Note- 3rd in the South Wood series.
What could have Thaddeus meant by “I am going to be important”? I’m just an eighteen-year-old girl from a quiet village. I haven’t even kissed a boy yet for goodness sake! I am only the daughter of a scullery cook and a kind-hearted man. What importance could I have to magical beings? I wish that I’d gotten to ask him that yesterday. No sooner than he told me that than we had gotten back to the village and found it a whirl of activity. Thaddeus had ducked under my hair when he saw all the people around.
People were shouting and running every which way. I spotted Solis, the Butcher, yelling at his sons as they struggled to carry a massive hog into his shop. Solis himself was bringing at least 3 turkeys into the shop as he tried to get the boys to hurry up.
Across the square from the butcher’s shop, many of the village women were sweeping and tidying up the square. Other women were planting flowers on either side of the road into town. Still, other women were ordering about the men in their own attempts to keep the village looking proper. In front of the town hall, Yantis, the town’s carpenter, was building what looked like a stage.
I spotted my friend, Zachery, helping Yantis out with his project. Whatever they were doing, it must be important for Kamita to let him out of his smithy duties. Zach’s black hair was wet from sweat, and his face was streaked with dirt when I approached. His broad chest bulged as he moved some woods planks closer to where Yantis was working.
“What in the world is going on?” I asked him, I had never seen the square so full of bustle and activity.
“Where were you, under a rock? Did you miss the elders-” Zach turned to look at me, stopping in mid-sentence and staring at my shoulder. “What is that, and what is it wearing?”
I had almost forgotten about Thaddeus and his eggs riding on my shoulder. “Thaddeus, you should go into my bag for now. I don’t want too many people to see you.”
Thaddeus nodded in agreement and crawled down my arm into my knapsack. I’m glad he didn’t try and argue. The last thing I needed was even more questions from Zach.
Zach’s mouth dropped open. “Did you just talk to it? And it understood you?”
“Zach, I promise I will explain later. Right now, please tell me what is going on here?”
“I think you’d better explain. And tell me what happened yesterday too.” Zach closed his mouth with a huff. “The elders announced that the prince is going to be visiting tomorrow. “
Now it was my turn for my mouth to drop open. “The prince?” no wonder everyone was in an uproar. I can’t recall a time where the Royals had ever visited Southwind before. At least, not in my lifetime. Part of me feared that my trips into the South Wood were the reason for the royal visit. But that was impossible…right?
Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a plump woman in an apron charging toward me. One of my mother’s friends had caught sight of me. “Lexie, your mother has been looking all over for you! She needs your help cooking the feast for tomorrow.”
The rest of the day had passed in a crazy mix of chopping, boiling, and roasting. Being a scullery cook’s daughter can be exhausting sometimes. When I finally was able to get away from everyone, I was too tired to ask Thaddeus any of my questions. I had barely had the energy to get him tucked away in one of my drawers before I fell asleep, my clothes still on.
This morning was more of the same, Mother had me up before the sun, rushing around town doing errands. Now here I am stuck in yet another field, picking berries my mother just needed to have for a pie. The berries at the market just wouldn’t do, “The prince deserves only the freshest berries!” she told me before shooing me out of the house.
The berries grew plentifully in this field because of a small stream that ran through it. Just deep enough to go swimming in.
My heart yearned to join the young people of the village camped out up the road, just waiting for the Prince to arrive.
The stream ran through their campsite, and I could picture all the children laughing and playing in the water while they waiting for the royal carriage to come through. At least they weren’t sweating like crazy trying to get enough berries for pies for the whole town.
But I am no longer a kid, adult responsibilities fall on me now, so I have to help get everything ready. I thought for a moment, and as an adult, there was no one to stop me from dipping my feet in and take a break for a few minutes.
I slipped off my shoes and dangled them into the cold water. I had a lot to think about anyway. The water flowing off the rocks created a gentle mist that cooled my skin in the summer sun.
Honestly, the prince arriving in town was rather low on my priority list. I had a hedgehog with magic eggs I had to help care for, young twins that may blab our secret adventures in the woods to anyone who would listen and an outlawed dagger in my knapsack. Oh, and apparently the ability to talk to magical creatures now too. It was a lot for anyone to handle, let alone a girl who, up until a few days ago, had a seemingly normal life.
I was so absorbed in my thoughts; I almost missed the sounds of splashing coming towards me. When I finally looked up, I saw two young men who seemed to be racing down the stream. The blond in front slapped one of the rocks across from me and yelled, “Ha! Beat ya again, Tyrie!”
The brunet behind him was seemingly gasping for air, “So you did, Fish.”.
Before ‘Fish’ answered, he turned and noticed me sitting on the stream bank.
“Sorry if we disturbed you, miss!” He called out swimming closer to me, “I can’t ever deny the urge to swim if the opportunity presents itself. We were headed to Southwind to do some trading, and this stream was too good for me to pass up.”
I gave them a questioning look, “Now isn’t the best time to come to town for trade.” I told them as I stood up and dried my feet on the grass. I slid my still damp feet back into my slippers. “The prince is coming for a visit, and the whole village is in upheaval right now.”
“The prince, you say?” The brunet asked, also swimming closer. “What is he doing out here in the middle of nowhere?”
I fought the urge to roll my eyes. “How should I know? Just head back to your own village and come back to trade when all the craziness had faded. You aren’t allowed to swim in this part of the stream anyway.”
Both boys came over to the river bank I was on and pulled themselves out of the stream. I shifted my gaze when I realized that they were only dressed in their underwear. Their lean bodies showed that they must spend a lot of time staying active.
The blond seems to notice my bashfulness and got closer. “I’m Ravi, but you can call me Fish. This is my friend, Tyrie.”
Tyrie gave a little wave, and Fish held out his hand. “Lexie,” I grumbled, shaking it quickly and letting go.
“Maybe she is right. We should come back another day.” Tyrie looked over at Fish.
Fish was staring at the other bank of the stream. Across the water stood the forbidden edge of the South Wood. One of the other reasons swimming in this part of the stream was frowned upon. Couldn’t risk someone getting turned around and climbing out on the wrong bank.
“Do you hear that, Tyrie?” He cocked his head like a dog, almost as if he was trying to hear better. “I hear voices coming from there. A woman. It sounds like she is in trouble.”
Both Tyrie and I listened but heard nothing. I don’t know what I expected.
“That is the South Wood.” I warned them, “Don’t trust what you hear. You better get back to your own village.”
“I’m telling you I hear something. Someone is in trouble” With that, Fish was dashing across the rocks and into the other bank. Tyrie muttered a swear and went after him.
These woods are going to kill me. How can I go eighteen years without needing to enter them and now I might have to go in a third time in three days? But those boys are unarmed and obviously don’t have a clue what those woods are capable of. What choice did I have but to help them? I might not know them, but I can’t have their blood on my hands. I followed them across, drawing my dagger as soon as I landed on the south bank.
The path they made through the dense underbrush was easy to follow. They couldn’t have gotten that far ahead of me. I followed as quickly as I could, listening for any sign of the boys, or whatever Fish had heard.
Soon, I came into a clearing where there was a giant willow tree at the center. I saw Tyrie pacing around not far from the tree. When I approached, he turned to me, eyes wide. “The Tree! It..it ate Fish, the willows came out of nowhere and hauled him into its branches!”
A magical willow tree, then, I glanced down at the gems in my dagger. Here goes nothing. These gems are supposed to make it so I can talk to magical creatures, and a magic tree counts, I hope.
“Tree. I order you to release that boy.”
The response was so subtle I almost did not hear it.
It came like a whisper on the wind.
‘My prey. My meal.’
“Tree, this is your only warning. I will defend that boy. Release him.”
I shifted my grip on the dagger, trying to bring it into an attack position.
The sunlight caught the gems, forcing the gleam right onto the tree.
The willows of the tree reared back from the green glow, it was like the light from them burned it. I could hear the tree scream on the wind.
With a whipping gust, Fish was dropped out of the branches with a thump. He had some scratch and bumps, and he looked dazed but alright. Tyrie hurried forward and helped Fish to his feet.
“Move it, guys,” I commanded them. I didn’t take my eyes off the tree. “Both of you, back to the edge of the clearing.” I sensed them linger a moment then saw them retreat to the forest line.
I slowly backed up, fearing the tree would attack if I turned my back. The fierce whipping of its willows and leaves did nothing to dispel that fear.
Soon, I could see Fish and Tyrie out of the corner of my eye. We were out of reach of that crazy tree, but who knows what else was waiting in these woods.
“Do you know the way back?” I barked, trying to catch my breath.
They both shook their heads. Of course, they didn’t.
“Just follow me, but hurry. There could more dangers just waiting for us to lower our guard.”
With that, I turned and ran. I could feel the boys right behind me as we made our way towards the field. Before long, we were back on the south bank of the stream. We collapsed on the grass, too tired to get to the other bank.
After a while, I sat up and looked at the boys, the fact they were in their underwear no longer embarrassed me, considering I just saved their lives. “That is why we don’t go into the South Woods. You can’t tell anyone what happened. Entering the South Woods is forbidden by the king. Who knows what would happen to us if someone found out we went in there.”
Fish looked at me, his green eyes wide “What could be worse than being eaten by a tree?”
“Banishment, for one.” I got back to my feet. “Now, promise me.”
“We will promise if you tell us how you talked to that tree.” Tyrie’s brown eyes were like stone. “Don’t even try to deny it. I heard you. “
*Why it was a gift from me.* a familiar green glow appeared out of a small mushroom I hadn’t noticed before.
Both boys jumped to their feet, eyes locked on the glowing figure.
“It’s ok. She’s a….friend. Her name is Lightfoot.” I put up a hand to calm them. “She means no harm.”
*You are making quite a stir around here, Lexie.* Lightfoot floated up towards me. In the daylight, I could see that she was not just a glowing ball but, in fact, a tiny woman with bright wings. *Going up against the shadow, whispering willow, and gnomes all in a few days.*
I crossed my arms. “What choice did I have?” I caught myself. I did not want to find out what it was like being on her bad side.
*Oh, you had many choices. The choices you did make show why you are so important. They show why you are the protector. You proved that you are not only willing to risk yourself to protect your family but also strangers and magical beings.*
“I am only a scullery cook’s daughter, I am so not important. Never mind any sort of protector.”
*I am the forest spirit, I have been the guardian spirit of this forest for centuries. I have given you the blessing of the forest. Do not question my judgment or my gifts. The forest has chosen you, you are the protector. All creatures of the wood must listen to you now. There is more to those stones than meet the eye. Just like with you.* She floated closer to me. And in a voice only I could hear whispered:
*You must travel to the mountains, the oceans, and into the sky. There are other blessings you must earn. Other qualities you must prove you have. Other Spirits you must prove yourself to. Prove to all I made the correct choice.*
With that, she was gone. She left me with more questions than answers, really. What did she mean I needed to prove she made the right choice?
I was yanked out of my thoughts when Fish cleared his throat.
“Uh, what was that all about?”
“Look, boys, I’ve had a crazy few days. How about you go back to where ever you came from and forget all this happened?” I hopped across the stream, picked up my basket of berries I’d nearly forgotten in all the craziness “I don’t have time to figure this all out now. I need to get these back to my mother and finish getting ready for the prince’s arrival.”
I could feel their eyes boring into my back as I headed back to my own village, but all I wanted to think about was the berry basket and getting it back to my mother.
As worrisome as the Forest Spirit’s words were, they would be nothing compared to my mother’s fury if she didn’t get the pies made on time. That was not wrath that any magic gems would protect me from, no matter how important I am.