They were not so different from mankind. Not truly. They had the same limbs and appendages, but humanity did not seem to be bound to the trees as they were. They did not hear the whisperings of the forest as the trees spread whatever news of the woodland realms seemed most pertinent, though most of it was simple chatterings about squirrels and bird’s nests that were beginning to show signs of burgeoning life.
What seemed the most different was in their manner. Most of the men were gruff and surly, with hair on their faces that made her skin itch just to look upon it. They came to hunt and forage, and her sisterlings often encouraged their games of old that send the men running with bows in hand, desire dwelling in their hearts.
It was their way.
Perhaps it seemed foolhardy to tangle with danger in that way, but the dryads knew the risks well. They would tease and taunt and draw the men away from the High City should they ever stray too close.
And nymphs were quick and light footed, while the men stomped and cursed in the underbrush, seeking their prey.
Long ago the dryads had learned that a tale was told amongst the menfolk that if a man stole a kiss from one of the elusive creatures he would be granted a wish—and the right to bed her.
That story had been given to her by one of her elder sisterlings, as her father would most certainly not have shared such a thing. She could not imagine being used in such a way—not when for her people a single touch between dryad and dryon was enough to seal their bond.
There were certainly no trysts before their sealings, especially not with a human male.
Never had she heard of one of her kind being ensnared before. When speed and agility failed one of the nymphs, a well placed arrow on behalf of the dryon was certain to fell the pursuer.
While the game might seem mischievous—and often the younglings looked forward to the day their saplings had grown tall enough for them to be chosen for the task—it was one held in high regard.
They were protectors of the realm, though with feminine wiles and coy glances instead of weaponry.
But perhaps that was the most dangerous kind.
Mairi was relatively new at the venture, and she found that she had not the cunning spirit that the elders had told her would come with practice. She often pitied some of the kinder looking men who so easily became enthralled, and while her people rarely caused anyone harm, the disappointment at not catching one of her kin was clearly evident and made her sorry.
The children were the worst.
Some were so young and innocent, all large eyes and shrunken features as they obviously turned to the woods for whatever nourishment they could find. Despite the protests of her kin Mairi would whisper to them, luring them a tiny bit closer to the High City where she knew the most luscious berries resided.
She received a terrible scolding for the risk she had taken.
“If you lead them closer and they find sustenance, it will only entice them to return. And they shall not be children forever!” Her father was rarely angry. He was a calm spirit and one of the elders whose wisdom was unmatched—at least according to Mairi.
“If you had seen then, Adar, you would have agreed with me! I am allowed to help a lost fawn, but not a human child?”
Her adar continued to glare but Mairi remained steady. She did not know if it was truly as dangerous as he suggested. All she knew was that when a starving child stumbled into her path she could not remain idly by—not when with a simple word she could have saved them.
Eventually he sighed, reaching out a lone finger that she met eagerly with her own, one of the familial signs of affection. “I do not wish to lose you. Not after your amé…” His expression grew wistful, as it often did when he mentioned her mother.
“You will not lose me, Adar. I am careful. They may see me but I would never allow them to touch.”
To touch a human meant exile—possibly even death. None in living memory knew of a nymph that had been touched by a human, but it was well understood throughout the woodland realm that it was strictly forbidden. She might be soft-hearted toward the race of men, but she would never risk the ability to see her father or sisterlings for the sake of their kind. “I am sorry. I do not mean to upset you.”
“That is never your intention, little one, but I should hope you would heed the wisdom of your father and not seek trouble when there is none to be had. Play with your kin, protect our home, and be contented.” His eyes crinkled around the edges, belying his age in his otherwise youthful face. “And perhaps when the time is right you shall bond with that young friend of yours and live a long and happy life together.”
Mairi pulled away and hid her face behind her long hair, mortified that her father should be aware of the dryon who had begun expressing interest. They had known each other since seedlings, though mostly from afar. His father had long since been member of the council with her own adar, but as with all children once they had left babyhood no longer were they allowed to mingle. Each to their own kind until bonding—that was how it had always been.
Her father laughed softly at her distress. “We may not encourage contact, young one, but it has been obvious for some time that you and Raghnall had a fondness for one another. Should I announce the ceremony?”
He was teasing her, she knew, but she still felt acutely embarrassed. This was not how her bonding was to be announced!
Raghnall would have sought her father’s council and upon receiving permission he would beckon her under the canopy of trees, older and wiser than any other place in the High City. The stars would twinkle from their heavens up above, and solemnly he would tell her of his desire for her, and taking her hand he would pledge himself to her, bonding his very soul with hers until they were parted by death.
Her father chuckled once more before waving her away. “Very well, daughter, I shall keep silent on the matter a while longer.”
Mairi did not have much time to linger on the prospect of imminent bonding, or her father’s apparent silence on the matter, not when there were duties to perform. But while some of their more able bodied dryons clothed themselves in armour of fine metals and hard oaken shields, the nymphs wielded power of a different nature. All of her kin were beauties in their own right. But just as the occasional flowers that broke through the heavy underbrush of the forest floor, they were equally diverse. Mairi’s hair was long, easily brushing her hips. She had often heard some of the robust men commenting on how much they wished to touch the silken strands—at least, she had gleaned as much as she flitted from the cover of trees that made up her home.
Her eyes were those of her father’s, blue and pale. She often wished she had the sparkling green of some of her sisterlings, but she never mentioned so in front of anyone. Envy led to dissention, and it was far nicer to be a merry band of protectors, luring unwelcome folk away from their borders clothed in gossamer silks and primroses.
On this occasion she found Eldared waiting for her at the Main Gate. The large and imposing structure was built between two ancient elms, though it blended with the mossy greenery so completely that unless one knew to look it would nearly pass unnoticed.
“My, Mairi, your cheeks are as red as a robin’s breast! Has Raghnall finally beseeched you?”
Whatever composure she had mustered quickly fled. “Have we truly been so noticeable?” Discretion was a quality highly favoured, and the notion that their friendship was so widely recognised was almost intolerable.
Her friend laughed airily, herself having bonded four seasons past. “There is nothing to be ashamed of, Mairi. He is a favourite of your father’s, and I am certain the match would be well received.” Eldared’s eyes narrowed. “Or has he touched you illicitly? You know that is forbidden. He must petition for your hand.”
Mairi shook her head furiously. Only once had a dryon touched a nymph without first being granted permission. His punishment had been quick and forceful and none had dared do so again.
“He would never. But I fail to see why this is being discussed now! He had made no great overture yet you and my father both seem to think it is inevitable!”
The notion did not displeaseher, but she did not feel quite as enamoured by the idea as she believed she should be. For their kind it was forever—and bonding was never to be taken lightly. Surely that meant she should be confident in her affection for him before giving her consent.
One of the guards standing watch high above the Gate interrupted them when he bellowed, “If you mean to be of use today then please go forth into the forest! Standing about gossiping like two old-growths is no use to anyone!”
Eldared rolled her eyes but obeyed, walking into the morning-light beyond the safety of the High City.
She was one of Mairi’s favourites to be paired with, as her teasing disposition made the hours pass quickly and with much fun to be had. When she was told to be with one of the youngerlings Mairi felt terribly exposed. She was a youth herself and felt completely unprepared to teach others how best to beguile.
It was a rarity that a nymph with a bond-mate should continue in their work, but Eldared had insisted that until she had a seedling of her own, she would be of service.
They strolled through the forest aimlessly, enjoying the brightening skies, though the woods remained shadowed by the heavy trees above them. But occasionally a ray of sun would peek through the trees, and Mairi relished the warmth as it fell across her skin.
“Do you think...”
Mairi froze at Eldared’s command. Ahead were two hunters, boisterous and loud as they plodded through the woods.
“I’m tellin’ ya! There was a buck not twenty paces ahead!”
The other man, clearly his brother based on the strong resemblance, scoffed. “And I’m tellin’ you, our ma dropped you one too many times when you were a bairn!”
The first man scowled and gave his younger brother a hearty shove. “North. I’m sure of it.”
North would lead them to the City. They were not dangerously close, but enough that Eldared nudged Mairi softly and gestured for her to make an appearance. Such was one small annoyance since her friend had bonded—more and more often it was Mairi who was required to present herself as an offering, while Eldared stayed hidden amongst the trees.
And Mairi was confident that she laughed all the while as Mairi ran and the men followed.
But such was their task and so with many years of practice, she emerged from the undergrowth, the sunbeam that found her no longer feeling so warm and welcoming as she took in the features of the startled huntsmen.
Every man was different. Some liked a fearful maid who would squeal and dash while he followed in quick pursuit. Others preferred a seductress with luring eyes and bared shoulders that would inevitably come wherever she motioned.
Mairi refused to play the latter, though upon one of the more lively occasions she had attempted to do so at the bidding of her sisterlings. She had felt awkward and ridiculous through the entire venture, but she could not deny that the result was effective.
Men were such foolish creatures.
Before she could determine how best to approach them, the younger of the brothers quickly removed his hat. “M’lady! Are you lost?”
Mairi smiled softly, always pleased to find a well-mannered man.
The elder of the two slapped his brother’s arm roughly, his eyes never leaving her form. “That in’t no lady, Aiden! She’s a wood-nymph!” His voice lowered but Mairi could still clearly hear him. “She’ll grant us a wish if we catch her.”
Aiden looked at her curiously, and she was pleased to see that his eyes did not darken in that greedy way they often did when the mythical tale of wish-giving was thrown about. Instead he clutched at his hat and bowed, earning yet another cuff from his brother. “I said, she in’t a lady! You don’t need to be putting on airs to impress her.”
His voice rose once more, louder this time as though he thought her hard of hearing. “If you’ll just grant us our wish now we won’t have to hunt you down!”
Mairi’s head tilted, and her brow furrowed. “That would defeat the purpose.”
And with that, she ran.
It was useless to speak to them as they knew none of the nymphlin tongue, but it always made her feel a bit better—especially when one of them was obviously a sweet young man—to keep to her manners. It felt rude not to engage even a little.
Her father would not approve.
She headed South, leaping nimbly over the small stream that would eventually lead to a larger river downstream.
Mairi hesitated, waiting for the sounds of followers before continuing. If the younger brother could not be convinced to give chase there was little point in abandoning both of them as they could continue to hunt closer, defeating the purpose of her task.
But the elder brother seemed to hold much sway over Aiden and soon the sounds of their search grew loud. “This way!”
Eldared peeked out from behind a nearby oak, her smile wide as she made a great performance of scattering the underbrush and twigs to reveal a false trail. Generally their race did not leave traces as they moved throughout the forest, but it appeared her friend was providing her some respite from the chase as this would allow for her to cease their game early— and without her having to make anymore appearances to keep them in pursuit. If they did indeed continue as Eldared led them the guards would turn most of their attention to her friend, keeping her secure as the men were led safely from the City.
Mairi could not help but giggle, her laughter carrying through the stillness of the trees as they answered her in kind.
Run; do not let them find you!
Such a pretty nymph!
There is a squirrel chewing on my bark.
She revelled in the feel of the breeze as it caused tickles of hair to whisper across her skin and the way it sent billows of silk about her legs as she ran.
There was a joy to be found in this task, even if she pitied the men she deceived.
So lost was she in the bright spring morning that she was only vaguely aware the small glen she entered and of the buck a short ways to her left.
And then a brief whistle met her ears.
And then pain.
Blinding pain that stopped her short as it seared through her shoulder.
Pain that caused her to stumble and fall to the soft grasses below, clutching at the joint as she watched the liquid being to ooze from a wound that most assuredly had not been there before.
She had never felt such pain.
And dumbly, she thought that her blood would ruin her lovely gown.
An arrow was lodged deep within her flesh, and she stared at it in horror for a moment longer before releasing a long keen.
Where were the guards?
Where was Eldared?
Surely they had not all continued on with the trespassers.
But there was only one person emerging from the neighbouring wood, and it was not the comforting presence of her kin.
It was a man, taller than she had ever seen before.
He was dressed all in iron, a helm upon his head that concealed his face. It was darker than the pale silver that the dryon wore on occasion, nearing black in its appearance.
And then she knew fear.
Because with the pain of her shoulder and the blood that still steadily flowed, she knew she could not run.
He walked steadily closer, his demeanour and presence a startling contrast to the peaceful beauty of the trees.
Run, little nymph!
To touch him brings death!
The trees lamented and Mairi’s breath grew shallow. “Please, do not come closer!”
He did not heed her and she tried her best to rise from the ground and flee. If only she could make it to the trees there was a chance she could escape.
For this was her home and she did not wish to be parted from her kin due to the actions of one man.
The hunter hesitated a moment longer, dropping his bow to the ground and pulling off the leather gloves that encased his hands.
And lastly he removed his helm.
She scurried back further, terrified that he would attempt to heal her.
For one could not heal without a touch.
And to touch would mean a bond—a bond that was forbidden.
Perhaps it was the loss of blood that made her head feel so strange, but as she glanced at his face, clouded by pain and terror as she did so, she thought him one of the most horrid looking men she had ever seen.
But before she could ponder such things further, she saw a pale, long-fingered hand reach toward her and it took every bit of her waning sensibilities to gasp, “Please, do not touch me...” before she knew no more.