Chapter 25: The Eternal Snows
It was soon spring among the Hochträe, and Elven would not delay his leaving any longer. This was not to say that the snows were gone, for they were not; so high in the mountains, the Hochträe’s villages would not be free of ice until well into what would elsewhere be summer. But this did not perturb Elven, for he was anxious to be on his way, and as long as the worst of the storms had abated, he would be fine, he said.
Despite himself, Brandyé did not doubt Elven’s resilience; he knew his friend was strong, and with the aid of the Hochträe he was soon well-prepared, with warm clothing and food to last weeks. The hardest part of his journey, they said, would be the first week, where he would have to contend with valleys of deep snow and lakes of ice, cut through with bottomless crevasses; after that, he would find himself in places where the snow had already melted, and the grass grew green.
Here he would once more be under the clouds, though, they warned, and although they knew not of any creatures of Darkness that dwelt along his proposed path, the dangers of the dark world would nonetheless be present. It was this, more than anything, that gave Brandyé cause for worry, for although he knew Elven was well-trained and strong, he did not have the same sense of Darkness that Brandyé did, and he worried that fierundé or other dreadful creatures might come upon him unawares.
“I still have Kayla’s bow, and her Illuèn arrows,” Elven said when Brandyé spoke to him of his concerns. “And Sonora will keep me alerted of danger.”
Something Brandyé did not speak to Elven of, nor even to Nisha, was his dream. It had frightened him in a way even his disturbing dreams of the past had not. It was not the unsettling premonition of death, for it was hardly the first time he had dreamt of such things. In fact, the absence of figures such as Schaera might have reassured him, except for the sensation that what he had encountered was beyond the realm of of the powers of Erâth, and that it represented a very real danger somewhere in his future. In the past, Death had arrived to rescue him from destruction; this time, there was no such salvation.
For the first time in his life, in fact, it gave him cause to consider his own mortality. At twenty-four, he was still young, and while he had never consciously considered himself above death, nor had he ever truly contemplated its reality. Even when he had been scratching at the earth for bugs to eat by the Black Sea, or in the darkest pits of Abula Kharta’s dungeons, he had never truly believed he might die. In part, he thought, it was Elỳn’s parting words to him, from a dream long-past: You will live, and you will be strong.
In part, though, he came to realize that his youth had blinded him to death’s reality. Despite having witnessed more death in his life than he could ever have wished for, he had always failed to recognize his own frailty, and how easily his own life-force could be snuffed.
And now he was setting out to seek a weapon whose very purpose was the extinguishing of all life in Erâth. He wondered that the voice’s words from his dream were perhaps entirely valid: That answer is not for you to know. To find Namrâth is to find your death. What did the voice know? He feared that he might only too soon find out. And would that discovery claim his life?
He knew why he did not want to broach this subject with Elven; he was afraid it would only lead to further argument, with Elven insisting that the dream was evidence that Brandyé was not meant to go forth on his own, and should return to Vira Weitor with him. He would not risk another argument with his friend, for the time of their parting was drawing rapidly near, and he would have as peaceful a time with him as he could.
But why he was reluctant to speak of it with Nisha was a mystery, for certainly the old man ought to have some wisdom to share with him on its meaning. He felt a vague anxiety when he considered the topic, and wondered if he was afraid of what Nisha would say. For all his stories and wisdom, Nisha was often practical, and his advice was at times less than comforting.
In the end he decided it was merely a personal subject, and dwelt on it in private, the voice’s rumblings filling his ears and the flame filling his sight behind closed doors late at night, when the moon cast brilliant shadows on the floor. He wondered at times if he might not return to that place in his sleep, but for the rest of his time with the Hochträe his rest remained deep and uninterrupted.
When the skies had remained clear for two weeks and crocuses began to peek through the melting snow, Nisha said it was finally time to leave, and early in the morning they left the warm comfort of their dwellings and assembled at the dock of an airship, though it was much smaller than the one that had borne them hither. The balloon that rose above them was large indeed, though it would have bee dwarfed by that of the great ship, which was away on some errand or another. Instead of a vast boat hung what seemed more like a great basket, woven from strong branches and suspended from the balloon by thick cord. It still held a cauldron of hot coals, and Brandyé understood the heat from this somehow kept them aloft.
To him, these flying baskets were miraculous, and since his time among the Hochträe he had but seen them float past, and never had ridden in one (he did not count that which had brought him there, for he had been unconscious). They were to use this one to take them to the village in the valley below, from where Elven would set out; it was faster and safer than the snow-covered path that wound down the mountainside from the Hinari’s homes. Sonora perched on the edge of the basket as they set out, and seemed to think it curious to be flying without using her own wings.
For an hour they drifted onward and down, the cauldron of coals mostly covered so that their weight pulled against the lift of the balloon’s temperate air. During this time Brandyé could but stare out in wonder at the passing mountain rock and snow, and was distracted from the fact that in only a short few minutes he would be saying farewell once more to his life-long friend.
But before long, he began to spy curious black specks against the white snow, dots of ink against the mountain’s paper that seemed almost to be moving of their own accord. He turned to Nisha and said, “What are those objects on the mountainside?” and pointed to them.
Elven followed his finger. “I see nothing,” he said. “Merely shadows.”
“Perhaps they are goats?” suggested Nisha.
But Brandyé looked to the sky, and saw there were no clouds. He could see the shadow of their own balloon against the mountainside, in fact, and these shapes did not line up to any rocks he could see. He continued to watch them, and became uneasy. As they continued to drift lower, the shapes became ever so slowly more resolved, until he could discern them certainly as moving beasts, prowling slowly across the snow. For a while he could not tell their provenance, though they seemed to be moving as a herd, in the direction of the village.
And then, without warning, one of the creatures lifted a head and although the distance was far too great for Brandyé to make out the beast’s features, he nonetheless caught a glimpse of crimson and terror fell upon him like a lead weight. He felt a tightness in his throat, and whispered, “They’re not goats!”
“Moti kuiriko![ Bring us lower!]” Nisha called to the navigator, who in response closed the coals over completely, and the balloon began to plummet. Closer they came to the beasts, and soon Brandyé’s fears were confirmed, and they saw collectively a pack of fierundé making their way stealthily toward the Hochträe’s village. At their pace, Brandyé estimated they would be upon the unsuspecting people in less than ten minutes.
“We must stop them!” he said to Nisha.
Nisha nodded. “Yes; they try to harm you.” His voice was calm.
At these words, Brandyé turned to him, perplexed. “What about your people?”
But Nisha merely raised his eyebrows. “We are safe – they are of Darkness.”
For the first time Brandyé though Nisha was being utterly foolish. “The fierundé don’t care who they slaughter!”
Yet Nisha was placidly adamant: “The Duithèn do not for us, and so we are safe. You are not.”
“I can sight them!” cried Elven. “We are close enough!” And he slung his bow from his back, and began to dig into his back for the bundle of Illuèn arrows that he had ever carried with him.
But apparently Nisha’s order had not merely been to bring them within bow range of the beasts, for they continued to descend, and within moments they were merely feet over their heads. “What are you doing?” cried Brandyé.
And then they had settled upon the snow, the basket making a great trace as it was dragged along by the balloon’s momentum until their navigator flung out a thick pike to which was tied a rope, and they were in an instant anchored to the ground. They had set down in the very midst of the pack of fierundé, and Brandyé was too terrified to speak.
Elven, on the other hand, had finally found his arrows, but just as he was about to bring his bow up to aim, Nisha put a hand on his arm and pushed it down again. “Do not harm them,” he said softly, and stepped from the basket lightly into the snow.
Eyes wide, Brandyé watched as the old man approached the nearest beast, who took a step forward, baring its teeth and growling low in its throat. And then, to his astonishment Nisha held out a hand to the beast, and said, “Vû vèraé na vèra yèt. Yin mèn vèraé na tin. Vayé na tin. Teruthaé Duithèn.”
Brandyé could not understand his words, but knew that Nisha was not speaking his own tongue, but that of the ancients. For a long moment, the fierund seemed to consider his words, and even sat back slightly on its haunches. “What is he doing?” Brandyé whispered to the navigator.
“He calms the beast,” the man said. “They leave.”
But the remainder of the fierundé seemed less than calm, and were slowly circling the balloon; to Brandyé’s eye, they seemed poised to strike.
“Goèd,” Nisha said. “Ruthaé, è gitaé.”
But then the beast looked away from Nisha, and for the briefest of moments Brandyé felt its gaze settle directly upon him. His body froze, and as they crimson eyes stared into him he stared back, and then almost without looking, the fierund raised an enormous, clawed paw and in the blink of an eye crushed Nisha into the ground.
“No!” Brandyé screamed, and in a heartbeat Elven had loosed a glowing arrow upon the demon, and it struck it clean between the eyes. As the fierund fell, Brandyé leapt from the basket himself, dashing across the snow toward Nisha’s fallen form. The snow was powdered and deep, and it seemed to him that he was trudging through a bog as he waded toward the old man. In the meantime, the remainder of the fierundé were howling furiously, and only Elven’s lightning-quick bow was keeping them at bay. They understood, it seemed, that his arrows were not ordinary arrows, and they retreated to a distance at which Elven could less easily score a direct hit, but did not leave.
This gave Brandyé the time he needed, however, to grasp Nisha’s inert form, turn him over, and discover both blood and breath. “He’s not dead!” he cried out, and began to haul with all his might upon Nisha’s body, pulling him back toward the balloon. When he reached it Elven and the navigator helped to pull them both aboard, and in an instant the navigator had opened the coal chamber and they were lifting once more, the fierundé leaping and howling after them.
To his credit, the navigator held them steady, and despite his fear, kept them low to the ground and speeding on their way toward the village.
“Why don’t we return to the Hinari?” Brandyé called to him desperately.
“No healer,” the man said brokenly. “In village, healer.” And Brandyé understood that Nisha was the healer for the Hinari.
In the meantime, Elven had dropped his bow and arrows, and knelt beside Nisha. He had one hand on the old man’s wrist, and the other cupping his face, his eyes searching his body for the source of the blood. “His pulse his strong,” he said, “and it seems the claws missed his arteries.” He looked up at Brandyé. “He is beyond lucky – not only alive, but well. He will heal swiftly.”
“If the fierundé don’t return to finish their job,” Brandyé muttered bitterly. “What was he thinking?”
“Never, this happens,” the navigator said to them. “At peace, we are.”
“No longer,” Brandyé said. “Your peace is gone.”
Before long, they were touching down once more in a snow-filled field outside the Hochträe’s village. At their sighting, many villagers had come to welcome them, and at the news of Nisha’s injury many more arrived as well. Soon Nisha was in the comfort of a healer’s home, and Brandyé and Elven were forbidden from seeing him until he was awake, and speaking.
“What will you do now?” Brandyé asked Elven as they walked slowly through the village. Folk would stare after them often, but Brandyé ignored it.
Elven sighed. “As unfortunate as it is, there is little I can do for Nisha here. He’s in good hands. I must still look to myself.” He turned to look at Brandyé. “As must you.”
“It isn’t safe to go out there into the mountains now!” protested Brandyé.
“It was never safe,” Elven replied, shaking his head. “Whether we see the fierundé or not doesn’t change that they’re there.”
“You won’t reconsider?”
“Will you?” Elven looked at him intently.
And so it dawned on Brandyé the conviction of his friend, that he under any circumstances must return to Erârün, even to the point of risking his life at the claws of the fierundé. And he knew that, in spite of all that had occurred since he had first been reunited with his friend, he could not go with him.
Later, in the evening, they were approached and informed that Nisha was awake, and they hastened to his bedside to speak with him.
“Most strange, this is,” Nisha said to them weakly when they asked after his condition. “I am well, of course, but never am I attacked by them.”
“You’ve met with them before?” Brandyé asked incredulously.
“We avoid them,” Nisha said, “but sometimes this cannot be done. We leave the creatures of Darkness, and they leave us.”
“You should be dead!” exclaimed Elven.
“I am old,” Nisha dismissed him. “No great loss, if I am dead. Learn something, we do.”
“We’ve learned you’re a fool!”
But Brandyé held out a hand to silence Elven. “No, wait – he’s right. He’s saying that they’ve never been attacked by the fierundé before. That they’ve even come across them, and been left in peace. Something is changed!”
“Something is new,” agreed Nisha. “Darkness is rising. The Duithèn become bolder.”
“The fierund attacked after it saw me,” Brandyé said. “It’s me they’re after.”
Elven shook his head. “Nonsense. We’ve seen them attack wantonly. Perhaps it didn’t like how you looked upon it, but it would have struck Nisha all the same.”
“There is risk in the air, now,” Nisha said. “Darkness may come to the Naiya once more; are we ready for it?”
“I would stay and help,” Elven said, “but I still feel my calling is elsewhere.”
Nisha laughed a little. “So it is, young man, so it is! You are not to stay here, no. But you do not leave on your own, either.”
Brandyé shook his head. “I’m not going, Nisha.”
“No, you are not! But we are.”
Both Elven and Brandyé looked at him, confused.
“They tell me you are skilled with a bow,” Nisha said to Elven. “But one bow may not hold back ten enemies at once. We help you with your journey to Erârün. Long it is, since we see the plains. Perhaps it is time to visit our cousins to the south.”
And so, not more than three days after their escape from the fierundé in the balloon, it was finally time for Elven to leave, accompanied this time by a dozen of the Hochträe – some Hinari, some mere villagers. There were donkeys and mules also, and together they were quite a band of folk, well-prepared for the long journey ahead of them. To see his friend so ready to go, so certain of his path, brought tears to Brandyé’s eyes, and he could not find the words to say.
“We will see each other again,” Elven said instead, his own voice choked, as he embraced Brandyé for one final time. “I knew this when we parted the first time, and I know it still now.”
Returning the embrace as hard as he could, Brandyé could but sob gently. Eventually, Elven pulled away, and took Brandyé’s face in his hands. “Do you remember that word you taught me once – Reuel’s word?”
Brandyé nodded gently.
“It is what I feel for Talya, but more so it is what I feel for you. My life is incomplete without you, Brandyé; I ask you one last time, will you not return with me?”
Brandyé’s tears fell down his cheeks and over Elven’s fingers. “I…I can’t. I had a dream, Elven; it spoke to me of things to come. I will not find those things in Erârün.”
“How do you know?”
But Brandyé could only shake his head. “Bear my best to Talya, Elven. And I hope…” he sniffed. “I hope that you will find greatness in your journey. You deserve it.”
“And I hope you find peace,” Elven returned. “You deserve it also.”
And there were no more words to be said, and after an eternity Elven released Brandyé, and after a few backward steps turned, and walked away.
For the remainder of the day Brandyé spent his time in solitude, wandering the outskirts of the village in the snow and weeping, the tears freezing often to his eyelids. He wondered if it behove him to spend so much of his time in tears, but he had truly believed that when he and Elven had been reunited it would be for the remainder of their lives. To be now so torn apart was more than his heart could bear.
Yet he knew, felt it more truthfully than anything he had ever known, that his destiny, his fate, was to find Namrâth. Whether to use it or destroy it he did not know, but he knew that he had to find the blade before the Duithèn did, or the world as he knew it would be ended. Even here, among a people who had for centuries upon centuries shunned Darkness and been left to their own devices for it, were now subject to the fear of the Duithèn’s creatures. If the fierundé would attack one such as Nisha, they would attack anyone, and anything.
As the day wore on and he became cold and tired, he began to realize that the Hochträe must see he and Elven as important figures, or they would not have spent their own resources in sending a force with Elven on his way south to the kingdom of Erârün. He did not know how frequently they had visitors from outside their land, but he suspected it was not often. As such, he began to become afraid that Nisha would insist on sending a force with him also, in his journey north, and that was a thing he knew he could not allow.
Later that evening, when the sun had set and the sky was lit with stars, he sat in the home where Nisha lay still, the walls flickering with firelight and the glorious scent of curries and smoke mixing in the air, and knew in his heart that this was the last time he would see this old man. For a while he stayed by his side and they spoke of trivialities, but eventually Brandyé could not keep his tongue any longer, and asked, “Nisha…what is to the north? What will I find?”
“You are going, then,” the old man sighed.
“It is a dangerous road. There is no road, in fact; you are on nothing but mountain.”
“I am going to set out tomorrow,” Brandyé told him. “Where should I start?”
“Take the valley to the north,” Nisha replied. “It leads to a pass under Kashahi, and from there, to the Yukaino – the Eternal Snows.”
“How far must I travel?”
“I do not know,” Nisha shook his head. “There comes a place where we no longer call the mountains Dragoshi, and they become very unknown. But the Yukaino stretch for many miles, under sun and cloud. A hundred miles? Two hundred?”
“What will I need?”
Nisha curled a lip in a smile. “Our help, I think?”
Brandyé looked down and away. This was what he had been afraid of. “I can’t accept it,” he said. “I would bring many others to their destruction.”
“You bring yourself to yours,” Nisha pointed out. “Why not take protection that offers itself?”
But Brandyé was insistent, and eventually Nisha sighed. “Tomorrow, we discuss. Now is time for sleep. Kesi kasha!” he called out to the attendant in the room, and the fire was soon snuffed, and they were left in quiet darkness.
But Brandyé could not sleep. He knew that if he waited until the morning, Nisha would begin once more to insist that he be accompanied by his own people. Might even force it upon him. He saw in his mind the blood of dozens on the snow, fierundé prowling triumphantly; he saw the dangers of rock and snow claiming lives. More than anything, he saw the cave and the fire, and knew that he could not risk any other’s life in his endeavor.
And so it was that Brandyé quietly left the house that night, taking soft steps through the moonlit snow, and never returned. He stole some bread, wrapped himself in two cloaks and set out in the dark, and by the time the first light of morning began to creep into the valley from the east, he was far into the north valley, nearing the top of the pass that Nisha had spoken of.
The going was difficult, pushing himself step by step through the deep snow, and he soon discovered that as the sun warmed the snow it became soft, and slowed his progress all the more. He began to make his way along the edges of the mountains then, rather than in the depths of the valleys, where the shade kept the snow and ice hard.
He had also stolen a pair of thick woolen gloves, and of these he was most grateful. The rock and ice were dreadfully cold, and once he made the mistake of touching the stone with his bare hand, and left skin behind when he pulled away. The cloaks performed well in keeping his body warmed, and he was soon sweating with effort and exhaustion.
By noontime, however, he had crested the pass, and looking out to the great ranges of mountains beyond, he felt a great sense of peace and beauty come over him. As far as he could see were endless hills and peaks of snow, filled between with vast glaciers and seas of ice, the sun glinting here and there off all of it. It seemed that not a soul had ever been here, and as he took his first step down the opposite side of the col, he thought that the tracks he was leaving were indeed marring the serene perfection of the place. It never occurred to him that those same tracks would make it easy for another to follow him.
By the end of that first day, he estimated he had travelled at least five miles, though if that were the case then by Nisha’s reckoning it would be nearly a month before he saw the end of the Eternal Snows. He sheltered in a tiny cave made by the falling of rocks, and that night he came to realize just how dire his predicament might become. There was no wood and so no fire, and as the air dropped steadily to freezing and below, he began to shiver and the dread came over him that he might very well freeze to death long before seeing grass or earth again.
The cave kept him sheltered from the wind, however, and come the morning he was dreadfully cold but whole and well, and so he continued onward, passing that day onto an enormous glacier. He soon realized the mistake in this as well, for there was here no shelter from the sun, and in its burning reflection off the snow began to cause him to become dizzy, and he realized that in the midst of ice and snow, he could just as easily succumb to heat.
He rested that day in the middle of the glacier, hoods pulled low over his face and eyes closed, and when he awoke at first was unsure if he was looking at snow or sky, so similar had it all become. Only with the reddening of the sky as the sun set did he come to his senses, and set out to pass off the glacier and into the shade of the mountains around it even as the sun sunk and the moon rose.
In fact, he spent the rest of that evening moving, and did not stop for rest again until the morning. The dim, blue light of the moon he found helped him see better, though the shadows were black and motions were blurred, and he decided that it would be better to move by night and rest by day, for fear of the sun’s burning him to death. This helped also with the cold, as he found that by continuing to move, he did not feel it quite so much.
After some days, however, a new fear sunk in, for he realized that the cold was not the only thing he could not feel. He made this revelation one day when, climbing the stone of a short cliff, he dislodged a large rock which fell and bounced hard off his foot. Startled at the lack of sensation, he paused for a moment on a steep patch of gravel and removed his boot.
He was shocked to find his toes as white as the snow around him, a deep cut in his foot that was hardly bleeding at all. He reached out to touch his frozen foot, and found he could feel no sensation at all. Frightened, he took off his other boot as well, terrified to think what might have happened to his body without his knowing it.
Luckily the other foot was in slightly better condition, though he still felt very little when he rubbed his gloved hands against his toes. Quickly, he put his socks and boots on again. As he handled the socks, he realized he could feel ice crystals in the wool. He looked around him, wondering if there was anywhere that would provide enough warmth to warm him, and saw only more rock and snow.
He began moving again, slower this time for fear of injuring his foot yet further, even though he could not feel it; after a great time, he reached the top of the cliff, and looked out on what was beyond: nothing, but more snow. Despair began to creep upon him, and he wondered just how smart he had been to leave in the middle of the night, alone.
Another day came and went, and it seemed to him almost that he was revisiting the same landscapes over and over again, for white became white, and rock became rock, and nothing ever changed. He recalled the strangeness of the forests of the Trestaé and how he had returned upon the same stream three times in a row, and wondered if the same was happening again here.
And then, to worsen matters, the weather turned. It happened slowly, so that he at first did not notice the lessening of the sun, but soon the sky was cloaked in gray, and the wind grew bitter and chill. Before long the first flakes of snow began to fall, and he knew he must find true shelter before long or he would die.
But time went on and he began to grow faint, and there was no sign of a cave or crevasse, or anything that might protect him from the devouring elements. Finally, in desperation as he was wading against the wind up a steep bank of snow, he collapsed to his knees, and felt the wind lessen. Struck by this, he dug out a small hole, and found that the deeper he went, the more protected he felt.
And so he dug a bivouac, and crawled inside, and in the pale gloom of the snow cave, he fell asleep. For hours he remained motionless, and could have been mistaken for dead. But his life was not spent yet, and in the night he awoke in a panic, hitting his head on the low ceiling of his snow cave and causing a flurry of flakes to fall upon his head. He could see nothing at all, except for strange lights that danced across his vision all the same whether his eyes were closed or open. The weight of his solitude bore down upon him, and he began once more to weep.
It was not long before his tears had frozen his eyelids shut, though in the dark he hardly noticed. For a while he drifted once more in and out of sleep, and visions of Dragons, Darkness and Death flooded his waking thoughts.
Eventually the day came, though it was a miserable one, and to Brandyé’s horror he found he still could not see, even after having cleared his eyes and opened them. Instead of a solid black he saw nothing but dull gray, could not even see his own hand held out before his face. He had to touch his own eyes to convince himself they were open.
His hearing, though, was still apt, and he could hear the wind continue to howl outside the tiny, cramped cave. He shuddered, and imagined he heard the howling of fierundé in the distance. He could hear his own breathing, shallow and rapid. He could hear the creak of snow around him as he moved and shifted, becoming colder by the hour.
And finally, after an hour or a day, madness began to take him, and he found himself digging futilely at the snow beneath or above him, or shaking his head to and fro without reason, or talking words that were meaningless to his own ears. In amongst it all, he thought he began to hear his own name being called out, as though someone were searching for him over the wind. Folly, he thought – no one would have followed him here.
But the sensation of being sought after would not leave, and so he finally turned in his cave, and began to crawl mindlessly toward its entrance.
To his dismay, the entrance was not there. Everywhere he touched, he could feel nothing but a wall of snow. Fear, panic, despair…all washed through him with churning stomach and dizzying mind, and he began to flail wildly at the snow, crying out, shouting and cursing. He chose a wall of snow at random and began to dig through it, feeling the closeness of the air and thinking he might suffocate.
By sheer chance, he had chosen to dig in the direction of the free air, though he could not have known it. Within minutes he felt the wind once more on his face, and he cried out in agony and triumph, and realized that even here in the open world he was still blind to all that surrounded him.
It was still blowing, still snowing, and he took one step forward and fell, forgetting the slope that he had dug into. Down, down he tumbled, an avalanche of snow surrounding him, carrying him powerlessly to his unseeable fate. He was dizzy, disorientated, could not tell up from down nor left from right, and by the time he felt he had stopped moving, he realized he could not move himself, for he was trapped and buried in snow.
The air grew cold; the ground grew still. Brandyé’s breath grew short, and he began to whisper in his mind that he was sorry, sorry for all he had done to the world, and that if he was to die, let the world move on in peace without him.
And then, as his mind began to collapse inward upon itself, he thought he could see something far, far in the distance. A tall, black figure approached, and as Brandyé gave in to madness and death, it spoke.