As we walked out of the town gates, I felt greatly refreshed, as if a weight had been lifted off of me. We continued to walk about 3 minutes down the road until we got to a small house with a beautiful garden around it. As I walk through the opening in the fence I felt a bit nostalgic, almost like being back at my pond. I knew my guess was correct. I could not help but stretch out my power a little and enjoy this spot full of life while I approached the door. Right when I approached the door it suddenly opened and a young lady knelt on the ground.
She spoke quickly, as if trying to get all the words out on top of each other. “Please have mercy on me oh great one! I know that I am encroaching on your territory but I thought that your land was so vast that you would not notice this little one. I will leave this land, but please just give me a few days to gather up my things and make arrangements.”
I could not help but laugh at this. I guess if I was put in her place I might act the same. “Relax. I have no issue with you living at the edge of my woods. Rather, I have come here to ask for your help. Please get up and let’s sit and talk. I think the elves here may have a hard time understanding what is going on.” I looked at the elves who were both dumbstruck.
“Yes great one, please come into my humble home,” the young woman replied as she got up, still with lowered gaze.
“And enough with calling me great one. Please, just call me Laurel.”
Her eyes met mine for the first time. “You are The Laurel! To think that I would get to meet you someday! I have heard about you from mother. You were the first. I did not think that this was still part of Laurel woods. I figured this was some other dryad’s relm.”
I wanted to comment on something that the young lady said said but Leafia beat me to it. “Forest mother, you are the first Dryad? It seems our Fathers were right to start worshipping you.”
“The First! How could we dare to call thee by thy name?” Istan added in shock, falling to the ground praising me and asking for my forgiveness for the disrespect he showed me by uttering my name
I was getting frustrated at this point with the elves making up all these rules for me. I knelt down next to him, forcing him to stop and look me in the eye. “You dare to call me by my name because I have commanded you to. Remember what I said, Istan. If you are unwilling to call me by name, you can go back to your village. I will not let you jeopardize my mission.
“I never asked to be worshipped. It does me no good. I do not get any strength from it. The only reason I went so far as to declare the pond ‘sacred ground’ is so you all would leave me in peace. I just wanted some privacy.” Istan’s jaw practically hit the floor, not that it was that far from the floor in his nearly prostrated position. But I ignored him. To my suprise Leafia seemed even more shaken by my words. She seemed much less of a zealot than Istan. I wondered why my words had such an impact on her. But I had other matters to attend to first.
I then turned to the young woman. “You are Emily, correct?” To that, she nodded. “I am curious, who was your mother and what have you heard about me from her?”
“My mother was a Dryad. Willow was her name.” Emily replied “She lived in a wood a long way east of here. She was very interested in humans and loved watching them. One day a hunter was hurt in the woods. She decided to take compassion on him and heal his injuries. They fell in love and for a time were quite happy together. But my mother, from watching humans, knew that they did not do well being on their own. In the end she gave him a medicine that would make him forget about her. But she did not wish to go back to being alone after feeling love, so before the medicine took full effect she laid with him and conceived me.”
“So you are half Dryad. I didn't even know that was possible.” I responded. “Since your father forgot about your mother, I am guessing that means you were raised by your mother?”
“Yes and no. For the first eight years I lived with her, but the woods she governed were not doing well. The humans did not respect the forest and she was losing strength. She taught me as much as she could and wrote much down for me to read later.” As Emily recounted her past her eye began to glisten with the threat of tears. “When she could no longer take care of me, she sent me with a note to live in the village my father came from. I have seen her a few times since then, but I know she has been working hard just to survive. I would only have been a burden to her.”
“Were the humans willing to accept you?” I asked, remembering how they treated me when they found out I was not human.
“My mother had shown me how to hide my power and not look like anything more than a basic magician. I was told later that the note said who my father was. I was taken in by him and his family. It took him some convincing for his wife to believe that he had not been unfaithful to her. I think what managed to convince her is that I was several years older than their oldest child.” There was a small wistful smile on her face. “I will not say life was easy. It was nothing like living in the woods, but I was treated fairly, if that is what you wanted to know.” She glanced up at me and the smile faded quickly.
“Now I must ask you. Why have you come to see me, and how could I possibly be of help? My strength is nothing compared to yours.”
Oh, there I went again, letting myself get caught up in Emily’s story. Actually having something urgent to do was so hard to get used to. “My friend Faun, the animal spirit of these woods has gone missing. She came here to investigate the blight that has taken root in this corner of the woods. My only lead right now is tenuous, but leads to a magician your husband guided around the woods.”
Emily shuddered upon hearing reference to that magician. “I can tell you that nothing good will come from that man. I have very little doubt in my mind that this blight was in some way due to the actions of that man. His aura contained nothing but death and madness. I wanted to tell Gray not to take the job, but I was too afraid that the magician would find out what I was if I warned Gray.
“I suppressed my powers to their fullest and avoided the man as much as I could. I know that I was not strong enough to face him. As for whether he could have caused harm to the great animal spirit I cannot say. But I can say that humans have learned many ways to trap and trick things stronger than themselves. Things that spirits would never consider.”
“This spring, did you notice the presence of Faun?” I was impressed with my ability to stay on topic this time.
“I did feel a strong spirit this spring, but it was only for a moment. Since that magician was in town I was hiding my presence as best I could so I do not think that she noticed me at that time.”
“So that magician was in town when Faun went missing.” I sat down hard in one of the available chairs and began to think. I needed to find out more information about this magician. Just knowing that he is from the kingdom of Yana was not much to go by. If it was a small country, I might be able to find him just by looking around. All I really could say is that Yana was not known in these parts the last time I ventured out of the forest.
While I was thinking, Istan asked Emily, “The innkeeper told us that this man left the village quickly this morning with no plans on coming back. Might you know why?” Emily looked up at me and I could not help give a forced smile. I had a suspicion of what was coming next.
“That could only be due to Miss Laurel here. Her power emanating from this forest has been strong and constant for as long as I have lived here. It was always there and almost never fluctuated outside the seasonal changes you would expect. I know most of those few around here that can sense the spirits just thought that it was the life of the forest. I knew better. But still over time I grew complacent, forgetting that the energy belonged to an individual and not the forest as a whole. Two days ago that all changed. That spirit started moving in this direction and then disappeared. If you were sensitive to it you could feel it appear a few times, but it was clearly suppressing itself. I myself was nervous all day and had done nothing that I could think would upset you other than being here. I cannot imagine the pressure someone with evil intent to you would have felt.”
I pressed a hand to my forehead in exasperation. “So it’s my own fault that my prey has escaped me. I guess Faun would say that being a plant does not make a good hunter.” I could not help but grumble at the mistake I made.
“I did not mean to blame you, Miss Laurel!” Emily said in a panic.
“Do not worry. I am not angry with you. I am well aware that the only one to be blamed here is myself.” A dense silence stretched after my words.
Istan, trying to relieve the awkward atmosphere, asked, “Is there anything else you can tell us about this magician?”
Emily glanced over at Istan, still trying to calm herself further. “I think that conversation would be much better to have after my husband comes home. He dealt with the man much more than I did.”