Chris Howard



We edged south along the coast, cutting into the Gulf to get our bearing, Fritz conjuring up all kinds of scanning and telescopic gear to look for the wide inlet mapped as the mouth of Lostmans River.

We slid slowly past a house on a headland, thick with trees and ivy growth. The windows were broken, chimney cracked and missing bricks in places, and the entire roof was a soft field of moss.

A woman sat on a chair on the front porch, skin darker than mine, hair like a wind-swept pine with beads and feathers woven through it. Her gaze fixed on us as soon as we drifted into view, engines humming.

She waved, stood and walked to the edge of solid ground. “Come on over. You lookin’ for anything?”

She seemed a bit over-eager to me.

I sensed something threatening, but I didn’t think it was her.

Reed and I stood in the second and third seat on our runner, Carlos driving since the turn of the coastline from east to south. He glanced back to me, shrugged. “She looks nice, and sure as hell knows more about this area than any of us.”

I nodded back, waved Brazley over. She was driving the other runner, with Fritz in the back playing gunner.

I jumped to the edge of earth, holding out my hand. “I’m Theodora. These are my friends, Reed, Brazley, Carlos and Fritz.”

“Dovie Mouton. Lived around here for years. Where are you headed?”

Fritz hopped over to land, shook Dovie’s hand “We need to get to Lostmans River.”

Dovie looked at him, quiet for a moment, backing up a little to get a full view. “You’re a sunchild aren’t you? You wouldn’t happen to be a son of Phaithusa?”

Fritz stared at her, started to shake his head, unsure. “I don’t know. I know that name, seen it written before.” He looked at me, the memory dawning. “I saw the name Phaithusa in my records at OaK leaF.”

Dovie went on, the matter settled, “Knew you looked familiar. Met Phaithusa once long ago. I was a little girl, and she was lovely as can be, and she watched over us—me and my brothers.” She waved impatiently. “Anyway, you five looking for Lostmans, right? Don’t worry. That’s my river. Know it forwards and back, born in those waters. First drink of water was from Lostmans.”

It wasn’t easy fending off the all-witches-who-help-us-are-doomed vibe from most of the group. “Dovie, you wouldn’t happen to be a witch?”

She frowned at me, surprised, as if I’d asked if she walked on two legs. “Sure I am. I can take you up the river, anywhere you want to go. Any particular sight or spot you looking for?”

I wasn’t the only one holding up my hands, palms out in sort of a pushing away gesture. “No, please don’t help us. We’re fine on our own.”

“Are you...” She clamped her mouth shut, frightened by something, but her hands uncurled, shaking with what I guessed was excitement. Seemed a bit incongruous to me.

Then she opened up. “Are you Theodora of the soil and trees?”

Oh, fuck.

I couldn’t keep the raw sarcasm out of my voice. “Wait, don’t tell me. My mother, Kraneia—or maybe my Uncle Theodore—swung by on a trip to who the hell knows where, and told you to help me?”

She shook her head, eyes wide with what now looked like awe—and at me. “I know the name Kraneia. Never met her though.”

I barely heard her. There was another explanation. “Oh, yeah. One or both of them threatened to kill you if you didn’t help me? That’s it then, right?”

Her head kept shaking, and she stood, moving closer, eyes wild and fixed on me like long lost buried treasure.

I was looking for easy exits when she produced one I hadn’t heard before.

“Oh, rivers of all worlds. You’re the girl of the forest. Heard your name in some forest chatter several months back. You could be her.” She was pointing, accusing and delighted recognition at the same time. “I have waited my long life to see you. We all have.”

Then, fuck, she started singing. “She will rule the worldforest and everything between every edge and seashore, the rain and spring and rivers...more. Sorry, I’ve forgotten the goddamn song. It’s been so long.” She made some rhythmic gestures, her index finger dancing to some tune only she had a handle on, and then she picked it up again, “She won’t come from the water, but from the soil, a girl of the forest will light your way...”

My hands came up again, repeating the same pushing away gesture. “Look, we don’t want any trouble. We’re just sliding on through, looking for a river...uh, a tributary off Lostmans River.”

Reed stepped in to help me out. “If you can just point us in the right direction. That’s all we need. Get us headed toward Lostmans River.”

Fritz wasn’t being helpful at all. “That’s the same song Helodes was singing when she...left.”

Dovie perked up even more than she already was. “You’re a friend of Helodes?”

“Oh, fine.” I sighed, shot an angry look at Fritz. “If we’re going to throw out names. What about Archippa?”

“Archippa, way up in old Illinois? Sure. I met her once, thirty, forty years back.”

My turn to get impatient. “We really need to find this river, Dovie.”

“I’m coming with you then. Lot faster that way.” She looked down at the two marshrunners, gave Carlos, Reed, and Brazley measured looks. “Nice machines you have, too. Perfect for this sort a trip.”

I saw Reed give me his quick head shake. I know. I know. But Dovie hopped lightly to Brazley’s runner, walking up the side like she belonged there. “Come on. Thought you’re in a hurry. Let’s get these babies moving.”

With a glance back, I jumped back to my runner between Reed and Carlos.

With Fritz on board, we pulled into the currents, Dovie pointing and talking, calling birds, not by genus, but by names like “Ferdinand” and “Monte,” and every fifteen minutes she pointed, made sure we stuck with her directions.

Carlos brought us right alongside the other runner, and Dovie gushed with knowledge and stories and funny things that happened in the glades. She told us about ghosts that haunted low tides, and bacteria that sometimes poisoned the water, and how she’d been married twice and had three children—all in the Spheres. She told us about river witches living in the Rootworld—which she pronounced ruht-world—with copies of themselves “prismed through to this Dawnworld.”

I reached across the space between the runners, cupped her bony shoulder firmly, the tips of my fingers against her warm skin, felt her pulse, her living body. “You’re alive here and there?”

“Course we are.”

A flood of memories coming through in flashes, Helodes saying Archippa—with me holding her charred skull—was “defeated” and not using a more precise word, something like annihilated.

“Because she wasn’t really gone. Only from the Dawnworld. Why? What’s your purpose?”

“Oh, that stupid story. We all heard it growing up. The songs, the adventure. It’s like a prophecy, the girl from the soil will win it all. We wanted so bad for it to be true.”

Carlos looked a little suspicious. “And you think this prophecy’s going to come true?”

Dovie waved him away. “Oh, hell no. That’s why all prophecies are a load of shit, always have been. I mean, who can really remember all the songs and details and general prophesying?” She jabbed me in the arm. “Take this one for instance. We have a song about a woman from the soil. Could be you. Could be any tramp with a trowel and a damn watering can, right?”

Caught Fritz grinning at me out of the corner of my eye—Brazley, too. Yeah, that’s all I really am, just a tramp with watering can. “What’s this woman from the soil supposed to do?”

“Oh, you know how the ocean has just one ruler? Not up here. It’s all divided into rivers, forests, any geographical feature you care to distinguish. Well, we river witches think there’ll be a ruler from the forests to take the throne of everything on the surface.”

Fritz glanced at me then back to Dovie. “Do you believe that?”

“Don’t know.” She shrugged and looked over the trees. “It does give you something to talk about when you meet other witches, though.” She pointed, mildly curious. “Well, there’s something you don’t see every day. A great big story to tell, smack in front of us.”

Brazley spun the wheel wild, and nearly rammed us. It was tough to keep our eyes ahead. Couple klicks in, there he was, the Leaf Father striding through the swamp, birds screeching and taking flight with the distant crackling of trees going down in his path.

It was pretty obvious where he was going.

I reached up, slapped Carlos on the shoulder. “Let’s see if we can beat him to Orphne’s door.”

* * *

Lostmans River turned out to be a good place to get lost.

But with Dovie on our side, we found it, and not long after, I found the tributary that would open a path to Orphne’ I tried not to imagine what that would be like, not yet.

Let’s get our feet wet first.

The runners came up hovering ten kilometers up the tiny winding water track off Lostmans. Wasn’t much more than a creek when I waved us off the water. Carlos and Braze parked our two amphibious vehicles nose out from the bank, shields up to full.

I touched the water, cool and a little muddy on my toes with a rocky bed. This can’t be right. But there was something here, I felt the tightening up my legs, almost a sting. I glanced at Fritz to get his read. He shrugged, shook his head.

Yup, just as I thought. It was only here for me. Like the scent of blossoms coming through the village of Rennonvorah.

I took Brazley’s hand on my left, Reed’s on my right. “Take hands, form a chain, and follow me.”

I closed my eyes, not sure if that was necessary, but I figured I’d have a few tries before getting it right.

Turn thrice on river stones...

I opened my eyes, looked down, and it wasn’t muddy water.

Blood washing up my legs.

Dovie snorted, only mildly surprised. “Never seen this much blood in all my life.”

I was grinding my teeth, stopped them long enough to whisper, “I have.”

Light was coming across the river, broken beams of it behind me, but when I turned, the path sealed behind us, shut like a vault, and my first thought climbed right to my mouth. “Everyone with me?”

A long scary silence.

Then Dovie spoke up. “Who’s taking their shoes off? Well I am. My damn socks are soaking this up like teabags.” I felt her bony old fingers digging into my shoulder for support.

“Dovie? Where is everyone else?”

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