12.1 – The Way

Stone chains clunking. Skerry stags grunting. Bridge prancing along, dancing circles around his six snow-shy cousins. Every day has the same flavour, as Broth takes them further away from her home than she has ever been. Snippets of conversation do spice the days differently, and from time to time Brittle gleans new tidbits of information about her other kin, the Rukar.

One day, they start talking about names. The Rukar have first and last names, which seems an unnecessarily complicated way of going about things. Their first name is the name of their stone Mirror, their last name is a kind of family name, to show their lineage.

“So why is grandfather’s…last…name Foewild?”

“It’s your last name too, it shows his, my, your father’s and your lineage.”

“Lineage?”

“Yes, the Daughters trace their lineage through their mothers, back to Bray, the Rukar trace it through their fathers.”

“So you are…what, Sons of Foewild?”

“No, that’s just one of many family names. And I don’t know its origin or what it means, if anything. But we are the Foewilds, it’s a way of separating, let’s say, one Striata from another.”

“You can have two people with the same name co-exist? But that’s the same person!?”

“The same person? Whatever do you mean?” says Broth bemusingly.

It suddenly occurs to Brittle that the knowledge of returns is Daughter Lore, and no man but Brooder (and Brand, in the end) knows about it.

“I just, in the holds a name is held by only one person at a time.”

“The Daughters are few in number, like wildmoonwings, while the Rukar are as numerous as ants. It’s a more practical naming convention, I assume.”

Brittle still finds it quaint.

Another day, a starfisher bird passes overhead, nudging Broth to mention how he knew when to come to the schiil for her ceremony.

“A starfisher knocked on my window pane. I decided to start my trade route early. Little did I know what that would bring.” Sadness creeps back into his voice, until Brittle gets him talking about his route. He prattles on like a frothy waterfall composed of impressively boring details, but Brittle indulges him just to see him happy. She listens with half an ear, catching bits and pieces of a torrent of information about smaller homesteads and half-hidden villages and crusty outposts all hungry for skerry doe milk of unrivalled quality, and how they’re sure to make a few stops along the way, but that this particular stretch is desolate, the Daughters live far away from most. The rapids of Broth’s trader’s minutiae splash into a particulary still standing pool, namely an impromptu dissertation on the perfect milk gourd weight/size/density-ratio, which makes Brittle pull father’s cap tighter down over her ears to try and muffle the sound. Desperately searching for a way out, she miraculously finds it at once. A wondrously strange small structure of flat and uneven stones, one or more atop the other, clearly made with intent.

“Ah yes!” says Broth, “A waymarker.” As luck would have it, this, too, is related to the wonderful world of commerce. Before Brittle knows it, she has become recipient to another treatise, on how traders navigate the wilds ( a strange notion for Brittle, as this blanket term seems to cover all of the real she has ever known, and it has always seemed pretty navigable to her ) which, when boiled down to the bone, just means that they follow markers like these. But, of course, there are nuances, all of which Broth is more than delighted to heap on top of her, as if she was a waymarker for his monologues, piled on with one heavy addendum after another.

She is almost ready to leap off into the snow when things finally become interesting.

“…all of which is facilitated by Ol’Crumble, which, judging by the season and the time of day, we should find just about…here,” says Broth and points at a waymarker twice the size of any of the others they have passed. To Brittle’s surprise there’s actually smoke rising from the top of it. The snow has been meticulously brushed away from every single stone, and a bigger slab at the bottom is situated in a way that makes it look like a door.

Which makes sense, for it is, in fact, a door, which Brittle promptly understands when it opens and a peculiar creature shambles out of the strange house-like marker. 

It is small, yet similar to most folk, armed, legged and headed. But its skin looks like old, weathered stone, filled with small holes and covered in lichen and moss. Actually, the grey-green moss, though found everywhere along its form, is thickest on top of its head, creating the impression of hair. While the equally omnipresent reddish lichen is most prominent along the lower part of its head, which makes Brittle think of a beard. Which, again, leads her to think of this being as a ‘he’.

The little stone man looks up with gleaming eyes that look like they are made of bright river quartz and what passes for a mouth opens wide to utter a hail both high-pitched and squeaky and deep and earthy, as if he is speaking with two separate vocal cords in tandem.

The twin voices go:

Striata Foewild, you’re two days early, according to our reckoning. Why the rush?
Striata Foewild, you’re two days early, according to our reckoning. Why the rush?

“Events transpired outside of my control, Crumble. This is my niece, Brittle.”

The head creaks as Crumble shifts its position to look at her.

Ah. Brittle.
Ah. Brittle.

he says matter-of-factly as if he’s already had a long conversation with her and that all he’s learned about her is nestled within the simple stating of her name.

Welcome back.
Welcome back.

“What are you…?”

Hummmmmmmm.

She feels the vibration close to her heart, where she has been keeping both of the heartbones past since her premature, botched firewalk. Without looking, she is certain which one is making noise. Only she can hear it, though. Broth goes on, seemingly oblivious to Crumble’s implication.

“Are things well on the Way, Crumble?” he asks.

The creature known as Crumble nods, his eyes still curiously fixed on Brittle.

As well as can be, Striata milk trader. As well as can be.
As well as can be, Striata milk trader. As well as can be.

“Any messages you want me to convey upon arrival to the City?”

Wordlessly, Crumble turns around and inspects his abode. After a little while, he picks up a flat stone which protrudes a bit from the rest. He weighs it in his hand and says:

Apparently.
Apparently.

before throwing it up to Broth who nearly fails to catch it.

Flustered, Broth gently deposits the message stone between him and Brittle and says “Till next time, Crumble.”

There always is.
There always is.

is the taciturn reply before Ol’Crumble returns to whatever is cooking inside.

They travel for a while in silence, before Brittle asks: „What is he?“ „Hm?“ says Broth, taking some time to come back to the real from whatever internal dream realm he had been ensconced in, „oh, Crumble? He is a man, like any other.“ „But why does he look like that?“ „He is a Rukar, a Stone Bearer, just like me, just like you. Some of us, the purer ones, are closer to Stone than others.“ „Are there many of his…purity…in the City?“ „Not many, no. Ol’Crumble is the purest I have seen. He’s been around forever, a bit like Brooder, and if I were to strike a guess, he is far older. The stone blood moves slowly; at a glacial pace, our physicians say. The purer it is, the slower it moves, and the longer your heart lasts. Which also explains why so few of us get sick, disease has a hard time spreading quickly enough before its enmity is recognized by the blood force.“

„The blood force?“ Brittle feels like her existence is reduced to one big question on this journey.

„Ask a physician. You will have to be inspected when we arrive; that will be a good opportuniy. They tend to love explaining the ins and outs of their craft.“

Not unlike someone else I know, thinks Brittle.

„What does Crumble do?“

He tends the Way,“ says Broth, „the Way that binds the lands together. He keeps track of the traders travelling it, makes sure the waymarkers are kept, and functions as a sort of messaging service.“ Broth glances down at the flat, dark rock lying between them. Its shape is faintly reminiscent of an eye, and it’s sprinkled with moss.

„What does it say?“

„I do not have the faintest idea. I’m a milk trader, not a rock reader.“

„Is it made of crumble? His Mirror?“ That last question really confuses Broth. „What? No? Oh! Ah! No, hah, I see, this here is blackstone, there’s no stone called crumble, that’s not his Mirror.“ „Then why is he named Crumble?“ „It’s a nick name, a name used so many times that it’s superseded his real one. I actually have no idea what his Mirror is.“ Brittle just stares at her uncle. Nothing about her grandfather’s people makes any sense.

As they move along the Way, the weather warms. The snow layer thins, and it’s getting harder for the skerry stags to pull the wagon-sleigh train. One day, as they crest a hilltop with some difficulty, Broth tut-tuts the stags and make them stop. The snow barely covers the ground, and Brittle sees tufts of old, yellow grass everywhere, like hairy moles on an old woman’s body. „The further we move towards the coast, the milder it gets,“ Broth explains, „Which is why it is good that we have come this far before finding the lack of snow troublesome.“ „Look,“ he says and points at a wooden, quite expansive, building at the bottom of the slope ahead of them. „That, dear Brittle, is where we will stay for the night.“ „What is it?“ „It is the place where we will change our mode of locomotion and turn our wagon-sleighs into wagons. This is the Wayhouse.“

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