3.3 – On the threshold of things
She forgets to bend her head. The top of the antler crown hits the door lintel and falls to the dirt floor with an unceremonious thud. Her face turns as red as the creepers outside, but luckily the circular room is dimly lit. „Not to worry“. Briar is sitting in the middle of the hut, her face underlit by a small, open fire. „It happens to almost everyone“. Briar’s eyes are closed, and even though Brittle can’t make out much else than the lower parts of her face, it doesn’t look like her snow owl is perched on her head at the moment. „Just let it be and come sit by the fire“. Brittle obeys. As she sits down, she notices another source of light; a small aperture in the wall the size of Broth’s wagon-sleigh window. In the soft star sheen trickling down into the room Brittle can make out the contours of a variety of hanging bones, skulls, feathers and weird objects she probably wouldn’t recognize even in broad daylight. She also sees another door behind Briar. Like the entrance, this too is covered in dark creepers, and by logical extension Brittle guesses they are red.
„You can take off those old rags too, if you want. You are here as you, not only as an offshoot of Bray“. Brittle is taken aback. This is the last thing she would have expected. Briar being calm, tolerant and…kind? With a strange sense of gratitude, she pulls off the costume and puts it to the side. She holds on to the yellow stick, though. She feels a tiny bit safer that way.
A long, deep silence ensues. Crackling fire. Creaking joints. Finally, Brittle can’t take it any longer. „So…?“ „Yes“ replies Briar. What to tell? Maybe just begin with a starting signpost of truth, and then feel her way along the path. She tells of learning of returns, of Brittles past that, like her, never bled. Of not properly remembering the circumstances of her mother’s death. Of singing Brook up to her rightful place. And yes, even of her ascent and…the vision of the battlefield and Bray on the top of the hill. But not the fearrowing, she leaves that out, as if she has forgotten it. Which, in truth, she did do for a time.
„Is that all?“ says Briar. Brooder’s words resonate in Brittle’s head. Be careful about what you say. „Yes“ gulps Brittle. As if lying in wait for that particular lie, a small white shape appears in the open window behind the Seer. A snow owl with round, piercing eyes and something clutched in its claws. It flies in, drops its catch into Briar’s outstretched palm and perches in her hair, staring unflinchingly at Brittle. Briar moves the object into the flickering firelight, and Brittle can plainly see that she is holding a heartbone. Its colouration is not easy to make out in the relative darkness, but Brittle doesn’t need to see it clearly to know that she’s been caught. The owl’s stare is mesmerizing and Brittle suddenly understands how small rodents are unable to flee and freeze up, transfixed by fear, when white death swoops down from above. „My title is Seer, child, not Blind, Gullible Crone.“ Every single syllable of that sentence produces a spray of spit that sizzles and dies in the flames. A few droplets reach Brittle’s cheek. They feel like acid. „I…I….I….“ The owl closes its eyes, and Briar opens hers. They are just as black and malevolent as she remembers them. Brittle starts to shake, gripped by old fear still riding her body. The cracked, bird-like voice invades her mind anew.
„You half-wit half-breed half-thing. No thought for us, for your kin and for your foremothers. Just thoughts for self. Did you want a memory from the heart of the sacred? Hah?! Breaking an unbroken line of hallowed tradition? Heh?! Just going to Ghost Hill without permission is cause for exile. While this!“ Briar points the heartbone’s sharp edge threateningly close to Brittle’s left eye. „This! Is cause for death. Annihilation!“ „It came to me!“ cries Brittle in desperation. „What? Can’t hear you, sapling“ grates the voice in her head. „The tree of trees gave it to me!“ The heartbone inches dangerously closer. „Can’t hear you, little man milk spurt left on your mother’s thigh to dry“
Her entire body is contorted by fear. Panic fills every fibre. Then, suddenly, she remembers the stick. A silly, flimsy prop. But she intensifies her grip, grasping it tighter than anything she’s ever held onto before. It represents Bray’s sword. She has seen it, she has seen Bray. There, on the battlefield, alone against it all. And suddenly what she can only describe as Bray’s essence fills her up, from the inside out, and with a Graaaaaaaaaah! she lashes out and whips Briar across the face, sending her flying. The owl screeches and darts towards her, claws at the ready. Without thinking, Brittle throws a punch with her left fist that lands straight between its eyes. Stunned, the bird falls close to the flames and some of its feathers catch fire. It begins to screech again, but this time in a totally different register. Brittle grabs the owl by the tail feathers, opens the door and thrusts it into the closest pile of snow, before going back in to stand over Briar, who is trying to get up.
Lowering her stick like a sword to Briar’s throat, Brittle fills her mind with Will’s intent. A voice that is hers and not-hers, imperious and commanding, booms not from her mouth, but in her mind in a similar fashion to Briar’s bird-like croak.
„So you want to See, do you, Seer? Then See this.“ She fills her inner world with the vision of the fearrowing on the battlefield from Bray’s point of view. And she knows that Briar sees it too, her body stiffens and her mouth is wide agape. It lasts but a brief moment, and when it has faded, Brittle abruptly turns back into her usual, more timid self. Looking down at Briar’s prone form, she is hit by a growing sense of horror over what she has done. If her actions so far had been worthy of a death sentence, what awaits her now? Briar’s reaction, however, is entirely unexpected. The Seer grabs Brittle between the legs.
With closed eyes, Briar speaks in her normal voice. „First blood or no, you have more strength here than most.“ She gives Brittle a firm squeeze. „Heh! A Daughter of Bray, indeed. Now help me up“. She does, slightly confounded. „And pick up my Mirror, too.“ The owl is still lying outside cooling itself in the snow, looking just as confused as Brittle, and makes no protest when she takes it with her and gingerly puts it back on top of Briar’s head. „I don’t know if it was me“ says Brittle „I think it was Bray“. „Nonsense“ spits Briar, „Don’t hide yourself behind her metal skirts. Own what you have done and tell me now, truly, all of it.“ Brittle starts her story again from the beginning, this time including the aftermath of the fight in the glen where they saved Bridge, and all the foremother’s memories of fearrows. She tells everything, but even though the other heartbone is lying in her coat pocket, for some reason she still leaves that out, ending her story with just one heartbone given.
Briar does not speak for a while, she just touches her face where Brittle has hit her. And then: „Everyone forgets, yet you do not.“ A pause. „I have seen it too“. The owl hoots. „My Mirror has. Maybe that is why I am able to remember, at least partly, because I have seen it through his eyes. The loss of memory, it does not seem to affect animals, only Daughters and men“. Another pause. „You should consider becoming our next Seer, Brittle“. „What?!“ Brittle is shocked. „But I have broken so many rules!“
„That is exactly why you are suited. The rules are there for protection. The fear of harsh punishment keeps most people in check, except for those whose life’s song is set to a different pitch. Few can dance in the borderlands, on the edge, live in a constant fluctuation between the waking world and dream, without losing their minds, their lives…or worse. We who feel most at home on the threshold of things, neither within nor without, we are an eighth sort of Keeper, Keepers of Form. We work with the chaos, the shadows, the nightmares of dream to keep our communities intact. To protect them, we sacrifice.“ Briar sheds a single tear. „Whatever it takes.“ „Why do you say ’we’?“ „Because you are one of us, Brittle, whether you believe it or not. You have always been, and I have always seen it. But, of course, your path is your own to decide. You are sovereign.“ She sniffs the air. „Seeing as you will never bear child, this life is not the worst option. It would be far easier for you than for me. Brade was a handful to raise. Heh. From today new Brood will teach her a lesson and hopefully keep her off my back.“
„I…will think about it“. „Do that, and tell me the last part too. Why did you climb Ghost Hill?“ She tells her, but does not mention anything about Brooder. Best not to push her luck. At the end of the final tale, Briar nods. „And you don’t know why your past self was so eager to be left there?“ Brittle shakes her head. Briar ponders this for a while. „Let us see if we can nudge her“. Briar leans back and picks up one of the weird objects behind her. It looks like a strange mass of thin, dried and wrinkled animal skin. „Your birth veil“ says Briar matter-of-factly. „It was draped around your face when Breach pulled you out“. Her gnarly hand finds the heartbone and forcibly folds the birth veil around it, tying it up with a length of waxed sinew. Then she drops the parcel in the middle of the fire. „Come, Daughter“ she murmurs and stretches out her hands. Brittle takes them both. An oddly pleasing aroma wafts from the flames. „Inhale through the nose“ commands Briar. „Again“. „Again“. „Again“.
The strange scent makes her nostrils tingle. But nothing else happens. No new vision forms in her mind. Briar, though, throws her head back briefly giving the owl a small fright. Then it settles down and closes its eyes. Briar opens hers, but this time their blackness does not seem so frightening. Though they make Brittle think of the fearrowing showing her that dark bridge crossing the infinite void. Hello. Hello. Hello. A small flood of tears runs down Briar’s cheeks and she smiles wistfully. „Whatever it takes“ she whispers, before letting her eyelids fall.
„What…what did you see?“ The owl lets out a mournful cry. Briar says „I will let it take root in my Deepheart. And let you know when it blooms.“
Briar’s owl hoots three times and flies out of the window. „Leave her with me“ says Briar, referring to the heartbone in the center of the flames. Brittle does not dare to object. „It is a shame the first one did not come with you too“ Briar continues. Brittle’s heart starts racing, and her hand unconsciously reaches for her pocket. „I would have loved to see her.“ Should she come clean about it after all? Why hide it when she’s told everything else? But the heartbone of Brittle, first of her name, makes its position clear. It does the opposite of thrumming. It goes completely still, as if immersed in the absence of sound. It almost feels like..it is trying to hide.
„Why would you have loved that?“ asks Brittle. „Simple“ smiles Briar. „I, the first of me, was her mother.“