Family Tree — David Barr Kirtley

David Barr Kirtley has been described as “one of the newest and freshest voices in sf.” His work frequently appears in Realms of Fantasy, and he has also sold fiction to the magazines Weird Tales and Intergalactic Medicine Show, the podcasts Escape Pod and Pseudopod, and the anthologies New Voices in Science Fiction, The Dragon Done It, and Fantasy: The Best of the Year. I’ve previously published him in my The Living Dead and The Living Dead 2 anthologies and in my online science fiction magazine Lightspeed. Kirtley is also the co-host (with me) of The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast.

Everyone loves treehouses. Our distant ancestors lived in trees, of course, so maybe it all goes back to that. In fact, the Korowi people in Papua New Guinea still live in tree houses, as protection against a neighboring tribe. Some modern treehouses reach rather spectacular levels of scale and luxury, but nothing like what you’ll see in our next story.

“I was visiting my grandmother,” Kirtley says, “and she uses a computer program called Family Tree Maker. When I glanced at the box for that, it gave me this idea for a literal tree that the family lives in, where each branch of the tree corresponds to a branch of the family. (Good fantasy ideas often come from literalizing metaphors.) Then I got the idea that if a line of the family died out, their branch of the tree would wither and die as well, which immediately started suggesting possible conflicts. It’s hard to come up with a fantasy idea that hasn’t been done a million times already, and this was one I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. It took me a long time to work out exactly how things would unfold. I spent a lot of time drawing tree diagrams.”

FAMILY TREE

by David Barr Kirtley

Simon Archimagus rode his horse through a twilight forest. A rapier hung at his side, and as he moved he muttered a spell that would slay any insect who presumed to land upon him.

He turned onto the narrow dirt trail that led to his abode. A short time later he glanced back and noticed a horseman behind him. As Simon was the sole resident in these parts, he could only assume that he was being followed. He moved one hand to his sword, while with the other he sketched a diagram in the air, preparatory to unleashing battle magic.

The rider neared. He wore a loose white shirt and feathered cap. The dimness made it hard to judge his features, but he didn’t seem hostile. Then Simon knew him. Bernard.

As the rider trotted up he called out, “Brother.”

Of all Simon’s male relatives, Bernard, his youngest sibling, was perhaps his favorite, though that wasn’t saying a lot. Bernard seemed not to have changed much—same thick brown hair and ingenuous eyes. A bit pudgier, maybe. Simon said, “How’d you find me?”

“Magic.” Bernard added with a touch of pride, “You’re not the only wizard in the family, you know.”

“No.” Simon gave a half-smile. “Just the best.”

Bernard chuckled. “No argument there.” He glanced up the trail. “You live nearby?”

The game was up. Simon’s family had located him, at last. So, “Yes,” he said.

“Then grant me hospitality, brother. We need to talk.”

Simon hesitated, then said, “All right.” He gestured with his head. “This way.”

They followed the trail, which wound its way up the hillside. The horses panted and snorted. After a time, Bernard said, “So are you going to tell me why you disappeared?”

“I doubt it,” Simon said.

“We worried.”

Simon stared off into the sky. “My branch is still there, isn’t it? You knew I was all right.”

“We knew you were alive,” Bernard said. “You might’ve been sick, imprisoned—”

“I wasn’t.”

“I see that.” Bernard sighed. “But yes, your branch is still there. Mother’s kept everything just the way you left it. She misses you, Simon.”

“I’ll bet.”

Bernard lapsed into silence. Then he asked, “What the hell have you been doing with yourself all these years anyway?”

Simon didn’t answer. The two of them crested the hill and looked out over the moon-silvered grasses of the meadow below. Simon waited for Bernard to notice the tree.

Finally he did. He gasped. “Is that . . . ?”

“Yes.” Simon couldn’t help grinning. “It’s mine.”

The giant oak was indigo in the darkness, its trunk dotted with small round windows that glowed with warm light from the rooms within.

Bernard stared in wonder. “My god. You did it. You crazy bastard, you actually did it. I don’t believe it.”

“Believe it.” Simon spurred his horse. “Come, I’ll give you the tour. Come see what your clever older brother has wrought.”

***

They approached the tree, then dismounted and led their horses toward an arch-
way that passed through into its trunk. Above them to either side huge gnarled roots loomed darkly. Simon gestured, and a portcullis made of thick thorn branches lifted open. He and Bernard passed into the stable, where they left the horses feeding happily, and from there the two men climbed a broad staircase that was lit by wall-sconces blazing with faerie fire. All around was spell-forged woodwork that still lived, and grew. They made their way to the kitchen, where Bernard fixed himself a sandwich and stretched out on the windowsill. “It’s a fine tree, brother,” he said. “But still rather . . . modest, isn’t it? Compared to our inheritance, your birthright.”

Simon leaned against the doorframe and crossed his arms. “I could command it to grow larger, like the other. More branches, rooms.”

“So why don’t you?”

“It’s sufficient to my needs.” Simon had never shared his relatives’ appetite for palatial suites nor for the endless squabbles over who should lay claim to the floorspace of which deceased ancestor.

Bernard glanced about. “And you live alone? Don’t you miss the comforts of family?”

“Brother,” Simon said wryly, “believe me, having lived sixteen years among the scions of Victor Archimagus, the comforts of family are something I’m happy to forego for a good long time to come.”

Bernard chewed his sandwich and stared out the window. He said, “My wife, Elizabeth, has given me a child, at last. A son.”

Simon felt obliged to say, “Congratulations.”

“The presentation ceremony is next month,” Bernard added. “I’d like you to be there.”

Simon moved to the cupboard. “I have a prior engagement. But thanks.”

“Simon, this is serious. Victor’s ghost is displeased by your continued absence, and the branches he’s grown for our brothers’ boys have seemed less grand than they might be. I want my son to have only the best.”

“Please.” Simon poured two glasses of wine. “I doubt that even the spirit of Victor Archimagus would punish your infant child for my transgressions. In fact, this whole line of emotionally manipulative argumentation seems to me to have mother’s fingerprints all over it. Did she put you up to this?”

“What, you think I can’t act on my own?”

Simon passed him a glass. “I’ll take that as a yes.”

“All right,” Bernard said, accepting the wine. “Yes. But she has her reasons, beyond the obvious.” He took a sip. “We need you, Simon. Tensions with the descendants of Atherton have never been higher. If it comes to a fight—”

“It won’t.”

“You’ve been away,” Bernard said. “You haven’t seen how bad it’s gotten. Malcolm provokes us constantly.”

Simon shook his head. “The children of Franklin and the children of Atherton have been at each other’s throats for years. It’s never come to bloodshed, and it never will.”

“What if you’re wrong?” Bernard said. “Look, you’re not overfond of your close kin, we know that, but are you really just going to sit back as we die in a feud?”

“I’m confident in your ability to look after yourselves.”

Bernard grimaced. “Ordinarily, yes. But there’s a complication.”

“Oh?”

“Meredith.”

At the name, Simon felt a jolt. He set down his wine glass. “What?”

“Yeah, I guess it didn’t work out with Duke what’s-his-name—”

“Wyland.”

“Yeah, so she’s back. And she scares me, Simon. Her magic has become very powerful.” The fear in Bernard’s eyes was real. “That’s why we need you. To balance things. If you came back it might actually help keep the peace, because they’d think twice about messing with us.”

Meredith, Simon thought. After a time, he said, “Maybe a short visit.”

Bernard grinned, leapt to his feet, and patted Simon’s shoulders. “That’s it. Now you’re talking.”

Later, after Bernard had departed, Simon hiked up to the highest branch of the tree, opened a small door, and strode out onto the balcony. For a long time he sat there in the darkness, clutching his wineglass absently and staring at the mist-shrouded hills, thinking of Meredith.

***

A month later Simon stood and regarded the tree of Victor Archimagus.

It was gigantic, its trunk as wide around as a castle wall. A good way up, the trunk split into a great V—the two branches that had grown upon the births of Victor’s sons, Franklin and Atherton. From there the branches continued to climb and divide—one for each legitimate male heir—and now over a hundred descendants of the late wizard resided within the tree’s luxurious chambers. (Female children were married off and sent away—Victor had never been a terribly enlightened sort.) The tree was a virtuoso feat of spellcraft, the first of its kind, and upon its creation Victor had been so impressed with himself that he’d taken the surname Archimagus—master wizard. Simon was the only one to have successfully replicated the spell. Families that possessed the rare gift of magic seemed always to be afflicted with low fertility, but the fact that Victor’s tree grew larger and grander depending upon the number of offspring had ensured a frenetic effort to proliferate his adopted surname, and had also—perhaps inevitably—led to a rivalry between the descendants of Franklin and the descendants of Atherton over who could produce the greatest number of male heirs. At the moment it happened that the two halves of the tree were in perfect balance. Today’s presentation ceremony for Bernard’s infant son would change that.

Crowds had come from all the surrounding towns, and other wizards had come from farther afield, and now several hundred people were gathered in the shadow of those soaring branches. The children of Franklin had spared no expense to ensure a spectacle. Wooden poles were set in the earth at intervals, with garlands of sweet-smelling flowers stretched between them, and tables were piled high with cooked quail and poached eggs. Simon made his way past dancers and jugglers and lute-players, and into the roped-off area that was reserved for members of the Archimagus family. Here all the men, and many of the women, wore swords.

Bernard appeared at Simon’s side and took his arm. “Thank you for coming, Simon. Here, mother wants a word with you.”

As Simon moved through the crowd, heads turned to watch him, and conversations halted abruptly, then resumed in murmurs. Meredith’s brother Malcolm, glowering, red-haired, black-clad, turned to confer with his gang of goonish cousins. Simon knew what everyone was thinking: The runaway returns, the descendant of Franklin who’s most gifted in the ways of magic. This changes everything.

Simon spotted his mother, still lovely as ever, dressed in an ostentatious blue gown. She wore her prematurely silver hair in a single braid, and her face had a few new lines in it, which only made her look even more conniving. She was engaged in an animated conversation with Meredith’s mother, a plump woman who had on too much makeup over a pallid complexion and whose wavy crimson hair was like a fiery halo.

When Simon’s mother spotted him, she waved and called out, “Simon, there you are.”

Meredith’s mother tensed. She glanced back over her shoulder at him, her face apprehensive. Simon’s mother wore an expression just a shade shy of smug. This scene was playing out, Simon felt sure, precisely as she had intended.

As Simon approached, his mother reached for him and said warmly, “Welcome home.”

He allowed his cheeks to be kissed. “Just a visit, mother. My home is far away now.”

“Yes, of course.” She turned to Meredith’s mother and said, “Have you heard? Simon lives in his own tree now. He managed to duplicate the very spell that produced our own arboreal estate.”

Simon smiled modestly, uncomfortably.

“Oh, how wonderful,” said Meredith’s mother, with dubious sincerity. “Is that what you’ve been doing, Simon? Studying magic? How nice. Your mother has been terribly lax about keeping us up to date on you.” She added, “You must be very dedicated, to have sequestered yourself away from your family all these years.”

“Oh, he is,” said Simon’s mother, her tone incrementally chillier. “And the results speak for themselves, wouldn’t you say?”

“Oh, indeed,” said Meredith’s mother. “You know, Simon, my daughter is around here somewhere. You two should chat. She’s quite the sorceress herself these days.”

“Yes,” said Simon’s mother, “we’re all so delighted to have Meredith back with us. She’s much too good for that silly duke.”

Meredith’s mother narrowed her eyes just a trace. Then she glanced over Simon’s shoulder and said, “In fact, I think I see my daughter now. Meredith, dear! Come here a moment. Look who’s back.”

Simon steeled himself, and turned.

She was taller than he remembered, more confident, her features sharper. She wore a red blouse and a skirt with a swordbelt, and her chestnut hair was shorter than it had been, now just brushing her bare shoulders. But she was still Meredith. He’d imagined this meeting so many times, and now here she was, before him.

“Simon,” she said, and moved to embrace him, somewhat stiffly, then backed away. She and her mother faced Simon and his like pieces on a chessboard.

Meredith’s mother said, “Remember how the two of you always used to play together?”

“Yes,” Simon said, watching Meredith, who stared back, her expression neutral.

“Yes,” Simon’s mother put in. “The two of you always were the most gifted wizards in the family.”

“A bit competitive about it too, as I recall,” said Meredith’s mother. “Though I suspect, Simon, that these days Meredith may have you beat.”

“Oh,” said Simon’s mother, “I don’t know about that.”

A moment of awkward silence.

Then Simon’s mother added, “We must arrange a little contest some time, to settle the matter.”

“Indeed,” said Meredith’s mother. “That would be most interesting.”

The mothers fell silent. Simon and Meredith eyed each other. Simon felt that he should speak, but couldn’t think what to say. Fortunately the trumpets sounded, signaling that the ceremony was about to begin.

Meredith nodded to Simon, then she and her mother strolled off, and were soon lost amid the crowds streaming toward the rows of benches. Simon and his mother found their seats, and for a time Simon exchanged a few words with various relatives.

Then Bernard made his way to the front of the audience, and behind him came Elizabeth, a slender, mousy girl, holding their infant son. The couple mounted a raised wooden platform and stood gazing up at the broad southern expanse of Victor’s tree.

Bernard shouted, “Victor Archimagus! Honored ancestor! Hear me!”

A great oval section of the tree rippled, as if its bark were a stretch of calm water suddenly disturbed by the movement of a lurking monster. The undulations became more pronounced. There was churning, swirling . . . 

Then a giant wooden face appeared, extruding from the trunk like a man emerging through a waterfall. The face was handsome, bearded, vain. The face of Victor Archimagus, its eyes empty, alien.

It boomed, “I am here.”

Simon had always found the thing repugnant. It was just like Victor to leave behind this ghost, this ponderous, unfeeling simulacrum to ensure that his unhealthy domination of his family continued on down through the ages.

Bernard called, “I am Bernard Archimagus, and this is my lawful wife, Elizabeth. We wish to thank you, great wizard, for all you’ve done and continue to do for your family.” Bernard continued in this vein, praising Victor’s multifarious accomplishments and abiding generosity. Simon glanced across the aisle, to where the descendants of Atherton were seated, and sought Meredith’s face, but she was blocked from view.

Finally Bernard took the infant from Elizabeth’s arms, held him aloft, and cried, “I present to you, noble Victor, my firstborn son, Sebastian Archimagus. May he never fail to please you.”

For a long moment Victor’s face seemed to regard the child, though really it was impossible to say where those empty eyes were staring. Finally the face said, “I am well pleased.”

Then the whole tree began to shudder. Leaves shaken loose fell across the crowd like rain. Victor’s eyes glowed with an otherworldly light. The base of the tree bulged, as if a geyser were filling it from below, and this effect traveled up the trunk to the great V that marked the division between Franklin and Atherton, and from there followed the Franklin branch, causing it to enlarge. The magic flowed up branch after branch, tracing the ancestry of Sebastian, and everywhere it passed it was making the rooms within more spacious and extravagant, Simon knew. Finally the magic reached the branch that had grown on the day of Bernard’s own presentation ceremony, and from that branch a new growth sprouted forth, lengthening and thickening and blooming with windows and balconies and bright green leaves, all in the space of a minute. The crowd oohed and aahed.

The children of Franklin burst into raucous cheers. The polite applause from the children of Atherton was noticeably more subdued.

The celebration went on well into evening, and when it was over Simon followed his relatives back to the tree. They shuffled through the main gates and into the great hall—a vast, cavernous space filled with tables and benches, the far wall of which was occupied by a shrine to Victor. From there the families divided, descendants of Franklin to the right, descendants of Atherton to the left, climbing two giant staircases that spiraled around each other and which led back to their respective branches. Simon made his way up to his own branch and his old chambers, which as Bernard had promised had been kept exactly as he’d left them.

Then Simon lay in bed, staring at the ceiling. After a time, he slept.

***

He was woken by a frantic pounding at his door. He rolled over and squinted at the window, and saw that it was morning. He crawled from bed and opened the door. In the hallway stood his sandy-haired young cousin, Garrett, who said, alarmed, “The baby. Sebastian. He’s sick.”

Garrett went scurrying off. Simon dressed and made his way down into the rooms of his late father, then up again into Bernard’s section of the tree. A newly-created archway framed the stairs that led to Sebastian’s branch.

Simon knocked on a door, which was then pulled aside, revealing Bernard’s face, upon which hope and worry warred. “Simon,” he said. “Come in.”

Simon entered the chamber, where Elizabeth sat in a rocking chair, clutching her son.

“A fever,” Bernard explained. “There were so many people around yesterday, all wanting to hold him. Uncle Reginald sneezed on him, I think. I’m sure it’s nothing, but . . . ”

Simon nodded. He greeted Elizabeth, then took a look at Sebastian, who seemed pale.

A short time later Garrett returned with Simon’s mother in tow. When she saw the baby, she froze. She was silent a long time before saying, “It’ll be all right. But he should have healing. Simon dear, I don’t suppose your talents at the gentler side of magic have improved any these past years?”

“Sorry, no,” he said.

Garrett piped up, “I’ll get Clara.”

“Wait,” said Simon’s mother. “No. Fetch us Meredith, please.”

Bernard was shocked. “Mother,” he grumbled, “we don’t need any help from her.”

Simon’s mother said, “She’s a powerful healer, far more so than Clara, and everyone knows it. She’s here now. We must take advantage of this opportunity.” She waved at Garrett and said, “Go.”

He went, and returned an hour later with Meredith. All eyes were upon her as she entered, crossed the room to Elizabeth, and said, “I’m sorry to hear that Sebastian is unwell. I’ll do what I can. Here.” She held out her arms.

Reluctantly, Elizabeth handed over the child.

As soon as Meredith touched him he began to cry. She held him to her chest and closed her eyes, then stood like that for a minute, murmuring, as Sebastian wailed. Elizabeth shot a worried look at Bernard, who glared at Meredith.

Finally Meredith looked up. “There. All done.” She returned the baby to Elizabeth.

“Thank you,” Simon’s mother said quietly.

Meredith departed, meeting Simon’s gaze briefly as she closed the door behind her.

Two days passed, and Sebastian continued to sicken, but there was nothing more to be done, as any further healing magic would simply disrupt the operation of Meredith’s more powerful spell. That evening Bernard came to Simon’s chambers and said, “Simon, I need you. Elizabeth has taken Sebastian up into his branch, and she refuses to come out.”

They made their way through the arch and into the newly-grown section of the tree. The halls were dim and deserted, and as they climbed Simon could hear wind rustling the leaves outside, as well as, more faintly, the sound of a woman sobbing. In an empty room they found Elizabeth sitting on the floor in the corner, holding Sebastian. Darkness hid her face.

Bernard knelt beside her. “Darling, please. Come downstairs.”

“No,” she said.

Bernard turned to Simon, who knelt beside her too and said, “Elizabeth, listen to me. We can’t stay here. If he dies—”

“He won’t!” she cried.

Simon said, “If the branch—”

She shook her head. “I don’t care.”

“Well, I do,” Simon said. “Come on, give him here.” He took hold of Sebastian and lifted him from her limp arms. She trembled.

Bernard helped her to her feet, then held her as he guided her down the stairs, and Simon walked beside them, carrying the baby.

When they crossed the threshhold into Bernard’s section of the tree, Simon breathed easier. If a male line of the Archimagus family died out, the corresponding branches of Victor’s tree withered as well, which could be dangerous for anyone inhabiting them. Thus branches that seemed imperiled were generally abandoned.

Simon sat on a sofa with the baby while Bernard put Elizabeth to bed. When Bernard emerged, he said, “It’s strange, isn’t it?”

“What?” Simon said.

“She’s such a great healer, but she can’t even help a sick child?”

“You think her talents are exaggerated?”

Bernard was grim. “Or she’s not really exercising them on our behalf.”

“No. I won’t believe that, not of Meredith. I know her.”

“You knew her,” Bernard said. “People change.”

Simon sighed. “Get some rest. You’re exhausted.” He nodded at the child in his arms. “I’ll watch him. He’ll be fine.”

Bernard hesitated. Then: “All right. Goodnight.” He walked over and kissed Sebastian’s forehead.

“Goodnight,” Simon said.

***

Two nights later, as Simon lay in bed reading, he heard a rustle from his desk. He glanced up and saw one of his pens jittering. Then the quill swept up into the air, stabbed itself into an inkpot, and began a wobbly dance across one of his parchments. Simon tossed aside his book and hurried over.

The quill lay itself down beside a few words of Meredith’s flowery script: I have to see you.

Simon’s heart leapt. He snatched up the pen and scrawled, Meet me in the garden, then set the pen down.

A moment later it came to life again, and wrote, I will.

So down into the trunk of the tree he went, and out the postern gate, and down the hillside, where the long grasses swayed, and across the bridge over the gurgling stream, to the garden where he and Meredith had played as children, and where they’d met in secret, later, on nights like this. The place was guarded by a high stone wall from which the ivy dangled, and the gates were all rusted partway open, and inside were cobbled walks that wound among the trees like the paths of drunken men, and shallow ponds ringed with lily pads, and hedge mazes into which a boy and girl could vanish together and not be found by anyone.

He waited for her, by the marble bench beside the statue of the sad old lion, who was missing one ear, and it made Simon think of that other night, years ago. This time she came though, her dark form slipping along the pathway like a ghost. Simon hurried to her, and took her in his arms. “I missed you,” he whispered.

“I missed you too,” she said, into his shoulder.

He held her like that for a long time, there beneath the moon.

Then he said, “Come away with me.”

She drew back, staring. “What?”

“Did you ever love me?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Then come away with me. I was right, wasn’t I? We belong together. Not with them. No good will come of staying here.”

“Simon.” She pulled away, and sat down on the bench. “No. It’s impossible.”

“Why?” he said.

“I told you—”

“Yes.” He sat down beside her. “You told me. That you’d been promised to another. Well, no longer.”

“And that Victor would not be pleased—”

“But I have my own tree now,” he said, “so we wouldn’t—”

“And our families,” she said finally.

“We can live without them. I’ve shown that, haven’t I? If you ever loved me—”

She looked away.

“Meredith,” he pleaded. “Forget them. We’ll start our own family, and they’ll be the best damn wizards anyone’s ever—”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Simon. I’m not like you. I can’t just walk away and never look back.”

He stood, and scowled into the shadows.

After a time, she said, “Simon, we need to talk. About these rumors.”

“What rumors?” he said.

“That I’m only pretending to heal Sebastian.” She was indignant. “Or even that I put a curse on him. It’s absurd.”

Simon glared. “This is why you wanted to see me?”

“It’s one reason,” she said. “Simon, this is important. Things are getting out of hand. Your family’s trying to incite a—”

My family?” he said. “Your brother—”

“Malcolm,” she said cooly, “is a boor. A childish one. Ignore him. The only person he’s a danger to is himself. It’s your side that’s the threat. That’s another reason I can’t just run away with you, even if I wanted to.”

Simon chuckled. “So you’re all that stands in the way of the mighty Franklin clan? You must think pretty highly of yourself.”

“Well, maybe I do,” she said.

“And yet Sebastian sickens every day.”

“Which is sad,” she said, “but no fault of mine. Sometimes people get better and sometimes they don’t. You know that.”

“Or maybe you’re not as powerful as you let on.”

She stood. “Keep pushing me, Simon, and we’ll see how powerful I am.”

He laughed again. “Is that a threat? You think you could beat me?”

“I know I could.”

Simon said, “I’m the one who unraveled the greatest spell of Victor Archimagus.”

“Which is impressive,” Meredith said acidly. “Impressive that you’d waste so many years trying to match the egomania of a man you despise. But while you were busy with your precious tree, I was busy with all the other areas of study that I’m sure you neglected, including battle magic, so don’t take me on, Simon. It’ll be no contest.”

He said loudly, “I made my ‘precious’ tree for you. For us. So that someday—”

“Well I never asked you to!”

They stood there in the darkness, angry.

Then she said, “I think this conversation is over.” She added, more gently, “Rein them in, Simon. For both our sakes. If you ever loved me, rein them in.”

She turned and strode off down the path, flanked by rows of poplars that stood like sentinels. And beyond her the garden wall, and beyond that the crest of the hill, over which loomed the long black limbs of Victor’s tree.

When she was gone, Simon remembered that other night, long ago.

“You can’t marry him,” he’d told her. “It won’t work out. You’ll never be happy. Meredith, you don’t have to go through with this, it’s not too late. Come away with me, now.”

And she’d told him all the reasons why not, and asked him where they’d go.

“I don’t know,” he’d said. “We’ll figure something out.” And when she’d refused again he’d said, “Well, I’m leaving. Tonight. No matter what. You can come with me or not. I’ll pack some things and wait for you in the garden, in case you change your mind.”

And he’d stood there, by the marble bench, watching her window, as the night grew chill. He’d watched her lights go out, and then, later, when he knew she hadn’t changed her mind, he’d walked away, and never looked back.

And now he strode down gravel paths, thinking over her reasons—again. In the end only one of them really mattered. Family. As he slipped out the garden gate, he paused to glare up at Victor’s tree.

Just then there came a great cracking sound that echoed across the violet sky, and one of those branches tore free and tumbled down, plummeting to the earth.

***

The following afternoon the Archimagus family gathered at their private cemetery on a hill overlooking Victor’s tree. The sky was a solid gray slate, the air thick and oppressive. A few words were said. Elizabeth wept ceaselessly.

Simon avoided eye contact with Meredith, who was now the focus of near-unanimous suspicion from the children of Franklin. She kept her face devoid of expression. At one point during the service, from the back of the crowd there came a single soft guffaw, perhaps in response to some whispered remark. Bernard glanced back over his shoulder, in order to identify the offender. Simon didn’t have to look, he knew the voice. Malcolm.

Bernard’s eyes were full of a cold, dead rage, and for a moment Simon half thought—and in that instant half hoped—that Bernard would go tearing through the crowd and disembowel Malcolm. But after a few seconds Bernard hunched his shoulders and turned back toward the grave of his son.

The next week was stiflingly hot. Simon slept on a blanket on his balcony, and even so he awoke constantly, bathed in sweat. During the day most members of the Archimagus family congregated in the great hall, where the air was cooler, but even that expansive space began to feel cramped, as the children of Franklin and the children of Atherton vied for tables, jostled one another, and exchanged words.

One afternoon there came a hurried knocking at Simon’s door. He opened it to find Garrett standing there, panting. The boy said, “It’s Malcolm. You have to come. Now.”

Simon strapped on his sword, and followed Garrett down the stairs.

When Simon arrived in the great hall, he saw Malcolm’s gang lounging at their accustomed tables, which were covered with an assortment of potted plants. Nearby stood a knot of young men from among the descendants of Franklin, including Bernard, who were glaring at Malcolm and his cousins and conferring angrily. The rest of the crowd, several dozen relatives, were evenly split between the children of Franklin and the children of Atherton, and the two sides eyed each other with open hostility. Simon hurried forward.

“Simon!” called Malcolm then, with false cheer. “There you are. Come take a look at this.”

Simon approached, wary.

Malcolm nodded to the plant in his hand. “I’ve discovered the most delightful diversion, the perfect way to pass a hot summer’s day. An acquaintance of mine delivered these last night. They’re all the rage in certain foreign climes, I’m told.”

Simon frowned at the plant, which was some sort of miniature tree with spindly limbs and dense, brushy foliage.

Malcolm held up a large knife. “Here’s how it works. You shape these trees into the most elegant forms simply by removing branches you find undesirable. So, take this one here.” He poised his blade below one of the tree’s tiny branches. “I don’t like it at all.”

He flicked his wrist and the branch fluttered down, landing on the toe of his boot. He kicked the branch aside onto the floor.

Bernard began hurling curses. A few of his relatives herded him away, murmuring at him to just ignore Malcolm, who affected nonchalance as he leaned back against the table and remarked, “I guess he’s not a fan.” He returned his gaze to Simon and held up the knife again. “How about you, Simon? Want to give it a go?”

“No thanks,” Simon said.

“Pity.” Malcolm slipped the knife back into his belt sheath. “It’s quite fun.”

“Well, I think you’ve had enough fun for one day,” Simon said. “So why don’t you take your little tree, and your little friends here, and move along. Now.”

Malcolm smiled. “No,” he said airily, crossing one leg over the other, “I’m comfortable here.”

“But here’s the thing,” Simon said, sketching a diagram in the air. “I can make you rather uncomfortable.” Pale blue smoke rose from his fingers. He was bluffing though. He had no intention of unleashing magic in a situation like this.

And Malcolm knew it. He laughed. “You think you’re so scary. That’s why your mother summoned you back here, to frighten us. But you and I both know that if you harm me, my sister will destroy you.”

Everyone in the room was watching. Malcolm stood up, so that he was eye to eye with Simon, and hissed, “It’s you who’s afraid. Because she’s good. The best wizard in the family. Too good for you.”

That struck a nerve, more than Malcolm could know, and Simon felt a hot rush of fury.

Malcolm called to the assembled children of Atherton, “You’re all afraid of him! Why? What’s he going to do?” He shoved Simon in the chest, forcing him back a few steps. “Huh? What’re you going to do?”

Simon glared, smoldering.

“Ha,” Malcolm said, turning away. “You see—”

Simon launched himself at Malcolm, tackling him to the ground.

The room erupted with shouts, as Simon straddled Malcolm and belted him several times across the jaw. Malcolm clawed for Simon’s face, but Simon swept those arms aside and punched him again.

Then Malcolm went for his knife.

He drew it from its sheath and waved the blade at Simon, who grabbed Malcolm’s wrist and slammed it against the floor, once, twice, to jar the weapon loose.

Then Simon was flung aside, onto his back, by Bernard, who had a rapier in his hand. As Simon watched, Bernard drew back the sword, then skewered Malcolm where he lay.

No! Simon thought.

He rolled to his feet. Weapons were being drawn all around him.

“Wait!” he cried. “Stop!”

But it was too late. The children of Franklin and the children of Atherton came together in a clash of steel. Malcolm’s gang rushed Bernard, who backed off, slashing at the air to keep them at bay. Simon drew his own sword and leapt to help. Malcolm, hacking up blood, was dragged away from the fighting by one of his cousins, Nathan—a stolid young man who for whatever reason had always been fiercely loyal to Malcolm.

Simon ducked and cut and parried. He didn’t use magic—he might need all the magic he could muster to defend himself against Meredith, he knew—but some of his relatives let loose with spells, and there were occasional flashes of light and small explosions. The whole chamber convulsed with violence, generations’ worth of rivalry and mistrust unleashed at last, there in front of the shrine to Victor Archimagus. Soon Simon’s blade was slick with blood, his hand sticky with it. Faces appeared before him—angry faces, faces he remembered from childhood, faces he hadn’t spoken to in years, and he thrust his sword at them.

Sometimes one of the descendants of Franklin fell—Simon saw Garrett cut down by one of Meredith’s uncles—but more often the casualties were among the descendants of Atherton, and soon many of them lay strewn across the floor, trod on or tripped over by the remaining fighters. Then the children of Atherton broke and ran, retreating pell-mell up the great staircase that led to their branch.

Meredith, Simon thought. He had to find her, though whether to protect her from his family or to protect his family from her he couldn’t say.

He followed along as the children of Franklin pursued the children of Atherton up into their branches, many of which had now withered and fallen, with no male heirs left to sustain them, and Simon saw one of Meredith’s cousins cornered and slain while pounding at a solid wall that had been an archway just moments before. There was nowhere for the children of Atherton to go except higher into the tree, no way for them to escape except a doomed leap from a window or balcony.

As Simon hurried through the chambers of Meredith’s grandfather, he heard a handful of men from among the children of Franklin shouting, “This way! They’re up here,” and the men went charging through an archway and up the stairs into the branch of Meredith’s uncle Kenneth, Nathan’s father. Simon followed.

He caught up with the men just as they burst into a large parlor, at the far end of which stood a group of people clustered around Meredith, who knelt over the prone form of Malcolm, her hands pressed to his gory chest as she attempted to heal him. Meredith’s mother was there, and a few cousins by way of her uncle Fletcher, and a few other relatives, many of them holding swords. Nathan stood by a window, gazing out. “No!” he cried. “No! It’s falling! It’s . . . it’s gone.”

Meredith sagged. Malcolm’s branch had withered. He was dead.

Nathan glanced toward Simon, then drew a sword and moved to Meredith’s side. Simon eyed him. Nathan’s brothers had been slain in the battle downstairs. And his father. Simon had seen the bodies.

Meredith stood then, turning to regard Simon. She was tall and grim and wrathful, her hair dancing on ethereal winds, arcs of lightning adorning her fingers, eyes full of a fiery hatred. Simon beheld those eyes and knew there could be no more pleading, no more chances. His dreams had died along with Malcolm.

The men beside Simon hesitated, reluctant to confront the family’s most powerful sorceress, and Simon didn’t blame them. “Get out of here,” he told them. “Go. I’ll handle her.”

The men exchanged glances, then fled.

Meredith strode forward, deathly silent. Don’t take me on, she’d told him. It’ll be no contest. He was terribly afraid that she’d been right.

She halted in the center of the room, her arms outspread. “I warned you, Simon.” Her voice trembled with rage. “You brought this on yourself—so help you. You think you can face me? Well, here I am. Take your best shot. You won’t get another.”

One shot at this, Simon thought.

He thrust his palm at her, hurling from it a double dozen points of magical light, which spread apart as they flew, growing larger and transforming into spinning daggers, so that she faced an incoming wall of lethal blades.

Meredith raised her hands, summoning a glowing ghostly shield. Daggers that struck it vaporized, and the rest sped past her. She regarded Simon almost with pity then.

He turned and bolted back down the stairs.

“Coward!” someone cried.

And Simon was afraid. But not of Meredith, not then, as he vaulted the steps three at a time.

For some of the daggers that had passed her by had impaled themselves in Nathan, including one that had caught him full in the throat. Meredith would see this, and would guess that he’d been the intended target after all, and would wonder after the fate of his father and brothers. And then she’d realize . . . 

Simon ran. The branch around him shuddered, the wood fading, becoming dry, gray, pitted. Through the windows he saw leaves turn brown and blow away in great dark clouds.

He neared the archway. A rift appeared in the ceiling ahead, spilling down rays of sunlight between him and safety. As the floor gave way he leapt across the threshold.

A deafening crack. He turned and saw Meredith, back up the tunnel, dashing toward him, dragging her mother by the hand, other relatives running at her side, as the branch plunged from view.

Simon rushed forward, to see what had become of them. But even as he tried to peer out, the archway, now framing blue sky, was absorbed back into the tree, and wood grew to seal the breach, and the portal shrank and shrank, like an eye closing itself, forever.

***

A few days later the Archimagus family gathered at their private cemetery to hold a mass burial. The battle had been distinctly one-sided, and the children of Atherton were now a much smaller contingent. They stood in silence, looking weak and frightened. As per the terms of their surrender, they’d accepted full responsibility for the whole unpleasant affair, had handed over all their weapons and valuables, and would soon be exiled. Simon wondered where they’d go. They’d lived their whole lives in Victor’s tree. Simon couldn’t picture them anywhere else.

After the ceremony, as people drifted off, Simon lingered over the grave marker that read Meredith Wyland.

His mother sidled up beside him and said, “I knew you could beat her.”

He was silent.

She added, “We’re safe now. Thanks to you.”

He glanced back over his shoulder at Victor’s tree, its two halves now absurdly unbalanced. The sun shone between its branches, making Simon squint.

His mother said, “I just hope now you’ll be happy.” She began to walk away.

He called after her, “What does that mean?”

She paused and looked at him, then at the grave marker. “You know, Simon, that dreadful girl always had a most unwholesome influence on you. That’s all.”

He said slowly, “Mother, I have a terrible intuition that much of what has transpired of late has done so according to some design of yours.”

“Of mine, dear?” She laughed. “Oh Simon, you always were such a brooding, mistrustful child. I blame myself. Silly, I know.”

She turned away again. He was about to say more when there came a horrendous creaking noise that filled the valley. As the Archimagus family watched, aghast, Victor’s tree began to list to the right, from the weight of so many Franklin branches. Then the tree toppled, slamming to the ground, dashing those branches to pieces and raising up a massive plume of dust that could be seen for miles.

***

Simon Archimagus galloped his horse along a moonlit ridge. He’d been going on more and more of these solitary rides lately. He liked the calm, the peace. When his horse ran, its hoofbeats and the wind sometimes drowned out his thoughts, for a time.

Finally he rode back to his tree—the tree he’d thought to one day share with Meredith and the children they would have together. Sometimes, on nights like this, as his horse sprinted through the dark, reality seemed less certain, and he would imagine that it had all been a mistake, that she’d survived somehow, secretly, and would come to him. Or that their duel had been just a terrible nightmare, and that his dreams of a life with her were the true state of things.

He passed through the gate, beneath the portcullis of thorn branches, and into the stables.

He made his way up the staircase.

“Dad!” called a boy’s voice. “Dad!”

Simon wandered into the kitchen. A blond boy poked his head through the door and said, “Oh, hi Simon. Have you seen my dad?”

“No,” Simon said. “I just got back. Is something wrong?”

The boy scowled. “Jessica took my horse and she won’t give it back.”

“Your . . . horse?”

“My toy horse,” the boy said. “Dad gave it to me, and I told her not to touch it, but she took it and now she won’t give it back, even though it’s mine.”

Simon said, “Well, maybe you should just—”

“I should kill her,” said the boy, without irony. “Like you killed that evil witch Meredith.”

Simon stared. “Look, Brian—”

“I’m Marcus,” the boy said.

“Marcus.” Simon sighed. “Let’s go find your dad, okay?”

The boy trailed Simon through halls and up stairs. Books and toys were scattered about. Sometimes children barrelled past, heedless.

Simon found the adults up at the top of the tree, lounging on the balcony. Bernard was there, and Elizabeth, and Simon’s other brothers, and a few other relatives. It’s only temporary, Bernard had promised, just until we can find someplace else to live. But they showed no signs of moving on, and had even begun hinting to Simon that he should command his tree to grow larger, to better accommodate the children.

Simon’s mother stepped from the shadows, holding a glass of wine. She beamed at all her sons, together under one roof again, at last.

“Oh, Simon. There you are,” she said brightly. “Welcome home.”