Author: Chris Cook
Once upon a time, in a faraway land...
Little Tara lived happily with her father until she was seven years old. It was then that the soldiers came to their small village, from the castle of the Baron, lonely on its overlooking peak, and told the people that they must serve their lord in the great strife to the south, the men as soldiers, the women as cooks and weavers and healers.
Tara cried so much, and her father, whom she had never before seen cry, let his tears fall too, as he packed the few belongings he would take with him, and hugged his only child farewell. But before he joined the procession of villagers leaving their homes, he knelt down, looked Tara in the eye, and told her: "I do not know what will happen, little one. While I am gone, you must look after yourself, as I have begun to teach you. Be kind and generous, as your mother's spirit has made you; be gentle and watchful of the world around you, and it will teach you all that you need to know; be patient and brave, and never fear what your heart tells you. I love you so much, Tara. Though it seems not so now, I know you are blessed. Believe that, my dear child, and it will be so."
The Baron made accommodations for the children temporarily orphaned by his contribution to the strife, but he did so without enthusiasm. Food and care and some education were given by the castle's servants, and protection by its remaining guards, but a family's love could not be found in its larders or its armouries. The children became each other's family, but in spite of their companionship, Tara found herself lonely.
Seven long years passed, as the old fields were overgrown, the village's forge lay cold, its fire long gone, and the far-off strife wore on. Tara, whose father had taught her reading and writing, helped the castle servants to likewise teach the other children, but it was her own learning that helped fill the void in her heart. The Baron cared little for literature and the sciences, but for the sake of his prestige he kept the library in his castle amassed by one of his forebears, and saw no reason to bar its doors. So Tara read of far-off lands and strange peoples, read tales of adventure, of sorrow and sacrifice, joy and triumph, read the writings of old sages who had studied the mysteries of the sky and the earth and the sea, and read the thoughts of those who had plumbed the enigmas of the mind, the body and the soul.
The edge of the forest was Tara's favourite place to read. The dusty, stuffy old library, with its high, small windows, was quite unsuitable, so every day she could, she would take a book and walk down from the castle, through the overgrown fields that had once been her father's farm, and come at last to the wild trees, where she sat with her back against a welcoming trunk and read, with the sunlight warming her and the cool wind toying with her golden hair. She never ventured into the forest - it was a strange, unknown land, claimed by no man, not even the Baron, and though Tara did not fear it, she knew its dense, twisting pathways were not to be trodden lightly, lest she find herself lost. So she contented herself with visiting the edge of the trees, and found their shade most welcoming when she did.
One evening, after seven years of absence, the men and women of the village returned, and Tara's father was not among them.
Thunder rumbled far-off, but if the sky was lit it was impossible to see through the thick branches. Rain fell in irregular patterns, falling from leaf to leaf, gusting sharply among the tree trunks. There was a half-moon in the sky, casting just enough of its silver light that Tara could see, through tear-filled eyes, enough not to trip as she ran headlong into the unknown forest. Fronds and leaves whipped at her arms and legs as she passed, twigs tugging the edges of her clothes, teardrops falling in her wake and becoming lost in the puddles of rainwater.
She had no idea where she was going, only that it was away: away from the castle, away from the village, away from the cold, dark house her father should have returned to. She ran and ran and ran, until she burst through the soft curtain of a willow tree's leaves and suddenly her foot sank to the ankle in water. Stumbling in the shallows she scrambled back, and found herself on the edge of a tiny lake, hidden from all the world, enclosed on every side by the forest.
Tara wore only a light blouse and long skirt, now muddied from her flight, and was in no condition to swim. Denied her escape, wherever it was going, she slumped to the ground and let herself fall sideways, lying stretched out on the damp ground, her body heaving with sobs as she cried into the rain.
Her outstretched hand touched something, and she looked up, her grief forgotten, if only for a moment. An old branch had fallen nearby, torn by the wind, and its fall had wrenched a tiny sapling from the ground, leaving it lying on the grass as Tara was, broken and bereft, its fragile roots longing for the earth that had been swiftly whipped from beneath it.
Tara dragged herself to her hands and knees, and without thought began to gently extricate the sapling from the fallen branch. She lifted it upright once more, and carefully worked the roots back into the soil, tilling it lightly with her fingers, patting it down once she was done. The rain had stopped, the storm's winds had lifted, and a stillness settled over the forest as Tara sat before the sapling and gently stroked its tiny leaves.
"There you go, little one," she whispered. "You can grow now."
"Thank you," came a quiet voice from behind her.
Tara was crouched, motionless, frozen where she had whirled around to see the speaker. Her eyes were fixed on the willow tree, from whose trunk a slender form had emerged. It looked like a girl, almost old enough to be a woman, yet in place of legs she seemed to have grown out of the tree itself, the bark softening into her hips, lightening to the tone of her skin. Her arms were likewise entombed in the tree, bent back at the shoulders, vanishing into the trunk around her elbows, yet as Tara watched she slowly withdrew first one, then the other, revealing perfect, human hands, and leaving the bark to close in their wake without so much as a trace.
"Wh-what a-a-are y-you?" Tara whispered, unable to move, unsure if she should.
"Call me Willow," the stranger said, bracing her hands against the trunk behind her and pulling two flawless legs clear of the willow tree. She smiled at Tara and took a step towards her, halting as she saw the blonde's eyes widen in fear.
"It's alright," she said, ducking her head and offering a calming smile as she slowly sat cross-legged a few paces from Tara. "I don't mean you any harm. I just wanted to say thank you."
"Wh-what for?" Tara asked, confused. Willow nodded at the sapling behind her.
"You helped me," she said. "I thought it'd be only fair to let you know I appreciate it..." She offered Tara a friendly grin, and relaxed when she saw some of the tension ease out of her.
"You?" the girl asked, glancing at the sapling. "This is... you?"
"All of this is me," Willow said, casting a hand about. "Trees, flowers, grass, moss, earth, water... all the forest."
"You're a dryad," Tara said, her brow furrowing as she grappled with the idea. "I-I've read... I thought dryads were legends, stories - metaphors, I mean, for how a forest has a kind of life..."
"Nothing wrong with being a metaphor," Willow grinned impishly. The corners of Tara's mouth turned upward of their own accord, and she found herself sharing a smile with the forest spirit.
"What's your name?" Willow asked.
Willow nodded, and leant forward, rolling over so that she lay outstretched on the ground on her back, just far enough to reach out a hand to the blonde. Tara hesitated a moment, looked into Willow's forest-green eyes, and took her hand, finding it soft, and warm.
"Thank you, Tara," Willow said.
"So, do you... come out, often? Of the trees, I mean."
Tara and Willow lay side by side on the grass, their feet dipping in the lake's crystal clear waters. Tara's rain-soaked clothes were hanging on a branch not far away, drying in the soft breeze, leaving her clad in only a thin cotton shift that, what with her growth, was not as concealing as it once was, reaching just barely over her hips. Willow, of course, was naked. Tara was fascinated by her, at first in the way she lay, so natural among the leaves and tiny flowers that dotted the grass, her fingertips sinking slightly into the earth, as if she was putting down roots every time she lay still for a moment.
Willow seemed utterly unconcerned at being seen by Tara, and in fact it was Tara who had broken off and stared instead at the sky, when she found herself drinking in the sight of Willow in a way she never before had, with anyone else. She spoke the question in hope of a moment's idle conversation, in which to calm her swiftly-beating heart.
"Not often," Willow replied, seemingly unconscious of the effect her nakedness was beginning to have on her newfound companion. "Every half-moon, that day and night I can 'come out'... at other times, I live in the forest. 'In' the forest, if you get my meaning." Tara chuckled and nodded, though her sudden, surprising desires had not vanished.
"Why half-moon?" she wondered. "I thought... isn't magic supposed to happen during full moons?"
"A full moon is, and a new moon isn't," Willow replied. "But a half-moon is and isn't at once - neither one thing nor the other, yet both at the same time. Half-moons are when things change, one way or the other. Do you think I'm magic?" she asked, tilting her head to regard Tara with an amused smile.
"You are," Tara said, "aren't you?" Willow shrugged.
"I guess it depends what you mean by 'magic'," she said. "For instance, a young woman came running through here, crying as hard as can be, yet she put all that aside to tend to a hurt sapling." She gave Tara a wink. "That sounds magical to me."
They lay together in silence for a moment, before Willow looked at Tara and asked: "Why were you running?"
Tara returned to her village - to which activity was slowly returning - thoughtful and quiet the next morning. Her flight the previous evening was treated as perfectly natural, given her grief, once the adults and the other children saw she was unhurt, and she had told them she'd faced no perils in the forest. Her old neighbours asked if they could work her father's farm, and she accepted this, and their offer of a home with them.
Sorrow still hung heavily over Tara, yet it was tempered. When the grief of her father's loss grew in her heart, so too came the calm she had experienced that night. As she had explained the reason for her flight, punctuated by sobs and sighs, Willow had drawn her close, hugged her tenderly, stroked her hair, and while she paused to find words, sang softly to her, almost under her breath. Tara had talked a long time, dredging up long-ago memories of her father she thought she had lost, and sharing them, and the memories of her mother that her father had given her. She had sat between Willow's legs, leaning back into her embrace, while the dryad in turn sat back against the tree from which she took her name, and listened as Tara remembered.
Sometime during the night Tara had slept, peacefully, and when the morning sun's kiss on her skin woke her, she found herself resting comfortably against the willow tree, between two roots stretching out either side of her, and with its graceful leaves stroking her hair, moved by a breeze which seemed to softly sing as it whispered through the boughs above her.
Tara picked up the ways of her old life again, as the days passed: helping work the fields, tending to the animals that the village folk had brought back with them, playing with the other children, and when she had time, walking to the castle library for a book, and taking it to the edge of the forest to read. The rhythm of village life settled easily over her - yet she knew, come the next half-moon, she would again venture deep into the forest, and nothing else in her life touched her thoughts so deeply.
Every half-moon Tara ventured into the forest, to find Willow waiting for her by her favourite willow tree. Telling the family that had taken her in she was studying the plants of the forest, Tara packed blankets and food in a basket, and remained with Willow as long as the dryad could be with her. During the waxing moon she appeared at sunrise, and returned to the inner world of the forest at the end of the following night, when sunlight once more touched the leaves; during the waning moon, she came to Tara at sunset, and spent the night and the day with her, wishing her farewell until next time only when the day's light faded from the sky.
They would walk together, swim together in the sparkling lake, tend to the trees and the shrubs and all the living things in the forest, and many times simply lie among the flowers, content to just be, and nothing else. They often played hide-and-seek, with Tara searching for Willow among the trees and shrubs and the reeds in the water, any one of which the dryad could have become a part of. She played fair - always there was a hint of her form when she hid, for Tara to find. Tara delighted in seeing Willow's magic, the way she would disappear into a tree only to emerge a moment later from the lake, or lie among wild flowers and sink into them, to rise laughing from the grass nearby. She let Tara hold her hands as she took on the colours and textures of all the living things in her forest, even the rich soil and the clear waters.
And always they talked. At first Tara told Willow many things about the world beyond her forest, of which she knew little, but as their encounters passed, their conversations turned more and more towards the forest itself. Willow knew every living thing within the bounds of her forest, and loved them all deeply, never tiring of telling Tara the secrets of leaves and soil and water, and the rhythms of the trees' slow lives. Tara knew much already, from her readings and her observations, and learned quickly. It was no time at all before she and Willow were equals in their knowledge of the forest, and their love of it.