3.2 – Little do you know, my darling

After clearing the path, the remainder of the journey goes remarkably fast. Old Brooder has to rest, so Brittle spends it in silence. Silence is a bit of a misnomer, though, as Brooder snores loud enough to make Brittle wonder if the spirit of the bear he is wearing somehow possesses him in his sleep. Bridge is skittish and clearly longs for air, so when she looks out the front window and sees that they are approaching Breaker’s Boulder, she tells Broth to stop.

„You go on ahead“ she says to the brothers, „It’s not too far now, I’ll ski the last bit and let Bridge try his snow legs“. Her father begins to get up, but Brittle will not have it. „But my promise..“ he starts. „You made that to a girl. She is no more. I relieve you from your oath, father. I need the silence of the forest around me before I return“. Breath looks at her, eyes rimmed with sadness, but he does not argue.

Brooder is still sound asleep when Brittle stands outside and waves reassuringly to Breath. The six skerry stags with their remarkably sleek fur and their short antlers pull the train of carriages for the last leg of the journey. She waits until they turn a bend in the path before putting her skis on and looking down at Bridge who stares expectantly back up at her. „Ready?“ Bridge bleats an endearing reply. „Ho, come on then, child!“ she says, trying to sound like her mother.

They pass Breaker’s Boulder, the huge landmark covered in snow and yellow lichen. Bridge sneaks a nibble but hurries to catch up with Brittle. He seems to be in no trouble at all, almost dancing along in the snow. Brittle even thinks his balance is better than the skerry stags. Not that strange, seeing as they take their first steps along the summer-warm, sea-sprayed shore, while the deer of the forest are winterborn.

They ski and skip together under the pine boughs. Majestic ironseeds and diminutive featherbarks are also part of the forests here, but they look quite plain without their leaves. Brittle starts humming a tune Brook used to sing to her when they were out travelling among the trees.

Little do you know, my darling
rivers run dry and trees will fall
Little do you know, my darling
life seems long for one so small

Bridge is running around her, excited about everything. Trying to see the world through his eyes, Brittle looks at the forest, the snow, the sky as if for the first time. She sees that the light is fading, but with their current speed they will be home by sunset.

Little do you know, my darling
beauty pales and strength will fail
Little do you know, my darling
in just a wink you’re old and frail

Hah. It occurs to Brittle she’s never properly listened to the actual words of this song before.

Little do you know, my darling
hearts will stop and bodies stink
Little do you know, my darling
death is closer than you think

Brittle stops. She really hadn’t listened. How many verses can she remember? „I think that’s more than enough. Or what do you say, Bridge? Fancy another ditty?“ But she can’t see him. „Bridge?“ He has run off somewhere. Her heart starts beating like a skin drum. „Bridge?!“ Flashes of Brook’s last memory sears through her mind, the fearrowing that had stolen her shape, the horrible hellos. How stupid could she be? It was still out there and it knew her. It knew Bridge too, had tried to kill him. She has to find him. „Briiiiiidge!!“ Her throat constricts. No, not now. Please, not now. „Bri…hhhh…dge“. Leaning on her ski pole, it suddenly occurs to her that she can track him. Biting her lip and heaving for breath she looks for his hoof prints. There. In between those trees. Up the hill side. Up…

hhh…No“. Ghost Hill.

She can’t follow him. It is forbidden. Unless there is a firewalk, no one can go there but the Seer. To do so would disturb the lost spirits. But she can’t leave him there, either. She pushes herself closer to the tree line by the path and leans herself against the closest trunk. A naked, sturdy ironseed. It makes her think about Brooder and what he would say if he were here now.

Khe! Khe! Khe! The first Daughter in history to bring back heartbones from the tree of trees is worried about breaking taboos? Tell me this, if all spirits return, what are they doing strolling around up there? Khe! Khe! Khe!

Her imagined Brooder makes her smile despite herself. She wouldn’t be surprised if the old rascal visits Ghost Hill on a weekly basis. She picks up both heartbones from her deep fur-lined pocket. „Well?“ she asks. „What would…hhh…you do in my situation?“

Hummmmmmm goes the yellow one. Right. That settles it. Holding them both close to her heart, she tries to calm her breath. After a short while, she starts climbing the hill.

She goes slow so as not to overexert herself. When she finally sees the white spirit creepers hanging from the trees marking the circumference of the big firewalk clearing at the top of the hill, it feels like she has been climbing forever. Her entire body tingles as she passes the barrier, but the insistent thrumming in her pocket soothes her somewhat. She stops for a moment. No vengeful ghosts. No scary sounds. Just a soft breeze. Skiing a bit further, she finds him. Bridge is standing in the centre of the clearing, munching peacefully. He is just at the place where the bodies are burned. The patch of ground underneath him is free of snow and barren, except for one spot where a small, vibrant, green and blue-veined frost nettle bush is flourishing. It occurs to Brittle that that’s the very spot where the chests are cracked open and the heartbones retrieved.

„Bridge!“ she whoops with joy. He looks at her briefly before returning his attention to the far more interesting bush. Skiing all the way up to him, she pets him and says „Have you weaned yourself off milk already?“. She sniffs the air. Everything is so calm here, the exact opposite of Briar’s repeated warnings. Why keep people away? Some old habit formed in a bygone past based on a circumstance no longer valid, perhaps? Brittle just stays there in silence for a while, until Bridge has devoured almost all the nettle leaves. She notices that the shadows of the trees are getting really long now. „The sun is setting“, she says, „We should go“.

Bridge seems to understand and starts skipping away. Hummmmmmm. But someone else is not ready to leave. Her second self begins to vibrate more intensely than before. Taking the heartbone in hand she asks it „What do you…I….we want?“. On instinct, she moves it around the barren space, and quickly realizes that the thrumming is at its strongest next to what remains of the bush. „Do you want me to…leave you here?“ Hummmmmmm. Brittle remembers the memory of the eleventh Branch and recognizes the forceful insistence. This version of her is truly imbued with a fierce will. Unable to refuse…herself she puts it down by the nettle stalk. „Why do you want this? Because you died far from home?“ The heartbone is still, and Brittle almost feels snubbed. „Be that way. Do what you need to do. No need to explain it to me, even though I would like to point out that I am you“. No response, as if all semblance of animation has left it completely. „All right. I will pick you up tomorrow then, when you’ve had your fun.“ The heartbone does not object.

The sky above is already deep blue, and darkening fast, so she has to go. Silently fuming, she follows Bridge to the edge of the clearing. As she passes under the creepers, she hears what appears to be a faint voice floating on the breeze.

„Bri…i…ttle….why….did you….leave….me?“

Gasping, she turns with all her senses on high alert. But the clearing is still quiet, the only exception a slight rustle in the branches of a tree, which is more likely the result of a prowling night bird than a ghost. When the voice, or what she thought was a voice, does not return, she leaves the hill as quickly as she can. Even though she knows this area intimately, it’s still easy to get lost in the dark.

„Brittle! There you are! We started to worry.“ Young Brand, a boy about her age with a big birthmark covering most of his face, is the first to greet her, lit torch in hand. He smiles his usual mischievous smile. „I was readying myself to go rescue you.“ „From what? You still believe the stories of the snowclaws we were told as children?“ she shoots back at him. Brand’s big sister Brash is the second. „Oooooh!“ she exclaims and runs up from behind him. „Look at you! You are ado-ra-ble!“ Brash nearly throws herself at Bridge who starts squealing fearfully and runs to Brittle for protection. „His name is Bridge“, says Brittle, „and he needs time with new people“.

Ignoring that comment completely, Brash hugs Brittle and lifts her up in the air, scaring Bridge even more. Setting her down she bursts out „It’s so so good to see you. You were gone for so long, that’s not usual is it? I really envy you, you know. I would love to be in your skin and do the ceremony now. I’ve been looking forward to it all my life!“ „At least your mother is still alive“ replies Brittle. „Oh“ blushes Brash, „I didn’t…that was not what I meant“

Khe! Khe! Khe!“ And here comes number three. „No, of course, Brash. It rarely is. Welcome home, Brittle. It was good that you took some time for yourself in the forest“ „Oh?“ Her fourth greeter appears, the frosty-haired midwife Breach, dark, slightly glistening blood colouring her hands and forearms. „Yes, Brittle. Young Brade decided to finally give birth. She burst like a spring flood. We just finished naming her daughter, so now we can focus on you“ „What did you name her?“ wonders Brittle. „Brood“ says Brooder with a glint in his eye. Leaning down, he whispers in Brittle’s ear: „I’d recognize that sour face anywhere“.

They usher her in between the two ancient ironseeds all know as Broader and Broadest standing at the edge of their tiny village. Brash moves to take care of Bridge, but a painful look from Brittle makes Brand intervene. Together with Brooder he calms down the shivering fawn while more of her kin comes to greet her and more or less shove her towards the centre of the settlement, to the big, flat stone. Suddenly it dawns on Brittle that she’s never thought about why their centre stone is regulary decorated with streaks of red ochre paint, but now, of course, she understands. A rickety throne stands on top of the stone. And everything happens to her that she’s seen happen before with other Daughters returning from the schiil. The musty patchwork red and yellow dress is pulled over her head. The wooden antler crown. The yellow coloured stick. And with it all she is put upon the throne.

Her kin stand all around with flaming torches and jubilant faces. She has returned to them as the oldest of her line. Most do not know that she will be the last. Breach comes up to her, her hands still bloody from Brood’s return from beyond the veil of dream. Usually the midwife would use ochre, but it seems she does not want to waste the opportunity fate has given her. While she paints Brittle’s face and hands in an intricate pattern, the small crowd starts to chant:

„Brittle, daughter of Brook, daughter of Brunt, daughter of Bristle, daughter of Brave…“

As they go on, Breach finishes her painting and finally smears her own lips with life blood before planting a long kiss on Brittle’s lips. It lasts an eternity and Brittle is beginning to struggle to breathe when her kin finally shouts:

„…daughter of Brief, daughter of Bray, the Morning Queen!“

Breach pulls back and air rushes into Brittle’s lungs. An involuntary cry escapes her lips and everyone laughs in response. Remembering what she is supposed to do now, she stands and lifts the yellow stick above her head. For a brief moment, the vision from the battlefield bleeds into the village as if she is seeing it from Bray’s point of view. Her kin is swallowed by the enormous fearrowing rushing in with the speed of dawn’s light, and her stick is a serrated sword.

„Begone, World Eater!“ she finds herself shouting before snapping back into her present reality. No one seems to have noticed, as everyone is cheering and yelling. Only Breach, standing close, looks at her curiously. And then the feast kicks off. Music, song, treats of every thinkable kind. Every single one of her kin come to greet her, to touch her. Breath with tears of pride in his eyes. Broth with a look of bemusement. Everyone except Briar, who is sitting in the Seer’s hut, awaiting her. She tries to push any thought about what she will say away, but time mercilessly shoulders on, and soon Breach helps her down from the throne and pushes her gently in the direction towards the small hillock at the village outskirts.

Everyone goes quiet. She feels the gaze of dozens of eyes fixed on her as she starts to walk the winding path up the small mound. The impractical antler crown keeps wanting to fall down and she keeps stepping on the hem of the patchwork dress, so she has to move slowly with great concentration to retain her dignity. Which means she really hasn’t given any thought to what she will tell Briar before she stands outside the door. It’s covered in spirit creepers that seem black in the darkness, but which are actually blood red in colour. She does not know what to say. She will just have to do what Brooder suggested. Listen to her Deepheart. The tune she sung earlier today comes back to her suddenly. One of the verses that mother usually never would get to.

Little do you know, my darling
rage is warm and hate is cold
Little do you know, my darling
heads may roll if you’re too bold

Taking a deep breath, Brittle opens the door and crosses the threshold.

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