29 – “The Dead of Winter” – Parith 

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Illustration by Mark Hansen

She left two weeks ago. 

The memory of Miravell’s worried face and panicked voice repeated in his head once again. Please! Can you find her? I’m so worried! He shook his head, trying to keep it clear and focused. He sat on a thick branch high up in a tree in the deciduous canopy of the Umbrawood forest. The winter meant there were no leaves, but the thick tangle of smaller branches overhead allowed only about half of the sunlight to filter through to his level. 

It had been snowing pretty hard for the last few days. Today was clear, but colder. Without the insulating cloud cover, the breeze through the thick trees was icy. 

He stood and leaned for a moment against the trunk of the tree. It was huge, even at this height. Parith and two other wood elves wouldn’t have been able to touch hands and wrap their arms around it. Dozens of feet below him, at the base, it would take more than six. 

Where is she? 

Well, if she were here, she’d talk to the forest and find out where she is. He grinned at his own irony. If she were here, I wouldn’t be looking for her.

He scratched his chin. But, if I knew where Ari was, I could find her easily. Parith moved leafward, away from the trunk, following the branch. In the last months, he’d thought a lot about the little leaf Illariel, but with the snow and being busy helping his family, he’d not visited her nor asked about her. He didn’t see her in the village trees and figured that she was just out in the forest with Ari. How am I going to find her? It’s a huge forest. Where would she go?

It was one thing to confidently say he would go find her, but out in the forest it was another thing altogether. The weeks since she left meant there would be no reliable tracks to find, and the most recent nights of snow would have covered whatever might have been there anyway.

I need help. Parith Jumped down to a lower branch. As he landed in a crouch, snow slid off in clumps and tumbled to the forest floor way below. How would I find Ari? Would she even be out in the winter? 

Something drifted through his memory, an image of Illariel and Ari walking through the forest last fall when they were almost home. He remembered Illariel talking to the spider about “the season changing”, and a “good hibernation spot”. Yes! That’s it! Where was that spot? Where were we?

He stood, suddenly alert, and doublechecked his surroundings. “Flames!” he cursed out loud. “Shaking flaming leaves!” I’ve been going the wrong way. His bearings re-established, he checked the angle of the sun. I’ve still got a few more hours of light. I might be able to get there if I really scramble. He spun and ran trunkward on the branch where he stood, then jumped to grab a thin limb hanging low. He swung on it to propel himself forward onto a wide branch extended from another tree. Snow cascaded from the branches behind his feet as he ran.

It had been a long time since he had done a treerun like this. So much of his travel with friends and caravans had been with people other than wood elves, so must of it was done on the forest floor. He and Illariel and Ari had gone in the canopy for a while, but they’d not been in a hurry. Despite the fear and urgency filling his chest with each breath, the running and jumping did feel good in his legs. He only paused to track his path and check the sun. There was no time for breaks or rest. 

There’s a stream through a ravine by a slope, with a big cliff overhang. That was one place they’d talked about. When he arrived in the vicinity, he dropped quickly to the lower branches. He found the stream easily, though it was frozen still. I remember we came through here, walking opposite the flow, up the slope. He fell right into step behind the imaginary memory of the three of them, trudging through the woods. The trunks of the trees here were close and enormous. It wasn’t easy to climb over the root crowns that grew out from the base of each tree.

Come on! Forest willing, let me find her alive!

Climbing across a tangle of roots, he saw a frozen cascade of water. Icicles hung from rocks and roots like crystal daggers hung in a chandelier. I remember this fall!

He scrambled up the slope to the crest of the fall, pulling himself up over the snow and ice. Snow fell down into his cloak and chilled his neck. He rolled and sat up. There was the cliff face rising up from the bank of the stream. His eyes quickly followed the frozen water to some underbrush, mostly covered in snow. He saw her.

Illariel partly lay, curled into a ball in her cloak, partly leaning against the frozen dirt wall of the cliff. He ran to her, almost sliding on the ice of the stream, and rolled her over. She was pale and shivering, and her breathing was shallow. Looking around, he saw the charred remains of a long-dead fire. Up above, he saw a thick weaving of white webs hanging down from the overhang of the cliff. And there’s the spider. The crazy girl just wanted to be with Ari. Sheesh, kid, what were you thinking?

He picked her up, cradling her in his arms. Her cheeks against his shoulders were cold. He carefully stepped across the stream and started the climb out of the ravine.

Author’s Note: Frozen?

For a long time, I didn’t know that spiders hibernated. It was just not something that concerned me, ya know? But if you’re going to write about a spider, you have to learn about spiders. That’s the rule. Otherwise, your book isn’t believable.

Yes, I know it’s fantasy. There are dragons. And intelligent and empathetic gigantic spiders. What’s your point?

Are you afraid of spiders? Tell me your thoughts!

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