An Odd Journey
Of all the things that brought Brandyé joy, the one thing he loved more than anything else was listening to his grandfather’s many tales. Not the ones he told at the Burrow Wayde sometimes, though those were enjoyable as well, but rather the ones he would tell in the dark of a winter night, in front of the fire, when it seemed that nothing existed in all the world but their house, alone in the moors. The wind would whistle through the cracks and under the doors and small snowflakes would swirl in the corners of the room, but in front of the fire, all was warm.
Reuel would sit in his armchair to one side, and Brandyé would sit sometimes in his own chair on the other side, and sometimes on the rug before the fire itself, staring into the flames and embers. As his grandfather spoke, it sometimes seemed that Brandyé could see the lands and people of which his grandfather spoke within the dancing flames, and they would sometimes speak to him, even as his grandfather described them. Reuel never gave too much detail, but left enough to Brandyé’s imagination that the images he drew in his mind were more vivid than if they had been painted.
One evening in Brandyé’s tenth year, Reuel asked, “Have I ever told you of how Consolation came to be?”
“No, Grandfather,” Brandyé said. “I would love to hear.”
“We live in a world called Erâth,” Reuel began. “Our land, Consolation, is but a tiny part of the world, even though it seems big and takes weeks to cross from end to end. The greater land we live in is named Thaeìn, and it spans many hundreds of miles in all directions. There are yet more lands to discover, were one to travel far enough and long enough. Their names have been long since forgotten, though it seems we did not live always in Consolation, but came from elsewhere an age ago.
“Long before that—before even the naming of all the lands of Erâth—there was nothing in all the world. There were no men, no beasts, no earth or river; perhaps no light or even dark. The world was formless from edge to edge, unto the ending of Erâth, where the earth now tumbles into eternity. There was no life, no sense; there was no knowledge of any sort.”
“If there was no knowledge, then how do you know about it?” Brandyé asked.
“Don’t interrupt,” his grandfather chided him, and Brandyé was silent again.
“So, there was nothing at all. And then—then there was something. In the forgotten origins of time, seven races came into being, and light entered the world—”
“Erâth?” said Brandyé.
“Do not interrupt,” his grandfather said again. “Yes, Erâth. It was as though all life was brought to the world in an instant, and there were trees and beasts and light and wind and snow. And in this early world, there were seven great races of power. And then, there were the Ageless. Seven Ageless—one for each of the great races of power. The Ageless have always been, and may even be the ones who brought Erâth into existence in the first place. Perhaps the races of Erâth even came from the Ageless. It is not certain. They are—or at the least, were meant to be—forever. They may have been beings of each race granted eternal life; perhaps they were of a provenance other than their races. They watched over the races of power and over Erâth. There was a time when all that took place in all the wide world was under the care of the Ageless, and in the early days of the formation of Erâth, they ensured the survival of each race. But now …” Reuel trailed off and was silent for a moment.
“Which race are we?” Brandyé asked. “And what happened to the other races? And where are the Ageless now?”
Reuel looked at him with sternness. “Who is telling this tale?” he said. “Perhaps we should stop; you are restless, and we can finish another night if you like.”
“I’m sorry, Grandfather. I do want to hear more about the world. I shouldn’t ask so many questions.”
“No,” he replied, chastised by Brandyé’s reply. “You must never stop asking questions.”
“Do continue, Grandfather—please.”
“All right. But be still and listen. We are the race of Men. We do not live where we once did, and we do not live as we once did. The first men—the Ancients—were magical beings. They lived many hundreds of years and could travel an entire land in a day. They could heal the most grievous of wounds and could even bring back the dead. In those days, Men filled Erâth and commanded the lesser creatures, much as we still do with the cattle and sheep. They lived side by side with the other great races of power, and it was such that each race worked together to build the world, and shaped Erâth as one. They grew the trees tall, the rivers wide, and the mountains cold. The scent of dandelion puffs in the spring and the sound of birds—these are all the work of these races working together and are one of the last enduring evidences of their passage.
“Alongside the race of Men, the other races represented the powers of Erâth. One was the race of Life, and another the race of Death; there was a race of Light, and one of Darkness. The others are long-since forgotten, though I believe they were perhaps the most important. These races do not exist any longer, but left Erâth many ages ago when the race of Men fell. There is today to be found no trace of their existence, apart from what can be inferred by the touch of nature that lasts unto this day, as I have said.”
“We fell?” Brandyé asked.
“Yes, we did. We fell far. Look around you—we live in huts, tending the land, and travel on foot. We do not live hundreds of years, nor can we revive the dead.”
Brandyé considered this. “Is there something wrong in this? What if this is the way we are meant to live?”
“That is quite possible. All the magic of the Ancients did not prevent their downfall, or we would still live today as they did. In many ways I would be wary of magic; I have never heard of magic that did not bring harm.
“In any case, the race of Men faded and nearly disappeared. There has been much argument among the wise over the nature of our downfall, but it is my belief that our magic outstripped our power to control it. When men are given great power they are too small to wield, they become jealous, protective.” He leaned closer to Brandyé and spoke now with a lower voice. “I believe there was a great war, so many ages ago it is lost to memory, that covered all of Erâth and wrought the ruin of the land, men, and all the races of Erâth. We lost the power we had, and the magic is gone from the world. But they say there are remnants of the ancient world if you look hard enough and travel far enough. There is a broken bridge that once crossed an entire sea, and in the farthest corner of the world is an island, whose ruined cities were once the greatest in all of Erâth.”
“How did the bridge break?”
“That is a tale for another time, son. Would you put another log on the fire?”
Brandyé picked up a small log from the pile beside the fire and placed it over the embers that were slowly dying. For several minutes there was silence, as together they watched the new wood darken, raise flames, and finally begin to spit and pop as it started to burn.
“It was at this time that Darkness first truly rose against the world. There had always been Darkness, of course, but the magic of Men and the other races of power kept them at bay, and they did not begin to take over the world until there were no longer enough men to withstand it and the other races of power faded and left.
“Eventually—and it took many thousands of years—what was left of the race of Men found the world risen against them; they could no longer survive against the bitterness and the hatred the land had for them. All was lost … and then Consolation was found. It was the last remaining refuge of light in all of Erâth, and it is from these men that we are descended. For the first time in their memories, they found the land welcoming, and they could once more grow crops and raise livestock and live in peace.
“Yet all the while, they feared that Darkness would discover this land, and there would then be nowhere left in Erâth to go and they would become extinct. For thousands of years we have lived with this possibility, but we have had fortune so far and Darkness has not yet crept into Consolation. The folk of our land have all but forgotten, but I do wonder sometimes if it might be inevitable. We are blessed here, but you need not travel far to discover that the rest of the world is not so. Have you ever noticed that the mountains to the north—the Trestaé—are most always shawled with gray and dark clouds? Not far into their valleys, you would discover the trees grow crooked, and the beasts are wild and far stranger than any that roam our lands. You know of the wolves that have sometimes attacked Farmer Tar’s sheep; the creatures that roam those mountains would send them running with their tails between their legs.
“I do not have an explanation for why these creatures have not, in all this time, ventured to descend from those mountains and strike at us. Perhaps they do not need to, knowing that we are so isolated and cannot conquer them. Perhaps there is still some good magic in the world that keeps them at bay. I do not know.”
“Maybe there are other men out there who kill them,” Brandyé said.
Reuel looked at him curiously. “What makes you think there would be other people, not living in Consolation?”
“People say that you left Consolation and you weren’t killed by the beasts. They even say that’s where you found grandmother—in the lands outside of ours.”
Reuel closed his eyes, and a small smile touched his lips. “Yes; that is true. Your grandmother was a magical creature.”
“I thought you said there was no more magic,” said Brandyé.
“I do not mean magic as you might think of it. She had no power, but that does not mean she was not magical. There was something special about her; something I have not seen in almost any other person.”
“You say almost any other. Is there another you have seen it in?”
“Your mother,” he replied. “And you.”
“What was it she had?” Brandyé was curious; he had never thought he had anything special about him, other than that most people did not care for him.
“Curiosity,” said Reuel. “Not being satisfied with a simple answer. Questioning. Your grandmother knew more than any other person I have ever met. But despite that, she never stopped asking questions to the day she died. Do you know what she said to me shortly before she passed away?”
“No,” said Brandyé, who was intrigued. His grandfather did not usually speak of his wife, whom Brandyé had never met. She had died long before he had been born.
“She held my hand—she was very weak by then—and she said to me, ‘All my life I have wondered. I have seen the world and wanted to understand why it is the way it is. I have seen beauty beyond compare, and horror to drive one to madness. In all of these, I have wondered why such things come to pass, and have spent my days seeking the answers to these questions. There are but two things I have never questioned: that you and I should always have met, and that I will see you again.’ The last thing she ever said was, ‘I wonder what death will be like.’”
Brandyé was quiet and looked at his grandfather. He could not be sure in the dim light, but he thought he could see a tear glistening under his eye. Unsettled, he turned back to the fire and watched the log slowly burn, the flames growing lower and lower. Soon, there was nothing left but embers, glowing quietly. The wind rushed outside, and it was dark.
Brandyé was sad, though he knew not why. He had never known his grandmother, any more than he had known his parents. He felt no particular connection to her, yet he was sorry that she had died. Perhaps it was seeing his grandfather, usually so strong, seem so saddened by the memories of his wife. He wondered what it was like to feel that kind of connection to someone else, and whether there was a word for it. He wondered where she had come from, and what it meant that she was not from Consolation. The people he had heard these rumors from seemed to think his grandfather was somehow dangerous, as though he had some hidden power they were afraid of. He realized this was how people reacted to him also, and wondered about his grandfather’s own childhood.
He wanted to ask his grandfather about all these things, but it was now late, and so far Reuel had not spoken again or moved. Uncertain, Brandyé eventually stood up. He looked at his grandfather, who was himself staring into the fire, and said softly, “I’m going to go to bed, Grandfather. Good night.”
Brandyé waited until he saw his grandfather nod, ever so slightly, and then went to bed, content in knowing Reuel would be well.
That night when Brandyé fell asleep, without quite being aware, he found himself somewhere else, somewhere he had never seen before in his life.
It was a place entirely unlike anywhere he had ever been in Consolation. Almost everything seemed to be made of stone, yet not a stone he knew; it was far too flat, far too smooth to be hewn from rock or cliff. The ground was made of this stuff; the walls of the buildings around him were also, where they were not made of glass. Looking up, he almost expected the sky to be made of this odd stone, and was relieved to find a blue sky staring back down at him.
It seemed he was standing in a kind of street, but the only street Brandyé knew was the uneven, well-worn road that led to the stone bridge over the Burrow from the south, and this was as unlike that as a nut is to a tree. These streets appeared to continue in unending straight lines, and as Brandyé peered down them, he saw nothing but further streets, walled on all sides by the vast, great stone structures.
The buildings themselves were extremely odd. These stone edifices were vast; some stretched hundreds of feet into the sky and continued off into the distance beyond sight. They were made of the same strange stone as everything else, but this stone seemed to serve only as a frame to the buildings; between huge pillars stretched vast panes of glass. Brandyé had never seen anything of their like; they made the windows of his grandfather’s parlor seem like small peepholes by comparison.
The second thing Brandyé noticed was that these buildings seemed ruined, every single one. As the buildings climbed into the sky, he saw that they were topped by jagged, uneven, and crumbled edges. Rubble was upon the ground, and there were many cracks in the walls of glass all around him. He looked to his feet and saw they left prints in thick dust, spread gently over every surface. The broken spires, shattered glass, and rotting stone gave Brandyé the sense of standing in the ancient skeleton of a gargantuan beast, one whose bones had long since turned to stone and its skin to glass, and he felt very small.
The third thing he noticed was that he was utterly, entirely alone. He continued to peer about and saw nothing. There was no sound, no smell, no sign that anything lived in this place at all. He shivered, for he had never been in a place of such desolation. Even in the great expanse of the moorlands near his home, where no one ever went, there were sounds and there were smells: the bitter scent of heather, the mustiness of earth, the call of wagtails and scratching chirp of crickets, and the harsh whistle of the wind. Yet there was none of that here.
He began to feel uneasy; he did not understand how he came to be here, and was worried about how, and whether, he would return home. He felt very far from home. He took a few steps forward; his feet made a soft pat on the ground and echoed dismally. The dust beneath his feet stirred and was then still once more. He stopped again and looked around. Such isolation was unnatural; though he did not believe it to be so, it was perhaps possible that someone was watching him. He waited many minutes, but no one appeared.
He moved on, continuing in a line between the high walls of buildings. Around him, the silence grew ever thicker, and he began to realize he was wandering in a place of death. From here all life had once been taken, and such had been the terrible despair that in all those ages, nothing had returned—not one flower, nor a bird, nor a breath of air. Though it was not warm, the air was stifling, and he found himself taking long breaths, and tasted age.
He was drawn onward and stepped past structure after structure, building upon building, and thought better of pausing to enter one. In a place such as this, where many had certainly died, it seemed improper to disturb more than he must. He would have stopped where he was, but knew not how he was to return home and hoped only that an answer lay ahead.
After many minutes, he came upon a large space where there were no buildings, a crossroads of sorts, where two wide roads met. Standing tall in the center of this crossing stood a monument, tall as a tree, carved from stone in the form of seven immense figures, shrouded in cloaks. Each one faced a different direction, with one arm outstretched, palm upward and open, as though indicating something of great importance lay in that direction. The figures were not equal in stature, and while at least one had the form of a man, others were not so clear. One seemed too tall, too thin, to be a man, and another’s face, though deeply shrouded and poorly visible, seemed lacking in features entirely.
The work of ages on these stone figures bestowed on them an aura of great sadness; they stood, alone, left to watch eternally over a land whose peoples had long since left or died. Brandyé was unsettled, for these people seemed to be of a world far removed from the one he knew, and as discomfiting as it was to be lost and alone in such a place of despair, the sight of these long-forgotten stone people served only to reinforce the eternal ages that had passed since any living thing last called this place home.
The road Brandyé had been following continued on beyond the statues, and it was in this direction he now continued; he was gladdened to leave behind these totems of despair. For many more minutes he continued to pace ahead through the dreadful quiet, and began now to fear his isolation. He moved on.
Ahead, there now appeared to be a change of horizon; no building loomed before him, but something else, something empty. As he drew nearer, he began to see light glistening and shimmering. Slowly, the buildings diminished behind him, and he came upon a sight that ceased his breath.
Beneath his feet was sand; before him was water. It was of a size beyond his reckoning; he had visited a lake once with his grandfather, and this was a thousandfold greater than that, and more. To the north and south it stretched on without end, disappearing beyond the horizon unimaginable leagues distant. The sun hung low in the east and turned the place to gold and ember. It glinted off the low waves of the water and dazzled Brandyé’s sight. It seemed unmoving; as he stood, still and awed, it neither rose nor set, but stayed put as though it were ever twilight.
It was the horizon over which the sun hung, the eastern horizon, that Brandyé was unable to comprehend. While the sea stretched infinitely to the north and south, it ended to the east. Brandyé knew of no other word to describe what his eyes saw. Perhaps two miles distant, the sea simply stopped. There was no other land, nor was there more water. A white mist danced beyond this ending, rising gently from beyond the sea and dissolving as it rose toward the frozen sun. It appeared as though the entire sea was plummeting wholly off the edge of an unfathomable precipice. Brandyé had the strongest impression that he stood facing the very edge of the world itself.
He knew not where he might go from here. He did not wish to turn back in the direction from which he had come, if for no other reason than to avoid the terrible and lonely statues that now stood behind him. Yet forward he could go no farther, for he had not the means to make a boat, and it seemed he would not voyage far to the east if he did. He did not wish to know what lay beyond the cataract that he felt must surely lie that way.
If the sun would not set, he reasoned, it would not become night, and so he sat upon the sand and gazed out to the sea and stared at the sun, which for all its gold was dim and did not hurt his eyes. For many hours it seemed he remained so, and he did not move such that the sand beneath him did not even shift. No thought entered his mind, and eventually he began to feel sleep upon him.
Though the sun had not yet moved in the sky, he thought his vision began to darken, and he lay down and saw the sky above, saw scattered clouds, and saw they too did not move. He lay there for what seemed like many hours more, and slowly he felt himself sink into the sand; he realized he was glad, because he desired now nothing more than to leave this place. All the while his sight grew darker, and eventually he saw nothing at all.