Thursday, June 21, 2018

Flash Fiction # 308 -- The Forest

Guardian stood before Mother Tree, his hand on her warm bark, the feel of life coursing through his body as she fed him strength.  These were trying times for humans and for others like him.  Evil had touched the world again and drove humans to hide in the sacred forest, which was more dangerous for the forest than for the humans.

He hadn't expected the ancient dryad to leave her tree.  She had only done so once in his long life, and to see her slip out into the world now took him by surprise and sent a chill through him.

Guardian bowed to her, aware of the honor she gave him and afraid of why she did so now.

"Strangers in the woods," she said with a whisper of sound like leaves in the wind.

"Yes, my lady," he said and dared to meet her leaf-green eyes.  "I go to see what is happening if I can.  Things have been unsettled in the distant city, I fear.  Something is wrong with the humans."

"Not unusual," she said with a slight sigh.  That was true, and it did not account for why she came out into the world.  Guardian knew it and waited.  "Their gods are uneasy, Guardian.  Darkness is coming to the world, and we must do what we can to move against it.  One group with power goes to the north and east."

"Yes, I have sensed them --"

"Do not bother that group.  They go with a purpose.  They go to try to make things right.  But others wander and are lost -- and afraid.  Remove them where you can.  Back to the trails, back to the south and the villages -- but out of my forest.  Their gods do not watch them so closely, do not show them the right.  Such humans are dangerous to anything wild and free.  They don't understand the harm they can do."

Guardian would much rather have raced after those with the bit of power; they might be interesting.  However, Mother Tree had a good point.  Humans were often destructive even when they knew what they were doing.

Mother Tree gave him one last nod and went back into the wood. The tree seemed to shiver slightly.  She feared far more than she had said.

For the next three days, he carefully (and invisibly) herded small groups of humans off toward safer lands.  He began to understand that they liked being here under cover of the trees where they were less likely to be noticed.  He did not step out and show them that they were not hidden at all from anyone with power.

They turned out to be fascinating people, even these plain humans carrying all they had in the world on their backs or in carts drawn by recalcitrant donkeys who did not like the woods nearly as much as the humans.  Guardian found that he could best help thereby calming those beasts and even making the paths easier for them.

So, day by day, he helped the groups find safety, and he even enjoyed the work.

But he had lost track of one larger group -- and in a moment of dismay, he realized they were true trouble.

He was so far away that even running with speed humans could not attain, it took him all of one night and into the next morning to reach them.  By then, they'd cut down a dozen trees and cleared a wide area.

As he broke into the opening, people gave startled shouts.  He counted seven men, five women, an undetermined number of children -- all of them rushing toward the line of defense they'd made with downed branches and savaged bushes.

"What are you people doing?" he shouted, more frustrated than angry.  "Are you crazy?  Do you have any idea where you are?"

Guardian glanced to his right.  Only a couple trees still stood between him and Mother Tree, her vast bulk all the more obvious.

"Who are you?  What are you?" one of the men demanded.  He had a bow in hand and ready to fire.

"I am Guardian -- that's who I am and what I am," he said.  He waved his hand.  The wooden bow snapped in two.  "And you are on sacred ground, human."

"We claim this place," the man said.  "We'll build our village here, safe from the rest of the world --

Anger had started to take him.  Then he heard a sound from Mother Tree, the trembling of leaves, the movement of limbs.  The others heard as well, and he saw them all cower in fear, knowing this didn't come from any breeze.  Guardian turned, bowing his head as the dryad appeared.

"My profound apologies, Mother Tree," he said and even went to his knees.  "I lost track -- so many humans in the sacred forest, and I did not sense --"

"There was a reason for that, Guardian," she said, he voice sounding like life itself this time.  "They are here for a reason."

"Here?" Guardian said, startled.  "But they endanger you --"

"Not as long as they realize who and what I am," she replied.  "Stand up.  All of you stand up.  Listen to me.  Humans shall build their small settlement here.  It will be a place where all can learn about the sacred duty to protect the forest.  I shall help to keep you safe.  You will help Guardian in his work.  The world changes, my friends.  That does not mean we must give up all the old ways."

So the world changed.  The humans built a dozen huts, a longhouse for meetings and meals.  Others wandered in, and left again, wiser for having learned respect for the forest.  Beyond the safety of the trees, wars came and went, but rarely touched them.

Mother Tree and Guardian watched over them.  The gods even smiled their way sometimes, and in a world gone mad with change, the little village remained and guarded the ancient ways.

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