6.2 – Midwinter sun

She awoke with her cheek cradled in a charcoal hand. She gasped, inhaling the overpowering stench of seared flesh, a sensation that quickly propelled her to her feet, staggering away from the pile of blackened corpses. „What in the Hardships…“ she said in between retching, „…who put me there?“

[totality of being seen from one singular perspective]

„Cutting?!“ Brittle spun around to face her companion. He was standing nearby, leaning his frame on one of the trees of the ring, now a burned out husk the colour of deep night. „Why?“

[roots and fungal networks growing to support the remnants of decaying trees]

„To comfort me? To comfort them?! Look, I am not a tree. Or a plant. Daughters and animals don’t connect like that after death. We don’t wallow in rot“.

[cycles of nature]

„Yes, there is beauty to it. Observed from afar. Not with your face stuck in it. Please, please don’t do anything like that again.“

[query]

Brittle grunted and turned away from him, refusing to continue this particular branch of conversation. Speaking of…there was Branch, reaching into an open, charred ribcage and pulling out a faintly thrumming heartbone. Looking up at Brittle, she smiled and said „Welcome back. I’ve almost got them all“. She chipped the bone with a curved thorn dagger, that until recently had been part of Cutting. Branch muttered to herself „Bring, daughter of Brine, who saw seventeen midwinter moons, befriended a white squirrel, dreamed of travelling beyond the mountains, and once swam across Starry Lake on a dare“. She paused. „Perished in the fires of Scourge that destroyed Breaker’s Hold“. She put the heartbone in a bag of fur where it clinked along with others of its kind before looking over at Brittle. „Will you help me?“

They walked across the wasteland. The ground a slurry of wet, grey ash. Brittle had to ask. „Why are you so…?“ „So…?“ „…serene? So many of your kin are gone.“ „They were your kin too“ „Yes. But only in the most distant sense. Everyone I knew, even from my own hold, are gone. Or so old that the faces that I knew have drowned in a bog of wrinkles. You lost everyone. Today. Your friends, your parents…“ „My sister. Bring was my sister, and Brine my mother.“ „Yet you do not grieve? Also, a wood maiden from your grandfather’s tales and a being that is more tree than man shows up in the middle of it all, and you hardly blink?“ Branch stopped and looked up at Brittle, the girl’s semi-silvered hair giving her an aura of timelessness. „My Deepheart bleeds and my mind reels, but there is no time. I have duties to fulfill. Besides, they might be lost for now, but they will return. If I live long enough, I might see some of them again.“ Branch kept on moving, with Brittle trailing her. „Again?“ „You would have been told when your mother passed, if she hadn’t forced you into the arms of that tree. You and I are firsts, still fresh and raw sparks. But ho, we will return. And to make sure that we remember and learn, well, that is why Brilliance started keeping the Memory. Here.“ „Here what?“ „Here“ said Branch again and gestured towards a slab of ash-covered stone on the ground.

It was heavy, but their combined strength and Brittle’s tails proved enough. Under the stone was a dark and yawning passageway into the earth. They entered and walked in silence for a few short moments until they could see a faint light in front of them. The passage ended in a small circular chamber, dimly lit by a shimmering, golden heartbone stuck into the clay rich wall. A myriad of other bones were embedded in the walls around it. „Here is the Memory.“ said Branch. „I know all of their stories, as much as we have been able to piece together. But it’s not safe here anymore. We must deliver it all to Brief’s Hold.“ „We? I can’t go with you“. „Why not?“ asked Branch, soft golden light bouncing off her eyes. „Last time I went there, years ago, they threw stones at me. They even burned my likeness at the firewalk of the trees“ „That will not happen, this time“. For some reason Brittle couldn’t quite explain, she believed Branch. Completely. „Ho“ said Branch. „We give Brilliance her firewalk, and then we leave this place.“ A shimmer of tears, unwilling to let go, glistened in the borderlands of her eyes. „For good“.

„Haaaii! The beast has come!“ It was a familiar welcome. Branch and Brittle stood at the edge of the settlement, looking in at the clusters of tents in the hollow. Dark blue twilight filled the sky, and people were scurrying to and fro in confusion. Brute appeared from inside one of the tents, spear a-ready. He did not waste any time, and in a few short strides he had approached them, his spear pointed at Brittle’s throat. „Did this creature enchant you?!“ he yelled to Branch. Branch moved to reply, but before she was able, the hold’s attention was drawn somewhere else. Cutting emerged from the underbrush, emitting a distinct, soothing smell that could be translated as:

[peace]

Brute’s response was, however, on the opposite side of the spectrum. His eyes bulged with sheer terror, and with a high-pitched cry he threw his spear. Cutting gently sidestepped the deadly projectile, letting the spear fall clattering to the ground. Breathing raggedly, Brute grabbed Branch by the wrist and thrust her behind him, an act which marked the end of Branch’s patience. „Enough!“ she shouted, her voice booming with an authority of someone several times her age. Yanking her hand from Brute’s grasp, she addressed her bewildered kin. „I am Branch, daughter of Brine, Keeper of Memory!“ This started a stir. Branch drew a heartbone from her bulging fur bag. It glinted in the dying of the light. „Brilliance is dead. Breaker’s Hold destroyed. All of my kin have returned to dream, and I too would have joined them, were it not for the help of these two beings. Their Deephearts ring true, through them the forest breathes, and by their Will and theirs alone, was the calamity that befell us stopped before it could consume you too.“ Everyone looked dumbstruck at Branch, especially Brute. Branch returned his gaze, determination riding her every feature. „So tell me, children of the line of Brief, who rules you here?! Daughters or the superstitions of men?“

Brute backed away, gulping and grasping for words „She is…she is clearly under a spell! Look at these two!! They are…unnatural!“ Another voice broke through the din. „They are of Nature, Brute. Mind your words and your childish violence. Take your fears back into your nightmares where they belong.“ On a small hilltop at the edge of the hold stood their dream tent, covered in golden spirit creepers, closer to the rest of the settlement than Brittle remembered. An imperious woman with a headdress and a cloak made of pristine feathers both white and black was standing in front of the flap, a small girl almost, but not quite, clutching her leg. Brittle recognized the inquisitive eyes of little Brook. The woman spoke again, and though her words were harsh, her tone was mild and pleasant to listen to. Brittle felt she could make the worst curse sound like bubbling river water. „Run along and make use of your bursts of anger elsewhere, hunt, fetch wood, or anything that strikes your fancy, and leave this case to your elders before you make yourself more of a fool than you already are“. Bowing his head in shame, Brute muttered „Yes, mother“ before fetching his spear (giving Cutting a wide berth) and disappearing into the forest. The woman continued. „Welcome, Branch. I see your days as a sapling are over. From our Deephearts to your Deepheart…“ „We grieve!“ shouted all of the inhabitants in unison. „I thank you, Breeze. But there is still no time for sorrow. A new Hardship is upon us.“. Breeze nodded and lifted the flap of the dream tent. „Come“.

They spoke for hours. Breeze, Branch and Brittle. Brook fell asleep on a fur mat. Three of the oldfolk were there, too, though they mostly listened, throwing the occasional curious glance over at Cutting, standing firm like a wooden sentinel by the tent opening. When dawn’s light sprung, all three had dozed off like Brook.

„But did you kill it, whatever it is?“ asked Breeze. „I do not know“ said Brittle. „If Scourge was the fire, then yes“ said Branch.

[the curious sensation of a devastated anthill]

„So you think the same, Cutting?“ asked Brittle.

[the pheromonal signature of a single ant queen bursting with eggs fleeing on the wayward breeze]

„What do you mean?“ An image flashed suddenly through her mind. The grinning face drinking from her severed tail.

Yeeeessssssssssssss

„The fire…Scourge…it resides in the swordbearers. Like a parasite of anger and wanting.“ Branch looked up at her. „But they all died too“ „Cutting thinks the last one might have escaped, though I can’t imagine…that flood wave“.

„In any case“ said Breeze, getting graciously to her feet, „we should stay alert. See if more refugees come sailing through our woods. And bring word to Breem’s Hold at once.“

[the scent that trees emit to attract symbiotic insect predators when threatened by leaf biter bugs]

„Me and Cutting will listen to the forest“ said Brittle „and let you know if something is felt in the tremors of the wood“.

Autumn.

No sense of wrongness in the forest roots. Leaves fell peacefully. Brittle once thought she saw a white squirrel in the corner of her eye, and thought of Bring and her short, spirited life. Cutting was constantly on the move, travelling to all the edges of the forest, vigilant, protective, on the look out. A distance had started to grow between them, both physically and emotionally. Maybe because Brittle had been accepted by her kin again. In a sense. Brittle didn’t exactly stay in the hold. She kept to the tree. Most were uncomfortable around her. But little Brook and ageless Branch often came hand in hand to visit. Brook would love to be spun around in the air by Brittle’s tails. And to be thrown into soft piles of dead leaves. Ah. The joy of it all was almost a thing to be touched. Held gently in the center of the palm. She sometimes went to the dream tent to converse with Breeze, who once was accompanied by Breem from the last remaining hold. The second of her name, of course, not the one of which the legends spoke. Though she was as fiery as those old stories chalked her up to be. They talked of making spears and arrows and using fens, waterways and forest lakes to their advantage. If the unthinkable ever happened.

Winter.

Snow came late that year. But when it did, it came with a vengeance. Harsh storms bore down on the forest, spewing sleet and hail sideways. Even Brittle, whose transformation had made her blood run warm, felt extremely exposed under the bare boughs of the tree. Cutting had been gone for ages and no one came by to see her in this horrible weather. She felt lonely beyond compare, entertaining herself with fantasies of Scourge attacking them under these conditions, imagining all the ways the fire spirit (or whatever it was) would fail in a blizzard. Then the weather started clearing up. Then stillness came. Then a loneliness yet more profound.

Then Midwinter Day.

She awoke on her branch and looked down at Cutting, standing at the exact same spot that he had been when he came to life all that time ago. Was he trying to make a point? „Hello?“ she tried. No smell. But he lifted his hand towards her. She reached down with one of her tails, and as they connected, she felt a rush of sensation, a kind of deep feeling of what he had experienced since their last meeting. Her heart softened then, and she leapt down to him. They walked together for a bit, until they reached a small clearing.

„Why are you so silent? That is not like you“.

[slight hint of spring]

„Yes. I meant it, back then. I do love you more than anything in this world“.

[query]

„Now you sound…hah, smell!…like a human. There is nothing to be confused about. It just is.“

The tiniest snow flower erupted from Cutting’s wrist. She picked it, smelled it, and ate it.

„You know…“

[danger]

„What?“ And then she fell, entangled in a hunting net. Struggling wildly to get up, to get out, not understanding what was going on, she heard a coarse yell and saw Brute run past her. That man, that hateful man, stabbed his spear wildly into Cutting’s chest. Flowing sap the colour of red gold ran down onto the snow.

[loss]

„NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO“. Frantic, fueled both by fear and rage, Brittle tore at the net. Cutting fell down beside her, his arm reaching, that wrist, that same wrist, producing a curved thorn. But before he could connect with the net, Brute was over him, feather cloak rustling, giving him the impression of a giant bird of prey. Brute brought down the spear. Again. Again. Again. Red gold splattered everywhere. Some of it on Brittle’s face. She couldn’t get out. She couldn’t get out. She…

Her tails. They both found their way through the holes of the net. And just as the spear was about to connect with Cutting’s head, it was struck aside with such force that it broke in two. Graaaaaaaaaah! The tail kept on going. Whipping upwards, striking Brute across the face, sending him flying. He got to his feet, and just one look at Brittle through his blood-covered eyes was enough. Brute ran away into the underbrush like a shamed, wounded animal.

Out of the net. Over to him. Iridescent puddles sinking slowly into the snow. Oh. Oh. Oh.

All of it bathed in the glow.

Of the midwinter sun.

In the centre.

Of the sky.

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