The old woman’s prickly manner softens and her faded eyes grow distant with the fog of memory.
“My story? Hmpf… it is long in the telling, but I have not told it in an age and I suppose it would do no harm to share it in remembrance of those I have outlived.
When I was a young woman, this region was part of the Taldor frontier. I settled here with my husband Arturus, a handsome military man, after deciding we would jump on the opportunity to make our own place out here. We had a daughter, a lovely girl we named Annaliese. The meaning of love was not truly known to me until I held her in my arms. Soon after, my husband was called away for a military campaign against the centuar tribes. He never returned.
When my daughter was 5 years of age, we had a very harsh winter, and she became gravely ill. I rode north for 2 days through a blinding blizzard, trying to reach the town where now the ruins of the old fortress still dwell by the lakeside. We sheltered in a wooded grove, in a circle of great ash trees, where a small spring flowed. I was lost, she was burning with fever, and we were both bitten by the frost. I wept there in the snow, holding my girl, and cried out to the gods, to the sky, to the very trees and the soil. I swore I would give anything if my child could be saved. I swore to the wind, and felt a desperation I had not ever known. But there was no answer. My strength waned, and I fell asleep from exhaustion.
When I awoke, I was in a sunlit glade, and it was as if it were a warm fall day. Of the snow, there was no sign, and the air was now filled with a drift of bright autumn leaves falling from the treetops above. There, in the clearing before an immense tree, I met the wood lady. She told me that she heard my pleas for help, and had taken pity on me. She told me that a great curse had been placed upon her by Bramble-Heart. The curse was a blight that would kill her tree. She explained to me that her kind, the dryads, are mostly creatures of spirit and require another to sustain them. In ages forgotten, the first of her kin had made a pact with the first of the great trees. The essence of these powerful beings are ever renewing, ever growing, gaining life from the very earth and the light of the sun, and so in exchange for protection and companionship from the dryads, they would bind their souls as one, so that each may benefit and thrive.
Her tree was now dying, a creeping black mold of some corruptive nature clung upon it, and it rotted from within. She explained that without her tree, she too would die. She proposed a compact, and I listened raptly, for I was in no place to negotiate terms. She told me she could save my daughter, but that I would have to save her in exchange. I agreed, not knowing the cost, nor caring.
She spoke to her tree softly then, in the glade, and cried. Where her tears landed on the trunk, a branch began to grow, and I gasped to look upon it. From the branch, a marvelous fruit took shape, golden as the sunrise on a warm summer morning. She whispered to the tree, plucked the fruit, and we both watched as the tree withered, rotted, and died. She grew so pale and pallid that I wondered if she were already a ghost. The glade darkened, and I could feel a chill breeze blowing. The birds had fled, and there was only the cold wind and the sound of the dryad weeping. She gave me the fruit and said, “Your daughter must eat the flesh of this fruit, but not the pit. You must swallow the pit and in so doing, it shall bind our souls as one. Within you I shall sleep and my spirit will burn low so that I do not drink too deeply of your essence, for if I should awaken, you would burn as a dry leaf in a forest fire. You will live until such time that a great mortal practitioner of magic shall come to you. I have foreseen his coming in the pool of time. He is mighty and will know how to reawaken me. Do this, and save your daughter, for you have made a pact with me and of your word there is no undoing.”
And so, I knelt quickly, dividing the fruit with my teeth and placing it into my daughter’s mouth, carefully, one piece at a time. In between each bite, I gave her a sip of water from the spring, and slowly she consumed it all. It felt like an eternity. I shook like a leaf and I had to keep myself from hurrying. Afterwards, I waited and looked to the dryad but she merely glared at me until I realized I still held the pit. I forced it down, a rough and pulpy thing, and once it was swallowed, I pitched again into darkness.
I awoke within the snow-covered ash circle I had fallen asleep in. My daughter was crying over me, her warm tears pattering down upon my face as she shook me. She kept calling for me to awake. I sat up, and felt renewed. My energy had returned, as had my daughter’s. Her fever was gone. We hugged and returned home, overjoyed to have each other.
Over time, we found that we could speak with animals, call to the spirits and fey of the forest, and other stranger things. Our skin changed to the greenish hue you see now, no doubt a sign of the dryad’s power which had saved us.
For many years, we lived happily together in the forest. The land provided for us, and our powers grew with each passing season. Eventually, she met a woodsman, a kind man whom she married. They moved to the city and were happy for many years. She wrote letters to me often. One year, I received a letter from her eldest son that an inquisitor had found her guilty of witchcraft and burned her and her daughters at the stake. Her husband was killed trying to save them from the flames.
The years have been long and lonely since. I stopped measuring them a long time ago. After Aroden’s death, I fell into a deep despair for prophecies became uncertain and I feared that the dryad’s vision would never come to pass. But still, I wait. I have simply lived from season to season, with very few visitors or news from the outside world. I have nothing to look forward to, save the day that I can finally fulfill my promise."
Her cracked voice falls silent and she looks frail and wizened. She leans heavily on her staff and gingerly levers herself out of her seat. “Now go away,” she says with a touch of asperity, but there is no force behind it. “I have told you my story and I am tired. Leave an old woman be.”