The golden light flared for a moment longer, stinging our eyes, then faded slowly. By the time we could see again, the glad had been transformed. There was no snow on the ground here, no sounds of battle in the distance. Here was another example of a pocket plane where the world was different from my own.
The beauty who stood before us looked to be no older than Clarisse, but her eyes told the tale of an immortal life.
“Why do you come to this glade?” she asked, her voice like a summer breeze. Very hard to hear, but soft and sweet.
I thought to stand, to answer this being, but Just Jacob rose ahead of me and answered.
“We come to bury this child,” he said, motioning toward young Thomas who lay on the sward before me. “We seek a place to return him to the mother, away from the pain of the world.”
The dryad eyed him for a moment, her golden orbed gaze unsettling in its intensity.
“You are not worthy,” she said, turning from Just Jacob. “You are defiled.”
“I’ll speak for him,” I said, rising to my feet, but she laughed and turned.
Each of the brigands stood and claimed right of kinship and purity, but each was rebuffed. It wasn’t until Scarlet rose to her feet that the dryad stopped her burbling laughter.
Scarlet strode forward, out of the circle of others and toward the dryad, who fell back a step, as if the young woman’s aura was too much for her to bear.
“You will stand aside and allow us to bury my brother here,” she said, her voice tight. “It is not for you to judge his worth. That is the domain of the gods.”
The dryad studied her for a moment, her lips pursed, a glint of anger in her eyes.
“Who are you, child, to demand anything from this glade?”
Scarlet took a deep breath, settling the anger that was ever so visible in her. “Please,” she said, meekly. “He is only a small thing.”
The others began to whisper amongst themselves, but I kept my eye on Scarlet. She did not slide her gaze to the side, but kept her eyes facing the dryad, her demeanor strong. My dearest Kithri, this young woman had grit.
“I know who you are,” the dryad whispered. “I see how you prey upon the tiny monstrosities of this ruined land. I also know you have shown kindness and compassion. How do you reconcile these opposites?”
Scarlet smiled then, a vision like the rising of the sun. “Does not the mother bear kill to defend her cubs?”
This earned her a polite nod.
“Does not the mighty eagle snatch what prey he needs from those small creatures too slow to avoid his gaze?”
Again, a nod.
“We do not pillage, nor do we waste. We take our small pittance from those who would wreak devastation upon the world. We are select in our plunder and do no more harm than the eagle or the bear.”
She was good. I admired the chutzpah she displayed under the scrutiny of the dryad’s stern gaze.
“And, this child,” she said, her voice growing weak for the first time. “This child loved the trees and the loam, the fresh turned soil and all growing things. How could we not return his remains to the green mother so that he would nourish her as she had once nourished him?”
Then it dawned on me. These were Fey children. I looked around me, truly seeing them for the first time. The signs were subtle, the lilt in the voice, the upturned ear, the glittering eyes. I glanced at Just Jacob and he nodded once.
“They are children of the green mother,” he said at my open mouthed stare. “Each a foundling, abandoned for their half-breed nature.”
Then it finally clicked. Human parent, Fey parent, child of neither world.
“And you took them in?” I asked Just Jacob.
“Nay,” he said, smiling. “Bruce took them in. He was the better man. He rescued each of these children and brought them to me and my wife to raise, a brood of waifs with no place in the world.”
The dryad watched him, listening.
“Bruce was a ranger, you see,” Just Jacob continued. “He preserved the lands of this valley before the dragon came. He had safeguarded this hidden reserve from the corruption that overwhelms this land.”
Suddenly the valley deep within these canyon walls took on more reverence. This was indeed holy land, and the orcs and giants warred upon it, shredding the earth, smashing the trees, tainting the very soil.
“I will grant this in Bruce’s memory,” the dryad said, breaking the silence. “He was a kind man. I mourn at his loss.”
No one had mentioned Bruce’s passing, but I had no idea what powers a dryad may have over the land that surrounded her domain.
“But you,” she said to me. “you are the fool.”
Heat flushed over my neck and face. “Fool?” I asked.
“Reaver,” she continued. “Breaker of worlds. You who released the man in white. You who wields the cursed rod. Who seeks the broken way. You who braves the past in order to preserve the future.”
She was talking about my dream quest. Each word she said echoing in my mind, a bombastic indictment of my murky road ahead.
“You may not stay here,” she said with a sad shake of her head. “The others may stay and bury their kin in my glade. But not until you have departed.”
“What of me?” Just Jacob asked, his tone frustrated. “I am not Fey.”
The dryad stepped closer to him, laying a delicate hand along his beard roughened cheek. “No, but you dared to love a Fey,” she said, smiling. “And her love grants you privilege.”
“She is dead,” he answered bitterly, turning away.
The dryad placed her hand on the back of his head and laughed. “One such as she never truly dies,” she said. “Not if one such as you continues to love her.”
“Go,” she whispered and just like that I stood in the coppice of trees, ankle deep in snow, facing half a dozen raging orcs. Lucky me.