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The Willow Maid(TW)
Ashlynn ran to the forest, her sanctuary, blinded by the tears steaming down her face and threw herself at the roots of a weeping willow tree. She woke up in it embrace of roots with a few leaves stuck to her face by the glue of dried tears. Her blazing hair was filled with twigs, and her emerald eyes reddened.
She sat on the mossy forest floor and swore to never love again.
She took out a black four leafed clover. A fae had given it to her after she saved her. The fae warned it was very powerful and told her how to use it. She ripped off one leaf and let it float to the ground. That was all she needed. Power radiated in a shock wave. Then she wove her curse.
Many years later
Niall collected his bow, quiver, and hunting knife and walked out onto the soft grass of irish morning. The dew didn't quite penetrate his soft leather shoes. He walked into the forest and soon spotted a deer. He gave chase but lost it.
And himself, apparently. He realized he had no clue where he was and the harder he tried to get back the more lost he became. Night fell. He collapsed in despair. He would be eaten by the wolves that night, assuredly.
A sweet sound caught his ears. A call from heaven, no doubt. The sound didn't stop. It roused him. Singing. A woman was singing. She must be lost too! He stood and followed the sound.
Under a weeping willow sat a young woman, about his age, singing softly to the stars. Around the willow was a circle of red toadstools. He stared at her, perplexed. Though she wore old rags and her face was dirty, she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. A fairy? Fae were dangerous, but he was lost.
She looked up at him, slightly surprised, but said nothing.
“How did you come to be here?”
“Not a matter you should concern yourself with.”
“Are you lost?”
“Are you a fairy?”
“Do you know the way back?”
“What is your name?”
“Not your concern.”
She was irritating. “Can you show me the way back?”
“Fine, come with me and we’ll get back somehow.”
“Excuse me? You are intruding on my home, taking my time and forcing my attention. See me now, a ray of light in the moondance. See me now, I cannot leave this place. Hear me now, a strain of song in the forest. Do not ask me to follow. I do not follow,” she spoke with such rage and vehemence. He was wondering if she had lied about being a fairy.
“Fine, fine, apologies,” if she was a fairy and he had angered her he was in trouble.
“Very well. Where do you come from?”
“A town south of this forest.”
“I know it. Head in that direction. Try to go straight.”
He hoped he hadn't angered a fairy. What was a girl who wasn't a fairy doing there?! She had to be of the mounds. He turned and walked away, ending up home.
Ashlynn smiled as the youth left. He was gone. He would never come back(hopefully). She was forcing herself to smile. She did it whenever smiling seemed appropriate because her past was locked away, and she wasn't upset. Liar. she growled at herself. Why didn't the voice ever silence?
The sun began to rise and she lay on a bed of soft moss between the ancient roots that gave her shelter, grew with her. To her. A perfect mold.
The following night as she sang she relaxed. She had been worried he might return, but with each passing hour still, she grew more certain.
That day her slumber was awakened by the sound of someone tumbling down the steep hill beside her toadstool ring. She sat up and saw him. Shoot. He waved.
“Hello, again, mysterios willow girl. Shall I call you Saileach-” he continued walking.
“Stop. you may not pass through the toadstools,” his halt was abrupt. He glanced in confusion. “Never pass the ring. And no, you may not.”
“That is my business.”
“What will you tell me?”
“I’m sure you won't tell me what you’re doing here?”
“Will you tell me your name?”
“Does this mean you intend to bother me continuously?”
“Uh, I guess so?”
“Fine. my name is Ashlynn.”
“I’m Niall. Nice to meet you?”
“Uhm… alright… so” he stood awkwardly, staring at her with his head slightly cocked. Why couldn't he spit it out? “I got you something? As thanks for helping me find my way out?” he pulled out a dress and tossed it in.
“Thank you.” she sat awkwardly. She was tired. She wasn't interested in this conversation. She was always busy.
“Uh… so why were you asleep?”
She stared at him. Did he have a brain? “I sleep during the day.”
“Oh, o-of course.” his feet shuffled. He was so awkward! She wasn’t good for keeping conversations up, but she didn't care. If he was so accustomed to normal conversation why didn't he just leave? “Sorry to disturb you.”
“It's fine.” no, it wasn't.
“Are you lonely?”
“Are you safe?”
“Yes.” not from your past. Shut up voice!
“Uh… do you want to come back with me to someplace sa- I mean, cizilized?”
“For goodness sake, no!”
“No, I'm not fae, stop asking!”
“Sorry, it's just… the hair, the wild, the nocturnal…”
“Fine. i'm not fae but i'm under a fae spell. Happy?”
“Oh, how can it be broken?”
“Why do you assume i want it broken?”
He mumbled something and then said, “I'd better go. See you soon…”
He left. Great, he would be back. Well, he was cute. He was so awkward it was funny. And talking to another huan was an interesting experience. But he was a man. He couldn't be trusted. Never again. And yet you say your past is behind you… SHUT UP! Why coudnt she control her own thoughts? Stupid voice!
Niall walked quickly through the forest. Wow, that girl, Ashlynn could really make things awkward. She wasn't even trying to carry the conversation. Poor girl. Who knew how long it had been since she talked to someone? And under a spell. She was probably also cursed to like it so it wouldn't be broken.
He would save her. Nobody deserved a curse. Besides, she was intriguing. Maybe he would go back.
The next night he arrived around twilight with a bright lantern, torch, and plenty of weapons to protect himself with.
Her hair was still filled with stick and her face dirty, but she wore the dress.
“Oh, your back. At a reasonable time.”
“I think day is far less… dangerous.”
“Do you like it in the forest?”
“Better than towns.”
“Uh… isn't it dangerous?”
“How long have you been here?”
“Maybe a hundred years? Two?”
He tried to laugh, awkwardly, but it fell flat. Her face was dead serious.
Adorable. He thought she was joking. She wanted to roll her eyes but didn't feel like it was worth the energy.
He coughed. “The curse?”
He didn't say anything so she looked at the purple sky. The deepest of violet, though it was quickly adding to blue. “Right, uh, what do you do? All day?”
“Night. I sing. It keeps me occupied and strengthens the spell.”
He contemplated gagging her to help break the spell. “Um, what do you sing?”
“What's your favorite song?”
“The Last Rose of Summer.”(technically it was written in 1805, hundreds of years after this, but… oh well. Besides, it's to the tune of an irish folk song. Look up the lyrics, it's pretty)
“Never heard it.”
She started singing. Her voice was like a harp, musical notes floating instead of words. But he ignored it.
“Oh, uh, you don't need to sing…” and strengthen the spell!
She rolled her eyes.
“Do you do anything else?”
Hurt. No! She was past that! Why didn't the stupid voice ever shut up? It… it didn't hurt any more. At all. She… she was past that. By centuries. She didn't care any more. Tears shed long ago couldn’t touch her now. They were gone, so was he, so was she- no, she was still a person. She was a happy, normal person. Under a spell. In the forest. Bound to a tree like a dryad. So? Hadn’t ever bothered her. Stop lying. She wasn't lying! She just sang and thought. Didn't hurt.
“Things from long ago.” Hurt from long ago. Shut up!
“I’m going to go now. Have fun thinking.”
Niell walked away forming a plan. He would convince her to tell him how to break the curse and repay her, and fine, maybe earn some respect, by getting her to fall in love with him. It wasn't that weird. Well, it was kinda weird, but he would just get her to fall in love and then save her. Afterwards… Marry her! What? He hardly knew her. She was pretty, but he wasn't going to marry a random girl trapped in the forest.
He got back rather early, around 10. Perfect, he would get sleep. He dreamt of willows and tears and fae. And through it all, followed a harps melody, chasing fruitlessly.
That day he found a Celandine flower and picked it to give her. Who knew how long it was since she saw anything outside of that small area? The bright yellow would be nice. Maybe if he broke a fairy curse somebody would finally respect him as a man. A warrior.
Who was he kidding? He got lost hunting for a bear to get respect, and how did that go? No matter what he did, nobody took him seriously. He was a man already! A warrior! If only someone else saw that. Aside from maybe Ashlynn. If she thought he was a kid she would be less likely to kill him.
He brought it to her that night.
“You’re back.” She wasn't smiling.
“Yep,” he tried to smile. It was awkward. “So, uh, anyways, i brought you a flower. I thought you probably don't see much celandine out here. Or much yellow.”
She pointed with her head to a cluster of greater celandine, then gestured at a buttercup in her ring of mushrooms. “Oh, uh, sorry. I didn't see that,” he tossed the flower in. she picked it up.
“Thank you.” Her voice was flat.
Celandine was her favorite flower. She forgot to fake smile. Natural smiles were hard now. You forgot how to be happy. No, she was happy.
“Right, so… moondance. Thats pretty, where did you get it?”
She didn't find the question worth answering.
“So, uh, what do you eat?”
“Squirrels. Fruit. The forest has enough.”
“Right… how long since you had bread?”
“Hundreds of years.”
They kept talking. The next night he brought warm bread. She had forgotten how much she missed it. He kept visiting with little gifts. They were amusing. He grew less annoying. She opened up a little. She started to like talking to someone. He was tolerable.
Niall kept coming and forgot his plan. He enjoyed her company. She was a good friend, even if she was… her. And he could detect her emotion the more time he spent with her. When she was amused her face woul stay flat but her eyes would lose some ice and shadow. When she was angry her tone would shift. He stopped caring about her curse.
Stopped caring before his sisters child was replaced with a changeling. Then he remembered. Fae were evil. Always. She was in danger.
Ashlynn sat at twilight, waiting for him. She heard his signature clumsy crash and warmed slightly. Didn't you say you would never trust again? That was a long time ago. And she didn't trust him! Keep telling yourself that.
He stepped into the moonlight. She waited for his “Haigh,” but it never came. He looked angry and carried no small token. He thought they all disappeared, but she had a small collection hidden of various nicknacks he brought. Thread, coins, dried flowers and clovers.
“Where is my niece? Please, do you know?”
“Sorry, I don't. I’m not a fairy. But if you mistreat the creature the child will be returned.”
“What about your curse? No fairy curse is good! How is it broken?”
“I cast the spell on myself. It doesn't break and I don't want it to.” Liar. it had been true. And it still sorta was.
“I used a gift from a fairy to bind myself here. I had my reasons.”
“Why did you have a gift from a fae?!”
“I saved it's life- relax, I didn't know. It looked human. I know fae are dangerous.” he was shaking. She wanted to laugh. Sorta.
She thought it was funny. He could tell. She saved a fairy? She cursed herself? What? He couldn’t process. But he trusted her. She was probably tricked.
“I have to go tell my sister. Bye,” his hand dropped and he ran back, refusing to think about what she just said.
She had told him about the curse- spell. She trusted him. She hadn't meant to tell him. But she trusted him. No! Why would he be any different?! He was going to betray her, he would hurt her with the information, he didn't trust her anymore because she had a fairy thing!
No. She would never be hurt again.
She pulled out the clover and ripped another leaf, moving the tree, the toadstools, and her, across the forest. If he couldn't find her, he couldn't hurt her.
She hid the clover again and collapsed, crying.
Niall walked out to the forest with a bouquet of celandine for her, arriving exactly at twilight. He was getting good with the time. He glanced down at the clearing from the top of the hill. He didn't see her blazing red hair, so he swept for the willow, certain she was hiding in its branches to tease him. Not that she ever did, but she could be behind it.
He froze as he realized something was wrong. No willow. He slid down to examine and found no toadstools. He scanned the riverbank over and over. No willow. No Ashlynn. No toadstool ring.
Ashlynn sat up that morning, tears dried on her face, and wanted to yell at herself. And the world. And the curse. And her past. And him. And everything. Why had she let herself care? Never again, she had said. Never! Yet here she was, crying. She walked to her stash of gifts from him and one by one, tossed them deep into the forest, crying as she threw the final. It was the first thing he brought her, the little celandine.
She tossed it, but it fluttered down, still in her ring. She ran to it all the while berating herself for wanting it back, for needing it, for caring. He was gone. He was never coming back. Even if he could find her, he wouldn't care enough to search for a mad girl in the forest who cursed- spelled- no, cursed, she cursed herself. This was her fault. She heard a rustling and looked up to see a man walking past, searching. He hadn't seen her.
She froze and watched him. He sat on a rock, exhausted, a poor wilted group of flowers in his hand. She eyed him warily. He sighed and called in a tired voice,
“Ashlynn? Oh stop it, Niall. Give up already. Shes gone.” His voice broke as he said gone and he collapsed, crying. She slowly stood up, trusting the sobs to muffle her. She backed away and hid behind the tree to hide her hair. Days passed in the space of an hour as she stood there, silent tears streaming down her face while she listened to him cry.
He shouldn’t even care. This was for the village, for himself, so people would respect him. She didn't care about him anyway. She didn't want her curse broken. And now he had gone and made her disappear. He had heard something though, hollers and cries from this direction, but they had stopped. It must have been a vixen cry, or an owls screech.
He should give up. But he couldn't. He stood and started walking in the direction he had heard the noises.
He was leaving. She should be happy. Yet her legs moved without consent and she walked in his direction, stopping at the fungi barrier.
“Wait!” why couldn't she stop her mouth? But it was to late, the brown head had turned. He had seen her. She ran back to her hiding place. He must hate her. She told him the truth. She ignored him crying and probably lost. She made him so awkward. She had never indicated she cared about him at all. And now she was hiding from him.
Why did she care so much if he hated her? Because you care about him. You need a friend. The voice was right. And she finally needed someone to trust and lean on. No, she finally admitted it. She walked out and faced him.
“Why did you run?”
She took a deep breath. She was going to tell the truth? “Because i was afraid.”
“Of what?” he looked so hurt and worried… how could she manage to keep speaking?
“I… I thought you were angry. I thought you hated me. I thought you would leave me, or attack me.” It was the first time he ever heard her hesitate.
“I would never! Ashlynn, don't you trust me?”
“I- yes- no- i don't know! I mean- maybe?” she looked on the verge of tears. He could she dried ones on her face. The words felt like dagger thrown straight to his heart. Perfectly aimed.
“I do! I think? I don't know! And I promised!”
“Promised who? What?”
“To… to never trust again. Ever. Or care. Or love.”
“Why?” he wanted to hurt whoever did this to her. Why? He didn- didn’t he tell that voice to never speak again? He heard an echoing laugh in his head. Of course. He still couldn't control it.
“It's… nothing. It was a long time ago. You should go home, it's late for you. Do you know the way?”
He wouldn't press… as much as he wanted to. “I’ll stay here tonight.” he made a bed out of fallen leaves close to the circle.
Did she know the way back? Maybe in a hundred years or so she would work it out. She thought she knew the general direction she came from though. She didn't want to keep talking, so she climbed up her willow and lay in the branches, eyes slitted. He laid down to, so she fell asleep.
That evening she woke up and jumed, first a the surroundings, then at him. He sat there watching her. Right, he was probably awake for a while. She ought to try and wake up earlier so he wouldn't lose sleep.
“Morning. Or evening, rather.”
“Hiagh. You said Hiagh.”
“Yes…” her voice was weak. “So do you know the way home?”
“Oh… yes, I think I do.”
“If you get lost…” how could he find her again? “In 1 hour I’ll shout for a while. Shout back if your lost and you can follow my voice.”
The silence hung heavy. He hesitated then turned and walked off. She got out of the tree and sat in the roots, then she cried. For no specific reason. Maybe because of what happened. Maybe in relief. Maybe because she had been holding in tears for to long. Through blurry eys she saw him turn, hesitate, then continue. She was relieved.
Niall walked away, wounded by the silence and her dismissal. She had been so weak yesterday. She was probably tired and heavy and needed privacy, but it somehow hurt that she didn't want to she that side with him. He wanted to help.
Behind he heard quiet sobbing. He paused and looked back at her. No, if she had wanted him to leave she didn't want his comfort. He sighed and kept walking, reaching the riverbank hre the willow once sat. it was remarkable how no trace remained of the massive tree. From there he took the familiar, now well trodden, path home.
“Hiagh,” Niall said. She looked up and mustered a weak smile.
“So how did you move the tree?”
“Thats a secret.” her voice was less flat then normal. After she let go of all the old emotions, she was feeling looser. Not let go, but acknowledged, cried. It really helped. Told you. She wished she could throttle that voice.
“You seem in a better mood then normal.”
“Yeah… listen, sorry I moved the tree.”
“I'm sure you had reasons.”
“Yeah… reasons.” She watched him, wondering if he had any resentment. Not just about the move, about the fairy curse.
“So, I brought you more celandine. The stuff from yesterday weren't in good shape.”
Her lips quirked up. “Thanks.”
“Wow, I don't think I've ever seen you smile before, and now you’ve smiled twice. Tonight.”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
He should respond. The conversation wasn't even remotely awkward, she was talking freely and using normal facial expressions. But something stopped him. It was what he wanted to say. So he just said, “I’m glad,” and smiled.
“And I think I do trust you.” the words were like a fire on a cold night.
She wanted to say something else. But she couldn’t. She couldn't believe it, she couldn't let herself, and she couldn't say it. So she just smiled.
They kept talking. Words on the tips of both toungues left unsaid. The same words, but neither believed them. They radiated power and energy that somehow the other couldn't feel, though the forest went still for them, listening. They talked long though the night and a bit into morning when he left for sleep.
She trusted him… she trusted again. She wanted to tell him what happened, why she did it. She wanted to tell him she wanted to leave with him. But even as she practiced the words alone, they couldn't slide past her throat. She wanted to believe those were the words that stilled the forest. But those words were so much simpler. So much more powerful.
That night he came again. “Hiagh.”
“Theres something I need to tell you.” he had more flowers. They weren’t celandine. They were so grand. She treasured celandine. But any gift from him was beautiful.
“I…” the forest silenced again in preparation.
“I… I think… I think I love you…” he sucked in a breath and watched her. He couldn't read her expression. He would marry her that moment.
“I… I wanted to tell you something too. Why I did… this.” She waved a hand at her tree. “I loved once. I smiled and laughed and was free. And I fell in love. I… i got hurt. My heart broke and i thought it would never heal. I still don't know if it will. So I bound myself so i could never love again, or see anyone.”
“I’m so sorry…” those words didn't cut it. They were weak. They didn't stop her tears now or in the past. How could he ask her to love? He didn't know what happened. But she was strong. If it hurt her… his fists tightened. That man must have been awful. And so was he! How could he ask her to love him?
“But… I think I’m breaking my promise… I think I love you too and it scares me. So, so much. But I want to trust again. I want to love again. I want to be free from this curse.” how did he answer that? He couldn't ask her to leave. What if he wasn't good enough? What if he failed her too?
“Not as long as this tree stands.”
Without a word he turned and left. He would get his axe. He wouldn't ask her to love him, or marry him, but if she wanted to be free he would free her. Her calls faded away.
Already he left. Why? How had she let herself-? Yet he returned quickly, something in his hands. As he drew nearer, she saw it. An axe. He thought he could free her.
“Wait! No!” but she was too late as he crossed the ring. He was trapped for eternity. “Don't cut it!”
“I’m going to free you.” she grabbed him and pulled. It was the first tim they had touched. She tried to slow him but he was to strong. He reached the tree and swung his axe. She gasped and she heard the axe hit bark. Then, before she could react, his body offered no resistance and she fell.
What had he been thinking? It was a magic tree. No axe could fell it. She had loved and lost again. Her tears washed his face. She took his axe and flung it deep into the forest. Then her tears stopped. She rolled him out of the circle. No living thing could pass back, but he wasn’t living. She retrieved the two leafed clover. She pulled a leaf to wake him, so afraid it hurt.
She should make him forget. It would be safer for him that way. He wouldn't hold to her. But she couldn't. As she watched him open his eyes, she thought she had discovered the meaning of joy. Tears again streamed down her face.
“I tried to stop you.”
“What happened? You're still in there and I’m out here?”
“You died. The tree is magic, no axe could fell it.”
“I used the same magic that bound me. I used it to wake you up.”
“Wait, you still have magic?”
“Only one leaf.”
“To fell the tree!”
“Uh… this is powerful magic. It wasn't meant to be broken. It's more complex than I can understand. And the first leaf was the most powerful. The last leaf is powerful, but it's not nearly as much.” She showed him the pathetic clover.
“It will work! You just need to destroy the tree.”
She wanted to ask him to join her and spent forever together. But she couldn't ask him to do that. So she pulled the leaf and watched the tree fall. She stood and gently put her bare foot outside the ring. Nothing stopped her. She ran to him and embraced, smiling wide. Then she turned and retrieved the little celandine he had given her.
“You're free… you're free!”
“I… I am! What next? I have no place there.” she was hoping he would marry her.
“What do you want to do?”
“I want to love again.” normally it would have been so hard to think, let aloone say. But she was free and it gave her courage, so her voice was certain. He smiled too, relief and joy and fear fast departing mixed in one expression.
“Then will you marry me?”
He walked with her to the edge oof the forest and watched as she put her feet outside the forest for the first time in centuries. But the instant her foot touched the ground, she fell. He didn't know what to do, what was happening? He stared without moving or helping as she collapsed like a petal in the wind. Then she faded into the dust she should have been centuries ago. All that was left was the celandine.
He collapsed beside her, crying. His tears landed on the celandine and it took root and bloomed in them, it's petals wet with tears. It never bloomed again.