10.3 – You are the tumor. Not I.
Hhhh. Hhhh. Hhhh.
„Men,“ Briar growls bitterly, eyeing the verdant member stretching to reach her, „always sticking their squishy fruit stems where they don’t belong.“ She doesn’t resist in the slightest as Brooder’s tail tightens around her waist, her throat, her flesh and holds her aloft. Bereft of her speaking voice, she continues in Brittle’s mind: „Considering it some kind of virtue.“ „Remove the creature!“ shouts Brooder, giving off a complicated mix of scents, as if he is the essence of a forest in bloom.
„I can not, you moss-grown rock,“ says the voice in Brittle’s head, and Brittle understands that she is speaking to the both of them. „The creepers are destroyed, there is no turning back. My control of it sacrificed on the altar of time. It’s up to her now. How many more deaths does the orphan want on her conscience, hmmm?“
The fearrowing lands on eight jittery spider legs, looking down at Brittle, lying on the ground, shaking, unable to breathe.
Hhhh. Hhhh. Hhhh.
Like a mockery of Grandmother’s vision. Its shape-swirling face develops twitching mandibles, vibrating tentacles, and then, like a fruit birthed from a flower, her own humonguous head bursts forth, with heartbones for eyes. One white, one yellow. She, that which looks like her, opens its cavernous mouth. She sees the bridge reaching across colour-drained infinities. Hello. Hello. Hello.
Hhhh. Hhhh. Hhhh.
„Well,“ echoes Briar in her skull, „I had hoped for a more satisfying ending.“ The maw is ever-widening, set to engulf her. There is no will in any bone in her body. No will. Just numbness. From the corner of her eye, she barely notices how Brooder’s tail tries to engage with the fearrowing, to push it away, only to suffer a similar fate as Breach’s quarterstaff. The old man yowls in pain. It has become too powerful. Too corrosive. A tongue of black liquid glass yearns for her from the void. Thousands upon thousands of white gemlets along its length. It is over. It has never begun. Itwasiswillbenaught.
„Your wood is too fresh, whitebeard! Remember the iron that flows in your sap!“ shouts a voice close by just before something slices the blacktongue in two. A woodcutter’s axe with an edge….made of blackblood tempered in the fires of Scourge. The repurposed swords of old! Brittle remembers. And he who holds it is wearing a mixed assortment of old metal pieces, what few relics that still exist in the village. „Remember what you are made of,“ says Brand. The fearrowing shrinks, quite perceptibly, as Brand’s axe lands another blow, chopping off a spider leg that instantly loses its form and turns to an oozing pulp. Brooder grins through the pain of his amputated tail. „Thank you, youngling. What a pair of blossoms we are!“ Concentrating, Brooder speeds up the lifespan of his appendage, giving it a protective layer of steel hard bark. „Ironseed’s Fruit, eh?“
The whining of fearrows through the air mixed with chittering high-pitched cries. They bounce off Brand’s metal and Brooder’s bark. In fact, the bark is growing all over his body. His beard become leaves. The poultices turn into jewellery composed of flowers and berries. After mere seconds, he looks like a perfect blend of man and tree. Of Brooder and Cutting. And next to him stands a blend of Brand and Brute. Brooder smiles a smile of grass and buzzing bees.
[the mirth of a field of flowers opening simultaneously]
Briar groans in Brittle’s mind. And the strange duo begins their dance. Slicing and dicing and thrashing and smashing, whittling away at the giant in front of them, until its uncertain form is no larger than her, in the middle of a pond of ichor. The fearrowing can’t get a blow in, failing to find chink or opening, screeching in frustration, until finally it changes tactics. Brittle is still there, lying at the edge of the dark pool, in a state of utter helplessness and paralysis. Changing its shape into a fast-moving worm it makes for her, its prize, its cherished container. „Noo!“ shouts Brand and runs to intercept it. Brittle wants to move, but it feels like her Deepheart has left her body, and with it every shred of her volition.
Brand gets to her just in time. The fearrowing tries to leap over him, but he raises his axe and cleaves it in two along the middle. It falls on him like light-starved rain. He falls too. To his knees. First. Hhhh. Then onto his belly, the clunky headdress toppling off, his face as close to hers as Brooder’s was, an eternity and just moments ago. Hhhh. The blacknees seeps into every pore, his veins go dark, his birth mark is saturated with it. Hhhh. The surrounding liquid starts to seep into him too, like a river looking for the ocean. Hhhhno.
Struggling fiercely against herself as the spark starts to leave Brand’s eyes, she wills herself up. Not another life. Grabbing him by a couple of the scale plates adorning his chest, she drags him up. His hair is slowly turning white, all over. Not him. Shaking his body, an act more directed at the fearrowing than at Brand, she says: „Fine, you fiend. It’s me you’ve been wanting all along. Not my mother. Not him. Take me. Let’s finally get this over with.“
Crow’s feet form like soft lines in clay in the corners of his eyes. Furrows painted in his forehead. Jowls slowly dropping from his chins. „Take me,“ she begs in a whisper. An entire life passes like a shadow over Brand’s face. „Take me,“ she growls. Black spots appear and fade on his skin like rain drops in the water. „Take me!“ she demands. His ear lobes elongate. His eye lids droop heavy. „Take me!!!“ she roars. The fat drains from his face, the skin clings to the bone. Why won’t it work!? Why won’t you…
And with every grain of her being, she inhales. Willing, WILLING it to let go of him. Her lungs expand like they’ve never done before, her eyes roll, and like dark, reluctant tendrils of smoke it starts to leave his form. Her breath is endless, she drags the fearrowing out, into her nostrils, through the tiny gaps between her clenched teeth, underneath the balls of her eyes, into her ears, in every single pore of her being. She pulls out every single bit of it. And when it is done, she exhales.
Brand is ancient and still in her hands. She notices a tiny furrow in the snow, as if a tiny serpent has wriggled away. Brittle remembers. Softly putting Brand’s fragile head on a pillow of snow, she gets up and follows the miniscule track. She doesn’t have to go very far. Just between Broader and Broadest she finds it. Like a slick, black sausage with small fearrows on its back, headed for the woods.
„And where do you think you’re going?“ says Brittle, grabbing what’s left of the fearrowing, holding it aloft and squirming over her mouth. „Good night,“ she says and drops it, swallowing it whole. It tastes, curiously, like nothing. If nothingness itself would have a taste.
A tiredness takes her then, and she finds support in Broader, sliding down along its trunk. Looking back at the hold proper, she sees her kin swarm around the bodies of Breath, Brother and Brand, shouting confusedly and beating their chests in grief.
„I am glad to find you are not a total disappointment,“ says Briar, suddenly looming over her. Brittle looks up at the Seer and her ogling owl, not knowing at all exactly what she is feeling. „You will have a hard time explaining all this to them, no matter what they will forget,“ she says. „Oh, I don’t know,“ muses Briar, „Something will come to mind, I’m sure.“
They both see Brooder-Cutting pick up the husk of Brand. People look at him as if in a daze, as if they both see and not-see him at the same time. Coming upon them, he stops, looking at Brittle with eye flowers that look much more human-like in appearance than last time peering out from the foliage. Like hundreds of curving petals arranged in the shape of an eye. „How…?“ she says, not bearing to say the entire question out loud.
Brand’s bony chest is moving. Almost imperceptibly. It’s so strange to see them like this. Brand impossibly old. And Brooder rejuvenated like a flowering tree. „Can it be reversed? Can he be healed?“ she asks, almost pleadingly. „Hah!“ sneers Briar. From Brooder comes the open-ended aroma she used to associate with a question, but this time if feels more like a:
„Tell me,“ she says, „please“. A soft, scraping, squelching sound grabs her attention. She turns her head to find its origin and sees that at the base of Broadest an opening has appeared. Like a doorway.
[seed. sapling. tree. seed.]
„What do you mean? That you both will disappear and I’ll see you in another life? I don’t even know if I want to come back!“
„What has that got to do with anything?“
Brooder walks into the opening. The tree closes itself around the pair. The last part of them to disappear from sight is that green, vibrant face. She sees him wink at her.
Almost immediately, a couple of buds begin to sprout along the ironseed’s branches. Spring will come early this year, it seems.
„Everyone leaves me,“ she sighs. „Well, I’m still here, you moody mushroom.“ says Briar. „You?“ sneers Brittle, „My closest friend and confidante? The hag who killed my father and turned my…“ she closes her eyes,“…friend into a barely breathing corpse?“
Briar smiles. „We both know that’s not true. If anyone is responsible here, the blame can only be laid at your feet, you and your reticence to do what had to be done. But that’s neither here nor there. Everyone returns, as you well know. So no need to make a big crow fight out of it. The petty lives and deaths of Daughters and men, that’s not what’s at stake here.“
„Then what is?“
Briar just keeps on smiling. A little bit wider.
„You’re not going to tell me, are you?“ Brittle gets to her feet, then instantly regrets it, slowly sliding down again. „You know what? I’m truly not afraid of you any longer. I can’t believe I ever was. I’m done dancing to your eerie tunes, played only for your benefit, I’m sure.“ She tries getting up one more time, but has to concede defeat. Just a little breather, and she will be fine. „Actually, you know what? I do hold you responsible. For everything. And I tell you, Seer, there will come a day when my powers will outmatch yours, and there will be a reckoning, I promise you. A judgement proper for whatever sick schemes you have been planning all your lives.“ Brittle squints her eyes at Briar, surprised, but not taken aback, by her own capacity for vehemence. „I see you for what you are now, Seer, with your dark hollow eyes, and your lack of concern for anything other than yourself and your plans. You are a sickness, a bloated outgrowth on a tree that you have to cut out if the tree is to survive. I See you, Seer.“ That last rant seemed to be quite exhausting. She is starting to sweat. Profusely.
Opening her dark, hollow eyes, Briar leans down towards her. Brittle’s head is spinning. She is not feeling well. In her head, the bird-like voice croaks: „You see nothing at all. Your vision is flawed, like a broken mirror.“ A talon-like nail caresses her face. It feels odd, like the skin is covered with small bumps, or…pustules. The sharp nail pops one of them open. Black goo drips from Briar’s claw.
„You are the tumor. Not I“
Brittle’s vision starts to blur, then it disappears completely. She can feel her body slumping to the ground. Her senses drop off, one by one. Her hearing is the last to go.
Briar’s voice, admonishing her kinsfolk: „Step away from them right this instant! I know what this is, why they died so instantly. A great tragedy has occured. It has even affected poor Brittle yonder, though she still lives, barely. This is something I must take care of. Go to your houses, eat plenty of frost nettles, and do not come out until I say so. I am afraid to say that the Fourth Hardship is upon us once more.“
„The Blood Plague has returned.“