Short Story: The Protected Ones

Hi, all! Here’s another short story! I finished this at 7 in the morning after staying up all night so wow, do I need sleep. I used a prompt this time, though for the life of me I can’t remember where I got it from. It’s a tad long (as my short stories tend to be), but I hope you enjoy!


Prompt: Tree opens its trunk to give shelter to abandoned girls


Nadia raced through the dark forest, her bare feet pounding against the dirt ground lit by moonlight. She winced as another rock or twig stabbed the bottom of her foot but didn’t slow down. She couldn’t. She refused to go back to him.

Nadia tripped over a root, falling to her knees. She quickly shuffled back, leaning against the trunk of a tree and clutching the material of her nightgown over her frantic heart as she tried to catch her breath. Hounds bayed far in the distance and when she peered around the thick trunk, she saw that the lantern lights her pursuers carried were dim. She sighed in relief, grateful for the reprieve.

“Who do you run from, child?” a soft voice whispered and Nadia shot to her feet, whirling around. A woman emerged from the bark of the tree beside her, one with a strange, spiraled trunk. The woman’s—no, a creature, because she certainly couldn’t be human—entire body was as green as the leaves of the tree she appeared from. More leaves covered the stranger’s body like clothes. Her long green hair had white and pale pink flowers woven into a few braids, the same as the ones in the tree. A faint silver glow radiated from her slight body, illuminating the small distance between them.

“My husband,” Nadia replied, staring at the creature suspiciously. She recalled the stories her mother told her as a child, ones of forest creatures called dryads, the spirits of trees. Though they were not known to be evil, Nadia did not trust blindly. Not anymore.

“And is he where you got this bruise?” the dryad asked, reaching out a hand, and Nadia flinched back. “Do not be afraid. I mean you no harm,” the dryad said, ghosting her fingers across Nadia’s sore cheek. They were soft as petals and as cool as a gentle breeze. The dryad’s hair drifted around her form, tickling Nadia’s arm, and the woman caught a whiff of the flowers. Fragrant and familiar. Magnolia, Nadia realized, like her favorite perfume she had brought from her old home. Nadia’s shoulders relaxed despite her persistent wariness.

“It is,” she finally replied then tensed again when she heard men shouting. The dryad frowned in the direction of the noise.

“Come, child. I will keep you safe,” she said, turning to her tree and placing a hand on the trunk. Nadia’s jaw dropped in shock as the tree shifted and groaned under the dryad’s touch. The tree limbs bowed and bent as if shaking itself awake and the spiral trunk unwound to reveal a gaping hole that shimmered and rippled like water. It too glowed with a silver light. “Go inside. While my tree still stands, all women who need shelter shall be protected. This I swear.”

“What do you mean?” Nadia hissed, confused and angry and so very worried as the dogs’ barking grew louder.

The dryad smiled gently at her and a wave of warmth and comfort rushed through Nadia, confusing her further. “Trust in me, Nadia, my child. Go inside and you shall never want for things again.”

“How do you know my name?” Nadia whispered, her voice trembling as hope clutched at her heart. She took a step forward despite her mind screaming at her.

“I have known you since the day you were born,” the dryad said, caressing Nadia’s cheek again as she stared at the woman with a soft look in her eyes. “I was there when your mother came to me, just as lost as you are now and heavy with child. I was there when she first held you and then again when we said goodbye.”

“How—?” Nadia asked, staring up at the dryad confused.

“Go. Be safe. We will talk another day,” the dryad urged, gesturing to the portal.

Tears pricked Nadia’s eyes as she stepped up to the threshold. “Thank you,” she whispered, looking up at the dryad.

“Be happy, my child,” she replied with an encouraging nod and, bolstered with a rush of courage, Nadia stepped inside. It felt like she was submerged in cool water. Her blonde hair floated around her head and she unconsciously held her breath as she waded through it toward the light at the end of the tunnel. The floor below her was sturdy though it looked like endless white. She reached out, brushing the light, then was thrust into another world.

She gasped, inhaling deeply as her feet settled on stone steps with the portal to her back. Instead of a forest, in front of her was a large town with buildings of varying size. There were large fields, orchards, and animal pens behind the town. In the far distance was a forest of pine trees and a large river. She knew there were no rivers in her husband’s lands nor a town of this size. Where was she?

The sun was high above her and Nadia was astonished to see so many women out and about. In fact, she couldn’t see any men at all! Not tending to the horses in the stables near her, not working the fields, not anywhere.

“What is this place?” Nadia breathed, awed.

“A safe haven,” a voice answered, and Nadia turned to see a tall brunette with dark tan skin grinning at her. She wore a long lavender dress reminiscent of ancient garments. “A place where women and their children are safe from the cruelty of men. Lady Diane and her human lover, Elaine, who had been tormented by men, built this place to shelter abused and abandoned women. Sadly, Lady Elaine passed away before she could see their dream become a reality.”

“Diane?” Nadia questioned, her eyebrows furrowing in confusion as she finally walked down the couple of stairs.

“The dryad,” the woman clarified. “Forgive me. I have not introduced myself. My name is Rosa and I am the greeter of newcomers,” she said, putting a hand over her chest then bowing to Nadia.

“Hello. I’m Nadia,” Nadia replied, awkwardly curtsying back. “Are there many…newcomers here?”

“Not as many anymore, but Lady Diane’s tree will appear wherever she is needed,” Rosa shrugged. “Come along. I’ll show you to your new home.”

“Appear?” Nadia repeated, hurrying after her.

“Indeed. I came from the southern desert. Lady Diane’s unique tree appeared when I was left for dead miles away from my home in the rainforest. The villagers had offered me as a sacrifice to an ancient god I can’t even remember the name of. She brought me here. She brought me home. I could never thank her enough,” Rosa spoke solemnly as they walked past the first house. They were all built of pale wooden planks, some painted and some not. Some were big, some were small.  Some had plants hanging outside on the porches, some had furniture, and others had nothing.

“How long have you been here?” Nadia questioned as they traveled down the dirt road toward the center of the large town. Many women smiled and waved as they passed and Rosa cheerfully waved back. Nadia just nodded at them, her face carefully blank.

“I am not sure. Five hundred years, I suppose?” Rosa mused and Nadia gaped at her.

“How is that possible?”

“Crops and livestock grow but we do not. The sun rises and sets but we never age. As long as we remain in this realm, we are untouched by time,” she explained patiently, giving Nadia another gentle smile. “It is hard to process, but you will adjust.”

“So no one ever ages?”

“Not here. Of course, the women and their children are always allowed to leave if they wish. I remember your mother, Angelina. She chose to leave shortly after having you. She didn’t want you to remain a baby forever.”

“Oh,” Nadia breathed, her brows furrowing in confusion as she stared down at her dirty feet. She flinched when she heard a sudden ringing of metal and glanced to her left. A muscular woman raised a hammer high then hit the burning-red block of metal another woman held with tongs on an anvil. A woman further in the back was taking something out of the forge, wearing thick leather gloves and goggles.

“What do you like to do, Nadia?” Rosa suddenly asked, pulling her attention away from the women. Across the street from the forge was another building where several women worked at pottery wheels, designing bowls and pitchers and decorative items.

“Excuse me?” Nadia questioned, looking at her confused.

“We all do our part to help the village thrive. We are given shelter and food and anything we need, but in return, we work. But working doesn’t mean you have to do something undesirable. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, our likes and dislikes. No skill is useless. So, what is it you enjoy doing?”

“I am not sure. I can manage finances well, as is expected of me. I could run the household while my husband was absent, though the valet took most of the responsibilities from me shortly after I arrived. When I was younger, I enjoyed reading, but that isn’t really something I could do for a job, is it?”

“You could,” Rosa said. “We have a library that you could work at. Your mother used to enjoy telling stories to children, so she spent her time at the school until she left,” she explained, gesturing to the large, two-storied building across the square. Several children played in the grass beside the stairs, laughing as they ran around.

“My mother did enjoy telling stories. You know, I think she did tell me about this place. I thought it was just one of her fairytales,” Nadia huffed, giving Rosa a small smile as she remembered. A mystical dryad who appeared to women in need. A place where time never turned, where women lived freely. “When she passed, I tried my best to forget them. I don’t think I could work with books.”

Rosa sighed sadly, nodding in agreement. “Death is hard. People find different ways to cope. Is there anything else you would like? You do not have to decide today. You may try many jobs until you find the right fit. It was only recently I felt comfortable enough to become a greeter.”

“What did you do before that?” Nadia asked.

Rosa smiled. “Many things. Weaving, carpentry, healing, farming, brewing, baking, tending to the animals. The list is endless. With five hundred years, you have the time to learn anything you desire. And with the advancements outside of the realm that newcomers bring in, the learning never stops.”

“That sounds wonderful,” Nadia whispered wistfully, looking around. The women were all so different, in build, height, age, hair color, skin color, clothing, and jobs, but there was one similarity: how happy they all looked. It was incredible. It was so simple, but it was perfect to her.

“And you have time to learn it all as well. Now come, it will soon be time for dinner and I would like you to see your home first,” Rosa said, quickening her pace. She traveled down a side road where more homes were located. It seemed the work buildings were mainly in the town square, with the exceptions of the crops and animal pens.

“Where do you live?” Nadia wondered, looking up at the woman.

“Close to the square, on the other side of the school with my wife,” Rosa replied with another shrug.

“Your wife?” Nadia gasped, astounded.

Rosa grinned down at her. “Yes, my beloved, Xiuying. I met her many years ago. Many women marry for love or even live in houses together to raise children here. It is not something forced upon you, so do not worry. You are free to be yourself here, as long as it harms no one else,” she added, giving Nadia a stern look, and Nadia nodded quickly in agreement. Rosa smiled again, turning to face a small house. “You shall live here, in a single bedroom house, but if you ever wish to adopt one of the many girls who join the realm or marry another woman, you are able to get a bigger house.”

“Here?” Nadia asked dubiously. Her husband’s estate was five times the size of the house. Even her mother and father’s house had been larger.

“Give it a chance,” Rosa encouraged, opening the door and gesturing for her to go inside. Nadia entered, looking around. It was small and plain on the inside as well, yet somehow…comfortable. Her husband’s large manor had felt far too lonely. There was a small kitchen with a stove, oven, sink, and a few cupboards filled with painted dishes and jarred, dried herbs. Several pots and pans hung on the wall above the countertop and a fresh loaf of bread sat on a cutting board. A round table with four chairs sat beside the kitchen while the other half of the room was empty.

“You can decorate this space however you please,” Rosa explained, looking at the empty area. “Most put in sofas and chairs for guests. My wife uses ours to store the quilts she makes in her spare time.”

“That’s the bedroom?” Nadia questioned, nodding at the closed wooden door. Rosa nodded. Inside the room was a wide bed covered with thick, dark blue blankets and a tall dresser. A small vanity with a mirror and washbowl sat by the door, and a wooden partition in the back of the room partially hid a large porcelain tub and toilet. It wasn’t much, but it was hers. Not her parents’, not her husband’s, hers. Tears pooled in her eyes as she turned to Rosa.

“I suppose you like it?” Rosa asked, grinning cheekily.

“Thank you. So much,” Nadia choked out as the tears streamed down her pale cheeks.

“Of course. Now, would you like to get some clothes and shoes before dinner? And see a healer about those wounds,” Rosa said, frowning at the woman’s feet.

“Please,” Nadia said, giving her a sheepish chuckle.

“Of course,” Rosa replied again, smiling at her. Nadia had never felt so weightless, so free before. Or at least not for a long time. She never wanted it to end.


Nadia hummed to herself as she plucked an apple off the tree, sitting at the top of the wooden ladder as she put the fruit in her basket with all the others.

It had already been a week in this wonderful realm, protected by Lady Diane. The day after she arrived, Rosa had shown her around the rest of the town and to the fields and forests, but she had grown the most attached to the orchards.

“Nadia, have you finished? It’s time for lunch,” Pollyanna asked from below her. Her bright red hair that gleamed in the sunlight was short, cut close to her head, and her green eyes shined with joy.

“Not quite!” Nadia called back. Pollyanna had been her second friend, but the first within the orchard. She had shown her how to care for the trees, how to add mulch, how much to water them, how to prune them, how to tell if the fruit was ripe, the best way to pluck the fruit, and so much more. “Go on ahead. I’ll be done shortly!”

“No rush. I’ll wait until you are done,” Pollyanna replied, leaning back against another tree trunk. Nadia smiled down at her then returned to her apple picking. Most importantly, Pollyanna had taught Nadia what it was like to have a friend.

“Finished!” Nadia cheered, hurrying down the ladder.

“Watch out!” Pollyanna shouted, just as Nadia slipped on a step. Nadia fell backward, only for her back to be caught by Pollyanna’s chest. “Careful, now,” Pollyanna teased, grinning up at the blushing woman. She took Nadia’s basket with one arm then curled her other muscular arm around Nadia’s tiny waist, lifting her easily and placing her on the ground. “Don’t want you getting hurt,” she added, smoothing out the wrinkles on her sleeveless tunic unconsciously.

“Thank you,” Nadia whispered, still blushing, then smiled brightly up at her friend. “Are we going to the Willow Tavern to eat today?” Nadia wondered. They usually had a long break and there were many taverns around the town to eat at, all serving different cuisines. Pollyanna took her to a new one each day.

“Khannah gave us the rest of the day off. She wants us to join her and the others at the Paradiso Brewery, if that’s all right with you,” Pollyanna said. “Think of it as a welcome party,” she added, grinning broadly.

“That sounds wonderful,” Nadia agreed, hefting the basket onto her hip.

“Great!” Pollyanna exclaimed. “Come on then, before it gets too late,” she said, tugging Nadia along.

Nadia put her fruit down in the storage barn with the rest of the baskets and closed the door behind her. All of a sudden, the sky was enveloped in darkness. There weren’t even stars above them, just endless black. Screams rang out over the town and Nadia and Pollyanna shared a horrified look.

“What just happened?” Nadia whispered, tensing up as Pollyanna looked around confused.

“I don’t know. This has never happened before,” she admitted. A faint blue light suddenly emitted from deep in the forest and Pollyanna paled. “Lady Elaine,” she gasped, rushing off.

“What?” Nadia shouted, racing after her. “Lady Elaine? Lady Diane’s—“

“Her human lover,” Pollyanna interrupted, her teeth gritted in anger as she pushed through the gathering crowd. Other women parted easily, noting the sword strapped around Pollyanna’s waist. Pollyanna had told her she had once trained to be a warrior, but she had never explained what they were for in this peaceful realm. She wasn’t sure she wanted to find out.

Nadia stuck close to her friend, not wanting to lose her along the path into the woods. It was lined with trees but looked well-traveled. She had never been there before.

“What happened?” Nadia heard a sharp voice snap as they reached the end of the path. A group of women with swords and armor were gathered in the center of the clearing, around a stone box. A coffin, Nadia realized as they went closer. A beautiful woman was carved into the lid, looking like she was sleeping. Petals surrounded the coffin.

“We don’t know, Liora,” a blonde woman spoke to the brunette closest to the coffin.

“We saw the glow, but it didn’t come from the coffin,” another woman with auburn hair spoke up.

“Then where did it come from?” Liora growled.

“It was not Elaine,” a voice spoke up and Diane herself stepped out of the shadows of the trees. The warriors and Pollyanna fell to their knees and bowed with their hands over their chests while the people around Nadia bowed their heads. “My tree is being attacked.”

“What?” Liora asked, looking up at the dryad confused. “How has this happened? The only ones who know where it is are women.”

“Or those who saw another pass through,” Diane spoke sadly, turning to look at Nadia. The woman paled, shaking her head.

“No, no, it couldn’t be,” she whispered, her knees giving out.

“Nadia!” Pollyanna exclaimed, shooting to her feet and clutching Nadia’s trembling hands. Pollyanna looked between Diane and Nadia worriedly. “Who is it, My Lady? Nadia?”

“Claude,” Nadia gasped out, clenching her eyes shut as phantom wounds made her body ache. She forced her eyes open, staring up at Diane tearfully. “He’s still trying to find me.”

“He is, my child,” Diane agreed, frowning. A few leaves fell off of Diane and she looked at the warriors. “He has brought reinforcements. He will take her back by force. You must stop him.”

“No!” Nadia cried out, clutching Pollyanna’s arm to struggle to her feet. “You can’t! You don’t know him. His troops will tear you apart. They know no mercy. He attacked our city and stole me from my home when I was fourteen. He killed my father and mother and forced me to be his wife for three years before I escaped.”

The warriors and Pollyanna looked at Diane unsurely. “If we do nothing, this land will cease to exist,” Diane explained and Liora’s expression hardened as she drew her sword. The other warriors followed her lead, Pollyanna joining them. Diane gave them all a sad smile then disappeared again.

“Please, you don’t understand. He is ruthless,” Nadia tried one last time, but she knew they wouldn’t be swayed. Her happy life was falling to pieces around her all over again.

“We will protect you and the realm Lady Diane created for us,” Pollyanna swore to Nadia then turned her back on her, joining the other warriors.

“No, please,” Nadia whispered, heartbroken. Rosa suddenly appeared at her side along with her wife, who Nadia had met on the second day when they shared dinner together.

“I’m sorry,” Rosa apologized as Liora started barking orders. Some warriors split off, herding the others away from the coffin and back to town.

“Come along, dear,” Xiuying said, resting her hands on Nadia’s shoulders and guiding her along with the crowd. “There’s nothing you can do now.”

Nadia’s fists clenched the material of her dress as she glared forward. There was one thing she could do.

“Where are we going?” Nadia asked, forcing herself to sound defeated as she looked up at Rosa pitiably.

“Let’s go to the Starlight Tavern. You haven’t eaten yet, right?” Rosa asked, glancing at her wife over Nadia’s head. Xiuying nodded in agreement.

“I haven’t,” Nadia replied obediently when they looked down at her. “I have a headache,” she sighed, rubbing her temples.

“Oh, of course. I will go to the healers and get you a pain relief tonic,” Xiuying volunteered and both Rosa and Nadia smiled at her gratefully.

“Thank you, love,” Rosa said, giving her a sweet, short kiss. “Come back as quick as possible,” she added, looking up at the still-dark sky worriedly.

“Of course,” Xiuying said, giving Rosa a bright smile before she hurried off.

“Come on, we’d better go before the tables fill up,” Rosa murmured, still staring at her wife’s back.

“Yes,” Nadia nodded, letting the woman guide her to the tavern. Nadia settled down at a table closest to the exit.

“I’ll go get us some drinks. I think we need them now,” Rosa joked, smiling weakly when Nadia just frowned at the table. The woman walked off with a sigh and Nadia watched her closely. As soon as Rosa was out of sight, hidden by other women at the bar, Nadia hopped out of her seat and rushed out the door toward the portal. She wouldn’t let anyone die because of her.

Nadia stumbled as the ground trembled underneath them, pitching her forward as wood creaked and items shattered in the houses around her. She held onto the side of a building to stay upright until the tremor died down. A baby cried inside the home as a woman tried to shush her, singing a shaky, calming melody. Nadia grit her teeth, pushing forward.

No one was guarding the portal. No one was nearby. She crept up to the stone stairs, swallowing thickly as she stared up at the silvery surface. She walked up the stairs, clenching her fists so tight her palms bled as she gathered her courage again. This time to go back to her husband instead of run from him. She took a deep breath and stepped forward into the liquid-like substance.

“Nadia, no!” she heard Pollyanna cry out behind her and then she heard nothing. She waded through the liquid, her sky-blue gown flowing around her legs as her black slippers tapped against the ground. She reached the darkness at the end of the tunnel then finally stepped through.

 “I’m here,” she spoke once she landed softly on the dirt floor of the forest she had disappeared from, sounding much more confident than she felt. The men sawing through the tree froze, staring at her in shock.

“You’ve returned,” Lord Claude spoke darkly, his arms crossed over his chest as a displeased frown twisted his lips. Nadia fought to hold back a flinch. That tone never meant good things for her.

“I have,” she whispered, swallowing thickly as he stepped closer.

“And where is it that you disappeared to?” he asked, glancing at the tree behind her as it twisted shut again.

“Darkness. Cold and lonely,” she bit out, remembering his estate. She shivered and wrapped her arms around herself when his eyes raked over her form.

“Interesting. And they have clothes in this darkness?” he mocked, fingering the straps of her dress.

“I left our home in this,” Nadia replied, her breath hitching when his fingers trailed up her neck.

Our home, is it?” he asked then suddenly wrapped his hand around her throat, lifting her up so she choked. “Is that what you thought as you were running away that night?” he growled.

“P-please, My Lord! I was…not in my right mind!” she choked out, grasping his hand but not daring to pry his fingers away as her toes barely touched the ground.

“Release her,” a voice spoke and the men still standing around Diane’s tree gasped and scrambled away as the dryad came out of the tree trunk. She glared at Claude, who only looked curiously back at her as he kept Nadia aloft. Nadia’s vision started to go black as she tried to suck in air then suddenly she was dropped to the ground. She curled in on herself, breathing in deeply as tears ran down her cheeks. He had nearly killed her.

“What are you?” Claude asked, holding a hand out. His valet, Bromir, passed him his sword. Claude unsheathed it in a single fluid movement, pointing the blade at Diane’s neck. The dryad didn’t even flinch.

“Diane. Run,” Nadia begged, her voice hoarse.

“You will not lay another hand on my child,” Diane hissed, her hair starting to float around her head as the silver light emanating from her body brightened.

Claude scoffed. “You care for that pathetic waste of a woman? Regretfully, I don’t take orders from trees,” he spat, whirling around. Nadia’s eyes widened in horror as he raised his blade overhead, facing her. She shut her eyes, waiting for the blow, the pain, only to hear a grunt above her.

“You shall not harm her,” Diane whispered and Nadia’s eyes shot open, gasping when she saw a tree limb pierced through Claude’s chest.  He stared down at the tree limb in disbelief then fell to his knees, dropping the sword beside him. Nadia scrambled back, leaping to her feet when Diane gestured for her and hid behind the dryad.

“My Lord,” Bromir breathed in horror as the man toppled over, dead. “Attack!” Bromir shouted, pulling out a dagger and rushing forward. Five soldiers out of fifty joined him, only to meet the same fate as their master. “Y-you bitch,” the valet choked out through a mouthful of blood before he went down.

“Run!”

“Run for your lives!” other soldiers shouted, fleeing before Diane could turn on them. As soon as they had all disappeared, Diane staggered forward then collapsed, clutching her heart.

“Lady Diane!” Nadia exclaimed, holding her up. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m weak,” she admitted, glancing back at her tree. The two-manned saw had cut halfway through her trunk.

“What can I do?” Nadia asked, laying the dryad down so her head was pillowed on the woman’s lap. The dryad’s flowers were falling out of her hair and her fingertips were turning black. Tears pooled in Nadia’s eyes, quickly spilling over.

“I can open the portal one last time, but you must do something for me,” Diane said, looking up at her strongly.

“Anything! Oh, Lady Diane, I’m so sorry,” Nadia cried. “This is all my fault.”

“Hush, child, and listen,” Diane said, smiling softly. “I may not have known this would happen to me when I met you, but I do not regret bringing you to safety. You are my child, just like all the women before you, and I will not hesitate to protect all my children.”

“But I—“ Nadia choked out and Diane raised a finger to the human’s lips, stopping her.

“Take this,” Diane said, taking Nadia’s hand and pressing a glowing golden seed into her palm. She closed the woman’s fingers around it and Nadia noted the decay had reached the top of Diane’s arms and her thighs. “This will grow a new tree, another dryad, so our legacy can continue. You will be protected.”

“Come back with me. We can plant it together,” Nadia sobbed and Diane hushed her again.

“I don’t have much time left. I will entrust this to you. Goodbye, child,” Diane said, giving her one last confident yet gentle smile as the decay crept up her face. Then she closed her eyes for a final time. She breathed in deep and then laid still.

“Diane?” Nadia asked, her voice cracking as she moved a piece of the dryad’s hair from her face, and then the dryad’s body collapsed in on itself, turning to dirt and bits of leaves in her arms and lap. “No!” Nadia screamed, grasping at the dirt. “Come back. Come back!” The tree creaked behind her and Nadia whirled around, watching the graying tree twist open once more. Nadia swallowed back another wave of tears, clutching the seed in her hands as she stood.

She moved through the portal without glancing back. The light was the dimmest she had ever seen and the floor was shaky. She hurried as fast as she could, throwing herself out the other side just before the tree collapsed behind her, crumbling to dirt just as Diane had.

“Nadia! What happened? Where is Lady Diane? The portal wouldn’t open. Nadia, please, tell us what happened,” Pollyanna begged, looking frightened as Nadia stumbled down the stairs from the ruined portal. Nadia fell into her arms, sobbing loudly as she ignored the crowd gathering behind the warriors.

“She’s gone,” Nadia whispered and Pollyanna stiffened, clutching Nadia tighter. Nadia slowly pulled away, holding out the seed Diane had left her. “She wants us to plant this, so a new dryad will protect this place.”

“Then we must respect her wishes,” Liora spoke up, stepping forward with a hard expression on her face. Nadia looked down guiltily. “You are not to blame for Lady Diane’s demise. She protected all of us, and will continue to do so even though she is no longer here,” the warrior assured her, smiling softly.

“You’re right,” Nadia agreed, nodding shakily as she wiped away her tears. She turned to Pollyanna, smiling weakly. “Let’s plant it together,” she said and Pollyanna grinned at her.

“Okay,” Pollyanna agreed, squeezing her hand lightly. They worked together to dig a hole in the center of the former tree’s remains as the other villagers watched on in silence. Once they buried the seed, Khannah and two other workers, Heather and Jamila, brought a full watering can to them. “Ready?” Pollyanna asked, holding one side.

“Yes,” Nadia agreed and they tilted it over. The ground started to shake as a sprout suddenly popped out of the earth. The pair quickly backed away as the tree grew rapidly, the base splitting into four trunks that braided together, becoming fully grown within seconds. The leaves were bright green and the bark was white, striped with black. Once the tree settled, the leaves rustling in the wind, the sky suddenly turned back to blue and the sun shined down on them, making the women and children cheer. Then they fell silent again, waiting anxiously.

A head popped out of the tree, making several people jump. The dryad yawned, covering her mouth as she floated out of the bark. She was entirely green from her head to her toes, without any flowers decorating her hair. She looked like a young adult, younger than Diane had looked at least, and leaves covered her figure to resemble a short dress. She finally opened her eyes and smiled brightly, clapping her hands together as she looked at all of them. “Hi!” she chirped. “My name is Amara. I’m your new protector. My mother told me all about you!” she said, making a few people gasp while others broke out in sobs.

“Welcome, Lady Amara,” Liora spoke, stepping forward and kneeling down, bowing to the new dryad with her hand over her chest. The warriors followed her while Nadia and the other women and children bowed their heads to Amara. The dryad smiled gently at them, so much like her mother it made Nadia’s heart ache.

“It will be a pleasure getting to know all of you,” Amara replied, her voice sincere, and Nadia gripped Pollyanna’s hand as they stood, smiling brightly at her. Amara looked to the pair, her eyes twinkling, then turned and pressed her palm to the birch tree. The braided trunk slowly unwound, revealing a shimmering portal that glowed gold instead of silver.


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