Winterdim

Chris Howard

10

Leaf Father



I opened my eyes, looked up at the crisscross silhouette against a silver dawn sky, and the trees shifted, forest blurring, settling into a new configuration. “Okay, that can’t be good.”

I jumped from the blankets, kicking Reed behind the knees as I hopped away.

“What is it?” Reed rolled over, rubbing his eyes.

“Something’s wrong. Let’s go. Get to the boat.” I spun in place, sending out my senses. “I can’t see Archippa. Something’s coming our way, though.”

“From the east?”

I waved him toward the river. “Go. I’ll be right there. Take our packs. Get Archippa’s boat into the flow.”

Walking backward—way too slowly, Reed whispered, “What’s that noise?”

An awful sound, low growling from everywhere in the forest. I pulled in a deep breath, took it apart, studied it. “The woods are on fire, and it’s big, spreading all around us.” I wheeled to see Reed still backing up too slowly, and pointed at the river. “Get in the boat! I’ll be right there.”

The woods were burning half a kilometer in, and the heat was heading our way. I could feel it on my face, crisp little threads of warmth across my cheeks. My hair coiled nervously down my back, pulling on the roots and stabbing the air when big trees crashed to the earth a few hundred meters away.

Smoke rolled through the spaces between trunks, gray clouds swallowing the forest, dusting the leaves and needles, a soft threat hiding an orange glow soul, and running before it, teeth bared, were hundreds of the prismdead, streaming through the burning forest, arms swinging, some of them shrieking, all of them praying the river was closer than it appeared.

Running just ahead of them, singing shrill and killing, was Archippa, cloaked in something that hid her in mist—soft sprays of water from the Illinois, tracing her path into the woods, surrounding her, protecting her from the sight of her enemies.

She saw me...grimaced, and turned to face the army. She cast streams of water through the trunks, tripping prismdead, blades of it slicing through legs and arms, and there were bodies cartwheeling, stripped of clothing, hair, fingers.

Her command came through the rush of water, biting into me. “Go, Thea!” Then her voice leveled out, gained strength, and fed me a string of words as I ran for the banks of the old Illinois, dodging new waves of her weapons coming up from the dark green current, rows of them lapping hungrily at the shore. “I will hold them as long as I can, then I will seek refuge in my river. No one can harm me there.”

“I wish I could believe that, Archippa.” I jumped through our campsite, the wadded up blankets and pale sheets heaving into the air like the ghosts of animals, twisting to join the surge of water blades and blunt projectiles from the river.

Sprinting down the bank, I glanced back, caught sight of Archippa backing out of the rage of fire and prismdead, arms raised, her voice sharp with songs, her river weapons arrayed—ranks of spiky watery shapes, battering rams, walls of green with netted weeds and a fire-orange glow coming through them like sunset.

“It’s coming.” I whispered the words to no one but myself, and I felt the heat on my back.

Reed waved to me, drifting sideways in the currents, mouth wide, his teeth bared, shouting—but nothing that could be heard by any ears over the shaking earth and the deafening noise of the hooves of something shod in fire and thunder.

Water splashing up to my waist, holding me back when I didn’t want it to, and I went under, sliding like a fish into the cloudy green churn. It was quiet under the water. I kicked deep and came up an arm’s reach from the boat, Reed grabbing me and screaming at the sky.

“Shut up!” River water running into my mouth. “The fire isn’t going to reach the clouds, you fool.”

He gave my body a jerk, caught me under the arms and lifted me into the boat, my first thoughts on the quality of the clothing Archippa had made for us. It was light—wouldn’t even let me get wet; the river ran off me in slick sheets, and the material opened pores, squirting the rest out.

I stumbled into Reed, grabbed his outstretching arm for balance, and turned to see what the idiot was pointing at.

I fell back, one foot hooked on a bench, twisting, throwing me hard against the rails on the starboard side.

The world changed in that instant. Nothing fit anymore. I blinked, tried to think. There was nothing else to do, but stare up at it and shriek. “Leaf Father!”

Reed dropped onto the fore bench, throwing the oars around poorly, still staring up at the vine-skeletal figure striding through the trees, blowing fire from its bony hands, it’s long mane of braided tree roots flowing in the warm updrafts from the blaze around his feet.

“You’re always calling on the damn useless Leaf Father. We have bigger problems, like what is that?”

“That is the Leaf Father! I’m not taking his name in fucking vain this time. It’s really Him!”

The genius stopped rowing for a second to say something profound. “It looks like he wants to kill us.”

I shook my head, started to come back with something deadly, and then felt the drive to get away drain from my body, hands uncurling, arms falling heavily at my sides. I stood in the stern of Archippa’s rowboat, staring up at the thing I was supposed to trust, to respect, be in the forest-fucking awe of. “Why? I am one of them. I am of the trees. Why would he want to harm me?”

Reed stopped rowing, reached out one leg, kicked me in the ankle, ventured a guess by the tone of his voice. “Because you’re protecting me? You have the other half of me?”

I turned, ready to kick his ass. “Why would that be?” I gestured at the receding line of forest and the monster standing as tall as the bank-lining trees. “He’s the Leaf Father. He can sprout right out of the earth. He can hold off the change of the seasons. He can’t be stopped. Not by me. Certainly not by you.”

We were fifty meters from the east bank, Reed pointing back at Archippa still gesturing and singing into the woods, walled in on three sides by her river guardians.

“Get out of there.” I couldn’t get my voice to go louder than a whisper.

The Leaf Father pointed at his armies, his mouth opened, hollow like a cave of pale bone with floor and ceiling rows of sharp teeth. He pulled in the wind, the smoke, the breath of his path of smoldering waste and twisted black stumps.

Then he whispered a command. I felt the thrum of it through my fingers, up my arms stirring a sticky hate inside me—hate for Archippa. For a moment, even I wanted to hurt her.

The Leaf Father whispered and pointed at the witch.

A wave of fire erupted from the forest, trees snapping, splintering apart, a burning rush of gold and flickering reds that swept Archippa away, swallowing her, shooting over the water, dancing super-heated air and hollow roaring, a giant flame fist punching the river, just lapping at the boat’s stern before withdrawing, sucking back through a path of steam into the storm’s core. And there was Archippa still standing in her mist defenses, all bones and stiff smoldering blown back hair. Her face was burned down to the skull, her eyes gone, lips gone, clenched teeth with sizzling gum tissue still clinging to them.

Fire is the enemy. “Why is he doing this?” I can’t breathe...and I remembered my dream of the new world replacing the old through fire.

Reed choked on the stink of burned flesh and turned, throwing up into the currents, losing one of the oars in the process.

We didn’t need them anyway. I dropped to my knees, scraping my shins across the aft bench. The boat shuddered under me, gripped by something in the water that pulled the hull into the river’s center, into a quick moving channel. The war-charred bank pivoted and rolled behind us, and the Leaf Father stepped out of the woods, toes of old tree bones sinking in the muddy shallows.

Archippa’s last wooded defense came crashing down around him, a line of trees, tops blazing fiercely, fell into the river like a toppled fence, twisting in a tangle in the surge. The club-ends of roots caught in the currents, catapulting into the Leaf Father, some shooting between his legs, one catching him below the knee halfway up, snapping it off.

The Leaf Father reached one long arm out for me. We locked eyes, his mouth opening, words ready, about to command me. He staggered, and overbalanced trying to make a desperate grab, shifted one good leg under him, lurched backward and his whole skeletal frame made a slow heavy sweep through the burning branches behind him to the ground, taking another ten trees with him. The earth rumbled and sent a shiver dancing across the wide green Illinois.

I turned into the river’s flow, looking ahead. Staring past me, upriver, Reed didn’t even see me. He sat on the fore bench, holding the one oar tight across his knees, his fingers shaking and making sharp scrawling motions, empty motions, sorrow and a phantom pen and words running like the river water under the boat.

“Reed?”

It took him a minute to hear me, his lips twitching at my voice, showing his teeth.

“Listen to me, Reed.”

He slowly lowered his gaze to me, focusing, jerked back as if discovering he wasn’t alone in the boat. He just caught the second oar before it slid off his lap into the water. Then he found his voice. “Yes?” Just barely.

“You still with me, Reed?”

He frowned back, not understanding.

“We’re going to get some help. I know some people along the Mississippi. We just need to get across the river, and we’re safe for a while.”

“What happened to the Leaf Father?”

I glanced over my shoulder—hard not to. “Not sure. I think Archippa set a trap for him that triggered when he stepped into the water. Did you see that? The trees along the bank had just started burning, still strong, but they went over together, bending, some falling crosswise acting as a fulcrum, using gravity as a weapon, catching the weight of the first line of trees to fall, enough to launch the second line of trees.” I stopped to try to figure out what I’d just said. “Never seen anything like it. Brilliant really.” I had to focus on the words and concentrate to stop chewing my lip. “Archippa took down the Leaf Father with his own trees.” A light admiring whisper. “Simply brilliant.”

“Is he dead then? He fell in the fire.”

“The Leaf Father? Never. He can’t be killed like that.”

“Archippa can? Be killed like that?”

The strength drained from me, and I leaned forward. “I think so.”

We slid quickly down the Illinois, pulled by the current, hunched in the center of the boat, staring down at the bleached boards and bilge pools bedded with algae. I grabbed the bench when something bumped the hull, something light and hard, like a tree branch—sounded like something made of wood.

Bracing my feet apart, I leaned over the river on my right then my left, spotted something circular and dark an arm’s length under us, bobbing and rolling with the river’s flow.

“What is it?” Reed caught my focus on the water.

“Don’t know.” I waved Reed to the other side to balance our weight, kneeled to lean over the side, hooked my feet on a bench, and plunged into the water past my elbows, locked my fingers around it, something sharp biting into the fingers of my right hand, soft tendrils, crinkly like wadded up paper fluttering through the fingers on my left. It wasn’t heavy, just full of water. I pulled it aboard.

Reed started to get up to take a look and fell backward, tripped on the oar, and almost went over the bow, a mad clutch at the rails saving him.

I just shook my head. “Oh, no.”

I sat down quietly on the aft bench, holding Archippa’s charred skull in my hands, eye sockets gaping up at me, emptying river water over my knees, into my shoes.

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