.
During all this time he saw sign of neither pursuit nor quarry, and on the morning of the fourth day he came to a place where high rocks began to rise quite suddenly from the earth, and the mountains seemed almost to spring up from nothing, towering massively above his head. Even these low mountains on the fringes of the Reinkrag, he could see, were capped with snow, though the valleys remained drenched in rain. Onward he rode into the valley that lay stretched before him, until the path became steep and rocky, and unmanageable for the horse.
Here Brandyé dismounted for the final time, and bid farewell to his steed. “I wish I had known your name,” he said to him, “for you bore me well.” He patted the horse’s muzzle. “Take care of yourself, and if you know what’s best, ride south – there, you might be safe!”
The horse snorted, its breath steaming in the cold, wet air, and with a final pat on his hindquarters Brandyé sent the beast back down the valley, away from him, and away from harm. Then he turned back to the mountain, and began to climb.
The valley rose steeply, a stream coursing violently through its depths, but Brandyé could see, at least two thousand feet above him, a great col between two high peaks. This col was lower than the clouds, and apparently lower than the snow line, for Brandyé saw no white on its ridge. He had, in fact, no particular desire to pass over the col and so bring himself near to the secret fortress of the Reinsfolk, but were he to venture northward into the mountains, it was the most sensible place through which to pass.
So he set his sights on reaching the top of the col before nightfall, which with a pack at his back and a cold in his head was no easy task. Many times he slipped on the wet rock, and many times he found his way impassable, and had to retrace his steps back down the gorge and find another route. Once, around midday, he came across an abandoned cart, lodged firmly between two large boulders, and wondered at how it could have come to be there; certainly a horse could not have climbed this far, never mind pulling an entire carriage!
He rested a moment here, huddled under the cart and grateful for the brief respite from the rain. He had begun to feel quite feverish, and was beginning to wonder if he ought not to find the hidden fortress anyway, if only to get out of the rain once and for all. The cloak he had stolen was pitifully leaky, and he was soaked to the bone.
As he sat and looked back down the valley, it struck him how far he had climbed; he could no longer identify the spot where he had left his horse, and the valley floor looked to be miles away. The features of the land far down and away were tiny and indiscernible, and so it was some moments before he became aware of the tiny flares of fire that were slowly beginning to dot the land. It was not until smoke began to rise that he realized that there were folk down there, moving here and there and setting fires in the rain as though the falling water did not affect them.
And as he looked closer, he began to realize that among the folk there walked also larger animals, larger than horses and darker in hue. Dread began to fill his chest as he realized what he was looking upon: the army of Darkness, now moved past whatever resistance Erârün had to offer and bent on the destruction of the villagers in their secret forest. It did not occur to Brandyé that it might have been him they were seeking.
Fear gripped him, but for just a moment reason held sway: if he could barely make out the enemy so far below, surely they would be unable to see him, especially if he were to stay close to the rock and move in the shadows. He was wearing nothing bright, and with luck would be indistinguishable from the mountainside. With great trepidation he moved slowly out from under the cart and back into the rain, keeping one eye on the gathering army in the valley as though he might be able to tell from their movements whether they had seen him or not.
Eventually, of course, he had to turn his back on the valley floor to continue climbing, and he then moved slowly and carefully, measuring every step and handhold carefully before leaning his weight upon it lest a rock should loosen and tumble down the mountainside. A headache began to creep upon him, however, and his vision soon became clouded, and he knew he would not make the pass that night, and that he he must find shelter before long or he would fall off the mountain himself.
He began looking for caves or overhangs where he might stay dry for the evening. Before long he came upon a hollow where a great boulder had fallen upon another boulder, and with utmost relief he collapsed into the dry shelter, unwrapping his pack and withdrawing the blankets therein, digging through them to the center to try and find the driest one. He removed his cloak and drew this tight around him, and felt slightly better, if not exactly warm.
For a while then he dozed, and by the time he awoke the sky was dark, and the distant valley was nearly impenetrable to sight. In the darkness he groped in his sack, and withdrew a small pouch of nuts, and ate them. The dry rest had done him some good, and he felt, despite the blackness all around him, that his eyes were clearer than they had been before.
But it was not long before a thing happened that made him doubt his thought: slowly but surely, he became aware of a tiny dancing light before his face. At first he thought it was merely one of the many colors that flash behind closed lids and in absolute darkness, but it persisted, moving only slightly from side to side.
He reached out a hand to touch the source of the light, but oddly found that, reach though he might, it remained just outside of his grasp. The most he could do was blot it out, if he raised a hand between it and his face.
As time went on, the light began to grow steadily brighter, until Brandyé started to quite worry about what it was. Suddenly it disappeared, and in the dark Brandyé thought he could hear a sound – the soft crunch of feet on rocks. The light then reappeared as suddenly as it had disappeared, and it struck Brandyé finally that the light was not in front of him, but moving toward him across the valley – it was a person carrying a torch. Then Brandyé’s courage faltered, for if he could see the light, then surely the army in the valley was now more than aware of it as well.
The sounds of footsteps grew ever closer, and then he began to hear a voice, calling out softly – calling out his own name. A chill went through him, and he shrunk further back into the cove where he was nestled. But it was of no use; the person seemed to know exactly where he was, and in only a few moments, the footsteps were directly above him. “Brandyé?” the voice called.
And finally, Brandyé recognized it, and called out in a whisper, “I’m here – directly below you!”
He heard the person tumble down the rocks to the side of the great boulder, and suddenly the torch hove into view, full sized now and illuminating a familiar face, and Brandyé despaired. “Oh, Elven – you have doomed us all!”