11.2 – Form and Memory
A flimsy sliver of light is all that Brittle sees. Her eyelids are heavy. Her body not her own. She feels the insidious sting of cold around her core. Elsewhere, only numbness. The sliver becomes a gap. The sky above. A smattering of clouds, wispy, almost without substance. Just like her. There are twigs and branches underneath her upturned hands. The faint crackling and smell of fire. And the unmistakable and pungent smell of spiky mushrooms. Straining, she lifts her head with Will’s Intent. Two black eyes meet her ascent.
Too little too soon sounds the Briar-croak, just afore a puff of white is blown into her nostrils, clogging her up with a substance which is easily identifiable by the telltale odour that makes her eyes flow over.
Spikies, crustling. I’ve always liked them, in all shapes and forms, both mine and theirs. Now, in this powdered state, they make you…
Her head sinks back on its own accord, all Will abandoned, all feeling gone, the body overtaken fully by the numbness in an instant, like a flash flood of absence.
Only Brittle’s eyes remain under her control, darting back and forth in panic to try to understand the situation.
Twice you have let me down in ages past. But this time we are aligned, you and I. We know each other. Fully. Your refusal to bleed, to partake in the true ways of Daughterhood, does make you uniquely suited for this task. I meant what I said those few sunsets past. You will make a good Keeper of Form. For evermore.
The sun kisses the edge of a heartbone held aloft for Brittle’s benefit. Though she cannot feel it, from her limited perspective it seems that Briar puts the white heartbone on top of her chest, just above her own. Then comes the yellowed one, joining its sibling. Briar’s face does not grace her visual field, but her voice continues its interminable rasping.
You must know where we are, yes?
Yes. Ghost Hill. Where the dead are sent to dream.
I told you, once, when we ushered Brook, of your duty as a Daughter.
The crackling sound grows nearer.
To wield the flame, to ease her passing, unless you wanted her essence to become stuck here, like a wasp in ancient resin stone.
„Brittle? Why did you leave me?“
The way you cursed Brunt, back when she was your mother.
She must be sweating now. Droplets of water start obscuring her vision. Tender wisps of smoke trail upwards like reaching, ephemeral fingers, beckoning her beguilingly to return to dream and let the real and its problems slide. The steam from the frost nettle tea.
Now, sometimes, dearest, a curse can be a blessing. And this one triply so. The wounding remains contained in you for now, but for how much longer? Only one way to make sure. By branding you, all of yous, onto the pliant flesh of the real here on this Hill. Taking you out of the loop of return, and the wounding with it. One anomaly to counter another. And so both the dream and the real are preserved.
The mushroom dust has robbed her of all feeling. No sense of warmth or cold. But judging from the sound and the visual cues, fire must have started its slow nibble upon her wooden bedding. Brittle won’t experience pain, it seems. There is that. Well, except for when her eyes start melting, if she is still aware by then. Weirdly, though, all fear has left her. She was just so ready, to fight, to strive, to do. But upon her return, she was instantly rendered powerless, robbed of agency, soon doomed to a ghostly existence for eternity. It frustrates her. That’s what she feels. Frustration.
Unless. She still has her mind. And Briar’s is wide open, the way it was when Brittle made her see the vision of the Morning Queen facing the…wounding?…on that ancient battlefield. Conjuring up her memory of the Weave Cat (yes, that name will suffice), she attempts to force it like a wedge into Briar’s self-congratulating chatter, a recurring time loop tethered to the point where it spoke about zealotry and unwittingly destroying the world.
Through a film of sweat, she sees Briar’s talonlike hand recoil in the corner of her eye. But the hesitation lasts nary a moment.
Ho, you are a bag of tricks. If only you had chosen a different path, what allies we would make. Not to worry, bloodless one, contrary to your fears, I know what I am doing. I am the bulwark against nothingness. And you will join me in that endeavour very soon.
Now, relax. Your hair is catching fire.
Briar retreats from the bier. At the end of things, Brittle is all alone in the world. A tiny sound of collapse to her right and a sense of pressure against her torso and face. Pushing her eyes to their limit, she catches a glimpse of smoldering beard pushed up against her cheek. Not completely alone, then. Her father kept his promise after all. Breath has not abandoned her, this second time around. Though she knows only his husk remains, it feels like they are breathing together, as close as they were when he held her the first winters of her life. The fire breathes with them, exhaling strands of her hair and his beard, flying like wiggling serpents to unknown realms far above, glowing for the briefest of moments before snuffing themselves out, reminding Brittle of gloriously short-lived fire flies.
„Will you be stuck here too, father?“ Brittle thinks to herself. „Or will you return in a few centuries, yearning for something you don’t know you have lost?“ She closes her eyes. Enough. Let it be done with.
Let it be…
„Sacrilege! You are not allowed here!“
Her eyes shoot open once more. That was Briar, her voice of the real! What is going on?
„Halt! You imperil everyone! Do you want the Blood Plague to return?“ The desperate tone is a new colour. What scares her so? Briar’s Mirror is cawing and screeching, and Brittle can hear wheezing and heavy footfalls in the snow.
„This is a sacred ritual! Stand back! Sta…“
The intensifying fire fly exodus is suddenly engulfed by a mighty white wave that splashes over her. There’s only one substance Brittle can think of which is that thick and creamy. Doe’s milk. Then, her vision is totally obscured as a wondrously over-coloured carpet descends upon her form, in an obvious effort to snuff out the flames. From the sound of the ruckus and a sense of shifting, she surmises that she is dragged out and away and slung over a shoulder. The sound of furious patting along her carpeted back. And then another voice, muffled by the rainbow-woven wool enshrouding her:
„By power of the age-old stone-shorn treaty between the Rukar and the Daughters of Bray, I, Broth, son of Quicksilver Foewild of the Stone Bearers and Brew of the line of Brief, milk brother to Breath and heart uncle to Brittle, claim their bodies for interral and their blood for inspection in our city. This is my right, for the blood of our veins is kissed by the clay below.“
„That’s preposterous, you oaf!“ retorts Briar, „What treaty?! What is this penile drivel? And why in the Seven Hardships have you left your hovel to join this waste of womb space, Branch?“
If Brittle had been able to, she would have gasped.
„I have a witness to my claim, as I see you have noticed,“ says Broth, voice audibly straining from his load. „Branch, Keeper of…“
„…precious baubles from pasts long forgotten.“ It sounds like Briar is wading closer through the snow. „I am Briar, Seer, Keeper of Form. Without Form, nothing to remember. And this egregrious breach of tradition is bad Form indeed. You do not know what is at stake here.“
„Tradition is important, Briar,“ says Branch with a studied lightness, „I agree. Which is why I am here, as a Keeper of Memory. To ensure that tradition, the steps taken in the past, is not forgotten. This is the seed that bore the fruits of our functions, and it is important to remember bonds and oaths, to cherish them. Without them, we lose the form of who we are. And I say to you, Briar, I know this treaty of which Broth speaks to the letter. My eleventh self was present at its chiselling. The article in question is this:
The Daughters solemnly promise that if any one of Rukar blood dies of illness in their care, their bodies will be sent to the City of the Stone Bearers without interference or delay.“
„This is no regular illness,“ hisses Briar, „This is the Blood Plague.“
„There is an addendum with myriads of examples of maladies. The Fourth Hardship is specifically mentioned. I do not know what you feel is at stake in this instance, that is your domain. But in this case, my domain, Daughter, supersedes yours. And as I have authority, I need tell you nothing more of why it is so important to obey the commands of this old agreement. Just as you do not need to explain to me why you saw fit to burn these bodies before a proper inquiry in the nature of their deaths could be held. You can save that for the Keeper of Health. She is in Brief’s Hold, waiting for you in your hut.“
There is a long pause. „Very well,“ says Briar, „I bow to your seniority in this matter. I will head to the hold at once.“
Brittle hears Briar slog past, and as she does, the bird voice croaks inside her mind once more.
I will find you again, worry not. Until then, let us hope for everyone’s sakes that you are as good a container as you are a thorn in my backside. The fate of everything…
„…depends on it,“ Briar whispers under her breath.
Brittle starts to feel a tingle in her scalp. Her hands twitch ever so slightly. Below her, she sees a small opening of light in the rolled up carpet. An eye appears, looking in. Brown with flecks of gold. She knows that gaze.