Silence blanketed Brona as she sat at the kitchen table watching the light through the window slowly change from a haze of blueish glow to a voidal darkness. She should have left an hour ago, but as soon as Brona reached her house after leaving Donegal and faced the forest, she found herself retreating to the familiarity of her home.
Brona never knew her birth mother. Grendt of East House died on a battlefield when Brona was two, but Grendt’s Blood Projection, the perfect replica of the woman who once existed, was as similar a relationship as Brona would have to experience with her original mother. Although Grendt liked to sarcastically mention that she should have hidden her blood better, she had in fact had it stored in a cupboard of Tadhg’s house that he was instructed to feed to Brona upon her death. The blood was mixed into Brona’s wheat porridge on a sunny day, she was told, by her Uncle. Her Ouroboric capacity realized that day when her infant self was able to generate a full Blood Projection without flickerings (the state of corporealization and non-existence within seconds).
Brona couldn’t even remember the day she received her mother’s blood, but the fabricated memory remembered through tellings from Tadhg gave the day an emotional significance, and it was a day where she was given a relationship without having to work for it – which was one of the few times in life such a gift would ever be given. Brona produced Grendt’s encrypted message that wrapped around her fingers. She wished she could hear her mother’s voice read it, even if was just a stupid message telling her that her that she was a doink.
The corded phone hanging on the kitchen walls rang.
Brona dragged her feet to reach the phone hanging on the wall and stood up on her tippy toes to reach it. The handle bobbed as the phone slipped from Brona’s tired hands. A buzzy voice spoke from the speakers:
“Grendt? Brona? Ey, Grendt, if this is you, can you tell me where Brona is?”
Brona stifled a cry lifting Callum’s voice to her ears. “Hi, Callum..”
“Brona? Brona! Where are you? Is Donegal with you? My speech is in an hour, and you have to come up on stage to—.”
“—I can’t come tonight, sorry Callum.” Brona hung up the phone. That was a rude way to end a phone call for someone trying to help her. If Grendt was here she would reprimand Brona for such a rude response, but she would not be coming home to scold Brona ever again if she couldn’t make one friend in the next three hours.
Her head rocked forward with every heartbeat. She had her solution, but it was a matter of mentally preparing herself before enacting the answer. Through the phone’s second ringing, likely Callum attempting to reach her again, Brona trembled reaching for her coat from the closet. She closed the kitchen door carefully behind her drowning out the phone before facing the crescent shaped forest. Brona took a shaky breath and took her first step forward.
She was accustomed to the trail, it was the same one she took every morning to collect water from the creek and much like her home, its familiarity brought comfort. Brona trailed her hands over bushes that lined the path on either side down the hill, staining her fingers with a waxy residue from bush leaves until she reached the creek. Everything was in its place, as expected, with one metallic bucket hanging off a tree branch, four trees overturned by the loose damp soil and the commonplace sounds of water trickling over tiny stones. One of the tree’s roots moved though, which struck Brona as odd.
The Wood Folke child from yesterday was sitting on the water’s ledge, still batting his cool-looking stone against any surface that could withstand a potent blow. It clicked and clocked against stray pieces of bark and other pebbles, all sounds which continued to elicit a giddy response from the Woodling. He appeared to have found a particular sound he liked against a knurled root which had become exposed by erosion. Repeatedly hitting the root, the Woodling was determined to continue making the sound, his rhythm interrupted only by the soft leather of a child’s shoe.
“Wood guy…” said Brona looking over the Woodling more thoroughly than before. His hollow eyes slowly found Brona’s as he lifted his head up to see who stopped his symphony. The Woodling pushed Brona to her bottom and continued hitting the stone against the root. “HEY! I gave you that dumb rock. You owe me…”
Again, the Wood Folke were unable to show emotion. Their faces were static carvings of wood with three circular holes, but just from the way the Woodling reacted, Brona could tell he was annoyed. He spun his hand in a rotary motion, saying something along the lines of ‘Yeah, yeah, what do you want?’ then snapping his fingers at Brona to hurry her response. Brona fidgeted with the hem of her coat.
“Yesterday, when I talked about why I only had one rock left from the quarry, you weren’t surprised when I mentioned the Giant. Since you’re a creep who window-watches people—” Brona paused watching the weight of shame and guilt slump the Woodling’s posture, “—You probably heard me talk about the Giant to Grendt, which would explain why you weren’t surprised, but you shouldn’t have believed me. Its sounds crazy that there would be a Giant in Late Sun. Even Callum didn’t believe me right away.. but you weren’t surprised at all, meaning you’ve seen him before, haven’t you?”
Waiting several seconds, the Woodling’s silence was enough confirmation for Brona. “I want you to take me to the Giant. That’s what I want in return for the rock.” She rose to feet and offered a hand to the Woodling to help him stand. Producing an inaudible sigh, the Woodling reluctantly took her hand, stood up, and threw his awesome rock into his ‘mouth’ hole for safe keeping. He pointed one of his branched fingers at Brona, then to his ‘mouth’, and then to his stomach.
“Kay, that’s like, really racist to say the Giant is gonna eat me. I’m actually gonna ask him to be my friend,” she huffed, but inwardly worrying about the Giant’s diet as well. The Woodling slapped his knee as his body convulsed and the stone inside his head rocked against its walls. He spun a finger in circles on the side of his head, but Brona didn’t care that he thought she was crazy, her ego could be salvaged another day. Tonight, she was prepared to give anything in return for her mother. Collecting himself from the hilarious situation that was Brona’s pain, the Woodling started to pull Brona into the creek.
She dropped her shoes into the bucket that loomed over the creek, tapping it once for good measure, possibly for the last time—although she hoped not. Dipping her first foot in, the creek waters felt warm for once, likely because Brona’s blood was running colder as she faced the doomful maw of the woodland. The creek was so calm it felt inappropriate for the forthcoming confrontation, no large rocks beneath its surface to cause any major turbulence. The Woodling and Brona’s steps were the only sounds in the water until a third pair of feet entered the pool with a loud splash.
“Brona, do not proceed into that forest.” called Brian.
Brona looked behind her to see the fatty man had descended the ridge of the creek into the water with his shoes, his pants stained a darker hue of brown where the water absorbed into the fabric. The man who Brona had only known to smile was now wearing a darkened expression that matched the darkness of the night that painted the forest, an expression that Brona hadn’t seen yet, one which must have frightened the Woodling too as his grip on Brona’s hand tightened and he started pulling harder than before.
“I need to make a friend…” Brona croaked.
Brian looked to his hands. They appeared unsteady as he fumbled with them, hesitantly reaching them a little farther from his body towards Brona. “I…I don’t want to force my hand, but I will stay here, fully, until you pass from exhaustion if that means you don’t visit the Giant.”
“But if I don’t make a friend, I won’t ever get to see Grendt again..!” said Brona. Using exposed tree roots as steps, the Woodling and Brona exited the creek to the other side, while Brian continued to struggle through the shallow waters. Thick shrubbery and bushes forced Brona to follow a twisted path into the forest, or possibly it was the Woodling’s preferred path, and consequently, Brian’s forced path, as he followed the two a few lengths behind finally having pulled his large body onto shore again. He panted and snorted in his pursuit with stray tree branches flogging his exposed ankles and thorn bushes picking at his cardigan causing him to audibly voice his disdain in the choice of route. Nevertheless, he appeared relentless in his chase through strained breaths calling to his host.
“Historically speaking, Giants have been a tossup, Brona,” said Brian wheezing. “Half have used their size and strength to help those weaker, but the other half have just as easily over-powered or even eaten the smaller.”
“Stoppit Brian,” hissed Brona.
“Did you know that a Giants’ senses are enhanced? Hiding oneself is hardly a form of protection. Most can track the scent of a human for hundreds of kilometres, especially if a group of humans are together.”
“Why do you know so much about Giants, Brian? Are you a fetishist? Do you want a dommy-mommy, or—,” Brona wasn’t actually sure what that word meant, but she’d heard Grendt use it before when people stood too close to her.
“It was my duty, Brona, to protect my people. Understanding every possible threat would help increase their chances of safety. Much as that Callum boy does for you.”
Mentioning Callum’s name faltered Brona’s gate as her knees buckled and her hands fell onto the dirt path before her allowing for Brian to make some advances. The dirt seeping into the broken skin of her palms felt deserved for brushing Callum off on the phone earlier. All his hard work in fabricating a believable lie was likely going to waste this evening when he would be left on stage alone preaching Brona’s innocence, only to have the innocent be absent for the proofing demonstration. Avoiding the chance to prove one’s righteousness was exactly what the blameless did. That was sure to convince no one.
Several tugs of her arm got Brona to stand again as the Woodling sense of urgency seemed to increase with every gain Brian made towards them. Brona’s legs eventually complied and the two managed to once again outpace the man chasing them. Moonlit plants filled a small clearing at the exit of the forest, where across the clearing, lied an even darker, and likely more dense section of the forest to brave. Human brains liked to find patterns, and this may have been just that Brona’s mind was trying to organize the information before her, but in her eyes, the next part of the forest look like a gaping mouth of an old man. The mouth was defined by the greenery around it, with curved branches making up the lips, and growing further upwards to shape the nose, and then gaps in the taller parts of the trees looked like a pair of glowing eyes with the moonlight shining through them. Brian reached the clearing a few seconds after Brona and the Woodling, sounding as though he’d just run a marathon, his deep breathing creating a cloud of breath around him in the cool air. Keeping a keen watch on Brian, the Woodling briefly let go of Brona’s hand to cover his eyes, on and off, then grabbed Brona’s hands to mimic the movement on her own face. Having one’s own hands forcefully pushed into one’s face was irritable.
“Why? Is it a secret path? I need to see how to get to the Giant’s house though, I can’t do that with my eyes closed,” replied Brona. The Woodling shrugged, grabbed fistfuls of leaves from a nearby bush and stuffed it in his eye holes. He reached for Brona’s hand, but her body leaned away from him further into the forest as the shadow of a ghost descended upon them.
Brian’s eyes were wide as he pleaded, “I’m asking you not to go for your safety, Brona. Grendt wouldn’t want you to risk your precious time in this world for her.” Taking another step forward, he was only an arm’s length from Brona, likely about to grab her in a way adults did to steady their children, but suddenly his body jolted as though something had poked him in his fat gut. Brona stepped further back, eyes still locked with Brian’s bright blue gaze watching him try to push further towards her, only to be stopped by an invisible fence.
“Wot the devil—,” exclaimed Brian, as he lifted his knee, unable to push through the hidden barrier. Brona backed away more and the Woodling, having pulled the leaves from his eyes in the commotion and joined her, watching Brian equally carefully.
“Please, Brian… I need Grendt back. Go away so I can find the Giant,” said Brona wheezing through liquid-sounding breaths. “I know Grendt’s not my real mom, but she is the closest thing I have to knowing her. Did you ever have a Blood Projection when you were alive? Someone who died that you wanted to remember?”
Thin lips grew even less visible as Brian’s mouth tightened into a thin line. “I am here to guide you, Brona. I would never force my hand against yours’… But it is my suggestion that you stay as far as you can from that beast.” Brona stood with a crooked face, Brian’s words not inspiring any confidence that she could get the Giant to notice her, let alone convince him to become her friend. Brian curled his hands towards his chest once again. “A Blood Projection is someone who already had their time in this world, Brona. Don’t give up yours for a memory.” With one last exhalation of cloudy air, he stepped back into the moonlight of the clearing. “Please be safe, Brona. And keep your wits about you. He might just kill you without noticing.”
Soundlessly, Brian disappeared, slowly trickling his borrowed energy back into Brona’s body, allowing her to take several steady breaths before turning back towards the Woodling. “Stupid, Brian,” said Brona, trying to snort her tears back into her body while the Woodling stuffed his eyes again. In his second attempt, he successfully grasped Brona’s hand and started to walk down an unfamiliar path.
Against the Woodling’s previous advice, Brona kept her eyes wide open as he navigated them through a part of the forest that Brona hadn’t technically explored before, but she had definitely gone this deep many times. Blind, the Woodling steered them right towards a tree.