Winterdim

Chris Howard

29

Treeheart



I tried to take my time.

The field was clear of enemies and tentative allies, both of them more or less vanishing, and leaving all of us on edge.

Reed sat cross-legged next to me, reaching out every few minutes to touch my arm—fingertips to my wrist, to make a connection with some threatening “tool” on my Winterdim belt.

He and Shirley interrogated the three new renderers from Lazaro. Still no sign of any effect of the skin-digging thread, now holed up—according to Shirley—just inside a rib bone next to Reed’s right lung—and nothing to tie it to any kind of respiratory attack. Shirley felt the threat. She just hadn’t determined what it was yet. She had determined that it would fragment and scatter if she attempted to remove it, and thought it best, for now, to leave it alone. At least we knew where it was. And she’d keep working on it, telling Reed that she should be able to figure out what the thing would do to him once it went active.

And I’m on my knees looking down at a friend.

Andreus was dead, pale eyes staring up at the sky, his directive and my promise to follow it hanging thick in the air.

Brazley stood, arms folded, looking down at me like I’m the one who killed him, tears flowing, something raw and shaking loose inside her.

I tried to get started, but couldn’t with her watching me—couldn’t make it happen, couldn’t smell the sweet blossoms of home, which always hit me just as my ownership protocol was ready.

The way Shirley put it to me so many years ago, the smell has to do with your nature, and with you, it is the forest, the spring, the plants, your home.

And to my damaged nine-year-old mind, she had related what I was about to do with Andreus’ materials to what a plant’s factories do in creating everything from the pigments in flowers to the sweetness in fruit. You do not pull raw sugar out of the ground, or colors, or fruit, you create everything you need out of the raw materials at hand.

Shirley’s suggestively simple logic tipped me on the right side: At hand for you, dear Thea, is everything and everyone in your wayThe world contains all the materials you will ever need to live, survive, enough to defend any forest, and take control.

I glanced over as Carlos and Fritz swung back in from a perimeter check, Fritz walking backward, arms over his head, playing something in the wind, Carlos hunched over the tacGun Andreus had discarded, scanning the rim of the field.

Brazley didn’t look up from me, but she heard their approach, felt the impatience, the need to keep moving in the vibe coming off Carlos—and showed it in the eagerness in her voice directed at me. “What are you waiting for?”

Goddamn, I’m so tired of this. “I don’t know.”

Nothing but running with losing odds, picking up more enemies and betrayal than friends, far more questions than answers, hard certainties dissolving to fluid under my feet.

And for the first time in my life, I cared about someone—six someones—even had to include Andreus—maybe especially Andreus.

I’d made promises.

I closed my eyes, rubbed them hard, turning my focus inward to look back over my memories, ignored Augustine busying himself somewhere on the borders. I brought up what the world looked like before all of this started, and I didn’t recognize it, didn’t even recognize myself running through it.

And here I was kneeling in the grass, far from home, an exposed mess inside, walls split, structural mental timber lightning blasted, vaults of experience—that I never wanted to experience again—broken open, spilling their contents across my insides like chain-acid gnawing through the walls of every buried thought—activating them, and then a stain sliding over the surface of it all to color every new thought sparking to life in my head.

I dropped my hands in my lap, looked up at her. “I’m so sorry, Brazley. I can’t do this.” There were tears in my eyes, no match for hers, but they ran down my cheeks, tickled me under the mouth. I wiped them away.

She stopped, rubbed her own away, and bent down with me. “You will take everything that is Andreus?” She gestured to her teacher.

I shook my head. “I can’t. It hurts too much.”

She sucked in another rush of tears. “It is what he wanted you to do, Thea.”

Nodding. “I know.”

“Will...” She opened her hand over Andreus’ chest, fingers and thumb spread, guessing it was some sort of inclusive gesture. “You will...mix his materials?” She pulled her hand in to lay it gently on my arm. “You understand what I am asking?”

I nodded, then shook my head. “No. I’ll keep everything that was Andreus in a special place.”

“I think that is good.” She brightened a little, pulled a knife from her pack, and brought it up past her face away from me, her fingers shifting to get a better grip. I grabbed her arm, leaned hard against her, kept the blade away.

She didn’t fight me, just turned and looked puzzled. “I want to give something of myself, Thea, if you will accept it?”

My voice came out rough, scared, my fingers tightening around the bend of her wrist. “What are you going to give?”

“A long lock of hair.”

I let out a breath—one far deeper than my lungs seemed to have ever held. Made my chest burn. My arms were lead-heavy, and the strain slipped away, chased by a chill that shot up from my toes, hit my spine like melting ice.

I let her go. “Oh Brazley, you really frightened me.”

She stared at me, not understanding.

I shook my head. “No, I thought you were going to do something...bad with the knife. To yourself.”

The knife still in her hand, she lunged, grabbed me, swung her arms around me, and hugged me, sobbing into my neck, the butt of the weapon digging into my shoulder blade. Folds of her hair against my cheek, she gusted out fragments of words between shaking and choking breaths, and I felt her tears running to the hollow of my collarbone.

I didn’t even think about reacting. I sent out three long braids of vines to curl around her. I held her tight.

“It’s going to be okay, Brazley. Just cry it out, as much as you’d like to. I am your friend. I’m here, I won’t leave you. Ever.”

I glanced over at Reed, scowled as he reached out a hand for me. Can’t the interrogation wait a bit? My thoughts must have been clear in my expression, because he nodded back, got to his feet to stand with Carlos on the other side of Andreus’ body. Fritz was off singing up a fog that spilled across the field like slow-motion milk, hiding us from anyone using normal vision.

I knew everyone wanted to keep moving—hell, I did too. And I kept my mouth shut. I kneeled on the ground, and held Brazley for another hour, trusting to Fritz’s defenses and, if anything happened to get through, to Carlos’ battle skills. Reed wandered in circles, still in talks with the three renderers from Lazaro. It seemed to have died down now, less threatening expressions, and even an occasional laugh.

Gods of all worlds, I was even in love with him.

What a different thing I had become. The words that could have been used to describe me a year ago would no longer apply. Those words wouldn’t work now. Almost as if I’d broken something, or maybe the other way around, grown something. Wings?

...of fire.

The word metamorphosis surfaced in the back of my thoughts. Oh, yeah, caterpillar goes into the cocoon, and sure, I was as delicate as a butterfly.

I wanted to laugh, but there was nothing funny about it. There was a mildly attractive idea that, with the wings of fire, it was more like breaking out of the cocoon to find out I was a dragon. Maybe on the outside. It was the certainty that somewhere inside I had become more like the fragile butterfly and that really scared the shit out of me.

I had also learned so much in such a short time—and that had to give me strength, right?

How could I possibly have thought Reed wouldn’t be able to handle any of this? That I needed to drag him all the way out to Helodes—and who the fuck knows where after that—like a child, like he didn’t have the courage or the knowledge.

Still...I just never saw it growing up. Reed Gossi had always been the quiet, mannered boy living in the house across the back field. How could someone like that grow up into the guy pacing up and back in front of me, solid measured steps, plotting things with three renderers. A lord of another world. How?

Brazley’s shuddering calmed to rapid breaths, then deeper slower breathing, and the tears dried up. She whispered softly. “I do not want to see it happen.”

“You don’t have to.” I let my vines slip loose around her, rolling in lumps in the grass.

She nodded, her hair tickling my face, and then she pulled away, let go of me, and crawled backward, the knife still in one tight fist. She brought it up, her gaze drifting to Andreus’ immobile chalky face. Then she tugged around half a meter of black hair, about a finger’s thickness, and sliced it off. She slid the knife back into her pack with one hand, and extended her offering to me with the other, not making eye contact.

Then she got to her feet and walked away, her shoulders slumped, her steps careful but uncertain.

I knelt there with her long cut of hair and watched her vanish in the fog.

Tears still running down my face, I turned and draped Brazley’s offering over Andreus, and called up my disassembly and ownership protocol. Holding Brazley had helped me relax, and I smelled home a second later, my teeth feeling sharp in my mouth, a tingle of anticipation up my arms.

I was ready. I looked down at Andreus, pale eyes with a faraway look. I kissed him on the cheek, and then slid off his goggles. “You really looked pretty silly with these on.” I shook my head. “I don’t think you knew that. But it’s true. Even I didn’t have the heart to tell you. No that doesn’t make sense. In this case I had too much heart to tell you. Everything was so serious for you. But you know what changed it for me? It was a sudden, silly thing—but important.” I paused to see if he’d answer. “You smiled when I told you my renderer’s name was Shirley. Remember that? I liked you for that, Andreus.” I touched his face one more time, just the tips of my fingers, and then bent my head. “I’m ready. You?” Let a minute go by. “I’ll take that as a yes.”

It was over a few minutes later. Everything, including Andreus’ armored clothing and super grippy shoes. All of it.

I told Augustine to keep everything separate. Andreus didn’t need to go into the common stores—couldn’t allow that. Inside, I made an entire separate wing to house his materials, and even directed him to make a little shrine for the fibrous proteins and other compounds that had made up Brazley’s hair.

I stood, a little shaky with the adrenalin rush, brushed the loose grass off my shirt and pants. I was done, everything that had once been Andreus now tucked away in neat little packages.

I caught Carlos’ eye, gave him a nod. I’d be through here in a minute. I turned to the flattened two-meter stretch of grass where Andreus’ body had been. Took a few deep breaths, glanced up to see Brazley—scarily soft and quiet—appear like a ghost out of the fog. She stopped on the other side of the pressed down space.

It might raise alarms along forest tracts for a hundred kilometers. I didn’t care. I went to my knees, pushed my flattened hand into the center of the ghostly space of Andreus, and called for the nearest oak tree. A drop of my blood for an acorn. Who will honor me with a seed, my loves?

I bit my tongue, cut it deep, and let a smooth bitter flow of it slide to the tip, opened my mouth wide, and planted a drop in the grass between my spread fingers. A thump in the earth under me, an unknown friend in a far off forest returning my call.

Brazley backed up a step.

The seed opened at my command, uncurling, sprouting, a finger of white snapping through the soil. Two tiny green leaves unfolded. They divided again, more leaves fanning out. The stem stiffened and grew taller, half a meter standing up between my spread fingers. A sapling. I breathed on it, closed my eyes, and wished for a tower of an oak, a tree that would shade and protect this field, that would repel any storm, defy the lightning, honor the friend that was Andreus.

The oak grew, catching my fingers, opening my hand and carrying it up, the bark rough under my skin, a branch lifting like the rung of a ladder for me. I stepped up, both my hands pressed into the trunk as the tree grew thicker and taller, towering over the field.

I leaned in to press my lips against the tree’s coarse skin.

I let go, standing at the crown of a twenty-five-meter oak, a mass of heavy branches, its roots holding the earth together under it. Twisting around to take in the view, just poking through Fritz’s bank of fog, I raised one hand to the sun floating warmly in the western sky.

“Here’s to you Andreus. Farewell.”

I sent out a few vines to help me down, spiraling among the limbs, weaving a path around the core of the tree, my bare feet landing softly, toes curling, and then I was bounding around the other side, down into the massive lower branches.

I pulled in my vines and jumped to the ground.

Brazley stared up at the tree and then at me—actually they were all staring at me. Brazley was the only one able to speak. “I see what you can do. You are a goddess, Thea. Why do not act like one?” It was an innocent question.

I waved it away even as I felt my eyes tearing up. “Nah. Goddesses are demanding, self-centered, sociopathic bitches without any real friends. Come on. That’s just not me.”

Fritz was the first to laugh. I followed him. A couple more chuckles passed around, but it died pretty quickly. It wasn’t that funny.

We all gave Andreus’ tree one last touch goodbye and we turned southwest, back on our course toward Carlos’ promised OKF supply bunker outside Watseka.

And, fuck, we didn’t even make it to the edge of the field before trouble showed up—Trouble with a capital T, as in big malevolent Tree.

I wheeled, fell on my ass, turned it into a roll that brought me up standing. The ground shook under us, and the Leaf Father sprouted up from the field, gray limbs bending crablike, extending to lift out meters of knotty tree trunk, clawing their way through rolls of brown earth.

My mind jumped right to the ready batch of Homily that Augustine had made.

Reed took my hand automatically, almost made me smile. We stood our ground between our friends and the mightiest forest god in this world. I lifted a cupped hand in offering, my fingers curled air-tight around the soft, almost silky gold powder that made up my Homily recipe.

“What do you want to do, Thea?” Reed’s hoarse, tired voice next to my ear.

I leaned in, elbowed him playfully, whispered, “What do you think? I want to kill the fucker.”

Completely out of the ground, the Leaf Father bent to his knees, almost as if he was trying not to appear so frightening. He extended his right fist toward me, a giant block of grooved and knuckly wood the size of a small house.

A voice like thunder and breath that stank of wet ash and rot. “Theodora, leaf daughter of Kraneia. I have your heart.” He opened his hand, too many skinny twig fingers unfolding like a birds nest, and floating in the air above it, a small knot of smooth glossy brown wood. My heart. He had my treeheart.

My voice came out quiet, but he heard it. “Why?”

His voice rumbled in my ears. “I love you, Theodora.”

The earth went dead silent, and I just stood there blinking, felt the worry wrinkling across my face. The words left me trying to catch my breath and making “wha...?” motions with my mouth.

When I didn’t answer—couldn’t answer—the Leaf Father probably assumed I was thinking it over, and he continued, “Together, there will be nothing that can stop us in this Dawnworld, or the Rootworld, and even the Winterdim. With you in my forest, I will let you become the Leaf Mother.”

I was still gaping like a fucking fish.

He closed his fist around my heart. “Decide or I will decide for you, Theodora.”

That unlocked it for me. I shut my mouth, grinding my teeth, and then opened it up. “Do not call me Theodora.” It still sounded like some insignificant animal’s tiny scream of outrage.

And there was a hint of pain in my gut, an ache like welling tears, something not right inside, a connection to my treeheart—that I didn’t even possess.

It wasn’t as sharp as I’d expected it to be.

I glared up into his green eyes. Love? You had the chance, and you spent it cheap, yapping about something you don’t even understandYou should have killed me, you murdering, forest-burning stumpfucker.

“Decide?” I raised my hand, opened it up, and blew my entire pile of Homily at the Leaf Father. “You can go ram a splintery pine tree up your ass. How’s that for a decision?”

Then we ran like hell.

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