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

Chapter 23: The Dotterys

Brandyé and Elỳn did not stop until they had passed the wall of Vira Weitor, crossed the river, and were far into the hills beyond. Only then, with night approaching, did they dismount, allowing their steed rest, while Brandyé tended to Elỳn’s wound. He was surprised to find that, when he removed the cloth, it bled little, and seemed already less deep than it had only hours before. He bandaged it again, this time with cleaner cloth from Elỳn’s own cloak, and then they sat back to pass the night. It would imprudent to light a fire, she said, so close to Vira Weitor, and so he sat in the dismal blackness, Elỳn’s faint glow his only source of light through the night.

Come the morning they remounted the horse and set off south, this time at a lighter pace. Brandyé was reminded of his flight from Reuel’s home, now so many years ago, where the soldiers of the Fortunaé had chased him into the wilderness, and he wondered if the infinitely more dangerous soldiers and knights of Erârün would be on their own trail. He spoke to Elỳn of his concern, who replied, “I think they will send riders to warn the villages of our escape, perhaps, but they will not outright chase us. The further we go the harder we will be to find, and Tharom will have more pressing business if he is to take leadership of the kingdom of Erârün.”

With this concern alleviated, Brandyé’s next thought was that they would therefore be unable to approach any town of Erârün in their flight, and would be left to the wilderness. In a way, he did not mind this, for he had reckoning of the wilds, and felt safe with Elỳn by his side, even injured as she was. In any case, the villages were likely to be set upon by the Sleeping Death, and he had no desire to see more of its toll on the country than he must.

So they traveled south, passing by town after town without pause, stopping only when their horse needed rest.  But the fifth day, Elỳn’s wound seemed almost entirely healed, but for a small scar, and Brandyé was astonished at the apparent resilience of the Illuèn; here was yet another thing that, after all this time, he did not know about them. He had thought he would have to tend to her daily until they arrived in Paräwo, but it seemed she grew stronger with each day that passed, and soon he began to wish for a second horse, for it was becoming uncomfortable with the two of them astride the same beast.

There soon came a time when they could no longer ride, however, so rough was the ground, and so one would walk while the other rested on horseback, and thus they passed into the southern fringes of Erârün, bordering the Trestaé. Here, said Elỳn, they might risk entering one of the border villages for provisions before setting out into the Trestaé proper, for it was unlikely that news of their escape would have traveled so far so fast.

So they began to cut through the dense forests westward, to where Elỳn said a road should lie, and indeed within a few days they were upon a dirt track, poorly tended but worn nonetheless, and began to follow it onward. Before long they came upon the first barns and houses, and come one evening they saw in the distance a lighted home, and brought themselves to its door.

The door was opened when they knocked by a farmer with a great beard, and to their surprise and relief he welcomed into his home, where his wife and son were preparing supper. “Please,” he said, “we get no company out here; have a meal with us afore ye’re on your way.”

So they settled at their dining table, and though Brandyé could tell they had little to offer, their kindness was most welcome after the hostility of Vira Weitor, and he found himself engaged in conversation for much of the evening with Hobrèth, the farmer. “Do you know of the Sleeping Death?” he asked as they settled by the fire, a brandy each in their hand.

Hobrèth nodded. “Aye, word’s reached us, for certain. But we’ve not come across any who’ve suffered—even in Roéthan, yonder. As a matter of fact, we aren’t even certain it’s a real thing.”

“It is real, I can assure you,” Brandyé said. “The great city of Vira Weitor has succumbed. The Greatlord Farathé is dead.”

“Farathé, eh?” said Hobrèth. “He must’ve been Darâthìn’s son, I suppose—that’s the last greatlord I’d heard spoke of.”

Brandyé took a moment to consider the farmer’s words; so far from the seat of power, it seemed, the nobility had little to do with the outlying towns and villages. “Are you not ever visited by nobles, or lords?” he asked.

Hobrèth waved a hand dismissively. “They don’t care for us, and we don’t care for them. We can tend to our own out here, thank ye very much.”

“This town, Roéthan—is it far?” Brandyé asked.

“No, less than a day, even on foot.”

“And the Trestaé—how far from Roéthan to the great southern forests?”

“Bless me if I know!” exclaimed Hobrèth. “Why’d ye want to go there anyhow? Nought but beasts in those parts, I tell ye.”

“My friend,” Brandyé said. “She is from there. Her kind—they live in the forests.”

He was prepared for a lengthy explanation of the Illuèn and their island home, but to his surprise Hobrèth merely shook his head and said, “Crazy folk, these days. Can’t say as I think ye’re better off, but ye must do what ye must, of course.”

They passed the night with Hobrèth and his family, and set out to find Roéthan the following morning. Hobrèth gave them some scraps of smoked pork and bread, with the apology, “I’d give more, but harvests’ve been poor lately. Stop by next year, we’ll give ye a proper feast!” Brandyé and Elỳn thanked him anyway (Brandyé more than Elỳn, as he knew she would not eat the meat), and soon were on their way.

It was indeed a day’s journey to Roéthan, the outskirts of which they approached as dusk was falling. The country was growing ever wilder here, Brandyé noted, and he was glad for the town: the further into the wilderness they traveled, the more likely they were to be set upon by wolves, or crows—or worse beasts.

Unlike Hansel’s Foil, where Brandyé, Elven and Elỳn had arrived when they first came into Erârün from the Trestaé (Brandyé still had trouble remembering that nearly ten years had passed), Roéthan was not a walled town, and they soon found themselves amidst homes and workplaces, and were welcomed to the town’s inn, the Lazy Pony. Here they supped before the fire, and passed the night, and indeed not one person called them out as fugitives, or had any knowledge of such things from Vira Weitor at all.

Brandyé found a strange relief at this, and it was more than just the sense of safety of not being pursued; there was a comfort, a familiarity, in such small towns, and he knew it reminded him of Consolation, and Burrowdown, which he had now not seen in over fifteen years. As he dozed by the hearth his mind drifted, and he thought of the Burrow Wayde, and Reuel, and old tales. Those tales, he now knew, were only too real, though they had seemed delightful fantasy as a child; the world was larger, and darker, than he had ever supposed in his youth.

He was returning, he knew, to an extent; the Illuèn’s island home was deep in the Trestaé, and only a bit further would place him at the Dottery’s cabin in the woods—and he would be painfully close to home. Yet he knew he could not return, for Consolation, the land of his birth, was no longer the light and welcoming place it had once been. Darkness had covered it also, as it had so much of the world, and under the rule of Danâr there was no safe place there. Even after so long, he suspected Danâr would not have forgotten him, and he had no desire to ever see that man again.

Come the morning they departed, filling their packs with bread and victuals before leaving the town. If they kept along the road south, they were told, they would eventually come to the path’s end, and from there there was nothing but great fields and mountains.

They left the horse in Roéthan, for Elỳn said it would be too difficult a road for the poor beast, and Brandyé felt more comfortable walking beside Elỳn rather than sharing time riding. Her wound seemed utterly healed by now, and she shouldered her own pack as easily as he did his. She said that it would likely be only a week or two to arrive in Paräwo, if they stayed true to their course. He wondered how she knew which way to go, but she said that once they entered the Trestaé proper there would be no doubt.

Brandyé accepted that he had little choice but to trust her, and indeed had little difficulty in doing so, for there was no other path he knew of. A memory of ten years past would not serve him, he knew, and so he willingly followed her along the road and, when the time came, off of it.

Within a day or two they arrived at the road’s end, having crossed over several other paths along the way, and it ended unceremoniously in an empty field with no gate or wall. It simply ran narrower and narrower until he realized there truly was no path at all, and they were merely walking through tall grass. He could see a line of trees not far off, and as they made their way toward it, an odd thing caught his eye.

In the distance, only just peeking above the curve of the hill, was what seemed to a great, tall rock. It seemed strangely out of place, for there were no mountains or cliffs from which it could have fallen, and as they drew nearer he saw that it was balanced on its end, so that it towered some thirty feet above the grassy plain surrounding it. It had no companions, but stood solitary and alone, an odd lost monument that was disturbingly familiar. He asked Elỳn if she recognized it herself, but she was oddly silent, saying nothing more than, “I have never seen this stone before.”

In the end they passed it by, but not before Brandyé had stopped to lay a hand against the cold stone, and commit its image to memory. He knew it from somewhere, if only he could recollect it; yet for all he could wrack his brain, he could not bring the memory back.

They soon plunged into the forest, and here was the true wilderness he had been dreading, for it was dark under the canopy, and many of the trees had a twisted and unnatural look about them. Just before they disappeared into the forest entirely he caught a hazy glimpse of mountains in the far distance, and knew they were soon to be among them.

For some days then they continued through the dark forests, Elỳn picking a path that led them around bogs and along streams, keeping them dry and safe all the while. Nonetheless, Brandyé frequently passed a hand to Fahnat-om, for an unease was settling over him that no conversation with Elỳn could quiet. He kept close his crossbow, too, and when the food ran out and he grew tired of Elỳn’s meatless diet he would use it to catch himself the odd hare here and there, roasting their poor meat over their evening fires.

All the while he kept a constant vigilance for beasts of a Darker nature, but only saw sparrows and owls watching them as they passed. Every so often he thought he heard a faint howl in the distance, but Elỳn never spoke of it, and he wondered if it was merely his imagination.

After perhaps a week he found the ground beginning to rise beneath them, and soon they were walking along the base of cliffs and crags that were slowly becoming increasingly familiar. When they stopped for the evening by the edge of a clear lake high in the mountains, looking down over a great valley of trees, he knew they were not far now, for this was the very same place they had stopped on their journey from Paräwo, when he had learned of Athalya and Elỳn’s familial relationship. As he cast his gaze into the distance he saw the great lake, and knew they were nearly at their destination.

Not two days later they were rowing across the lake itself in a boat Elỳn had found safe in a secluded bay, and Brandyé felt a mounting excitement to be once more among the Illuèn at large. He had a fond recollection of his time here, marred as it was by Athalya’s tragic death, and he was anxious to speak once again with Kayla, and Rylan, and the others whom he remembered so fondly. But as they approached the island shore, Elỳn cautioned him: “Things may be different to when you were here last; some of those you undoubtedly remember are with us no longer.”

“You mean they were killed?”

Elỳn shook her head. “No violence has set itself upon us since you left; nonetheless, many that you once knew are gone. They have faded, and passed beyond this world.”

Despite this sad knowledge, Brandyé could not help smiling at the sight of the Illuèn village when they finally arrived, for the odd, bell-shaped homes and buildings of the Illuèn were a comfortingly familiar sight. Elỳn, too, seemed more than happy, and fell into the welcoming embrace of her kin, who swiftly turned to Brandyé to welcome him, as well. That night they dined under the comforting glow of the Illuèn’s orbs, which he now recognized as those same flameless lanterns he had seen among the people of Viura Râ, and their talk was lively and engaging, and they conversed together long into the night.

“You must tell us of what you have done, and where you have been, since last we spoke,” said an Illuèn by the name of Wyrlèn, who was now the eldest Illuèn among them. Brandyé had known him in passing as an aide and confidant to Athalya, and was glad to know he was still among them.

“I’ve been to many places, and seen many things,” Brandyé said, “and I’m certain Elỳn has told you some of it. In truth, I am still not entirely certain what of my recollection is true and what is false, for it seems that some of what I’ve experienced can’t quite be possible. I passed through snow and fire, and when I awoke I was in a world utterly different to this one. Tell me—have you ever heard of a place where people can travel the breadth of the world in mere weeks, or great towers look down upon the very edge of the world? Do you know of a place called Viura Râ?”

Wyrlèn nodded. “I have. It was once the brightest light in all of Erâth, the Eternal City. But it was destroyed many ages ago, during the greatest of all wars.”

“I was there. I witnessed its destruction. I saw the creation of Paräth!”

Wyrlèn raised his eyebrows, clearly taken aback. “If what you say is true, then you have spent the last ten years not only in another place, but another time. You speak of a time that has not been for untold thousands of years: the time of the Ancients.”

“I can only speak of what I know,” Brandyé said. “And while I have had dreams of far-off times and places before, I always woke the next morning. How could I pass so great a time in a dream?”

Wyrlèn shook his head. “I cannot say. Perhaps the Sarâthen would be more knowledgeable of such things, but there are none left to ask. I will say this, however: wherever and whenever you have been, we are glad to have you once more among us. You may, of course, stay here as long as you desire. But tell me: have you given thought to where you might go from here? Do you have any plan in mind, now that you are escaped from Vira Weitor?”

Brandyé had in fact given much thought to this during their long treks through the Trestaé, and knew that, so close as he was to his home, there was one thing he must do. “I would stay here for a few days, if it’s no trouble,” he said, “and then … I have a great desire to see Elven’s family. I would return to the Dotterys, if I can.”

“Winter will be upon us soon,” another of the Illuèn said, “and while travel through the Trestaé in the snow is not impossible, it will be easier without. Would you stay here through the winter, or there? If the latter, you would be best served by leaving soon.”

Brandyé took this into consideration for a moment, but it was not a difficult decision; he had spent the winter with the Dotterys in the Trestaé once before—his first reunion with them since being banished from Consolation. He was certain they would welcome him once again … and then there was Ermèn.

He was becoming anxious to see his old mentor once again. The old man in the woods had taught him much about himself and the world, and there was much on his mind that he wished to speak with him about. If anyone, he thought, Ermèn could shed light on his mysterious disappearance for so long, and the places he had seen while he was gone. Even if he spoke mostly in questions and rarely answered one, he knew there was much he could learn from him again.

In the end, there was only one concern for Brandyé, and it was whether he would depart by himself or with company. He was saddened to learn that Kayla, the Illuèn who had bequeathed her bow to Elven, had passed on, and Rylan the healer was faded such that Brandyé hardly noticed him unless he was speaking with him directly. As Elỳn had spoken, many of those he remembered from his last time here were gone, and the population of the Illuèn in general seemed fewer than ever.

So he spoke to Elỳn, and asked her what he should do. “You have traveled far and wide, Brandyé,” she said, “and often alone. You have survived thus far—I suspect you will survive much longer.”

“It isn’t for my survival that I’m concerned,” Brandyé said. “Since the last time I wandered the Trestaé I’ve learned to fight, and to defend myself. Rather, it’s for my peace of mind. I’m afraid, Elỳn.”

“Of what are you afraid?” she asked.

“That alone, I’ll succumb once more to Darkness. That in the Darkness of the Trestaé, I’ll lose myself for good.”

“You desire company,” Elỳn said.

Brandyé nodded. “If only to keep me sane.”

“Do you feel the Duithèn near at hand?”

“I don’t,” Brandyé admitted, “but I don’t know if that means much anymore. There is so much Darkness over Erârün, and the world, that I’m afraid I’m becoming used to it. That I can’t sense there presence any longer. Or that … that the strength I feel, when I feel it, is of their doing.”

Elỳn paused for a moment before speaking. “We are at a dangerous time, Brandyé. The Duithèn will have learned of Farathé’s passing, and will be eager to push their advantage. I do not know what strength Tharom Hulòn has in him, but his kingdom may be greatly weakened against the forces of Darkness now. The Sleeping Death is spreading insidiously, and Kiriün, Elven’s country, is nearly broken. I think it will not be long before we see a concerted assault from the north on the kingdoms of Thaeìn. Who will defend them when this happens?”

Brandyé considered. “The Hochtraë,” he said finally. “They have been fighting back creatures and men of Darkness for some time now, and with great success. Erârün and Kiriün will need them before the end.”

“The Hochtraë have not involved themselves in the affairs of the rest of the world since before the fall of the Second Age,” Elỳn pointed out. “Why would they interfere now?”

“I can convince them,” Brandyé said. “I can speak with their leaders. They will listen to me.”

“You have just traveled a great distance from them,” Elỳn said. “Would you so readily travel back?”

But Brandyé was suddenly lost in thought, thinking furiously. There was indeed a threat from the north, he knew. And, though he was less certain, an even greater one from the west might soon present itself. And he realized that he was in a unique position to influence nearly every kingdom in Erâth: he had befriended the Hochtraë, and his best friend in all the world was, it seemed, king of Kiriün. And, though it was a thing he had not considered for a great long time, he even had ties to the Cosari to the south: there was a chance that, if Khana still lived, he might be able to convince them to unite against the Duithèn, and the forces of Darkness.

That left only Erârün, and although it was now ruled by a man who seemed to hate him bitterly, there was a chance—perhaps not a great one, but still there—that upon seeing the union of the great kingdoms of the world, Erârün would follow suit. And if the world could unite as one, then they might just stand a chance at defeating the Duithèn once and for all.

Unless they found Namrâth before him.

“How much time do you think we have?” Brandyé asked finally.

Elỳn shook her head. “It has been many centuries in coming, she said sadly. “I fear it is only a matter of years before the kingdoms of Thaeìn are overwhelmed. Perhaps months, even.”

“Then I have little time to lose. Allow me to pass the winter with the Dotterys; then I set out to speak with Elven. And after that … I think there will be much travel in my future, Elỳn. I must speak with the Hochtraë, and with the Cosari. I must convince these last kingdoms of Erâth to fight with each other, to unite against a common enemy.”

“This will not be an easy task,” Elỳn said.

Brandyé smiled. “I have suffered worse. I once tried to convince the entire world to forego violence in favor of peace. I failed then, but I have learned much—I will not fail again.”

Elỳn smiled in return. “You have a great hope in you yet, Brandyé. This same hope is what has kept you strong through all your years—you must not lose it. I will help you in your endeavor, but I fear I cannot travel with you now. There is much work to be done here in Paräwo, also. The Illuèn will come to your aid also, though they do not know it yet. Therein lies my duty, which I have neglected for far too long: I must convince my own kind to fight. When you need us, we will be ready.”

“Thank you, my dear friend,” Brandyé said. “There is just one other thing that concerns me.”

“It is the weapon of Darkness, is it not?” Elỳn said.

Brandyé nodded. “It is still somewhere in this world, and I have seen it. It is no longer where it once was, but I know the Duithèn will not rest until it is found. It must not fall into their possession.”

“Perhaps on your travels you will find it,” she replied, “but do not put your hope in it. The union of the world is more important. Even with Namrâth in his hand, Goroth was once defeated. The Duithèn can be defeated again.”

“I certainly hope so.”

Elỳn opened her arms to him then, and in his anxiety, fear and hope, he fell into her embrace.

Brandyé was well prepared when he finally set out from the Illuèn island, for they had provided him with ample food, repaired the many rents in his cloak (he would not trade it for a new one, for it was a memory of Khana), and filled his pockets with quarrels for his crossbow. As best as he could recall, he and Elven had spent some three weeks traveling in the Trestaé before being rescued by the Illuèn, but much of that time Elven had been gravely injured, and he doubted it would take so long to return.

Nonetheless, it would not be a straightforward journey, for then, they had been setting out with no great destination in mind. Now, he had to find a single cabin in the midst of the expansive Trestaé mountains, and he was only certain that it lay somewhere south of the Illuèn island.

Even Elỳn could not help him on this journey, for she had not been with him then. Only Elven might have had some memory of where his family had built their home, and he was many miles away, unaware of Brandyé’s existence at all.

So he set out southward, and once he had passed the ending of the great lake he was entirely on his own, passing through trees that looked all too alike for his comfort. He remembered how he had once spent days in the Trestaé seemingly circling back on himself over and over, and wondered if such a thing might happen to him again. If so, he might find his death in the Trestaé before ever finding the family of his friend.

He was also afraid, despite his preparations when setting out, that he would finally be set upon by the beasts of the wild. Ever since he and Elỳn had entered the Trestaé, there had been a suspicious absence of Dark creatures that he knew all too well lived here among the trees, and he knew it was only a matter of time before they discovered him. He had known this was a danger in setting out himself, and was not certain what he would do against a whole host of fierundé—after all, there were no Illuèn now to protect him.

But for two weeks he remained unassailed by wolf or bird, and soon the forest started to bear certain familiar features: he saw patches of corinthiaë here and there, though he left them well alone, and knew that the plant had grown in the vicinity of the Dotterys’ home. He began to think that every tree he passed was one he had seen before, and when he came across a stream, he wondered if it was that where he had first met Ermèn.

There finally came a day when he felt he had traveled south far enough, and that if he were to continue much further he would have passed his destination by entirely. Yet he was uncertain if he should travel west or east from this point, and the difficulty of finding a single point in such a wilderness began to fully dawn on him. He set a fire that night, and in the darkness contemplated his choices. He knew that if he continued south he would eventually pass through the Trestaé entirely, perhaps even reaching Consolation again. If he went east he would arrive at the coast of Thaeìn, perhaps in the vicinity of Voènarà, where he had been cast ashore with Khana. And west held the black sea that he had little desire to return to.

He dozed through the night, and come the morning he ate a light breakfast before packing to continue. But as he was filling his pack for the day, he suddenly felt a presence near at hand: a feeling that he was being watched, though it was not unpleasant. He stood and looked about him, and there, not more than a dozen feet away, was a wolf.

It was not fierund, though, and it was entirely alone. This in itself was odd, for wolves, he knew, were rarely to be found without a pack. But as he gazed upon the wolf, it returned his stare intently, and he saw the thin black streak of fur beneath its jaw and a smile graced his lips. “Ermèn?” he asked aloud.

The wolf, unsurprisingly, did not answer. However, at his words it approached him, and as he watched in bemusement the creature circled him several times, then set out into the woods. After a few yards it stopped, turned back to look at him, and he knew then it meant for him to follow it. He took a few steps in its direction, and seemingly content, the wolf turned and carried forward.

So Brandyé gained a companion, and without a shadow of doubt in his mind he followed the wolf wherever it might lead him, certain that it would be to better things. For several further nights the wolf stayed by his side, curling beside him at night in the warm glow of the fire, and walking beside him during the day, always a step ahead, leading Brandyé this way and that through the woods.

Soon, Brandyé began to feel a growing familiarity with his surroundings that went beyond just the presence of a plant or two, and a hope began to fill his heart that he was nearing his journey’s end. He knew that this wolf was a herald of Ermèn, for it had preceded the old man’s presence once before, and he felt safe in its presence.

But then, one day as they were making their way through a tangle of brambles, the wolf suddenly stopped, and as Brandyé watched, it began to sniff the air cautiously. Suddenly the creature bared its teeth and growled, a low and dangerous sound, and Brandyé grew concerned for it had never demonstrated this behavior before. As he stripped away the last few brambles from his cloak and stepped into the clearing, the wolf suddenly lowered its haunches, and without warning, bolted into the trees.

“Hey!” Brandyé called, but the wolf had soon vanished from sight. For a moment Brandyé thought of pursing it, but he knew he would only lose himself, and turned, looking about the forest with concern, uncertain what to do next.

As he stood, it occurred to him that the forest was unsettlingly quiet: he could not hear a single bird, nor even a breath of wind, and a chill crept its way down his spine. Had the wolf been scared off by something? And if so, what? For a long moment he stood, waiting, but nothing approached him.

For a long time, then, Brandyé stayed put, peering into the distance, waiting for something dreadful. After a moment he closed his eyes, wondering if he might hear what he could not see, and indeed, as he did the sound of padded paws on the forest floor came to his ears. His heart sank, for he knew all too well what was coming. With hardly a thought he drew forth Fahnat-om, and as he opened his eyes again, his eyes focused first on the silver blade before him, and then into the distance, where the first fierund was appearing amongst the trees.

It was as large and dreadful as he could remember, sleek gray fur that spoke of bristles as hard as nails, long, razor-sharp fangs, and the ever-horrifying eyes that glowed red and spoke of an utter, terrifying Darkness. As it drew near he could smell the death on its breath, and he lifted Fahnat-om between himself and the beast.

But before he could strike—before the fierund could even launch itself upon him—there came a sudden commotion from the trees around them, and in a blur of fury there launched from the woods not one wolf, but a whole pack of wolves, his own companion at their head. With hardly a pause the wolves set themselves upon the fierund, leaping onto its back and snapping their jaws at its throat. The fierund, clearly taken aback by the wolves’ audacity, at first merely let out a howl and pawed at the creatures that were besetting it.

As the creature of Darkness realized, however, that these wolves were more than just a nuisance, it began to snarl, and launched itself into their midst. Brandyé saw it clamp its jaws shut on one of the many wolves, the poor creature howling in agony and despair. A sudden fury took him, and with Fahnat-om at the ready he burst into the fray, driving his sword deep into the fierund’s shoulder.

This was a pain that the fierund had not been expecting, and it released the wolf in its teeth to contend with this new threat. An enormous paw swept across Brandyé, knocking him clear and sending Fahnat-om flying. As Brandyé tried to regain his feet the fierund reared its head, and as he scrambled amongst the dirt and leaves he turned his gaze to see the unnaturally wide jaws mere inches from his face.

Before the terrible creature could deliver a blow, however, nearly a dozen wolves leapt upon it at once, and the fierund was knocked clean to the forest floor, its jaws snapping shut on air. Hardly daring to breathe, Brandyé raced forward, snatching Fahnat-om from where it had fallen, and turned once more to face the fierund. Under a pile of wolves it was clearly trying to regain its feet, and with a cry of rage and terror Brandyé moved forward upon it once again, and brought Fahnat-om down fiercely upon its head.

The blade bit deep into the creature’s flesh, and it let loose a terrible howl of pain. It leapt to its feet, knocking the many wolves aside, and stood facing Brandyé, who returned its furious gaze with terror and determination. If the wolves would protect him, he thought, he would do no less for them.

But the fierund, it seemed, was second-guessing its attack now, for it did not move against Brandyé again; rather, it looked about it at the circle of wolves, and with a cry of rage burst through the wolves and fled into the forest. Brandyé stood for a moment, heaving breath, and was entirely unbelieving that the fierund was gone for good. Surely, he thought, it would return—perhaps with companions.

But after several minutes, in which the wolves circled around him protectively, there was no sign of further attack, and he began to relax his guard. Not entirely—there were clearly now fierundé about him in the woods—but enough that he felt he could sheathe Fahnat-om, and bend to the wolves that were still about him as dogs. “Thank you,” he uttered to them, and as one they lifted their throats to the sky and split the air with a deafening howl, and Brandyé thought that if the fierundé had thoughts of pursuing him again, they might think twice now.

On the heels of this thought came a voice from behind, and it was so sudden and unexpected that Brandyé whirled, drawing Fahnat-om once again. But even as his body reacted, his mind heard the voice and knew who it was, and as he faced the person now standing in the woods he grinned, sword in hand. “Ermèn?”

“Are you going to cut me down, or follow me home?” the old man said with bemusement, and Brandyé stared at the sword in his hand, and then to the persona he had been hoping desperately to see for over a month now.

“I was just attacked!” he said. “The wolves … they saved me.”

Ermèn raised an eyebrow. “Then where are they now?”

Confused, Brandyé looked back to the circle of wolves … only to find that in the blink of an eye, they had slunk off into the woods and disappeared. Confused, he turned back to Ermèn, and then back to the missing wolves, before saying, “Did you see … are you … Ermèn! It’s so good to see you!”

“Were you expecting perhaps someone else?”

Brandyé laughed aloud to hear the old man’s incessant questioning again. “Only my death. Are we near your home?”

“Have you ever known me to wander far?”

Brandyé shook his head in amusement, despite the recent threat on his life. “Please—will you take me to your home? I have been wandering far, for far too long.”

“Ah! A long-lost traveler!” Ermèn exclaimed. “Are you hungry?”

Brandyé smiled, and followed Ermèn into the woods once more, and felt more at home that he had felt, it seemed, in decades.

Over tea and stew, Brandyé spoke to Ermèn, and Ermèn listened attentively, of all that had transpired since their last meeting. As it had been with Elỳn, it was a long tale, and several times he looked to Ermèn to try and gauge the old man’s reaction, but Ermèn remained oddly quiet throughout, until Brandyé had spoken his last word, drunk his last sip of tea, and sipped the last of the gravy from his bowl. Only then did he speak, and only to say, “You have been through much, it seems. And you have grown in many ways—would you not agree?”

“I have,” Brandyé agreed. “And I feel I have a better understanding of the world, and its destiny. From the very beginning, it seems, the Duithèn have sought to conquer all. And I still believe they can be stopped—but it will be harder than I ever suspected.”

“Was it ever an easy proposition?” Ermèn asked.

“No, but before I thought I could stop Darkness through nothing more than my own resilience, or perhaps by finding Namrâth. But now I see that there are dangerous forces against the people of Erâth regardless. And—Ermèn, I have seen so much of the world now, perhaps more than any other I know—do you think there is a chance—I hope there is—that I could unite the world against Darkness?”

“Such things have been tried before,” Ermèn pointed out, “by the greatest leaders of Erâth. Not all who were asked came.”

“But enough did,” Brandyé persisted. “The Illuèn, Erârün and Kiriün—they fought together.”

“Are they as strong now as they were then?”

Brandyé realized this was a valid point. “They aren’t,” he conceded. “But there are others who might come to our aid—the Hochtraë, the Cosari …”

“What of the Dragon Lords?”

“I thought they were extinct.”

“They have not been seen or heard of in a thousand years,” Ermèn said. “Does that mean they are all dead?”

“Are you trying to say I should seek them out?”

“They lived far to the north, beyond the great mountains where the Hochtraë dwell. It would be a great journey there.”

Brandyé shook his head. “Then I have no time. I must convince Kiriün and Erârün to unite, and then I must send word to the Cosari and the Hochtraë as well. I have so much to do, Ermèn—and I have very little time in which to do it.”

“You need some help, perhaps?”

Brandyé raised his eyebrows. “It would be helpful—but who?”

“Your friend rules an entire kingdom, does he not?” Brandyé was hardly taken aback, though he had not even mentioned that he knew this; after all, Ermèn had always seemed to know things before they were spoken. “Perhaps he has resources you do not?”

“I must see him,” Brandyé acknowledged, “but I would see his family first. Are they well, do you know?”

“What is well?”

Brandyé rolled his eyes at Ermèn’s decidedly typical answer. “Do you know if they are still alive, and here in the Trestaé?”

Ermèn shrugged. “I only speak to them every week; who knows if they are still well since last week?”

But Brandyé was relieved nonetheless. “Would you accompany me?” he asked. “I would see them as soon as I can.”

“In the dark?” Ermèn pointed out.

Brandyé realized he had not kept track of the time, and that in Ermèn’s underground home there was no telling the lightness outside. “Perhaps tomorrow, then.”

Ermèn smiled. “Perhaps tomorrow. For now, let us sleep—it will do you well.”

Brandyé agreed, and allowed Ermèn to lead him to the room in which he had stayed so many years ago. It was just as he remembered it, and he was soon fast asleep.

Come the morning, after a breakfast of toast, jam and tea (Brandyé still did not know where Ermèn got his food from), they set out together through the woods in the misty morning, and though they walked in silence it was pleasant. Brandyé had oddly little fear of fierundé, despite the appearance of one so near where they now tread, because somehow he could not imagine the beasts of Darkness attacking Ermèn.

It was not long before they came upon the little wood cabin that held the Dotterys, and it was a wonderful sight to see for Brandyé, for it looked as cozy and well-tended as he remembered it. He realized only then that he had been afraid they would come upon it abandoned and overgrown, despite Ermèn’s words, and he was relieved to hear voices from within.

Yet as they approached the door, a thing caught his eye that gave him pause: in the distance, almost out of sight, was a flat, upright stone buried partway into the ground. At first he was uncertain what it was, until he realized it for what it was: a tombstone. And then he grew anxious and sad, for he knew their number had been reduced by one, and he was afraid to know who it was.

But Ermèn knocked on the door, and he heard one of the voices—a woman’s, from the sound of it—come closer. Brandyé’s anxiousness grew, and felt a fluttering in his breast that he had not had in years—possibly since the last time he had stood on this doorstep. He heard the unlatching of a lock, and the door swung open, and there standing before him was a slightly grayer, but unmistakably familiar, Arian. He smiled nervously as her eyes widened, and she stuttered, “Brand … Brandyé?”

“May we come in?” asked Ermèn, as though nothing was the matter, and at his unassuming tone Arian stood back and let them enter without a word. Brandyé looked about the cabin with both gladness and nervousness, for each face he saw told him they were not the one under ground, yet it narrowed down the possibilities. Timothaï was there, as was Julia, but there was no sign of Maria or her husband, Erik.

Then, from the back part of the home came bursting a child, and Brandyé was utterly surprised, for it was a youthfulness he had not been expecting amongst the family. The child was perhaps three or four, a girl, and she stopped when she saw Brandyé and Ermèn. “Uncle Ermèn!” she cried, and rushed to embrace the old man, and Brandyé could not help but smile at the thought. When she pulled away she looked to Brandyé quizzically, and said, “Who are you?”

Brandyé knelt down to her level, and said, “I am a very old friend of your family. What is your name?”

“I’m Kyrie,” the little girl said with distinct pride.

“That’s a pretty name,” Brandyé said, and the girl smiled. “Where is your mother?”

“Kyrie? Who are you speaking to?” came a voice from beyond, and Brandyé looked up to see Maria entering the room.

“This is a very old friend, mommy!” she said, “only he doesn’t look very old, like uncle Ermèn.”

“Brandyé?” gasped Maria, and at the word Arian seemed to be brought out of some spell, for she finally seemed able to speak again.

“How are you here? Where have you come from? Does Elven know you’re alive? We all thought …”

“That I was dead,” Brandyé nodded. “I suppose I must have thought so too, for a while at least. But I’m not—at least not yet. Arian—It is wonderful to see you again.”

“And you, son,” said Timothaï, who had approached in the meantime. “I can’t say how glad my heart is to see a familiar face. These have been a difficult past few years.” Instinctively, Brandyé glanced back in the direction of the tombstone, and Timothaï said, “It was Erik, I’m afraid. Two years ago, this winter. Maria still mourns him every day, though Kyrie, thankfully, doesn’t remember.”

“I’m sorry,” Brandyé said.

“Thank you,” Maria said as she, too approached. “But please—can we not dwell on sadness? This should be a glad day!”

“Indeed,” said Ermèn. “How long has it been, my friends?”

“I fear I’ve quite lost count of the seasons,” Timothaï said, “though it has been at least eight.”

“Nearer to ten, as I’ve been told,” Brandyé said. “You look so well!”

“As do you,” Elven’s father replied. “Come—we were just settling in to lunch; will you join us?”

So Brandyé was reunited with the Dotterys after an age, and for a time, at least, he was happy—amongst friends, safe in their cabin, there was little to worry about, it seemed. As they began to eat their bread, he wondered if this was not a better life altogether—away from the trappings of civilization, there was also no concern, no war, no politics; the Dotterys seemed as simple and as happy as ever.

It was sad to him, then, to know that it could not last; that he would, come the ending of the winter, be once more setting out into the wild, in search of those very things that the Dotterys had hitherto managed to avoid. He wished that he could stay with them, but he knew that he could not allow the world to fall—that his destiny was elsewhere. Still, he told himself—he would enjoy their company for as long as he could. For the first time in a long while, Brandyé allowed his mind to drift, to take in the casual conversation, and he smiled.

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