Chris Howard



The five of us met outside the dining hall in the morning—no sign of Helodes. I had the sense that river witches only pretended to stay in the house, but really went off to their rivers after everyone else fell asleep.

We had leftover crusty bread and warmed up cheese, took everything outside in the courtyard. It was quiet, a few birds but that was all, a bright sun breaking through the trees over the Mississippi.

For five minutes I could pretend everything was normal. The dew on my bare feet, slick between my toes. Food that tasted good. Some heavy shit on my shoulders, but nothing I couldn’t postpone for a few.

No one trying to hunt us down and kill the moment.

I was even okay with Carlos, Fritz, and Reed drinking coffee—the nasty stuff. They moved to the other side of the courtyard to lean against a fence rail, discussing something about the forest, maybe the way the light came through, touching the floor.

I didn’t even try to fish for words out of Reed’s low voice, just watched his mouth when he spoke, when he smiled, laughed, his mouth opening over the smooth lip of the mug, the warm liquid over his tongue, down his throat.

I got a core buzz just looking at him, had the urge to knock the coffee out of his hands, lure him into the shower, vine bind him to the faucets, get him in my mouth, and suck him till he was sore... Water running down his body, his wet skin sliding up and down my face, my fingers digging into the back of his thighs, shoulder against his hip, shoving him against the tiles, the tension in my neck—pulling and floating with my rhythm, my mouth open and taking him—


Blinking, I stared around—gods it was bright out here, couldn’t even tell who’d called my name.

“Are you okay?”

I was breathing deep, a fluid warmth lapping around my insides, hard pinpoints of heat in the depths.

I turned and was staring at Brazley, a gardener’s trowel in one hand, a thin stalk of a pepper plant with the dangling tendrils of the rootball in the other.

I swallowed. “Uh, yeah. You?”

“I am well. Helodes gave me a planting job to do last night. Will you help me understand gardening?”

“Sure.” I stopped on the pepper plant, let my gaze trail to her boots. “What are you wearing?

Brazley looked down at her own grayish-purple urban camo leggings and cloth-armor tunic. “Is something wrong with these clothes?”

“Everything.” I shook my head, waved her to follow. “That won’t do. Not for gardening.” I glanced back, wagged a finger at her hands and what they were holding. “Put those down. Follow me.”

Back in the bedrooms of Helodes’ house, I dragged Brazley in, shut the door, and pulled out a thin yellow top from my pack. “Can you detach the shoes from your pants, leggings, whatever those are?”

Brazley looked down. “I can. Should I not wear shoes for gardening?”

“Not on this beautiful end-of-summer morning. Off with them. Take that top off, too.”

Brazley sat on the edge of the bed to finger in the reconfig on her pants, sliding off her boots when they unsealed from the cuffs.

“No socks. Bare feet only. Roll up the legs on your pants, about mid-calf.”

Brazley followed my orders, peeled off her socks, touched her fingers along the hem of the tunic, and then confirmed something in the armor with a thumb print. Her top split down the back, loosened, and curled off her body. She folded her arms over her chest.

“This is how you garden?”

“All the time. Put this on.” I tossed her my yellow top—basically a tube with microstraps, stepping back to get a good look at her, smiling as she played nervously with the high shirt hem cutting across the middle of her body, just above the soft jutting of her ribcage.

She looked at me, a little worried. “It’s very short.”

“It’s fine. You look good. Now come on.”

She followed me outside—hesitant. “Andreus would not allow me to wear...”

“Andreus barely knew how to dress himself. He’d no idea what a girl or a gardener should be wearing. You think he knew more about being a girl or gardening than I do, you’re welcome to go put your armor back on. No? Then let’s get dirty.”

I spent the rest of the day pretending there weren’t murderous tree gods out there, stumping through the forests, killing anything in their way, writing love letters to me. I spent most of it gardening with Brazley, which turned out not to be nearly as dull as I’d anticipated.

Helodes needed her fall harvest of greens planted and started—a whole field of lettuce, spinach, and cabbage. We also planted cauliflower, radishes, and kohlrabi. The lone pepper plant went into a decorative pot for the kitchen.

Out in the fields I tasted the soil, sifted thousands of seeds through my fingers, pre-soaking them, breathing on them, got them growing, and after we’d finger-depthed the seedlings in long rows, Brazley and I sat back and planned tomorrow’s garlic crop.

Helodes drifted through at mid-day, river water running from her hair, her long black-rag drape pasted to her body, sharp elbows and shoulder-blades jutting, a caring smile on her face.

She walked up and down the rows of seedlings, muddy feet and crouching to inspect our work. “Thea, you’ve done wonderfully—”

“Not just me. Brazley did as much work.”

Helodes went to her knees, one hand in the soil, fingertips of the other brushing gently through the sprouts I’d sparked from the dirt. She looked up at my interruption, fixed her gaze on me, thoughtful and a little frightened.

Brazley noticed, and spoke first. “Helodes, what is wrong?”

The witch sounded far away, not really talking to us, her focus floating away from me, up into the trees and higher, catching a wind-driven cloud, a ray of sunlight. “Why can’t pain be painful and joy or pleasure be just that? Why must the two mix? Why must we feel the lift of one and the stab of the other?”

The old witch straightened without a glance at Brazley or I, and wandered off in the direction of the Mississippi, presumably to ponder that some more. Brazley looked at me, I shrugged, and said, “I think she thought highly of your gardening.”

“Do you?”

I caught her eyes—still and black with a dull reflective convex shape. “You don’t need my judgment, Brazley. Your hands are dirty. That’s really all I need to see.” The thought of programming her eyes from stealth military black to show irises of some color floated back into my head. “Hey, you want to reconfigure your eyeplants? Give you some fun colors on the menu, let you change the optical ranges? Bet we can get Carlos to do some interesting and useful things with those.”

She came back with an interested smile. “I’ve always wanted to have eyes the color of amber.”

I got up, held out my hand for her, and we set off to find the boys. Carlos, Fritz, and Reed had been repairing the roof, window framing, painting, and other chores for Helodes. We came around the southern corner of the house, and there they were, the three of them in Adirondack chairs, legs stretched out, tall glasses of iced tea.

Reed raised his to me in greeting, his arms speckled with lavender paint—the new exterior color for one of the tool sheds. Carlos smiled.

Fritz had his back to me. I reached his chair, dropped a hand to his shoulder. “Hey, Child of the Sun.”

He looked up, frowning. “I think I prefer any nickname anyone’s ever given me—including the OKF with their stupid “Apollon” to that one.”

I squeezed his shoulder. “You’ll always be Fritzy to me.”

“Fritz Z is my name.”

Carlos pulled his legs in, sat up. “You’re done with the planting?”

I looked at Brazley, let her take the response.

“Today. Tomorrow we have promised Helodes a fresh winter crop of garlic.”

“What about you guys?” My thoughts were already toying with ways to get the paint off Reed’s hands.

Helodes came around the corner before anyone answered, back to her normal mood, half a smile on her mouth, her long black hair pulled around to her right shoulder to hang in curling wet clumps.

“You think the house runs itself? Why’s everyone sitting around?”

Reed tipped his glass of tea at her. “You’re a witch Helodes. Doesn’t it run on your power?”

Carlos, always serious, set down his glass. “We intend to pay for your hospitality, Helodes. We were just taking a short break from the work.”

“Shut up Carlos. The real reason?” I smiled down at Fritz. “The Child of the Sun told us we could have the rest of the day off.”

Helodes made a serious go at trying to take that seriously, and then laughed with us, setting aside something grim sitting just inside her head. She let the fun run on its own momentum, and waited a few minutes after we’d quieted down.

Then she told us the news.

“The Leaf Father reached the east bank last night.” Helodes pointed at me with one pale bony finger. “I think you’d better get out of here. Run for the Gulf, or head west. I can stop him from crossing the Mississippi...for a while.”

That put some chill in the air. I folded my arms because I needed that being-held feeling—and then, really strange, I was thinking about someone else but me. “We can’t leave without removing Lazaro’s thread from Reed.”

And that’s when Reed came through with something out of this world. “What if Thea isn’t here?”

Well, he didn’t come right out with it, made it all mysterious and confusing at first.

Helodes glanced at me, then around at the others, put on a deep witch scowl. “I believe that’s what I just suggested.”

Reed set his glass down, and came around to stand beside me. “No. I mean, together Thea and I can literally leave this world—the Dawnworld, and make our way into Winterdim. I can have someone there cut out the thread.” Then he tapped the side of his head twice and gestured to me. “After all, the Winterdim is our world.”

Dead silence for a few minutes—certainly not what Helodes had suggested.

I looked over, locked eyes with Reed, pushed a question at him, wanted to see if he was serious. He nodded back.

“You have new info out of Lazaro’s renderers?”

He drew a breath, seemed determined to try to hold on to it as long as possible. “I do.” The two words sounded strained.

“How much time do you have?”

“A few days. Maybe.” He shrugged. “Maybe a little more. Before it opens up and kills the Numezhin part of me.”

“Can you actually talk to my Uncle said?”

“Sort of. There was a piece I’d always kept locked down—the piece that spoke to you at OKF when I wasn’t in any condition to speak, the piece that put the building to sleep. I opened it, let it inside me. It really is like talking to myself, like sifting through old memories. I know the Winterdim as if I grew up there, wiped out rivals, ruled it, fought over it. I am not a nice guy at all, a real old style tyrant. But I have wealth, doctors at my call, a whole world that belongs to me. We’ll be fine there, and I can get rid of Lazaro’s little weapon.”

That settled it for me. “Okay. We also have wings. Let’s go.”

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