Winterdim

Chris Howard

9

Two Halves



It was all about balance with Archippa—the wrinkly lumberjack-armed bitch, and how to tip people off theirs. She turned and looked straight at me, then made the tiniest of head tilts toward Reed, indicating his unusual abilities. “It’s getting late. Rest now, sweeties. We’ll talk about your Uncle Theodore and everything else in the morning.”

Over the horizon ballistics, the words fired me like a canon as far from sleep as it was possible to get. Heart thumping, I could feel my hair starting to turn and braid. “What about my Uncle Theo?”

“That’s what this is all about. Pretty sure Theodore started this river flowing way back in forty-one.”

River flowing? Damned river witches and their metaphors. I dropped my hand, fingers spread, touched the earth under me, and sent the message to my relations of the forest. Archippa jumped to her feet when the surrounding trees leaned in, creaking angrily, twigs scraping against bark, the slow whine of the torque of heavy old wood. The firelight wavered. A cold dying-animal moan circled us in the dark.

“Do not make me angry.” My voice came out steady, the ghosts of a thousand autumns in my mouth, my toes going pointed, ready to cut through the soles of my new shoes. I jabbed a finger at the earth. “Sit down. Now.”

I had completely forgotten about Reed until he rested a hand on my arm, his skin warm against mine. I loosened up a little at the touch, my shoulders dropping, and Archippa folded her legs under her, reclaiming her spot next to the fire.

She nodded at me—and I had no idea what she was trying to say with that. We’re even? You’re not going to kill me now? How about a game of chess later? No idea.

I gave her a curt nod back, and she dumped the story on us.

“Your Uncle Theodore Balanon made a doorway once, and let something through—something that shouldn’t have been allowed entry into our side. I think Reed’s eighty-year timeless prison is only half the story. Kraneia caught two beings in her clearing that day, one from this world—Reed, one from the Winterdim—something allowed in by her brother Theodore. It may have been a plot by both of them. Kraneia broke the otherworlder in two, planted one piece in herself, and the other piece in the boy she’d trapped. Presumably it was too powerful to keep in once piece. It took eighty years for the second piece to be absorbed into the boy.”

“How do you know this?”

Archippa sighed. “Theo gets around—used to anyway. Hasn’t been by in years. And two stories came through the woods days before Reed showed up with you in his arms. One from your—” She jerked her chin at Reed, then me. “—enemies. Enemies with ties to the forest. And then, while you were recovering, one from your mother. She sent a warning, and most of the whole story.”

Words so soft I had to slide closer to Archippa. I couldn’t make my voice any louder. “What was the warning?”

“We were to stop you from touching Reed Gossi. Anyone who found you—that was her command to the world.” Archippa looked at Reed. “Not that that could have been helped. He was carrying you the first time I set eyes on him. You two had already touched.”

The offense shot through my expression and drifted away. “What happens then? Yes, I’ve touched Reed Gossi, I’ve kissed him, we’ve curled together and slept in tree hollows and in the shelters and standing walls of dead cities. Why does that have significance... I mean beyond us?”

Archippa shrugged. “Just the messenger.”

“Yeah. Yeah. But a thoughtful one, a powerful one.” My head was shaking vigorously, practically on its own. “No, you’re less like the messenger sent by the queen, and more the queen making the journey herself. And you know my uncle. You tell me what you think is happening here?” I stabbed a finger at her. “Because I have no idea. I just know Reed’s in danger. His house was crawling with killers—of every kind. We have Low and Mighty after us, in dead teams, packs, solitary hunters chasing us across a thousand kilometers of wilderness and urban wasteland. I can’t trust anyone. I don’t know...”

Reed leaned against me, whispering, “You don’t know who’s on your side?”

Archippa had the grace to keep her serious expression. My teeth felt sharp in my mouth, cutting into my tongue. I had to work hard not to turn my head toward Reed, not to strangle him, not to think about strangling him later in his sleep. But he was right. And Archippa had something to say. She dropped her shield, let me see it in her eyes.

And I fell for it, whispering, “Please?”

The old river witch didn’t move for a moment. “You brought the outside thing—the second piece from the other world—with you. That thing your uncle allowed into our world? It’s inside Reed, and it wants its other half back.”

I felt Reed tense up beside me. The air around him bristled, and I swung a hand over, grabbed his out of his lap, slid my fingers between his. “We’re listening.”

Archippa swung her gaze to Reed, her fists opening. “I’m just telling you what I think I know. Kraneia probably had no choice, then, but to keep you locked up for eighty years. If she’d let you go...my guess—the thing inside you would have gnawed its way out, taken over your body, become something no one wants on their side of the Winterdim. She had to hold you together until she was sure you had a hold on it.”

It made sense. Sighing, I tightened my grip on his hand, caught his eyes. “Probably couldn’t even swallow the whole thing itself—too much for her, but cut it in two pieces to consume, one for her, one for the gentle boy who happened to hear her singing up a storm in the middle of the woods...you.”

Reed almost smiled. “Then why can’t I touch you?”

I squeezed his hand harder. “You mean, if my mother’s the one with the other half of the thing from the Winterdim inside her, why does she need to warn me about you?”

“Yeah.” He was wriggling free of my grip.

Archippa let out a sigh. “Kraneia—at some point—placed the other half in her daughter?”

She said it as if stating a fact. Damn witches. My own mother—who spends more of her time as a tree than with two legs—sticks a piece of some otherworldly being in her own daughter. That made sense in a twisted vine-like way. My own mother...

My skin went tight and cold. “My mother sent you most of the story? Why not all of it?”

“She couldn’t. Something interrupted her.” Archippa made a low groan. “My guess is your mother is dead.”

Again, the automated head shaking—Not possible. “Your guess is way off. There isn’t a monster on this side of the Root who can take on my mother and survive.”

“The Father of Leaves.”

“Is on her side. He wouldn’t be that foolish. She helped him into this world. She made the wood throne he sits his ass on, and from which he rules. She made the tree shade that is his cloak. She is his advisor.”

Archippa’s brows knotted up in disgust. “She is his rival. You are her daughter.” She stabbed a finger at Reed. “And who in the fucking deep knows what you are, Reed Gossi. An actual creature of the Winterdim? A human who has absorbed a significant part of a monster from the Winterdim?” She swung her rage back to me. “And your mother told the whole damned worldforest that the last thing she wanted you to do was touch him.”

I had to stop my teeth from gnawing a hole through my cheek. “But what does that mean?”

Archippa muttered something, swallowed her anger, flexing her fists. “I don’t know. Infectious? Something that can spread to another? Was she being literal? Or was this metaphoric touching? Don’t let him influence you, perhaps?”

It was hard not to roll my eyes. “My mother? Who knows? She could have said that just to dare me to touch him—which she knows I wouldn’t be able to resist. She knows how defiant I am.”

“That could be it. Send a message like that in the clear, maybe it’s the opposite she’s after.” Archippa lifted one brow. “I’ve seen her. From afar. Never met her, though. She’s always sounded like a bit of a nut—with way too much power.”

“You have no idea. Try growing up with a mother who takes winters off—as in roots gone deep, the flow of life dialed to a minimum, eyes closed, no sign of sensing the world around her for five or six months. And, gods, when she wakes up in Spring, she’s new, she’s glowing, she’s open to everything happening in the world. She’s insufferable.”

“You don’t sleep the winters away?”

“I can. Just don’t see the point in it.” I felt a shrug rolling up to my shoulders, and I let it have its way. “Besides, I love the snow.”

Reed touched my arm, and he was smiling. “You do. I remember sledding with you, years ago. We were probably ten or eleven.”

Took me a moment to dig that memory up, but it made me smile. “Yeah. You ran into the Olson’s shed, knocked in a window, broke your wrist.”

“I didn’t cry.” He sounded proud.

I had to nod back at him. “No you didn’t. I remember that, thought it was unusual for you.” The shrug rolled through my shoulders again. “Still didn’t make me like you any more, though. My mother was always pushing me toward you—but I wasn’t hearing any of that. She just never knew that we’d been out in the snow together all winter.”

“And you aren’t worried about your mother?”

“Not really.” The dream chat with that haughty bitch who ruled the sea swept through my thoughts—that she was keeping a loved on safe for my mother. “Did she send any word of my father? Is he well?”

“No word.” Archippa shifted to look behind her, into the dark of the forest, a new fear settling in. “I’ll do everything I can to keep you safe here. But just in case, my boat’s ready.”

I nodded my head. “The OKF trucker-slash-monster took us over 500 klicks in a few hours. It’s going to take our army of enemies some time to catch our trail—and that’s if they can stand each other.” I exchanged a look with Reed. “I think we have enough of a lead to get a night’s sleep. We’ll be off in the morning.”

“OKF?”

Reed shifted uncomfortably, then answered Archippa. “He told us where he was going.”

I added, “Trailer full of dead bodies and who knows what else. He invited us to join the cargo. Our little squabble was about us refusing to go.”

“This was the guy who attacked you? He was going to OKF, up by the Great Lakes?”

Reed stretched his legs out, his thigh sliding against mine. He was relaxing. “Yeah?”

I slid a hand along his leg. “Yup. He was different. A prismdead with very sophisticated illusioncraft—enough to fool me, and he had his own dimensional renderer. Never heard of anything like it. Didn’t even know that was possible.”

Archippa twitched noticeably, something shocking in what I’d just said.

“The dimrend was different, too, a scary as fuck thing with human heads grafted to its waist, and limbs squirming with blood, hair, faces, fingers.”

Archippa just wouldn’t let the three letters go. “You took a ride with someone—or something—with a connection to OKF?”

I exchanged a look with Reed. “Apparently. Yeah?” Flapped my hand around to say get on with it.

“OKF—O.K. Formanix is one of the old banned institutes, around well before the Vanishing. Lot of rumor about what they do. Others I know might have more on them, some of my brothers and sisters along the Mississippi. You know Helodes, or her son Andreus? Helodes can tell you more. I just know you don’t want to mix with them—with anyone with any connection to OKF.”

“We got away, and we’re okay. Smart advice, though. If that thing is what they’re cooking up at OKF, we’re not lifting our skirts and flagging down trucks again.”

The long forest silence slid around us, mist-like, darkness fingering our senses, soothing the fire. Archippa sat cross-legged, bent her face to her fingers playing with words in the dirt between her knees, and I brought a hand up Reed’s back, rubbing the tension from his neck, dragging my nails through his hair. I’d slept the last couple days, my body recovering, then I’d had that good run through the woods. I could sleep, but I’d have to make myself. Reed, on the other hand, was dropping off in my arms.

As if reading my thoughts, Archippa shook her head. “I’ll stay up tonight. You two sleep while I watch. I’ll get my river to help.” With that, Archippa slipped away from the fire, down to the bank of the old Illinois, singing spells, making magic, or whatever river witches did to deploy their powers.

I spread out my sheet and blanket for two, led Reed to bed. He dropped to his side, and fell asleep immediately, his breathing slowed, muscles relaxed, the calmest I’d felt him since...ever.

I sat up listening to the woods for a while, then curled under the thousand thread count sheet, under the heavy older-than-this-world blanket, under the forest shade and crossed branch canopy, under the night, under the stars, and I dreamed...of the Winterdim, of doors that opened and couldn’t be closed, old Uncle Theo letting in something from the cold, mothers from the other world who winter-slept. And I dreamt of running with the wild children, the humans left behind in their near-empty world after the Vanishing...

The wild children run worn tooth paths free from wire ghosts and wind-clothed phantoms. We’re running hard in a dying wood with diamond wedge sparks of light that play through the roof, starlight that fans across the floor, catching me and crossing my toes, sunny angles of them, and—in the corner of my eye—the curve of hips in the oak leaves falling, and they’re wilting, folding, fading from my dying world. I breathe deep because this breath could be my last.

We taste concrete dust, touch the dawn with iris green—not altered holes in rustwater veins and soundless souls in sliprot—lone and tame bones, serene in the fisher’s net. We run and never stop, still breathing. We are the children of light and knots and the borrow’s night. We stand tall and take the antler branch, the quiet fight, the dust in a band of forest light, and bury tomorrow’s ache deep.

We stop at the core, make a circle, holding hands. Our breathing is harder now.

In the core there is a seed, a world seed, and a new world grows in the old’s place. Surfacing crown first, the new king is the same old king, but he seeks a new kingdom, his arms holding up the sky, long bark-cut tree limbs with hands of a hundred fingers. He is the god of this new living wood, rooting deep into the ashes and stark bones and rage-cut trunks of the old wood. I can’t find my breath, a forest fire film on my teeth, the burn of it in my throat, and my skin is like paper in the fire-torrent.

And I can’t breathe...

That’s when the Sea decided to pay me a visit, toward the end of my dream. She wore different armor this time, something spiky and crab-like, that popped and snapped like bones when she sat down before me and crossed her legs. But she was smiling. “You have been difficult to find, my dear Theodora.”

She waved a hand and a dreamlike version of the bank of Archippa’s river faded in, becoming solid. The Sea even did something to bring in the rushing sound of the water. I sat up, folded my legs under me, and looked around. We were alone—although Reed was certainly beside me in the real world.

“You have found one of the naiads? Archippa? I have heard the name, but have never met her.”

I just nodded, still having trouble breathing, and afraid to choke on the forest-fire smoke from the earlier part of the dream.

“Where are you going, Theodora? What is your path?”

“I think...” I had made it perfectly clear when talking to Reed. Now I wasn’t so sure. “We are going to follow the river to the Mississippi to try to find Helodes. She’s an old family friend.”

The Sea—Kassandra’s daughter—looked pleased. “Yes. Do that. I know Helodes from a long time ago—I knew her sisters as well, Parresia and Limnoria. She is wise. She rules a village along the banks of the river, a place called Rennonvorah. Find it and you will find Helodes.”

Tired of her ordering me around, I tried to put some sarcasm in my tone. “Anything else?”

The Sea was suddenly on her feet, rising straight out of her sitting position, her arms swinging to her sides in a swimming gesture. Her voice went cold. “You must go.”

I nodded up at her, gesturing dismissively. “I know. I got it.”

“Now! Wake up, Theodora!”

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