1.1 – Daughters of Bray
Harrumph. Her father gets up from the box seat accompanied by a litany of huffs, puffs and muttered unintelligible words. He is probably swearing. She can hear him climb down the side ladder and jump the last bit, planting his feet in the snow with an Oof , followed by a couple of steps and several Hrrms and Heeeeehs. Brittle tries to guess what’s going on. Probably an obstruction of some kind. Nnnnnnnnngh-rah! Yes. Definitely an obstruction. A fallen tree, perhaps? Haaaaah-raff . Too big for father, anyway. Unable to stay her curiosity, she flits out the back of the wagon-sleigh and trudges through the knee-deep snow towards the front.
„Yes! I guessed it!“
Hrph? Her father turns to face her, looking for a moment like some wild, frightened animal. Wide eyes, woolly beard, dusky skin, all covered in striped badger furs. A white cloud of cold air escapes his lips and rushes past her head. It smells of safety. „What are you on about, daughter Brittle? Snf. This is a disaster. Ahrrr“.
A huge fallen log blocks their path. A grey, lumbering ironseed halfway submerged in thick layers of snow. „Yes, father Breath. I can see that. But surely something can be done about it?“ „Well…“ Breath looks up at the sky „Hmmph. We can dig a new path around it, but the sun is on the verge of setting. Granhhh…We’ll have to make camp, Brittle. And get to work at first light.“ Shoulders slumped in disappointment, her father starts loosening the reins of the two shaggy mountain stags. They look at him unblinkingly. „I had hoped we would get there before midnight.“ Brittle looks down. „Well…I don’t mind waiting another day.“
The fire is warm. And mesmerizing. She can’t seem to take her eyes away from the flames. Her father sits with his back to the closest tree, his lap currently occupied by the antlered (and very sleepy) head of one of the stags. He’s chewing on dried frost nettles, working his arms and hands around the massive and many-branched antlers right in front of his torso. The other stag is upright, warming its hind quarters by the fire, softly whiffing the air. Everyone seems so relaxed. Brittle is anything but. Her insides is moving in jumps and starts, just like the uneasy tongues of the fire. The flames, they remind her….of the worst day of her life. Another memory starts unfolding behind her eyes.
Ghost Hill. Brittle had never been here before. But now the entire settlement was here. All gathered around the lifeless shape lying on the white cloth draped over a bundle of twigs, like a makeshift bed. She had never seen Brook so still, not even when she was asleep. Some part of her, however tiny, had always been moving. Animated.
Patches of receding snow. First smell of spring. But everything felt dead. She looked for father, but couldn’t find him. Old man Brooder was close, though. He sensed her anguish and calmly gripped her hand. Briar came. The Seer. With her wild, matted hair that looked like a grey bird’s nest, a comparison heavily reinforced by the fact that her Deepheart’s Mirror, a dappled snow owl, was always sitting in it. Briar’s eyes were closed, as usual. The owl’s wide open. As usual. It hooted. A long, mournful cry that sent shivers down Brittle’s spine. Brooder intensified his grip.
Briar spoke. „Brook, daughter of Brunt, daughter of Bristle, daughter of Brave, daughter of…“ Brittle lost track of the long line of mothers. All she could see was her own. Mother. Mother’s body. Mother’s hair. Mother’s hand, as pale as she herself must have been the day she was born and Brook brought her back. If only she could do the same, repay the favour. If only…she touched the hand, cold as ice. It’s the strings, child. She wanted to sing, but she couldn’t. „…daughter of Brief, daughter of Bray, the Morning Queen!“ All her kinsfolk repeated that last part, as was the custom.
„Daughter of Bray, the Morning Queen!“
Briar continued. „From our Deephearts to your Deepheart…“
Folk around her started to put small trinkets around Brook. A cherished book, dried flowers, a starfisher feather.
„From our Deephearts to your Deepheart…“
Brittle let go of Brooder’s hand and took off her red coat. It had become far too small, anyway. She put it on Brook’s chest so it almost seemed like her mother was holding her.
„From our Deephearts to your Deepheart…“
There she lay, surrounded, partly covered with objects of affection from everyone around her. But nothing from father. Where was he? Where was Breath? Brittle couldn’t see him anywhere. She wanted to find him, to bring him here, but Briar’s eyes, or rather her owl’s eyes, stopped her in her tracks. „Brittle. It’s time.“ „Time?“ said Brittle „Time for what?“. Then she saw what Briar was holding. A burning torch. „Maybe you were never told, because you’re still a sapling. But I will tell you now. It is the duty of the daughters of Bray to pass their mothers on.“ The sudden realisation of what Briar was asking of her, hit her in the stomach like a fist of lead. „No.“ „It is your duty, child.“ „No, I won’t…I can’t“. She tried to back away from the bier, but her kinsfolk thronged around her, blocking her escape. „Father!“. But Breath did not answer, did not even appear. „Don’t shout for the aid of men.“ said Briar sternly, „Are you a Daughter or a gnat?“ Briar was before her now, her face barely an inch from her own. The owl closed its eyes and Briar opened hers. They were black and terrifying. In her head, Brittle could suddenly hear a voice, with the cadence of an old, croaking, bitter bird. „Listen, you little brittle thing. If you do not do this, your mother will be cursed, forced to haunt this place forever, all because her spoiled weak afterbirth of a brat didn’t want to hurt her own feelings. Has your pebble of a mind ever wondered why this place is called Ghost Hill?“ Trembling with terror, Brittle accepted the torch. Briar stepped back and closed her eyes once more, her owl hooting in approval. Holding her breath, Brittle thrust the torch into the twigs as quickly as she could. Briar forced her to stay as the fire spread, to watch, to smell. Until finally she couldn’t take it anymore and managed to slip away, running between her kin, away from the flames, from the smoke, from everything. She wanted to run as far as possible, which turned out to be a miserably short distance, close to a copse of trees where she fell to her knees and threw up in a patch of snow.
Looking up, she found her father. A-huh. A-huh. A-huh. Breath was hugging himself, small droplets of tears hanging from the edges of his beard. Brittle snapped. She ran at him with a force she still finds it hard to believe. But Brittle is not making this up. This is what happened. „How“ „Could“ „You“ „Leave“ „Me“ „All“ „Alone“. Every word, every scream partnered with a fist against his belly. „I’m sorry. I couldn’t…I just…“ In the end they found themselves in a tight locked embrace of anger and grief. „Don’t ever leave me again“ said Brittle. „I swear it“ said Breath „Hrrmph. From the depths of my Deepheart.“
Brittle looks at her father through the flames. He has kept his promise. So far. „Dreaming again, Brittle?“ says Breath, stroking the stag’s neck. „Remembering“. She pauses. „What will happen, do you think? When we get there?“ „I would tell you if I knew. It is known only to..“ „..Daughters. Yes. But I’m a Daughter, and I haven’t a clue.“ „It will be revealed tomorrow, Brittle. Hrmm. I brought your mother there when Brunt died, and it didn’t seem like a harrowing experience to her. I’m sure..rrf…I’m sure it’s just a harmless rite.“ „But mother died seven years ago. Why wait so long?“ Breath exhales a small smoky cloud. „You…erhhh…weren’t ready before.“ „And why am I ready now?“ „Granhhrff…as I said, this is Daughter lore. Briar told me it was time.“ Brittle mimicks her father’s grunting. „Rahaharfff…that old hag.“ „Brittle…“ „It’s true.“ „All truths are not made to be spoken.“ Annoyed, Brittle gets to her feet. „I’m going to bed.“ „In the wagon-sleigh?“ „Yes. The skins should be enough. You seem good here, that beast looks warm.“ „Take this“ says Breath, picking up a piece of dried frost nettle and lighting its end in the flames, before handing it to her. Frost nettles make excellent and slow-burning candles. „Thanks, father. Sleep well.“ „Good night.“ She swears she can hear him snoring before she’s even halfway to the wagon-sleigh. Just before entering, she looks over her shoulder. Her father and the stag look like a lovely pair. Brittle feels a twinge of envy. She’s only able to see her own Mirror once a year, and just for a few minutes, at that. And this year, she overslept. She can’t see the other stag, but it must be somewhere nearby, foraging for edible greens under the snow, no doubt. Well. In she goes.
She lies down in the skins, putting the still burning frost nettle in a tiny clay cup on top of the side table. Next to it sits the box. She opens it and looks inside as she’s done every night for the last seven years. Brittle remembers.
A thin plume of smoke still swam snakily towards the sky, but the flames had died down. The only ones left were her, father and blind Briar with her ogling owl. Mother was a pile of blackened bones. „Reach inside, child“ said Briar, her owl’s eyes looking straight at the ribcage, broken open by the fire. Too terrified to protest a second time, Brittle gingerly reached out her hand, sticking it inside the soot-filled cavity. Her fingers closed around something that seemed to…thrum? She pulled it out and saw that she was holding a flat piece of bone, bright white, untouched, shaped like an outstretched wing. The bottom edge seemed….ouch…and was sharp. „Brook’s heartbone“ said Briar, facing Breath. „Normally you would leave on the morrow, but she is still too young. You will have to wait until her first blood.“ „When will I know when that is?“ Breath asked, „That’s Daughter lore.“ Briar’s owl looked disparagingly down on Brittle. She tried to hide from its gaze. „I’m sure such a soft thing like her will come running to you for help the very minute it occurs. It should take three, four years at most.“
Brittle lifts Brook’s heartbone from the box, spinning it around in the faint light emanating from the nettle candle. Briar told me it was time. Why now? Seven years has passed since her mother’s firewalk and Briar’s admonishing words, and she still doesn’t have a clue what ’first blood’ means. Well. She would know tomorrow. Brittle, daughter of Brook, daughter of Brunt, daughter of Bristle, daughter of Brave, daughter of…yawn…falls asleep with her mother’s heartbone placed on top of her own chest.