9.3 – The tides of fate

Home. Father did not have the power to ground her. Not any more. Though she knew he wanted to. Not finding her in bed at dawn’s light had sent him and uncle searching. His instincts (or prejudices, depending on your perspective) had brought him to Bray’s Wound, where Brother’s faint call thrummed a string in his Deepheart. If not for Brother…if not for Bridge…if not for all of it, all the way back to her and mother shouting in the cave. Here she is, lying in bed, exhausted, and somehow still unable to sleep. How can she? Nothing is resolved. Every answer begets another question. Every question splits and folds back upon itself. If not in the cave, where is the fearrowing hiding? Why this certainty beyond words that she needs to go the city of the Rukar and petition the Crystalline Council? Will Brooder return to his withered flesh? And what to do with Brand and his newfound knowledge that has scorched him to the bone? She looks at her hands. They don’t seem to belong to a Daughter of seventeen winters. Try seventy. „I feel like flotsam tossed about by the tides of fate,“ Brittle whispers to herself. „Just reacting to the constant changing of the currents, not knowing where to steer my boat.“ Not that she knew much about navigation anyhow, she had never seen the ocean. Only through Broth’s tales and, of course, that painting he had brought as a gift when she was a crustling. She used to keep it on the wall, but…that’s right. Kneeling down onto the floor, she stretched her thin arms under the bed and found the frame. The painting was less majestic than she remembered. A single small boat with a single small sail to the right. Murky, disturbed waters. Signs of a squall on the horizon. She had used to dream of being the lone silhouette by the rudder, going on an adventure into the unknown. And looking at the picture now did actually make her feel a tingle down her spine. Hadn’t she recently remembered something like this, being on deck in a raging storm, sea spray and foam whipping her face?

Harrumph from the hallway. Creak from the doorway. Breath looks smaller than usual, stooped, evasive, as if he is not sure how to behave around her any longer. „I told her you needed to rest, but you know how she can be. She was…rrrf…quite insistent.“ „Who?“ she asks, only to instantly find her reply: „Briar.“ Her eyes drift back to the piece of time-locked seas glinting azure in between her hands. „Well,“ she whispers to herself, „I guess I’ll let the wayward winds buffet me once more.“

It is snowing. The shades of Broader and Broadest are stretched taut across the hold. Breach is sitting outside her house, her tied up hair already covered in a fine layer of white. She shakes her head gently as Brittle passes. No improvement, then. Bridge is back home, sleeping by the fire. Poor, exhausted Brand is probably lost to dream as well. They’re all asleep, but she is cursed with wakefulness. And trials of a nature still a mystery to her. She passes Brother, eating frost nettles from a bag set out for him. He looks suspiciously at Broth’s skerry stags, all tied up to an impromptu fence of sorts. The free observing the bound. Which one was she? Really? A lone hoot from above. Briar and her wide eyed owl are standing outside the Seer’s hut. Brittle blinks and sees the hut become a dream tent, Briar become Breeze, the owl become a feather cape. She blinks again and Briar’s there once more. Hoot hoot. Yes yes.

The crone clicks her tongue. „It took you long enough.“ „I didn’t know what to wear,“ Brittle says, gesturing to her thick white gown, once part of her mother’s wardrobe. „I settled for simplicity.“ She walks inside, filled with a strange realisation. She is not afraid. Well. They did part on equal terms, what was it, just under two days ago. The interior of the hut is not so eerie by day. The snow filled sky is not exactly saturated with light, but she can make out more than when she was here last. Though most of the knick knacks and paraphernalia strewn about are still unrecognizable to her. Her attention, though, is drawn to the fire, or what lies next to it. A circlet of tiny skulls, seven all told. Brittle’s body convulses involuntarily, and the heartbone in her pocket feels icy cold. „Not to worry, rodent,“ clucks Briar and sets herself down by the fire, motioning her to do the same, „just a harmless memory from my past.“ The owl cackles. „A past.“ Brittle drops down into a crouch. What is going on here? All of a sudden, as if conjured up out of thin air, her heartbone, the yellow one, is there, clutched between Briar’s gnarly hands. Brittle blinks her eyes and behind Briar she sees a hulking shape, a malformed shadow with twisted features, half-croaking, half-singing with the voice of Brunt, a Brunt: „Brittle, she is hurting us!“ She blinks again and the apparition is gone. But Briar smiles knowingly. „You saw her, no? The ghost that latched onto your bone? The one that you condemned last time around? You do leave such combobulation in your wake. Heh. It’s almost admirable.“ Brittle sees no point in denying it. „I did, but I have no recollection of the life of which you speak.“ „Not to wonder,“ croons Briar, „Few ever do.“ „Can she be saved? Set free? She sounded quite distraught.“ „Oh ho ho!“ The cackling is all Briar’s now. „So she can hear as well. Not just a Seer, but a Wide-Ear too. What did she say then? Do tell, do tell.“ Brittle tries to steady her breath. The game is ever changing with this one. „That you were hurting her.“ „Only her?“ Briar scrapes her fingers over the back of the heartbone while muttering something under her breath. And in the same instant, unbearable pain shoots up inside Brittle’s chest, as if Briar’s talons are all over her Deepheart. „Wha-a-hat are you doing?“ Cocking her head, Briar says: „Testing a theory. Now give me the other one.“ Breathing heavily, clutching herself, Brittle says „What other one?“ Again the flash of pain. „I saw your reaction when you laid eyes on my crown of failures. You clearly remember it. Another theory: Your memory of what came before works just fine. Or something has sparked it since last we met. By the way, it seems you have a tendency to leave your mothers to rot. Me with that tree. Poor split Brunt on the summit of Ghost Hill. Brook all alone in the snow.“ Grimacing with a mix of fear and rage, Brittle tries to rise, to lash out at Briar like last time. But then the fingers strike again, and she is rent powerless. „Don’t be foolish. See this as a valuable lesson. Far better than a futile fight.“ Beaten and wracked with burning aftershocks throughout her form, Brittle relents. She reaches into her pocket and gives up the heartbone. It protests in its usual way, by a deafening silence more intense than ever before. But the looming possibility of more pain wins. „Thank you,“ says Briar, surprisingly sweetly. A few painless moments pass before Brittle manages to lift her head and look up at her erstwhile tormentor. „What…is the lesson?“

„Don’t ever lie to me.“

They sit for a while in silence. Then, still holding her heartbones, one in each hand, Briar says: „Now tell me, what did you find in the cave?“ Brittle is taken aback again. „Come now. Have you learned nothing?“ The owl spreads its wings and caws. „When you and Brand set off into the night, that sparked my curiousity. So I saw. Everything that happened until you went inside, that is. What did you find?“ Brittle gulps, paying attention to Briar’s readied claws. „I looked for the beast, but all I found was a nest of those things…those fearrows. A…winding path, a stumble through the dark…“ She knows it’s extremely risky to lie, to omit things, but Brittle doesn’t want to speak about the crystal room, of Grandmother’s vision, so she stumbles on rapidly: „…a winding path, and another exit, covered in spirit creepers. They were violet.“ Yes. A counter question. That could distract the hag from querying further. „What does that colour mean, Seer? You’ve never mentioned that one in your teachings.“

„See for yourself,“ says Briar and shuffles to the side, clearing a visual path to the interior door behind her. The one she had noticed last time, the one covered in creepers. Before, in the dark, she had thought they had to be red like the ones by the entrance. But now, in the faint light of day, their true nature are revealed.

They are violet.

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