Burrowdown in Darkness
Some time after Brandyé and Reuel returned to Burrowdown, the sky became clouded and did not clear. It seldom rained, but nor did the sun shine through, and the village gradually settled into gloom. Brandyé returned to his life at their home and discovered that, in effect, he was the head of the household; Reuel now did very little work, though he still would make a fabulous stew each weekend. For a brief moment, Brandyé felt he had returned to the abandonment of his childhood, when his grandfather was his one and only lord, and a kindly one.
For his part, Reuel now spoke seldom, and Brandyé missed his tales. He did not disturb his grandfather greatly on the matter and supposed that, finally, he had run out of stories to tell. He seemed to spend a great deal of time lost in thought, and Brandyé wondered at his musings. He had not discussed his dealings in Daevàr’s Hut, but it seemed that whatever it had been had put an end to a trouble. Even as he stared for hours into the fire, his expression was not concerned, and he had all the appearance of being at peace. The only hint of disturbance was in the slight wrinkle at the corners of his eyes should he cast his gaze through the window and see the skies ever dark.
Brandyé did not discuss his business in Daevàr’s Hut with Reuel. He was not, of course, troubled that Reuel might break his trust—this thought did not occur to him. Rather, he was reluctant to lay any further troubles upon the man, who now appeared very much old. Instead, he kept the knowledge of the Scythe’s Blood to himself and considered what course of action he might take now that he had returned home.
As it happened, not long after his return from Daevàr’s Hut, odd markings began appearing on fences and doorposts and under the bridge (marks that, of course, no one connected with their return from that town): sometimes red, sometimes black, it was unmistakably a farming blade held high and pointing downward. This was greatly disturbing to the villagers, for they knew not where this sign came from nor what it implied. Such instruments, as a rule, were not held high in this manner lest a scalp be sheared instead of grass, and so it was all the more upsetting to folk that this mark demonstrated such willfully reckless misuse.
When he was not at home with his grandfather—or otherwise occupied—Brandyé continued to call upon Sonora as the only other person in the surrounding land who would yet speak with him. She, of course, was full of questions about the great town, and eager to hear news of her brother. She was delighted to find his apprenticeship went well and astonished to learn of her namesake’s apparent ability to understand Elven and that the falcon had been taught to bear messages between distant people.
“I daresay she is nearly as clever as you,” Brandyé remarked. Sonora blushed at this, but said nothing.
Though Elven still held place in his heart as his first and greatest friend, Brandyé had in the time since Elven’s departure grown accustomed to sharing his every thought and idea with Sonora, as she had with him. It was thus agony for him to keep from her his induction into the circle of the Scythe’s Blood, and he longed to share this secret with her. Aiden had bidden him not to disclose any such information for several months, lest it be too quickly traced to his visit to Daevàr’s Hut.
Yet when Sonora began to question him innocently on his thoughts over the matter of the strange markings around the village, he found he could no longer contain the truth, and divulged it to her on a gray and cold afternoon as they walked through the tall country grass.
“You have recognized what the sign is,” he said to her.
“It appears to be a harvest blade,” she said. “A scythe, I think it’s called.”
“What do you make of its raised posture?” he asked carefully. He wished very much for her to discover the answer for herself, rather than tell her outright, for fear she might not understand or be afraid.
“Those around the village are afraid of it,” she said. “They say a scythe shouldn’t be raised except for the slaying of men.”
“That’s a terrifying thought,” Brandyé said. “What could it mean?”
“I’m not sure; an awful thought, but perhaps someone is intending to kill?”
“Who uses a scythe?” he said slowly.
She looked at him, and there was now a hint of suspicion in her eye. “Harvesters,” she said. “Field hands—laborers.”
“Who has brought the greatest grief upon these people in recent years?”
At this, she thought deep and hard. Quiet for several moments, she finally spoke: “The Fortunaé. They have not yet lifted their tax, and these men sweat daily and starve nonetheless.”
“Who, then, would they wish to bring harm to?”
This was the blow he had been hoping for, and her eyes widened as understanding dawned upon her. “You know of this,” she said. “This is something you are a part of.”
He dipped his chin, once, in a nod, and did not speak, though his eyes stayed on her.
“The laborers—they’re planning to revolt against the Fortunaé.” Sonora’s voice was disbelieving, yet certain.
“Not yet,” Brandyé replied to her. “The field hands—at least in this part of Consolation—know nothing of this. It isn’t they who have left the marks.” He was now very anxious; Sonora would now solve the puzzle he had created for her and would either follow him or denounce him to the villagers. Though he believed he knew what course she would follow, he was nonetheless afraid.
“You have done this,” she whispered.
They had passed out of the grass, and underfoot was a patch of damp earth. Brandyé paused here and knelt to the ground. Before Sonora’s eyes, he traced with his finger an outline of the very shape that had appeared on so many walls in the village. When he was finished, he looked up at her. She was staring at the tracing in the mud and fell to her knees beside him. She reached out and laid her hand to the earth. “I don’t understand, Brandyé,” she said.
“What are your thoughts?” he asked her. “If I said to you that there is talk of resisting the rule of the Fortunaé, would you support it?”
“Brandyé …” she uttered, “that boy would have hurt me. In fact, I think he would have killed me that day under the tree.” She turned to him and grasped his hands. “I couldn’t have such a ruler,” she said. “My heart would be crushed.”
And so Brandyé spoke to her of Aiden, and Elven, and all that he had learned in Daevàr’s Hut. He told her of Howarth and the injustice the constable had done against Freydar Longboot, and of Gordin’s brother, and how even the other two lord houses dared not oppose the Fortunaé. All that afternoon and into the dusk, he spoke to her of these things, and without a word she listened, and a tear dropped from her eye.
As the sky turned to black in the east and the sounds of the night creatures began, he finished speaking, and she said to him but one thing: “What are we going to do?”
So Brandyé brought Sonora into the Scythe’s Blood, and they began to spend ever more time together, discussing the rule of the Fortunaé and how it would be different if they could make it so. Brandyé told her of the purpose of the signs, which he had learned from Aiden. The intention, he told her, was twofold: to unsettle folk, so that they might become discomfited and begin to question the security of their livelihood, and to arouse curiosity and thus uncover supporters. The symbol of the scythe incited fear, he explained. People would fear the Fortunaé, or they would fear the unknown, whose presence the symbol represented. Those who continued to fear the Fortunaé might not have the courage to oppose their rule, but those who feared the symbol might begin to question why the Fortunaé did nothing to protect them.
It was this, Brandyé said, that could drive folk to aid them. Those who began to question the Fortunaé themselves might be encouraged to consider whether something might not be done. Their task—for he now spoke of what Aiden had entrusted him to do as though it belonged to both of them equally—was merely to encourage folk to begin asking questions.
“Should someone ask you of the markings,” Brandyé said, “you ought not to answer directly. Think of how I approached the subject with you; discover first what their own thoughts are before divulging your own.”
Though Sonora accepted all that Brandyé spoke of to her, she admitted to Brandyé reservations. “I understand the need for change,” she said. “But to use fear for this end doesn’t feel right. It’s the Fortunaé people should fear naturally, and not the unnatural strangeness we create for them.”
“It’s a necessary evil,” Brandyé replied. “We may cause unrest now, but if we are able to turn the rule of the Fortunaé, our lands will become a better place for it.”
What Brandyé did not speak of to Sonora was that he too shared the same misgivings as she; although he held no great liking for the people of Burrowdown, who had for all his life shunned him, he did not want to bring them fear and upset. Their days were difficult already from the heavy tax still imposed upon them, and this seemed a new worry they did not deserve. Yet his own mind was still naive; unable to conceive of any better plan, he acted on the words of Aiden and held hope that this man was as wise as he was convincing.
As months passed and autumn once more returned, Brandyé was struck by the lack of change from one season to the next. The summer had worn on in grayness, the land had not warmed, and the sun seldom pierced the dismal clouds. Though the trees had budded and the fields flowered, their colors were diminished, and their fruit small and poor.
In what would have been the splendor of gold and crimson of autumn, the air took the slightest of turns to cold, and the leaves fell from their boughs with almost no change in color at all. This began to bring disquiet to the people of Burrowdown and the surrounding villages, for never in their memory had the seasons been so alike one another, and the absence of change was unwelcome. Harvests came in and were poor, and the soil was less rich and animals grew thin. A few penurious farmers sold their sheep and cattle to neighboring farms or villages, but did not receive much for their beasts and were soon no better than they had been with their animals, excepting they now had not the means to make a living.
So it was that the people of Burrowdown began to feel a darkness descend upon them, and the very day seemed dimmer, as though the clouds became thicker and the sun shone not so bright behind them. Brandyé began to feel disconcerted that his own surreptitious tasks would prove too much for the villagers to manage, added to the troubles that already plagued them. Yet his memories were vivid, and whenever his conviction threatened to fail, he was recalled forcefully to the terrible and callous face of Garâth’s son as he sought to strike Sonora, or the terror and pain of Freyd as the cruel Howarth beat him for failing to repay him. If instilling fear in the people of the village were the price of bringing such injustice to an end, it was an investment of worth.
Yet for all his efforts—and those of Sonora, who would sometimes join him in the dead of night as he sought to lay the scythe upon yet another post or gate—he did not perceive any great questioning among the villagers as to the markings’ origins, but merely an increased agitation that such signs were in relation to the darkness of the land.
To this end, Brandyé relied much on Sonora’s perception of the village’s mood, for he was yet seldom welcomed within the village himself, and even if he stayed an evening in the Burrow Wayde—something he had begun to do on his own, as Reuel now rarely left their home—he was not spoken to and was largely avoided. These evenings at the inn were the only opportunity he had of overhearing the conversations of the villagers, and what he heard turned mostly on the darkening of the air and whether it might improve come spring and if anyone had discovered a way of protecting their farms and themselves from the wolves that had recently begun marauding around the livestock.
Sonora, on the other hand, was often to be found in the village and maintained a healthy sociality with the folk; she was more able to discern their thoughts and worries than Brandyé. Still, when she and Brandyé would meet, she had little to discuss, for what news she brought was no different from that which Brandyé overheard on the drunken weekend nights at the Burrow Wayde.
He soon began to consider the efficacy of leaving small marks of the scythe around the village, as so far in seven months he had not spoken to anyone besides Sonora of the Scythe’s Blood or his concerns over the Fortunaé. It was one evening before the fire in his home that he confided his doubts to Sonora. She had begun to visit him at the top of the hill on the moor and passed by the long road in the open country, so that the village folk might not see her and suspect a connection between the two. Suspicion was cast already upon the whole of the Dottery household for their conviviality with Reuel and Brandyé, and they both were concerned that if they were seen too often together, Sonora would become gradually ostracized as Elven had been, and they would have then still less news of the business of the village.
To his surprise, Sonora replied to him with boldness. “I agree, Brandyé. I haven’t seen any great change in the people from the scythe—certainly not compared to the change in them from the wolves and the darkness of the land. We should be more formidable.”
“How so?” Brandyé asked, surprised.
“Our marks have been small,” she said. “Let’s make one that is not. We’ll leave a scythe so big it can’t be ignored!”
Brandyé considered her with curiosity. “Such a thing will not be easy,” he said.
She smiled. “Does that concern you?”
Brandyé smiled also, and her suggestion began to rekindle a sense of adventure within him. It would be like a prank of the sort he and Elven would have played out in their childhood. “What do you suggest?”
“The bridge,” she said. “It’s the center of the village, and folk pass over it each day. Let us make such a sign upon it that it will cause people to forget all their other worries!”
And so it was that, some nights later when the moon was dim and hidden, they set out toward the village and the bridge to carry out their plan. Between them they carried a length of sturdy rope and a bucket filled with an earth paint they had created. It was a mix of red clay, water, and tar, and when dry had the very appearance of blood. It had taken them some time to create, and Brandyé carried it carefully, so as not to spill a single drop for fear it would leave a trail behind them.
It was difficult going in such darkness, and they dared not bring a lantern. Several times Brandyé caught himself on a root or hole, and he then asked Sonora to take his hand and lead him, for her eyes were keener than his in the dark. Eventually, of course, they did reach the bridge, and after ensuring the Burrow Wayde had emptied and there were now no other folk in the night, they set the rope and bucket down at the center of the bridge and began.
Their aim was that, using the rope, Brandyé would lower Sonora over the edge of the bridge, she with the bucket, and hold her suspended over the rushing water. She would then paint the sign of the scythe in large across the stone of the bridge before dropping the bucket and allowing it to be carried off by the current. Brandyé would then bring her up once more, and they would part ways in the dark and await the uproar come the morning.
Brandyé thus tied the rope tight around her waist, and she climbed upon the edge of the bridge. A thrill of fear passed through her, and she said, “You are certain to hold me fast, Brandyé?”
Brandyé nodded with grimness. He braced himself firmly against the stone wall of the bridge and pulled the rope tight. Without a further word, Sonora sat upon the edge and let herself fall.
Her weight was greater than Brandyé had anticipated, and for a moment he believed he felt the rope slip between his hands. A cry came from below, but he shortly steadied himself and the rope held fast. “It’s all right,” he called to Sonora. “You won’t fall.”
“I … I’m starting,” she replied, and her voice was filled with trepidation. Brandyé understood—the water below was cold and fast, and would sweep her away should his grip fail.
For some minutes, he held her fast in silence, and his arms began to burn from the effort and he wished she would soon be done. He wondered at her progress and desired to see the sign as she made it, but could not of course move from his place.
It was as these thoughts occupied him that a wolf emerged from the darkness and approached him. Its movement caught his eye, and in his surprise he very nearly released the rope that held Sonora. His initial fear was that they had been discovered, and when he saw it was not a man but a beast, teeth bared, his terror was multiplied tenfold. For a long moment, he and the wolf gazed at each other. Despite his own fright, he did not wish to alarm Sonora and hissed at the wolf: “Go! Begone! Haste!” He made as though to lunge at the creature, but it perhaps sensed Brandyé was incapacitated and did not flinch.
And then, to his mounting horror, yet further wolves began to join the first, and Brandyé recalled his grandfather’s words: Wolves are most often to be found in a pack, many hunting together. So it seemed; two dozen at least were now surrounding him, on both sides of the bridge. And now that their numbers were increased, the one who had first appeared drew itself closer to him, and Brandyé could see the pale nighttime glint of its eye and the very spittle that hung from its long fangs. It approached until its snout was mere inches from his face, and it drew a deep breath and smelled his sweat and his fear. A low growl began in its throat.
From below, he heard Sonora: “I’m finished, Brandyé! Why don’t you pull me up?”
Brandyé did not dare reply; indeed, he had hardly breath in his chest so great was his terror. His eyes took in the rust on the wolf’s teeth, the wet of its nostrils, the brush of the hair on its ears, tall and pointed; his nose took in the scent of its breath, rotten and meaty; and his ears took in its very breath behind the throaty growl, and he felt a terrible understanding with the animal: it desired his destruction—but, it seemed, for more than a natural purpose. We know what you do, it seemed to whisper to him, and it is our intent to stop you.
While the pack yet stayed, their leader snapped its jaws forward, and its teeth sank into Brandyé’s vest. It tore the material from his arm, and against its pull Brandyé drew his arm back. The rope he held slipped yet again, and from below Sonora cried out. At the sound the wolves turned as one, but also at that moment, two other things happened.
As Brandyé’s vest tore wholly in two, the black dagger that had been concealed within fell to the ground. At this, the wolf released him and leaped back, a shrill bark issuing from its throat. The pack turned their attention from the sound of Sonora hanging from the bridge to their leader, and seeing it backing from Brandyé, began too to slink away from him.
And also at that moment, there was a sharp and deep cry, not from Brandyé or Sonora, and a lantern cast its light over the scene. Caught between its fright of the blade and the dazzle of this new light, the wolves’ leader froze, and with a swift and sudden flash, a long staff caught it hard across the head.
The wolf yelped yet louder than before, and then bared its teeth at the newcomer. It would not be treated thus, Brandyé saw. Yet even as it released a vicious bark and the pack closed around the mysterious person, the staff lashed out a second time, and this time its force was so great as to bring the wolf wholly to the ground. Before it could recover its feet, the staff was brought down, thrice, upon three further wolves, and the pack fell into disarray. Among the madness and doglike cries, the staff whistled out once more, and Brandyé saw in a flash its end was carved to a point; it ran through the leader and killed it in one fell stroke.
At this, the pack was sent into terror, and within moments had fled in all directions, abandoning the bridge and their fallen leader. Their rescuer dropped the staff upon the ground and knelt beside the wolf, lantern held always high so that Brandyé could not see his face. He reached out and laid his hand on the wolf’s throat, and satisfied himself that it was indeed dead. He then stood and advanced upon Brandyé.
Brandyé was once more anxious; though he was grateful of their rescue, he now had to find words to explain their presence. But the man placed his lantern also upon the ground and growled, “Come, boy—bring her up!”
Such was his astonishment that Brandyé had very nearly forgotten he still held the rope that suspended Sonora above the cold waters of the Burrow. The man grasped the rope, and together they heaved mightily, and Sonora reappeared over the lip of the bridge. As she collapsed upon the firm bridge, breathless and hands stained red, Brandyé released the rope and his arms fell to his sides, unable to support their own weight, so strained they were. As Sonora recovered herself, she took in the wolf’s body lying upon the ground, the lantern by their feet, and the man’s tall figure, still dim in the lantern’s light, and was speechless.
It was the man who spoke first. “You were in some danger there, lad,” he said. “And you, miss—takes some courage to hang from a rope over the Burrow in the dark o’ night.”
Sonora held her lip firmly with her teeth, and Brandyé also did not speak. The man took a step closer to them. “Your hands give you away, darlin’,” he said to her. “You two’ve been the ones what have painted all them scythes around the village. Paintin’ ’em on my own fence.” And he sat now upon the ground, and as his face came into the reach of the lantern’s glow, Brandyé saw he knew him, for it was Farmer Tar.
“That’ll be some mark on the bridge come mornin’,” he said. “What d’you think the folk’ll say when they see it?” Still Brandyé said nothing, but Sonora began quietly to weep. Farmer Tar turned to her. “I reckon you’re thinkin’ you’ve been a bit foolish,” he said. “Paintin’ signs to scare folk in the middle o’ the night, when you know there’s wolves about.”
Sonora let out a quiet sob and nodded. Brandyé saw her fear and anxiety, and felt a sudden shame and regret. He should not have encouraged this venture, he decided. He was about to tell Farmer Tar that they had merely been playing a foolish prank when Farmer Tar spoke once more and shocked him for the second time that night.
“It’d seem to me that if you’re goin’ to be out secret-like at night, you ought to have somewhere safe to be at,” he said. “Somewhere like my barn.”
He smiled, and thus became the third person of Burrowdown to enter into the Scythe’s Blood.