4.2 – The eighth child

She looks up at the sky. A single bird flies far above. Is that a starfisher? Isn’t that too early? And why are those clouds red? A strange sensation in her hand. The heartbone. It does that thing again. The opposite of vibration. Beyond stillness. Emptiness. Void. Wait. The clouds are not red. It’s the air. A crimson hue she did not see before. She gets up. What is this? Like the faintest of shimmering vermillion lines suspended vertically all around her. They reach for the skies, unfolding far above like the branches of a tree and seem to grow…from the stump.

At first, the fact that she can see another version of herself still lying next to Brooder does not strike her as odd. But when she raises her hands and sees that they are translucent and run through with shining red currents, she starts to slowly suspect that something is out of the ordinary. Brittle finds it hard to really think clearly about anything. She is outside of her body, outside of her mind, she is all feeling.

you know, Brittle, understanding trees is like immersing yourself in a deep, dark symphony of emotion, slow and expansive.

The rivers running through her. The rivers pouring from the stump. They’re one and the same.

The prone bodies disappear.

The sky disappears.

The forest disappears.

The ground disappears.

She is left standing on a circular platform of concentric rings, streams of light flowing from each one of them. Apart from that, everything else is darkness. Emptiness. Void. The heartbone, though, is still here. In the centre of things. It’s awash with light. This is a mirror, isn’t it? A mirror of a mirror of a mirror. She picks it up and scrapes its edge along the shining growth rings. As she does, red shapes and structures of light currents shift, form, disappear and reappear around her. She feels like a musician trying to tune an ancient instrument of unknown provenance. Returning to the centre of things, she decides to try focusing her attention on one spot, piercing the space between the first and second ring and leaving the heartbone there, temporarily fixed, point down, like one of the healing needles Breach uses to help redirect the broken energy flow of the ill and infirm.

The small red shape that comes into view, growing around the heartbone, is the unmistakable outline of a young sapling. So the War-Begone-Tree remembers too? Its past? Its childhood? Brittle feels close to the tree in a way that makes her Deepheart glow. Maybe the stump and its roots are the equivalent of the heartbones of Daughters, a small part of the essence remaining in the world after the spark has returned to dream. She removes her white time needle to fix it again between ring eleven and twelve. The red tree is still small, but sturdier, taller, prouder. Seventeen. Twenty-five. Sixty-one. Eighty-eight. Hundred and ten.

The tree has reached full maturity, broad and strong, while the rings have become so tightly spaced they are indistinguishable, much like Brooder’s skin painting. The final sliver of circumference that remains of the War-Begone-Tree’s life span could contain ten years, fifty, a hundred, a thousand. She has no way of telling. She tries sticking the heart bone in halfway into that last remnant of concentrated time. The tree memory that appears looks much the same as the previous one, but there is a slight difference. A lump, a strange outgrowth, by the base of the tree, has developed in the meantime. Curious, Brittle walks over to it. Red currents run strong throughout it, as if it has a life of its own separate from the ironseed itself. She huddles down to get a closer look at its shape. This close, she can really feel it pulsate with emotion. Waves of anguish, fear and shock, with a slight, nearly imperceptible undercurrent of anger. The emotions feel so familiar. Almost as if they are her own.

The heartbone blooms with light.

Oh.

She couldn’t stop herself from shaking. Crouching by the trunk of the big tree, hugging herself, mind racing, blood dripping from her face. This couldn’t be happening. This couldn’t be happening. But it was.

„BRIIIIIIIITTLE! Don’t be a fool! You can’t make it out here on your own. I was too rash, I know. I found some forest grapes! Just ripe!“

„Don’t let her trick you, Brittle“ she whispered to herself. „You know she always does that“.

„BRIIIIIITTLE!!“ Her mother emerged from a copse of evergreens. The thick foliage of the grey skinned giant partly obscured Brittle so she couldn’t see her. Yet. Brittle had trouble controlling her breath. Through the leaves she saw mother prowling, her behaviour matching the spirit of the two wolf skulls hanging from her neck, draping her bare breasts. Her leather cap was ringed with finger sized thorns interspersed with seven tiny skulls, the seven stillbirths she had had before Brittle finally drew breath. Her satchel was open, and contrary to her promise, it was full of spiky mushrooms, not grapes.

With her mouth frothing, probably from ingesting the satchel’s contents, mother spun around herself in a terrifying short-lived dance, and picked up her scent with a long snnnnnnffff.

„What did I tell you, pebble? Never hide upwind of your pursuer“. She clicked her tongue twice and started shambling in the direction of her hiding spot. „Especially when you reek of blood. Blood that should..“ She gnashed her teeth, „…have flowed from your fen…“ She gnashed again, „…if you had not been broken <gnash> and cursed <gnash> and sent to spite me!“

Brittle was terrified beyond anything. Her heart hammered in her chest. She knew she couldn’t outrun her. Her mother was already in a state. Borne away on the mushroom fog she was even more unpredictable. Dangerous. Desperate, she hugged the tree, trying to blend into it, to merge with it, her mind going:

Pleasepleasepleasepleasehelpmehidemeprotectmefromhernowandforeverpleaseiwilldoanythinganything
iwilldoanythingjusthelpmehidemepleasepleaseplease!

With a snort of triumph, Briar, first of her name, crashed through the leaves like a drunken ox. But all she could see was the trunk of a tree.

And the scent of blood was lost on the wind.

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