Brandyé of course did not die of his illness that winter, and in fact recovered not long after having been thrown into the snow by his grandfather. Reuel seemed somewhat ill-disposed for some time after, however; it was uncertain if he had merely caught the cold that had afflicted Brandyé, or if he was disaffected by coming so near to losing his grandson and the wild things Brandyé had uttered while under the mad influence of his fever.
For many weeks, Reuel did not leave the house other than to go out, well-wrapped, for small provisions. The worst of the winter weather had passed, and they found themselves less in need of firewood, which was fortunate as the pile outside the house had grown ever smaller. Reuel did not even visit the Burrow Wayde on the weekends, to the point where the regular patrons began to wonder where he had got to and what exactly was happening with the odd little family of two that lived at the top of the hill.
Brandyé’s sleep was again fitful and blank, and he did not travel during his sleep again, either to distant ocean cities or dark woods. Yet he could not clear his mind of what he had seen, both with his waking and his sleeping eyes. The memory of the fierund among the distant moorland trees was ever clear and precise, and how the beast had emerged from the woods and gazed upon him directly, as though it knew almost who he was. The memory of the seven wolves in the far distant forest was yet sharper, for they had been nigh upon him before the dark figure had emerged from the trees. The claws, the fur, the long and dangerous teeth were nothing to the dismal, haunting red eyes, whose gaze bore through his soul and emptied his mind of all that was good and right.
Yet above all, the one memory that remained untainted by fear, thought, or the passage of time was that of the woman in black. Of her he was not afraid, yet knew she was of great importance. Her pale, cold skin held not a trace of age, and she might have been twenty or two hundred years old. He remembered the darkness of her robes and the way they reflected no light, and he remembered her eyes, which were of equal blackness and deep beyond measure. He remembered the jewel, dark and crimson, the color of blood, which hung at her breast and was the only mark of color upon her at all. He felt he could stare endlessly into the depths of that jewel; he saw every detail, the silver adornment at its top, the tiny loop that bound it to the cord that looped around her neck, and the way in which the color deep within it seemed to dance and change and draw life into itself.
And also he remembered her voice, clear and pure. She had spoken in a tongue he did not recognize, yet it seemed familiar, and he did not understand this. She had called him by his name and had smiled at him, and he was sure she had also known him, as had the fierundé. And while the intent of the fierundé seemed clear, what this woman in black had to do with him was beyond his reasoning. She had seemed kind, yet cold, and there was such a sense of darkness about her that he was intimidated. One word kept coming back to his mind as he thought of her, and that word was Death.
It was well into spring before either Brandyé or Reuel felt well enough to spend a great deal of time out of doors, and the snow had long since left the moors. As Brandyé began to leave the house once more, Reuel cautioned him about the northern valley, but he need not have worried; Brandyé had no interest in going anywhere near the place where the fierund had been. Rather, he was anxious to find his friend, Elven, and tell him all that had happened over the winter.
Brandyé was particularly comfortable visiting Elven at his own home, for his parents, Timothaï and Arian, were two of the few adults in Burrowdown who did not mind Reuel and him. For them, the strangeness of Reuel’s past and the circumstances of Brandyé’s birth were not of their concern, and they saw but an old man who cared deeply for his grandson. They felt sorry that Reuel had lost not only a wife but a daughter also, and saw how important Brandyé was to him.
The Dotterys had four children: Elven and his three sisters. The two older sisters professed little interest in what the ‘little boys’ did, and indeed the eldest, Maria, was already engaged to a local farmhand and was due to be wed in the autumn. The second eldest, Julia, though very pretty, seemed to spurn the attention of the boys her age, and instead spent her focus on artistic creation. She could draw with charcoal like no one Brandyé had ever seen, and her handiwork—from woven baskets to rugs and great, multicolored candles that could burn with different colored flames—was second to none, and she sold much of it, though her parents worried that she would not make things that were generally more useful.
The youngest Dottery was Sonora, two years younger than Elven and enamored of the two older boys. When she was younger, she thought them very brave and daring, especially when they would return from an adventure scratched and bloodied, grinning like fools and talking of their feats as though their very lives had been in danger (quite possibly, sometimes with truth). She listened to their adventures, her bright green eyes wide with wonder, and Elven and Brandyé, pleased to have such a willing audience, enjoyed very much regaling her with their exploits.
Elven was very fond of Sonora and used often to bring small gifts back for her when he and Brandyé returned from their play—sometimes an unusual flower from a distant meadow, or a pocketful of ripe berries (which hopelessly stained Elven’s vest and got him in much trouble with his mother). She delighted in these small gifts and longed to go with her older brother on his adventures and share in the wonder of exploration.
Brandyé found that he very much enjoyed Sonora’s company also, though he could not quite express why. He began to look forward to seeing her as much as Elven each time he came to visit, and it was more than just the chance to repeat Reuel’s tales. Sonora enjoyed these, and Brandyé, remembering Reuel’s embellishments, discovered that a number of Reuel’s stories suddenly had heroes who were women, and Sonora grew to believe in her own strength, as an equal to that of men.
By the time she was old enough to be allowed to go with them, however, Brandyé and Elven no longer had an interest in childish play, and so Sonora grew as they did, partaking in their conversations as though she were their equal, and not their junior. The two boys did not mind this in the slightest, and Sonora soon became a welcome third member of their group. Sonora brought with her a fresh perspective on many of the discussions between Brandyé and Elven, and her knack for asking insightful questions often put Brandyé to shame. It was she who first made Brandyé think about the village boys from their own perspective and ask himself why they felt so strongly about making Brandyé’s and Elven’s lives so miserable.
These village boys continued to pose a problem to Brandyé and Elven, for they continued to be confronted whenever they entered the village together. Sometimes the village boys would merely tease and call insults after them, but other times they would be stopped in their path and refused passage. It was at these times that Sonora spoke up, much to Elven’s horror, and would say in no uncertain terms exactly what she thought of them. Since she was young and a girl, the boys would not fight her, but Elven would not tolerate their insults and brought the fight to them. Then Brandyé would step in, and a great fight would ensue between the boys, with Sonora all the while kicking at their tormentors with all her might.
For the most part they were able to keep these altercations to themselves, for they were certain that should Mrs. Dottery discover that her youngest daughter was being involved in the fights of older boys, she would be banned from accompanying them and they would most likely not see the following morning. However, there was one boy in the town, Ben, who did not seem to care who suffered under his fists, and they did all they could to avoid him. He was the son of a generally disliked farmer and had grown rapidly, only to be proportionally slow in wit. He seemed to have taken a particularly strong dislike to Brandyé and delighted in tormenting him whenever he saw him.
“Such a giblet your mother didn’ even want you!” he called out to Brandyé once, and both boys went home with split lips. Brandyé came to despise Ben, but was smart enough to know that he could not beat him in a fair fight and so led Elven and Sonora away in the opposite direction whenever he saw him.
However, there came a time when Ben could not be avoided, for he found them in the corner between two shops, and his lip curled unpleasantly as their conversation stopped abruptly.
“Leave us alone,” Brandyé said coldly.
“I don’ take orders from freaks,” Ben replied, mocking.
“Then I’ll tell you to leave us alone!” said Sonora, causing Elven to bite his lip and grasp her arm.
“I don’ take no orders from freaks’ friends, neither,” Ben said scornfully.
“What do you want?” asked Brandyé. He wanted nothing more than to finish this business with Ben and return to their conversation, but he was unsure if he had the skill to talk Ben out of violence.
“I don’ know,” said Ben. “P’rhaps you give me what money you got, and I’ll be lettin’ you go fer today.”
Brandyé was in fact willing to do so, but Sonora spoke up. “Why don’t you give us your money, and go away before we beat you, you slug face!”
Ben’s glower strengthened, and he turned on Sonora. “What did you call me?”
“I said you’re a—” Her voice was cut off as Elven clapped a hand over her mouth.
“She didn’t say anything,” Elven said with a weak voice.
“Say that one more time,” threatened Ben. “I dare you.”
Suddenly Sonora bit Elven’s hand, and as he cried out and released her, she shouted, “Your face looks like a slug, and you’ve got the same brains!”
Ben’s arm lashed out so quickly neither Elven nor Brandyé saw it; all they knew was that Sonora was on the ground, her nose bleeding and tears coming to her eyes. Elven’s eyes widened in rage, and he flung himself at Ben, knocking him to the ground. He drew back to land a blow, but Brandyé caught his arm. “No! We need to get Sonora home, now!”
Reluctant, Elven nodded and rose, giving Ben a swift kick before helping Brandyé haul Sonora from the ground. Together they held Sonora, who through her tears continued to shout insults at Ben as they sped away.
There was no hiding the evidence of this fight, and Sonora was swiftly forbidden from accompanying her older brother on his daily outings. Elven himself was forbidden from leaving the house entirely for a week, and when he and Brandyé reunited (Brandyé having been in as much trouble with Reuel), they decided that they would avoid the village entirely for a time.
Instead, they began to walk for miles in the open countryside to the south of Burrowdown, and one day they came upon a tree, solitary and old, atop a low hill, perhaps three or four miles from the village. It was an ancient oak, whose branches began low and whose highest leaves swayed in the breeze some hundred feet above. Elven named the tree Soleheart, for he said it was a brave tree to live for so long alone at the top of a hill. Naturally, it was an excellent climbing tree, and Brandyé and Elven soon found themselves visiting the tree nearly every day, scaling it sometimes for nearly three-quarters of its height. Just before the branches became too thin to support their weight, there grew a particular tangle of branches upon which they could quite comfortably sit, side by side, and look out upon what felt like all the lands of Consolation. There was nothing to be seen in all directions except further fields and countryside, and they would spend hours enjoying the isolation, talking about their pasts and their futures, what they saw themselves doing when they were adults, and how much they would like to see Ben fall face-first in the mud. Occasionally they would forget the passage of time, and only start the journey home when the sun began to sink below the western horizon. They would be scolded if they returned home in the dark, but it was worth it to them, for it seemed no one else in all the world knew of this spot.
Unbeknownst to all, Sonora had begun to follow them secretly, for she was strong-minded and unwilling to be kept at home while her friends went out and enjoyed the world. It was not long before she too knew of the great oak atop the hill, and envied them for their secret spot and wished she could be up in the branches with them. She knew her parents would be furious if they knew she was once more following them, and so remained hidden in the tall grass, silent, until they started back, when she would follow them secretly all the way home.
It became such that she knew the way to the hill without needing to follow the two boys, and often she would pass ahead of them and arrive at the tree before them. One day, having passed them as they stopped to watch a wild cat devour a small frog, she was very much surprised to find that when she arrived at Soleheart, there were already people there.
Six boys, including Ben, were gathered near the base of the tree, and seemed to be surrounding something that lay upon the ground. Some of them were pointing and laughing, and she grew uneasy at the sinister sound. There was no doubt these were vile boys, and she felt a sudden and surprising hate rise in her gut, and a fury that they were treating some living thing with such cruelty.
At the same time, there were six of them and only one of her, and they were all considerably older than she was. Shaking with fear and with anger, she drew herself closer to the circle of boys, keeping low in the grass all the while.
As she approached them, she heard over the shouts and jeers a sudden squawk, and a moment later saw the object of their torture. To her horror, a small bird, flapping awkwardly and clearly hurt, was crawling around among the boys, attempting pathetically to escape their taunts. It had a short curved beak and its feet ended in sharp talons, but one of its wings was clearly bent, and it was scrabbling at the earth in terror. Some of the boys were throwing stones, and cheered if one hit home; one was jabbing a stick at it, ensuring it did not escape.
Sonora watched, aghast, and was sickened. Such was her horror that she could not prevent a small cry escaping her lips, and at the sound one of the boys hushed the others and turned toward her. He had a sharp nose and hard features, and she drew back from his penetrating glare, hoping not to be seen.
Sadly she did not escape his gaze, and even as he pointed her out and shouted, “There—do not let her escape!” and she stood to run, two of the boys had raced forward and grasped her arms, and hauled her struggling from the grass to stand before the first boy. He stood taller than the others and commanded a presence that the rest of the boys—even Ben—submitted to willingly. He glared at her. “What are you doing here?”
Sonora did not reply. There was an odd flavor to his accent, and she could tell he was not from Burrowdown. Something about his presence scared her more than just that of a bully, and she choked back sudden tears. She did not want to anger this boy further, and some instinct told her he was waiting for an excuse to do something terrible to her.
He stepped forward and repeated, “What are you doing here? What business does a little girl like you”—he looked her up and down disdainfully—“have here by herself? Are your parents near?” He looked around, and for the tiniest moment seemed uncertain. A tiny thrill of victory shot through Sonora knowing that something could make this boy afraid, but it was not to last: seeing nothing, he turned back to her.
“Are you mute? I spoke to you—you had better answer!”
Sonora bit her lip and said, “Please, let me go. I won’t say a word about what you were doing.”
The boy’s eyes narrowed. “And what exactly were we doing?” he growled.
Once again Sonora was afraid to speak and said nothing.
“Answer!” the boy demanded.
Sonora looked away from him, and her gaze fell upon the bird, still attempting to limp away from them. “You were torturing that poor bird.”
A corner of the boy’s lip curled, and he said, “Perhaps we should torture you instead?”
The fear of harm was rapidly becoming very real, and Sonora began quietly to weep. Swift as a whip, the boy lashed out a hand and slapped her cheek. Her head was flung back, and her cheek stung and grew red.
“How do I know you won’t speak?” the boy said. “Perhaps torture is not enough.” From within his vest he suddenly withdrew a short blade. “Perhaps we should see that you do not return home at all.”
It was at that moment that a voice called out, high and angry: “Oi! Leave her alone!”
The boys turned toward the sound of the voice, and Sonora looked also. Appearing on the far side of the hill stood Elven, fury on his face, and Brandyé beside him, astonished. He was not certain by what he was most surprised—that Sonora had found her way to the hill or that the boys appeared about to cause her great harm. Elven had no such consideration; his only thought was to bring all his might on his sister’s tormentors, and he was not a weak boy.
The tall boy moved away from Sonora, blade in hand, and the others followed. The two who had held her tight released her, and she turned and ran toward her brother, grasping him tightly by the arm.
“Are you all right?” he asked her.
She nodded, tears still in her eyes. “He has a knife, Elven. We should leave, now!”
But Elven appeared to have no intention of leaving. “Filth!” he called out at the boy. “You animal!”
Rapidly becoming equally enraged, Brandyé shouted, “Coward! How dare you threaten a girl half your size? Or are you just afraid to face someone your own size?”
The tall boy approached them with loathing on his face and said, “Your little girl got what was coming to her, and so shall you!” And in a flash, he had whipped his knife up and thrown it mightily at Brandyé and Elven.
Somehow, miraculously, the knife spun in its flight such that when it hit Brandyé, it was the handle and not the blade that struck him in the chest. For a moment Brandyé found his breath frozen, and he looked down, unable to quite believe that he was not dead. He bent to pick up the knife, feeling as though the world around him was moving dreadfully slowly, and straightened, holding it in his hand.
Elven stared at the blade. “Are you insane?” he roared. “You just tried to kill my friend!”
“Such is my right!” screamed the boy, but his words were cut off as Elven threw himself at him and drove him to the ground. Elven swung at him in a blind rage, bloodying his nose with the first hit. Swiftly, the remaining boys fell upon him, tearing at him and kicking him and pulling him by his hair to free their leader from his blows.
Brandyé stood back in shock a moment, then flung the knife into the distance and rushed upon the fight. Sonora stood back, watching now in outright terror, screaming her brother’s name.
Brandyé was not yet so enraged that he was unable to think straight. He saw the boy bringing his foot down upon Elven with the greatest force and came up behind him and wrapped his arm around the boy’s throat. The boy gave a startled, strangled cry, and Brandyé pulled him away from the fight and down to the ground. He drew his arm ever tighter around the boy’s throat until his struggles ceased and his shouts turned from anger to fear, and only then released him and pushed him away. The boy did not get up, but rather lay on the ground, clutching his throat and gasping for breath. Brandyé turned back to Elven and began to feel a deep fear at what he saw.
Despite Brandyé’s help, Elven was yet pitted against five boys, all larger than him, and he was no longer atop the leader. The tall boy had staggered to his feet, and though Brandyé was pleased to see his face bruised, cut, and bleeding (and, he was sure, a tear shining on one cheek), the other four were now on Elven, who lay upon the ground, crying out in anger and pain and unable to rise to defend himself.
Without thought, Brandyé picked up a large branch from the ground and brought it heavily upon the head of the nearest boy. To his astonishment the branch did not break, and the boy wordlessly fell to the ground and did not move. In a moment of surprise, the other three boys turned away from Elven, who took the chance to crawl painfully away from them.
Brandyé faced them, heaving for breaths, and raised the branch for another blow. Ben stood opposite him, and with a snarl rushed upon him. As he did, Brandyé swung the branch; Ben raised an arm to protect himself, and the branch hit solidly with a loud crack. Brandyé thought at first it was the branch itself, but Ben screamed and clutched at his arm, turned, and fled without another word.
Brandyé raised the branch once more, and was then thrown suddenly to his knees and saw for a moment nothing but a flash of light.
He had too soon forgotten about the first boy, the one he had nearly strangled, and as his vision cleared, he saw the stone with which he had been struck drop to the earth beside him. Elven had crawled far enough from them that the remaining boys did not see him, and now bent all their attention on Brandyé.
“Hold him!” the leader shouted, and though Brandyé was pleased to hear tears in his voice, he knew that what was to come was likely to hurt very, very much. His sight was still blurred, but he felt both his arms grasped with painful tightness, and the tall boy now stood before him. He was out of breath and sniffling, but he seethed with fury as he said, “That was my father’s blade. How dare you throw it away like one of your own filthy knives? I swear to you, I will see you dead by the week’s end!” And he brought his boot with all his might into Brandyé’s stomach.
Brandyé once more lost his sight, lost his breath, and vomited on the ground. He thus did not see the second blow, which struck the side of his head and threw him to the ground. He faintly heard the tall boy curse him and sensed that the boys moved away and left. For an age he lay there, the boy’s threat echoing in his ears, and he wondered if he might not die right there under Soleheart.