11.3 – The Last Sunrise

She flitters in and out of consciousness like a restless bird’s quivering wing. The sensation of being carried, on the verge of smothering. Pain resurfacing from behind the veil of the mushroom fog, prodding gently at the underside of her skin. Voices, half heard, half understood.

„Hurry, now.“ „Here.“ „Softly.“

Stone under her back. A rush of chill air as her cocoon is unfolded. A gasp, then two. Not three. But, perhaps, a sigh. Her eyes are closed. No will in any world can open them. Brittle slips away.

She awakes to the familiar sensation of finger-muzzling. „Bridge,“ she smiles, eyes still closed. That, thinks Brittle, must surely mean that things are well. In some order or fashion. But where are they? Her eyelids begin to move, slowly, like creaking, unoiled doors. The frost nettle lantern. The stone table. A memory of Brooder, drowning in bear fur, sharing a cup with her. Tears form and are quickly licked away, leaving more wetness in their wake. She gets up, hands trailing through her…It’s gone. Her hair is gone. An uneven stubble is all that remains. A discovery like that would have shocked her out of her wits a few days ago, in another life. But now? Brittle takes it in stride. And exits her uncle’s wagon-sleigh.

The unfamiliar sensation of cold stinging her exposed ears like icy gnats. „Uncle?“ she half asks, half states to the stillness of the air. In no time at all, as if he had been waiting expectantly for her call, she hears: „Here, dear,“ to her right. A bit further along, past the front of the wagon train, past the six skerry stags docilely eating from bridle-hung pouches of stag feed, she finds him. And her father.

Broth has dug a seat in the snow, big enough for both of them and then some. Her uncle sits to the left, not looking at her, just gazing down into the forested snow-sprinkled valley below. Even though he is dressed in his usual garish city fashion, it’s almost as if all colours have seeped out of him. He seems drab, even compared to the monotone landscape around him. To his right, at the other end of the snow seat, sits his brother. Breath. But despite his name, no frosty puffs of air can be seen around his face. As Brittle approaches, she sees that his posture is strange, stiff. If he had still been alive, he would definitely complain about his back.

But…his eyes, sees Brittle as she steps around them, are white as doe’s milk. His skin grey as an overcast sky still backlit by the dying of an obscured sun. Like his brother, his unseeing gaze is fixed on the vista below. Parts of his beard have burnt away and exposed half a chin and a throat Brittle has never seen all her life. And there, on said throat, Brittle sees the wound. Small, insignificant, all-encompassing. She touches it and shivers. There is space between the two brothers. Just enough. She sits down.

Without looking at her, Broth reaches over her bald scalp, picks up Breath’s badger cap, and places it on top of her head. „Please forgive me. I only had stag shears at my disposal, and I’ve never been much of a barber. But you are alive, at least.“ „Thank you,“ Brittle whispers. „Not that I understand it, any of it,“ continues her uncle, „why you are alive and well and Breath is a shell. I had hopes, you know. The Rukar are notoriously resistant to diseases of all kinds, and by any measure or reckoning his stone blood should be thicker than yours. Yet he succumbed, and you remain.“ He looks at her, briefly. „For which I am, of course, immeasurably grateful.“

She wants to explain it to him. All of it. But she can’t. „Did you notice the wound in his neck?“ she tries. „What?“ he responds, confused eyes looking towards the prick below the naked jawline, before glazing over. Broth shakes his head and returns his attention to the view. Exactly, thinks Brittle. „I don’t know why,“ she begins instead, „it might not even be a sickness.“ „Who can tell?“ Broth shakes his head, „Whatever it was, whatever it is, it took Brand, old man Brooder, and Breath. But you are right, it does not seem contagious. Not anymore, anyway.“ His features shift. „It almost reminds me of what happened to your mother….“ Again, the bewildered look and the shaking of the head. It’s too painful to witness. Brittle needs to change the subject.

„Where are we?“

„Don’t you recognize it?“

She looks closer, happy to receive a tiny puzzle to keep her mind occupied. Looking for details, she notices a large clearing in the woods. Ah. Of course. Brittle knows the place well, though she hardly ever sees it dressed in winter clothing. Or from this particular vantage point. „Middler’s Glen,“ she says.

„This is where we used to come, this very spot, when we were boys. Every summer, when the holds would gather for the celebrations, the dances and the tents, we would climb up here, just here, and watch the first sunrise of the festival together. We did that every year, until…“

„Until?“

„Until I left. To join our father. Mother had just died, her heartbone held aloft from her smoldering corpse by aunt Bracken, her closest female relative. We, her sons, could only watch from a distance. Father had asked both of us to come, but Breath refused the call. I understood. He was set on marrying your mother, after all. And we sat here, that last summer. He couldn’t fathom why I would leave. Why I would escape the warm subservience of living here, bowing my lowly man-head to the unknowable wisdom of Daughter Lore. Why I would run to a man who had been absent most of our lives, why I would abandon my kin. He could never accept that the Rukar were our kin, too. His kin. I wanted to know them, that part of me, I said. For him, there was nothing to know. Nothing to figure out. I didn’t see it at the time, but I think he saw it as abandonment. Betrayal. I think we both did.“

A single, vast cloud blots out the frail sun, dropping a drizzle of snow over the trio. Brittle wonders why she can’t find it in herself to cry. Maybe there are no tears left. Maybe the fearrowing cocooned inside her has drunk them all. Bridge trots up to them, sniffs for a bit, then walks away. She wants to say something, to respond to her uncle’s eulogy, but the fearrowing has eaten all her words too.

He looks at her, his customarily round face more sharp and angular than Brittle has ever seen. It seems another subject is on his mind. „Were you really conscious the whole time, when you were lying on the pyre? Braid seemed to imply it.“

„Not the whole time,“ says Brittle, in a tone of voice that is meant to imply that that part of the conversation is a dead end. „Did Braid and Branch return to the schiil? To the…skytent?“

„Maybe. I don’t know. I got them here, you know. We Rukar know our treaties well, I just needed someone to back me up. But we didn’t speak much after rescuing you and realizing you were, in fact, alive. They just sent me off and didn’t explain anything. Not what Briar really was on about. Not what did this. Not…“

„I just don’t understand,“ says Broth, hiding his face in his meaty hands, „I just don’t understand.“

Brittle is tempted to say „Daughter Lore“ but she won’t. Instead she says: „Well. We are here now. On our way to your home.“

„It’s your home, too.“

„Yes.“ Her thoughts turn back to the message she received in the fearrowing’s cave. Her need to talk to the Crystalline Council. Something her older self reaffirmed on the void bridge. Well. She can’t broach that subject, either. Brittle can hardly contain all this information herself, so she can’t imagine how poor, confused Broth would take it.

„This is all too much,“ she sighs.

„Yes.“

And that’s it. For a long while, they just stare down into the valley with the same vacant expression as lifeless Breath.

The sun begins to descend. „Can we stay here, tonight?“ asks Broth. „I just want to see one final sunrise.“ She nods. And soon they sit underneath the starscape, cradling warm cups of frost nettle tea, finding warmth in the drink and eachother’s company.

„My grandfather…I’ve never actually met him. Why is that, exactly? Is it because of…“ She looks towards the dark shape of her father. „They were estranged, the two of them. Properly. That’s the simple reason,“ answers Broth. „Is there a complicated one?“ Brittle looks quizzingly at her uncle.

„Our father is everything Breath is…was not. Where Breath was reliable, sturdy, firm, father was…is fickle, inconstant, shifting. He came to the hold like a rabbit in heat, wooed Brew and blended his blood with hers, creating us. He stayed for a few seasons, finding fatherhood and the customs of Brew’s kin at least of passing interest, but then his nature got the better of him. Breath could never forgive him that abandonment. He came back a few times, but mother’s firewalk put an end to his visits.”

„But you went to see him. Is he waiting for us back there now, in the City?“

A wry smile spreads across Broth’s face. “Hah! Him waiting for anything, that will be the day. He’s actually been gone for a good while, a handful of seasons and then some. As you’ve probably gathered already, father is an explorer by nature. Hard to pin down. His greatest charm. His greatest flaw. Who knows when he will be back, if he will be back. I don’t really know what he went searching for in the first place. I doubt even he knew. I guess he is, as always, intent on living up to his name.”

“His name. I heard you say it, back on top of Ghost Hill. No one ever told me that before. Quicksilver…”

“…Foewild. It’s the first part I’m talking about. First lesson about the Rukar, Brittle, we have Mirrors too, just like the sons and Daughters of Bray, but our other halves are stones, not beasts. And that’s how we are named.

“But your name is Broth.”

“That’s my name when I am visiting the holds. In the City I am Striata.”

He fondles with something around his neck and pulls out a small stone hanging from a metal chain.

“It’s hard to make out now, but this, Brittle, is a piece of striata, my other Mirror. As fate would have it, both my Mirrors are striped and dense. This one, though, has far more colours.”

“I’ve never heard of such a stone.”

“There are more stones unknown to you than the stars in the sky above. In the City, you will learn of them. You can’t avoid it.”

“This,” he says and strokes the striped stone with his forefinger, “is a stone only found in the City. At least, as far as we know. The bedrock of our home by the sea, it’s all striata. Layers upon layers of it.”

“And you can’t find it anywhere else?” asks Brittle incredulously.

“No,” says Broth, putting the striata back beneath the equally multicoloured robes, “I suspect even the Council are clueless as to why that is. But, of course, the different religious factions all have their own pet theories.”

“Wait. You are one people and you believe different things?!”

“There’s a lot to learn, my inquisitive niece. Let’s take one step at a time. For now,” he says and yawns, “let’s catch some rest afore the sunrise.”

“But,” says Brittle, not ready to let this go, “does that mean I have a stone Mirror, too?”

“Surely,” affirms Broth drowsily, “We will figure out your Rukar name when we get there.”

“And father? What was his stone self?”

“He never inquired. So that is lost to dream. Something coarse and uncomplicated, no doubt. A mountain <yawn> rock of some kind. Granite or…blackstone…or…”

Broth’s voice trails off into the night. Brittle’s consciousness follows soon thereafter.

Father?

The stars are spinning. It doesn’t faze her. She is alone on the snow seat.

Father?

He is there, standing close to the brink, looking down into Middler’s Glen.

She walks up to him. Holds his hand. Her head reaches up to his belly. She is ten years old. That doesn’t faze her, either.

His skin is grey, like granite. Maybe Broth was right about that one. She wants to say something, but what could she say?

Gnhraff,” he grunts.

“What does that mean?” she asks, pleadingly.

He looks at her, grins a half-bearded grin, leans down and kisses her hand.

Gnhraff.”

“What in the Seven Hardships!?” she shouts…with Broth’s voice? 

That fazes her.

She wakes up, to a standing, flustered Broth, Breath still beside her, Bridge muzzling her hand. And a gigantic grey mountain stag with a pair of antlers wider than two men abreast. Its lighter-haired chest is on a level with Broth’s staring head. It is perfectly still, non-threatening, just observing, watching. Really, really, close.

Gnhraff,” it says.

Slowly, with infinite patience, it turns its head to look at Breath, whose dead eyes are still locked on the darkened landscape below. A large tongue slides out to lick his face with suprising tenderness. The grandfather stag (an epithet Brittle decides on this very moment) turns back to look at Broth with deep, dark eyes.

The horizon beyond starts to lighten, ever so slightly.

Broth is paralyzed with a mixture of shock and fear, but Brittle feels a serene calm spread throughout her limbs. She knows why the grandfather stag has come. What Grandfather (for short) wants.

“He wants your permission,” she tells Broth.

“What?!”

“To take his Mirror.” She doesn’t know why she knows this, she just does. It’s the only explanation that makes sense.

“Take him!?”

“All mountain stags go high up to the farthest peaks to mourn their dead. Father told me this. And he is one of them, always has been.”

“Then let this beast go there to mourn! My brother has died due to an illness. He needs to be inspected and interred in our City.”

Though Broth is severely agitated, Grandfather doesn’t flinch. No need when you’re that big, thinks Brittle.

“Think on it yourself, uncle dear. Last time you were here, your friendship cracked, your kinship frayed, because you couldn’t understand or accept each other’s choices. This is the way to heal it. You know father wouldn’t want to be buried in a cold stone chamber beneath the ground. He needs to feel the wind of the high peaks, so that his spirit can soar. Don’t force a skin upon him that he would not want to wear.“

„But the rules…“

„Snow claws take yout rules!“ shouts Brittle, surprised at her own Will in this matter. „You know I am right. You know it.“ She retreats instinctively, Bridge following without needing to be told. Leaving Broth and Grandfather in silent communion. They look at each other for ages. Finally, Broth reaches out his hand. Grandfather bows down to meet it. Broth leans his head onto Grandfather’s grey, shaggy snout and says: „Forgive me.“

And that’s all it takes. Grandfather bends down, and gently, with Broth’s help, he scoops Breath up in his massive antlers, carrying the big man like a child in a nettle net.

Gnhraff,“ he says, and takes off with a quick trot towards the mountain tops behind them. The first tendrils of morning stretch with longing tenderness towards the girl, the man and the fawn as they watch Grandfather and his quarry disappear behind a snowy outcropping above. The sun bursts forth soon thereafter, pouring colour back onto the real, and painting striated rainbows on the surface of the tears running down the cheeks of Broth.

Brittle pulls the badger cap down over her ears. It still carries his smell.

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