The Road to Daevàr’s Hut
It was two years before Brandyé was to see Elven again. Though Daevàr’s Hut was a comfortable six-day ride from Burrowdown, this made it nearly a month by foot, especially over the rough country. The south coach (and its return) was expensive, and as an apprentice Elven earned no pay. As for Brandyé, though he and Reuel were not strictly short for coinage, travel was not undertaken without purpose, and they had no business in Daevàr’s Hut that would warrant the journey.
Instead, Brandyé busied himself with his outdoor pursuits. Despite the happiness he felt when he was with Sonora, there were nonetheless times when he would look around the countryside to see no one there, and his misery in isolation would return. When he was not with her, he would wander the empty parts of the countryside with his crossbow and would practice shooting until he was able to hit the smallest of marks from over a hundred feet. He found an empty kind of happiness—a distraction, perhaps—in this, and he became very good, yet he could not see what Reuel knew; his dejectedness prevented him from seeing this as a valuable skill. What good was there in a talent for weapons in a land where such instruments were outlawed?
Despite his increasing confidence in bowmanship, he would not hunt. He kept to his vow not to kill a beast needlessly, and Reuel had begun to return to the village market and would get what bacon they needed from there. Though he was still held in contempt by the village people, they had begun to feel the weight of their enslavement to the Fortunaé’s new tax. Already, two families had been turned out of their homes for disobeying the lord’s commands and providing less than the requisite eight tithes, and they had not the money or skill to rebuild their ruined houses. Reuel’s prophecy came to be true, however, and the Fortunaé began to offer commodities and food to the villagers at greatly exaggerated prices. Thus, they were now no longer hungry, but instead very poor, and welcomed Reuel’s coins, which seemed to be in no short supply and for which they despised him.
In this way two years passed for Brandyé, with the summers spent in the company of Sonora and the winters in that of Reuel. Throughout it all, Brandyé alternated from happiness to despair, and found himself wishing that Elven had never left and that things could return to the way they once were.
He wasn’t sure if it was his dejection that influenced his perception, but it seemed to him also that the snows grew deeper with each passing year and the winters longer. Even the skies seemed darker, and the trees and flowers bloomed later than usual. He thought perhaps that the world was reflecting his own darkness, and he began to despair of ever seeing his friend again.
Thus it was to his great surprise and delight that one day late in spring when the trees were finally in blossom, Reuel came to him and told him they would be taking the south coach to spend a week in the great town of Daevàr’s Hut. “There is business I must attend to there before the year is out,” he said, “and the weather is fit for traveling.”
Brandyé was greatly excited, and not only for the chance of reunion with his friend. He also desired to lay eyes upon the great town, and began to eagerly anticipate the journey it would take to get there. Brandyé had never seen more than the local villages around their home, none of which were particularly grander than Burrowdown (which itself could hardly have been called grand). He had also never ridden more than a donkey, and the prospect of spending the better part of a week riding in a carriage, albeit a crowded and smelly one, seemed like a great luxury to his mind.
Reuel, who had made the journey before, was under no such illusions, and instead bade Brandyé prepare well. In fact, he had only once taken the carriage from Burrowdown to Daevàr’s Hut and back, and that had been many years ago, when he had first learned of his daughter’s death and the survival of her son in the flames. Brandyé’s case had been most unusual, and it had been required that a minister of the Fortunaé preside over Reuel’s taking on wardship of the child and authenticate his claim to the boy’s bloodline. This in itself turned out to be difficult, for he had had to journey to Daevàr’s Hut with the child, and no one there particularly knew either him or Brandyé’s parents. In the end, of course, he had left the great town with the child, and had taken the coach again to bear the infant home to live with him in Burrowdown.
The coach had been unpleasant then, also, and Reuel would happily have ridden himself on this journey, but he now owned no horses and was too old to have ridden for six days, even if he had. So it was that he had Brandyé assist him in preparing for the journey, in such a way as to make the trip and their subsequent stay in Daevàr’s Hut as pleasant as possible.
To this end, they gathered together a great many things and divided them between a large duffle for the coach and a small sack for Brandyé’s shoulders. Into the smaller pack went many provisions—bacon, cheese, bread, carrots, many small satchels of nuts and other small items. In the larger bag went provisions against the weather: two blankets, a canvas for forming a tent, six pairs of socks, well-wrapped tinder and a flint, and several pans, among many other items. Also into the large duffle Reuel placed a narrow tube, sealed at both ends, of which he would not speak to Brandyé.
Finally, the day of their departure came, and quite a pair they made as they left their home on the hill and marched down the path to Burrowdown, both garbed in heavy cloaks against the early morning mist, Brandyé now nearly equal in height to Reuel, a satchel on his back and the duffle carried between them. Reuel bore also a long staff, which he used to support himself these days on longer walks. They attracted many stares as they passed through the village proper; they could not avoid it, as the south coach would not come to their door. Rather, they were to meet it before the bridge an hour after sunrise. Many of the villagers wondered whether they might simply not return, and were quite certainly gladdened at the thought. Reuel and his grandson had kept largely to themselves since the incident with the Fortunaé, and the townspeople had not missed them; it was clear from the hush that followed them down the road that they were as unwelcome as always. Reuel seemed above such disapproval, and Brandyé had long become used to their contempt, but he had never entered the village with his grandfather to such shunning, and found it disturbing.
Brandyé’s mind was set to wondering once more about his grandfather’s childhood and the events that caused him to seek life outside of their lands. He knew Reuel was disliked as an old man for his audacity in venturing beyond the borders of Consolation, but now Brandyé began to wonder what had made him leave in the first place. Had it been mere curiosity, or had something happened, something so shameful that he had felt compelled to go? If that were so, he believed he understood what his grandfather must have felt; what good was there in living among a community of people who wanted nothing to do with you?
This was perhaps the most compelling reason Brandyé had for visiting Daevàr’s Hut, beyond seeing the town or even discovering Elven there; he desired nothing more than to lose himself in a crowd of men and women he did not know, and who would not look once, and certainly not twice, at him or his grandfather.
They were not long at the foot of the Burrow Bridge when the south coach came slowly into sight; the mist was beginning to lift under the morning sun, and the driver had flung aside his cloak and was perspiring as he drove his team onward. He pulled the horses to a halt before Reuel and Brandyé, and the footmen descended to fling the duffle onto the roof of the coach. No other villagers were journeying south that day, and so the coach set off duly, stopping only once at the well to refresh the drafters, and so began the long journey toward Daevàr’s Hut.
The first day on the road passed largely uneventful; the other passengers were traveling alone, and alone, it seemed, they preferred to keep. There was no talk, and what little conversation Brandyé attempted to engage them in resulted in an occasional grunt, and more often mere silence.
Perhaps it was the cramped, hot atmosphere inside the coach, or the prospect that they would not arrive for six days, but even Reuel, who usually always had a tale to tell, seemed lost. At first, Brandyé thought he must be sleeping, for he kept his eyes closed, head resting against the bumping and swaying coach, but he would mumble a few words now and then when Brandyé spoke to him, though that was all. So it was that when the party halted at midday, Brandyé did not return to the coach with the others, but instead mounted the front of the coach and sat beside the driver, who seemed pleased to have the company.
“Why aren’t you in the back, like the others?” he asked Brandyé.
Brandyé glanced back at the coach, which continued to jostle along behind them. “In truth? It smells,” he said.
The driver laughed. “Aye, it does.” He peered curiously at Brandyé. “You’re an odd one,” he said. “No one’s ever sat up ’ere with me before, leastways not a boy. You’re bold. Who’re you with?”
“My grandfather,” replied Brandyé. “He’s in the carriage, sleeping. I can’t sleep on such a rough road.”
The driver grunted. “You should’ve seen it before it were a road. Nought more’n a mud path across the land, it were, an’ havoc on the coach.”
“How did the road come to be?” Brandyé asked.
“A fair question,” the driver commented. “In truth o’ fact, no one’s right sure. Each road’s different, lad, but then, each road’s the same also. What I mean is, no two roads go the same way, but they all grows the same way.”
This was intriguing to Brandyé; he had never thought of a road growing before. “What do you mean?” he asked.
“’Bout what? The roads? Well, you see, roads is a way o’ gettin’ from one place to another. Simple enough, right? When you leave your front door, how do you get to market?”
“I walk down the path,” said Brandyé.
“Right,” said the driver. “A road is nothin’ more’n a path what got a little bigger is all. When you leave your house, you can see where you want to get to, and you goes there. After you’ve done it a hundred times, all the grass gets weared out, and you’ve got yourself a path.
“But what happens when you can’t see where you’re goin’? How does you get from Burrowdown to Daevàr’s Hut when you can’t even see the way? Well, who knows when some clever sod figured out the way usin’ the sun or some such nonsense, and put some stones along his way every so often. He did it so as you can always see the next stone from the one you’re at. That way, people could go the same way he did.
“Now mind you, not too many people goes to an’ from Daevàr’s Hut—those what lives there stays, and those what don’t, don’t go. That’s why this coach is so seldom—very rare it is to have such a full one. But still, there’s one person who uses the roads commonly, and he demands they be kept in good order. Can you guess who that is?”
Brandyé already knew the answer: “The Lord Garâth,” he said.
The driver roared approval. “So it is, lad! You’re a bright one. His lordship don’ like gettin’ mucky, and so he rides around in his very own coach. But he also don’ like bein’ bumped around an awful lot, so he sent out all these folk to make the road wide, and smooth, so he’d be comfortable.”
“But the road is not smooth,” Brandyé pointed out. “Our wheels keep dipping into ruts.”
“Like I said,” the driver replied, “it’s better than it were.”
“It must have taken those men a terribly long time to create the road,” Brandyé said.
“Aye, their whole lives, like as not. That’s your lot if you work under the lords.”
That night, as Brandyé and Reuel sat around a small fire they had made, Brandyé asked his grandfather about this.
“Filaéus”—for that was the driver’s name—“says men built this road for the Fortunaé,” he said. “He says they gave their lives for their comfort.”
They had finished a supper of bacon and bread and were sitting wrapped in their blankets, watching the fire die a little before turning in for sleep. The weather was genial, and they had not erected a tent; the stars were bright and cold above them, a few of them blocked by the dark silhouette of a tree.
Reuel sighed. “It is so,” he said. “The Fortunaé are demanding. The tithes they have been taking for so long are generous by their standard. The people are outraged at their new tax, but in truth they are not surprised. This has happened many times before. The Fortunaé will stock themselves well, and when a fruitful summer comes again, they will lower the taxation once more.”
“What about the road?” Brandyé asked. “Who would want to spend their lives in such labor?”
“Choice has little to do with it, son,” Reuel replied. “They are those who have failed to deliver to the Fortunaé—those who have, in their eyes, committed a crime against their rule. There is no questioning their judgment, and their justice is long-lasting. None are outright killed, but enslavement is common.”
“That isn’t right,” Brandyé said vehemently. “No one should suffer an eternal fate for a single crime. There is no forgiveness!”
“Such is the price of dwelling in a land not yet overrun by Darkness. If you prefer freedom in the company of fierundé, the Fortunaé will not stop you.”
But Brandyé shook his head. “Why does no one do anything? Surely if enough people were dissatisfied, they could—”
“There never will be enough dissatisfied people,” Reuel interrupted him. “Let me tell you something of the Fortunaé. To them, power is everything. Of the three ruling families—the Lapronadé, the Sanvèdé, and the Fortunaé—they have always sought to have the greatest influence on their land. It is not enough for them to let their people tend to themselves; they must make themselves known. This is why they travel the lands: to remind the folk of who their masters are.”
“But they don’t need to be so cruel,” said Brandyé.
“And some are not,” Reuel replied, “and this is why nothing will ever be done about it. The people have learned over the long passage of time that lords come and go, each one more or less harsh than the last. It is the wisdom of ages that things do not change—that an extreme of one kind will eventually be balanced by an extreme of another.
“The Lord Garâth is by no means the cruelest of the Fortunaé. Do you remember hearing the tale of Reisenwell, many centuries ago, when it was burned to the ground? It was the Fortunaé’s doing, of course. The people of Reisenwell at the time had decided that they had had enough of their lord’s demands and ceased all contact with the Fortunaé. The lord of the time—Tamàr was his name, I believe—would not stand for it, and when they would not concede to him, he had his constables set the entire town alight. Many people died.”
Brandyé felt sick at the thought. “So why, then, did no one protest?”
“A few years later Tamàr died, and his son apologized for his father’s actions and helped rebuild the town. They are not all cruel.”
Brandyé fell asleep with these thoughts in mind and considered them still as they resumed the road in the early morning mist. What he was learning about the people who lorded over the lands he called home was fostering in him a deep dislike of them. Their children found delight in tormenting small animals; their fathers would whip a boy for defending himself. They drove men to death because they could not afford the tribute they demanded, and burned homes because their owners wished for independence.
Though these matters occupied his thoughts for much of the remainder of the journey, Brandyé did not fail to observe the land around them as they traveled. On the third day they passed by the village of Reisenwell; knowing now what he did, Brandyé looked for signs of the tragedy of the past. He could see little, however, other than perhaps a slight sadness of the folk, and even that was not unusual these days.
Leaving Reisenwell, they began to pass though increasing wetlands, and as the road continued southward, the land on either side dropped away into pools and bogs. There were many creatures to be seen here—frogs could be glimpsed diving beneath the waters, crickets the size of a mouse scuttled across their path, and many, many birds swam and fed in the swamps. Yet it was not these birds that Brandyé noticed most of all. That evening, as the sun grew low and the sky reddened, he became aware of an astonishing sight to the west. At first, he thought it might be a low cloud, passing across the sun, but it moved too swiftly, and as it drew nearer, he saw it was a flock of enormous white birds, their necks long and beautiful, flying swiftly toward the east. What was awesome about this sight was their number—at least two thousand there were, in great sweeping formations—and as they passed overhead, Brandyé could hear them calling to each other, and it seemed to him there was a sense of urgency, of importance, in their calls.
“Swans,” Reuel told him. “The most graceful birds in Erâth. Yet I do not know where they go. It is too early in the season for migration, and they would pass to the south were that the case, not the east.”
The following evening, they were granted yet another astonishing sight. At near the same time, just as the sun was drawing itself below the horizon, low over the fields came yet another vast flock of birds. These were not swans, though, and they were traveling in almost exactly the opposite direction to the swans—they passed from the east, and continued on into the west. Their number was greater even than the swans; some ten thousand there must have been.
“Crows,” said Reuel, and his tone this time was not one of admiration. “They do not migrate now, of this I am certain.”
“Perhaps they have been frightened?” Brandyé suggested.
“Of the swans, that I might believe,” Reuel replied. “But then, why do the crows travel in the other direction?” He looked away toward the enormous population of birds, even as they drew distant once more. “I am not concerned, yet it is a strange omen. A group of crows is called a murder, you know,” he said to Brandyé.
Brandyé shivered at this; no group of animals should be so named, he thought, except perhaps the fierundé. He had seen crows around Burrowdown, and as he thought of it, he recollected that they always seemed somehow sneaking, as though they were plotting, and watched men carefully as they did. But such a terrible title for their crowd was unsettling. Why would they be so called?
That evening, Brandyé asked Reuel about it. “Grandfather, you said the crows were a strange omen. An omen of what, do you think?”
For a moment, Reuel seemed reluctant to speak. Finally, he sighed and said, “Surely you have noticed by now, son, that there are things in this world that defy nature. Things that ought not to be, yet are nonetheless.”
Brandyé’s mind was cast back to the fierund on the moors. “There are creatures, yes,” he said cautiously.
“There are more than just creatures,” Reuel said. “Do you remember my tales from long ago, when I spoke of the powers of Erâth?”
“You talked of light and dark, and life and death,” recalled Brandyé. “You said there were races of power.”
“What do you think I meant by ‘power’?”
Brandyé paused then, for he realized he had never truly considered this before. “I’m not sure, Grandfather,” he said.
“Tell me what you are thinking,” Reuel told him.
Brandyé frowned in thought. “You said that there are things beyond nature; you say also that there are powers in the world. It seems to me that it would be these powers that are beyond nature.”
“Good,” nodded Reuel. “Go on.”
“So … the crows are an omen of something to do with these powers.” Reuel nodded again. “You called them a murder. They can’t be a sign of anything good.”
Reuel looked upon Brandyé, reading his eyes. Brandyé was still furious in thought. “I thought you had said these powers were long since gone from the world. Is it possible that they could still influence us to this day?”
“Think back, son,” said Reuel. “Is there nothing that has happened in your life that cannot be explained by the natural world around you?”
As Brandyé considered this, he knew of course that there was. So many small fortunes and misfortunes had occurred during his life, and though it was easy to dismiss them as luck, both good and bad, he began to wonder if the events of his life had not been part of an unseen path, one that had led him to this point. And then he shivered, for he remembered the inexplicable journeys to far-distant lands and the impossible things he had seen there. If anything was proof of the influence of a power beyond that of the natural world, it would be those places. And of course, before anything had ever happened to him in his waking memory, there was his birth—as inexplicable as anything else that had ever happened to him.
“There is,” he said quietly.
“These things exist in the world around us, but most people are too blind to see. To everyone else in the coach tonight, the crows were merely an odd thing, quickly forgotten.” He paused and drew breath. “I believe, son, that your fate is tied to these powers in some way, though I cannot say how. It is good if you can recognize their signs. If I were to guess, I would say the swans were fleeing some great Darkness—the very same the crows are attracted to.”
“What can I do about it?” Brandyé asked.
But Reuel shook his head. “Sometimes there is nothing that can be done. But awareness—it can be the difference between life and death.”
These considerations, and those of the Fortunaé, occupied Brandyé for the remainder of their journey, which fortunately was from then on entirely uneventful. It was two days later that they arrived in the largest town of the land of Consolation: Daevàr’s Hut.