3.1 – Old man Brooder
„What was that?“
„hnnrf. Thank. You. For doing this“.
„So that’s why you haven’t said a word since we set off. You’ve been brewing that potion of gratitude. A complex concoction, I’m sure. You know, Breath, sometimes you seriously remind me of mother.“
„I prefer resembling Brew. At least she would be..ghn…gracious enough to accept an offer of thanks without turning it into a thinly veiled attack. Hmf. That’s more along the lines of what father would do.“
„How would you even have the faintest clue about what father would do?“
„I have a few childhood memories to go on. Which is why I never ever understood why you would seek..ghhrff…him out“.
Silence. The hooves of the skerry stags crunching through the snow. The creaking of uncle Broth’s wagon-sleigh. The clunking of the stone chains connecting the two carriages. The chaos inside Brittle’s mind. She lies on Broth’s fairly opulent bed in the first carriage, the second containing uncle’s trading goods, mainly gourds of skerry milk, one of which lies empty on the floor, rolling around from one side to the other as the wagon-sleigh makes its way through the forest, towards home.
Home. What is home? Bridge is lying next to her, milk spots all around his muzzle, sleeping peacefully. He has had quite the growth spurt. His hindlegs touch her feet and his head is close to the nook of her neck. Broth’s milk must do wonders. Outside the brothers start speaking again, picking a less volatile topic. Her.
„Has she said anything to you? Anything at all?“ says Broth in a lower voice. He needn’t have bothered. Brittle can hear him just fine.
„No. ghrn. I don’t understand it. Brook was inside for half a day and was quite cheery when she reappeared. I didn’t expect…“
„…three days. No. And, of course, no one will tell us lowly men folk anything“.
„Daughter Lore is Daughter Lore“.
„Inane expressions like that is but one of the reasons why I left to find father back in the day.“
They keep on with their bickering. Brittle shuts them out. Stroking Bridge’s fur, her thoughts go back to the days she spent recuperating inside the schiil.
The soft bed. The circular room, its walls made of ironseed timber. Just staring at the ceiling, not wanting to speak a word. Not being able to. Branch and Braid showed up from time to time, like the sun peering through heavy clouds. Sitting on each side of her, their braid a low-hanging rope bridge between them, close to Brittle’s hands. She touched it. They sat. They left. They returned. Branch told her of the room she was in, once.
„The Room of Peace. You made it, you know. Or…she did“. Branch looked at the heartbone lying to the right of Brittle’s head, the one that still retained its white sheen. „She was the first Keeper of Peace, having witnessed first hand the horrors of the Scourge War. We have a lot to thank her for“. „And do you know what she used to make it?“ Braid piped in. „The War-Begone-Tree! Except, of course, it didn’t have that name back then, that was a later addition and…“ Seeing Brittle’s expressionless face, Braid trailed off. „Well,“ said Branch, „we’ll let you rest some more“.
Brittle picks up the heartbones lying next to her, one in each hand. One white, one yellow. Both her. Somehow. But they had not thrummed, had not tried to communicate anything. Except for the obvious fact that they had disconnected themselves from the heartbone tree, something which had never happened before, according to Branch.
„There is no Memory of this“ she had said, „To find an answer, we must look to the future, not the past. When you are strong enough to return, you have to bring them to your Seer“.
To Briar. What would she tell her? About the fearrowing? Would she even believe her? She is struggling to believe it herself. But three days on, she still hasn’t forgotten a single detail, and the painful resurfaced memory of Brook’s death keeps rushing through her mind with the incessant regularity of a beating heart. In a way, maybe that’s why she hasn’t said a thing. If she speaks, this will all become true. This will…
„Now that’s a sight I didn’t expect to see!“ The skerry stags stop and Broth laughs heartily. „How are you still alive?!“
A voice with the quality of sand rubbing against stone replies „Don’t they teach you manners in that city of yours, crustling?“ A voice which Brittle would recognize anywhere. Without thinking, she jumps out of bed and rushes to the front, sticking her head out the little window between Broth and Breath. „Old man Brooder!“ she shouts, breaking her three day silence. There he is, a tall, gaunt figure almost buried in bear furs, leaning against a huge, fallen ironseed tree.
„Yes, yes“ he barks „I am ancient. The sky is blue. Snow is cold. Now let me aboard. I’ll entertain Brittle while you loving brothers hitch up this old beast“. Brooder points his thumb at Breath’s wagon-sleigh behind him. And that’s when Brittle understands where they are, back where they had to set up camp, an eternity ago. She looks towards the blue mountains rising in the distance and wonders if Brother is up there already, mourning his sibling. „Yes, come“ she says to Brooder, a smile spreading across her face. She had forgotten how good it feels to smile.
They sit across from each other in the carriage, sipping nettle tea. Outside the brothers are grunting. Brooder’s white hair and beard are all over the place. It’s incredibly nice to see him. Brooder, the only real constant in the settlement, a man who everyone she knows remembers as old, even from when they were children.
„Why have you come so far from the settlement, all alone?“ she asks him. slrrp. He smacks his lips „To see you, Brittle“. „But why? I would have been home in less than a day“ „Because my Mirror told me to. I tried bringing up my bad back, but he wouldn’t have it. ’On with them skis, lad’ he said. Well, he didn’t exactly say it, he is not a conjurer of words to put it mildly, but that’s the gist of it.“ „Your Mirror?“ says Brittle, realizing she actually doesn’t know what type of woodland being that is closest to Brooder’s Deepheart. „Yep. He’s just outside, soaking in some sun. Hah.“ But she hadn’t seen any animals, except for the skerry stags. „But…oh?“ „Yes“ smiles Brooder. „The ironseed?“ Brittle has never heard about a tree being a Mirror. „Not that ironseed, all ironseeds. I do not discriminate. Or, I guess I do. I don’t really like pines. Too prickly. But yes, he spoke to me. For lack of a better word.“ Brooder slurps again, wetting parts of his overgrown moustache in the process. „And what he…communicated…to me was…you know, Brittle, understanding trees is like immersing yourself in a deep, dark symphony of emotion, slow and expansive. Heh. Anyway, what was I…yes, through what I perceived as a foundation of grief, a swell of despair and confusion, and a growing sense of conviction, I felt that it was important for you to talk to someone who has cultivated the art of listening all his life, that something is troubling your Deepheart, and that you feel all alone.“ He empties the cup and sets it down on the small stone table between them. „And that’s why I’m here.“ Brittle starts to cry. „There, there“ says old man Brooder. „Just let it all out and tell me everything. But try not to drop your tears into the nettle tea.“ He smiles, crinkling up his entire face. „Those flavours don’t mix“.
„But I..snf…can’t. It’s Daughter…ahuh…Lore“. To her shock, Brooder begins to laugh a loud, dry cackle. Grinning from ear to ear, he gets up and does a little dance. „Khe khe khe! Daughter Lore is Daughter Lore. Daughter Lore is Daughter Lore. Ah, Bray forbid if I were to know of the heartbone tree, of the Seven Keepers, of the return of the names from beyond the bridge of dreams. Aho, what would happen to the world? It would surely burst into flame! Khe khe khe!“ He slumps back into the chair and with an open face wrinkled with nothing but laugh lines, he leans towards Brittle and says „You don’t reach my age, meaning an age when even I don’t know how old I am, without picking up a thing or a thousand. I have lived on the brink of death and dream since before your grandmother Brunt stopped suckling Bristle’s perky teat. Nothing you could tell me would break the trust of Bray. Nay, nay. Khe khe khe“.
So she tells him. Everything. From the moment the wagon-sleigh stopped in front of the fallen ironseed, to when she walked out of the schiil with the heartbones of two Brittles past. When she is done, Brooder clucks his tongue, producing an unintentional glob of saliva that lands in his side whiskers. „So you named it. And you remember it“. Brittle nods. „Fearrowing. It has a sound to it. I have felt it in the trees, you see. A change of sorts, though I know not what. And that same feeling touched my bones seven years ago, around the time your mother died. But this time it is stronger, more persistent. The trees don’t like it, no, not at all.“ „Was it you?“ says Brittle, „In Brave’s memory?“ „Ho, Bread was my sister and Brood too my mother, and Brink was my intolerable friend who got himself gored by a boar in the end“. A glint appears in his eye. „And Brave, what a wonder. You should have known her, Brittle. Your grandmother’s grandmother. I was madly in love with her, you know. But she thought me too young. Khe khe khe! Can you imagine?! Too young.“ „And the cave? Do you know where it could be?“ asks Brittle. Brooder scratches his head with his long, spindly fingers. „Brood had hardly spat me out. And as you say, everyone forgot what happened anyway. But I have other ways and other tricks. The trees might help, if I listen deep enough.“
„They are all connected!“ shouts Broth from outside „We just need some help removing more snow and we can be on our way!“. Brittle gets up to help but stops as Brooder puts his hand on her forearm. „One more thing, dear one. When we return, there will be a feast, as it always is. At the height of the celebrations, you will go to the Seer’s hut, as one always does. And you are expected to tell about your experience. Just…be careful about what you say. Briar’s always been rigid when it comes to tradition, and the fact that you return with two heartbones might rile her up something fierce. Listen to your Deepheart, is what I’m saying, and let it guide your tongue.“ „Did the trees tell you to say that to me?“ asks Brittle. „No“ groans Brooder as he slowly gets up from the chair. „This I feel in my bones. And let me tell you, they’ve been around for longer than most of the forest around here“.