Part 2 of the downtime triptych. These events take place between King’s Stoke Wassail IV and Mindforged Manacles I Hear player events.
Springborne Curses, Pt 2
King’s Stoke / Tassato / Necropolis, Autumn-Winter 380YE
“So what does it feel like?”
Her hands flailed while she stuttered, trying to find the words to explain. “It’s like…. Endless frustration? No, worse, more… It’s….”
Fingers ran through her hair, trying to calm her, yet the flustered feeling in her stomach continued to grow, until Vitória felt ill, rushing up to open the window, the cold biting air stinging her cheeks.
Everything came on suddenly–that was how it was with briars. There was no stealth, no subterfuge; it was direct and blunt and that was how she liked it. It was odd to remember back –it felt like a lifetime ago, when she wasn’t one– what was she like then, can she even recall? Vitória remembered it being different. She remembered that the perpetual confusion only came on after the ritual, after her wounds grew bark.
Suddenly, Briars! Suddenly there was this support network that drew her in, cared for her, wanted to help her. She could rely on that, she could count on it.
But there, like a missing stair — sometimes, suddenly, there WEREN’T briars anymore. And then what?
Suddenly, Vitória had very few people to count on, to be direct with, to be herself with, unreservedly. With anyone not of the lineage, there was always that attempt to hold back, to be ‘normal’, to be what they wanted to be. All the briars who had her back, kept her grounded, sane… they were all gone now.
Suddenly, she had no one to admit to, that she was struggling.
They hitched a ride along the road back to Tassato, curled up in the back of a cart in a mound of blankets and cloaks. It sheltered them from the biting wind that’s coming down from the north.
“Are you okay?” He asked, searching out through the blankets for her hand. Her fingers were cold, and he tucked them tightly into his warmer palm.
She thought about the question a moment, her eyes tearing themselves away from the forest around them, the forest to the southwest specifically. “Um… no…” She mumbled distractedly, her eyes peeling back to the woods.
“You’ve been eyeing the south since we’ve left.”
“Yeah. I just, am getting a weird feeling about the forest. It might be from Felicity.”
“M-maybe? No, probably,” she acquiesced. ” I don’t think I really realised, before… how young she was. And,” her head tucked down into the blankets. “I just want to keep her away from the forest.”
“Maybe it’ll pass once we’re outside the Mourn.”
Vitória normally knocked on the door; this time she shouldered it open. She untied the heavy cloak around her neck that still smelled of wood smoke and Stoke, and tossed it on the workbench that smelled of iron shavings and oil and charcoal.
She didn’t say anything, and her brother said even less, just looked up from his work, then back to it, continuing the obscure project he worked on– Vitória was too distracted to try and figure it out, and any guess she’d make would probably be wrong. But he made no comment, let her pace in the far corner, hop up onto the drafting table and kick her legs out, climb and swing from the overhead rafters. She watched him work, then lost interest; she meddled in the projects that she knew he wouldn’t yell at her for disturbing; she swung around a couple of his new-fashioned weapons, and packed up a set of armour that’s to be shipped off to its purchaser.
It’s only much later, when he wiped sweat from his brow, took off his apron and changed his shirt, and sat down for a moment that she moved across his workshop to hug him.
“Want to tell me what’s wrong, Sister?” He mumbled over her head, hugging her with one arm, messing up her hair with the other hand.
“Only everything except what’s right.”
He was the only one who knew that the only time she actively wanted to talk, is if the answer to “Are you okay?” was “No.”
The housekeeper ignored the call for the moment needed to place the last bag down by the door, then turned her head at the sound of rushed bare feet above her. Vitória barrelled into the banister on the upper floor, peering out over the stairwell.
“Did you send that letter I asked you to earlier?”
Marcella picked up her skirt as she climbed the stairs, as the briar rushed to meet her at the top, taking her hands in her own. Her fingers trembled, her eyes pleaded, as if clinging to a shred of Courage. “Did you send the letter?” her voice warbled out, stressing each word.
“Yes, of course I did–” Vitória’s fingers, so cold, recoiled from her, her eyes fearful, immediately filling with tears. “Signora, what’s wrong?”
The briar just shook her head, hiding her face before she turned and ran off back to her rooms, fleeing.
It was over a dozen hours before anyone could find Vitória. Marcella knew the usual places to look when Vitória disappeared — the theatre, her brother’s workshop, her office at the Chantry, her usual haunts for drinking or bar fights. It was only as the list dwindled that Marcella admitted to a shred of worry forming in her heart. Vitória ran when she was upset, but she ran to very specific places.
Eventually she returned to the Signora’s bedroom, following a trail of disorganization to the window, which was left open. Anyone else would have read the room and thought the occupant had fled via the window, and the trellis that climbed down to the gardens from there. Marcella knew better.
She walked into the adjoining closet, tucking down underneath the shelves of boxes neatly stacked and dresses hung amid sachets of vanilla. She very nearly missed the stock-still woman, curled in a tangle of skirts and a pile of folded winter-weight blankets.
“Vitória… Signora…” The glassy eyes stared back at her, unseeing.
“Why’d I say yes?” The voice was mechanical.
She edged closer, gently picking up a dagger tucked under a box within easy reach, and tossing it out of the way. “I don’t know Signora. Why did you say yes?”
Marcella approached cautiously, as one would to a wounded animal frightened in the corner, which might not have been that far from accurate. She tucked her frame into the space beside the briar, still too still to be anything other than worrying. Her fingers reached out to Vitória’s hands, clenched too tight for too long against the woman’s side. Her fingers were ice, and a touch to the cheek showed it too lacked warmth. Arms held still for hours were stiff, and there was no way to cradle Vitória in Marcella’s arms, too paralyzed was her form, unable to move.
“Why did I say yes?” Again, the hoarse croak from her lips.
Marcella couldn’t tell. She just sat by her lady, trying to warm Vitória’s form, frigid from either shock or fear or some combination of both, staring at the door like ghosts from the Labyrinth were going to burst through.
She would call for a physick later on.
“You should not go.”
“I have to. Help me with these sleeves.”
Vitória clumsily slipped the warm travelling dress over her head, while Marcella picked up the sleeve from the dresser.
“You’re not well. Please, Vitória, do not go. Frederick will understand. The Militia will understand.”
“I already said yes, things are already packed.”
Realizing her mistake, Marcella’s hand grabbed Vitória’s, holding it firm. She turned the briar towards her, made her meet her eyes. “Squ–erm, whatever you do, do NOT squeeze my hand.” The conflict in Vitória’s eyes burned dimly as Marcella waited for the return pressure on her palm that never came. “You can’t, can you? Your fingers are numb again.”
“Of course I can!” She waited, defiantly, yet still no pressure was returned. The briar’s face crumpled, a shaky breath the signal that she was distraught. “Why does this keep happening?!”
Marcella sat her down, perched beside her on the bed to slip the sleeve strings through their loops. Vitória stared down at her hands, loose and limp in her lap, as if her eyes could will them to react. “I do not know, Signora. Shall I go fetch Lord Frederick?”
“No. You shall NOT,” though her shoulders fell a little more, “Though I could not stop you.”
“Shall I discuss this with Duarte? He would be kind, understanding…”
“No… he’ll want to run some experiment.” She hiccuped, drew her knees up at the thought, and whimpered. “Why did I say yes?”
“Vitória. As your friend,” Marcella took her weakened hands in hers. “Please, I really….” She paused to think of her wording, but Vitória shook her head, hearing nothing.
“I have to go. I gave my word.” But her fingers remained cold and still in Marcella’s hand.
As quickly as she could amid driving rains, she picked her way through the monuments to the Virtuous, passing the few pilgrims and dedicants brave enough to weather the storm to marvel at the statuesque and grand tombs of the Necropolis. The weather made everything drearier than usual, and difficult to see. The way was only half remembered, and more than once she doubled back when the path became unfamiliar.
She wished Civetta was with her again, brawling and bashing her way through every tavern along the way. Problems were simpler, then. Not that Frederick was not welcome company, but Vitória had been lucky that the tavern keeper at the inn didn’t recognize her from her last visit.
Her feet finally found the path that she wanted, ducking around a plinth and into the Tomb in question. The door opened silently on well-oiled hinges when she unlocked it. Only the sound of rain outside echoed in the space, and the stone chilled her, sapping the warmth from the air around her. Vitória’s hand reached into the dim space, feeling for the wooden chest that should be by the door, which contained candles and torches. It was not quick work to light a candle with her weakened, numbed, frozen fingers, but eventually she could spread light around the tiny chapel, then shut the door to the outside world, so she could finally pray in peace.
‘This is where I end.’ The thought should not have been comforting. Yet — Here, there would be space for all their names, all their remains. Two new spaces had already been made. Some day a space would be made for her own ashes. Maybe she would be remembered, as each of the names already carved were. Knowing where the story ended, if not how, she could handle that.
Her sleeves served to dust off the mosaic mirrors around each candle holder, and she took painstaking care as her hands picked up each of the jars of ashes and cleaned them carefully.
She knelt on the floor, surrounded by the engraved names of her family, and continued her devotions, that she would find semblance of grace and Courage.
“Though all before me is shadow,
Yet shall Virtue be my guide,
I shall not be left to wander the drifting twists of the Labyrinth
For my brothers and sisters shall find me
For there is no darkness in the Path of Virtue
And nothing that we have wrought shall be lost.”