The Redemption of Erâth: Book Three, Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-One: A Retracing of Steps

It was bitterly cold when Brandyé awoke. All around him was white, and he could make little sense of what his eyes saw, or his fingers felt. A deep wind was blustering in his face, and he turned so that his back would shelter his front. Snow blew past him in great flurries, and he felt his feet rapidly grow numb.

He wondered if this was what awaited those who ventured over the edge—nothing but an eternity of cold and pain. He had no memory of this place—could not tell if it was a place he had once been, or somewhere new entirely. But even this thought was comforting, because he realized that he had not forgotten all that had occurred; he had memory, clear as day, of the ending of the world, and all that had come before. At least he knew who he was.

But he did not know where he was, and that was disturbing. So far, it seemed, Death had spared him, but he felt that would not last long if he lingered in this place. So he started walking, trudging slowly through the snow, letting the wind choose his direction. As he progressed, he became aware that there were no trees, no shrubs—nothing to give him reference to the distances he had yet to cross. The horizon was invisible, lost to snow and mist, and he had no idea if he was amongst mountains, or merely some terrible and desolate plain. His thoughts went briefly to Narün, last refuge of the Mirèn, and wondered if he was doomed to wander forever, in a land where nothing lived.

After some time—minutes or hours, he could not tell—he realized the air was growing darker, and it dawned on him that night must be approaching. This brought back to him the eternal twilight of Viura Râ, and he knew at least he was not in that place. But the prospect of night brought with it its own fears, because he had no shelter and it was rapidly growing colder. He pulled his cloak around him tighter, and only then realized he was wearing it at all—an ancient, battered black cloak with many pockets. He felt an object against his body in one of them, and his heart sank, for he knew exactly what it was.

In the end, he decided that against his exhaustion he would be better to keep moving through the night, and hope the snow storm would abate. So he kept going, doggedly plowing through endless snowdrifts, soon unable to see his own hand before his face for the darkness that surrounded him. He worried that he might step into crevasse or some other abyss, but for all that night nothing impeded his progress.

Come the dismal light of morning, he felt the wind slow and the snow flurries die down, and the distance became more visible. Not long after what might have been dawn if the sun were only visible he saw a dark shape in the distance, looming huge on the horizon. It was the first sign of anything but more snow, and so he made for it, hoping at the very least it would provide some shelter, whatever it was.

As he drew nearer, he realized it was in fact nothing more than an enormous protuberance of rock, towering a hundred feet above the snow plains. Yet it did provide some shelter when he rounded it, and when the wind was gone he settled against it, gasping for breath, finally exhausted beyond reason.

Against the great stone he then slept for some time, blissfully unaware of the storm raging around him, though he had some trouble opening his eyes when he awoke for the ice that had crusted them shut. He must find better shelter than this, he reasoned, or he would soon run out of warmth in his body. He also realized he was dreadfully hungry, and it occurred to him that he had not eaten in days—if days even meant anything in this place.

With the dying of the storm came a bleak horizon, towering mountains that reached their stone hands high to the dark and gray skies above. He looked about him, and saw that he was in a great wide plain between these peaks, and that soon he would have to climb one of them if he were to go much further. So he set his sights on what seemed to be a low col between two of the nearest ones, and when he felt well enough rested, set out once again.

It was no less cold than the day before, but with less wind he felt more warmth in him from his continual movement. Nonetheless, exhaustion swiftly stole over him, quicker than it had before, and his vision began to blank, seeing shapes and lights before his eyes that were not there. He became afraid, not only that he would collapse here in the middle of the snow, but also that something was watching him—following him. A presence that was entirely of Darkness, and meant him harm. In his hallucinations, he thought he felt a burning at his chest.

Driven by this fear he continued on, and soon the ground began to rise beneath him, and he came to a place where stone breached the snow, and he found he was now climbing up rock platforms, balancing on treacherous edges with a great drop below him. He looked up, and saw nothing but further stone and rock and snow above him. The lights continued to dance around him, some seeming oddly fixed in place, while others moved here and there, sometimes disappearing and reappearing in an instant. Among them were dim points of a blood red, and he felt the dangerous presence near at hand.

Up, up, up he climbed, his lungs clutching at the thin air with all their strength, and after many hours he heaved himself over a ledge to find a wide, flat basin of stone, filled with snow. He rested here for a moment, for he could hardly breathe and could not carry on. The Dark presence was close, he felt—dangerously close. The lights before his eyes refused to fade, and those crimson dots solidified into pairs, and with a dawning horror he realized they were not in his mind, but in fact before him: the eyes of a beast he had not thought of for an age.

Above the wind he heard a low growl, and closed his eyes. Here, he saw now, was his final doom; there was only further stone above, and an abyss below: nowhere to run, and nowhere to hide from the beasts that were now surrounding him. With deep sorrow that he would never see Elỳn again, he stood, and drew forth the object he had felt beneath his cloak. With numb fingers he loaded a quarrel into the crossbow, and turned it upon the nearest fierund.

But before he could loose it upon the beast, there rose a chorus of howls from all around him, and he saw their enormous dark shapes leap into the air, their pack thrown into chaos. Without understanding, he watched as the fierundé scattered and fled, and saw some of their number fall inexplicably dead in the snow. And as they vanished, his utter exhaustion finally caught him, and he collapsed in the snow, and knew nothing for some time.

Warmth, and rich smells, were the first things Brandyé noticed next, long before his mind was awake enough to take in his surroundings. It was familiar, from an age ago, and he allowed himself to doze for some time, for he felt safe. Eventually, of course, he rolled over and opened his eyes.

He was in a bed, in a small pine room, colorful banners hung about, and a hot stove steaming away in a corner. It was so familiar he felt a pang of nostalgia, and there was but one difference from what his memories told him: the window did not look out onto skies of blue, but rather thick and gray clouds.

He stood from the bed, finding himself wrapped in a cotton robe, and walked to the window to look out. Indeed, what he saw was exactly as he remembered it, but for the darkness and the snow. Somehow this made him sad, for this had to him been a place that was meant to always see the sun. A voice came from behind him, and he was not even startled, for he had expected it.

“Ah! Good morning, my friend!”

Brandyé turned calmly to face the kind old man who had stepped through the doorway from the other room. He was just as Brandyé remembered, from the wizened face to the long white beard, and Brandyé could not help but smile. “Good morning, Nisha.”

“It is so good to see you again!” said the old man.

Again? Brandyé wanted to ask, but then he stopped himself—how long had it been since he had last seen this place? He tried to remember: the attack on Nisha by the fierundé, his departure from the Hochtraë’s village, and his wandering, lost, in the snows of the Reinkrag. How long had he been out there? And all the things he remembered since—Viura Râ, the Sarâthen, and the great, terrible war—what of that? Had it been merely a dream? “How long have I been gone?” he asked instead.

But Nisha only shrugged. “A time,” he said simply. “What is, is; you are here.”

And Brandyé knew he would get no answer from the old man, for the Hochtraë spoke of the past as though it were the present. Inwardly he sighed; he supposed it must have been some days—perhaps a few weeks at most, for otherwise he would certainly have died in the frozen terrain of the mountains. Instead, he asked, “Is there food? I feel quite hungry …”

Nisha smiled, and led him into the next room where, of course, there was a delightful curry bubbling away. Nisha spooned a great deal into a bowl for Brandyé, and handed it to him with a spoon. Brandyé closed his eyes with delight, and started eating.

For some time they sat in silence, as Brandyé consumed several bowls of curry, but in the end he was sated and the time came for talk. Brandyé found it difficult to tell, now that he was here, which of his memories were real, and which were merely that of some strange dream. And above all, he felt a burning desire to know about Elven. “Is he here?” he asked Nisha.

But Nisha shook his head, beard waggling as he did. “Your friend is not here. He is elsewhere—I do not see him now.”

“Do you know where he went?”

“He is going to the city of men, to the south,” replied Nisha. “We send many men with him, but he writes to us to say they are all gone.”

So Brandyé knew that this memory, at least, was real: his parting from Elven. And he remembered that a dozen strong men of the Hochtraë had gone with him. “What do you mean, gone?”

“He tells us they die, in their sleep.”

Brandyé shuddered. “He wrote to you?”

“Yes—his bird brings us the note. Most clever!”

Do you—do you still have that note?” Brandyé asked.

“Ah! Yes, yes,” said Nisha. The old man stood, and began rummaging through many drawers and compartments in the room. After a moment he cried out, and said, “Ah! Here, I find it. Please—read!”

Brandyé took the note, which seemed oddly old and weathered, and began to read:

Dear Nisha,

As you know, we set out from your land some months ago, in search of the great city of Vira Weitor. It is with great sorrow I must tell you that we will not arrive—at least not whole. It pains me greatly to say that every one of your strong men, so kind to me, has died of an illness I have never before seen. One by one, they each fell into a stupor from which they could not be awoken, and so they perished.

I do not know how you grieve for your dead, but know that I did not leave them to be preyed upon by beasts. I cremated them with dignity, and I hope their spirits will find their way to a final resting place of peace.

I continue on to Vira Weitor, to seek Talya and discover the fate of the kingdom of Erârün. I hope you can grieve for your dead, knowing they did not die in pain.

With deepest sympathies,

Elven

Brandyé read the note twice over, his mind churning. An illness that struck down the entire party of Hochtraë; Elven’s determination to carry on; and more than anything, the time that was implied by the note. Some months ago … how could he have been lost in the mountains for so long? Frustration built inside him, for he knew he would not get an answer from Nisha; whether it had been ten days or a hundred, the old man would not know.

Instead, he wondered if he might get an answer from Nisha in a different way. It had been early spring when he had set out from the Hochtraë’s village; the weather now certainly did not seem spring-like. “What is the season?” he asked Nisha.

But Nisha’s reply was discomforting: “There are no seasons now; always, it is gray and cold.”

A chill went through Brandyé. “Do you mean to say … Darkness has finally come to the Hochtraë?”

“Long are the Naiya without Darkness; but Darkness comes now upon us.”

Brandyé thought of the fierundé that had attacked Nisha before he left; he thought of those that had surrounded him now in the mountains. “How was I rescued?” he asked.

“To the watchtower of Takana you come; our people see you from above, set upon by the beasts. They protect you; they bring you here.”

“How long have you had watchtowers?” Brandyé asked. This was certainly nothing he had heard of before.

“Many ages we have watchtowers; for many ages, we do not use them. Now, we must.”

Brandyé was beginning to realize that more time had passed in the mountains than he had thought, and this frightened him; he could not easily explain where he had been, or what he had been doing. Had any of it—any of his time in Viura Râ—actually been real? He felt very disconcerted. “You are fighting against Darkness?” Brandyé asked finally. “Against the fierundé?”

Nisha nodded. “They creep, and they hide, but they attack. And so we find we must defend. Our people are good at this; the forces of Darkness will not conquer us.”

“What of the path to Vira Weitor?” Brandyé asked. “Do you think Elven will have made it?”

“It is dangerous, now,” said Nisha, “but perhaps not for Elven?”

“I must go after him,” Brandyé said, as much to himself as to Nisha.

Nisha nodded again, nonetheless. “When you are well, you leave. Not to the north, this time! You find your friend, bear him good news.”

Brandyé frowned. “What news is that?”

Nisha smiled. “That you are alive.”

So Brandyé stayed once more with the Hochtraë for some time, waiting out the weather in the warmth of their high mountain homes. It was some time before the raging winds and snows stopped, however, and every day that passed grew Brandyé’s anxiousness to depart. Despite the comfort of their stoves and the hospitality of their folk, Brandyé found himself gloomy and nervous, and watched the skies endlessly for signs that the clouds might part.

But they did not, and after a month Brandyé could wait no longer. Finally came a day when, at least, the deluge of snow ceased momentarily, and he went to Nisha to tell him of his plan. He would leave at once, he said, retracing Elven’s steps through the Reinkrag, and if his friend remained in Vira Weitor, he would seek him there.

“It is a dangerous road,” Nisha reminded him, but Brandyé would not be dissuaded.

“I must go,” he said, “whether you think it wise or not.”

“Our airships cannot fly,” Nisha said to him. “The winds are too strong. By foot, you must descend the mountains. Beware of the beasts!”

So preparations were made, and the next day Brandyé set out. It was a two-day descent from the Hinari’s lofty homes to the village below, where he could find donkeys and men to help him on his journey. The road was exposed and dangerous from the outset; a thin winding path along great, icy cliffs covered in snow, he found that he could not manage even a mile with each hour that passed. The Hochtraë had given him an ice axe, and he made frequent use of it to anchor himself to the snow and ice, for fear of slipping and falling into the precipitous abyss below.

He was warm, at least, for the Hochtraë had made sure to wrap him in many layers of wool, and his battered cloak on top of it all kept him sheltered from the worst of the wind. New boots, too, helped to keep the snow from seeping to his feet and freezing his toes, and so his progress was impeded only by the difficulty of trudging through so much snow.

After what seemed to be many hours, he finally found himself at the bottom of the cliffs, and looking back could not see any sign of the buildings and homes he had left, save the faintest of glimmering lights where a torch or lantern burned. He turned ahead again, now setting out along a deep ravine, cloaked in shadow and bitterly cold.

Here there was less danger of falling, but the cliffs now towered above him, and he was cautious to make as little sound as possible. Nisha had warned him that any disturbance at all could precipitate an avalanche, and here at the bottom of the cliffs he would be wholly crushed if such a thing were to occur. So he made his way carefully and silently along the narrow gorge, his breath and blood loud in his ears.

By the time he had made his way out of the ravine, night was nearly upon him, and so he took his pack from his back and withdrew the canvas that the had provided him for shelter. Erecting it in the snow was easier than he had thought, and once under its cover he felt, if not warmer, at least better protected. He passed the night in frozen silence, and sometime in the dark the snow started again.

Come the morning, he awoke to find the canvas nearly collapsed upon him under the weight of fresh snow. Fighting back panic, he pushed against the now frozen tent only to find the weight of snow was more than he could resist. Fighting (if only mentally) for breath, he squirmed under the pressure of snow to find the opening of the tent, and began furiously digging away at the snow and ice. After some time, he felt his mittened hands burst through into fresh air, and with a cry of relief hauled himself from the snow.

The tent was beyond rescue, he saw; it would be fruitless and a monumental waste of time to dig it out. His best hope now was to make for the village as swiftly as possible, and hope he arrived before a second nightfall.

He set out, leaving the buried tent behind him, and soon found himself trekking across a wide, open space that descended gradually into the valley below. All around him was dull and white, and the gray skies above gave little relief. He soon found himself imagining lights dancing before his eyes again, bright against the blank countryside, and a cold fear took him: this was, he thought, very close to where the fierundé had attacked Nisha once before. This time he had no great balloon to carry him to safety, and he wondered what he would do if a fierund showed itself now.

Yet for hours he carried on in silent solitude, and though the fear did not ease, nor did it increase. The day brightened, and then gradually began to darken, and he was beginning to think he would never come across the village before night when, far in the distance he saw a light. Unlike those that continued to swirl before his eyes, this one remained steady, and grew in strength as he moved forward. Soon it realized itself into many smaller lights, and with a great sigh of relief he knew the village was near.

Before long he was walking along blessedly cleared paths between the homes, and when he pushed open the door to the wayhouse in the village’s center, it was to the merry sound of food, drink and laughter.

Though he spoke little of the Hochtraë’s native tongue, he was nonetheless able to communicate his need for accommodation, and that he desired supplies for his onward journey. The wayhouse owner was only too glad to help, and brought him bowl after bowl of hot food, seconded by mug upon mug of strong ale. Come the morning, Brandyé found himself faced with not one but three donkeys, and a half dozen men who, it seemed, were ready and willing to accompany him.

“Your companions died on this same journey,” Brandyé reminded them, but they seemed unperturbed.

“We are strong,” their leader said, “and do not fear. An end to Darkness, we seek.”

To Brandyé this seemed foolhardy and idealistic, but could not deny the relief of traveling with company, and beasts of burden to lighten the load at his back. They set out after a full breakfast, and soon the village was lost behind them.

From here, he was told, it was a week’s journey to clear the mountain snow, and a further two weeks to the deeper valleys below. After that, few had much reckoning of the path before them, but Brandyé took comfort in the thought that if Elven had done it, then so could he. He tried not to consider the possibility that Elven had not, in fact, ever arrived in  Vira Weitor.

So they made their way steadily south, and steadily down from the high peaks, resting each night to the immense comfort of a fire (one of the donkeys bore twigs and wood for burning) and hot food. Although the Hochtraë with him would laugh and jest, often talking during their long daytime treks, Brandyé kept quieter, and looked always about him for signs of fierundé, or other beasts of Darkness. He knew they must be prowling somewhere nearby, but for the week it took to descend into snowless valleys, they saw no sign.

Once they were clear of the high snows, their progress was much improved, and they followed the many streams down the hillsides, through open plains and deep forests, and always Brandyé looked for signs that they were following the trail Elven had taken himself. Yet for all is observance, he saw no sign of abandoned campfires, or left-behind scraps of clothing, or any of the other things that might signify another living being had once passed through. He did see signs of darker things, however; several times he spotted crows lurking among the high branches, and once he thought he heard a howl in the distance, though he saw so sign of wolves, or their Darker brethren. In fact, so smooth had been their progress that he wondered at it, and wondered why they were being allowed such free passage. Surely the creatures of Darkness must be aware of their movement, yet they remained unassailed for day after day.

Finally, after almost a month of travel, they arrived at the shore of a great lake, and here Brandyé discussed the continuation of their journey with the Hochtraë.

“Do you know how big the lake is?” he asked.

But the Hochtraë shook their heads, and said, “We are never here; one mile or ten—who can say?”

“We can go around it,” Brandyé said, “but I don’t know if it will take us out of our way.”

“Do you know the way?” the Hochtraë pointed out, and when Brandyé shook his head, said, “then any way is forward.”

Brandyé supposed this was sensible, if not entirely logical, and so they started around the edge of the lake, making their way through dense trees and thick undergrowth. Every so often a stream would cross their path, and where it did the pools and bogs teemed with insects, many of which stung and bit and made their progress miserable. They seemed to prefer Brandyé over the Hochtraë, a thing that brought no end of amusement to his companions.

In fact, the joviality of the Hochtraë made even the stings of the mosquitos bearable for Brandyé, and despite the ever-growing gloom he found his spirits balanced by their mood. They continued on for some time then, until came a day when they encountered a thing that sobered even the Hochtraë. It was at once a relief to Brandyé, for it told him he was on the right track, and heartbreaking, for it was utterly horrific and tragic.

Coming upon a clearing early one evening, they found the space before them wide and open, and sought to set up camp before one of the Hochtraë cried out in a tone that caused Brandyé alarm: far from their cheery laughter, this was a cry of surprise, and fear. He rushed to see what was the matter, and when he arrived looked upon a gruesome scene.

In a clearing was a great, blackened ring where nothing grew, and in the center was a pile of what was very clearly human remains. Among the charred bones were skulls and hands and teeth, all burned almost beyond recognition. Brandyé recalled Elven’s letter to the Hochtraë, and knew this must be where the party that had gone before them had met their end. They were looking upon the pyre where Elven had set their bodies alight, and Brandyé felt sick to think what his friend must have gone through.

Yet there was something off about it, beyond innate horror of the remains. He could not quite place his thought, but the remains seemed old, and frail—ready to crumble at a touch. They seemed far too old, he thought, to be from his friend’s passage through here a few months prior, and he wondered if some other party before both of them had been here once before, as well.

The Hochtraë—not without reason, Brandyé thought—refused to set up camp in this place, and so they moved on, leaving the pyre behind them. The rest of that evening was spent in somber silence, and Brandyé supposed the Hochtraë’s minds were whirling; they had discovered the remains of their brethren, and were deeply shocked and scared—yet they had made it this far without incident, and so were in an infinitely better place then their kin had been.

In the end they continued on, making their way slowly around the lake, until there came a day when the encountered an outpouring from the great body of water: a river, headwaters running fast and strong. The river ran southwest, but was too strong to cross, and so they turned with the flow until they could find a place where they could more easily ford the current. Brandyé wondered if Elven had met this same river, and turned where they now went. They had been following the easiest path from the mountains, and it stood to reason that Elven would have taken the same route.

The river, it seemed, went on for many miles through the valleys and gorges west of the mountains, joined by numerous other smaller streams, and grew only wider and deeper as they continued. Yet Brandyé felt confident that even if they should not find a crossing, they would eventually find a town on so great a river as this seemed to have become. And indeed, after nearly three months of travel, they finally came across their first signs of civilization: a farmhouse, old and abandoned. It stood at the bottom of a low hill, dilapidated stone walls stretching out and marking the fields that, once tended, were now wild and overgrown.

The place had clearly been empty for many years, windows cracked and roof rotted, but it nonetheless was the first true shelter they had had since leaving the Hochtraë’s realm, and so they passed several nights under its roof, searching the surrounding lands during the day for signs of life—or of death. After all, and entire farm would not have been lightly abandoned, and Brandyé was curious over the fate of its inhabitants.

He finally found what he was looking for in a field to the south of the main homestead: almost hidden by weeds and grass, a long line of tombstones, plain and blank, but each marking the unmistakable resting place of what had once been a living soul. There were nearly a dozen, and Brandyé thought they looked somewhat in better condition than the farmhouse—though the stone would have weathered slower than the wooden roof. Though he now new the fate of those who had once lived here, he wondered nonetheless what had brought them to this sorry place—and what had become of the burier. After all, someone had been the last one left here, and he shuddered to think of that lone person, left to solitude and madness, having buried every other man, woman and child that had dwelled there.

The Hochtraë seemed no happier at this discovery, and they soon moved on, now able to follow a dirt track that led away from the desolate farm and onward into the countryside. Their going was much easier here, and at a quickened pace it was not long before further signs of habitation became apparent: small huts in the fields, or homes along the side of the road, but disturbingly abandoned, as had been the farm.

They met no other travelers for several days, until they came upon what was unmistakably a town: a large gathering of homes and buildings, small dirt streets branching out from the the one they had been following. Here they paused, for to find such a place equally abandoned was disquieting, and Brandyé felt it worth investigating, if for no other reason than to quiet the nervousness he felt. He was uncertain, but it felt as though, despite the absence of folk, they were nonetheless being watched.

Passing along the main road, they soon came across an inn, and Brandyé gently pushed upon the door and stepped in. It was as empty as the rest of the town, it seemed, until he noticed in the corner a small fire, crackling in the hearth. “Hello?” he called tentatively. “Is there anyone here?”

At first there was no answer, and Brandyé moved forward to the fire, grateful for the warmth. The Hochtraë waited nervously by the door, unwilling to enter further. As he stood, back to the door, a voice said softly, “If ye’ve come to raid, there’s precious little left.”

Startled, Brandyé turned swiftly to see a pale and gaunt figure, scraggly and desperate-looking, sitting in a high-backed chair before the hearth. The man was on the verge of death, it seemed, and Brandyé wondered if he would even be able to lift himself from the chair at all. “We’re not here to raid,” he reassured the man, wondering at the man’s fear and suspicion. “We’re only travelers, passing through. It seemed this town was abandoned.”

The man closed his eyes, and dropped his chin to his chest. For a moment, Brandyé thought he had fallen asleep, but then he spoke: “It is, lad. There are only a few of us now, and the rest are ghosts.”

Brandyé took a seat opposite the man, nodding to the Hochtraë as he did so. Relieved, they set their packs down and stepped further into the inn. “Bring wood,” he told them. “We need heat.” Then, to the man in the chair he said, “What happened? Was it the forces of Darkness?”

The man coughed then, and it was a moment before Brandyé realized he was trying to laugh. “Nay. No armies—no violence. Illness, my friend, and a terrible one. Years ago, now; it came, and took them all away.”

Despite the fire, Brandyé felt a chill. “What kind of illness?”

The man slowly shook his head. “It doesn’t matter anymore. It came, and they died in their sleep. My sons … my friends; all dead.”

“What about you? How did you survive?”

The man sneered. “The cruelties of fate, I suppose. Some of us were unaffected. Many left; some stayed. But we’re too few now; soon I’ll be with them again.”

A deep sadness welled inside Brandyé at the man’s words, for he saw all hope had abandoned this place. “What is your name?” he asked eventually.

“Abbey,” the man said.

Later, after Brandyé had helped Abbey to bed (uncertain if he would even wake come the morning), he and the Hochtraë sat around the hearth, now blazing heartily, and spoke of what they would do now. “I fear there is little to be done here,” he said.

“We help,” said one of the Hochtraë nonetheless. “We help people here.”

“How?” Brandyé asked. “From what Abbey said, there are fewer than ten people left here; what could we possibly do?”

“We bring food, and water,” the Hochtraë said. “We heal; we rebuild.”

“What if you can’t?” said Brandyé. “What if they’re destined to die?”

The Hochtraë rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “You speak of future,” he said eventually. “But you do not know.”

Brandyé shook his head. “What if there are people along our path that need our help more than these?”

The Hochtraë smiled. “Again—future. Think of now. What can help people now?”

Brandyé saw the good intentions of the Hochtraë in his words, but found he could not agree; he had seen too much despair and death, and thought he recognized futility. “I think … I think these people are beyond our aid,” he said finally. “We should move on.”

But argue as they might, he and the Hochtraë could not agree on this point. In the end they retired to bed, glad of the comfort of the inn’s rooms, despite being thick with dust, for it had begun to rain outside. Brandyé slept restlessly through the night, and come the morning thought he had a plan that perhaps they could all agree on.

“One of you come with me,” he said over a light breakfast, “and the rest stay here. If we find further trouble, he will return to bring you word.”

This seemed agreeable to the Hochtraë, and so soon after Brandyé bid farewell to the Hochtraë and Abbey (who had indeed come down to the warmth of the fire and a full meal), and set out in the rain onward, along the road that Abbey had said would lead them on to better places.

The Hochtraë that they had chosen to accompany Brandyé spoke little as they walked, and Brandyé was left in the rain and gloom to his own thoughts. He found himself dwelling on Abbey’s tale, and how illness had taken his entire village. He wondered if this illness, which took people in their sleep, was the same as that which had taken the Hochtraë on Elven’s own journey—which he was hopefully retracing now. If so, this was something he had failed to hear of in all his time in Erârün, and it concerned him that such a disease was spreading in the wild. To himself, he admitted that he was afraid; there was seemingly no way to know if he or the Hochtraë might be struck down by this same illness themselves.

For several days they kept their path and their solitude, and the rains came and went, leaving them drier, if still glum. They passed through yet another town that seemed even more abandoned than Abbey’s, and Brandyé refused to stop, despite the Hochtraë’s protestations that they should see if there was anyone who needed help. He knew that they were only two men, and deep down he was afraid that if he stopped, he would become overwhelmed with the need of these poor folk, and never reach his journey’s end.

So they carried on, trudging through muddy paths, until there came a day when there was a crossroads with a signpost, and Brandyé’s hopes were lifted: one of the wooden boards proclaimed that, to the south, lay a town by the name of Farthing’s Bar. Recognition and relief flooded through him, and he knew that there, at least, they might find folk who would speak to them of the fate that seemed to be descending upon the land. After all, for a town such has Farthing’s Bar to succumb entirely was beyond Brandyé’s imagination.

But when they finally arrived after several days, it was to find the road into the town barred by many guards, and a steel blockade. Astonished, Brandyé approached the nearest guard and asked if they could be granted passage into the town.

The guard gruffly shook his head. “No outsiders are allowed,” he said. “The town is under quarantine, until the disease that is upon it is banished.”

“What disease is this?” Brandyé asked, incredulous. “Has it spread throughout all of Erârün?”

But the guard would speak no more to him, and so Brandyé and his companion turned and retreated a distance, to contemplate what they would do next. “I had hoped to gather supplies in Farthing’s Bar,” Brandyé said. “To the best of my memory, it’s at least another week to Vira Weitor.”

“We hunt,” said the Hochtraë, “we gather.” He smiled. “No problem!”

In fairness, Brandyé was more than anxious to be at his journey’s end, and was less concerned about their inability to stay in Farthing’s Bar than he was about reaching Vira Weitor as soon as possible. So they set out around the town with the suspicious eyes of the guards on them all the while, and soon had left Farthing’s Bar behind them. When he had last traveled this road, there had been numerous others walking and riding its length; now their path was seemingly abandoned, and for many days they went on in solitude. It hardly seemed to Brandyé that they were walking along what had once been considered the largest thoroughfare of the kingdom. When they were hungry they paused to hunt, and when night fell they retreated off the road to sleep, but for seven further days they proceeded without incident.

And finally, after what felt like endless months, the wall of Vira Weitor grew nigh on the horizon, and here Brandyé began to realize the extent of the plague that was upon this kingdom, for the wall was utterly abandoned. Where once sentries and guards had patrolled every hour of the day, there was not a soul atop the high barricade, and the great gates that had once opened to the ringing of trumpets had been left untended and ajar, so that they slipped through unnoticed.

Soon they were walking through the streets of the great black city, cobblestone underfoot, and the folk that were about eyed them as they passed with deep suspicion. It was not that the city was empty, Brandyé thought, that was so greatly disturbing, for it was not—it was that it was silent. Where there ought to have been the cacophony of thousands going about their daily business of trade and work, there was nothing but furtive whispers and shifting glances. After several fruitless attempts to ask questions of those they passed, Brandyé realized there were no answers to be had here.

So they made their way slowly through the town, and Brandyé set his sights upon the inner city, where he had trained as a soldier, and where the higher castes and nobility dwelled. There, perhaps, there might be less fear—and there they might find someone who could tell them of the fate of this country.

But if the outer walls had been left to decay, the inner city was not so lightly defended: as they approached the gateway that allowed passage to the central towers, they found them guarded by several soldiers who stepped forward even as they came to a halt. “Who are ye?” one asked. “What business do ye have here?”

The guards seemed nervous to Brandyé, and he did not blame them; if their job was to keep the infected from the sanctum of the rich, they risked exposure every time someone approached them. Hands on their hilts, he knew they were a danger to them, and so he stopped and kept his distance as he said, “We’ve come a great distance, from the highest mountains to the north, seeking a friend.”

“That’s none of my concern,” said the guard. “Ye’d best turn and be off, if ye value your life.”

“This friend was in the company of knights, last I saw him,” Brandyé persisted, though gently. “I was only looking for information—could he be amongst those in the inner city?”

“As I said before, that’s none of my business,” repeated the guard. “Now, get off before I draw my sword.” He began to pull his sword from its sheath.

Brandyé took several steps back, hands raised, but continued on: “I mean no harm, and I won’t ask to enter. But let me ask you—do you know the name of Tharom Hulòn? A knight of the fourth order?”

The guard snarled, and drew his sword yet further from its scabbard. Brandyé quickly retreated another few steps. “What about Elỳn? Do you know that name?”

The guard seemed ready to draw his blade entirely, but at that moment one of his companions said, “Elỳn? Isn’t she one of those Illuèn?”

“Yes!” exclaimed Brandyé. “Do you know her?”

The first guard made no movement, but the second said, “They returned not two weeks ago, sir. Something about a visit to Kiriün.”

The first guard looked to Brandyé as though he would have skewered his companion given half the chance, but muttered through gritted teeth, “I suppose ye’d claim to be a friend to this Illuèn?”

Brandyé nodded. “I am—an old one. Please—send word. That’s all I ask. I’ll wait here as long you need me to, without complaint; just let her know Brandyé is here.”

For a long moment the guard seemed to consider this furiously, and Brandyé was certain he would deny him, but in the end he gestured to the second guard and said, “Go—let someone know some pathetic wretch wants to see the Illuèn. Ask if we can slay him.”

The second guard looked nervously from the first guard to Brandyé and back again, but then turned and vanished through a small doorway. Brandyé breathed a sigh of relief, and said, “Thank you.”

The guard only sneered, and Brandyé retreated down the lane with the Hochtraë to sit on a barrel that stood beside the high stone wall of a nearby building. “What happens?” the Hochtraë asked Brandyé.

Brandyé shrugged. “We wait. If Elỳn truly is still here, she will come and let us pass. She will know of Elven’s fate, I’m certain.”

So they sat and waited, and for some hours the guard stood silently by, waiting (Brandyé was sure) for the command to come to chase them off with violence. The day passed in gloom, and Brandyé and the Hochtraë ate some crumbs from their pack as they waited. Then, just as dark was settling in and Brandyé thought they would have to retire for the night, there was a commotion at the gate, and he looked up the lane to see the door that the guard had disappeared through burst open. As he watched the figure pass through its opening, he could not help a smile spreading across his face.

Elỳn of the Illuèn stood before him, clad as always in robes of brightest white, but the smile slowly faded from Brandyé’s lips as he took in the shock that radiated from her. If anything, he thought, she seemed even paler than her natural disposition, as though she had seen something utterly distressing, something impossible. “Elỳn?” he asked. “It’s me—it’s Brandyé.”

She took several steps toward him, until they were only a few feet apart, and then she reached out a hand to touch his face gently. “Can it … can it be? How is it you are here?”

“I’ve come back from the Hochtraë,” Brandyé said, a frown deepening on his brow. “It’s taken me some time, but I’m here now. I’ve come looking for Elven.”

“Elven …” she muttered. “Some time? Brandyé … do you have any idea how long it has been since you vanished into the mountains?”

Now Brandyé himself was becoming disturbed, for there was something deeply unsettling about Elỳn’s behavior. He shook his head. “I … I’m not sure, exactly. Certainly I can see much has changed, but …” He trailed off.

“Brandyé …” Elỳn uttered. “We—all of us—had given you up for dead. My dearest friend … you have been gone for over eight years!”

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