Winterdim

Chris Howard

30

Thread rhymes with...



We hit the supply bunker outside Watseka hard and fast, left three OKF soldiers down, two men and a woman, bleeding but breathing. I created a special tangle of grasses that braided up their arms and legs, and kept them immobile and quiet while we did our work.

Carlos had been right. There wasn’t much in the way of food, but he made sure we loaded up on weapons, armor, and other gear, throwing perfCrates of ammunition, rope, camocluster canisters, and a dozen fresh out of the box snub-nosed SIG tactical autos.

We bolted the crates to a pair of amphibious marshrunners—matte green military hover-speeders with seating for five, room for a small ops deployment and their gear. We shot south, overland, right at the edge of vehicle safety limits, Reed piloting one, Carlos the other. My body pressed against Reed’s, my legs spread around him, I had a good hold on his shirt, my right arm coming up his front, a handful of shirt-cloth in my fist. My left clawed into his shoulder. Behind me, her fingers digging into my skin at the hips, sat Brazley wearing Andreus’ goggles, which I had to admit looked a lot better on her.

Running at a shallow southwestern angle, we hit Archippa’s river, the Illinois, an hour later, and turned south with it, Reed and Carlos opening up the marshrunners on the water to two and twenty klicks an hour.

I closed my eyes against the blasts of air coming over the forward shields, and spent the next few hours in my own head, teeth clamped against the jarring, wondering how the Leaf Father could possibly have gotten his fucking hands on my treeheart.

That’s like him having half of me. On the other hand, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had the heart inside me. I was a kid. And it hadn’t ever seemed to matter once my mother helped me make my rootkey. Yeah, that’s a mother-daughter moment I want to remember. Me, eleven years old, bleeding from a dozen deep offering punctures in my body, bleeding all over my bare feet and damp forest detritus, screaming about the pain, and my mother working as quickly as she can, molding and shaping the hinged metallic thing with hand-grips and a nasty looking sharp screw tip sticking out of the bottom of a heart-shaped...key.

Heart-shaped... Replacement.

The pain hadn’t really been that bad. I’d endured so much more since, but that wasn’t more than a couple years after the OaK leaF. I was sensitive, cultivating the first shoots of hate for my mother for not hearing my call, for not waking to save me, for letting them do those things...

That’s when I’d lost my heart. Had to be at the OaK leaF. My uncle’s words dropped into my head like the first strong taps of storm rain hitting dry forest-floor leaves. They did horrible things to you and they were horrible people, and they got what they deserved, but they were following someone else’s orders, Thea. I saw coughed up blood splattered across Uncle Theo’s boots.

They were following someone else’s orders—someone who’d wanted my treeheart.

Well, they got it. He got it.

And my mother had told me nothing, and replaced my treeheart with the rootkey.

What else?

It seemed as if I’d made it over some hard ground, and had firmer footing, but I still had a long way to go before I understood what was going on.

I dredged up Andreus’ final words. Didn’t catch it all, but what I did, sounded like my Uncle Theo’s deeply involved, too. Pictured it...my mother and her brother, Theodore Balanon, working their way across the country, cajoling, bullying, threatening—sowing the seeds of protection for me. So it wasn’t just a witch here, a soldier there, but a whole fucking garden of manipulation planted, watered, and set to grow.

Okay, that sounded ridiculous, and I spent another hour trying to work that in plausibly, gave up, and tossed it away. There’s just no reason for them to go through all that work way in advance. How would they have known I’d need help, protection, friends—that I’d be running from the Leaf Father?

We hit the Mississippi a few hours later, followed the bends of dark water, scared off just about everything on the river with us, and pulled into the Rennonvorah around dusk.

And I hadn’t had to answer a hard question yet.

It was way too noisy and bouncy on the trip to ask questions, talk things over, hold embarrassing conversations.

The only communication between marshrunners came in hand signals through Brazley and were passed over to Carlos, and all of those had been quick direction questions.

Still getting our legs firmly on the earth, I hoped for silence.

But you know. Hope never seemed to be worth a shit when you really needed it.

Ten paces along the path into Helodes’ village, Reed came right out and said it. “That’s why the Leaf Father’s been going easy on you.”

A flash of Archippa’s skull and the stiff charcoal stalks of her hair in my fingers. “Oh yeah, easy, not killing me, just turning anyone who helps me into bones and cinders.”

They were all staring, wanting answers, and that’s when I really felt the loss of Andreus’ pale eyes. I missed him so much already, and I hadn’t even started worrying about what I was going to tell Helodes.

I snapped my fingers angrily at Reed. “Leaf Father has a woody for me, and what, I’m supposed to lie back and spread my legs? I don’t think so.”

Brazley’s soft questioning voice. “He has your heart?”

Damn. I could tell the questions had been piling up on the trip south.

I placed an open hand on my chest. “Not my human heart. My treeheart—the heart that gives a tree balance, a sense of being part of a forest.” I didn’t want to come right out and tell them, but with my tree heart in his possession, the Leaf Father could control me.

Fritz shook his head. “Isn’t it supposed to be part of you? Wouldn’t you know it’s gone? Wouldn’t you miss it?”

Reed whispered, “How—how did he get it?”

I stared at him, lost, and shook my head. “I’m not really sure how.” I think I know when. My hands slid over my stomach, tightening around me. “I lost it. A long time ago.” I don’t think I ever needed it. Never wanted to become part of a forest, never wanted balance in my life.

But now that I’d seen it—my treeheart floating in the air over the Leaf Father’s open hand—along with his offer, I felt a wide world of empty inside me.

Carlos and Fritz whispering together, nodding heads, thinking. Carlos finally spoke up. “And were you aware of the Leaf Father’s... uh... affection... for you before now?”

I looked at the sky through a dark mass of pine boughs, couldn’t look at any of them.

“What do you think? This whole damn world’s coming down around our ears, there’s some big nasty business going on, old alliances carved up, players cut out, shifting deals, three sides warring over who really knows what? No. I had no idea this was happening when Reed and I left the east. I thought we were all on the same side until everything blew up at Archippa’s, and the Leaf Father came storming through the burning woods to slaughter everything in his path.” The strength in my voice drifted away. “I missed so much. Didn’t even see what was happening. Almost like I was looking at the world with a completely different set of eyes. The Leaf Father...after he’d killed Archippa, he looked at me, our eyes met, he even reached out for me. He was going to speak to me, but then he fell over, went crashing to the floor of the woods. There were a lot of things going through my head then, and it never occurred to me that I’d have to guess what the Leaf Father was about to tell me. He was clearly going to say something along the lines of, ‘I’m going to get you’ or—” I brought my voice low and menacing. “—‘There is no forest in this world that will hide you from me.’ Or, maybe, ‘I’m going to burn your body down to the bones, eat your toasty brain, and wear your skull on a necklace’. But never, in any possible perspective on how things have gone for up to now, would I have anticipated the Leaf Father to...you know, say he loves me.”

Fritz gave me one raised eyebrow as if he didn’t find it that surprising.

Felt my own face scrunch up in disgust. “That’s just sick.”

“Yes,” said Brazley. “But you can at least understand why a Greater Being like the Leaf Father would want to possess you?”

I made a fist at that, really wanted to hit someone. I’m just a fucking possession?

I relaxed my hand and nodded. The answer came to me.

Like someone else hasn’t owned this game all along. The tension slipped out of me before it had a chance to take hold. Like I’m nothing but a pawn in the game. Yeah, sounded about right. Like I’m just a fucking toolbox.

Carlos tapping the safety on his SIG and walking backward along the path to the village. “And the Leaf Father cannot cross the Mississippi?”

I shook my head along with Brazley. “Helodes—Andreus’ mother, will not allow—”

Helodes stood like a pillar in the middle of the path, and I nearly ran into her.

“It has been a long time.” I thought the words were for me, but she walked around me, ignored me even, and weaved through our group to Fritz, stopping a moment to stare into his eyes, and then circled him slowly, hands clasped together in front of her, but her fingers twitched and stroked the air, longed to reach out and touch something. “What is your name?”

“Fritz.” He was starting to scowl, fingers gently plucking some soft tune none of us could hear. “What’s been a long time?”

Helodes stopped, and her hands came apart, reached out low—apparently she couldn’t resist temptation. “Can I see your hands?”

Fritz glanced at me, his shoulders coming up defensively. Behind him, I caught Carlos’ concerned look. I nodded back.

He held out his hands, palms up, and Helodes cupped each in her own bony pale hands, gently lifting them closer to her eyes as if each was some rare specimen of flower. Bent over, she tilted her head back, looked straight into Fritz’s eyes. “I am Helodes. It’s been a long time since I’ve been this close to a Child of the Sun, Fritz.”

She swung to me, almost angry, maybe impatient with me for withholding something important. “Where did you find him?” I thought of flowers again, as if Fritz was some sort of uncommonly difficult to find orchid.

I shrugged, smiled at my musicman. “Oh, Fritz and I go way back.”

She straightened, still holding Fritz’s hands, and leaned toward me in her don’t-fuck-with-me way.

I shrugged her off. “Fritz saved my life once. The least I could do is repay with him with a trail of destruction and pain back here where he can be treated with all the dignity of a botanical experiment gone awry.”

Helodes let Fritz’s hands slide from hers, her face shifting from the “Child of the Sun” to me, right along with a shift in her expression from awe to a chained-down rage, a sharp twitch in her lips, one of her eyes narrowing at me more than the other one. “Thea? Where is Andreus?”

Brazley had been at my side. Now she was ducking behind me, one of her hands high on my right arm, clawing into my skin.

I pulled in a long breath. “He’s dead.”

The witch didn’t move for a long moment, staring right through me, one hand still visible, a floating chalk-white fist against long folds and layers of black and gray rags. “That’s not what I asked you.”

My voice came out in a low whisper, couldn’t muster anything stronger. “I took his materials. He asked me to.”

The solemn moment lasted another second, and then Helodes cheered up noticeably. “Oh good. I thought you were going to say you buried him or—” She waved vaguely north. “—left his corpse lying in some field for the scavengers to pick over.”

Her words slid into me like knives, unfeeling cold and sharp. Brazley’s face pressed into my back, felt her sob—or at least the thump of her body holding one in.

This was going too far—even for me. “The fuck is wrong with everyone?” I stabbed a finger at Helodes. “You don’t care that your son—or whatever he was to you—is dead? He’s gone Helodes. Dead at the hands of some poison-wielding dangerous OKF operative. He is not coming back.”

She showed me a sad smile. “Yes he is. He just had to find a teacher and a surrogate.”

Something funny must have surfaced on my face because she laughed. I made a fist.

Fucking witches.

Helodes came around, tugged Brazley out from behind me, put her arms over our shoulders and gave the rest of my team a this-way nod of her head, tossing long damp black hair over us.

“Tea and something to eat at my house. I can tell you haven’t eaten today. We’ll talk more when you’ve settled in a bit. I have room, beds, food, seclusion—and no one knows you’ve returned. I’ll have my own people guard your vehicles.”

Without looking back, Helodes shook her head and said, “Mr. Gossi? Looks like you’re carrying around a little something that you shouldn’t allow too close to your inner Winterdim lord.”

I felt him stumble before his words came out choppy and revealed the misstep. “You—you can see the thread? Shirley is still trying to solve it, and Lazaro’s old renderers don’t seem to know how it works.”

“Lazaro?” Helodes did manage a glance over her shoulder with a frown at Reed while keeping her course along the path, walking briskly with Brazley and I under each arm. “Well, it appears that Lazaro would like nothing more than to see the Lord of the Winterdim dead because that’s what the thread is going to do—in time. I believe you have a week or so.” She shrugged. “And it’ll probably take you with it. I mean, it’s not like the lord is really a separate autonomous part anymore. If we’ve pieced it all together correctly, you are the Lord of the Winterdim, Reed Gossi.”

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