In which Ghost learns just how much her tree did for her.
Ghost walked a straight line through the forest in on east-south-east trajectory. Her immediate objective was Eastfork, which she could follow upstream to the Lower Elfin forest. Westfork Minor, her birthplace, was not itself within the fey lands; though the border between the realms was thin there, it was not thin enough to allow Ghost an easy crossing. The Lower Elfin held the closest permanent crossing point in her ken.
As she walked, Ghost became aware of a growing discomfort in her abdomen. It was by no means urgent, but it was continual and seemingly uncorrelated to her own actions.
Ghost asked a few trees she passed what might be the cause of her feeling, but she had nearly exited the reach of the fey this far from Westfork Minor and accordingly even the most wizened monarchs were barely sentient. She toyed with backtracking to ask the wiser trees behind her, but as the feeling wasn’t really painful and didn’t seem to be growing very quickly she decided to hold on her way.
It was not long after this decision that she came upon a clearing with several small buildings in it. She toyed with skirting the clearing, but reasoned that humans, like dryads, were naturally diurnal and at such an hour she might take the more direct route in safety. She had just passed a little closet-sized building and was moving toward the larger house beyond it when she heard a voice behind her.
“Hail, fair one.”
Ghost turned and saw an old man exiting the tiny building. He had spoken gently and in the proper form of address, and looked fairly harmless.
“It is an honor to see a fair one such as yourself,” continued the man, “though surprising at such a time of night beyond the trees and wielding such a blade as that.”
Ghost waited a moment to see if the man had more to say, but he appeared to be waiting for her to make the next move. “You speak carefully,” she said at last; “have you experience with the fey?”
“Aye,” replied the man, “many years ago this were a borderland and many a sprite was seen, but ne’er a nymph equipped like yourself.”
“I mean you no harm,” replied Ghost, dismissing the blade. “I was but crossing this land on my way east.”
The old man visibly relaxed as the blade vanished. “East of here there be many humans,” he said. “Most of them have ne’er seen the fair ones and may react poorly to your appearance. If you wish to pass through unmolested, I may be able to lend some aid?”
“If given freely,” Ghost replied, “for I can give little in return so far from the fey-touched lands.”
“Aye, a gift, most free,” said the man. “Your accepting my help will be honor enough.”
He stepped the rest of the way out of the little building and let the door swing closed behind him. “To avoid notice in human lands you must dress like a human. My wife left many an article behind; the finer gowns, I fear, will not fit you well, but the smocks and looser kirtles should help you escape notice.”
There are some nymphs who take offense at being clothed and some fairies for whom a gift of clothing is a life-changing event, but to a dryad clothing is as inconsequential as it is to a tree. The idea of dressing in a smock and kirtle struck Ghost the same way you or I might take the idea of wearing a wig or false nose. As a disguise seemed in order, and as this old man seemed earnest and harmless, Ghost allowed herself to be led into his home to select the longest chemise and unfitted kirtle from the trunk of his late wife’s belongings.
While she was inside, she decided to ask the man about her stomach discomfort. He asked several questions, being intimately familiar with a wide range of intestinal problems. Finally he said “It sounds like you are simply describing hunger. How long has it been since you have eaten?”
The answer was “never,” as a dryad’s nourishment comes from her tree. The man, a bit surprised, brought out a variety of foodstuffs, not knowing what a dryad might eat, and described to Ghost how to chew and swallow her food.
“What a peculiar experience,” said Ghost after her first mouthful.
“And how pleasant!” she added after her second.
“This eating thing is quite the thing,” she said after the fifth, and then settled in in earnest.
She ate almost everything in front of her, shying away only from the greens. “A cabbage isn’t really a tree,” she observed to her host, “but it’s close enough I think I’d rather avoid it while there is fruit and meat to be had.”
Ghost’s taste buds quite overcame her stomach, and she soon complained of the new abdominal discomfort of being overly full. Her host explained its cause and also described other bodily functions, introduced her to the outhouse he had been exiting when they first met.
It was nearing dawn by the time Ghost’s introduction to mortality was completed. She had been up since dawn the day before and was very tired. Since the forest this far into the mortal realm was nearly lifeless and offered little hope of protection from notice, she asked the old man if she might not rest in his home for a few hours before continuing on her way.