Chapter Nine: The Crossing of the World, Part I
There was much work to be done in preparation for the voyages of Ermèn, Athalya and Brandyé, and it was some weeks before they were able to make their way to the port of Viura Râ in search of a vessel that would take them hence. Brandyé came to the conclusion that, as high a position as the Sarâthen held in the world, even they were not able to travel on a whim to whatever kingdom took their fancy, or to speak with whichever leaders they desired. (It did not occur to him that the Sarâthen might well be able to do so, but he could not.)
There was much planning to be done, also—planning of where they would go, with whom they would speak, and what they would say. Over the following weeks Brandyé learned much of the world of Erâth, and it was all of it new, and different to him. Deep in his mind he knew that his own experience of the world, remembered or not, was as nothing compared to what he was about to discover; entire lands and countries awaited him, vast oceans to be crossed, mountains to be scaled, and plains to be traversed, and he marveled at what unimaginable wonders he would encounter there. In this regard, he could not wait to be departed, and each day that dawned ached with anticipation.
Yet another part of him, however, remained silent and sad, and it was this part that spoke to him of the mysteries of the world, and that there would soon be far fewer left than ever before. Erâth had, until that point, seemed unimaginably vast, and the thought that they were to cross the entire world from end to end in a matter of months frightened him. It seemed to him almost that the world ought to remain vast, and that they should be able to bridge its farthest corners so easily spoke to him of just how advanced the world of men was here. He knew in his heart that such travel would have been utterly impossible in his past life, and he yearned for a larger world, one in which he was familiar with only a part.
Still, he knew with utmost certainty that this was why he had come here, why he had sought out Ermèn and Athalya and the city of Viura Râ; he knew that it was indescribably important that they seek to reconcile the disparate countries of Erâth, to unite them under a banner of hope—and at the same time, convince them that the Mirèn should not be blamed, that it was not for men to live forever.
Only days before they were due to depart, Ermèn came to Brandyé and spoke to him of their travels. They were to depart Viura Râ by sea, which was of course the only way to leave the island of Oríthiae. The first stage of their journey was to take them nearly a month, and would end in the southern peninsula of Narün—a place called Galecia. From here they would set out once more by sea to the port of Griefenthrall, in Thaeìn, where they would then pursue a road that led to the Bridge of Aélûr: a crossing a hundred miles long that spanned the continents of Thaeìn and Aélûr.
They would then be upon the kingdom of Urkûl, Ermèn told him, and here was where true danger lay. There was danger in the sea, of course, and in the ice that surrounded Galecia; there was danger in Thaeìn, and in the isolation from men. But when they arrived at the gates of Urkûl, they were unlikely to be welcomed, he said. “The people of Urkûl have been under the influence of the Duithèn for many years, and this drives them to hostility and hate. They hate each other with a passion, but they hate outsiders more.”
Not for the first time, Brandyé doubted the wisdom of their plans. “If they hate us so, how will we seek an audience with their ruler?”
“Dûmèn the Great will be curious to see such a band of folk,” Ermèn said. “Sarâthen, Illuèn, Namirèn and men traveling together—he will hear what we have to say.”
Brandyé wished he could share in the old man’s confidence, but the closer their departure came, the more afraid he became. He wondered about this man, Dûmèn the Great, and what kind of person he was that he chose to rule through fear. Thoughts of another great and terrible man came to him, and in his mind he saw a demon, clad in black armor, wielding a terrible sword. A name came to him, also: Goroth.
These visions frightened him more than anything, and Shaera’s words echoed in his mind: “Your past is also your future.” In these images he saw both his past and his future, and knew that both were filled with Darkness. Here in Viura Râ, it seemed, he was briefly sheltered from the influence of the Duithèn, and he feared their coming again into his mind. For the thousandth time he wondered what had happened to him, and why he could not remember his past clearly.
Whenever he thought of these things, his thoughts returned always to one thing: the scar on his chest. He could not remember where it came from, but it was a brand, he knew, and he would shudder at the thought of the pain it must have caused. He could see in his mind the searing of his flesh, the smoke rising, and dimly saw the shattering of an iron, but he could not tell if it was merely his imagination, or true recollection.
He did not share these thoughts with anyone; not even Ermèn, in whom he confided almost all his fears. There was something about the shape of the mark that spoke of a terrible Darkness, and he did not want to know more about its provenance. He was afraid Ermèn might say something that would trigger his memories, and in this one thing, he did not want to know.
Finally the day of their departure was upon them, and Brandyé rose early and descended into the shadowed streets of Viura Râ, mostly empty in the early morning mist. Here he met Ermèn, Athalya and Shaera, and together they made their way through the city and to the gates that bordered the port. Memories of how he had tried in vain to gain entrance to the city only a few months ago flashed through his mind, and he looked about him as they passed under the great archway. There were, as always, hundreds of folk here, eagerly awaiting their chance to enter the city of eternal light.
Today, however, Brandyé was not part of the crowd; as they passed, the folk that filled the streets gave them a wide berth, and Brandyé was certain it was Shaera’s presence that prompted this. Like himself, he thought, most of these folk had probably never laid eyes upon one of the Namirèn; yet the chill aura that emanated from her was unmistakable, and there was not one among them who would risk an errant brush from her robes.
They passed through the lanes that led to the docks, and before long Brandyé spied the sign of the Bottomless Flagon. The inn was silent and empty, and Brandyé had no doubt Tharèn was fast asleep—as well might he be, still there serving the drunken patrons, had Ermèn not taken pity on him.
Soon they stood before an aging sea vessel, and though its construction was still impressive to Brandyé, he saw it was nothing to the ship that had borne him to Viura Râ. Barnacles coated its rusting hull, and black smoke belched from the great tower atop the stern. Brandyé noticed great cargos of coal being loaded onto the ship, and asked of Ermèn, “Are we to shovel coal here?”
Ermèn chuckled. “You are used to working your passage, I see. Good—that is good! But this time, we are passengers.”
As they moved toward the gangplank that led onto the ship’s deck, Brandyé took in the ship’s hull, and the name embossed there: Namiraltèr. He recognized the root of the ancient word for death and halted, one foot on the gangplank. “What does that name mean?” he asked.
It was Shaera who answered him: “It means ‘Death’s Return’,” she said. “It is a sign that the vessel’s captain has lost somebody, and wishes to join them.”
Eyes wide, Brandyé allowed himself to be bustled onto the desk of the ship. It was hardly an auspicious beginning, he thought, that their captain wished for death. What did it mean for their chances of arriving in one piece?
Nonetheless they were soon all aboard, and Brandyé found he was to have a berth entirely to himself—a far cry from the cramped living quarters on the ship he had taken from Golgor. The cabin was in fact small and cramped itself, but the simple fact of not having to share it with two dozen other folk was a luxury beyond his reckoning. He placed his sword carefully upon the small bed, and sat beside it. He was uncertain why he ought to have brought the weapon with him, other than he did not wish to be parted from it. He still could not quite remember its name, though the words Death’s Friend echoed through his mind.
As a passenger, Brandyé was allowed free reign of the ship, with the exception of the captain’s helm. This was a small room of steel and glass that looked out from above on the cargo decks of the ship, and it was from here that the vessel was navigated. The captain was a brusque woman by the name of Marla, and she laid out her expectations of them swiftly. “I don’t like passengers,” she said to them soon after they were under way. The company of four were standing at the bow, looking out on the bright sea as the steel prow sliced through the water, and she had descended from the helm to speak with them. “This is a working vessel, and you get in the way. I don’t mind you going about my ship, but if I hear of interference I’ll have you locked in your quarters until we arrive in Galecia.”
“I can help,” Brandyé offered. “I’ve worked sea vessels before.”
“You’ll do nothing,” she replied curtly, and turned to Ermèn. “I know your kind. Can you tell me of the fate of our voyage?”
“Less troublesome, I think, than past ones for you,” Ermèn said.
“There will be much sea ice as we approach Narün. Do you see us striking any?”
Ermèn closed his eyes for a moment, and Brandyé wondered if he was truly seeing into their future. But when he opened them again he said only, “The ice in one’s heart is far more dangerous than that in the sea.”
Marla scowled at him and turned to Athalya. “I know your kind, too. You might be helpful. Will you give me light if I need it?”
Athalya nodded gracefully. “What is mine, is yours.”
Then she looked to Shaera, and Brandyé was taken aback by the depth of emotion that showed through as the captain looked upon Death. “You frighten my crew,” she said.
“I do not frighten you,” Shaera replied.
For a long moment Marla looked upon Shaera, a deep glare on her brow that did nothing to penetrate the fathomless black of the Namirèn’s eyes. “You are ill luck,” she said finally.
Shaera said nothing, and Marla turned from them and stalked away. As she left she called over her shoulder, “You’ll eat with the crew—if any of you need to.”
Dining with the crew was hardly unpleasant, Brandyé found; the twenty-strong group of men and women who labored dutifully below deck were pleasant enough company, and he found many were as curious about his past as he was. Ermèn joined them, and amused the company greatly with many questions and few answers. Athalya sat with them also, though she spoke little and ate nothing, but Shaera did not. In fact, Brandyé saw little of Shaera throughout their voyage, though he reluctantly thought it was perhaps best; whenever she was around, the crew became silent and ill-tempered, and went about their work with poor spirit.
As the days and weeks progressed, Brandyé began to wonder where Shaera spent her time. The ship was not a large one, and there were few places in which to hide. He spent little time himself in his own cabin, and supposed that Shaera might simply be hiding in hers, until one day he counted the berths and realized that she could not possibly have one: between the captain and her officers, himself, Ermèn and Athalya, there was no place left for her to be.
Idly perplexed, Brandyé thought of her only her and there until one day when he was exploring the very bowels of the ship. He had discovered beneath the cargo holds a space where few people ever went, lit perpetually by a gentle red glow, and he found himself there whenever he desired a moment of respite from the constant bustle of the crew above. There were no portholes here, and he was certain he was below the vessel’s waterline. There was something soothing about the constant hum of the ship’s furnaces and the gentle sway as they passed smoothly through the waves, and he found comfort in the solitude here.
As he ducked between the many hissing pipes he saw a deep black shadow through the steam, and it was a moment before he recognized it as Shaera’s bent form, crouching low in a corner. Her back was to him, and he wondered what she was doing, alone and so deep in the belly of the ship. He approached her and said tentatively, “Hello?”
She did not move, but spoke in return: “Hello, Brandyé. What brings you here?”
“Peace, I suppose,” he said. He stepped nearer to her, curious as to what had her attention so fixed. “I haven’t seen you recently.”
“I am here,” she said.
“Always?” he asked.
As Brandyé came to her side, he saw that she was watching a rat as it went about its business. It moved to and fro, stopping occasionally to sniff the air, and seemed oblivious to the figure of Death that hung above it. “The crew say the rats are their bane,” Brandyé said, “but I don’t mind them.”
“The crew have more to fear than rats,” she replied.
“They fear you,” Brandyé acknowledged. “They don’t like having Death on their ship.”
“Men misunderstand Death,” she said. “They are to die, whether I am here or not.”
Brandyé felt a chill down his spine. “Do you mean on this voyage?” he asked.
But she did not answer. “Men should not concern themselves with Death,” she said instead, “but rather with their lives. The rat knows this.” As Brandyé watched, she reached out a long, pale hand and touched the creature with her finger. Without a sound, the rat’s tiny legs ceased in their movement, and it keeled over, dead.
“What did you do?” Brandyé cried, aghast. Finally Shaera turned to face Brandyé, who turned his eyes away from her dark gaze. “You didn’t have to kill it,” he finished feebly.
“The cook laid bait yesterday,” she said. “It was poisoned. I spared it pain.”
For a moment Brandyé could but stare at the rat’s lifeless body, uncertain what to think. “Is this your purpose, then?” he asked finally. “The purpose of the Namirèn? To spare suffering?”
She extended her arm toward him, and he withdrew hastily, suddenly afraid. “I will not harm you,” she said calmly, and offered her hand, palm up. “Your time is not now.”
Reluctant and afraid, he slowly reached out his own hand to meet hers. As their fingers touched he felt a deep cold pass into him, but his heart kept beating and his breath stayed with him, and he sat beside her. “What can you tell me of Death?” he asked. “Are the Namirèn there for the ending of all things?”
“The Namirèn possess Death,” she said, “as the Illuèn possess Light, and the Sarâthen possess Wisdom. But light is found even where there are no Illuèn; wisdom, where there are no Sarâthen. Life, even, where the Mirèn no longer roam. So it is with us.”
“But I saw your touch end that creature’s life.”
“It was already dying.”
Brandyé frowned. “How is that any different to myself, or the crew of this ship? Aren’t we all going to die, someday?”
“The Sarâthen see many things,” she said. “We see but one. We cannot end a life before its time, but we can ease its passing.”
“Can you prolong a life past its time?”
“All things must die, Brandyé.”
“Will I suffer when I die?”
Shaera looked deep into him then, and he felt her cold increase. Shivering, he pulled his hand away from her.
“Suffering is not of our doing,” she said.
“But you can prevent it.”
She sighed then, and he felt the chill of her breath on his cheek. “You already know pain, Brandyé. You know suffering. You do not remember because it is yet to come—even though for you, it has already happened. Yours is a suffering we cannot touch. When it returns you will know pain, and despair: you will know whence suffering comes.”
“Darkness,” he whispered. “The Duithèn.”
“I cannot interfere,” she said softly, “even if my heart desires it.”
An image came unbidden to Brandyé’s mind then: an arrow in flight. He watched as it sailed through the air, intent upon its target—and then, with a horror he could not understand it saw it waver, move and shift. It plunged into a crowd and he cried out, “Did you spare her suffering?”
Shaera’s pale face was utterly unreadable, and for a long moment she said nothing. Finally, she looked away from him and said, “You know not what you say.”
A tear rolled down Brandyé’s cheek. “I don’t,” he agreed, “and I don’t wish to. Ever since I woke in the forests of Golgor, I’ve been free of pain—free of suffering. I don’t want to remember!”
“You are not meant to be here,” she said. “This is not your home.”
Somehow Brandyé knew she was not speaking just of the Namiraltèr, or even Viura Râ, but something more, something larger—he was not just out of place, but out of time. “Why am I here?” he breathed.
“When the time comes, you will know,” she answered. “Until then, you must watch, and you must learn: you must remember.”
“I don’t want to learn about Darkness! I don’t want to remember.”
“That is not for you to decide.”
“Then whose decision is it? Who is making a game of my life?”
“This is no game, Brandyé. The fate of the world is in your hands.”
“I don’t want it!” He drew back from her, frightened at her words. “I can’t decide the fate of all the people of Erâth.”
“All things must die,” she repeated. “Would you have them suffer a death of Darkness?”
“Why can’t you do anything?” he asked. “Why can’t you take away suffering?”
“The power of the Namirèn can only extend so far,” she said. “The rest of my people do not see this yet—they are drawn to the death brought by the Duithèn. There will come a time when they realize, but by then it will be too late.”
“Too late for what?”
“The ending of the world is coming, Brandyé. Your only decision is how it will end.”
“You speak as though I will bring death to the world.”
Shaera shook her head ever so gently. “Do not mistake death for ending. When a thing dies, it does not end. But when a thing ends—it is no more to be found in all the world.”
“What are you saying?” he whispered, barely audible over the hiss of steam.
“There will come a time when you are faced with Darkness,” she said, “and you will stand against them—or you will join them. The ending of the world will be Dark, or it will not: that is your decision.”
For a long moment then Brandyé closed his eyes, and when he opened them, Shaera was gone. He looked about for her, but there was no trace of her going; only the rat’s limp form in the corner told of her presence. He gathered the small body into his hands, surprised at its warmth. He wondered if Shaera had been mistaken—that it was but sleeping—but there was no breath, no heartbeat, and sadly he took it from the bowels of the ship to the decks above, where with a quiet farewell he cast it into the sea.
It was late evening, the sun beginning to disappear behind the eastern horizon, and all the sea was gold and crimson. Not a cloud marred the sky, and Brandyé looked up to the first early stars. It was becoming cold as they approached the lands of Narün, and he rubbed his arms. They were only a few days from Galecia, he understood, and already there was ice on the sea. The stars seemed equally cold and distant, and under the vast twilight he felt very small indeed.
What did Shaera mean, he would be faced with Darkness? Did she mean on this journey he was now on, or was there something far worse to come in his future? She seemed to know of his past—that which he still had only faint memories of—and had spoken of pain, and suffering. He did not want to suffer, but more so he did not want the world to suffer.
Athalya’s voice came from behind him, but he did not turn. “It grows late, Brandyé; the crew will be eating soon.”
“What do you know of Darkness?” he spoke to the sunset.
Athalya moved to stand beside him, and looked out to the sea. For a moment, Brandyé thought the sun seemed to glow all the brighter, before it disappeared entirely below the waves. “It is a part of this world, as much as light,” she said. “But the Duithèn would have it cover all, unto eternal night.”
“Where does Shaera go?” he asked her. “Sometimes I can’t find her anywhere.”
Athalya smiled gently. “Death comes and goes as it is needed, Brandyé. If she wishes to be in Aélûr tonight, so she will be. But she will return when she is needed.”
For a moment Brandyé pondered whether to speak to Athalya of the things Shaera had told him, but something stayed his tongue. He recalled her words to him at the top of Vereth Hemèl, and how no one else seemed to have heard her. Twice now she had spoken to him of his fate, and the decision he had yet to face. It occurred to him that Shaera seemed to know more about him and his mysterious past than either Athalya or Ermèn. If she had not spoken to them of it, there must be a reason.
Instead, he said, “Athalya—what if we fail? What if no one listens to what we have to say?”
For a long moment Athalya said nothing. Then: “I would not have your hopes dashed, but … I believe we will fail. I do not believe we will be granted an audience with Dûmèn the Great. I do not think we will get within a hundred miles of Urkûl.”
Brandyé looked at her then, astonished. “Then … why are we going?”
“Because one must cling to hope, even when there appears to be none,” she said. “Because if we did not try, our failure would be even greater.”
They spoke no more then, but it was with a sinking heart that Brandyé went to sleep that night. If the Illuèn themselves had forsaken their mission, then what hope could there possibly be? He felt Darkness settle upon him that night, and its weight was familiar. He knew then that Shaera had not misspoken: he knew pain, and he knew suffering, and he was to know it again.
His spirits were not raised the next morning when he awoke to dark skies and snow. They were two days from Galecia, he learned at breakfast, but the weather was slowing their progress. Among the many floes were now great mountains of ice, and with the mist and cloud they could not see far ahead. Their prow could cut through the thin sheets of ice without difficulty, but if they came up against one of the larger icebergs, they would certainly founder.
To this end, Marla came among the crew that morning, and spoke quickly and directly to Athalya. “I need light this morning,” she said, “and the skies will not give it to me. Can you?”
“I feel the darkness upon us is more than natural,” Athalya replied, “but I will try.”
She stood and followed the captain from the dining hall. Curious, Brandyé made to follow. “Careful,” said Ermèn, who had been sitting with them. “Do not distract Athalya; what she is about to do will take much of her strength.”
Once upon the main deck, Brandyé saw all the better their predicament. From one end of the ship he could scarce see the other, and fog and snow surrounded them on all sides. Peering over the edge of the ship he saw much ice floating in the water, but he could not see far enough beyond to know if they were close to any of the great icebergs the crew feared.
Athalya made her way to the very bow of the ship, and Brandyé wondered what she was to do. He understood the Illuèn were masters of light, but could she actually part the clouds, or brighten the day? He stood back from her, Ermèn’s words in his ears: he did not want to bother her. She seemed to notice, and turned to him: “You may wish to cover your eyes.”
Not knowing how sincere she spoke, Brandyé was about to ask what she meant when suddenly the ship’s deck erupted in a brilliant storm of pure white. Brandyé reeled and raised his arm to his face, for this was a light intense beyond his imagination. It seemed to burn through his flesh, through his closed lids and into the back of his eyes, and he turned away only to find the light equally penetrated the back of his skull and washed through his mind.
Ever so gradually, the light seemed to fade, and finally Brandyé braved lowering his arm to find he could make out the deck of the ship. The rigging and cargo cast great, black shadows against the brightness that still pervaded, and looking to Athalya he saw she was silhouetted against a glorious radiance that shone like the sun, yet only a few hundred yards ahead of the ship itself. The light burned through the mist and the fog, and Brandyé found that despite its brilliance he could now see easily past the light and into the depths of the sea far ahead of them. There were no towering mountains of ice, but something else did catch his eye.
Not far below the surface of the water he spied several great black shadows, formless and fluid, passing effortlessly through the sea and easily keeping pace with the Namiraltèr. They appeared too large to be fish, and the longer he stared at them the more lost he became in their appearance. At a loss to explain them, he called out, “There are strange creatures in the water!”
An unexpected voice came from behind him, and he turned to find Shaera and come upon him in silence. “They are no creatures.”
Confused, he made to move to the side of the ship to see them better, but she laid a hand on his shoulder and stopped him. “Do not approach them.”
“What are they?”
It was Athalya who answered, her voice strained with effort: “It is the Duithèn. They have come to stop me.”
In a heartbeat the world around Brandyé faded, his sight narrowing to focus upon the Illuèn standing tall at the front of the ship. He saw her hands tighten on the ship’s railing, saw the tension in her back, and cried out: “Athalya—be careful!”
He knew his words were futile, and started to move toward her, but Shaera still restrained him. “Let go!” he shouted.
“This is between Light and Dark,” she said. “There is nothing you can do.”
In a motion so fast his eye could not follow, the black shapes swirled beneath the waves and then disappeared. Suddenly the brilliant light ahead of them faltered, and he saw Athalya drop to her knees. “Athalya!” he cried out again.
The light brightened momentarily, but then a sudden and overwhelming darkness descended upon them all, and the light was extinguished entirely. A dark deeper than night plunged down upon the Namiraltèr, and Brandyé felt a whisper of chill wind against his cheek. He could no longer see Athalya, could not see the bow of the ship at all, and knew of Shaera’s presence only by the hand that remained on his shoulder.
Then came a voice, a dreadful grating whisper that penetrated Brandyé’s soul and chilled his bones. “Foolish creatures of Erâth,” it spoke, “you cannot hope to stop us. The world of men is given to Darkness already, and all will fall to our shadow.”
Then Brandyé heard Athalya’s voice, and he felt an even deeper chill at the fear in her voice. “Leave us!” she cried. “You have no place here! You have been banished from Viura Râ, the City of Eternal Light, and so you will be banished from the world! We will bring Light to the world once more!”
“Our place is everywhere,” the voice said. “Your light is fading, Illuèn. Go back now, or face being extinguished forever.”
“We will not! Begone—this is a vessel of hope!”
The grating whisper laughed then, a sound more sinister than any Brandyé had ever heard. “This is a vessel of Death—is it not?” Brandyé felt Shaera’s hand tighten on his shoulder. “Turn back, or you will all die.”
“Tell them they’re wrong,” Brandyé muttered to Shaera. “Tell them you would do no such thing.”
Suddenly Brandyé felt Shaera’s hand leave him, and in the closeness felt the darkness swirl around him until his sight was utterly black. He heard the voice again, and this time it seemed to spoke to him directly. “What is this, that speaks to Death so? Does it not know that we command the Namirèn?”
Brandyé opened his mouth to respond, and felt the very air stolen from his lungs. “No one here answers to Darkness!” he gasped. “No one here wants you!”
The voice laughed again. “One day, you will answer to us. One day, you will want us.”
As if from a great distance, Brandyé heard a fierce cry, and then the blackness of his sight was gone, replaced once more by a blinding light. He saw Athalya, once more on her feet, her arms outstretched toward him. The light slowly faded, and the gray of natural day began to surround him. Then came the Duithèn’s voice again: “You cannot defeat us, Illuèn. We leave now, but we will return. Enjoy your time with Death.”
Suddenly the Darkness was gone, and with a gasp, Athalya fell to her hands and knees. The light also was gone, and Brandyé rushed to her side. “Are you all right?” he asked.
Athalya fell forward and Brandyé caught her, turning her so her face was to the clouded sky. “I … I will be,” she panted. “Yet someone is not. Shaera?”
Brandyé looked up to Shaera, only to find the Namirèn had once more disappeared. “What do you mean?” he asked.
Before Athalya could answer there came a sudden, deafening explosion of sound, and the Namiraltèr shuddered to its keel. Brandyé was thrown off-balance, and he felt the deck begin to tilt. He cried out as from above came a great shower of ice, shards as sharp as knives, and threw up his cloak to shield himself and Athalya.
With a terrific groan the ship slowly righted itself, and as the frozen daggers stopped falling Brandyé looked out to see a wall of ice towering high above the ship’s deck. With dawning horror he saw it was slowly tilting, falling toward them, and he shut his eyes, waiting for the collapsing iceberg to crush them both.
The colossal sheet of ice thundered onto the Namiraltèr, crushing through the steel deck and penetrating into the levels below, but by some fortitude it missed both Brandyé and Athalya. Brandyé was thrown hard against the ship’s bulkhead as the vessel was pushed away from the iceberg. Breathless, he watched as the mountain of ice slowly distanced itself, and the ship was left floating free, now hardly moving forward at all. He heard cries rise from below, and knew what the Duithèn had meant: this was now a vessel of death.
Brandyé staggered to his feet and peered into the depths of the ruined vessel. He could see folk moving about, bewildered, and some stopped to stare up at him. He saw Ermèn emerge from behind a twisted steel door, and relief flooded through him. Their company, it seemed, had been spared. Guilt followed hard at the heels of this thought, for as the cries rose again, he knew someone had not.
Four of the crew had perished under the collapsing iceberg, including Marla, whose neck had been broken when she was flung from the helm wheel at the impact. The iceberg had come from nowhere, and disappeared equally silently into the dark waters. Brandyé thought it incredible that the ship had not been sunk, and that so many of their number had survived with only minor injuries, but the rest of the crew did not share his optimism. The mate, a grim, bearded man whose surly temper was a match for Marla’s, was quick to blame their presence, and said they were to be put ashore at the nearest port, and would not set foot upon the deck of the Namiraltèr again.
The nearest port was a town called Taureth, in Galecia, and here the Namiraltèr limped in dismal silence. The crew were subdued, and no longer spoke with Brandyé, Athalya or even Ermèn; Shaera, for her part, was once more nowhere to be found. The crew had not forgotten her, however, and Brandyé could not help overhearing the whispers: they knew that it was Death’s presence on board their vessel that had brought about their fate.
Brandyé thought he knew better: it was not Shaera who had killed the captain and her three crewmen, but Darkness—the Duithèn. He suspected that had it not been for Athalya, the entire ship might have found its way to the bottom of the ocean.
As it was, they set foot on land not two days later, with hardly a farewell from the crew or the mate. Taureth was a small fishing town, quiet in the winter and locked with ice. It had little trade, but they stopped in at what few shops the place had, and bought furs and heavy cloaks, for it was bitterly cold. Ermèn and Athalya then set out to find further transport, and Brandyé was left in the town’s only pub, musing to himself before a roaring fire.
There were few others in the place, and for a while Brandyé was left alone, and silence. He ate a little bread and dried fish, and drank stale and weak ale. There was something comforting about the fire and the warm air, and soon he began to doze.
He was awakened shortly by the bustling and stamping of a fisherman entering the pub, kicking his boots against the ground to rid them of snow. The man came close to the fire, and warmed his hands before the flames. As he did, he spoke to Brandyé, voice rough but not unkind. “Miserable, rotten day to be out on the ice,” he said.
Brandyé could not help but agree. “Is it always so cold here?” he asked.
The man laughed. “You’ve come on that ship from the east, haven’t you? It’s the dead of winter here, son—there’ll be nought but snow and ice for three months yet.”
“And then it will warm?” asked Brandyé hopefully.
The man shrugged. “Aye, but then the storms come. Day trips out, that’s all right—but you’ll not be making a sea voyage until well into spring.”
Brandyé frowned. “What do you mean? I expect we’ll be leaving tomorrow, or the day after—”
The man raised his eyebrows to Brandyé. “On whose vessel? It won’t be mine, I can assure you.”
“Do you mean to say there isn’t a sailor here who will take us on?”
“What he means to say is that we will be here for some time,” came Ermèn’s voice. Brandyé turned to see the old man approaching them, rubbing his own hands together before the fire. “It is too dangerous to travel by sea, and there are no ships here large enough to break the ice.”
“What are we to do, then?” cried Brandyé. “We can’t wait until spring!”
“The nearest port where we might find passage aboard an ice-breaker is a hundred miles south,” Ermèn said, “and there is but one town between there and here.”
“Then we take that road,” said Brandyé. “We set out for this port immediately!”
The fisherman laughed again. “You’ll not get two days out,” he said. “It’s a treacherous road in the heart of summer, and the snow’ll freeze your bones in an hour flat at night. Stay here, lad—fish! Spring’ll come soon enough.”
Brandyé turned to Ermèn in despair. “There must be something we can do! We’ve come all this way, only to be stopped by bad weather?”
Ermèn smiled sadly. “We must travel by sea to reach Thaeìn, and there are no transports until the air warms. This town is pleasant, and welcoming—we will pause, and we will fish, and we will resume our journey when we can.”
“What if war is upon the world by then?”
“You’ve a great concern for the world for such a young lad,” the fisherman said. “What if war comes upon the world? It doesn’t affect us here in Narün.”
“It may, sooner than you think,” said Athalya, who had entered the inn with Ermèn. “A Darkness is coming that none can escape.”
The fisherman looked upon Athalya with curiosity. “I haven’t seen your like in a long time. Not many of the grand races pay us a visit here. I suppose I ought to trust what an Illuèn has to say about Darkness.”
“Do not trust me,” Athalya said. “Trust what you see with your own eyes.”
“My eyes?” the fisherman exclaimed. “I’ll tell you what I see. I see a thousand souls starve the winter out, each and every year for the last ten years. I see black oil from hundreds of miles away poison and suffocate our fish. I see trade between the kingdoms of men slow and cease, to where fresh fruit is a luxury and our teeth fall out for its lack. We now hunt the most peaceful creatures in the sea, for their oil is our only heat. I see a world bent on its own destruction, and the sooner it does, the better. Good riddance, I say!”
Brandyé was appalled. “Surely you must see that what affects other countries in Erâth will eventually affect you.”
“Affect us?” the fisherman scoffed. “I’ve had enough of the affectations of men to last a lifetime. This ice all around us? It wasn’t here when I was a lad. Winter lasts twice as long as it ever did, and I’ll be damned if I let anyone tell me it isn’t the doing of men.”
“How can that be?” Brandyé said. “What could men do to change the seasons? Surely it must be the Duithèn, or some other force—”
“It’s the poison your kingdoms of men are pouring into the sea,” the fisherman said vehemently. “It’s changed the currents of the ocean. All sailors know this, but most are too blind to recognize where it’s come from. I’ve seen it change over the course of my own life. Aye—the sooner those kingdoms drive themselves into the ground, the sooner Erâth can right itself again.”
“Our world depends on the balance of all races!” Brandyé said. “You can’t just ignore what’s happening elsewhere!”
“I can, and I’ll tell you why. Your great kingdoms are so obsessed with power and control, they’ll destroy each other long before they look to Narün and see an ungoverned land. They’re too much of a threat to each other, and we’re of no threat at all. We won’t fight against them, and they won’t fight against us.”
“What is your name, fisherman?” Athalya asked.
The fisherman looked at Athalya suspiciously. “Name’s Bill,” he said.
“Well, Bill,” Athalya said with a nod, “I hope for your sake you are right.”