Winterdim

Chris Howard

8

A Matter of Time



I pulled the blanket around me. “Viran is my father’s name. My mother doesn’t have a family name.”

Reed was still catching up, still half dreaming his story, his ageless prison, the loss of everything—his family, his world, everything he had known. And he had trouble believing me. “But I’ve met your mother, and she...”

“She doesn’t recognize you as the nine-year-old boy in the Long Wild? Does a pretty good job of pretending she doesn’t?”

Reed shook his head, a slow knot of doubt forming at his brow. “But your mother is Kay Viran. She’s been to my house; she’s had coffee with...Andrea. I know who she is.”

He’d already jumped from calling her “mother”—the woman who had taken him in at nine and raised him, to Andrea. Detachment. It could have been a way to deal with grief. He had witnessed her death, but I didn’t like this change in him.

“It’s K, the letter K, which stands for—”

He sighed and said, “Kraneia.” He was keeping up.

“Yup. You caught her waking up, Reed, and eighty years for her is about as inconvenient as ten minutes to you. This could be part of some grand plan. It could be she doesn’t know what happened herself. She might not remember you. Sometimes she doesn’t remember who I am.”

“Well, I do,” said Archippa. “And I think your mother knew exactly what happened.”

I caught Reed’s sharp look just as I swung my own to the old woman. “How? I know a bunch of witches along rivers between here and the Atlantic coast, but I’ve never met you.” I picked up the suspicious vibe from Reed and let it flow into my voice. “Who are you, Archippa?”

Archippa dropped her gaze to her fingers working the stems of three dead leaves into a braid. “The trees have passed your story, Theodora Viran. I knew about you before Reed brought you to the banks of my river.” She shrugged. “Maybe even before that.”

Reed crawled closer to me—not sure what he was doing though—whether he thought I needed protecting or warmth or something. His tone came out with betrayal. “Your river?”

Archippa looked up, extending one arm with a dancer’s elegance, then stabbed a forefinger—trigger-knife quick—toward the silver sky reflection and soft gurgling rush of water over rocks. “I govern everything that flows between those banks, source to the joining with the Mississippi.” She didn’t sound angry, but her voice had a firm don’t-fuck-with-me tone. “Nothing crosses this water without my knowing. I hear the words of everything that touches him, every strum of sound in the reeds, the taste of every animal—human or otherwise—who takes a drink.”

I absorbed all the properties of her tone, and used it to shape my command. “Tell me what the trees are saying about me, Archippa of the Potameides.”

She raised an eyebrow curiously at my use of her family name. “That you are to be stopped. Rewards for those who hold you. Penalties for those who do not.” The “t” on the end was sharp as a thorn.

Reed almost fell on top of me, reaching out to Archippa, jamming a finger at her. “And what are you going to do?”

Archippa stared back calmly. “I have not changed my plans, Mr. Gossi. You and your friend—” She tipped her head at me. “—may take my boat when you are well enough to travel, to the Mississippi River’s far bank. And then you are on your own.”

I held her eyes for a minute, but she wasn’t giving anything up—and it was clear she would have betrayed us before now if she was intending to. I couldn’t read a thing behind her expression. I just had a feeling.

On the other hand, no sense in not being ready to move. “I’ve travelled with injuries worse than this.” And turning to Reed, “Give me my clothes.”

Reed handed them over, and I shuffled around under the covers, sliding my new pants on. They felt good, once the adjusters completed a couple rounds of bodyfitting reconfig.

Archippa watched me calmly for a moment, and then said, “Stay through the night. You have my word that you’ll be safe to the morning.” Then she rolled smoothly to her feet, and went to gather wood, some of it axe-cut, most dead boughs shed in storms and high winds. By the strength apparent in her arms, it was clear she could handle an axe. Two of the things that filled my nightmares: axes and fire. She built a pyramid of thicker branches, weaving in dried river grass and handfuls of twigs.

She lit the base, the rusty blades of old leaves, grass stalks catching, snapping, and fire-smiling like twisted monster’s teeth, long tendrils of glowing orange flaring bright and curling into black shreds, lighter than breath, feathering into the air, caught and carried in the soft breeze over the river.

I backed up a step, holding my arms around my body.

Not that I don’t like the warmth. It was the hot animal rumble, the dying wood shifting and splitting, the sense of a tree’s immobile helplessness in the face of fire that made me ache inside. Most of all, it’s the waste, feeding the air with ash, and no one gets anything out of it except a bit of heat.

And then Reed bent down, folded his legs and leaned into the glow, holding his hands open to the rage and hot destruction. I could have kicked him into the fire, but I hung back, aware of Archippa’s gaze on me.

I shrugged suddenly, nothing to hide. “I can feel the sap boiling in the limbs. It... makes me cold.”

Archippa nodded, understanding that, and showed me an open honest expression that I interpreted as do what you need to do. She jutted her chin at the river churning beyond the reeds along the bank. “You need to think on it, be alone for a bit. We’ll be here when you get back.”

So I took my pants right back off, folded them, and tossed them next to my pack—the pack Archippa had made for me. Something about Archippa’s help, her effort, her kind gesture felt...like spring, like a memory of something pleasant. The word “trust” came to mind, but I didn’t know enough about that to get behind it. Didn’t matter. There was enough generosity passed around to understand that Archippa wasn’t going to harm or betray us.

For now.

I turned away, gave Reed’s shoulder a poke. “I need to think and stretch my legs. I’ll be back in a while.”

Behind me, the river called, a soft murmuring, cold water lapping at the banks, sliding smooth over muddy flats, tugging at the stalks of canary grass. I went for a swim, needed to feel the mud slick in my toes, clinging to my legs.

I played in the shallows for an hour, then kicked into the currents and went under, riding the river’s strength a few klick’s south before swinging back to the east bank. My side still hurt, and there were long strings of pain deep within me, the reminders of my severed tree-arm. It would grow back. My renderer would see to it. Just a matter of time.

“Shirley, do your stuff.”

The forest at night was sweet like dessert, made my mouth water. I breathed it all in, the smell of wet trees, a hint of dusty rose, the promise of tomorrow’s bloom. I danced through the woods, rolling and wrapping my body in the moon’s shadows, hiding my laugh in the chirps of silver-haired bats and coyote calling it all wrong with a hunting pack running free and deep in the dark on my right.

All the forests are my home. They are mine like the air I breathe is invited inside my body, chemically rearranged and sent gusting past my teeth. I danced all the way back to Archippa’s camp, springing into the light, and even the fire couldn’t take it out of me.

Archippa gave me a questioning look, then bent to collect more wood, heading out of the clearing after a minute to give us a few moments alone.

“Thea?” Reed jumped to his feet when I dashed through the clearing half naked, arms out, mouth open, face tilted to the orange underglow across the leaf canopy.

I twirled around him, rubbed against him, spun my arms over his shoulders, fingers through his hair, tips tracing vine-spirals up the back of his neck. My mouth found his halfway open. I went on my toes, pushed him open all the way, tasted the campfire’s smoke in his mouth. When I pulled back, he was holding me, arms around my waist, fingers playing with the hem of my shirt.

A quick look into his eyes and it was clear there was a calculus going on, weighing the opportunity to go along with my mood over some doubt about my sanity. I leaned into him, breathed him in.

“I’m back, Reed.” I gasped the words against his throat. “I’m back. And you brought me back. I just needed to run in the woods for a while. Shirley’s got a handle on the last of the bruising and inner bleeding. I am whole again, and I owe you and Archippa for it.”

He didn’t meet my eyes. “She’s still on your shoulder, partway down your back.” He twisted a little. “I’m trying to hold you and not touch her.”

“She has her perch. She doesn’t need to be inside me to work magic. She can see right through me.” I turned with him, playing with the idea of moving my renderer closer to him. “Are you sure you can touch her? Seeing a renderer is extraordinary itself. Touching a being from the Winterdim shouldn’t be possible for one of us.”

“Winterdim?”

“It’s where they come from, where they live. It’s the cold space between—and a whole world beyond that.”

Reed waited to see if I was going to add something, then asked, “Between what?”

“Here and there.” I had to smile. “It’s the space that...let me show you.” I flattened out my right hand, tilted it vertical, my thumb on top. “We live along this...um...the world has an edge, or more like a face, and it’s right up against another world that is very much like this one—and I mean biologically.” I slid my flattened left hand against my right. “Only it’s not really flat like my hand. They touch in places, and doors can be opened.” I bent a couple fingers, cupped my palm. “It’s more like this.” I kept my left hand rigid. “Our world has lumps and pockets. Space. And some of the beings of the Winterdim—the dimrends—or renderers—have found a home there in the cold and dark between these two worlds.”

“Dimrends.” He said it slowly, unsure, like other-generational slang he wasn’t permitted to use. “Dimensional renderers—live between the two worlds?”

“And grow, operate, and make appearances in our world, although no one can see them—no one else. Most of us don't talk about Winterdim as a world, only as a set of doors into this one or the other—the Root.”

He looked at me funny, stalled over what he'd been about to ask, and changed his question. “Did they originally come from the other world then?”

“Oh no, they’ve always lived in the Winterdim. And the Rootworlders have hunted them for millennia.”

“What comes from the Rootworld?”

I shrugged. “Many things.” My mother, for one—and that part of me. That big guy back in Ohio, Folesh. The woman who rules the seas probably does.

He gestured toward Shirley. “And what are they? Does she just work for you? What does she do for you? And what do you do for her? What does she get out of this...arrangement?”

My mouth opened to answer, but nothing came out. I closed it, swallowed, started over. “She...well...we help each other out. She gets to work in this world...through me. Dimrends can’t do anything in our world without...that arrangement. I give her some of my time, materials, some of my strength.” The beat of my heart.

His brows came together thoughtfully. “But you’re something more...Thea.” I met his eyes when he said my name. “I mean, when I got the sight, I watched the people who had dimrends on or near them, and they’re normal. People who work in bakeries and students and bus drivers. They aren’t like you.”

“No. They’re not.”

“The tree thing?”

I gave him back a slow gentle nod, sighed a little. “My mother is a goddess in her own world. Here she’s twice that. Kraneia is hamadryas—of the family of trees. I am one, too.”

“So, does Shirley get more from you than the others?”

He struck close to home, the pain of guilt welling up inside me—something that should have been locked up. Keep it down. Don’t kill him. A casual back step, and Reed’s hands slid off my waist, swung back to his sides, but I still held his gaze. What are you made of, Reed Gossi? You don’t have a renderer—or I cannot feel it—which I doubt is a problem, but you have the ability to change and create, roll up defenses, and attack ferociously...as if you have a renderer on your shoulder. I looked up at the trees, tossing the questions around in my head, whispering, “Why is that?”

“What?” Reed grabbed my hand, and I didn’t pull away, just let him carry me, twining his fingers in mine

“Nothing. Just trying to figure something out.”

We sat down at the glowing edge of the dying fire, and Archippa came out of the dark on the far side with more wood to burn. My body stiffened; my spine locked up like ice, muscles between each vertebra seizing. It’s just fire, and you don’t know this forest that well.

I took the opportunity to get my clothes back on.

Archippa had the beast roaring and shooting sparks five minutes later, and I scooted on my butt, another half meter away, pretending I needed to repay Reed with a neck and shoulder rub. I dug in with my fingers, felt him wince a couple times, then loosen up. And I pulled up my knees, trying to fold entirely into his shadow.

Archippa stared at me through the flames, her eyes like lenses of cold blue that couldn’t be touched by such a simple burn of energy, and there was a question in them. I swallowed hard, nodded back at her, and she came around to our side of the campfire, taking more than the necessary time to get seated, arrange her shawl, smoothing the folds of a long skirt.

She leaned close to me. “Advice?”

“If you care to give it.” Uneasiness stirring in me, a gypsy moth flutter and a roll of acid up the walls of my stomach.

“The trees aren’t always your friends, Theodora Viran, nor will they always be on your side.”

I lashed out. “Nonsense. I’m made of these.” I waved at the branches over our heads. “What in the green earth would you know about my side and who’s on it?”

“Not just of these.” Archippa gave me one raised eyebrow. “You have your friend, your renderer?” Archippa moved and it made me flinch. She jammed a threatening old-lady finger at me. “And she has you.”

“You don’t have a dimensional renderer,” said Reed over my shoulder—presumably not the one on which Shirley perched. “You have something that glows, water on fire all around you, that’s what it looks like.”

I turned halfway around, feeling my own lips pull into a snarl along with Archippa’s.

The old witch beat me to a response. “Where are you from, Reed Gossi?”

“New Hampshire.”

Archippa laughed. “No, really. Where are you from? You can’t be from this side.” Then she said something dangerous. “So they’re after you, not Thea, because you’re not from here.”

Reed looked lost for a second, and then a cold serious look surfaced—almost as if he felt we were amusing ourselves with his ignorance. He looked like he was about to come back with something, a stir of anger in his expression.

Archippa cut him off. “You can see the lines and forms from the Root and Winterdim. That means you’re one of them. I will ask you again, Reed Gossi. Where are you from?”

Reed folded his arms. “I really don’t know what you mean. I can see your...glow. I can see Thea’s renderer. I can see everyone’s renderer. But I’ve never lived anywhere other than New Hampshire. I come from this side.”

Archippa folded up her fury in a nice neat package. “Have you always been able to see them?”

Reed shook his head. “Sort of. I used to see things—shadows mostly—with my eyes closed, and then only in a bright room. That changed a couple weeks ago. I woke up, the sun was out, and the world was full of them, these things—creatures—monsters I’ve never seen before. Suddenly they’re following people around, they’re sitting on their shoulders, standing on the heads of people.”

“What happened in the middle of the night?”

I shot Archippa a look. That’s a good question.

Reed froze, seemed to be pondering it, digging through long term memory—could also be he was staring stupidly into the dark, buying enough time to come up with something plausible. He came back to us blinking, genuinely trying to uncover something. He started to shake his head, and whispered, “Something did. Like the end of a fight that’s been going on inside me for a long time. It was finally over.”

“What was it? What were you struggling against?”

“I don’t know, but...”

I leaned forward with Archippa.

“I won. It was almost like having the flu—you know when you have a fever, aches, and all that.”

I glanced at Archippa, shook my head. Flu? Never heard of it. Reed didn’t notice and went on,

“No localized pain—it’s just that the whole world hurts, but I didn’t really think about what it was afterward. I knew I had beat it. Whatever it was—a door that had always been locked, or an enemy inside me, whatever it was, handed over everything it was—or had—to me.” Reed turned his hands up, cupping them in offering. “I had always been able to see shadows, and now I see clearly. I can see what the world really looks like—and even more—what really inhabits it.”

I don’t know what he intended by it, but he was looking at me as he said that.

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