For my nephews, A to Z:
Asher Theodore, Jacob Samuel, and Zachary Elia
The woman who would become my mother backed trembling away from the man who would save her life, and I did not know why. Around them, faerie trees held their bright leaves perfectly still, as if knowing, like I knew, that they saw something they shouldn’t.
“How long, Kaylen?” Mom clutched a blanket around her, woven of green rushes. “How long has this magic—”
“I’ll hold you no longer.” Kaylen, whom I knew as Caleb, looked no younger in this vision than when I’d left for the well this morning. His rumpled linen tunic was green as well, and white flowers were woven into his faerie-clear hair. His bright silver eyes watched Mom with concern but held none of the guarded caution I’d later see there. “I return all your choices back to you.”
“How could you hold me at all?” There were flowers in Mom’s tangled brown hair, too, dying blooms that fell to the forest floor. In my time she looked older than Caleb, but in this vision she seemed the same age as me.
Caleb dropped to his knees before her. “I was wrong. I see that now, and I beg your forgiveness.” He bowed his head. “I put your life before my own until I earn it.”
“More oaths. More bindings.” Mom’s voice cracked. One hand holding the blanket, she grabbed up clothing with the other—denim pants and cotton shirt, human clothes from Before. “I thought it was real, Kaylen. Everything I felt—” She whirled from him and fled into the trees.
“Liza?” A girl’s voice, from outside the vision, seeking to draw me back to my own time, my own place. I fought the voice’s pull, straining to see where my mother had gone. Instead I saw another woman, walking through the forest.
“That was foolish, Brother,” the woman—Karin—said. Her wrists and neck were encircled by green vines, and her brown dress was shot through with streaks of silver, like a child’s finger painting. I’d met her when I’d met Caleb.
“Can I do nothing without your spying, Eldest Sister?” Caleb stood to meet her gaze.
The angles of Karin’s face were harsher than I remembered. “Perhaps if I had begun spying sooner, you would not be in this tangle. You cannot simply allow your human captive to return to her world, free to speak of her time here as she will. Neither can you keep her in this world, dangerous as any caged animal, only without any illusions to soothe her.”
“I have vowed not to bind her. You know as well as I that I must hold to that.” A petal fell from Caleb’s hair.
Karin caught it and frowned, as if unhappy with the story it told. “Allow me to do it, then. I am not so reckless with my promises as you.”
“She is only human, Kaylen. You do her no harm, any more than hood and jesses do harm to a hawk.”
“So I thought once, too.” Caleb stalked past her, in the direction my mother had gone.
Karin let the petal slip from her fingers. “What do you intend to do, then?”
“This is my responsibility, as you’ve reminded me often enough.” Caleb didn’t look back as he walked on. “I will mend it.”
The vision broke up, like fog in the morning sun. I found myself crouched beside the town well and the bucket I’d drawn from it. I looked up, at a girl with an unruly red braid. Allie, who in my time was Caleb’s student, put her hands on her hips. “I’ve been looking and looking for you. Don’t you even want to say goodbye?”
“Sorry, Allie.” I’d gone to the well before dawn, hoping to avoid sun on water and the visions it brought, only to have the moon’s light catch me instead. I pressed my palms against my eyes, trying to forget the fear I’d seen on my mother’s face. Whatever had happened in my vision, it was past. Mom was safe now.
“Are you all right, Liza?” Allie’s face scrunched up as I drew my hands away. “I’m your healer. If anything’s wrong, you have to tell me.”
“It’s nothing. Truly.” I stood and gave her braid a tug. The sun was just below the horizon, and the autumn leaves around us burned with color. Until a few days ago, I’d never known leaves to change color like this, even when the winter snows began to fall. Ever since the War—since before I was born—the trees had held their green leaves close in all seasons. I still wasn’t sure I believed that soon the leaves would drop from those trees, leaving their branches bare.
Allie sighed. “I’m going to miss you so much. You know that, don’t you?”
My arms strained as I lifted the bucket. “I’ll miss you, too.” I’d been as surprised as Allie to learn that she and Caleb were returning to their town, while Mom was staying in mine. Mom and Caleb had cared for each other Before, in Faerie. They’d continued caring through all their years apart, long past when Mom and Father met and I was born, each of them thinking the other had surely perished in the War between their worlds. When Mom had returned to Faerie at last and been poisoned by the War-tainted air there, Caleb had risked his own life to heal her. Yet yesterday Caleb had said he wasn’t willing to leave his students to stay with Mom, and Mom had said she wasn’t willing to leave hers to stay with him. I glanced uneasily into the bucket, wondering, for the first time, what they both hadn’t said.
The first rays of sunlight reflected off the water, but neither Caleb nor Mom appeared in its bright surface. Instead I saw Karin, staring in the direction her brother had gone.
“The Lady will not like this,” she said softly. “And this time, Youngest Brother, I do not know how to protect you.”
Snow crunched beneath my boots as I patrolled the winter forest, a gray wolf by my side.
Low on the horizon, a waxing moon shone through the trees, silvering the bare branches of oak and ash, sycamore and elm. Cold bit through the tips of my leather gloves, and my breath puffed into the still air. An oak branch swung at me, sleepy and slow. The wolf—Matthew—growled a warning, but I ducked out of the way easily enough. The oak sighed, but it didn’t try again. The trees were too tired to do much harm this winter.
I walked carefully over a line of fire ants melting a trail through the snow. Nearby I heard the clicking of termites chewing dead wood. Termites were among the few creatures who hadn’t gone hungry since the leaves had fallen from the trees.
Beneath a pine that had dropped all its needles, a patch of ice-frosted ferns shivered. Something dark moved among the ferns—Matthew’s ears stiffened into alertness. I slowed my steps and rested my hand against his back. We walked forward together.
A shadow hunkered amid the ferns, shapeless and trembling. As I knelt before it, the shadow took on a human shape, arms and legs and face, features smudged and indistinct in the moonlight. A child. In one hand it held out a toy, shaped like a dinosaur from Before—long Before.
I removed my glove and took the child’s other hand in my own. Shadow fingers passed right through mine, and cold shivered through me. I reached out with my magic, and that magic was cold, too. Cold bound us one to another, shadow and living, strong as twisted rope. Softly I asked, “What is your name?”
Something deep within the shadow yearned toward me, aching to be called back to life. “Ben.” His hoarse voice was at the edge of hearing.
I couldn’t call any shadow back to life. “Seek sleep, Ben.” I put my magic—my power—into the words. “Seek rest, seek darkness, seek peace.”
Icy numbness spread through my fingers. Ben whimpered as he sank into the ferns and the snow. His fingers slipped from mine. “Ethan,” he whispered, and then he was gone, leaving behind only a moon-bright whiteness that stung my eyes.
Cold shot through my palm and up my arm. Matthew nudged my other hand, and I remembered the glove I held. I pulled it on. Tingling warmth spread through my fingers, until I could move them once more. “Thanks, Matthew.” I pressed my nose to his. Our frosted breaths, human and wolf, mingled in the air.
Matthew made a quiet sound. “Time to go home,” I agreed. We turned from the ferns, back toward the path and the chores that waited in town. I scanned the snow and brush around us, but I didn’t see any more shadows.
At least it was only human shadows we needed to watch for now. Until this winter, the trees had held shadows of their own, and those shadows had attacked anyone desperate enough to venture out at night. The trees’ roots and branches had attacked, too, by day and night both.
But now the trees had dropped their leaves and they slept, and instead human shadows from Before roamed the woods at night, shadows of those who’d died during the War with Faerie. Sometimes those shadows drifted into town, looking for lost loved ones. I still remembered the look on Matthew’s grandmother’s face when the daughter I hadn’t known she’d had appeared at her door. At least she’d let me lay that shadow to rest. Another of our townsfolk had shivered to death when he wouldn’t let go of the shadow of his first wife, whom he’d lost during the War. After that, Matthew and I had started doing regular patrols, heading out before dawn a couple of times a week.
We could head out before dawn now that the trees no longer sought human flesh and blood. It had been a welcome change not to fear every rustling leaf.
Matthew stopped and sniffed the air. He turned and trotted off the path, deeper into the forest. I followed. My hand moved to the belt cinched around my oversized coat and the knife that hung sheathed there, a habit from years spent tracking game through more wakeful forests.
Matthew stopped by a mound about the same size he was. He nosed at it, let out a low whine, and began digging. The old snow was unevenly packed, as if it had been shaped by human hands. A faded brown dinosaur sat perched atop it, molded of hard pre-War plastic.
Cold got down beneath my coat and scarf, chilled my toes in their wool socks. I helped Matthew dig, knowing well enough what we would find.
Ben had been young, little more than a toddler, with curls that hung frozen over a face made pale by the moonlight. He hadn’t died in the War after all. He’d died no more than a day or two ago, after the last snowfall, and someone had buried him here.
I wanted nothing more to do with dead children. I wanted to flee this place, but we had to know what had happened to him, in case it posed some danger to our town.
Cold stiffened my fingers. The dinosaur toppled into the snow. I kept digging.
Whoever had buried Ben had closed his eyes before covering him. Last night’s wind had left no tracks, no sign of where that someone might have gone. The nearest towns were all at least a day’s walk away from ours. What had this child been doing here, so far from home?
As Matthew and I dug the snow away, Ben’s cold hand emerged, clenched against his chest as if he still held his toy. His sweater was a mess of charred fibers that crumbled at my touch. Beneath them—I fought not to look away.
Matthew whined. Beneath Ben’s sweater, the flesh was melted, wool fused to blackened skin and frozen blisters. I was glad of the cold, which kept the odor at bay. I was glad I’d not yet eaten. Matthew’s ears drooped, and I put my arms around him, squeezing hard, breathing the frosty smell of his fur. If there’d been a fire nearby, he should have caught some scent of it. How far had Ben fled after he’d been burned, and why?
I laid him to rest. There was nothing more we could do. I piled snow over Ben once more. Matthew took the toy dinosaur in his teeth and placed it carefully atop the grave. We headed for home as the moon slipped below the horizon and a faint band of gray lit the eastern sky.
In the distance, an owl hooted sleepily. An owl’s talons could tear a person open easily enough—but when I heard the sound again, it was farther off. The deer and rabbits and mice were going hungry with the trees asleep, and that meant the owls and hawks and wild dogs were hungry, too. When they attacked, they were harder to scare off, but there’d been fewer of them as winter had worn on. We’d have been suffering more from the lack of game in town, too, if not for the emergency provisions we’d been able to lay in the past few years.
Pale yellow light smudged the horizon by the time Matthew and I reached the fields outside our town, Franklin Falls. A brown ragweed vine swung sleepily back and forth across our path. I cut the thing free and flung it into the forest. It could do little harm now, but when spring came, such vines would once again seek our blood.
If spring came. My gaze strayed to the fields beside the path. They were white with new snow, only a few dead grasses poking through. The shivering green leaves of winter potatoes and turnips and beets should have long since broken the frozen soil, but this year they hadn’t grown at all. My hand moved to Matthew’s back, and he edged closer to me. We relied on those root vegetables to help us through the spring while we waited for corn and beans and squash to grow.
The adults said that these dead fields had been normal Before, that there’d been no winter crops and spring had always come just the same. Yet even they’d grown uneasy when the pines and firs had gone brown and dropped their needles. Why trees dropping needles should be more unsettling than trees dropping leaves, I didn’t know, but after that, the Council agreed that we should go on short rations until the spring crops came in—just to be safe, they said.
“What if it’s all my fault?” I asked Matthew as my boots and his paws left prints in the snow behind us. Last week patches of brown earth had shown through, but two days ago new snow had covered them again.
Matthew gave my knee a sharp nudge. We’d had this discussion before: Matthew insisted that I wasn’t to blame, that there was no way I could have known what would happen, and that spring would likely still come.
I thought of a hillside thick with blackberry and sumac, all dead now; of the cinnamon-barked quia tree that stood among the brambles. I’d called that faerie tree into the human world, though only a few people knew it. Magic flowed in two directions; the same power that allowed me to command shadows to rest allowed me to command—to call—seeds to grow. But the quia seed had come from a dead land beyond both my world and Faerie, and now I feared I’d called death into my world as well.
I hadn’t thought so at first. I’d laughed with the others to see the leaves burst into fiery colors and fall from the trees, and thought only of how much easier winter would be if the trees slept and we could walk through the forest unafraid. That had been nearly a half year ago, though. The leaves had since turned to brown, and the world their falling had left behind reminded me of the black-and-white photos in the oldest books from Before. It reminded me of the land where I’d found the quia seed. I hadn’t known that any world could be so gray.