As daylight fades in the deep wood, the pine needles become sharper. The blackberry vines become more grasping and their thorns longer. The spruces and hemlocks usher in an early darkness. Kellan has known all her life that the wood is dangerous. She would not have entered it were it not the fastest way to reach her family, deal with the doubtless-exaggerated problem they’ve used to lure her home, and return to the city.
Her father’s unlikely letter echoes in her head: he came from the old orchard, we don’t know who he is. He has threatened to turn us into trees if we do not leave the village. Maybe you can help us. The point, she knows, is that they want a visit of her; the reason they’ve concocted is a fancy. She left the village years ago to add her sword to the city guard, and she has not had time for visits home. She has little time now, and less patience. Crossing the wood is the quickest path, and if the wood objects, her wits will have to get her through.
Brambles reach for Kellan’s skin, and only her clothes and treasured leather gloves protect her from thorns. The warning cries of evening birds sound as she passes their roosts. There is a thick smell of cedar and rotting leaves, an undercurrent of skunk cabbage. It is growing difficult to see where to put her feet.
“You bring...” whispers the wood. It could be a conversation between tree branches and breeze. It could be the wood speaking to Kellan. She cannot tell; is not sure of what she’s heard.
Kellan shivers and does not place her hand on the hilt of her sword. She must convince the wood she is not a threat.
There is a rustling like a trapped bird about to burst through the leaves. The whispers grow louder, echoing over each other as they bounce against the thick trunks of ancient evergreens.
Kellan stops. Night has fallen. She is certain they are speaking to her.
“You bring steel into our wood?”
No longer whispering, the voice is soft and dangerous in the dark. And someone grips Kellan’s chin.
She startles, but the fingers do not let go. They feel smooth and waxy like the leaves of a rhododendron.
“I mean you no harm,” Kellan says, speaking with jaw clenched tight under the strange touch.
Spots of firefly light appear in Kellan’s eyes, and for a moment she thinks the touch has done something to her vision. But then the lights grow stronger and illuminate the person they cling to.
She is a dryad. With Kellan in her grip, there is no escape but what she allows. If she chose, she could keep Kellan here; root her in the soil and swallow her into the wood.
The dryad’s face is smooth as carven wood, the grain visible in whorls over her round cheeks. Her eyes are dark and birdlike. Her hair is long and green, the kind of grass that will draw blood if touched carelessly. The fireflies perch in her hair and on her shoulders. She is wearing a dress made of cedar boughs, with a long full skirt, and the scent of her is potent.
“Why have you entered our wood?” the dryad asks. Her teeth gleam a granite-white that is not like human teeth, and more of them are pointed than Kellan is comfortable with.
“I must cross the wood to reach my family’s village. They tell me they are being threatened,” Kellan says. You do not lie to creatures of the forest. You do not tell them all your truths, but you do not lie.
“We must defend our wood,” the dryad says. “Your trampling feet and sharp steel are a danger to it. A small danger, the kind that distracts from larger dangers.”
“I mean no harm. I am in a hurry, but I will be careful where I step. If it pleases you, on my return journey I will bring a crossing price—a gift or a service for you.” With any luck, she can get her family to supply the gift.
The dryad’s fingers slip along her jaw, along her cheek, into her loosely bound hair. With the still tension of a deer, Kellan waits to see what will happen.
The dryad curves her hand around the back of Kellan’s skull and pulls her forward. They lock eyes. Kellan finds herself falling into the slow knowledge of the trees and the endless change of the seasons.
“You are telling the truth,” the dryad says finally, unwinding her hand from Kellan’s hair and using it, instead, to take Kellan’s gloved hand. She pulls it outward and looks long and curiously. Kellan waits, knowing she is not yet safe. The dryad examines her muddy boots, her well-worn trousers, her burgundy jacket with a badly mended slash in the sleeve. The dryad’s face is hungry, and this surprises Kellan. She thinks of trees as patient, wanting nothing they cannot wait seasons for.
“You may call me Cedar,” says the dryad, and the tree smell of her fills Kellan’s nose. “Do you know who I am?”
Kellan swallows, afraid to say the wrong thing. “You are a dryad,” she says.
“I am the queen of the wood. I do not want gifts. What service would you offer me?”
No gift—she’ll have to supply the price herself. Kellan thinks of the way Cedar’s fingers tangled in her hair, the hunger in her eyes. She has not let go of Kellan’s hand. “I would spend a night with you,” Kellan offers, almost before thinking it.
Cedar’s lips part. Kellan’s mind fills with the thought of those gleaming teeth on skin.
“And what will you do on that night?” Cedar asks.
“Whatever you will enjoy.” Wait, Kellan knows better than to make an imprecise bargain with a creature of the wood. She has offered hastily, but she need not be careless. “I offer you my body, and any pleasures you might want of it, so long as they do me no harm.”
“And is that a price that costs you dearly, or is it no price at all?”
Kellan’s body is alight even with only the weight of Cedar’s gaze. “No price,” she murmurs. “But this sort of offer—its value, I think, is greater the less it costs me.”
“That is true. You will enjoy it. The skill of my hands, the grip of my vines, the weight of my body on yours.”
Cedar’s eyes gleam. Impossible heat rises between them in the dark forest.
“I accept the offer. You may cross my wood, if you go quickly and do not hurt my saplings, and do not distract me from the danger of the Apple Orchard King. But when your family is safe, you must return and spend a night with me.”
Kellan wets her lips to cool the heat of this bargain. She has offered a dangerous thing, but oh, it is a sweet one too. To lie with a dryad, queen of the wood, would be an experience unlike any other, well worth delaying her return to the city for a night.
Cedar pulls Kellan’s hand toward her and slowly removes Kellan’s glove. With mixed pride and chagrin Kellan sees her own calloused hands and blunt fingers, her broken nails. There is a thick band of vines wrapped around Cedar’s wrist. One thin tendril stretches out and wraps itself around Kellan’s second-smallest finger like a ring.
“I will keep your glove,” Cedar says. “And you will keep this vine. If you should choose to break our agreement, it will grow thorns.”
The threat is clear. But Kellan knew that any agreement made in the wood would have thorns, and this agreement—her whole body wants to keep it. The only thing that could prevent her would be her death. Thorns would be no matter then.
The tendril of vine breaks away from Cedar’s wrist and tucks its end in against the crease of Kellan’s knuckle.
“Go and defend your family, and I will defend my wood,” Cedar says.
Kellan nods, dazed and sweaty despite the cool night air. In an instant, the firefly lights in Cedar’s hair wink out; she lets go of Kellan’s hand. Darkness swallows Kellan, and she knows she is alone.
She doubts then, for a moment, the wisdom of the bargain she’s made. But then a tiny spark of light appears, and Kellan lifts her hand to see that one of Cedar’s fireflies has perched on the vine on her finger and is glowing brighter with every second.
Kellan begins to walk, resuming her path homewards but now more than careful not to crush anything under her boots. The firefly’s light is enough to see that much, if not enough to light the way ahead. The wood has grown quiet; no more whispering or bird calls follow her steps.
After some time she grows tired and pauses for breath. Looking ahead, she is surprised to see lights winking through the trees. They are far bigger than the firefly, a reddish gold. Round balls of light hang from the bridles of small brown horses, who are carrying riders deeper into the wood. There are six of them, and in the middle is a tall man with hair of green leaves and a beard of moss.
The danger of the Apple Orchard King. Kellan was listening all to the other things Cedar said and not to that. Now she hears again the words of her father’s letter: he came from the old orchard, has threatened to turn us into trees. It sounds like the same man, and suddenly Kellan wonders: has she underestimated the extent of the threat to her family?
She’s been busy building a life in the city, building strength and respect in the guard, growing a circle of friends and lovers. Next to that, her family has seemed almost imaginary, their old familiar problems far away. It hasn’t occurred to her until now that anything could truly change in the village. But if it has changed, and changed dangerously, then she must do what she can to understand the threat and meet it. If the Apple Orchard King is the threat, then this is an opportunity.
He looks as much like a dryad as Cedar but of a different species. His retinue all look like dryads too, women and men with rough tree-bark skin and surcoats of overlapping leaves. But the horses are a surprise, and even more surprising is the inlaid leather scabbard on his hip, with the hilt of a sword emerging from the top.
Do not bring steel into the wood. Maybe this is the danger of the Apple Orchard King to Cedar. And to Kellan’s family.
Kellan creeps through the trees towards the riders. The lamps light the wood from within like a jack-o’-lantern. Kellan sticks to the shadows, taking care not to tread on any noisy twigs.
The Apple Orchard King lifts one hand to call a halt. Kellan slows behind them and ducks behind a tree. His voice is root-deep and light as apple blossoms, as he says, “This is the queen’s appointed meeting place.”
Meeting place? She would have guessed the danger he presents is of invasion or trickery, something like the if we do not leave the village of her father’s letter. But this sounds like a meeting has been arranged between him and Cedar.
They wait. Closer now, Kellan can see that the lamps that hang from the horses’ bridles are luminous golden apples. After a moment thick with anticipation, Cedar and her people arrive.
In the Apple Orchard King’s brighter lights, Kellan can see Cedar’s majesty more fully. She is tall and broad, no young sapling, with bare arms that have the same wood grain as her face. Past the vines twined around her wrists, her hands are a deep leaf-green. The cedar boughs that make up her skirt are layered over each other like ruffles and adorned with small green cones like flower buds. The skirt ends at her ankles. For a moment Kellan thinks she is wearing long pointed shoes, but then she lifts one foot and the sight is clear: her feet are roots.
Cedar is flanked by other dryads, some of whom look more fully like trees: arms that end in branches, bodies covered by rough bark. They too are lit by fireflies, but none of them carries a weapon to match the King’s sword.
The queen of the wood eyes the Apple Orchard King and says, “Make your case.”
The King dismounts. The horse stays placidly where it is left. The King steps closer and bends to one knee, posed like a knight from a painting. “My lady,” he says, with his eyes on Cedar. “I have come to ask you to marry me, and unite your wood and my orchard in alliance and love.”
Startled, Kellan swallows an involuntary noise.
“I know why you have come,” Cedar says, with the same husky dangerous note in her voice that was there when she asked why Kellan had entered the wood. “Why should I agree to your proposal?”
“When I was an ordinary man,” the King says, “I thought I might one day lead an army. But then I walked into a long-untended apple orchard and it chose me as its king. It is a better command than any army. But I am a young king, and you have many skills and years of knowledge that I lack. My orchard is not as large, as wild and powerful as your wood, and I would like to make it so. I would like your knowledge and help in achieving this, in exchange for my love and devotion.”
“What makes you so certain your love and devotion is worth my knowledge and help?” Cedar asks. But she sounds considering, as if she may not reject this proposal.
Kellan feels oddly betrayed. If Cedar marries and no longer wants a night with Kellan, Cedar will ask for other, less enjoyable payment. But more importantly, if Cedar forms an alliance with the Apple Orchard King, and he, as Kellan now suspects, is trying to expand his rule through her family’s village—that’s dangerous.
The King smiles. “I would ask you how you wish to be loved, and follow your wishes. I would never love another. I would listen to any tale you tell me, and always speak truths to you.”
“You speak a pretty speech, certainly. What if I told you that I wished you to remain in your orchard, and to make no objections when I take other lovers?”
Kellan’s heart thuds at that. She would be among Cedar’s other lovers, if only for the one night of their bargain.
The King looks taken aback. “That is not quite my idea of a marriage. Is it yours?”
Cedar looks down her nose at the King. “I have no idea of a marriage. It is a human thing that molds love into a recognizable shape for others to consume comfortably. I will not promise away the freedom that I may love in any pattern I choose. That you propose marriage to me tells me what I already knew from the steel you carry: you are too human a dryad to rule a wood like mine. Your orchard will never be wilder than it is, and you will not hold any true wood you try to conquer. I will not give you my knowledge.”
Kellan breathes a sigh of complex relief.
The King gets slowly and deliberately to his feet. He pauses, looking long and hard at Cedar. “If you will not give me your knowledge,” says the Apple Orchard King, “I will take it.” And he draws his sword.
Kellan’s own sword is in her hand before she thinks, nothing but instinct guiding her. The heat of anger fills her lungs, anger that this man feels entitled to the land her family lives on, anger that he’s so cocksure as to threaten Cedar. But the glove Cedar took was from her sword hand, and the unaccustomed sensation of bare skin on the polished wood of the hilt startles her into pausing.
The King advances on Cedar, who awaits him, standing as still as if her feet are truly rooted to the ground. Kellan knows Cedar must have some defenses, but she cannot see them.
Kellan darts between Cedar and the King, sword raised, and meets his blade. He looks startled, but his reflexes are quick enough that he shifts sideways to find a better angle.
“I challenge you,” Kellan says.
“Who are you?” the King asks.
“You swore you would not distract me.” Cedar’s tone has just enough of the petulant about it that Kellan laughs.
“I’m trying to help,” she says. “Swords are my area of expertise, not yours.”
“Who are you?” repeats the King.
“Kellan,” she says simply. He may be an oddly human dryad, but still, Kellan isn’t stupid enough to give her full name to anyone with the least bit of the deep wood about them.
“What are you challenging me for? The hand of the lady?”
Kellan laughs again, and recognizes this laughter as the same dangerous part of her that offered to spend a night with the queen of the wood. “I’m not that stupid,” she says. “I heard her views on marriage. You have been threatening my village, and now you threaten the wood. Are you stupid enough to believe there won’t be consequences? I challenge you, to prove otherwise.”
The King scoffs and glances at the ground around them. This bit of the wood is clear of brush, and a soft layer of pine needles bounces under their feet. It’s a reasonable place for a duel. “I’ll take your challenge. I will not lose.”
“I do not need your defense,” Cedar says to Kellan. She is close behind Kellan, and she lays a hand on Kellan’s shoulder.
“I know,” Kellan says. “But my family does.”
The riders wait on their horses to watch Kellan fight the King. Cedar squeezes Kellan’s shoulder tightly and lets go.
Kellan has fought duels before, though as a city guardswoman, her fights are usually not so elegant. She steps back and salutes the King. He matches her, giving her a more elaborate, old-fashioned form of salute. She wonders how long he has been the Apple Orchard King. She wonders how often he has used his sword since.
They circle, and Kellan watches his body. His coat of leaves does not move quite as a coat of wool; it reveals his muscles and his movements differently.
The King lunges, aiming for Kellan’s chest. She parries, tapping his sword with just the right spring-flick of the wrist. The point goes wide, and before the King can recover, Kellan steps right foot over left and turns her wrist, aiming inside the King’s still-extended arm.
He is fast, inhumanly so. He moves through and away from Kellan’s sword so fluidly it’s obvious he could have done so earlier and was waiting just to taunt her. She faces him again, watching the shift of his muscles with renewed care.
She feints right, steps left, thrusts. He retreats gracefully, and Kellan advances to follow him.
He thrusts high, and she blocks. The hilt of his sword is a steel cage of delicate vines. He has not kept it polished and it is dull with tarnish, but it serves him well enough when Kellan presses in and her blade meets it.
The hilt of the King’s sword twists, moves, and Kellan is shocked to see the artfully carved vines of the hilt untwine, reach out, and grip Kellan’s blade.
Kellan tugs, but she cannot free her sword. The tarnish on the blade of the King’s sword now has a green tinge to it, and the vines of the hilt are growing, becoming thicker and stronger. Kellan realizes this is no longer a fair fight. The King never intended to engage her in an honest duel.
Her sword is useless to her now, and she lets go, though surrendering it contradicts every instinct she has. She backs away, horrified as the vines of the King’s sword swing her sword around and release it into his free hand. He grins at her, smug and dangerous.
Cedar must be behind her. She backs up slowly, watching the King with every step, unsure what he will do now that the rules of the duel have been abandoned. “Your turn,” Kellan says to Cedar, without looking away from the King.
Cedar’s dryads surge forward. They move not as if walking or running but as if growing impossibly fast. Cedar herself steps around Kellan, her skirts brushing Kellan’s thigh as she passes. The muscles in her arms look like the knots of an old tree, and the firefly lights in her hair have risen to hover around her head.
The King is ready for her, a sword in each hand. He swings Kellan’s sword, aiming for Cedar’s upper arm. Kellan’s body thrills as she watches Cedar, who steps in close enough to grab the hilt with her other hand and yank it away from the King. There was strength behind all of his moves against Kellan, but Cedar pulls the sword from his hand as if his fingers are slippery with dew. She flings it behind her, and Kellan darts over and snatches it up. Re-armed, Kellan feels more herself, and she is ready to re-join the fight.
To her immense satisfaction, Cedar has the King pressed against the trunk of a tree. He has lost his sword and is struggling in Cedar’s grip, but the bulk of her skirts hampers his legs, and she has his wrists in her strong green hands. She whispers something in his ear, and a tide of pain washes across his face. He goes limp, his struggle over.
The King’s dryads are dead or downed, outmatched by Cedar’s. The horses, escaping the fight, have clustered together just outside its edges.
“Take his sword, Kellan,” Cedar says, still holding the King against the tree. Kellan obeys, picking it up gingerly by the dull part of the blade just below the hilt.
“You will leave my wood,” Cedar says, loud enough for all to hear. “I will consider the deaths of your people payment for your impertinence in coming here and your offense in attacking. But if you try again, I will take greater payment.” She speaks directly into the Apple Orchard King’s face. He watches her in angry silence.
She lets him go and steps back warily. He shakes out his hands and pushes his back off the tree. “My sword?” he asks.
The sword is well-made, old, lasting. Kellan looks at it, admiring the graceful vine hilt. “You’ve had this a long time, I suppose. I know how fond one can be of a sword.”
“I will return it to you, with Cedar’s leave, if you swear not to threaten my village again. You will not drive my people out of their homes, you will not turn them into trees. You will leave them be.” Kellan looks for Cedar’s approval and receives a nod.
His expression pinches and grows sour. After a heavy pause, he says grudgingly, “I so swear.”
Kellan hands over the sword. As the King wraps his hand around the hilt, the green metal vines twitch once, then go still. Kellan eyes him, but he lifts the sword only to slide it into its scabbard.
“I will not forget this,” the King says to Cedar. It’s impossible to tell if that is a promise not to return or a promise to remember his defeat and even the score one day.
The uncertainty is left unanswered. The King stalks away. His one remaining dryad follows him, limping, to the horses. Together they mount and ride off through the trees, followed by the rest of the riderless horses.
Cedar’s dryads tend to their wounded fellows’ broken branches and bruised bark. Kellan feels awkward in the stillness, unsure of her standing now that the fight is over. Impatient, she hurries to break the silence.
“I hope I did not distract you,” she says.
For a moment Cedar looks through her as though she is a clear pond. Then her face shifts, and she says, “If he is a threat to your family, then you had a right to fight him.” Cedar looks at Kellan’s sword, still naked in Kellan’s hand. “I do not want steel in my wood, but you cannot summon brambles, and I see that you wield it as your own kind of thorn. You were magnificent.”
Cedar steps forward and takes the wrist of Kellan’s sword arm, touching her bare fingers. Her hand hovers over the green vine ring that still circles Kellan’s finger.
“You aided us in defending the wood. I will consider that payment for your passage. If you wish to return, you may do so. But do so only by your own choosing.”
Kellan looks up into Cedar’s face and sees the smallest seed of uncertainty. She wishes to stop that seed from growing. She brings her still-gloved left hand to her mouth and tugs the glove off with her teeth, tucks it away into her jacket pocket. Then she reaches up with her now bare hand and holds it delicately beside Cedar’s jaw. “May I?” she asks. She is almost certain she may, but it feels safest to ask.
“Yes,” Cedar says.
Kellan places the palm of her hand along Cedar’s jaw. She can feel the wood grain of Cedar’s skin. She draws Cedar to her, and heat bursts between them as their mouths meet with untreelike flame. Cedar’s lips are flower-soft, her tongue nimble, her breath warm with life.
When they part, Kellan is as breathless as if she has fought ten duels.
“You could stay, spend this night with me,” Cedar suggests. “He swore to leave your family be.”
Kellan wants to stay, wants it in her fingertips and belly and mouth. But she’s given her family too little attention, delayed a visit too long. She thinks of her father, carefully penning his letters, telling her mundane loving news of her mother and sisters and little brother. She hasn’t often missed home in the years she’s been in the city, assuming there was little happening there to miss. She knows now that home can change, face new threats, grow around the lives of the people there. She remembers reading a mention of her sister Eva’s new passion for building bird houses and wishes to see them.
“I don’t know if I trust his word,” Kellan says. “I need to see my family, find out how things stand, make their safety certain. But I will return, and spend a night with you.”
Cedar kisses her again, and Cedar’s hands, strong enough to pin the Apple Orchard King, hold her hips with a sureness that promises many things.
“If you choose, you may spend many nights with me,” Cedar says into the corner of her mouth. “And days, too.”
Kellan pulls back far enough to look Cedar full in the face. This sounds different from the single night of enjoyment she was imagining.
“You heard me tell the Apple Orchard King what I think of marriage,” Cedar continues. “I will never offer you that, nor ask it of you. But you have joined me in defending my wood, and you have earned my respect. I do not bestow that lightly. I would like to know more of who you are.”
Kellan is undeniably drawn to Cedar: to her body, to the danger of her, to the rarity of her respect. Kellan, too, would like to know more.
“I have a job in the city to the west of this wood, and a family in the village to the east,” Kellan says. “And both, it seems, need my sword. I will bring steel into your wood again, and I must live my life in those homes. But I will return when I can, and stay when I can. I want those days and nights.”
When they step apart, they find that the other dryads have slipped away between the trees and left them alone. The bodies of the King’s dead companions are gone too. Kellan laughs at the other dryads’ discretion, and then laughs at Cedar watching her laugh.
It is darker without the light of the King’s apple lamps. Cedar’s fireflies have settled back on her hair; Kellan’s now perches on her shoulder. In the dimness, they walk together to the edge of the wood.
At the border, Cedar takes Kellan’s right hand. She runs her thumb over the vine ring.
“I will take this back from you,” Cedar says. “You owe nothing, and I do not need this power over you.”
“No,” Kellan says. “I want to keep it. You won’t use that power.”
Cedar’s dark eyes are full with thought. She kisses Kellan’s knuckle above the ring and lets her go. “May your family be safe, and your return swift.”
Kellan leaves the wood. When she is far across the bordering fields, she turns and looks back, but she cannot see Cedar between the trees. Cedar still has her right-hand glove, she remembers. It may not have the power of the ring, but it is something: a token left behind.
She will cross the wood again. It will be as full of thorns as before, but the thorns will know her and welcome her in.