6.1 – Ash
The fire looked different now. Or maybe it was just her perception of it that had changed. The wind had intensified, pushing the wild flames even further towards them, reaching greedily across the waters like grasping, chaotic appendages. Tired ash fell onto the lake’s surface, onto the shore, onto them, like sorrowful snow. Brittle and Branch wiped it from their faces. Cutting, though, did no such thing. His eye flowers did something she had never seen them do before, they retracted into what passed for his skull, as if they were wilting or going into hibernation. The ash stuck to him, slowly covered him, as if dressing him in a cloak of mourning. He froze, suspending his animation completely, fully embracing the treelike part of his nature. Brittle let him be and started walking around the lake with Branch by her side.
They did not speak. What else was there to say? The two of them just kept on trudging, towards the ravenous blaze, with no real plan in mind. The fire seemed…Scourge seemed to welcome them. An insidious voice seared through Brittle’s mind.
Yeeeessssssssssssss Come closssssser
They should stop. This was clearly not a good idea. But they both kept on going anyway. What else was there to do?
Come feeeeed meeee Come feeeeed yoursssssself
She could feel the heat now, beating against her skin, trying to find a way in. She should stop. She really should. Branch was whimpering. She was probably thinking the same thing. But still, they had to keep going. They had to. Moved by…
Sparks were flying around them in erratic bursts from the maddened flame fingers whipping the buffeting wind. Any closer now, and their hair might risk catching fire. Not to mention her wood tails. At the thought of them, some of her reasoning returned as she leaned into the treelike part of her nature. Her lower tail plunged into the water, holding onto a larger rock, overriding the impulse of her legs to keep moving. Her upper tail slid carefully around Branch, stopping her in her tracks. Her middle tail moved in front of her body, tasting the air like a wary snake. Brittle gritted her teeth. „We should turn back. Now. Let the fire die down“. Branch half-gasped, half-whispered in reply „I think it’s too late“. It didn’t take long for Brittle to understand what she meant.
Out from the unyielding inferno, borne on a tidal wave of the purest anger Brittle had ever felt, a single figure came running towards them. Clearly, the ironclads had not left. Howling and fire-eyed, their assailant lifted his weapon, his…sword, to strike. Without thinking, Brittle parried the blow with her free middle tail, which averted the sharpened iron from her face, but also cleaved her tail in two. Spasming in pain, her two other branches lost their grip, and she fell to her knees.
Smiling from within his metal headdress, the man stooped to pick up her severed limb, and squeezed green, bubbly sap into his wide, craving mouth.
Spoke the fire. Branch crawled over to Brittle and held her in a tight embrace, while the four remaining swordsmen emerged from the flames. Moving as one, they slowly surrounded the sorry pair. They were done for. But any anguish Brittle might have felt over the impending end of her life drowned in the overwhelming feeling of being close to another human being, skin against skin. She couldn’t help but smile, despite it all, allowing herself to relax in Branch’s thin arms.
The first ironclad finished his drink and threw her dead tail into the devouring heat, before joining the others. Like in the blood vision, they all raised their swords in one unified movement, voices booming:
But before finishing their inane battle cry, all five of them toppled over in a very uncoordinated way. Brittle couldn’t make sense of it at first, but then she felt it.
„The ground. It’s moving“ she whispered. The five were struggling to get up, looking for a moment like lost, confused children. Then a new tremor rippled through the earth, making them lose their balance again. Yet this localized earthquake seemed to spare the two Daughters. Then Brittle felt Branch’s hand grip her arm tightly. „The roots. It’s the roots of the trees of the ring“. The ground shook again. „They are ancient and go far and deep in all directions.“ Again. One sword flew out of a hand and into the lake. „In fact, they are the ground underneath us“. Again. The swordsmen were pushed even further away. „But how?“ said Brittle, looking into Branch’s fire-lit, open face. „The trees are dead, reduced to cinder and…and…“ „Ash“ said Branch. And there, behind the girl, far away on the dream tent shore, Brittle saw a white shape, looking like a humanoid form dressed in layers and layers of cotton grass, its thickened arms dug deep into the ground beneath.
Cutting covered in the Memory of his ancestors. Pure will and determination. In a single instant, Brittle felt more love than she had ever thought was possible. Her Deepheart burst. And so did the earth. Roots, thicker than men, impossibly long, shot out from below with a thunderous roar and cascades of dirt, writhing like vengeful tentacles to rival the fiery tendrils of Scourge. One of the men, trying to escape the wrath from below, met a flying root moving with the speed of a hurricane, snapping his head at the neck with such a force that he got eyes in his back. Another was grabbed under the arms and slammed deep into the ground, leaving his crushed body partly submerged in the earth. Brittle watched what remained of his face as life slowly and excruciatingly bled out of him. A weird sense of familiarity kissed the nape of her neck.
Brittle shook her head. Where had she heard that voice before? The third man’s bloodcurdling scream as he was thrown headfirst into the deep end of the lake pulled the thought completely from her mind. She shifted her attention to the two that were left. They were running towards the flames, to safety. „Oh, no you don’t!“ she shouted, lashing out with both of her remaining tails, pushing the closest one to the ground. A descending root smashed him into a pulp. The final ironclad, mouth still sticky with her sap, barely evaded the same blow and stumbled through a flurry of furious roots, diving into the flame wall beyond. One particularly large root tried to strike at him, but it caught fire. And with the unfortunate help of the wind, the first small flames quickly started to spread to the adjacent giant tubers. Brittle looked towards Cutting. His proud shape seemed to falter, losing strength as the wildfire spread. Panicking, Brittle found it hard to breathe. She started backing towards the lake. The lake…the lake…“Br…hhhh…anch!“ she yelled. „What?!“ shouted Branch from the other side of a flailing, burning root the size of a normal tree trunk. „The roots! Do they…hhhh….go under the…hhhhllake as well?“ „They might!“
„Cutting!!“ He didn’t respond, could barely keep it together, couldn’t hear her. Throwing herself into the waters, Brittle filled her frail lungs with air and went under. Using her tails for extra propulsion, she sped downwards like a starfisher bird hunting for pike. Her chest hurt. She had to make it. She had to. There. The bottom. She stuck her tails into the silt, trying to reach the network of roots, if it was even here. The pain was too much. And her tails were too short. Only sand and rock. Just as she was about to give up, to let the waters rush in and end it all, a little tendril grew up from below to meet her, encircling her deepest tail. No smell filled her senses down here, but she could feel him, all of him, through that faintest of touches, connected as they were through the enormous network underneath this land.
These roots under the lake thought Brittle.
Lift them all at once. Extinguish this foulness with a giant wave
[the gap between things]
It is possible. You can do it
[a field of dying flowers]
You are strong enough. I know you are.
Well, here it is. You have no choice.
The water was tickling her lips, wanting to get in.
Unless you want me to die
Brittle opened her mouth.
[seasons out of order, overturned forest, the tremble of an ancient tree just before the lightning strikes]
I love you
She was not conscious when it happened, on the verge of succumbing to dream, yet she felt it. As if she no longer was herself, but something larger. Like the roots below, like Cutting, like all of it. Currents of life unending, staring annihilation in the face and screaming NO. With a gasp and a desperate cough of water she slammed back into her body, hanging in the air far above the lake’s surface, suspended in a dripping, clutching mass of tangled root webbing. The mass was rising with remarkable speed, producing a monstrous wave that rose like a foam tipped hand. To Brittle, Scourge seemed to flinch just before the wall of wetness engulfed it with an ear-splitting crash.
A cloud of wet steam rose from the harrowed land. The root mass set Brittle down on the ground next to Branch, who looked bewildered at the remains of her hold. The flames were no more. Brittle took a few trying steps, but had to give up, falling backwards into Cutting’s arms. The rainbow flower was blooming in his chest again, its golden anthers softly touching her face.
„Yes“ said Brittle, to no one in particular. And fainted.