6.3 – Come then, Bloodweaver
„No“. The voice was timid, small, but not without power. „No. Why did this happen? Why did he do that?“ Turning from Cutting’s…body, Brittle saw little Brook standing on the outskirts of the clearing, lower lip trembling. „I didn’t mean…he asked to take me to you…I…I….I…“ Forgetting her own pain, Brittle ran over to Brook and held her tight. „It’s not your fault, dear one. You are not responsible for your brother’s hate“. „Then who is?“ said Brook, looking up at her with a network of rivers running down her face. Before Brittle could think of an answer, the slightest hint of a fragrance wafted by the pair. A smell of tree bark drying in the sun after a rain fall. The sense of:
„He’s still alive!“ Brook ran over to Cutting, stumbling in the sap-slick snow. Brittle was quick on her heels. Cutting’s face, half of it was crushed, but one eye-flower remained, drooping, barely connected. It reminded Brittle of the gruesome sight she saw in the dream tent of Breem’s Hold once, when a man was brought in with his surprisingly round eye hanging like a piece of heavy fruit outside its socket by a thread. Again, the smell. Faint as a dream.
„What does he mean?“ said Brook, one of the few whose Deepheart was able to fully communicate with Cutting. „The tree“ said Brittle, suddenly resolute. „Where we were born. Our origin. Come“. Grunting, she took his inert form in her arms, supporting the weight with her two tails placed under both extremities. Sap was dripping from his feet. Brook cupped her hands to collect it while Brittle trudged on through the snow.
The tree. She could feel it calling to them. Feel the roots shaking under the ground. Finally arriving, not knowing what to do. She put him upright, his body leaning against the trunk, at the very spot that she herself had emerged. Brook didn’t know what to do either, but she smeared the sap onto him and the bark of the tree. „Please“ Brittle whispered, „Help him. Help yourself, like you helped me“. Then, before their very eyes, Cutting started sinking into the trunk, arms and legs disappearing, until all that was left was his one-eyed, broken face. And his chest. The remaining eye-flower fell into Brittle’s hand. She held it close to her nose. It smelled like:
„Go back to your kin, dearest“ said Brittle. „I will stay here to watch over him“.
The forest shouted in green. But the tree, their tree, did not even grow leaves. She feared it dead, but she felt the currents within. Brittle sensed life streaming in from all over, focusing their attention on what she loved more than anything else. Though he did not stir. Brook came by with Branch. Even Breeze, once. She asked for forgiveness for her son’s actions. Brute had disappeared, fled. Gone to dream, for all Brittle cared.
The world was flourishing. The tree was dry. Branches died and fell. But still life ran through the roots with pure abandon. Brittle did not leave. Not once. Brook told her about rumours spreading, of fleeing scared men stumbling around Breem’s Hold. Brittle paid it no mind.
The once magnificent crown was a sorry sight. Brook started coming by by herself. Leaves fell. Cutting’s face a blind mask staring into nothingness. What else was there to tell?
The tree did not look that out of place now. Though it seemed far older than last snowfall. Brittle crushed a woodpecker’s neck when it tried burrowing into Cutting’s head.
And then. It was just there, one day. His single eye flower, regrown. She did not know what she felt. Or what to feel. The only thing she thought was, what next? She did not have to wonder long.
She knew. She had felt it in the wind. In the murmurs of the underbrush. In the way the roots slowly ground their way through the soil. Running away from him for the first time in over a year, she found the very tree that he had climbed. That time. Her ascension was easy. It was as if the tree knew her. As if the tree was him. As if the tree was her. At the top she looked towards the horizon and did not gasp. She had expected this.
The entire skyline was covered in black smoke. The forest was burning. And even from this distance, she could feel the anger in the air. „Well, then“ she said. From below she heard the sound of hooves, of wings, of paws. Stampeding through the forest. She hurried down. Stags and bears and rabbits and pheasants and elk and foxes and dawnfire sparrows, thundering through the woods. They flushed past her as shoals of fish, as rapid currents, but not a single one of them hit her. She was like a stone in the river, untouchable except for a spray of spit and sweat. The animals, it was as if she knew them all. As if they were him. As if they were her. The forest, its fear and despair, all of it was connected to her, it rang in her tails. What was going on? How? „Oh, my darling. What have you done?“ Instantly, as a reply, her tails grew thorns. „Yes“ she said, touching one of them and drawing blood. „I will be our defender“.
A giant badger stopped its mad run and knelt down beside her. She grabbed its fur and latched on to its massive back with her thighs. „To Brief’s Hold“ she whispered, but she didn’t need to. She was the badger too. As they rode, a memory flashed through her mind. Of her sitting close to her father dressed in badger’s furs, while the stag they were mounted on sped under snow-laden pine trees. Her father’s back felt as safe and warm as the animal underneath her. But how could that be? She had never known him. But she could clearly picture his face and his beard, and hear the soft voice of her mother that was not her mother…. Another memory as they rode past the home tree where animals of all types and sizes were converging, running around it in circles. She was riding in this one, too. Towards a steep cliffside, shouting defiance, pursued by a dark, roiling cloud. No, not these memories that were not memories. Not now. Here. This is the moment. This.
„Scourge is here!“ The badger lifted its front legs and slammed its paws into the ground, producing a momentary cloud of dust. „Its fires consume the forest!“ In no time, Breeze was in the centre of the settlement. „Open the waterways! Send for Breem’s Hold!“ Brook jumped out in front of her mother. „I will go. I run faster than anyone“. „You are not fully grown, child“. Brittle intervened: „You go, Brook. Take him“. She slid off the badger, and without hesitation, Brook got on top of it. Their hands touched, and for the briefest of moments, Brittle saw something in the child’s eyes that she couldn’t place. Brook smiled. „Thank you. Brittle mine“. Then she was off. The bone horn was sounded, echoing in the notes of its sisters spread around the forest. Brittle knew what was happening, even if she was not there. She was the forest. The canals that had been dug, the river flows diverged, dams that were opened, flooding the forest lowlands with the deluge of spring, making a border of water and wetland, blocking off their half of the wood. Hopefully enough to stall the great fire.
Breeze and Brittle exchanged a brief look. „All spear-wielders go with our wood maiden!“ shouted Breeze. With a small contingent of fighters trailing her, Brittle ran. Trees lifted their boughs to clear the path. Black squirrels followed their mad flight, jumping from branch to branch. All the way to Bray’s Wound. The barren stone cliffs gouged by a deep, dark, insanely narrow cut. At the bottom, an unreachable river. She looked down into the depths where her mother had claimed that she had met her end.
No, that was not right. Mother had died protecting her.
No. Mother had died all alone, not long after she’d left.
Feeling faint, she touched her head and lost her balance for a tiny moment, almost falling into the ravine before steadying herself. Now now, Brittle thought. Let’s not prove…Briar…right after all. Though of course if she fell now she might survive. This was one of the natural rivers that they had dammed, the waters here came down from the mountains, and now with the spring floods the water level was high. Bray’s Wound was ready to burst with frothy and frustrated pus. This dam was the center point of their plan, begun almost two years ago. It was the greatest they had made, a mix of Daughter ingenuity and Cutting’s coaxing of the local vegetation. It looked like a tangled mass of greenery, unassuming unless you knew how this area was supposed to look. On the other side of the dam, the cliffsides of the ravine crumbled to nothing, creating an abrupt change of elevation in the landscape. Under normal circumstances the river would continue unperturbed through the lowlands beyond, but now only the tiniest trickle was allowed to flow through. A famished stream, reduced to a shadow of its former self. This was the spot she was sure Scourge would come to. This, here, where the barrier of water was at its thinnest, was the point of least resistance.
She was right. First the smoke like low hanging fog. Then another group of beasts, deer, boar, and a pack of wolves. Then the sharp sting in her nostrils, the smell of burning, no, of devastation. And then. The flames. Like a hungry wall, set on devouring all that lives. The wall flinched, close to the river, unable to cross even such a shallow, narrow creek. Flame fingers shot across it, trying to reach vegetation, to spread. But the Daughters had used their time well, clearing this side of the immense water border of trees and brush, all across the forest. Scourge could not reach, could not latch on to anything. From her hiding place behind a boulder, Brittle smiled. Briefly. For out of the flames came not one, not five, but twenty or more ironclad swordsmen. Her tails shook. She felt connected to the interwoven mesh of plants holding the river back, and she knew then that she did not need Cutting’s help to let the dam rip. Nor her kinfolk posted here ready to cut the straining ropes. She could do it all alone. She was the dam. She was the river. Any moment now, Scourge’s footmen would decide to cross the waters to find something for it to burn. Then she would let it all loose, drowning the lot of them. But not a single one of them moved. What were they waiting for?
One of the swordsmen held one end of a metal rope made out of interlocking circles, the other end of the dangling line connected to something still inside the fires. He yanked it, and a small group of people appeared from within the sea of flame. They were huddled together, bound by the metal rope, dressed in iron like the others, but their eyes were not burning. Four women. And one boy. Almost lost in the clunky metal dress much too large for him. The five were forced to remove their headdresses and lie down next to one another, making a metal bridge across the small stream. Their heads were placed on the opposite bank to the fires, facing towards the sky. One of the ironclads crossed the river on top of them. Lowering his sword, he slowly and meticulously drew the point across the throats of the five, producing a low agonized gurgle and a puttering spring flood of blood. Turning his face, he looked straight at her. It was as if he saw through everything. Through the foliage, the boulder, the dam, through all their subterfuge. And with a wide grin she would recognize anywhere he pointed his bloodstained sword in her direction. In her head she heard the voice.
Yeeeesssss. I remember you. I feel you. My only vanquisssher. But sssssomething’s different now. You are connected. The foressst runssss throooough you. It’ss in your blood. Water. And Liffffe. And all the pretty, empty cyclesss of unendingnesssss. We are the ssame, you and I. A mirror of a mirror. Let me show you.
The man grabbed the sword by the hilt with both hands, lifting it with its tip pointing down. He shouted: „We are Scourge!“ All of the men joined in: „And this is what lives in our blood!“ He plunged the sword into the red stream pulsing from the throats of the five, reminding Brittle of the first vision in the dream tent at Breaker’s Hold. When the sword hit the blood, the dark blade flared with instant red currents shaped like bolts of lightning. And the blood. Caught fire. It spread quicker than anything, engulfing the five and the swordsman in mere moments. Only his leering face was visible in the violence of the flames.
Sssso come then, Bloodweavver. Dancce with me.
With a scream, Brittle let the waters break.