by Judy Lunsford
Shandoah ran through the forest, smacking the trees who were sleeping, just to wake them up. She giggled as she ran and savored the smells of spring as they were stirred up by her feet kicking up the moss and soil.
Shandoah loved spring. Most dryads did, although she couldn’t understand how they possibly could if they were still asleep. In the spring, Shandoah couldn’t contain her joy, hence the running and the giggling.
She could hear the angry shouts of the older dryad behind her, rousing from their hibernation. She ignored them and kept running.
Her bare feet slapped against the ground, intentionally splashing through the puddles left behind by a warm spring rain that she had enjoyed earlier that morning. Her toes squished in the cold mud and she loved the sound it made.
When she reached the clearing, she finally stopped. The sun was shining down through the gray clouds that were being blown away by the breeze. She took in the warmth and watched as the birds started to come out from their shelters to join her in the sunlight.
She spread her arms wide and soaked in spring. She relished the fact that the long winter was over and that, once again, sleep would be reserved only for night.
“Shandoah, come here,” a loud voice said from behind her.
Shandoah cringed and she turned slowly to face the direction of the voice she knew all too well.
“Grandfather,” she said sheepishly. Shandoah realized that in her haste, she must have slapped him as well.
“What is the meaning of your disturbance?” he demanded.
Her grandfather was standing in the clearing, also in his elven form. Shandoah could remember when they got along. When he spent more time playing with her and telling her stories while she sat on his knee, rather than lecturing her and yelling at her loud enough to scatter the birds back into the treetops.
“It’s spring,” Shandoah couldn’t hide the glee from her voice.
“Yes, it is spring,” her grandfather said, as he smoothed out his long gray beard. “But that is no excuse for your behavior.”
“I’m so sorry,” she looked down at her feet and noticed tiny little flowers were already peeking their way up through the grass. “I just couldn’t contain myself.”
“Well, try,” her grandfather snapped. “You’ve awoken the whole tribe with your antics.”
“Good,” Shandoah said before she could bite her tongue.
She knew it was a mistake as soon as she said it.
“Good?” her grandfather took a step towards her. “You think your disgraceful behavior is acceptable?”
Shandoah felt a surge of bravery, or possibly stupidity, and said, “Yes! It’s spring! Everyone should be awake.”
Her grandfather took a breath to respond, but before he could, Shandoah let out a screech and then with a whooping yell and turned on her heel to run once again.
She hollered the whole way through the clearing and almost slipped in the mud as she splashed through another puddle that was a little deeper than she expected.
When she was sure that she had run far enough, she looked back through the maple and elm trees to make sure her grandfather hadn’t followed her. She knew he wouldn’t. He was too dignified to run. They all were, and that made her angry all of a sudden.
She looked around at the trees that were already showing their vividly green leaves. The sun was shining and it was a wonderfully warm morning. She couldn’t understand how they could possibly still sleep.
She watched the birds cheerfully singing and flitting from branch to branch overhead. She caught sight of one of her favorites, a gorgeous robin, as it gathered materials from the ground. She watched in wonder as it flew up to where he and his mate were furiously building their nest.
“They’re missing it,” she whispered. “They’re missing all of this.”
“Of course they are,” a tiny voice said from behind her.
Shandoah wasn’t expecting a response. She whipped around to see a forest sprite hovering in the air nearby. The sprite was wearing the magenta petals of a fireweed as a dress. Shandoah could smell the petals from where she was standing, so the flowers were fresh.
“I love your new dress,” Shandoah said to her.
The forest sprite touched the petals and giggled, “Thank you, I made it this morning.”
“What’s your name?” Shandoah asked.
“Sheyla,” the forest sprite said. “What’s yours?”
Shandoah,” she answered.
“That’s an interesting name,” Shayla said.
“My mother is an interesting dryad,” Shandoah said.
“Is that so?” Sheyla said. “I will have to meet her sometime. I like interesting creatures.”
Shandoah was distracted by another robin, flitting around on the ground nearby.
“Where are the other dryads?” Shayla asked.
“They are still working on waking up from hibernation.”
“Then why are you so awake?” Shayla asked.
Shandoah shrugged, “I seem to have more energy than most dryads.”
“Oh lovely,” Shayla said and she clapped her hands together with glee.
“What’s lovely?” Shandoah asked.
“You’re an interesting creature yourself,” the sprite said.
“I don’t know about that,” Shandoah answered. “I seem to always be getting into trouble because of my energy.”
Shayla smiled, “Exactly.”
Shandoah shuffled her feet in the fresh dew on the grass at her feet.
“I was exploring the forest to see who else is awake,” Shandoah said. “Would you like to join me?”
“Absolutely!” the sprite squealed. “I saw some of the most beautiful flowers over in a meadow, deeper in the forest. Would you like to see?”
“Yes,” Shandoah said. “Lead the way.”
The sprite turned and flew off ahead of Shandoah. She knew that sprites were creatures that were not to be trusted, but she was aching for adventure. She didn’t see the harm in allowing a sprite to show her some early spring flowers in a meadow.
Shandoah followed her new friend. Sprites were surprisingly fast and Shandoah had to run as fast as she could to keep up.
The forest flashed by her in a blur as she kept her eyes fixed on the sprite and her little magenta dress as she darted through the trees. They went deeper and deeper into the forest, until they were in an area that even Shandoah was unfamiliar with.
When they reached the meadow, Shayla stopped so suddenly that Shandoah raced right past the sprite before she could will her feet to stop.
She skidded to a halt with a yelp and slid in the wet grass for another few feet before her motion finally ceased.
It was too late.
Shandoah slammed right into an ancient tree, rattling its branches almost as much as it rattled the teeth in her head.
The impact knocked the wind out of Shandoah. As she staggered backwards, gasping for air, she felt as if some of her magic had been knocked out of her as well.
“Are you all right?” Shayla asked.
“Stay quiet,” Shandoah said. “Maybe it didn’t wake him.”
Shandoah’s heart filled with dread and fear as she recognized the tree. It was one of the ancient ones. But worse than that, it was petrified.
There was only one tree in the ancient forest that was petrified.
Anyon. He was a rogue of the ancients. He was petrified for crimes that were so old, Shandoah couldn’t remember them. But she knew they had something to do with humans.
He hated them. Anyon wanted to eradicate them.
Dryads had no love for humans, but they didn’t wish them harm either. They only wanted to live in peace, hidden away from human eyes.
But Anyon had tried to create dissent. He wanted a war. Shandoah racked her brain for what she had been taught about him. She remembered blood.
He had killed humans that wandered into the forest.
So, he had been petrified. His prison was hidden deep in the forest, where it was forbidden for dryads to tread.
Where Shandoah was forbidden to be.
This was a punishable offence.
“We have to leave,” Shandoah whispered.
“No, wait,” Shayla squealed. “You have to watch.”
“Watch what?’ Shandoah asked.
That’s when Shandoah noticed the robin.
Her beloved favorite of the birds.
There was one at the base of Anyon. Dead. Its neck had been broken and cut, the bird’s blood seeping into Anyon’s roots. There was a circle of flowers from the meadow surrounding the base of the tree.
Shandoah looked at the sprite in horror.
“You’re trying to wake him up,” Shandoah said.
She spoke in a normal voice this time. Her whisper was lost somewhere in her shock and fear.
“I only needed one last ingredient,” Shayla giggled. “The touch of a dryad.”
She had been part of the spell. Shayla had lured her here on purpose.
“You used me,” Shandoah said. “To wake him up?”
“We need him,” Shayla said. “Don’t you see? Too many humans have been encroaching into our forest. We need him.”
“No,” Shandoah said. “No, we don’t.”
Anyon’s branches started to shake.
“I have to go,” Shandoah turned and stumbled over her own feet trying to get out of the clearing.
“Wait,” Shayla called out to her. “We still need you to finish the spell.”
Shandoah was off and running again.
This time it was not fueled by the joy of spring. Her running was fueled by fear and horror. And the need to tell the others what she had done.
She would be punished. She knew this.
But her grandfather needed to know that Anyon was free.
Her grandfather would be the first one Anyon came after. He was the leader of the dryads, and would have to be done away with in order for Anyon to make any headway with leading the dryads to war.
She had to tell him. Now.
Shandoah ran as fast as her legs could carry her through the forest.
When she finally arrived back at her grove, a few more of the dryads had awakened. Some were still in their tree form, but many were in their elven form.
“Grandfather,” Shandoah cried. “Grandfather, I need to speak with you.”
Her grandfather turned and looked at her. His long gray beard swished in the breeze as he turned.
“Anyon,” she said between breaths. “He’s awake.”
The other dryads gasped in horror. The forest went completely silent. All eyes were on Shandoah as she tried to catch her breath.
“What do you mean, he’s awake?” her grandfather asked. “How?”
“A forest sprite, she cast a spell,” Shandoah said. She was aware that all the dryads were listening to her now. But she didn’t care. They had to know.
“She would need the touch of a dryad to wake him,” her grandfather said.
Shandoah could feel all the eyes of the dryads on her now. She looked around and saw that most were now awake and she felt their eyes boring into her. She could feel their eyes as if they were tearing right through to her soul.
“She tricked me,” was all Shandoah could manage.
Her grandfather sighed and looked at the ground.
Shandoah could hear the murmurs starting among the other dryads.
It was the first day of spring and Shandoah, the troublemaker, had already brought ruin upon them all.
“There’s still another part of the spell that must be completed,” her grandfather said.
“How do we know the sprite hasn’t done it already?’ Shandoah asked.
“Because you’re still alive,” her grandfather said.
Shandoah stared at her grandfather wide-eyed. “He has to kill me?”
Her grandfather nodded gravely. “Only the elders can break the spell without blood.”
“So, what do we do now?” Shandoah asked.
“You must leave,” her grandfather said.
“Leave?” Shandoah stared at her grandfather in disbelief. “For how long?”
“Forever,” her grandfather said. “You have broken dryad law by releasing a petrified without permission.”
“But I didn’t mean to,” Shandoah started.
“It doesn’t matter,” her grandfather said. “He is bound to the forest and cannot leave its boundaries until he takes your blood. You must leave, so that we may fix your blunder. But you are banished because you broke dryad law by releasing him, unintentional or not.”
“But grandfather,” Shandoah could feel the sting of tears in her eyes. “Where would I go?”
He shook his head sadly, “That is for you to decide.”
Shandoah felt like the wind was knocked out of her again as her grandfather and the other dryads turned their backs on her and disappeared into the forest.
She was left, standing alone in the empty grove, with no other dryads except her mother.
Shandoah couldn’t bring her eyes up to meet her mother’s eyes. She couldn’t stand to see the disappointment that she knew was there.
“My sweet child,” her mother whispered.
Shandoah still couldn’t meet her eyes, so her mother cupped Shandoah’s chin and lifted her face towards her own. Her mother’s hands were rough, like the bark of a tree, but they felt like the only bit of happiness that was left for Shandoah to hold on to. Her mother had stayed. She was the only one who had not turned her back on Shandoah.
“My child,” her mother said softly. “Go to the swamps to the south. I have a friend there.”
“A friend?” Shandoah couldn’t remember her mother ever leaving the forest.
“When I was young, I was full of energy, like you,” her mother said. Her hand slid down and took Shandoah’s hand in hers. “You get your exuberance from me.”
Shandoah managed a half-laugh. She had always wished to be like her mother.
“I ran away for a time when I was young,” her mother said.
“You?” Shandoah gasped.
“Yes,” her mother nodded. “Your grandfather was even stricter with me, if you can believe it.”
Shandoah nodded. She could believe it. Being his daughter had to have higher expectations than being his granddaughter.
“Go find Arrose,” her mother said. “She is a water elemental and the queen of the swamps. She will protect you and give you shelter. There are many runaways that find refuge there.”
“A water elemental?” Shandoah had heard rumors of the elementals. None of them were good.
“She has a good heart,” her mother said. “She takes in those that need homes. The swamp is a refuge.”
Shandoah nodded. “I’ll find her.”
“Tell her you are my daughter,” her mother said. “She’ll understand.”
“You’re staying?” Shandoah’s eyes filled with tears.
“I have to,” her mother said. “It will be me that is needed to fix the spell that has been broken.”
“But you’ll be all right?” Shandoah asked.
Her mother nodded, choking back tears. “And so will you.”
Shandoah threw her arms around her mother. “I’m so sorry.”
“I know,” her mother said. “Now go. Find Arrose.”
Her mother let go of her and took a step back.
Shandoah took one last look at her mother and gave her a weak smile. “I love you.”
“I love you too,” her mother said. And then she turned her back on Shandoah and disappeared into the forest.
Shandoah choked back the tears once again. The first day of spring had already been forgotten. She had to find Arrose. A water elemental was now her only hope.
Shandoah turned to the south and started to run.
Copyright © 2021 by Judy Lunsford
Cover and layout copyright © by Judy Lunsford & Don Williamson
Cover art copyright © wenani/depositphotos.com