In which Ghost helps plants, kills beavers, and ponders many questions.
Ghost’s exit of Cordenswold evoked more reaction than did her entrance. To see a lady in a peasant’s unfitted kirtle was odd, but to see that lady set off unshod along an overgrown trail through the dangerous northern wilds was unconscionable. In town people gave it little mind, but once she was past any reasonable destination each person she passed called out some kind of warning.
“You know this road leads nowhere.”
“That trail’s too rough for bare feet. Did you mean to take the south road?”
“The north woods are dangerous for a lone maiden. Is there somewhere I might direct you?”
And so on. Ghost found it quite odd that they would say these things. If they saw through her disguise they made no sense; and if they did not, why was it unsafe for her to be this far on this road when it was clearly safe enough for all of them? However, she did not inquire but instead politely acknowledged each comment and continued on her way.
Once Ghost was confident she had passed the last human buildings she left the trampled, lifeless trail and took to the more comfortable forest. As she traveled she started to feel faint traces of fey magics which lightened her mood and quickened her pace. She had not realized how much she had missed that feeling!
A few hours after she had left the trail Ghost came upon the weathered stump of what must once have been a truly massive cherry. How the unstable wood of a cherry ever supported such girth was beyond her. She was also confused why anyone would cut such a large tree of such nondurable wood in the middle of a forest, but the lack of any sign of the rest of the tree strongly suggested it had been cut.
However, neither of those mysteries were of consequence at present. Following the goblin’s directions, Ghost turned west and walked the specified distance, then looked around her for signs of injured plants. Not seeing any immediately, she started to search the area in widening circles. On her third circuit she found the damage she was supposed to repair.
It was quite an unusual sight. The undergrowth had been trampling by heavy boots and hooves; the tree trunks were criss-crossed with deep, narrow cuts; there was the unmistakable mark of lightning, but too small and localized to be any normal lightning; and there had been an extremely hot but localized fire with no coals. It all appeared to be no more than a few days old.
Ghost asked the trees what had happened, but the fey influence was still faint and they lacked the intelligence to say much. “Fire and lightning and lots of things running” was about all she was able to understand, and she already knew that much.
Ghost’s mission here was as a doctor, not a detective, so after she had looked around she set about repairing things. This was the first time she had been called on to do more than mend a bruised flower, and she was surprised at how easily it came. Her tree was the ugliest piece of wood ever grown, but it was also old and wise and those centuries of knowledge were Ghost’s to draw upon.
Still, the damage was extensive and it took Ghost the rest of the afternoon and into the early evening to get things looking as well as she thought they could. The burnt parts were neatly pruned, the cuts filled with hard sap, and the trampling and other minor damage had been undone. It wasn’t as good as new, but it was much nicer than the disaster she had found.
Her first mission for the Unseely Court completed, Ghost set her mind to getting something to eat. She found some grapes, but they were small and sour and the seeds were bothersome. A mulberry tree had dropped its last fruit a week before. She walked down to the riverbank in hopes she might find some blackberries, but none grew there. There was, however, a beaver dam not far upstream.
Ghost had not yet learned that not all meat is the same; meat was animal flesh, and the meat she had had was delicious. She had also the instinctive dislike for beavers shared by all trees. Thus, killing and eating the beavers seemed the natural choice. Being a dryad, animals did not fear her approach, and she had access to a keen blade, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to kill them. The blade had dessicated the rose bush it had cut, so it might spoil the meat as well; but even if it did that would be one less beaver in this world…. Yes, overall having beaver for dinner seemed ideal.
Ghost walked up the bank until she was level with the beavers’ lodge. She removed her disguise, which might spook the beavers, and waded into the pool. The pool was wide but no more than hip deep, which was fortunate because Ghost had never swum before.
When she reached the lodge she took a deep breath and ducked under water to look for the submerged entrance. To her surprise, instead of submersing her, her stooping motion merely caused her to bob on the water’s surface. After several more tries she found she was so buoyant she could not submerge more than two thirds of herself at a time. Entering the lodge from below was not going to be simple.
In discovering her buoyancy Ghost had made quite a bit of noise splashing about. She could hear the beavers inside—two of them, it sounded like, no pups—chattering about the disturbance. The sound of their voices brought out the millenia-old rage of the forest and she soon found herself, blade in hand, reducing the lodge to kindling and the beavers within it to so many cuts of meat.
After her rage had subsided and she had recovered most of the flesh from the flotsam, Ghost discovered just how much difference there was between the cold steak-and-kidney pie she had eaten the night before and the raw rodent she now had. The meat wasn’t damaged by the blade, as far as she could tell—certainly not dried out in the least. It simply tasted awful. After a few bites she thought about cooking it, but besides the fact that cooking involved fire she didn’t know how. She didn’t even know how one went about making fire.
This thought led her to reflect: how had she burnt her tree the night before? She remembered hacking the tree into little pieces; she recalled watching little flames grow into a fire on top of the trunk and remembered heaping the tree bits onto that fire; but where had those first flames come from? Had her blade started the fire? Was it a side-effect of the bond-severing magic? Had the goblin hiden nearby and ignited the trunk?
As she started to ask these questions, many others rose to join them. Why had the Unseely wanted to repair some damaged forest? It was hardly part of their usual agenda… were they trying to hide something? From whom? How had the goblin known her path through the forest would take her to the cherry stump? Or that there was a stump and a damaged area in the forest at all? How had a cherry tree gotten so huge, who had cut it down, and what had they done with the trunk? Why had everyone thought she shouldn’t walk north? What kind of meat had been in that delicious pie she had had? Who had trampled the forest, and how had they made local lightning and such a hot fire without any coals? Why do humans have latrines instead of fertilizing the ground up where someone can use the fertilizer? Why is the tongue capable of causing such pleasure and such displeasure? Why do dryads even have stomachs?
Once she started asking questions (beyond her the two she had asked every day before: “why was I born of such a repulsive tree?” and “how can I be freed from it?”) they came one after another on every topic to which she turned her mind. The world seemed to be a very curious place indeed.
As Ghost pondered these questions she ate more of the raw beaver, letting her stomach overrule her tongue. Her stomach was sated long before her mind, but eventually she gathered her costume, found a comforting old oak to rest against, and let her wonderings dissolve into sleep.