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The Long Way Home

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He woke to the screech of an owl and the sound of wings flapping, but couldn’t think on it long, for he realized immediately afterward that he couldn’t breathe.

His eyes flew open as he tried to suck in a panicked breath, finding only dirt flooding into his nose and stinging his eyes. A crushing weight over the entirety of his body only served to confirm the dreaded truth.

I’ve been buried alive.

He screamed, or at least attempted it. A whimper erupted from his nostrils, which, under the circumstances, was significant in itself. It also informed the one small remaining portion of his brain that was still able to process information rationally of an important fact: there was some room in his earthy prison for air to move. The dirt piled atop him could be moved. It hadn’t been packed down.

With this in mind, he began his escape attempts in earnest. At first, he found he couldn’t move so much as a finger or toe, but as he struggled to cough, to breathe, to do anything, movement became easier . . . with agonizing sluggishness. Soon he was wiggling his fingers and toes. Shortly thereafter, he was clawing and kicking. He managed a cough, and then another, even as more dirt flooded into his mouth and nose. He found he could spit it back out again, briefly, and could draw in a small amount of air.

Just as he was beginning to think that he would lose consciousness and die after all, he felt the tip of his foot moving freely in the air above.

The grave is shallow!

With all his might, he willed himself to sit up. He kicked. He dug. The dirt moved around him. With two final pushes, his face broke free to the surface. He spat and coughed, he vomited and wept, and he sucked in breath after wheezing, glorious breath.

Soon his arms were free, and he pulled the rest of himself out of the dirt, finally coming to rest on his stomach, atop the soil that had covered him. Blinded both by the remaining dirt in his eyes and the brightness of the world around him, he let his tears wash away the first problem just as his continued retching and coughing purged his lungs, throat and sinuses.

With every convulsion, be it a cough, gag or sob, he felt anew the burning pain in his gut that had landed him in this situation. He didn’t look down at it, even when his eyes cleared: it could wait to be dealt with. He was alive: that was enough for the moment, despite the horrors that came with it.

After what felt like hours but was likely only a fraction of one, his coughing dissolved to deep, shaking breaths. His eyes no longer burned, and his vision cleared and sharpened. He could see the Tree of Life several yards away, so immense as to blot out most everything else within his viewing range. Not that anything else would have been of any interest to him at that moment, regardless: The petals of its flowers fluttering endlessly through the air around him almost seemed celebratory in welcoming and beckoning him. He remembered how smooth its bark had felt when he’d reclined against one of its massive roots just before losing consciousness. The soft colour of it, like skin, promised the comfort of human touch and warmth. Its many branches, some as long as the trees surrounding them were tall, lovingly embraced the forest that housed it, and the sky above.

This was the tree that he and Naiee[1] had traveled so far and endured so much to get to. This was the tree he needed now, as the gaping hole in his abdomen urgently reminded him with every sharp throb.

Naiee. Where is Naiee?

He pulled himself to his hands and knees. Even free of the dirt, his every movement was laborious, as if he were struggling to navigate through tar. His throat was raw and parched, and he could only imagine the puddle of blood he must have been leaving behind him as he crawled forward, towards the Tree of Life. He tried to call out for his brother, but his voice came out in feeble croaks at best.

“Nai . . . ee? N-Nai . . . eeee?”

He started coughing again, and gave up on trying to summon forth his absent sibling for the moment, instead focusing the entirety of his efforts on reaching the tree. When he’d accomplished this, exhaling his relief and joy as he caressed the bark, his next goal was to make it to the top of the tree, following the path through hollowed-out portions of its trunk and worn-down paths along its winding branches. From ground level, the task felt impossible: he was worn out just from crawling a few metres across flat land.

But his brother needed him. His father needed him. He would do this.

Getting there took him until dusk, but as he ascended, he found movement become gradually easier. He still remained on his hands and knees all the way to the top, but he was able to do so more quickly as he went along, until exhaustion forced him to slow down again. His body felt lighter – more like what he was used to.

As he dragged himself onto a final landing, he saw a gentle glow coming from a central platform, and tears filled his eyes again. With a last, elated burst of energy he threw himself at it, draping himself over its side to shovel greedy handfuls of the cool, clean, glimmering water housed within the apparently natural basin over his cracked lips and into his arid mouth. Once his thirst was slaked, he slumped down to the floor and finally allowed himself to rest. He still needed to find Naiee and get back to their father, but that would have to wait. His body would take him no further. He sank into what must have been a dreamless sleep, awaking disoriented an indeterminate time later. All he knew was that the sky was dark, though the tree was comfortably lit by hundreds of tiny lights that were too steady to be fires. That, and there was a girl puttering about.

It was her footsteps he’d heard first: small and light against the wood beneath them. He’d thought the little footfalls had belonged to Naiee, and so he’d rolled over to greet him and ask him when he’d returned, only to find himself staring at a girl who appeared to be largely ignoring him. She was looking instead into the well, with her fingers hovering close to the water and her brow furrowed in something between concentration and displeasure. A grey mist surrounded her fingers, and every so often, she would lift one hand and flick it outward, in the direction of a nearby gap between the tree’s branches. Whenever she’d do this, the mist would lighten, turning to more of an off-white colour. Occasionally she’d step away from the pool to pluck a few leaves from a branch. These she would grind with a pestle that she kept on the rim of the well, until she was able to pour a precious few green drops from her little bowl into the water. Then she would return to the water with her strange mist.

She looked to be somewhere between his age and Naiee’s: perhaps about twelve years old. When he’d first laid eyes on her, he’d gasped in surprise, and her eyes had flicked in his direction; though upon noting that he was awake, her interest in him returned to nil. He’d noted that her eyes were an unsettlingly vibrant, leafy colour – a far brighter green than he’d ever seen on anyone else, human or otherwise. Her skin, too, had a slightly verdant glow about it, but he couldn’t be sure whether this was her actual colouring or just an effect of the light. He wouldn’t have called her a beauty, but she was pretty in an odd sort of way. ‘Cute’, perhaps. Her nose, eyes and ears were just slightly too large for her small face. Her hair was a mass of wild, strawberry-blond curls that had tangled within it several twigs, flowers and leaves. It was from these materials, along with a very fine, white, silken thread of some sort, that her dress looked to have been woven. Her movements were quick and a bit jerky: when she would move her head about, she looked like a slightly annoyed bird.

While she seemed to care little whether he was there or not, he was uncertain how to feel about her presence. The last girl he’d spent any significant amount of time with had tried to eat him. In fairness to this girl, however, the previous one had gone to the trouble of interacting with him in order to lure him in; so perhaps this girl’s apathy meant she was harmless.

Or perhaps it was simply that she already had him trapped, and so pleasantries were deemed unnecessary.

“Who are you?” he asked her after the silence became too heavy for him. His voice was still a bit rough, but his airway was blissfully clear. “ . . . Are you a witch?” he prompted when she didn’t bother answering his first question.

At his second question, she finally lifted her gaze, blinked at him and asked, “Is it customary where you come from to barge into other people’s homes, dig up their gardens, contaminate their drinking water, and then demand they introduce themselves?”

Though the question threw him off with its rather accusatory nature, her tone had an air of genuine curiosity to it: as if, were it actually customary where he came from, it would be perfectly fine.

“Er, I . . . n-no . . . .” he stammered, before asking with trepidation. “I contaminated it? Did . . . did I ruin it? Has it lost its powers because of—I never meant—!”

She waved dismissively. “Everything contaminates it,” she said. “You just dirtied it a little more than most do.” Wrinkling her nose and curling her lip in vague revulsion, she peered down at her mist and muttered, “I’ve found traces of about five different bodily fluids in here . . . .” With a shudder, she flicked away more dirty mist.

“So . . . it’ll be okay, then?”

“Of course it will.”

He sighed with relief. “I’m glad . . . and I’m sorry to have been a bother.”

“No bother,” she murmured. “You are what you are.”

Silence fell between them again, which he found very awkward. When too much time had passed, he said, “So, are you the keeper of this grove, then?”

“I suppose, in a manner of speaking. I look after it.”

“Are you the one who . . . who makes the Water of Life?”

“No.”

“Oh.”

There was another long silence, but in a moment of either clarity or charity, she was the one to break it by adding, “This water is simple, collected rainwater.”

For one terrible moment, he felt his heart drop. Did that mean that he and Naiee had come so far for nothing at all, and that their father was doomed to die?

Then he remembered his own lethal injury, and looked down. Where once there had been a wide, oozing wound, he could now only see a blood-stained hole in his shirt with unblemished skin beneath. Other than some slight stiffness in his abdomen, he felt no pain.

“That can’t be true,” he said. “This water healed me.”

“Certainly,” she said. “I meant only that I am not its source.”

“Oh. But you are the source of its power?”

“No.”

“Then what is?”

“Hyash.”

“. . . What’s ‘Hyash’?”

“Not what. Who.”

He was beginning to grow weary of her terseness. “Who is Hyash, then?”

“You are lying atop her.”

Alarmed, he rolled over slightly to check beneath him, thinking perhaps that he was crushing some poor fairy without realizing it. Finding nothing but wood beneath him, it took him only seconds longer to realize she meant the tree itself.

“Oh, you mean the tree. The tree is Hyash.”

“Mm.” The noise was vaguely affirmative.

“The tree itself—”

“Herself.”

“. . . The tree herself is the source of the power.”

“Yes.”

He nodded in understanding. Patting the wood beneath him, he said, “Thank you, Hyash.”

To his surprise, this earned him a soft smile from the girl. “It is so rare that she receives proper thanks,” she said.

He shrugged bashfully. It had seemed the proper thing to do.

Then his mind returned to more pressing matters. “Have you seen my brother?” he asked her. “He’s a boy a little smaller than you. Blond hair, red tunic?”

“N—” She paused mid-syllable, and tilted her head to one side. After a moment, she said, “Ah. He visited here before you did. He is already on his way home.”

Though it was somewhat disappointing to learn that he had been left behind, he was relieved to know that his brother had left in one piece, and had collected what they’d come for. Still, it worried him that Naiee was attempting the voyage home by himself. With a troubled sigh, he said, “He thought me dead.”

“Well, it’s unsurprising. The venom of a Sparachyn is quite potent.”

Sparachyn. That must have been the word for the spider-girl. “Is it normally fatal?” he asked.

“Not exactly, though it is normally a death sentence.” She pulled her hands from the water and rested them on the side of the basin. “You’ve never encountered such a creature before, have you?”

“Err, no. They’re . . . not native to my village.”

“Unsurprising. The species is dying out, but some brave few yet survive. The one you encountered, her family’s nest has been here for several generations. She was the last of her species in this region, I suspect. The rest have all been hunted and either killed outright or ritually sacrificed. A pity. I suspect she had planned for you to sire the next generation of her kind.”

“I suspect she had planned only for me to be her supper,” he told her. “Along with my brother.”

“Oh, no,” she said. “Well. Actually, she might have eaten your brother, yes. You, though, being on the cusp of manhood and fairly hardy, would have been taken as a mate. You were impaled by one of her forcipules, yes? The front legs?” When he nodded in confirmation, she continued, “Those are coated in a powerful venom that acts as a kind of paralytic. In fact, it puts the victim in a state very near death, but ensures that the victim does not actually die. This is very important, in fact: the victim needs to stay alive long enough to feed her offspring. That’s how it works: she mates with her chosen male, and once that’s done, she pierces him with one of her forcipules. Once she has made a sufficient hole in her prey in which to lay her eggs, they incubate within him for several days, then hatch and eat their way out into open air. She then eats whatever remains once her children have finished their first meal.”

He wasn’t sure what horrified him more: her vivid description of the Sparachyn’s mating process, or the blithe enthusiasm with which she did so. He looked back down at the hole in his shirt and rubbed his belly, suddenly feeling his mouth go very dry again.

Apparently taking note of his anxiety, she said, “Oh, don’t worry. She never mated with you, correct? Besides, you’d have known by now if she’d laid her eggs in you. You’d have still been conscious when it happened, and I believe the hole in your torso would have been a little bigger. You’d feel them in there, certainly. No, your impalement was nothing more than a last-ditch attempt at self-defence on her part. Or perhaps mere vengeance. Either one.”

He felt sick, but this gradually gave way to a growing, righteous anger. “If you knew all this . . . ” he said, “if you knew my brother and I were in such danger, with her nest so close by, why didn’t you help us?”

She blinked. “Why would I have done that?”

“Because it’s the right thing to do!”

“Why?”

“What do you mean, ‘why’?! You don’t think any innocent person should be spared a death like that at the hands of such an evil creature?!”

“She was only doing what was natural. In tearing all her limbs off, you and your brother did what came naturally to you, in order to defend yourselves.” She smiled. “In the end, you came out the victors. Felicitations.”

“Yeah, no thanks to you.”

“Indeed, I do not require them, for even if I had been inclined to interfere, I wouldn’t have been here to do so. I was running an errand at the time.”

“But . . . you knew we ripped her legs off.”

“Of course. I discovered her corpse on my way back. She certainly hadn’t taken her own legs off. When I found you lying here by the water with a hole in your shirt, I put together what happened for myself. Hyash filled in the last details.” She shrugged. “I suppose it’s fortuitous that you won, really. I shall now have a boon of spider’s silk with which to clothe myself. Perhaps I’ll sell some in town, as well. She has no more need of it, so I can take the lot.”

He shook his head. “What a strange and heartless girl you are, to be so completely lacking in compassion.”

She chuckled in that peculiarly affectionate, condescending way that elders do in response to the naïve statement of a child. “I have plenty of compassion,” she told him. “It’s why I wouldn’t have interfered. Why would I value one species more than another? You are a sweet boy, and Hyash tells me the same of your brother. I am glad you both survived. But the Sparachyn was a rare, endangered, clever creature who made stunning webs and filled the night air with beautiful song. Though I never befriended her because to her I was naught but a potential meal, I will miss her – and her kind – all the same.”

He decided they would have to agree to disagree on that matter. With a slight grunt, as his muscles were still quite stiff, he carefully pulled himself to his feet and hobbled to the side of the basin. Looking down into the water as she resumed her work over it, he asked, “You’re untroubled with visitors taking your water?”

“That’s what it’s here for. Aside from my own use, of course. Hyash wishes it to be of use to any who require it.”

“I hate to ask, but would you happen to have a flask to spare? My brother has one, but I worry something may happen to it. It would be useful to have a spare.” He looked up at her, somewhat apologetically, and explained, “It’s for our father.”

From a large, leather pouch at her hip, she drew a small skin. She dragged it through the water and capped it once it was full, handing it to him.

“It’s safe to drink now?” he asked, taking the gift. “You’ve already removed the, er . . . contaminants?”

She shrugged a shoulder. “Were you willing to wait a few more hours it would be pristine, but it is safe to drink, and its restorative power isn’t lessened by what might be floating around in it. Your father might find it tastes slightly of sick . . . but then again, your people drink far more polluted water every day, so perhaps he won’t notice a thing.”


Hooking the skin to his belt, he asked, “Is that what you do, then? You ensure the water is clean for visitors?”

“I ensure the water is clean for me, primarily, but yes. Nature provides the water, Hyash infuses it with her power, and I maintain its potability, and ensure that it’s chemically balanced. And that it tastes nice.”

“Is that . . . all?”

“What do you mean?”

He frowned. Though she was herself a bit blunt, he didn’t wish to offend her. “It’s just that . . . you have this air of magic about you. I would have thought you served a greater purpose than simply . . . serving your own needs, here. You claim that the tree talks to you. If that’s even true, why does it?”

“For company, mainly.” She seemed amused by him. “Would you not wish your brother to mind his own needs first and foremost, above all others? Above yours?”

“Well, yes, but—”

“Hyash feels the same about me. Of course I have other duties. I take care of Hyash, for one, and the grove surrounding her. They are very important to me. I also speak and act on her behalf. But she is the altruist of the two of us. She is the one who believes that our existence ought to mean something to others – that we should use our gifts to help them. I have no particular quarrel with this, but were she to change her mind, I would be content to simply be, just like any other creature. My primary concern is her well-being. She can be overly trusting. Others have damaged her in the past, in making their way to the well. That’s why she has tunnels here and there: some selfish creature thought it would make the climb easier if he just bored a sloping path straight through, up and around.” Her expression darkened. “I ensured that his first taste of our water was the last thing he ever tasted.”

He still wasn’t certain whether the tree was actually capable of communicating with this girl, or if she was simply mad. One thing was clear to him, though: “You truly love her.”

“More than anything. More than even myself,” she confirmed. “Just as you do your family. You’ve already proven that much.” She looked kind again. “I would reveal a secret to you, if you have any interest.”

The worry that he was wasting time and that he ought to be looking for Naiee and making his way back home to their father nagged at him; but then again, it was already long past nightfall. Had things worked out differently, he supposed that he and Naiee would be sleeping somewhere along the road right now, anyway. Perhaps Naiee had found a place to rest for the night. He hoped so, at least. He supposed he could stay a while longer, and learn what he could from the Tree’s keeper. So, in the end, he nodded his interest.

“You wondered about the source of this water and its power. I suspect that in a somewhat crude way, you wish to understand how it works. Possibly because you want to be certain that what you give to your father really will help him. It will, but it isn’t only Hyash’s or even my magic that does the trick. We provide the core ingredients, but there is one final element needed to activate the healing process. For most people, this comes easily, which is why the water is credited entirely. Nobody ever notices or acknowledges their own contribution. I find it sort of sweet, really.”

“So what’s the contribution?”

She looked down at the wooden basin, and stroked it tenderly. “As I said, Hyash is an altruist. She loves everything and everyone in this beautiful world. Her love is so powerful it takes a tangible form through her magic. That’s what the water is: pure, concentrated love. But it is also so universal that its power is limited on its own. It would always work instantly on me, because she loves me uniquely. But a personal connection of one kind or another is required for the water to work on someone else: someone she’s never met before. That’s the final spark: the love of the recipient, or the giver. Or both.”

His brow furrowed as he pondered this. “Then . . . someone coming to this well on their own, without intent to give it to someone else, would find the water doesn’t work for them?”

“It depends,” she said.

“It worked for me, when I drank from it,” he pointed out. “I was entirely alone.”

She grinned. “The explanation for that is twofold,” she said. `First, you forget your brother. He collected some water and, as I’m sure you can imagine, he tried desperately to heal you with it. Hyash says he gave you the majority of what he’d collected, in fact: he poured water in your mouth thrice over, begging you to awaken and weeping bitterly when you did not. Of course you could not, but the poor dear thought it was because you had died from your injury. His love for you was strong enough that even the few drops that managed to slide down your throat were enough to start the regeneration process, even as he buried you. The venom that would have assured your death had instead preserved you long enough for the water to enter your system and begin reversing your wound, and clearing the venom from your system so that you could begin to move on your own again.

“But of course, most of what your brother gave you ended up sliding out of your mouth and into the soil, instead. That is why when you woke, you likely felt horrible. You were still very much in danger, but your brother’s love for you had given you just enough energy to make it to the well on your own. And while every creature responds to their basic survival instincts, I suspect you would have given up your climb had something greater not been motivating you. It was not concern for yourself that drove you to the top of this tree. There comes a point where death is the kinder option for oneself. What kept you going was love for your brother, and your father. It was your worry that they still need you. That’s why it worked for you.” She paused a moment to think, and one corner of her lips turned upward. “Of course, I think having the whole drama play out before her has also made Hyash rather attached to the two of you as individuals, and so that may have helped, too.”

In spite of himself, he could feel tears prickling at his eyes, and his throat closing, as she detailed Naiee’s attempts to revive him, and through her surprisingly accurate summation of his own motivations.

“They do need me,” he said, trying not to sound choked up and very much failing. “Father . . . he hasn’t been the same since mother died. It’s like he’s lost a piece of himself. He isn’t . . . he hasn’t been fully there since that day.” He wiped at his eye, refusing to let the tears reach his cheeks. “I keep thinking that he just needs time to mourn, and so I’ve been doing my best to help take care of the house and Naiee, but I don’t know if . . . if he lost me too, I think he might just . . . .” His face crumpled into a grimace and he turned away to hide it in his hands, sobbing quietly. The girl left him to his crying: he could hear her fiddling with the water again, perhaps leaving him alone as a sign of respect, or perhaps only because she wasn’t socially equipped to handle this sort of situation. In any case, he found he preferred it this way. He took the time to purge aches far too long held, and compose himself.

Once he’d wiped away his tears and resumed control over his breath and voice, he tried for a laugh while working up the nerve to meet her eyes again.

“I come here, I mess up your home and your water, I waste so much of your time and you put up with my crying . . . and we still don’t know each other’s names. I’m Naia.”

She put a hand to her chest and said, “Tersha.”

“I’m pleased to meet you, Tersha,” he said, finding himself quietly surprised that he meant it. “You and your Hyash . . . I regret that I can’t hear her as you do.”

“That’s because you don’t speak our language,” she said in a faraway voice, apparently listening at that precise moment.

“How did you come to know her language?”

“I have always known it. I knew it before I ever learned yours.”

Only then did recognition come to him: the surfacing of a long-forgotten memory of a story he’d heard as a younger boy, about a lumberman whose company had been slaughtered by a tribe of maidens who never spoke, but hissed like a storm’s wind through leaves.

“You’re a Dryad,” he remarked. “And the Tree — Hyash — she’s your . . . .”

“Hyash is my other half. My twin.” With a knowing, upward quirk of her eyebrow, she emphasized, “My sister.”

It wasn’t the word Naia was going to use, but on reflection it made a great deal of sense. It made a lot of things about her make sense, actually.

“I suppose you already know what I’m thinking, then,” he said.

“That you’re wasting time and need to get back to your family.”

“Yes.” He glanced out at the sky. It was still night, but the moon was sitting high enough in the sky to adequately light the way, so long as he didn’t venture too far into dense forest. “I have to find my brother. Like you, I have a duty to care for my sibling and be at his side. He needs me.”

“Is that how you see it?”

“Isn’t it how you see it?”

She shrugged one shoulder, but said nothing further on the matter. Instead she said, “If you require food for your journey, there is a small village not far from here to the east. I would recommend stopping there for supplies.”

“I, er . . . . ” Naia ducked his head slightly in a habitual sort of shame. “I don’t have any money.”

“Then go back to the Sparachyn’s nest and collect as much of her silk as you can carry. As you were the one to slay her, the spoils are rightfully yours. You can barter that in town, or sell it for currency if that is your preference. Demand a high price: such silk is rare and valuable among your people. Anyone who implies otherwise is trying to cheat you. Ask for at least double what’s first offered to you, and stand your ground. No price you can ask would be unreasonable, unless you’re trying to buy yourself a house with a thread the length of your finger, or something.”

He felt uneasy about going back to the Sparachyn’s nest, even if Tersha seemed convinced the creature was dead, but the idea was a good one. He and Naiee hadn’t had much to eat in the past two days, and whatever had been left in his belly had been voided when he dug himself out of his grave. From what Tersha was saying, it sounded as though he could easily get himself a real, full meal: something he dearly needed, if the sucking ache in his stomach was any indication.

Besides, it wasn’t as if he could go back the way he’d come: so much of the way that he and Naiee had taken to get to this grove had required cooperation and the help of tools and allies he no longer had access to. Perhaps in town, someone would be willing to offer him advice on the next-best route to take home. Maybe Naiee had gone there, as well.

“I’ll leave the majority of it for you,” he promised, “as repayment for your hospitality.”

“I’ve no need of payment, but I won’t refuse your gift.” She grinned.

“I feel I owe you. And Hyash as well . . . though I don’t know if spider’s silk is of any use to her.”

“It is of use to me, which will please her.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” he chuckled, and then stuck out his hand. She flinched backward at first before regarding it with mild puzzlement. Then it seemed to dawn on her, and she took his hand in hers. He shook it gently.

“If the silk isn’t thanks enough, perhaps I can offer the two of you my friendship, as well?”

“I suppose, but it may be impractical: it’s entirely possible that you’ll never see either of us again.”

“Well, if I do, I promise you any kindness I can offer you, in return for that which you’ve shown me.”

“How changeable you are,” she observed with amusement. “Not an hour ago you were calling me heartless.”

“You’re a strange girl, but not a bad one,” he said, by way of apology. The two exchanged one last set of kind, if awkward smiles before Naia turned to leave, bidding Tersha and Hyash farewell. Just as he was beginning to make his way down the slope, though, Tersha called out to him, and he looked back at her with curiosity.

“There is one last favour you can do for us as you take your leave,” she said. After a brief pause, she corrected, “Or rather, for yourself.”

“What would you have me do?”

The look she gave him resembled pity far more than he liked. “Forgive your mother,” she said.

It felt, for a moment, like she’d stuck a pin in his lungs. He set his lips in a tight line. “What do you know of my mother?” he asked.

“I know by the tension in your shoulders that you carry resentment towards her, for dying and leaving you with a broken family.” Crossing her arms but maintaining a sympathetic expression, she told him, “Her death was an accident, young Naia.”

He clenched his jaw briefly before saying, “Her death was the result of her own stupidity, and it’s left my father heartbroken, and my brother blaming himself. She knew she couldn’t swim but she went out on the lake with Naiee anyway. She was foolish.”

“She was human. Much like you, who followed a Sparachyn into her nest, and nearly to your own death.”

Naia didn’t know how best to respond to that, so he chose not to at all.

“I thank you for all that you’ve done for me and my family,” he said, in something just slightly more than a grumble. “And I wish you well. Goodbye.”

“Farewell, friend,” she replied with a wave.

As Naia disappeared down the trunk of the tree, Tersha returned with little ceremony to cleaning the water. Only seconds following, she heard Hyash’s leaves whisper her disapproval.

“I suppose I might have told him,” she admitted, “but I think he’d benefit from the walk.”

The leaves fluttered again, chidingly, and Tersha responded with a somewhat roguish shrug. “It’s really no difference whether he stays here or starts out on foot, is it? I’m certain their friend will find him, too. She found the little one, after all.”

Hyash swayed in resignation, and Tersha chuckled.

“He’ll be fine, I suspect. I’m not worried. You shouldn’t, either. You’ve done more than enough for them.”

There was a slight creak in her trunk, and Tersha giggled, and kissed the bark of the branch beside her.

“I know, my darling.”

The Dryad and her tree then fell into companionable silence, as the boy’s foot touched down on soil once more. From the base of the tree named Hyash, he made his way back to the nest that had nearly killed him, and which, he hoped, could now help him get back home.

I’ll make it right, Naiee. All of it. I’ll find you, and we’ll cure father, and we’ll be a family again, even without mother. Don’t worry about a thing, Naiee. I’ll make it all right.

The first, deep blue hints of dawn were edging their way into the sky, and waning moonlight clung to the thick, white web of the Sparachyn. In some places the silk sparkled like stretched-thin diamonds, luring him back to where its creator’s corpse laid rotting. He hesitated only briefly outside the web, warily eyeing the dismembered carcass, before reaching forward to tug free the first clump of sticky netting, and begin his journey home.


[1] Thanks to WingsOfBlackLeather for the correct spellings of their names! I know that some fans choose to think of “Naia” and “Naiee” as being terms of address / titles rather than their actual names (their language’s equivalent of “Big Brother” and “Little Brother”) I take the stance that these are their actual names due to the fact that other characters refer to Naiee as “Naiee” besides Older Brother. The spirit of their mother, for example, is heard to address him as “Naiee” at least once. As she would have no reason to address him based on his sibling status, I’ve concluded that this means it’s his name.