12.2 – The Wayhouse

The layer of snow keeps thinning down the hill. They manage to get to the bottom, but from here on out there’s just yellow grass and frozen, packed dirt. “Ah,” says Broth, “I am glad I left a few days early, otherwise I might not have gotten even this far.” He looks at Brittle and manages a smile. “It’s going to be a warm spring, no doubt.” “What now?” says Brittle. Bridge bleats a high-pitched cry. He tries his first steps on a non-snow-covered surface and is not pleased at all, legs all a-shaking. The skerry stags look at him. In a condescending manner, Brittle imagines.

“Ho ho!” comes a cry. A figure exits the Wayhouse (still some distance away) and waves towards them. Breaking into a run, the person approaches with a gleeful air; a man, not young, not old, with a shock of bright red hair and beard; the latter woven into an impressive assembly of braids, stiffened and molded to stretch in all directions. Is it supposed to look like something? Brittle can’t see it, it looks like an upended bird’s nest if anything.

“Feeling a bit stuck, are we?” the boisterous fellow exclaims when he gets up to the stags. “It seems that way, Kerrick, you rascal,” Broth answers with an air of familiarity, “Care to lend us a hand?” “I’ll do you one better, how about two tails and eight hooves?” the man apparently named Kerrick quips back and brings two fingers up to the corners of his lips. A piercing whistle ensues that frightens Bridge terribly, making him stumble backwards on the unfamiliar ground and land on his backside.

A far-off deep and throaty grunt makes Brittle snap her head to the left. There is a relatively open plain here by the side of the Way, dressed with the same yellow and stringy grass she’s seen all over the hill. One, no two, four-legged creatures are moving towards them at a brisker than brisk pace. As they close in, Brittle sees that they are huge and incredibly muscular, twice as tall as the wagon-sleigh. They bear a slight resemblance to stags, but no antlers crown their meaty, long-faced heads. Grey-skinned, black-maned, black-tailed, strong-smelling. But, as far as Brittle can tell, calm. Broth disconnects the skerries and puts the bridling inside the last cart, it won’t fit these giants anyway. Together with the six freight animals, Broth, Brittle, Bridge and broad-smiling Kerrick stand to the side of the Way as the two enormous beasts get to work. Their leathery and prehensile tails latch onto the axles of the first cart and they start to pull, dragging the wagon-sleigh ever so slowly but firmly towards the Wayhouse. The strain makes both of them drop a big clump of muck, one just before the other. Apart from the odour, which even makes Kerrick’s feisty face go sour for an eyewink, the manure thus produced does have an effect on the dragging of the wagon-sleigh akin to snow, easing at least part of the small journey.

As they follow the two grey twins, Brittle, a stickler for names, can’t help but wonder: “What are they called?” “Munrads,” says Kerrick, “they’re glorious, no?” “Very. I’ve never seen their like.” “That makes sense,” smiles Kerrick, his magnificently impractical beard arrangement lilting in the breeze, “There’s only the two of them in all of the real.” “Whatever for? Were the rest of them killed or hunted down?” “No, they were the only ones made.” Brittle’s expression of instant confoundedness spurs Kerrick to add: “Ask the tale-singer tonight. She will set you straight, I reckon.” He is still smiling, which makes Brittle suspect that the grin is less a reflection of genuine feeling and more a learned and useful trait for one in the business of entertaining travelfolk.

The munrads, for whom she already feels a stronger connection due to their lonely (and as of yet, unexplained) uniqueness, pass the Wayhouse with its golden, intricately carved double doors, and move on to an annex of sorts, what looks like an incredibly large storage space lacking a front wall. Inside this wooden cavern she spies a handful of other big carriage-like vehicles, variations of wagons or wagon-sleighs in different shapes and sizes than what she’s used to. Grunting, the munrads pull Broth’s trading train under the roof and to a spot or lane marked off with chalk lines on the sandy ground.

Kerrick clucks in approval, the munrads release their tails, turn and bow down their heads (quite a distance) for a light petting from what Brittle presumes is their master, before they trot out again towards the grassy plain.

“And what do I owe you for this gracious gesture?” asks Broth with a slight hint of suspicion in his voice. “Nothing!” smiles Kerrick, “No more than what you already owe, that is. I expect that there’s still more milk sloshing around in there? A yet-to-be-discussed number of gourds would do nicely to cover the nights before, the night to come and the wheel-fixing that is sure to follow. Eh?” Laughing hard (too hard, Brittle reckons), the mischievous Kerrick slaps Broth on the shoulder and motions them both to follow. Looking around, Brittle makes a conscious observation of something she noticed before but didn’t think that much about. In contrast to the other side of the Way there seems to be a forest behind the Wayhouse. As if the Way is a sharp delineation between the forest and the plain. Lost in thought she makes a start when they arrive at the doors and Kerrick points at Bridge and says „Not your pet stag. There is room with the others.” Brittle looks back and sees that the six skerries have already, through force of habit, placed themselves in another section of the huge wood cave, close to a water trough. With a bit of struggle, she finally manages to convince Bridge to join them and returns to the decorated entrance.

The doors are a sight. Red reliefs on an otherwise gold-coloured background. A twirling feathered serpent binding several scenes together, stags and does of different shapes and sizes, flowers looking curiously like hands and myriads of other obscure details she feels under-equipped to understand. At the very top, Brittle sees two big prancing hooved figures facing eachother, one for each door. Obviously munrads, their flexible tails reaching all the way down to the bottom edge of the doors, framing this rich display of symbols.

Kerrick opens the doors with a grandiose gesture and ushers them inside.

The Wayhouse is brimming with chatter, laughter and hoarse song. The central hall in front of them is circular and filled with tables and chairs. An equally circular counter surrounds most of the room, except for the area around the doors and three stairways, to the left, right and at the further end. The two to the sides seem to lead to an upper floor, while the opposite one is shorter, leading up to a sort of elevated platform partly obscured by thick, hanging curtains. Brittle gasps. She has never seen any piece of fabric this big. A season’s worth of work for an entire village, no doubt. The incredibly detailed embroidery is an inverted mirror of the entry doors. Gold on red.

Behind the room-spanning counter, three servers are busy with delivering milk gourds and steaming bowls of food to satisfy thirsty and hungry travelfolk. It’s all a lot to take in. „Hah,“ laughs Broth when he sees her expression, „Wait until we come to the City.“ He finds a table for them in the centre of the hall while Kerrick and his beard disappear somewhere. „Whatever you do, Brittle, don’t taste the milk here. I mean, it’s of the finest quality, I am their main supplier, after all. But in this place, most folk like their milk fermented. It’ll turn your head and your stomach, to boot. Not a good look on anyone.“

„Brrrrroth! Me favourite stone bastard!“ A shaggy-haired man carrying a milk gourd in each hand slams them both on top of their table, spilling a string of white puddles onto the surface. „Case in point,“ Broth mutters to Brittle before breaking into the same kind of smile she saw Kerrick wear, „Callum the stone trader. How goes it? What’s the blackstone market like these days?“ The man named Callum grows suddenly dour. „No’un wants blackstone anymore, you knows that, Broth…burp…milk man.“ Still holding onto the gourds he slides down and sits on the floor. Suddenly smiling, he says: „Buts’I jus’got me’ands on a luvly modderload’of your namesake, th’other one, kind’of.“ Brittle notices Broth’s face stiffen, just for a moment. Then he is all Kerrick-smiles and whistles again. „Oh, you mean striata? What a vein of luck you’ve struck, indeed. Pray tell, who is your supplier?“ „Ah-ah-ah!“ says Callum and drags his hand down from the table (gourd still attached) to tap his nose inexpertly, „Trade secrets, me rainbow-clad fella.“ Turning his attention to Brittle, as if noticing her for the first time, he says „And who’s dis bald beauty?“ „She’s my niece, Callum.“ Broth’s summer tone turns wintry in an instant. „She ain’t got the Stone taint on’er as much as you, I’can tell. She a Daughter’en?“ „Yes,“ says Brittle, looking straight down at this miserable milk-drowned wretch. „What’s’ur name’en? Wait!“ He makes a wild gesture with his hand, arcing milk all over her dress. She does her best not to react. „I know! Haha, you look like a….Broom!“ He cackles. „No, I’ave a better’un – Brat!!“ Amazed with his own comedic talent, he throws both his hands in the air, making an ever bigger mess of his surroundings, her clothes included. Focusing on her milk-stained torso, a lewd glint appears in his blurry eyes. „Ah, thassit. I name you…Breast.“ He drops one of the gourds to free his hand and to Brittle’s horror he starts mindlessly reaching for her. Broth moves to intervene, but she is far faster. Grabbing the dropped gourd she smashes it in his face, sending him flying just like she did Briar that time in the Seer’s hut. Without rising from her chair, she keeps glaring at his bruised, confused face and says: „I am Brittle, a Daughter of Bray, the Morning Queen. Try to touch me again, manling, and I’ll bite off your hand.“ Callum, the cur, starts moaning and begins to crawl away as fast as he can.

The hall suddenly grows silent. All eyes are locked on their table, on Brittle. Broth’s eyes dart around before he throws out his arms and shouts: „Not the first time poor Callum has fallen for a woman’s charms, am I right?!“ That tips the balance in their favor. Raucous laughter breaks the stillness and folk return to their previous conversations. Broth gets up and starts ordering milk for a few of the tables to lighten the mood even further. He returns with two cups of frost nettle tea and a piece of drying cloth for her. „Well handled,“ he says to Brittle, „but dangerous. A word of caution, not all folk revere women the way Daughters do. Some backward places, like where Callum and some of his fellowmen…“ (looking over his shoulder at one of the tables he supplied with milk) „..hail from, hide their women away.“ „What? So I should have allowed him to follow through, not to offend his culture?“ „No,“ Broth is visibly uncomfortable, „No, no, no, that is not what I am saying.“ „Then what are you saying?“ „The real is far larger than the holds of the Daughters, and the variations in beliefs and customs are larger still. I admire your pride, but sometimes subtlety can secure the prize for far less risk. Anyway, it’s all good now.“ He grins. „I’ve actually wanted to do that far more times than I can count, and I know there are others here who feel the same.“ She is silent for a moment. „I need to change,“ she says. „There’s a clothes trader here that I know,” Broth assures her, “We’ll find something for sure.“

A bell rings, and the noisy room quietens down remarkably quickly. „But if you are able to wait, here’s an act that will lighten your mood for certain. This is someone that even the likes of Callum respect.“ „Who?“ she asks as Kerrick and one of the servers start pulling the heavy curtains aside. Broth’s eyes brighten. „The tale-singer.“

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